Bake on the wild side: Part 1, the sourdough starter

I love to bake bread. It can be a messy process, requires a lot of patience, and rarely results in bread as good as what Bay Area bread wizards like Acme and Vital Vittles sell at many nearby markets. But that’s OK with me — the process is as important as the product. Bread making can be nearly magical: the transformation of inert ingredients (flour, water, dry yeast) into something that is alive; the initial filling of the kitchen with the light aroma of yeasty dough; the intoxicating smell of baking bread; and finally the aroma, texture, and taste of the finished loaf.

Photo of two loaves of bread

Except for a short and ultimately ill-fated fling with a sourdough starter many years ago, I have exclusively used commercial yeast in my bread baking. It’s predictable, requires no tending, and can sit in the freezer for a long, long time: I think I had one package of instant yeast in there for five years. In contrast, sourdough starters require care and feeding. They can behave surprisingly, and the yeasts can die or be overrun by the wrong sort of bacteria.

A starter is a living thing, a complex community of yeasts and bacteria (the "microflora"). The bacteria produce many acids, especially the acetic kind (found in vinegar) and lactic (found in yogurt); the yeasts have evolved to live in the resulting acidic environment. Different bread-making techniques can raise or lower the quantities of the different acids, resulting in significantly varied flavor profiles. One type of starter and a certain set of rising conditions will favor lactic acid formation, resulting in a mild-tasting bread. A different starter and rising conditions might create a very sour bread like the classic San Francisco sourdough.

Sourdough starters have special properties that make the trouble worthwhile, such as an ability to survive for a long time at a relatively low temperature. They can also work slowly — eight or 16 hours instead of one or two — which is desirable because time creates flavor: the longer the bread rises, the more complex the flavor.

Beyond the ability to have long rising times, a sourdough starter has other benefits. According to the sourdough bread entry in the "Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition," the acids produced by the bacteria in the starter affect the proteins in the flour, giving the dough better elasticity and extensibility. (This is one reason why many breads made from rye — a grain with relatively low protein content — use sourdough starters.) The lactic and acetic acids produced by the starter might act as antimicrobial agents and inhibit the growth of mold. There is also the possibility that it takes longer for a sourdough loaf to go stale.

Capturing wild yeast

Making a starter from wild yeasts is not too difficult. One way is to mix organic grapes with organic flour and water. Grapes have yeast colonies living on their skin (that’s one reason we have wine), and these yeasts can be encouraged to multiply by holding the mixture within the right temperature range and providing food (flour) at regular intervals. Another way involves mixing water and flour, then leaving the container on a window sill, covered with a cloth to keep out insects. If conditions are right, yeasts that drift around in the air and those in the flour will create a stable colony. Other methods involve lumps of dough or yogurt.

An even simpler — and far quicker — method is to find someone who already has a starter and get some of that.

I used the simple method, obtaining a cup of starter from Dylan the Sourdough Monkey Wrangler. Dylan was one of the presenters at a "skill share" about fermentation that was organized by local food-activist Karmin and SAFE, a UC Berkeley student group. These are informal meetings in which community members give short presentations about a particular subject, like how to make a dosa (a South Indian crepe-like delicacy), how to make the Russian fermented beverage called kvass, and so on.

During his presentation, Dylan said that his starter was made from wild-caught yeast, and so there is a chance that it is the famous San Francisco Sourdough mixture.

Maintaining the starter

Photo of sourdough starterA starter can be maintained or preserved in several ways. If you bake very frequently, you can keep a starter going at room temperature with regular feedings (a feeding involves mixing a portion of the starter with flour and water). For a less active (and less expensive) approach, the starter can go into the refrigerator, where its metabolism slows down significantly. It then requires feedings about once a week. For even longer-term storage, the starter can be dried out and stored in that form at room temperature more or less indefinitely. To reactivate, simply dissolve it in cool water, then feed it with water and flour for a few days to bring it back to full activity.

Starters can last a long, long time. Last year, the Accidental Hedonist related the amazing story of Carl Griffith’s sourdough starter. The starter dates back to before 1847, around which time it traveled west with his ancestors on the Oregon Trail. For many years of his life, Carl shared the starter with anyone who asked, even setting up an informal mail order system, which eventually resulted in the starter being sent to every continent but Antarctica. Since his death in 2000, a group of people have carried on the tradition.

Photo of sourdough breadEthicurean readers who have dabbled in sourdough, we’d appreciate if you could tell us your favorite books, websites, or tips on the subject.

In part 2, I’ll show how I used the starter to make the beautiful and great tasting loaves shown in this post.

14 Responsesto “Bake on the wild side: Part 1, the sourdough starter”

  1. Marc, do you have a recipe for the starter using organic grapes? I’ve not come across that before, but given the availability of grapes at my local farmers market, that might be worth a try next year.

  2. I tried sourdough one winter and failed — I would like to try it this year, though. I’m somewhat disappointed that you didn’t include any links to people providing starters or recipes to get them going yourself.

    Otherwise, thanks for reminding me of sourdough and I’ll look for more detail in the next post.

  3. Lisa says:

    I made my starter using the recipe in Nancy Silverton’s “Breads from the La Brea Bakery”, which called for organic grapes. It was basically my first foray into bread baking and it worked out really well. I’d recommend the book- it has detailed instructions and good information, and with the Country Sourdough recipe I’ve made a loaf of bread better than I thought I could ever bake in my home kitchen.
    I would also recommend “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice” by Peter Reinhart- after reading it I started to feel like I could actually understand my bread and troubleshoot instead of just throwing my hands up in frustration when something went wrong.

  4. Jennifer – I’m sure there are many guides, both on-line and in-print, to making a starter using grapes. Nancy Silverton’s “Breads from the La Brea Bakery” is what I used in my earlier attempt at making a sourdough starter. It actually worked for two batches of bread, but then something went wrong and the starter went bad (it was a hot summer in D.C., perhaps that has something to do with it). I’m guessing that books by Peter Reinhart (e.g., “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice”), Rose Levy Beranbaum’s “Bread Bible,” and “Bread Alone” by Daniel Leader have extensive guides to making starters. But I don’t have first-hand experience with them — that’s why I asked for input from readers input.

    Simon – sorry to have disappointed you with my lack of linking. Here are a few good internet sources that I found while writing the post (but left out of the final draft for some reason):

  5. Howdy there Marc. To address the linky goods: the exploratorium has a cool page in their science of food section that talks about starting a culture from grapes: Grape Sourdough Starter Recipe I used this method on one of the starters that lives in my fridge.

    Catch you soon!

  6. Thais says:

    I am very interested in making sourdough bread from a starter. I have been reading about it in the Nourishing Traditions cookbook. My next step will be bread making. I can’t wait to read Part II of your post. Do you or any of your readers soak grains like oats, rice, or flour? I haven’t read about its benefits in any other cookbook. I love reading your blog. Thanks for your efforts!

  7. Rachel says:

    When I was about 10 year younger, my family had a starter that we used once a week to make irresistible sourdough pancakes. We never fussed with making bread, and it was a fantastic excuse to spend time together on Saturday mornings.

  8. Robyn M. says:

    Hi Marc,

    Could you give some more details on refreshing/feeding the starter? Everyone always says “then feed it regularly” or something similar, but no one ever says exactly how this is supposed to work. Should you refill the starter with the amount removed? Equal parts water to flour, or some other combination? Should it sit out for awhile, or can you put it straight into the fridge?

    Also, how often would you say you need to use the starter in order to justify keeping it out on your counter?

    Thank you!

  9. There are many ways to feed a starter, and each book probably has its own style. Here is what I have been doing for the last month (will this method keep my starters alive for years? I hope so, but can’t be certain). Once a week I remove the starter from my refrigerator. I stir it, then measure 250 g of the starter into a clean container. I add 150 g water and 100 g flour, then stir to mix thoroughly. I don’t worry about getting all of the lumps out. You could also figure out a volume-based feeding; I find that a scale is much easier and less messy to handle. After mixing, one can either leave it at room temperature for eight hours, or put it back in the refrigerator — I have heard that both methods are acceptable.

    Before baking loaves of bread, I feed the starter twice a day for a few days using the above method and leave it at room temperature to build up its strength. The final feeding occurs 8-12 hours before I mix up the bread dough. I don’t know if this is necessary, but that’s what Nancy Silverton recommends in her bread book (she actually recommends three feedings per day. I suppose I could bring my starter, flour, and a scale to work for the mid-day feeding….but maybe not.) Others recommend feeding the starter only once about 8-12 hours before mixing the dough.

    On the question of how often do you need to bake in order to keep the starter at room temperature, I’d guess at least once a week, but less often if you make pancakes or waffles. The bread recipe that I am using contains 500 g of starter in a batch of bread (along with 1000 g flour, 1/4 cup wheat germ) and makes two medium-sized loaves. With a feeding method like the one above, you’re going through almost half a pound of flour per day. You also need to deal with lots of excess starter (can it go down the drain? or into the compost? I’m not sure.).

    As a commenter mentioned above, you can make pancakes quite easily using the starter as a base. Here’s a recipe for pancakes that I found using a blog search.

  10. Robyn M. says:

    Thank you so much for the details! This is very very helpful to me. But yes, three feedings a day does seem a bit excessive. Myself, I’ve finished my baby-nursing career, I don’t want to restart it with bread supplies! =)

  11. Kristi says:

    I made a starter using a recipe in the King Arthur Flour 200th anniversary Cookbook. Starts with a bit of dry active yeast to “capture” wild yeasts. I take it out of fridge every week or 2 and feed it with equal parts warm water and flour, usually a cup of each. Stir, cover with a cloth and let sit on counter for 8 to 24 hours, stir it down and either use some, or put back in fridge. Just made their recipe for sourdough english muffins,outta this world. Have sourdough bread rising for the 2nd time too. Has to be shaped into loaves and rise another 2 hours and bake. My starter has been going since November. Isn’t all that fussy, and so worth it. King Arthur cookbook has lots of info on sourdough and quite a few recipes, their sourdougn carrot cake is absolutely fantastic, this from a confirmed chocoholic. Was a hit at work last week when I took it,complete with Orange cream cheese frosting!!! Yum!

  12. Rachelle says:

    Anyone interested in baking with ‘wild’ sourdough starter should read this blog… its very detailed and good.

  13. Dana says:

    It’s true, at least for me, that wild-caught sourdough inhibits the growth of mold.  We’re talking, keeping the loaf out on the table at room temp in a ziplock bag for a month type of mold inhibition.  Not a fuzz, not a discolor, nothing.  I’m in shock.  Had I known about this years ago there’s no telling how much money I would have ultimately saved on bread that had to be thrown away.

  14. Lawrence Hettinger says:

    Having come to this site for the first time (a story on HFCS and mercury), I came across this. Nice to see there are people interested in baking sourdough bread. I have been baking bread for about 16 years due to the fact I lived in Austria and got used to the denser and more flavorful breads. I started out making a “Bauernbrot” (farmers bread) and it was leavened with Instant dry yeast and it was a hit. About two years ago though, I saw in a blog something on Oregon Trail Sourdough culture for free with postage paid. Sent for it and I have been baking for the most part sourdough breads exclusively. For those serious enough, I agree with Lisa in an earlier comment that Peter Reinhart’s book “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice” is a must have book. His latest book however “Whole Grain Breads” goes in depth with “capturing” a wild yeast and uses in one method Pineapple juice. Do yourself a favor and order both books…you will not regret it! He has other books as well. Hope this helps.