An Extremely Chill Beginner's Guide to Sourdough
Don't panic: Sourdough baking seems complicated, but it actually just requires patience, flour, water, and salt.
When I first got a sourdough starter, it was unclear if what I had acquired was a gift or an old-timey curse. The starter was alive and needed to be fed, I knew that. Various intense Reddit forums and 14-page recipes indicated that baking sourdough was more of a lifestyle than an occasional baking project, and that it was best accomplished using spreadsheets and thermometers and perhaps acquiring a nanny cam to watch the starter at all times.
I wondered, Did I need to spend all my disposable income on high-end, bespoke flours? Did starters require round-the-clock care, like a human infant? If I neglected it, would I be put on trial for murder? Would it take over my life? Oh god.
Something like a year later, I am here to tell you I have still not been thrown in jail for starter murder, and that baking sourdough does not have to be that serious. If you’re someone who takes joy in hydration levels and obscure yeast strains, that’s great! This guide is not for you. But if you, like most people on earth, are just trying to bake some bread, and eat the bread, well, come along with me.
Sourdough is cool because it’s the way basically everyone made bread before commercial yeast became widely available, and those folks did not, as a rule, have access to Google Spreadsheets. You’ll be OK. Right now, as I’m writing this, we’re in a time when a lot of folks don’t have access to bread, and yeast is scarce in the supermarkets. A sourdough starter—aka a natural leavener—solves all those problems. As long as you do some pretty minimal upkeep, you can bake bread basically forever using a starter, salt, flour, and water.
Obtain a Starter
First thing’s first: You need a starter. If you so much as mention bread to a friend who has a starter they are legally obligated to offer you some. Kidding! Sort of.
The care and maintenance of a sourdough starter requires discarding part of the starter when you feed it (we’ll get there), so it is pretty easy to nab some off a pal. If no one around you has any, all you need to make your own is time and patience—and also flour and water. But here’s a reliable shortcut: You can also create a sourdough starter with the help of a bit of store-bought yeast.
If patience (or yeast) is in short supply, you can also buy starter from reputable online sources like King Arthur Bread, a website I recommend in general for its gentle tone and flour knowledge. If you have a local bakery, you could also ask them to sell you a bit. Plenty of sellers on Etsy offer sourdough starter, too. There’s even advice for making a gluten-free starter, if you love bread but your body hates gluten.
Think of sourdough starter as a natural leavener, and, in many cases, a way to cultivate the wild yeast that exists naturally in flour and in the air and convert it to something that you can use to make bread (or whatever else) rise. Commercial yeast is more consistent, both in terms of results and flavor, but you can think about wild yeast versus the commercial variety as something like the difference between an heirloom tomato and the supermarket kind. What you sacrifice in consistency, you often gain in flavor. Plus, it’s kind of a weird, cool hobby to wrangle the wild, wild yeasts of your apartment, like an extremely un-intimidating bounty hunter. But, again, you can also use storebought yeast to make a starter if you want! It’ll work just as well.
Contain Your Starter
Now that you have a starter, what do you do? First, consider your container. When you feed an active starter flour, it’ll bubble up pretty aggressively, so it’s good to keep it in a container that has some headroom to allow for that. I keep mine in a wide-mouth 24-ounce Mason jar, because that’s what I have around. The clear glass is nice because you can see the starter rise and fall, and easily check what it’s up to.
Second, think about your timeline for baking bread. If you want to use the sourdough starter soon, the best practice is to keep it on your kitchen counter, or whatever room-temperature area is available, and to feed it at least once a day to keep those yeasts happy. If you’re not ready to bake just yet, stick the container in the fridge. That’ll slow down the yeast activity, and you can pretty much ignore it for about a week, when you’ll want to feed it again.
Feed Your Starter
How do you feed a sourdough starter? Simple. You add roughly the same amount of flour and lukewarm water as you have starter, mix it around so there aren’t any clumps of dry flour, and let it chill out until things start bubbling up. Once that happens, usually two or three hours later, depending on how warm your kitchen is, the whole mixture has become more starter. (The warmer your kitchen, the faster it’ll ferment.)
The rule of thumb is to discard part of the starter when you feed it, because otherwise it’ll just keep growing and growing and eventually fill your apartment and/or eat Manhattan, which is not the result we’re going for. It’s helpful to have a scale to measure out the ratios of starter to flour and water here, but if you don’t have one, measuring cups or even just eyeballing will do in a pinch.
I keep one ounce of starter and feed it with one ounce of flour and one ounce of water, because I rarely need a massive amount of starter on hand, but various other sourdough luminaries advise different amounts. If you don’t have a scale, go for a fourth cup starter to half a cup of flour to a fourth cup water. (Flour weighs less per volume than the water or starter.) I’ve found that for maintenance, it’s fine to just have a small amount, and since starter is infinite, you can always feed it more if you need more starter. (The famous-among-bread-people Tartine country loaf recipe, for instance, only needs one tablespoon of starter for the whole loaf.)
A little bit of starter can eat a lot of flour and water. Once you feed it, reseal the jar but leave the starter with some access to air—I leave mine with the lid on it but not screwed tightly. Some folks cover it with cloth. Whatever works for you. If you’re baking frequently, feed it once or twice a day and leave it out at room temperature to keep it active. For less frequent baking, feed your starter just once a week and keep it in the fridge.
The only really solid rule of feeding is to make sure you’re not feeding your starter boiling hot water, or overwhelming it with a vastly unequal amount of flour or water. Lukewarm or cold is fine. Boiling is one of the few things that can actually murder your starter, so avoid that and you’ll be set. If you keep the starter in the fridge, when you feed it, let it chill out on the counter for an hour or two with the lid off, then screw the lid on and put it back in the fridge.
What Flour Should I Use?
Starter really likes whole wheat, whole grain, spelt, or rye flour, but I’ve always just used what I have on hand, which is usually bleached all purpose flour, and it works just fine. Don’t obsess over the flour unless you really want to! Just use what you have.
What If It’s Not Bubbling That Much?
Active sourdough starter should have bubbles in it and also smell fresh and fruity. If yours seems a little sluggish, just keep it out of the fridge and step up the feeding schedule. Once you feed it every day for a few days to a week, it should show signs of life again.
Is My Starter Dead or Going Bad?
If you take your starter out of the fridge and there’s an ominous layer of dark liquid over it, don’t despair—that’s fine! It’s normal! That’s the yeast doing its thing and producing alcohol. It’s probably not delicious to drink alone, but it’s not harmful. You can stir it back in or pour it off the top.
Starter is actually pretty hard to kill as long as you don’t subject it to extreme temperatures. The only sign that you need to throw it out and start over is if you see pink or orange streaks in it. That means that your starter has attracted unfriendly bacteria or mold, and isn’t safe for you to eat, so throw it out. Similarly if it’s visibly fuzzy green. Yeah, that’s also bad. Dump it.
Do I Really Have to Throw Away Part of the Starter When I Feed It?
No! You can give away the discard to a friend, to perpetuate the pyramid scheme, I mean, cult of sourdough. Or you can use the sourdough starter you would have thrown away to make a project, like waffles, pancakes, pizza dough, or English muffins. The only reason that discarding the starter is part of the process is that an exponential growth curve for anything is unsustainable, and you probably don’t need gallons and gallons of starter and your fingertips. But maybe you do? I don’t know your life.
What If I Have to Leave Town for a Long Time and Can’t Feed My Starter?
No problem! You can dry out your starter by spreading it in a thin layer on a parchment or foil-lined sheet pan and leaving it out. Keep the dried starter in a container and rehydrate it when you want to use it again by dissolving the dried starter in warm water and feeding it at regular intervals like you would normally. People have resuscitated starters from 4,500 years ago! Like I said, it’s hard to kill.
So I Know How to Deal with Starter. What Do I Do with It?
Bake bread, of course! To bake with starter, you’ll want it to be active. When I want to bake, I usually take my starter out of the fridge the night before, feed it, and check on it in the morning. If it’s bubbling madly, I can use it to bake. If not, I feed it again and wait a couple hours. There are all kinds of sourdough recipes out there, but for your first loaf, try something low-lift, like this No-Knead Sourdough Bread. You don’t need special equipment. It helps to have a Dutch Oven, but if you don’t, I’ve also made loaves in stockpots and on super-hot baking sheets. Whatever gear you have will probably make bread! It might not be perfect bakery bread but who cares, as long as it’s delicious. Once you get in the habit, you’ll be making beautiful country boules at your leisure. Maybe you’ll get super into freshly milled flours! Who knows!
There are also several cookbooks I’ve found really helpful, chief among them Tartine Bread, Flour Salt Water Yeast, and The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook. The main thing that sourdough takes is time, rather than effort or ingredients. But as long as you have some patience, you can coax bread out of your starter. Don’t be discouraged, and don’t be intimidated—sourdough is for everyone, not just fancy bakers.