For most Americans, Sourdough is a special class of bread. It’s the tangy, back of the tongue flavor that you have, and a tough crust that requires force for your teeth to get into. It’s not as sweet and cakey as fluffy white bread (and if you give that bread to any non-american, they’ll initially believe that it’s cake), and it has much bigger air pockets, or crumb as we say in the bread biz. What most people don’t realize is that this was bread for vast majority of human history. As in, the bread we have now that’s “bread” is really only 50 years old. That’s a speck in the tree rings of history.
Bread is 5,000+ years old. Flour is 30,000+ years old! Bread is older than metal making.
The history of bread, is of course, fascinating. One day some porridge was sitting out in the hot sun, and it started to bubble. Some smart (or dumb) person said, “let’s bake it and eat it!”. Which, frankly, was kind of stupid. But it worked, so okay, maybe it wasn’t stupid. But back at that time bread meant something bigger and special, and now it’s such a fundamental piece of our world, our language (“give us this day our daily bread”, “let’s break bread”, “that is my bread and butter”). Bread took ages to make, and getting flour wasn’t easy. You waited months for wheat to grow, only to pick those little pieces of grain, then grind it into a powder. Already, you’re months in of effort.
Yet, bread was everything. Flat bread (a “trencher“) was not only a food, but also was your plate for your food to sit on in the form of a terribly tough, chewy of a bread with hard, pointy grains that hadn’t been caught up in the grinding process. If your castle had someone that could bake and braid bread into a fluffy pillow, that meant a sign of status. “Hah, you plebeians. Look how cool of a cook I can afford! I am so neat!”, they’d chuckle in front of the ladies while sloshing their mead. The ladies weren’t really paying attention, but instead wondering if they could fake a faint to get out of this bad date as they gave him some wicked side eye.
“Johan, the lord’s possibility of a third date is depending on your bread making skills. Don’t bloody screw this up.”
When we were in those ages, there was no way to just “get yeast” from a store in a neat glass tin. Sourdough or eggs were the only way to make a bread or cake rise. In fact, most of the breads in that time were straight up flat breads or crackers. They didn’t have many ways to make food rise without depending on the way of nature and fermentation. We were entirely at the mercy of some bacteria we found in a jar, and decided to bake with some flour. That was the way it was… until the 1800’s.
Industrialization came, and so did separation and corporate control of ingredients. People started taking yeast from breweries, and condensing them into wet, pale bricks that could be easily mistaken for tofu. In the 1960’s, baker’s yeast was separated out more consistently by bigger companies, and a new way of baking bread was born. Yeast didn’t have to be kept alive in starters of regularly fed jars of flour and water. Now yeast was a tiny, tinkling bottle of pale brown pebbles you added to your batter. It was meant to get bread out the door faster, and could use a lower protein based flour (also known as “all purpose”), and it ended up stripping bread of the majority of taste and nutrition. The human body is more used to the complex structure of the vitamins in food naturally, and can’t process it in this stale form. To counteract this, ye olde corporate breadmakers (“Big Bread”) started injecting vitamins and add-on’s into the bread, and then branding it as the “smarter, better” bread since all of these niceties were added. This is still happening today (check out the “gluten free” label on your next bottle of water). Now your bread was the latest and greatest science project, with these new add ons that could turn you super human.
But, few realized they actually had taken away these things in the first place.
How can you be doubly fresh? What’s the unit of fresh? Princes of Bel-Air?
But the results aren’t always so fun, as we’re seeing now. Some speculate that the reason there are gluten intolerant folks popping up, is simply because their body hasn’t evolved to take this “new” form of stripped bread, and some of those can handle sourdough better since yeast has a longer process of breaking down the proteins in the flour versus the fast food version. To me, this is a convincing case of why we should eat sourdough more. Yes, it has more calories, but it also has more good stuff. Studies can tell you that vitamins are more easily absorbed not in their pill form, but within the complex structures of food not injected. Gluten included. Therefore, I’m on a mission to bake more complex stuff, and to make better food. Sourdough, is definitely in the complex category.
There’s no official “award” for oldest sourdough starter, but there are multiple examples of ones that last over 100 years. Some were born on the night the Eiffel Tower was opened, and is still producing bread day after day. Some are as old as the black plague, and I wonder… maybe we shouldn’t be using that one? I mean it could have some nasty crap in there. But most people associate it with the sourdough of San Francisco, specifically the Boudin bakery. What happened was the yeast in the humid, coastal air produced a lot of lactic acid, giving it that distinctively sour taste. People love it, and they use the original “mother” or starter to this day. More importantly, they make bread in the shapes of lobsters and animals which is definitely the headliner here. Bread shaped like turtles. Turtles.
(If this type of history and knowledge interests you, and if you’re really into pretty slow-mo videos of food, I highly suggest the documentary series Cooked on netflix. It’s a delight!)
Okay, so how does a sourdough starter work?
From a human perspective, bread really only contains two things: Flour and water.
When you start a starter, you typically trap inside a glass jar some flour and warm water. But in reality, there is a lot more stuff inside that jar besides that flour and water. The flour naturally contains some other things in the mixture, like bacterial spores and cultures. Specifically Lactobacillus and a wild yeast culture. That bacteria genus has the same stuff that helps convert sugars into lactic acid and ferment beer. They’re little rod shaped dudes, that remind me of dancing hot dogs.
But what does this
hotdog bacteria and yeast thing do? They spur off two types of fermentation, lactic acid fermentation and alcoholic fermentation. The lactic acid fermentation takes sugars and breaks it down into acid (glucose to lactate) and the yeast makes carbon dioxide bubbles that rise the flour into a sponge (glucose to ethanol). The bacteria outnumber the yeast 100:1. Both feed on the sugars, and the lactic acid produced by the bacteria is what gives the bread the sour taste.
Here’s a breakdown of what the water and such do in a starter:
You can’t see it, but that yeast has his pinky out.
All of this happens when you throw water and flour into a jar for a while. So often people wonder why their starter isn’t working, they have to understand that all of that has to go right. that doesn’t bring in the next steps of proofing the bread, baking it, or developing the gluten strands even more. Bread is so complex, yet it is one of those few universal things that people see as basic or part of our foundations as cultures.
The point of a starter in bread is two fold:
- Help break down the gluten proteins into a net
- Pump out gas (carbon dioxide) to fill that net up with, balloon style
Blowing bubbles here… but, in reality it’s yeast farts.
Any time you see bubbles or gas escaping your starting, this is the process it’s going through. It is eating the sugars and developing that gas. Sometimes when you open up a jar, it’ll pop from all the gas being produced. But that also means you need to regularly feed the jar with new flour as the yeast and bacteria are at a buffet. They don’t know when to stop eating, and if they run out they’ll stop making the gas you want to use for bread because they’ll be … dead (#zombieyeast #hashtag).
Making a Starter: Two Ways
There is the standard method of making a starter in the states, and one that’s more popular in Europe (and pretty much not heard of here). Both of them work, but some people find one way or another easier for the climate they are in. The yeast water method takes longer usually, but I find is consistently more reliable. Remember, making a starter can be easy, but you have to be flexible and understanding of it. Your starter might take 2 weeks where another only takes a few days. You’ll know it’s established whenever you see a consistent rise and fall of the height of the starter. It should be as regular as the tides.
Method One: Yeast Water
I like to properly label things
Yeast water is the method I used for my starter. You create a water that attracts bacteria and yeast by filling it with lots and lots of sugar. On a daily basis you shake that jar of water very vigorously, mixing up the sugars. After a week you should be seeing bubbles actively float to the top like it was a soda, and will have effectively had created an alcoholic beverage.
You’ll mix this yeast water with some flour, and it will turn into your starter. Basically, you’re making the bubble blowing process but not putting any gluten in there until later. In the other method, you give the gluten immediately by adding the flour.
But first, you have to make the yeast water.
Yeast Water Recipe
Adopted from Sourdough by Owens.
- A clean, dry jar with a good lid (I like these)
- 225 g Organic Raisins (Yes, it needs to be organic)
- 570 g Water (Purified is best, chlorine based won’t work)
- 65 g raw honey
- Cook the water and honey in a pot until they dissolve together over medium heat.
- Pour water mixture into your jar.
- Add the raisins and liquid in the jar. There should be equal parts of each.
- It will look gross, no matter what. Accept your ugly baby and love it.
- Close and shake it like crazy for a full 30 seconds.
- Place the jar in a warmer spot in your kitchen. If you have something in the sun, put it there.
- (4-5 hours after Step 3) Shake your jar once again for 30 seconds. Tighten the lid if need be. Remember, we are making gas here, so you might want to check on the lid often.
Day 2 -6 (?):
Twice a day shake the mixture with a good chunk of your strength for at least 30 seconds, and check the lid that it’s on. You’re welcome to open it up and let air out if need be for a minute or two, but be careful opening it in front of your face in case your solution is creating too much gas. The time frame is heavily dependent on the type of grapes, the air in your environment, and just whatever mood the bacteria is in. But, each day the mixer should get fizzier and fizzier. You should also start to smell the presence of alcohol.
Remember, the time frame for this process is very “whatever” since the yeast and bacteria don’t have anywhere to be. Don’t worry if it took a full week (mine did) or if it’s faster. As long as it is making bubbles at the end of it, you’re doing okay. On average it takes 6 days.
Day 7/Last Day:
At this point, your yeast water should be actively creating carbon dioxide. When I opened mine, it smelled just like rum. If you drink it, you’ll get drunk (although it would taste pretty gross), because there is that other fermentation process as well. You know it’s done by the the fact that bubbles rise to the top of the jar with or without you shaking it. Or, you can also see the pop of the lid whenever you open it. At this point, you’re done!
Your yeast water is good for up to 6 months in the fridge. You can use it to make as many starters as you like, or as a vinegar in your stir fry.
Making a Starter with Yeast Water
Now we’re going to mix your actual starter, which is what you’ll put in your sourdough recipes. Here’s how to do it:
Day 1 (night before):
This can also be done the night before the next step.
- A clean, dry jar
- 60 g yeast water (strained, we don’t want the raisin bits)
- 60 g high protein flour (bread flour, whole wheat, spelt, or a mixture all work)
Mix the ingredients well in your jar, and leave it open for 8 hours or more at room temp or near a spot where the air is near 75+ F (yeast do not like the cold). Should look similar to this:
Left to right: Finished yeast water, a brand new starter with bread flour, a second new starter with whole wheat & spelt on Day 1
End of Day 2
Day 2 (or 8 hours later):
- 115 g water
- 115 g flour
Pour the ingredients into your jar with your existing mixture, and stir until they are homogeneous. Allow to ferment at room temp for another 8 hours or overnight.
Day 2 Evening (or 8 hours later):
At this point, your starter should be bubbly and active, like in the photo below. You will have to keep feeding it on the regular now (I talk about this more later). That doesn’t mean, though, that you’re ready to use it to bake with. You also can now keep it closed in its jar.
How do I know if my starter is ready to use?
You know when your yeast has aged enough to expand quickly and consistently when given feedings. The favorite test I like is to take a glass of water, and put a spoonful of starter in it. If the starter floats within 5 seconds, then you’re ready. If not, it needs a feeding or two.
Method Two: The Traditional Way
This is the more popular method, and there are many variations. The majority of them involve mixing together flour and water, and then giving it regular feedings until enough of the yeast has developed in the jar. The other method traps the yeast first in the yeast water, this method traps it in flour already.
Now, I could go through with you step by step on how to make it in this manner. But frankly… someone has already done a much better (and much prettier) job than me. You can check it out at the perfect loaf, whose expertise and photography I covet.
Maintaining Your Starter
A starter should be fed daily, or when it has completed its rising cycle. You’ll hear recipes that calls for x% hydration. What that means is your starter will have x water to y flour percentage. If it’s 100 g water and 100 g flour, then it’s 100% hydration. If it’s 80.689 g water and 100 g flour, then you have 80.689% hydration.
How much hydration you want to have is up to you, but you should never go over 100%, and shouldn’t ever go under 60%. That’s an incredibly stiff starter, and will be harder to work with. I prefer 100% hydration, so that’s what I’m going to use for your feeding instructions.
On a daily basis you should:
- Remove half of your starter and discard it (or use it)
- I know it feels wasteful, but don’t keep it in there. It will overflow fast if you don’t.
- Give 100 g water, 100 g flour into the starter, and mix.
You’ve fed your starter. You should see the mixture rise and fall in that cycle regularly. When it has fallen from the peak (you can usually tell by the streaks on the side of the glass), it needs to be fed.
Sometimes a daily feeding is annoying. You can put your starter into the fridge after it’s been freshly fed. Then, you can warm it up to room temp once a week, and give it a good feeding. Don’t try to speed up this process with any microwaving or boiling water. That’s not going to help your starter. Slow and steady is the way.
After a day of warm, this should be ready to use in your bread.
Now you have a starter that you can use in breads, cakes, and the likes. Keep it in a warm spot, and fed it at the same time every day. Love it, and it will love you back.