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Follow our adventures as we raise a tiny flock of chickens in suburban Bexley, Ohio.
Our chicken bloggers include Tami Taylor, a Welsummer, and Tyra, a Jersey Giant.
RIP, Betty, Joan, Sally & Peggy.

Sourdough Starter


Sourdough bread is bread made with wild yeast instead of the commercial yeast you buy at the store. The sour taste comes from the lactic acid that the sourdough culture gives off as it lives its life. Another byproduct of wild yeast’s appetite is gas – this is what we harness to leaven bread.
A sourdough starter is a sort of low maintenance pet. There are the yeast organisms in there, but also good bacteria that give the sourness. There may also be some bad guys, but a healthy culture will be great at defending itself (and you) from the bad guys. The culture does need to be fed & watered. It eats flour & is nearly impossible to kill. If it does die, that’s no big deal. Just ask for some more!
The most basic of sourdough baking involved mixing starter with flour and salt, giving it time, and the baking. You could even leave out the salt, but your bread would taste really bland. You can add a couple tablespoons of sweetener if you or your kids like sweeter bread. You can also add a tablespoon or two of fat (oil or butter) if you like. I stick with a pretty bare bones recipe for everyday baking.

Caring & Feeding of your starter
  • Feed the starter. Your starter is a living colony of yeast plus bacteria plus food & water. In order to keep it alive you need to feed it, occasionally, with flour and water. You’re looking to approximately double the volume of starter when you feed it -- add about half the volume in water and half the volume in flour. In other words, if you have about a cup of starter, add ½ c of water and ½ c of flour to feed.
  • Refrigerate the Starter. When you want a break, you can put your starter in suspended animation by refrigerating it. Here’s what I do: the morning after feeding, I scoop off about half and put it in my yogurt tub. I feed & water it, put a lid on it, and put it in the back of the fridge (with a hole poked in the lid if your lid is very tight-fitting). They say you should then feed the starter at least once a week (dump/use half then feed & water) – but I’ve let it sit for over a month. If you leave your starter to sit for a month it may take a few feedings to perk up enough to leaven bread.
  • Hooch. Aside from weekly feeding, the only other thing you need to worry about is hooch. Hooch is a layer of watery liquid (often dark) that looks gross but is harmless. Hooch builds up in your starter, especially in the fridge. Just pour it off or stir it in. It doesn't hurt anything. If your starter is looking dry, stir it back in. If your starter is plenty wet, pour it off.
Sourdough Baking Step One: Proofing the Sponge
About half a day before you plan to make your dough (recipe below), you need to make a sponge. A "sponge" is just warm, fermented batter. Here’s how you make the sponge:
  • Take your starter out of the fridge. Pour it into a large glass or plastic bowl. Meanwhile, wash the jar and dry it.
  • Add a cup of warm water and a cup of flour to the bowl. Stir well, and set it in a warm place for several hours or over night. Your sponge should be the consistency of pretty thick cake batter. This is called "proofing" or fermenting.
  • Watch for froth and sniff. After a few hours, or over night, your sponge will become bubbly and frothy, and will smell a little sour, like beer. The longer you let it sit, the more sour flavor you will get. If your house is very cold, this’ll all happen more slowly (and the bread will be more sour) – and the opposite if your house is very warm.
Proofing-time varies: anywhere from a few hours to a day. If you're going to bake in the morning, set your sponge out to proof overnight – given that you’re starting with the same yeast that I use, I recommend trying this overnight approach. At the end of the proofing, you’ll have starter to use in your bread and enough left over to put away for next time. If you plan on making bread all the time, you can just keep feeding your starter continuously, but it’ll multiply exponentially and you’ll have more than you know what to do with very soon. You can just keep throwing away half, or use it in a recipe.

Sourdough Baking Step Two: The Actual Recipe
There are a million recipes for sourdough bread – google will help. There are also recipes for sourdough rolls, sourdough pancakes, sourdough pretzels, sourdough bagels. This is the basic recipe I use:
  • 1-2 Cups of sponge (more will lead to a faster rising loaf )
  • 2-3 Cups of unbleached flour (white or wheat or a combo…but make your first loaf white for a safer bet)
  • 1-2 teaspoons of salt
  • Maybe a little water if it’s looking dry
First, let's talk about leftover sponge. You should have some. The leftover sponge is your starter for next time: Put it into the jar, and give it a fresh feed of a ½-cup each of flour and warm water. Keep it in the fridge as above; you'll have starter again next time.
For the recipe: To the sponge, add the salt. Mix well, then knead in the flour a half-cup at a time. Knead in enough flour to make a good, flexible bread dough. I use my hands in the bowl to avoid getting the countertops messy, but I use a pretty wet dough. A wetter dough yields more rustic, holey breads. A slightly dryer, more thoroughly kneaded dough will give you a smoother, smaller crumb.
Flour amounts are approximate; flour varies in absorbency, and your sponge can vary in wetness. Use your judgment; treat it like ordinary white dough. Trust your hands and eyes. I error on the side of too wet rather than too dry. The dough will be stickier and trickier to work with but you’ll avoid baking a door-stop loaf. I don’t actually measure any of my ingredients and it always turns out okay.
Let the dough rise in a warm place, in a bowl covered with a towel or plastic wrap. Sourdough rises more slowly than yeast bread; my starter in my kitchen takes several hours. You can slow down the rise by letting it rise in the fridge. I often do this if I want it to rise over night or while I’m at work. Let the dough double in bulk, just like commercial-yeast-bread dough. When a finger poked into the top of the dough creates a pit that doesn't "heal" (spring back), you've got a risen dough.
Punch the dough down and knead it a little as you shape your loaf. There are lots of options here, just like with regular dough. I do mine in a loaf pan or a freeform boule if I’m being fancy. Cover the loaf with oiled saran wrap and place in a warm place to rise again, until doubled in bulk. If you’re nervous about this “double in bulk” step, look online for some easy tips.

Preheat oven to 400o. When oven comes to temp, have a ½-cup of water ready and place loaf in oven then toss in water. The burst of steam creates a moist baking environment which I find really helps with oven spring. I think the legit way to do this is the put water into a separate pan or sprits the sides of your oven with a water mist. You may find the water doesn’t make enough of a difference to be worth it. Bake for approx. 35 minutes. The loaf is done when the crust is brown and the bottom sounds hollow when thumped. Turn the loaf out onto a cooling rack or a towel and let it cool for an hour before slicing.

That's that.

I stole a lot of this from S. John Ross’s webpage.

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