Don’t shy away from sourdough because it seems complicated. It really isn’t. Learn here how to make your own sourdough starter, how to feed it and keep it happy.
For a sourdough you only need three things: flour, water, and the right temperature. Maybe also a little patience when you make your first starter. But let’s not jump ahead and first explain the sourdough baking process to make things easier to understand.
Three Steps to a Sourdough Bread
1. The Sourdough Starter
This is often confused with the sourdough. The sourdough starter is a small batch of sourdough that you make once and then keep in your fridge. Think of it as an ingredient for your bread that you can multiply.
2. The Sourdough
With some of your sourdough starter and some more flour and water you make a larger batch of sourdough and let it rest overnight to become active (increase in size similar to a yeast dough). This larger batch will be added to the bread dough in step 3 and will give the bread the following benefits:
- Let the dough rise – this is especially needed in bread with rye flour!
- It will not go bad that fast. Usually, a sourdough bread will be good for a week or even ten days – depending on your climate.
- Gives the bread a specific taste. If the sourdough was made at the right temperature, this taste will be very pleasing.
3. The Sourdough Bread
Your recipe will ask for more flour and water and maybe even honey or bread spice, maybe seeds, etc.. With these ingredients, you will make the bread dough and then add the sourdough to that dough. Mix it and continue according to your recipe and eventually bake your bread.
What you need to know about the Starter
To make a sourdough starter, you only need flour and lukewarm water. Everything else is actually in the air: Our air is full of wild yeast and bacterias that are on the flour and all around us. These bacterias and yeasts use the water in your starter as their habitat and the flour as their food.
Now, there are bacterias and yeasts that we want to grow in our sourdough starter and others that we don’t want to encourage. To accomplish that, our starter needs to be kept at the right temperature when we create it. We especially want the lactic acid bacterias to thrive and they love a temperature of 25°C to 28°C which is 77°F to 82°F. When they thrive, they create acid which suppresses other bacterias that we don’t want to have in our starter.
If you mix your flour and the warm water, stir it, cover it and set it at a warm place that ensures the desired temperature, then you will observe some interesting changes:
After 24 hours your little starter will have a different smell. Now, if you add some more water and flour, you increase the habitat and the food, which will let the lactic acid bacterias feel really great and let them flourish. After an additional 12 to 18 hours your sourdough starter will show some growth and maybe even bubbles. It might smell a little sour or like alcohol. It clearly shows some reaction (it’s called fermentation). At this time you feed your starter again.
You double the amount of flour and water and give it another day to grow and react. On the fourth day, your sourdough starter should be really foamy (from the carbon dioxide, if you must know) and smell acidic. It’s ready! Now you can keep it in the fridge until you want to bake bread with sourdough.
Making the SOURDOUGH STARTER
- Day 1: Mix 60 g of flour with 60 g of lukewarm, filtered water and set aside at 25°C-28°C / 77°F – 82°F for 24 hours.
- Day 2: Add 60 g of lukewarm, filtered water and 60 g of flour, mix and set aside at 25°C-28°C / 77°F – 82°F for 18 hours.
- Day 3: Add 100 g to 120 g of flour and 100 g to 120 g of lukewarm, filtered water, mix and set aside at 25°C-28°C / 77°F – 82°F for 18 hours.
- Day 4: Use for a sourdough or store in an airtight jar in the fridge.
Wait, doesn’t a sourdough starter need to be fed?
Right! If you don’t bake bread like once a week, your starter needs to be fed on a regular basis. Every 10 to 12 days you take it out of the fridge and feed it like this:
- Pour 100 ml of warm water into a bowl.
- Add about 20 g of your starter to the water and mix.
- Add 100 g of flour to the bowl.
- Cover the bowl and let stand at 25°C-28°C / 77°F – 82°F for 24 hours.
- Put back into the jar and store in the fridge.
You might wonder what to do with the remaining starter from which you took the 20g. You can either discard it or use it in a bread dough. If you use this leftover in a bread dough let’s say a yeast bread, it will only have a slight effect on the taste of that bread. It will not be strong enough to make your bread rise or taste like a sourdough bread. It’s still better than discarding it.
Some people use the leftover sourdough starter and fry it in a pan with oil. Add some salt and herbs, fry from both sides, and maybe spread some sour cream on it – ready is your medieval flatbread!
A different Method:
Since there are different methods, I want to mention this one. I used to do it this way and it worked, too. Instead of discarding the remaining sourdough starter and mixing a new batch from a part of the sourdough, you can simply do this:
After the sourdough has fermented and before you add it to the bread dough, you take as much as you took from the starter out of the sourdough and add it back to the starter jar. Example: You took 70 g of the starter to make sourdough for a new bread, now you take 70 g from the sourdough and put it back into the jar with the remaining starter. Stir and put back into the fridge.
What if can’t feed my sourdough starter?
There are so many situations in life that make it difficult to stay on track with feeding a sourdough that is not used for baking for a while. Maybe you want to go on a long vacation or business trip or the arrival of a new baby distracts from that routine. Whatever it is that keeps you from feeding your starter, you don’t have to worry too much. There are two things to know:
- You can take some of the sourdough starter and mix it with a lot of flour (1:4 or 1:5). Then spread it out and let dry. Once dry, you can store this in a container in the fridge. The lactic acid bacterias will be kind of dormant now and once you want to go back to a feeding and baking routine, you just add warm water and a little time at the right temperature to reactivate the starter.
- If you forget your sourdough for a while, it might turn grey or some liquid forms on top, it might smell very sour or like alcohol … but as long as it doesn’t have mold or really stinks, it is still good! All you need to do is, take a tablespoon of that starter and mix it with 100 ml warm water and 100 g flour, set it aside at the desired temperature to react and then store it again in the fridge.
Some people don’t even feed their starter. They just stir it once a week. The problem with that is, that this might turn the sourdough starter too sour but that is a matter of personal preference / taste.
Why not starting over?
You can always start a new sourdough starter but there is a downside (besides waiting several days to finish it) to it:
Every time you feed your sourdough starter or even better add some part of a sourdough back to the starter, it increases in taste. Read more about that in the next section.
Making the SOURDOUGH
So, once you have created your sourdough starter, you are all set to make a sourdough bread. But before you can bake your bread, you first have to create the sourdough. Here is how this works:
- According to your bread recipe, mix the right amount of flour and warm water and some of the sourdough starter in a larger bowl.
- Cover the bowl and set aside at 25°C – 28°C or 77°F – 82°F for 12 hours or how long it takes to double its size.
- When the sourdough has doubled its size, you can mix the bread ingredients and then add the sourdough to it.
This affects the TASTE of your Sourdough
As I mentioned before, the taste is affected by temperature. A sourdough that is made at a cooler temperature, will play in favor of the lactic acid bacterias and therefore create more acid. This will make the taste of your bread sourer. At a higher temperature until up to 28°C the taste will be milder. But if you keep the sourdough at an even higher temperature, this will play in favor of the wild yeast that is also present in the sourdough. The bread will taste mild and more like yeast bread. This can be especially problematic in rye bread.
Rye amylase can survive higher temperatures. That property combined with a weak gluten structure and the overaction of many yeasts consuming the plentiful starches, can cause rye bread to quickly deflate into hard, gooey patties in the oven. Thankfully, acids produced during a traditional souring slow amylase, producing lighter loaves of bread.( https://www.culturesforhealth.com)
What also affects the taste of your sourdough bread, is the age of your starter. If you have used your starter many times, fed it frequently and maybe kept it even for several years, then you will have an amazing tasting starter! Many bakeries in Germany have their sourdough starter for generations and that specific taste of their bread keeps customers coming back again and again. So don’t give up on your starter if you think it’s too old or you forgot to feed it for a while. Just keep reactivating it as described earlier in this post.
It’s probably obvious that the flour in your sourdough affects the taste but I want to mention it anyway. And since the flour is a variable, it is worth thinking about having several starters for different kinds of bread. Some people have a rye starter for rye bread, a wheat starter for wheat bread, a spelt starter for spelt bread and so on. But you can as well use a wheat starter for all kinds of bread. I would, however, recommend using a rye starter only for rye bread. Also worth mentioning is, that the reactions in wheat starter and wheat sourdough are faster and much more obvious to observe.
This affects the BEHAVIOR of your Sourdough
If you have just started out with making a starter, then your sourdough starter isn’t very strong, yet. To make up for that weakness, I recommend adding some yeast to the bread dough to give it a little more boost. After baking several loaves of bread over some weeks or months, your starter will be stronger and you won’t need the additional yeast any longer.
I have explained it previously but want to mention it here again: The right room temperature is between 25°C and 28°C or 77°F and 82°F. If it is a cold season and your home is too cold, there are some tricks to give your sourdough (or your starter) the right environment:
- Just turn on the light in your oven without any temperature and put the sourdough into the oven. In many cases this creates the right temperature. But be aware that in some ovens the light can create too much heat. Then either keep the oven door slightly open or try trick number 2.
- Use a cooler, styrofoam box or insulated lunch bag – anything that keeps a temperature for a longer time. Fill a bottle with warm (not hot!) water and place it in there. Add the bowl with the sourdough. You might need to replace the water bottle after some hours to make sure the temperature stays warm. A trick from my grandmother was, to place a hot-water bottle into the bed and cover it with warm blankets and keep food warm in this “blanket fortress”.
To get to the point: Longer isn’t better. If your sourdough is kept for too long before adding it to the bread dough, it might become overripe. So if you mix the sourdough in the evening and then only have time to bake the bread the next evening, your sourdough might have fermented for too long. This will not result in a larger sourdough because once it becomes overripe, it will decrease its size again. But don’t worry, you can still use it, it might just taste different as I explained earlier.
The Bread Dough and Finished Bread
For the bread dough you now only need to mix the ingredients from your recipe and add the sourdough. Mix it, let it rest & rise and bake it as described in your bread recipe. There is one thing you should be aware of: If your recipe asks for boiling water, don’t let the sourdough get in direct contact with the boiling water. Mix the flour and the water first and then add the sourdough.
Once your bread has baked and looks delicious and smells like heaven, you will be tempted to immediately cut and eat it. Well, it’s not a felony but I would recommend to at least let it cool completely so it doesn’t lose its moistness. Even better: Let your bread rest until the next day and it will have even more of its amazing taste! I know, usually, I recommend eating baked goods as fresh as possible but sourdough bread really changes its taste every day and day 2, in my opinion, is the best!
Now check out some of my wonderful recipes for German bread and rolls and enjoy baking!