June 13, 2012

The sourdough starter

Sourdough starter, La Ceiba, Honduras
Bubbling — this is what you want to see!

I was never good at science, so I'll put this in the simplest terms as I understand the process. Initially when you begin making your batch of sourdough starter, the 'good' and 'bad' bacterias develop at different rates. After the first few days, the 'bad' bacteria seems to be winning the battle and they can make their presence known by a foul odor. I guess that is one of the points where I used to give up in the past.

Sourdough starter 1, La Ceiba, Honduras
Starter risen to 300 ml. at 10:50 am
[The photos included here show the progression of a half cup of starter (about 125 ml.) fed at around 10:30 am with flour and water to equal a total mix of a little more than a cup (250 ml.). In this photo, it has risen to about 300 ml. in the first 20 minutes. Ultimately, it rose to a little over 500 ml. and then started falling. At the point when it starts falling is when you can use it in a recipe.]

Developing a strong, healthy starter takes a minimum of a week but two weeks of fermentation at room temperature is probably necessary for the best flavor. The looks that I and my little science experiment got from Arexy and El Jefe were priceless. Arexy only allowed herself the doubting 'raised eyebrow' looks, but El Jefe was more vocal, with comments such as "You're stinking up the whole house with that crap!" and "How long are you going to be doing that?!" It's true, the starter went through a couple of days of really smelling bad! I wasn't 100% confident in my experiment, but I tried to convince him that it would be worth it in the long run.

Yeasties love acidity

Which bacteria wins out depends upon the acidity of your starter. The bad bacteria thrives in a more neutral pH environment where the good yeast likes a higher acidity. The starter recipe that I used begins with unsweetened pineapple juice instead of water. (Of course, being in Honduras, I used fresh pineapple juice instead of canned.) Several sourdough experts from a bread forum experimented with recipes using different liquids. In addition to the participants' home tests, they did laboratory analyses and found that pineapple juice provided just the right amount of acidity to help the yeast bacteria flourish more quickly. Once you begin refreshing the starter with water, the juice is diluted to such an extent that there is no more pineapple odor.

In the beginning, I secretly wondered if there just weren't the right kinds of bacterias or the right balance here in the tropics to develop a good tasting sourdough. After all, most bad bacteria thrive in a warm, moist environments. The most well-known, revered sourdoughs are from cooler areas like San Francisco or even Alaska. The experts say that the 2-5 day range is when the nasties seem to be taking over. But one of the byproducts of the baddies is a more acid environment which eventually helps the good guys to take over in the end.

The experts also point out that often between day 4 and day 6, the culture can go flat and/or start to develop an unpleasant odor. A trick that they offered was to add a 1/4 teaspoon of vinegar if that happens. After doing that one time, the yeast bacteria started thriving, the starter stabilized, and the bad odor was replaced by a pleasant, tangy, yeasty smell. No more complaints from El Jefe!

Toss it!

Sourdough starter 2, La Ceiba, Honduras
Starter risen to 450 ml. at 12 pm
One aspect of developing a good starter that I didn't really grasp in previous attempts is that the starter must be fed in equal proportions to the amount you begin with, otherwise the yeast will eventually weaken too much. While some recipes just aren't that clear, Mike at Sourdough Home clarified it for me by making a comparison to feeding a 10 lb. puppy a half cup of food a day, but continuing to feed him a half cup of food per day when he weighs 75 lbs. That just doesn't work! If you start with 1/2 cup of starter, you need to feed it 1/2 cup of flour (with the appropriate quantity of water). If you start with 1 cup of starter, you need to feed it 1 cup of flour. You can feed more, but never less.

Obviously, if you start with a cup of mixture and are feeding daily, on the second day, you would have 2 cups of starter, the third day, 4 cups, and by the end of the week you would have a boatload of starter, about 64 cups! Some recipes just aren't so precise as the one I used, which clearly says, "Day 4: Stir down, measure out 1/4 cup and discard the rest." Rather than wasting a lot of flour, use a starter recipe that begins with a very small amount of flour, not one that suggests starting with a cup of flour. I even saw one blog where by the time the starter stabilized, the person had used two 5 lb. bags of flour, discarding about 98% of it the process. That is just crazy.

That discarding seems counter-intuitive and is something that confuses a lot of people. I saw a question on a bread forum from an elderly man who said that his bucket of starter was getting too heavy for him to lift. ;-O  If you don't regularly toss part of it in the beginning, you'll be spending a fortune on flour and had better plan on doing a ton of baking. Mike at Sourdough Home also made that clear by explaining that if you are feeding your starter twice a day (which is what he says is best) and don't toss the excess, by day 10 you'll need a swimming pool to maintain it in. Once your starter is stabilized (after about a week), you can use any excess batter in quick breads, pancakes, biscuits, or other baked goods rather than tossing it out. And once you get into the groove, you'll know how much starter to hold back and maintain in the fridge. In my case, it's a very small amount.


Sourdough starter 3, La Ceiba, Honduras
Starter risen to 500 ml. at 12:30 pm
I only maintain about 1/4 cup of each of my two starters in the refrigerator and bake bread about once a week. I feed them both once a week and return one to the fridge until next time, adding any excess to the recipe that I'm using. The batch of starter that I'm going to use for bread I may feed once or twice more (at 12-hour intervals) before use to equal about a cup or more, depending upon the recipe.

The important thing is that the fed mixture should rise to at least double each time it is fed. This can take anywhere from 2 to 4 hours, possibly longer if you are in a cool climate. If it doesn't double, feed it one or two times more at 12-hour intervals until you see that doubling. After feeding and before use in the recipe, I stir it down and put around 1/4 cup or less back into a small container in the refrigerator. The rest is used for the bread that I'm making. Some people maintain larger quantities. It really depends upon how much you bake, but even just a couple of tablespoons is really all you need. There are a million theories about the 'best' way to maintain and use starter which shows, I think, that once established, sourdough starter is very forgiving.

Committing to sourdough is kind of like keeping a pet, except that you can slip and not feed this pet for a month or, some say, even longer. If you have forgotten the weekly feedings, you may need to feed two or three times before your starter is active enough to make bread, but other than that, no harm done.

An important thing to remember is to use sparkling clean and well rinsed containers and utensils. You don't want to contaminate the mixture with dish soap residue or anything else. Since water in Honduras can be iffy, after washing the container I rinse it with bottled water. In the beginning of the process, I would even microwave the container with boiling water inside. When the culture was fermenting at room temperature for the first two weeks, I covered the container with a paper towel secured with a rubber band. That allowed the culture to breathe but kept out the ants, tropical fruit flies, and any other undesirables.

sourdough starter
This is a 4-inch tall jar - click to enlarge
Now that I keep the starter in the refrigerator, I use a small glass jam jar covered with plastic wrap (to keep out any odors) with the lid sitting only loosely on top to hold the plastic in place. It's important to use a container which is large enough to allow for doubling. It's also important that you don't seal the container as it could explode if the rising begins in the fridge. I like a glass jar because I feel that it can be more thoroughly cleaned and because plastic sometimes retains odors that you don't want in your bread. This photo is a recently fed and risen batch (click to see larger). It rose to almost triple. I always mark the jar with a piece of tape so I'll know when it doubled. I'll feed this one more time (in a lager container) before use to increase the amount, and save only about 1/4 cup in the refrigerator.


I persevered, as did the 'good' bacterias. I am still experimenting with recipes, but there are no more complaints from El Jefe. Al contrario, he is loving sourdough bread and is suitably impressed with my efforts as well as the magic of making bread without purchased yeast. I think he has eaten more bread in the past two months than I've ever known him to eat before. In the next sourdough article later this week, I'll write about some recipes that I've tried.

If you decide to give sourdough a try — have fun! Of course, you can also buy a ready made starter from places like King Arthur Flour or Amazon (many types) or some of the websites listed below — nothing wrong with that — but you'll still need to master the art of maintaining it. However, I'm not sure live or dehydrated starter would survive the hot temperatures in shipping to Honduras. I'm also thinking of the possibility of sharing my dried starter with folks in Honduras, but I'll have to test it first.

Please let me know in the comments if you are trying sourdough and what your results have been. I'm no expert yet, but maybe with Safariman's help, we might be able to answer your questions. You can also upload photos from within a comment. I'd love to see photos of your bread. Safariman, who has a 7-year-old Tegucigalpa sourdough starter, left a couple of bread photos in his comment on the last article. Take a look and click to enlarge the thumbnails. By the way, it's interesting that sourdough bread baking seems to be something that many guys get into, too.


There are lots of websites with sourdough information (often conflicting which can be confusing). If you are a purist, disregard any that suggest using yeast, milk, or sugar in your original starter. The following are a few sites that I found particularly helpful and interesting:

Northwest Sourdough - nice sourdough website and blog with recipes and beautiful bread photos. Teresa produces the most beautiful blistered crusts and holey, custardy sourdough. She also documents her experiments with different flours, starters, and techniques which I enjoy.

Wild Yeast - Lots of sourdough recipes for everything from sourdough bagels, pitas, dog biscuits to breads and rolls, as well as some good information.

Breadtopia - Really good, detailed site with recipes and videos. Seeing what your starter and bread dough should look like is very helpful.

Mike's Sourdough Home - I found this sourdough primer really helped me to understand a few things — the swimming pool and dog feeding statements especially. Mike has separate pages on starting your sourdough starter, storing, reviving, maintaining, and using it. If you are like me and like to know the 'why' as well as the 'how', I suggest reading the whole thing.

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