May 132008

Sourdough Starter/מחמצת שאור/Levain

Once upon a time, when men were men, and women were ostensibly women (but who knows since nobody ever talked about them), bread was leavened not with packets of Fleischmann’s but with sourdough, a sinister froth comprised of wild yeasts and bacteria kicking it symbiotic in a mix of flour and water. Yes, in those heady days of yore, yeast was not something you bought, but rather something you dearly cultivated, giving it far more love and attention than all those children you put to work at six and married off at twelve. We’ve lost something since then, and it’s not just an uncomplaining pool of nimble child workers: it’s the taste of our bread. In this era of pre-sliced uniform bread product, we’ve forgotten that bread should be rich and complex, nourishing and fortifying, the staff of life and not the densely wadded ball of Wonder. Take my hand (briefly, because I don’t much like being touched) and let me guide you to the old school flavor.

First, to lay some background: a sourdough starter is a symbiotic colony of wild yeasts – microscopic fungi which can be found zinging about everywhere, from the air on down to the nether regions of Monistat users – and a certain strain of bacteria, the lactobacilli. In an active starter, water breaks down the starch in flour into simple sugars, which just so happen to be a yeast’s favorite food. The yeast digest the sugars, and subsequently poot out what just so happens to be a lactobacillus’s favorite food. Nature: gross in tooth and claw. With regular additions of fresh flour and water, the starter will chug on indefinitely, denying access to any nastier microorganisms, and happily leavening all your bread.

I should also mention that sourdough in this context does not refer to the actual flavor of the dough, but rather to the entire category of naturally leavened bread. Technically, what I’m talking about here should probably be referred to as levain, after the French, but that strikes even me as too pretentious. In short, you shouldn’t confuse sourdough the concept with its most recognizable application: San Francisco sourdough. San Francisco sourdough gets its flavor from a particularly gnarly local lactobacillus and a long fermentation time. The bread you make with a sourdough starter can range from not sour at all to sourer than any San Francisco loaf, depending on how long you allow the dough to ferment before baking – and depending on the particular bacteria in your starter, which vary enough to give each starter its own unique flavor. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

So, to get back to the topic, how do you start a starter? Read on.

There aren’t many pictures to go along with these instructions, partly because I wasn’t planning any type of cooking blog tomfoolery when I first began cultivating a starter, and partly because this is so fucking easy that if you can’t do it you shouldn’t be anywhere near a kitchen. If you get hungry, Taco Bell stays open late.

But no, really, you can’t mess this up. All you need is patience. People have been leavening bread with sourdough for millennia. People who forecast the weather by way of goat entrails made and used sourdough. You can do it. Here’s how:


  • Flour
  • Water

And that’s it.

The strains of yeast and bacteria that become active in a starter are generally already present in all those sacks of pure-seeming flour. You just need to coax them out. However, some kinds of flour are more microorganism-laden than others. Rye flour is popular for cultivating starters, but I recommend using organic whole wheat flour. Its lack of processing leaves it chock full of your yeast and lactobacilli buddies. I’m a great admirer of King Arthur’s various flours, because they bake like a motherfucker and you can order them online, and their Organic Whole Wheat flour is what I used to get my starter going. Just between you, me, and everyone else, though, you can probably get a starter going with nearly any unbleached, unbromated grain flour. I wouldn’t try it with self-rising, but you’re good with just about anything else – it simply might take a bit longer.

Additionally, if you read around on the topic of sourdough, you may see people recommending the addition of stuff like red grapes, potatoes, and fruit juice to your infant starter. If you have some potatoes you have it in for, go ahead, but frankly, it’s not necessary.

And before I finally get into the instructions, remember that the amount of time it takes for your starter to activate depends on a great number of variables – the flour you use, the temperature in your home, the hardness of your water, the local microorganisms – and that all the durations I mention in the recipe are estimates. Fortunately, starter is pretty forgiving.


1) You need a generously-sized non-metal container, preferably with a lid. Metal reacts over time with the contents of a starter, so avoid it for long-term storage. I used one of these, but you can use anything. Tupperware. Pyrex. A jar. A takeout Chinese soup container. All it needs is to be large enough to allow the initial flour and water mixture room to triple in bulk. It probably won’t triple in bulk, but extra room is always good.

2) Add 1 cup flour and slightly less than 1 cup water (somewhere around 7/8 cup) to your container. Stir well.

3) Leave the container on the counter, loosely covered, for, oh, about three days. During this time it may puff up dramatically. Success, you think. No. What you’re seeing are the death throes of another kind of bacterium found in flour. Unfortunately, these bacteria, in their dying spite, don’t stop at mimicking yeast. They also turn in a pretty good impression of the smell of vomit, which will not endear you to your housemates or significant others. Persevere, though – you can reward them for their lack of faith by denying them the delicious bread your starter will eventually produce.

4) After three days, stir the starter and pour half of it out. Don’t shed any tears over the wasted flour. It died doing a noble deed. Add to the remaining starter 1/2 cup flour and slightly less than 1/2 cup water and stir well. This is known as feeding the starter. Get used to it, because you’ll be doing it once every twelve hours for more than a week, until the starter is fully active.

5) Every twelve hours, repeat step 4. Toss out half the starter, and add 1/2 cup flour and slightly less than 1/2 cup water to the remainder. You’re trying to maintain the same basic amount of mixture that you started with. If you work normal hours, the best schedule is a feeding before you start working and then one in the evening.

6) After a day or two (more or less), that unlovely aroma left behind by those bitter, dead bacteria will start being replaced by a smell familiar to anyone who’s ever had a slice of San Francisco sourdough. Your yeast are waking up. Keep shoveling food down their little microscopic throats.

7) After a couple more days (more or less), the sourdough smell should be replaced by a distinct alcohol smell. Congratulations. You have just made booze out of nothing more than flour and water. This skill will serve you well should you ever face incarceration. Alcohol, both what’s now brewing in your starter and what’s sloshing about in this bottle of McEwan’s I’m drinking, is nothing more than yet another metabolic byproduct of yeast. Your yeast, the ones you’ve raised in your starter from infancy, are now growing up and making bad decisions. But you love them anyway, so keep feeding them.

8) After a couple more days (more or less), your starter should be bubbly and frothy, and every time you feed it, it should double its bulk in the space of a few hours and then subside. The alcohol smell will recede and make room for the return of the yeasty sourdough smell. Your starter is now ready. It should look like this:

The entire process should take about two weeks. You may have an active starter in a week’s time, but I recommend keeping up the daily feedings for a total of two weeks to strengthen the starter. Starters like to be fed.

So you have a starter. Now that it’s alive, you should put it in the refrigerator. A starter will only last a few days outside the fridge without regular feedings. In the fridge, though, where the action of the yeast is dramatically slowed, it can go without feedings for a month. Still, to make sure it retains its full strength for baking purposes, once every week you should take it out, let it warm to room temperature, and feed it. And now that it’s fully active, you can feed it with whatever flour you want. No need to drop the extra coin for expensive organic flour. It will happily eat anything. When you take it out of its frigid prison for a feeding, you may notice a layer of boozy-smelling liquid has floated to the top. That’s more alcohol, and in this context it’s called, fittingly, “hooch.” Don’t worry about it. Just mix it right back in.

But what to do with it? Check out some sourdough recipes online to get an idea of the process. You can use sourdough to make any bread that calls for commercial yeast – it just takes a bit longer to rise. But me, though, I’ve got a plan for your new starter, and it’s probably not what you think. Stay tuned…

  14 Responses to “Le Cordon Jew: Yeast Insurrection”

  1. I love sourdough baking: I started a culture in Asheville from wee yeasties captured in my front lawn. I’m torn about trying the experiment again, now that my yard is separated from Lake Erie only by a bunch of 70s-era projects and the NY State Thruway…

    Have you seen the no-knead bread recipes in the NY Times? I think they would be perfect for the sourdough idea.

    Also: my Yankee Grandmother make sourdough pancakes in the winter month using a dough mixed with Buckwheat. That’s the plan for this coming fall!

  2. Try it again! I have faith in the power of yeast to overcome whatever nasties are brewing on or near that once-notably-flammable body of water. It might be pretty gnarly for awhile, but eventually I think the yeast and lactobacilli shove pretty much everything else out, the selfish bastards.

    I have seen the no-knead stuff. I’ll have to try it eventually, but it’s a big mental block to get over. Bread? Without kneading? If your wrists aren’t aching, isn’t it sort of like cheating?

    Buckwheat sourdough pancakes sound good. I can imagine that going very well with applesauce. Me, I’ve been meaning to try to make sourdough bagels. Old-school.

  3. Mmm. Sourdough Bagels – *very* nice. I’m guessing that wouldn’t need any…

    You know… Thank you for pointing that out: of *course* they were sourdough. I wonder how recently the bagel companies in NYC (etc) switched over to factory dry yeast? 1950s? 1940s? If were any later that would explain the whole “only NYC bagels taste like bagels” thing (which I’ve heard is related to NYC water… but ok).

    Sorry. Brain working odd on morning coffee.

  4. I’ve actually wondered the same thing – and as a corollary to that, I wondered whether traditional bagels, in the Old Country and in the pre-factory yeast days in America, may have used beer barm as a leavening agent instead of sourdough. Jews have never been noted for being brewers, but they were surrounded by people who definitely were.

    I’m guessing – but only that – that NYC bagel bakeries probably switched over to commercial yeast fairly early, because it’s significantly faster, which I imagine would be attractive for a large-scale operation. Commercial yeast was already the norm when Eastern European Jews began arriving in large numbers to America, although apparently active dry yeast didn’t come about until the ’40s.

    And as far as that water, they say the same thing about the pizza. I would be inclined to be skeptical, but living here, where the water is so hard that I have to use distilled water if I want to cook any dried legumes, I’ve realized that water can indeed make a difference in cooking.

    Man. I spend a lot of time thinking about food.

  5. It’s the water. It’s definitely the water.

  6. Hmmm. Hard water and Legumes. I’ve never put that together. Dang. Next time I try “Boston Baked Beans” I’m going to try bottle water.

    Speed is an issue with production, although most of the better bagels I knew in NYC could not be confused with “Mass Produced”. Still – speed is better.

  7. […] point your reading eyes to this essay on Sourdough as a prime sample of enjoyable food […]

  8. Yeah, you might be amazed by the bottled water thing. I noticed when I first made hummus here. I start with dried chickpeas, and with the tap water here, no matter how long I boiled them, they never attained the sort of creamy texture hummus demands. They just sort of fell apart while remaining a bit crunchy. Distilled water solved the problem.

  9. Aloha: mahalo nui or in Amer-English, Thanx alot for the background and in depth story of Sourdough.
    I am in the “Black Hills” where as a wee 10 yr old flatlander from Iowa ( THEN) I was treated to my first REAL COWBOY BREAKFAST. No bagels but instead..all U can stuff into you Sourdough Pancakes. It was love at first bite. WOW!!
    Now as a full timer in a RV I am back out here and have been looking for these breakfasts. So far only 1 and that is 60 miles away.
    I realized I can do these and that it would be much kinder and more ‘healthy’ for a PRE -DIABETIC.
    I have found,before finder U, King Arthur. They have sourdough kits. but don`t mention starter Can they make a Sourdough MIX without fresh REAL STARTER? IS IT ALIVE LIKE THE HUNGRY BUGGERS FOUND IN “ACTIVE YOGURT??
    Lastly…are U saying we sue something already everywhere in nature rather than buying some ancient starter? if so It is the 1st instance I`ve EVER HEARD FOR DOING THAT. HOW DO U DO IT? AND IS IT FOR REAL? I MEAN IT WORKS RIGHT OFF THE STARTING LINE? ( SORRY `BOUT THE PUN BUT WHAT THE HELL?)

  10. Ah, the Black Hills. The good ol’ Paha Sapa. Beats Iowa any day.

    Anyway, first of all, I don’t know anything about whether King Arthur’s sourdough kits will produce a real starter, but what I do know is that you don’t need them. It’s easy enough to do it without a kit.

    Second, yes, I am saying we use something found everywhere in nature. Natural yeasts are in the air, on flour, on your skin, and everywhere else. They made those ancient starters somehow, after all. As far as how you do it, I wrote complete instructions in the post about how to get an active starter from nothing more than plain old flour and water. It shouldn’t take much more than a week.

    Third, if you want a buckwheat starter, you can either use buckwheat flour from the beginning (i.e. replace regular flour with buckwheat flour in my starter recipe) OR, if you don’t want to use so much buckwheat flour initially, once you have a healthy starter made with regular flour going, you can start feeding the starter with buckwheat flour exclusively. After a couple of feedings, buckwheat will be the dominant element of the starter.

    It bears remembering that yeast will happily eat any kind of flour, so a starter can be easily converted to whole wheat, buckwheat, rye, teff or anything else you think of.

    So good luck.

  11. Day three and it smells worse than limburger. No foam either, what gives?

  12. Hi-
    I really enjoy your site, having found it in my search for buckwheat sourdough starter recipes/instructions. Maybe you could advise me on something?

    Here’s my situation: My husband and I just opened a little mobile creperie. Our menu is built around two recipes, one sweet, flour-based, the other made exclusively of a really nice, locally-milled buckwheat flour, water, a little butter, a touch of honey and salt.

    I’d like to know if I could take some of that batter and start a levain. I know, I can just try it, but thought that if it’s certain to fail because of the little bit of butter, salt or honey, I wouldn’t waste my time on the daily feedings, etc.

    Also, being decidedly against wasting anything, I’m looking for other ways to use up the reasonable amounts of leftover batter. If you have any suggestions, they’d be appreciated. Our galettes are delicious, and we love to eat them, but variety is the vice of life.


  13. Hi Paula,

    Thanks for the kind words.

    I don’t have any direct experience with this matter of crepes, but I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t be able to turn your seasoned batter into a starter. Sugar (honey) actually tends to make yeasts more active, and many a professional starter is juiced with all sorts of extra sugar, usually from fruit or fruit juice (the trade-off is that a more active starter burns through its fuel faster, but that is not necessarily a concern in a high-volume setting). My starter recipe is minimalist, but you’ll see plenty out there that call for added sugar in some form.

    Salt technically retards yeast, but not to the point where the relatively small amount of salt in any standard galette recipe will make much of a difference. A small amount of butter shouldn’t hurt anything either. Really, it’s hard for any flour-and-water product not to eventually turn into a starter with the proper encouragement, since making levain, like curing, cheesemaking or aging a steak, is basically allowing something to rot within acceptable parameters. And everything rots. Mmm.

    Now, if it were me running a crepe trailer, I would be tempted to just let any leftover batter sit all night in a warm place and then mix it back into the fresh stuff the next day, for that touch of sour flava, but I guess that’s technically against health regulations? Or is it? I don’t know – in my professional baking experience, the closest we ever got to levain was “forgetting” to clean the dough residue out of the floor mixer at night.

    I wonder if you could make a whiteboy equivalent of injera fit-fit with leftover buckwheat galette-type products. I bet buckwheat fit-fit with cardamom-, nutmeg- and ginger-infused clarified butter and honey and some fruit would be a pretty mean breakfast, if I were the breakfast or sweets type (I am not, but I am trying). Maybe get some molasses action in there. Basically just a deconstructed galette, of course, but hey, I am only a crazy person on the Internet, what do you expect?

  14. Wow. Great answer. I’m gonna try it with the leftover batter that’s been sitting in my fridge the past two weeks.
    As for the “aged” batter going back into the new batter batch–if it were just for me I’d be all for it, but we’re on good terms with the health department right now, and we definitely don’t want to rock the boat.
    I’ll definitely try the fit-fit, though I’m not much of a sweet fan either. I especially like your idea of doing some clarified butter infusions–maybe some truffles???? I know a guy–yes, even here in NW Arkansas….
    Thanks, and keep up the good work, crazy person on the internet!

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