Sourdough. The word alone can strike fear into the most confident people. Even well seasoned bakers! What if I’m doing it wrong and poison the family? What if I can’t figure out what to do with it? What if I don’t feed it right? What if I kill it!? What if I killed it and don’t even know it’s dead?
It is actually surprising how many people find it intimidating to start working with sourdough, and yet are afraid to ask for help. No shame in saying that, I started much on that same line. So I am here to help you!! Take a deep cleansing breath, make your self a nice cup of tea or coffee, and let’s go over this together, step by step, so you can find the fun in working with this amazing culture.
To start I’d like to back up a little and tell you why I started using sourdough for my family. My daughter and I have gluten intolerance issues. I’ve been free from gluten for many years. In the beginning of my own gluten-free journey I just cut stuff out. The options for wheat free substitutes were tasteless and had strange textures. To be honest I got so sick of wasting money on gluten free products that I thought “there HAS to be someone out there that knows how to make gluten free food that is actually good!!” Not just good for gluten free (I hate when people say that!) but just honest to goodness good, or dare I say delicious! After a series of searches and let downs I stumbled upon Nicole Hunn (at glutenfreeonashoestring.com) and I kid you not, I don’t joke about gluten free food, Nicole changed my life. I bought her books, followed her blog, and got busy making the most delicious food I had had in ages. She should seriously wear a cape, and super cool boots. Seriously!
Several years down the line I discovered my daughter is gluten intolerant. I feel awful I didn’t figure this out earlier. We had done elimination diets and tests to figure out why she was having these debilitating migraine headaches. Tests didn’t reveal anything. Doctors kept pointing to dairy, even when she wasn’t eating any dairy! They eventually came down to “just give her pain medicine and always carry it with you.” I’m not the kind to put a bandage on a wound that can be fixed. We don’t take things unless we absolutely have to. And just doping her up and not figuring out the root cause absolutely wasn’t a satisfying answer for me. So I finally talked with her and recommended we do several months, not just one, to see if cutting gluten would benefit her. We had tried the one month thing with no significant change. But six months, well six months in she rarely had any headaches, and refused to ever eat gluten again. This is in part that sometimes the body just needs some extra time to adjust and realize what’s happening. In case you were wondering. (shrug)
But here’s the thing. A lot of gluten-free foods are highly processed, even the flours. (No offense Nicole. You will always be my gf hero!) Me, deciding at that point to be working towards a more Paleo style of eating, realized this was just not going to work any longer. Even on my day’s off I don’t want highly processed food. Even further, I don’t want my children eating that either.
But on a good note, at this point in my story, I heard a story about a long fermentation process with sourdough bread. This longer fermentation is supposed to help eat the gluten proteins out of the wheat flour, thus leaving it safe for people with gluten intolerance to be able to eat it.
Wait? What? Bread made with wheat flour that can tote a label of gluten-free and safe for us to eat? I had to try this myself. Sadly I can not find a lot of research on this topic yet. But first hand knowledge can be worth more than a library of research.
My first encounter with said bread was at a restaurant my husband took me to on a date night. Everything there was made with long fermented sourdough bread and “gluten-free”. I skeptically gave it a try. After a delicious meal I sat in fear waiting for that claim to be false and for the pain, brain fog, disappointment, and week of regret to set in. Can you say “food anxiety”? I waited. And waited…. Hours went by and I had no side effects from my meal out. Usually it takes less than an hour for this to set in. Nothing, for hours. Not even the next day, or the next….
Jump forward a year. I had wanted to do the sourdough thing. But it was scary! How can I use it and not use it up? Is it like komboocha? What if it’s too much work? Nothing I was reading made sense. And to be honest a lot of sourdoughs are so strongly sour that I’m just not a fan.
Eventually, however, I was given a starter. I am pretty sure this starter was dead to begin with because it never smelled very good, to be honest it smelled sort of like nail polish remover. It never bubbled up like a fermented culture should. And it didn’t rise the breads as well as I had read it should. I wasn’t supposed to have to use yeast, and yet I had to in order to boost it a little. I was scratching my head. I was given another culture about that same time but it was so strong of a sour taste only one person in our house would eat it. Not worth all the effort I was putting into bread of all things. So I eventually dumped both cultures into the compost, washed the jars, and retired my worry and time to other daily projects.
But deep down inside I really, really, really wanted to do sourdough thing, and do it right! I’m a bit stubborn. So I decided to buy my own starter and see where it would lead me. Then if I failed again it was me and sourdough was simply not my thing. Well it turns out it totally IS my thing!! And to boot, I bake and cook everything from scratch and try to live as self sustainable as possible. So this helps fill that desire to keep this tradition going.
So as I share the starter with friends and family I have had a list of questions come up, and some concerns that it’s just too hard. So, friends, here is what I do daily with my starter. I hope this helps some of you in some way. And thanks for sticking with me through my story. I feel the love.
First of all, I bake bread daily. My family can mow down an entire loaf in half a day if I let them. So to start I have a nice big jar I keep on the counter of sourdough culture. You want to be sure that the starter can double in size without overflowing and making a huge mess. My jar is covered with a brown coffee filter, held in place with a rubber band. Cheese cloth works great as well. These babies are alive and need to breathe, so don’t put a suffocating lid on them.
- Take your amazing starter and pour 1/2 cup into a mixing bowl.
- Pour the rest of that starter from your fermentation jar into a mason jar, put a lid on it, and stick it in the fridge. This extra is what you will use to build up and make bread, or pancakes, or muffins. Or even share with a friend who wants to start baking sourdough.
- To the 1/2 cup of starter that you poured into a mixing bowl add 1/2 cup water. If you are on city water, or treated water – use spring water or bottled water. Chlorine, fluoride, and other additives can kill the beautiful bacteria you are trying so hard to nurture and grow.
- Now to that 1/2 cup starter and 1/2 cup water, add 1 cup of flour. Do not use whole wheat flour or anything fancy. Sourdough likes the simplicity of plain ol’ white flour. We buy ours at Costco in nice big 10 pound bags for a great price. And it’s even organic! Double score!
- Mix that 1/2 cup starter, 1/2 cup water, and 1 cup flour all up. It will be thicker than pancake batter. If it is just too thick to get a good stir add a splash more of water. The measuring isn’t an exact science but a good starting point.
- Lastly pour that fresh mix you just made back into the fermentation jar with that nice coffee filter or cheese cloth lid, and put it off to the side until the next day when you repeat the process.
I do not wash out my jar for every feeding. Just when I feel it is getting a bit too gunky. Then I will give it a good wash and rinse super good.
Now here are a couple of questions I have been asked and the answers I have found.
Q – What if 1/2 cup feedings each day builds up too much starter and it’s coming out my ears?
A – If you find this feeding to be too much and are only baking a couple of times a week, or less, go ahead and cut that in half. So by this I would do 1/4 cup starter, 1/4 cup water, and 1/2 cup flour.
Q – What if I bake daily with it and 1/2 cup feedings isn’t enough?
A – Then double it, or even triple it. For our needs here I use 1.5 cups starter, 1.5 cups water (plus a little), and 3 cups flour.
Q – I only bake once every couple of weeks and it just seems to be too much still. What can I do to keep a starter but not have so much upkeep?
A – Keep your starter in your fridge. It will need weekly feedings that way, but the cooler temperatures slow down the fermentation process and feedings are way less. Then before using it take it out of the fridge, give it a stir and let it sit a little while to rejuvenate the process and get bubbling.
Q – What do I do with all the stuff on the top if it develops?
A – Stir it back in.
Q – What if there is liquid on the top?
A – Usually liquid on top means you aren’t feeding it enough. You can stir it back in and then try feeding more frequently.
Q – What if it starts to stink?
A – Your starter should have a sour smell, it is “sour” dough. But it should not smell putrid or chemicalish at all. If it is totally unpleasant don’t eat it. See if you can get another starter and start over.
Q – I’m leaving town for a week. What can I do with it?
A – Just like the occasional bakers, feed it and then stick it in the fridge. When you get back take it out, feed again, and get back to it!
Q – What if I forgot to feed it one day?
A – I have done this several times and it has been fine to feed it when you remember and get back on track.
I hope this answers a lot of the confusion that sometimes comes with new journeys, and helps you see that this is really a simple and fun thing to have going.
As always, feel free to leave a comment if you have questions.