Thursday, April 24, 2014

Am I Responsible Enough To Take Care Of A Sourdough Starter?

After attending the Fermented Breakfast Cereal session at Food Camp, I decided to grow a wild yeast sourdough starter from scratch.  I'll use a couple tablespoons of it to ferment my oats for oatmeal/porridge because fermenting supposedly reduces the phytic acid that prevents your body from absorbing the vitamins and minerals that are naturally in the grains.  I figure if I'm eating all these good healthy foods that I'd like to help my body get the most out of them.  You can also use cultured dairy products (whey, yogurt, kefir, etc.) to ferment grains, but I prefer to not use dairy products, plus I don't like the flavor of them.  I figure why not give it a shot with a sourdough starter instead. It's only a bit of work and a small commitment to try it out. Plus the starter can be used in place of commercial yeast to make awesome things like sourdough bread, pancakes, waffles, brownies, cakes, etc.  And fermented foods have probiotics, which are good for your digestion, and since I don't like yogurt, this is a good way to get them.  Plus it's just plain neat to gather wild yeast and make sourdough bread completely from scratch!


  • I looked up some recipes but the easiest to follow was TheKitchn How to make your own sourdough starter but it's missing the step of ditching out half of your starter each day, otherwise it's going to be way too much yeasty glop in the container after feeding it for at least 7+ days in a row.  I don't know if she missed that step or doesn't do it. But the basic concept is there.
  • And the King Arthur Flour website has good sourdough starter instructions.
  • And the reader comments for the Wild Yeast flour + water = starter blog post are great because everybody else's issues/problems/worries help you figure out if you're on the right track.

And of course now that I'm onto this sourdough starter kick, I'm reading all sorts of other websites for tips, tricks, and troubleshooting since I have no idea what I'm doing.

From what I've read it would be good to get some rye flour since the yeast like that food the best, but I don't have any and don't have time to go to a store that would have it.  Sonny D and I are going to Trader Joe's this weekend, so if we can find it there I'll buy some.   But I do have a food scale, that's the most important thing with baking bread.  Ratios really matter. 

The Process

Day 1

The recipe is equal parts BY WEIGHT of water and whole wheat flour.  I even wrote that down in my notes at the Fermented Cereal class on Saturday, but you'll see in my picture here that I've got my measuring cup out with 4 ounces of water next to the scale with 4 ounces of whole wheat flour.  It's not the same!  I realized after I mixed it together that the texture shouldn't be like thick bread dough but rather thinner like pancake batter, so I pulled the scale out and added more water until I had 8 total ounces in my container. 

A lot of people use big jars for their starters, but I didn't have one tall enough.  And I didn't want to use a plastic container, so I used a big 1.75 qt Pyrex glass bowl, the same type Jeff did when he made his sourdough starter a couple years ago. I guess eventually it should triple in size, so you've got to give it a lot of room to grow. 
Water in the beaker and flour on the scale.
See that blue on my scale?  That's the protective film that you're supposed to take off once you start using the item.  Is anybody else a weirdo/superstitious/overprotective like me and leave the coating on their devices?  My mom's stove still has the plastic on the digital display and buttons for the oven controls and they've had the stove for years.  I was tempted to rip it off when we were there for Easter because it's totally separating from the display and gets in the way when you set the oven temperature, but I didn't want her to freak out.  :)
Day 1 top view. The bubbles are only from my vigorous stirring.
Day 1 side view.  Not a lot in this container.
I mixed it up and lightly set the lid on top and put it on top of the fridge since that's a pretty warm spot without any drafts.  Hopefully it'll develop and also hopefully I don't forget it up there since I'm so short I can't see it!  According to the directions, I've got to feed and maintain it every day for at least seven days until the yeast are truly maintained. I found out that while you're starting out in these intro days it's called a "culture", it won't be a true starter until at the end of that process, then it's ready to use.  

Day 2

I checked on it and it looked like some of the water had separated out.  It was so boring I didn't even take a picture.  But I dumped out approximately half of the mixture into the sink to make room for the new batch of flour and water to feed the yeast I'm trying to cultivate.

I added another 4 ounces of flour and 4 ounces of water, but this time I figured the water from our refrigerator water dispenser is probably too cold, so I heated it up a tiny bit in the microwave so it wasn't so chilled, felt a little less than body temperature.  Makes sense that cold wouldn't create a hospitable environment for the yeast.  

The end result again is a goopy, floury mixture with the texture of pancake batter.  Back on top of the fridge it goes. 

Day 3

Wow!  Lots of bubbly action and a sticky texture like the inside of a a toasted marshmallow (gluten maybe?).  From what I understand, the activity I'm seeing right now is not the yeast that I'm looking for, but a harmless bacteria called leuconostoc.  But we're on the right path.  I guess these bacteria are short-lived or weak, because I'm supposed to keep feeding and the good yeast will eventually take over. 
Top view of day 3.
Side view of day 3.

Day 4

Not much activity today but I expected that.  I think the really-active leuconostoc bacteria are dying off since not much is going on.  If the mixture smells like alcohol or acetone I'm supposed to feed more (increase the amounts but keep the equal weights) because that means the yeast don't have enough to eat and they're feeding on their dead siblings.  Sounds so very primal.  My starter culture didn't smell.

After scooping off some spoonfuls into the compost bin, I proceeded with adding equal parts flour and water.  My hand wasn't too steady and I accidentally poured in 5 ounces of water instead of 4, so I accordingly bumped up the amount of flour to match.  Hopefully the yeast are hungry today!It also seemed too thick (really stiff to stir) so I added an extra splash of water.  I know, I know, that's not keeping equal weights!  I'll try better tonight. 

At the previous feeding I put a piece of tape to mark the top of the mixture so I can gauge how much it had risen.  As you can see, there wasn't a whole lot going on.  When it's a full-running starter, it's eventually supposed to double or triple in size a bit after feeding.  And when it gets to the maximum size but right before it falls (when the yeast run out of food), that's when you're supposed to use it in recipes. 
 Day 4. Not much rising activity, maybe 1/4 inch over the tape.
Day 4 top view, a few bubbles.

Some Interesting Bits 

  • It's not really the wild yeast sourdough starter that will make bread sour, but rather the flour you use and how you manipulate the dough with time and temperature. A long rise is one way for your dough to develop a sour flavor.
  • Whole wheat sourdough starters are more sour than those maintained with white flour.  That's nice to know, I want a sour bread.
  • Some people think the yeast is coming in from the air, but actually it's already in the flour.  Neat! So each time to add more flour, you're adding more yeasty beasties and at the same time giving them food to eat.  
After reading more materials, I'm worried about what I need to do to properly feed the starter so it's ready to make bread.  I completely admit I have no idea what I'm doing!   But I'm going to keep going and see if I can figure it out. I'll give more progress in a second post. 

Wanna Chat?

I turned off the 'leave a comment' feature, so if you want to share what you're thinking about this or anything else, drop me an email at jhk1013 (at) It's so much more cozy than a comment, plus we can have a real conversation!