Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Sourdough Starter

This is my 400th post. Can you believe that? 
I am not giving you any recipe in this post but giving you some information that I had saved. I get quite a few emails asking about "Sourdough". I did not buy it from King Arthur Flour. I started it by myself using the recipe posted on King Arthur Flour website. But this information which, I had saved in a document is from King Arthur Flour. I could not locate the exact link to it. I have just copied and pasted with a little bit of formatting. If you are really interested in understanding the sourdough, if you read this entire post, I am sure you will get a very good basic knowledge about sourdough starters.

Recipe links for the sourdough starter:
Sourdough Starter from allrecipes.
Sourdough Starter from KAF.

The following information comes from King Arthur Flour "A Short Course in Cooking With & Keeping the Elusive Wild Yeast".

What is a Sourdough Starter?

A sourdough starter is a wild yeast living in a batter of flour and liquid. Yeasts are microscopic fungi related distantly to mushrooms. There are many varieties of these tiny organisms around us everywhere. Wild yeasts are rugged individualists which can withstand the most extreme of circumstances.

Some will make delicious loaves of bread; others will create yogurt and cheese out of milk; still others will turn the juices of grains and fruit into beer and wine.
Active dry yeast, the kind we can buy in packets at our grocer's, is a domesticated descendant of these wild relatives, one which has been grown for flavor, speed of growth and predictability. But domestic yeasts are much more fragile and can't be grown at home without eventually reverting to their original wild state.
If you can imagine a world without any packets of active dry yeast, you can imagine how important your sourdough starter would be to you. Without it, you would be doomed to some pretty awful eating. It is no wonder that sourdough starters were treasured, fought over, and carried to all ends of the earth. To the early prospectors, it was such a valued possession (almost more than the gold they were seeking), that they slept with it on frigid winter nights to keep it from freezing. (Ironically, freezing won't kill a sourdough starter although too much heat will.)

Fermentation (or the Microscopic Magic of Yeast):
As we mentioned above, yeast is a microscopic fungus. As it feeds on the natural sugars in grain, it multiplies and gives off carbon dioxide (just as we do when we breathe). This invisible activity of yeast is called fermentation. When you make bread with wheat, by kneading the long elastic strands of wheat protein (called gluten) into an elastic mesh, you create traps for these carbon dioxide bubbles causing the dough to expand as if it contained a million tiny balloons.

How to Feed & Care for Your Sourdough Starter:
Keeping a sourdough starter is somewhat like having a pet because it needs to be fed and cared for. But its requirements are simple and not time consuming. Baking with sourdough is also a simple process. All it takes is a little planning and timing. The results are so satisfying, you'll grow to treasure your invisible pet the way our ancestors did.

When you receive your starter, refrigerate it if you don't intend to feed it immediately (at any rate, starter should be fed as soon as possible after you receive it). To feed it for the first time, snip off a corner of the plastic bag and squeeze the starter into a glass or ceramic bowl (not metal). Stir in 3 cups of lukewarm water (what feels comfortable on your wrist) and 3 cups of unbleached all-purpose flour. Mix until it's well blended and the consistency of pancake batter. Let the replenished starter sit at room temperature for at least 12 hours to give the yeast a chance to multiply and become active before you put it in the refrigerator. Ordinarily you would feed your starter when you remove some to bake with it. A good rule of thumb is to replenish it every two weeks or so, preferably because you made a wonderful loaf of sourdough bread, a stack of pancakes or a delicious sourdough cake.
(This previous paragraph is for those people who have ordered King Arthur's Sourdough Starter from their catalog.)

During the time the starter is stored in the refrigerator, it becomes relatively dormant which is why it can survive so long with so little attention.
You'll find that a clear, amber colored liquid will accumulate on the surface of the starter. This liquid contains 12% to 14% alcohol.

When yeast is in contact with air, it produces carbon dioxide; when it's not, it produces alcohol. When you blend the alcohol back into the starter, it helps produce the unique flavor you find in good sourdough breads. For milder flavor, you can pour off some of the alcohol if you wish although this will thicken the starter requiring a bit more liquid to return it to its "pancake batter" consistency. (To "sweeten" a starter in another way, see Troubleshooting which follows.) The alcohol itself dissipates during the baking process.

Storing Your Starter:
Once your sourdough pet is cold and relatively dormant, it can survive quite a long time between "feedings." It is certainly not as demanding as children, or more traditional pets, but it isn't happy just sitting for months on end like a packet of commercially dried yeast either.

You may be able to ignore your starter for a month or even much longer, but if you know you're going to be away for a time, you can store it (unlike children or pets) in the freezer. You may want to transfer it to a plastic container first as it will expand as it freezes. When you are ready to use it again, give it a day to revive, feed it a good meal, give it another day to build up an armada of fresh, new wild siblings and it will be ready to go to work.

An alternative storage method is to dry your starter by spreading it out on a piece of heavy plastic wrap or waxed paper. Once it's dry, crumble it up and put it in an airtight container. Store it some place cool, or, to be safe, in the freezer. To reactivate the dried starter, grind it into small particles with a hand cranked grinder, a blender or a food processor. Pour 1 to 1 1/2 cups of warm water (what feels comfortable on your wrist) into a glass or ceramic bowl. Stir in and dissolve a tablespoon of sugar or honey. This isn't necessary but it gives the yeast an easy "first course." Blend in an equal amount of flour and dried starter. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and watch for small telltale bubbles which should begin to appear on the surface within a few hours. Once you see them you'll know it's alive and well. Let it continue to feed and grow for a further 12 hours before you cover and refrigerate it.

How to Remove Some Starter for Baking:
With a spoon or wire whisk, blend the liquid back into the starter and then measure out the quantity required by your recipe. Replace the amount taken with equal amounts of flour and water. Since many recipes are based on using 1 cup of starter, you would return to your starter pot, 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water. (This actually makes 1 1/3 cups more starter but you can adjust the amount whenever you want.) As you did when you first fed your starter, let it sit at room temperature for at least 12 hours to give the yeast a chance to "feed" and multiply before you chill it again.


Feeding Without Baking:
If you have been busy or away, you can always feed your starter without baking anything. Stir the mixture together, take out and discard 1 cup of starter and replenish as above, stirring in 1 cup water and 1 cup flour. (Or instead of discarding the starter you removed, ask a neighbor if he or she would be interested in adopting a starter of his/her very own.) Let the resuscitated mixture sit at room temperature for 12 hours or so before you return it to the refrigerator.

Treating a "Sluggish" Starter:
If you feel that your starter is just not "up to snuff," dissolve a teaspoon of yeast in the cup of water you mix into the starter when you feed it. (If you live in an area where water is chlorinated, let some sit out overnight to allow the chlorine to dissipate to preclude any interference with the development of the sourdough micro-organisms).

Sweetening a Starter: 

If your starter becomes too sour, take out 1 cup, dispose of the remainder, and add 2 cups of each of flour and water to refreshen it.

Increasing Your Starter: 
If you want to grow a large amount of starter to give some to a friend or to do a lot of baking, simply increase the amount you feed it.

Resuscitating a Neglected Starter:
If your sourdough starter has sat in the refrigerator months beyond the point of health, give it a fighting chance for survival before you throw it out. A little warmth and a good meal of strong, high energy carbohydrates may be all it needs to get it off and running again.

The layer of liquid on the surface will probably be very dark, making it look as if the starter must surely have expired. Quell your fear, wrestle the top off the jar and give it a sniff. If it smells the way it should, though exceptionally sour, it may just be sitting there in a dormant state waiting to be fed. The only way to know is to give it a meal.

Blend it back together and pour it into a glass or ceramic bowl. (Take this opportunity to give its jar a good wash.) As the starter will probably be quite thin, mix in 2 cups of flour and 1 cup of water to nourish and thicken it. Leave the bowl out on the counter where it will be warm and visible.

In a couple of hours you may see tiny bubbles appear on the surface. If so, cheer your brew on by keeping it warm and covered overnight.  Give the starter another feeding, let it sit for 12 more hours to ensure its reawakened vigor before you tuck it back in the frig. Then quietly heave a sigh of relief and congratulate yourself on your rescue.

How to Decide if You Need to Start Over :

If your sourdough begins to mold or develop a peculiar color or odor instead of a "clean, sour aroma," give a sigh, throw it out and, if you're patient, start again. Along with the vital yeasts, you may have inadvertently nurtured a strain of bacteria that will not be wonderful in food. This happens very infrequently so don't let this possibility dissuade you from a sourdough adventure.

Starter Variations:

Here are some variations on the basic flour/liquid/yeast combination that will produce sourdough starters with different personalities.

*Substitute 1 cup of stone ground whole wheat flour for 1 of the unbleached all-purpose flour.

*For tap water, substitute water from cooking potatoes. It contains nutrients which any kind of yeast loves and along with making the yeast happy, it creates great flavor in bread.

*Substitute buttermilk for tap water.

Enjoy. Pin It


  1. Congrats for the 400th post! A great piece of info on sourdough starters, live wild yeast creates magic in the baked goodies. Bookmarked.

  2. very informative. I plan to start my own starter some days...bookmarked.

  3. Congrats on ur 400th post, very useful and informative post..

  4. Very helpful and informative post...Congrats on ur 400th post!!

  5. wow, 400th post. Amazing, keep them flowing, I love all your informative and recipe posts alike :)

    BTW, happy birthday :)

  6. Congrats for your success :) a very informative post..

  7. Congrats on your 400th post.I always get great inspirations from your posts.Like this one.I have an award to share with you.I know you are above this award but do please accept it.


If you have a question and you leave it as a comment, I'll surely answer the question to the best of my knowledge. Thanks for visiting.