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Let’s slow down and spend some extra time in the kitchen embracing the slow art of making homemade sourdough bread. Bread is a fantastic staple to learn how to make and sourdough bread is the best of the best, both in terms of nutrition and flavor. Before we can make bread, we must first talk about the sourdough starter, the base of every good sourdough bread.
Now, before you dismiss the idea of making sourdough bread let me just encourage you: If I can find the time to make sourdough bread, you can, too!
I lack the patience for baking on most days. There are those rare times when I’ll get the urge to make cookies or cupcakes, but most of my time spent baking is due to a special occasion or because there are ripe bananas on the counter (hello, banana bread).
On top of the fact that I lack patience in the baking department, making sourdough bread has been a struggle and challenge for me. I’ve taken classes, read online tutorials, and experimented over the years with various sourdough methods. I’ve even purchased sourdough kits from the store. I’ve tried it all. On top of that, it’s hard to find good sourdough bread in my area. Well, that is, real sourdough bread that’s made with basic ingredients: flour, water, salt, and a sourdough starter.
Every one of my attempts resulted in less-than-ideal bread. I’d always give up and keep purchasing sourdough bread from the Whole Foods’ bakery (which is actually really tasty and it’s made with good ingredients).
Last spring, I purchased a book from Amazon called, Tartine Bread. The book is written by the master baker and owner (I believe, I’m still a bit unclear about the owner part) of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. Tartine makes some of the most famous sourdough loaves in all the land, so I figured the book might help me on my quest to achieve good, homemade sourdough bread. After reading the book–which is very short considering that the first few pages contain the most important information–I felt confident enough to attempt homemade sourdough, again.
Trying to make sourdough bread, again, meant that I had to create a sourdough starter, again. I had the sourdough starter process down, so I quickly whisked together the flour and water needed for the base of the starter and then let it sit for a few days until it “came to life.” Once the starter was active, I was ready to try my hand at the Tartine method.
My first attempt at making sourdough bread, using the Tartine method, was a huge success. I had never created such perfect sourdough before. The crust crackled, the crumb was deliciously moist, and the holes in the bread were definitely Instagram-worthy. It was at that very moment that my love for making homemade sourdough began.
Over the past few months, I’ve tweaked the Tartine method, using the lessons from the book and the classes I’ve attended in my local community, to create a process that works for my schedule. I’ve also played around with using different flours to make the actual sourdough bread.
As I’ve played in the kitchen, I’ve shared my sourdough loaves over on Instagram. Many Instagram friends have messaged me, asking for the sourdough recipe. So here we are today. Together, I want to help you embark on your own (homemade) sourdough journey. I’m going to share my recipe and tips, from making the starter (yeast) to mixing the bread dough to baking the sourdough loaf, and then it’s your turn to experiment in your kitchen.
Before we can make an actual loaf of sourdough bread, we need to make a sourdough starter–the base on which sourdough bread is formed. Before sharing how to make a starter, let’s talk about what exactly a starter is and why it’s so important. Then, I’ll share how to use this starter to craft a loaf of homemade sourdough bread (see this post for the method I use).
Sourdough Starter 101
A sourdough starter is simply yeast. Sourdough yeast differs from commercial active dry yeast (and other store-bought yeast varieties) in that a starter is made up of wild yeast. Wild yeast lives everywhere, so the intent of creating a sourdough starter is to capture the naturally-occurring wild yeast and use it for baking bread.
To make a starter, two simple ingredients are combined: water and flour. Wild yeast is already in the flour and air, so at this point it’s just a matter of “capturing” that yeast. After just a few days of the water and flour mixture sitting on the counter, the starter will begin to show signs of life–there will be visible air bubbles throughout the batter, the batter will rise and fall, and it will smell slightly sour (but not in a rotten food way). Once the starter shows signs of life (the good bacteria at work), the starter needs to be maintained with regular feedings of fresh flour and water. Think of the starter like a pet. A pet that gives you delicious bread! That’s my kind of pet.
Once the starter shows signs of life, a loaf of sourdough bread can be made using the starter as the yeast. Not only does a starter help the sourdough bread rise, it also breaks down phytic acid in the bread (thanks to the bacteria), making the bread easier to digest. <–This is just one of the reasons why I’ve wanted to learn the art of making sourdough at home, and why I think it would be beneficial for others, too. According to Discover Magazine (check out the article, it’s fascinating), “Sourdough is teeming with bugs—some 50 million yeasts and 5 billion lactobacilli bacteria in every teaspoon of starter dough.”
Using wild yeast to make bread is a practice that’s been around for a very long time. It’s a practice that’s beneficial for us in a day when people are afraid of bread and gluten. We’ll talk more about this next time, when we actually make bread together.
Sourdough Starter Example
Above, you’ll notice my active and mature sourdough starter. This starter was made with all-purpose organic flour from Whole Foods (365 brand), and it’s maintained (fed) with all-purpose flour.
Notice the white line, that’s where the starter sat after discarding half and then feeding the leftover starter with 60 grams water and 60 grams flour. After about 5 hours, my starter grew to where you see it in this photo (double in size). This is a very mature and active starter. Your starter will start to behave in a similar way after about 7-12 days of starting–you just need patience and daily feedings.
Notice the bubbles, these are air pockets and a sign the starter is active and full of good bacteria (the kind that will make your bread rise and also predigest the gluten). When you first start, you’ll notice these bubbles are gradual and small. Overtime, the longer you maintain your starter, the more active and noticeable they’ll become. Seeing bubbles throughout your starter and also seeing it double in size after feeding (and then fall back down to the white line when it’s ready to be fed again) is a sign you can use this starter to bake!
How to Use Sourdough Starter
Once your sourdough starter is active (which can take anywhere from 5-10 days, depending on the temperature in your home–bacteria thrives in warm conditions so if your home is cold it may take longer), you can begin baking. Active = you notice air pockets in the sourdough starter and the starter rises (actually doubles in size) and then falls back down each day. Yes, you can make a classic sourdough bread, but there’s so much more you can do. Here are some ideas for how to use your active starter.
- Focaccia: An Italian classic. This is my favorite sourdough bread to make. Enjoy with soup, make it into a pizza, use it to make sandwiches, or just snack on it throughout the day.
- Garlic Knots: A fun garlic bread made with fresh garlic and grated cheese.
- Muffins: Add any filling, such as blueberries or chopped apples or shredded zucchini.
- Banana Bread: I use 1/3 cup of maple syrup instead of the brown sugar in this recipe.
- Waffles: This is a great way to use the discard from your starter once active (you’ll need to discard half your start each day so why not use it?). I’ve used einkorn as the flour in this recipe with good results.
- Pancakes: Another great way to use the discard from your active starter.
- Crackers: Another great way to use the discard from your active starter.
- Pizza Dough: I’ve used einkorn flour in this recipe and it works great.
- Chocolate Chip Cookies: Yep, you can even satisfy your sweet cravings with a sourdough starter.
Tools You Need for Sourdough
Tools make the sourdough process easy and enjoyable. While you’re working on your starter, gather these supplies so you’ll be ready to bake in a few days.
- Artisanal Sourdough Made Simple: This is the best sourdough book for easy recipes. Every recipe in this book is easy to make and delicious!
- Flour: If you’ve been around Live Simply for a while, then you know that I love baking with einkorn flour (an ancient grain). When it comes to sourdough, I prefer to use other wheat varieties. Einkorn is expensive and easier to digest (easier than most grains), so I reserve this flour for non-sourdough baking adventures. The sourdough process breaks down the gluten protein in wheat (predigests it), making wheat easier to digest. For flour, I love Sunrise Flour Mill, Hayden Flour Mills and Central Milling.
- Glass Jar: A tall jar (quart sized works well) for storing your starter. Think of this jar as your starter’s home. I like to pour my starter into a new jar (home) every couple of weeks to keep the sides and top of the jar from getting too crusty.
- Large Mixing Bowl: Most recipes will require mixing the sourdough in a large mixing bowl and then letting it rest for several hours (this is when the magic happens).
- Proofing Basket: This is not required, but does help with making a crusty, traditional sourdough loaf.
- Bread Pan: If you want to make a loaf bread (or banana bread), you’ll need a bread loaf pan.
- Dutch Oven: A Dutch oven creates the perfect steam oven for making a crusty loaf of sourdough.
- Dough Whisk: This is particularly helpful for keeping your hands clean when mixing your dough. The dough scraper is also nice for scooping the dough out of the bowl without dirtying your hands.
- Bread Lame: This tool allows you to score the bread (make cuts in the dough before baking), which allows the bread to expand and rise during baking.
How to make a from-scratch sourdough starter, and maintain that starter, for making homemade sourdough bread.
To Make a Starter:
- 100 grams whole wheat flour or all-purpose flour
- 100 grams filtered water
To Maintain/Feed an Active Starter:
- 60 grams whole wheat flour about 1/3 cup or all-purpose flour
- 60 grams filtered water a bit less than 1/4 cup
To Make a Starter:
In a high-rimmed jar, mix together the 100 grams of flour and 100 grams of water. Once combined, the flour and water will be thick and resemble a very thick pancake or waffle batter. Cover the jar with a cheesecloth or small towel and secure the cloth over the jar with a rubber band.
Your work is done for now. It's time to wait and let the natural yeast (bacteria) do its work and bring your starter to life. I recommend placing your starter near a fruit basket (on the counter) or if your home is cold put your starter in the warmest location of your home.
After about 1-2 days, you should notice that your starter looks and smells different. It may have a slightly sweet and sour aroma, air bubbles may appear in the starter, and the starter has risen. The starter will also change from a thick and hard-to-stir to batter to one that's a bit more pliable. You're not looking for any kind of crazy WOW changes, just slight changes here.
Discard 50% of your starter.
Feed the sourdough starter with 60 grams of fresh flour and 60 grams of filtered water (it's important to stick with the same flour for your starter versus change things up). Stir the fresh ingredients into the starter, place the cheesecloth (or towel) back on the jar, and secure the cheesecloth or towel with a rubber band. Place the starter back on the counter (near a fruit basket or warm spot, if possible). Continue to do this for 4-7 days.
Once your starter is mature (around 5-7 days after starting and consistently feeding it, depending on the temperature of your home), you'll notice that it grows and shrinks throughout the day. Growth happens after you feed your starter with flour and water (and discard half of your starter before doing this)--growth usually happens during the first 2-12 hours of a fresh feeding. It's ideal to feed your starter when it shrinks back down as this means it's ready to fed again (it's consumed all the food you gave it and now it's ready for more so it can grow again). The more you feed your starter (between 1-2 times a day, depending on the current temperature in your home as warmer weather can make for a lively starter while cooler temps so it down), the healthier and more active it will be. When it rises (roughly 2-12 hours after feeding), this is considered an "active and bubbly or freshly fed starter" and it's the ideal time to make bread dough. You can use the discard starter (what you toss each time you feed it), to make waffles or pancakes or crackers.
To Maintain an Active Starter (AKA: Keep It Alive):
Once a day, refresh your starter by feeding it with fresh flour and water (60 grams each). If your starter is super active (rising and falling often), you can feed it twice a day.
If you're not going to regularly bake bread, you can keep your mature starter (it's been alive and healthy for a couple of weeks now) in the fridge. To do this, at feeding time, discard 50% of the starter (remember, you can use this to make waffles, pancakes, or crackers if you want), feed the starter with 60 grams of water and flour, and cover the starter. Let the starter sit at room temperature for an hour and then place the starter in the fridge to hibernate. This is also a good way to keep your starter alive if you're going to be traveling and won't be around to feed the starter on a daily basis. There's no need to feed the starter until you pull it back out of the fridge because you're ready to start baking bread again. The starter doesn't need to be fed while it's hibernating in the fridge. I recommend feeding it once a week, if possible, when keeping it in the fridge. You'll need to pull the starter from the fridge at least 1 day before starting the sourdough bread process, discarding 50% of the starter, giving the starter a fresh feeding (60 grams of flour and 60 grams of water), covering the starter, and placing it back on the counter in a warm spot.
If you need help with troubleshooting or maintaining your starter, I recommend this quick-read guide: https://www.baileyraeskitchen.com/blog-hq/2020/3/25/troubleshooting-amp-maintaining-your-sourdough-starter
I've had the most success using whole wheat flour to make and maintain my starter. Plus, whole wheat flour is pretty inexpensive, which is important to me since I'm discarding and feeding my sourdough starter on a daily basis.
I personally don't keep my starter in the fridge, because I usually bake bread 1-2 times a week and don't mind the regular feedings. I keep my starter in the fridge to hibernate when we travel, or during busy seasons of life when I won't be able to regularly feed my starter and make bread.
Now that my starter is mature and thriving, I don't actually weigh the 50 grams of water and flour each time I feed the starter. I know, just from eye balling it and using a 1/4 cup measuring cup, what my starter should look like when it's fed. Once you get to a point of regular feedings, you'll get to know your starter and the ideal feeding appearance and consistency very well--so don't feel like you need to use the scale for this once you're a pro. You will need a scale for the initial starter creation and each time you make bread, because weight measurements are far more accurate than volume measurements.
Now that you have a starter, you can make sourdough bread. A Sourdough starter can also be used to leaven more than just a loaf of sourdough bread. You can use a sourdough starter to make sourdough waffles or in place of the leavening agent (i.e. baking powder) in quick bread recipes. It can also be used to make pizza dough. Google is a wonderful resource for recipes.
For troubleshooting (mold, etc.), Cultures for Health is a great resource. I recommend checking out this article.