starter in glass jar

Sourdough Starter

Elsewhere I talk about using sourdough starter, but how do you get this mysterious ingredient? Around my house this is referred to as Mom’s Yeast Beast, as it is more of a pet than an ingredient.starter in glass jar

Sourdough uses a wild yeast that grows in the air. Sourdough grown in San Francisco is different than when grown in Seattle. No two starters will taste exactly alike, and that taste will develop and mature over time. I’m going to give you a lot of do’s and don’ts for your starter, but the actual process is simple: flour+water+yeast, feed daily…or not.

The absolute best way to get a sourdough starter is to get a cup from a friend or local baker who has some. Commercial bakeries are unlikely to share, and I have been horrified to find that many no longer even keep a starter, opting to use a powdered mix instead!

You can mail order a batch to get started, or you can grow your own:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 cups warm water
  • 1 tbsp yeast

Combine your ingredients using a wooden spoon in a clean bowl leaving room for expansion and cover with a cloth. Leave this overnight somewhere warm. You can put it inside an oven that is turned off or inside a cupboard. In the morning you will have a bubbling batch of starter that is actually ready to use right away! Always reserve at least 1/2 cup of the starter for your next batch! I’ve tried both methods and am pleased with the results of both. My current batch is one I started myself about 6 years ago.

I like to have 1/2 cup of my starter in the freezer in case of “accidents” — days when I get so busy that I forget I have starter on the counter and remember a week later, or when life intervenes. The starter will keep in a refrigerator for several weeks without being fed, however a strange dark colored liquid will form on the top. Don’t worry, this isn’t a bad thing, just a feature of the sourdough. Personally, I hate the look of the stuff, so I pour it off. I’ve known people who just stir it back in. The rule of thumb is that if your starter is too dry, stir it back in, otherwise just pour it off.

To use your starter, pull it out of the refrigerator and add a cup of flour and a cup of room temperature or slightly warm water. Stir, and let it sit overnight, covered.

Remember, this is a pet: it has to breathe.

My favorite container for starter is an old-fashioned glass quart jar with a glass lid that sits on top without a seal. I keep my starter in this jar and feed it in there. Every few weeks, I’ll take out all of it and wash the jar before putting my reserved starter back in. I like my starter in glass, although I’ve also stored it in plastic containers in the freezer. Never use metal with sourdough starter. The yeast will react with the metal and you will permanently alter the flavor of the starter — and not in a good way.

I’ve read that you should never add more flour and water to the starter than the quantity you already have of starter. Apparently this can overwhelm the fragile yeast. If you find your starter is weakening, you can always add a little more commercial yeast to the batter and let it develop again. I think this may be regional, however as I have had very little trouble with my starter.

To strengthen your starter, I’d try to make pancakes or something else with it each day for a week. This could be because I love pancakes so much, but I find that leaving the starter out for this entire week, feeding it each day, allows it to grow and develop a strong flavor. Always make sure you store your starter in a clean container — we don’t want anything ELSE growing in there with our lovely yeast!

One caution about sourdough: it forms an incredibly hard mortar. You could use it to cement bricks together. SO, if it overflows and gets on the top of your jar, clean it immediately. If it gets on your counter, wipe it up immediately. Wash any utensils, bowls, etc. that you use with it immediately. Trust me on this one.

Once you have a healthy starter, there are several ways to store it:

  • on the counter, fed daily
  • in the refrigerator, fed about once a week or so
  • in the freezer indefinitely
  • dried
  • at your friend’s house

Once you’ve tasted fresh sourdough products made from a real sourdough, you will want to share.

To dry: drop by tablespoons on wax paper. At it starts to dry, flip it over. You can crumble 2-3 of these little cakes in a 1/2 cup of warm water to reconstitute them, leave them overnight to bubble. Then feed your yeast beast in the morning.

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