If you crave the tang, complexity, and chew of a good homemade sourdough loaf, then it behooves you to make and keep alive a homegrown batch of sourdough starter. Since we crave sourdough too, we’ve demystified and uncomplicated the process with a straightforward, reliable recipe for creating and maintaining a starter.
A starter is simply a culture of yeast and “good” bacteria, and making one is pretty simple, requiring time but little effort. You start by stirring together flour and water and letting it ferment for a couple of days at room temperature. Natural yeast and bacteria in the flour wake up and start to multiply, and the mixture evolves into a bubbly blob. From here, it grows strong through regular “feedings.” After a few weeks, it becomes chock-full of enough yeast and bacteria that a portion of it can leaven and flavor bread. As long as you keep it healthy and alive, you can use it for years to come.
We learned in testing that a 50-50 mix of whole-wheat and all-purpose flours works much faster than all-purpose flour alone, because the whole-wheat flour provides more nutrition for the budding organisms. Using filtered or bottled water is also important, because chlorine in tap water can kill the starter. The first stage is to make sure the microorganisms are alive and consuming nutrients. At this point, the loose, batter-like mixture smells like sour milk, but it’s a positive sign that the starter is established. Then feeding begins. Many recipes call for feeding every 12 hours, but every 24 hours is totally sufficient. After about two weeks of feedings, your starter will be pleasantly aromatic and ready for baking.
During the long-term maintenance stage, simply keep your starter healthy through weekly feedings. Discarding some starter before each
feeding gets rid of waste that the microorganisms produce as they consume nutrients—and keeps the starter from taking over your fridge. It works best to feed the starter and leave it out for a shorter period of time than typically called for: Five hours is just long enough for the culture to dig in but not so long that it consumes all of the food too quickly. Back in the fridge, your starter continues to feed and grow at a very slow pace, staying healthy all the while.
1 Mix flour mixture with room-temperature water in glass bowl. Cover with plastic and let sit at room temperature until bubbly and fragrant, 48 to 72 hours.
2 Measure ¼ cup starter and transfer to clean bowl; discard remaining starter. Stir in another portion of flour mixture and room-temperature water. Cover with plastic and let sit at room temperature for 24 hours.
3 Repeat step 2 every 24 hours until starter is pleasantly aromatic and doubles in size 8 to 12 hours after being fed, 10 to 14 days. At this point, starter is ready for baking or storing.
4 To prepare for baking, measure out ½ cup starter and transfer to clean bowl; discard remaining starter. Stir all-purpose flour and room-temperature water into starter. Cover and let sit at room temperature for 5 hours. Transfer amount needed for recipe to second bowl. Cover and refrigerate for 12 hours to 18 hours. Refrigerate remaining starter.
5 Feed stored starter once a week to maintain.