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:
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…