Making a Sourdough Starter (Without Store Bought Yeast)!

A couple sourdough loaves I baked in December

I love bread in most forms, but I think sourdough is my absolute favorite!  I especially enjoy a crusty “artisan” style loaf, with a piping hot bowl of soup, or just plain with butter, or the entire loaf while hissing and growling at anyone that tries to take it from me…oops, did I type that out loud?   Bread, to me, is one of the easiest ways to start being more self reliant, not to mention get in touch with our “inner pioneers”!   It’s fairly inexpensive to make it yourself, and is not only healthier and tastier than store bought (in my opinion), but makes a nice gift or addition to a pot luck.

Sourdough bread is a bit more time consuming than regular yeast bread, but the flavor, and possible health benefits (unless one is gluten intolerant or has Celiacs), make it worthwhile.

There’s more than one way to get a sourdough starter up and running, so to speak.  Many recipes that I’ve seen call for adding a bit of regular yeast, and while I’m sure that after time a bit of a sourdough flavor will develop, my goal here is to help you get a starter going with the yeast that’s naturally present in the flour.  It’s actually a different kind of yeast than what’s typically sold at the store.  The usual off the shelf kind, is Saccharomyces Cerevisiae, and I believe it’s the same kind of yeast that is (or at least used to be) used in brewing beer. It’s a very dependable, and fast acting yeast, that became commercially available to the home baker around 1868, when the Fleischmann brothers began selling a cake of compressed grain, barley malt, and brewer’s yeast*. (*This is information I found in an article from called “A History of Bread in America, by Marne Stetton)  Using a starter with the naturally occurring yeast strains found on the grain, takes longer to make the bread rise, but allows the lactobacillus (the good bacteria) to thrive, giving sourdough it’s distinctive flavor.

I’ve tried making a starter using just flour and water (it turned a scary pink color, which isn’t good!), I’ve tried rye flour and water (with success, although it took quite a while to get it really active),  and after a sad chain of events (And by sad, I mean funny and rather embarrassing) caused me to loose that one, I tried a method using rye flour, and an acidic base, of all things!

The last method I tried, actually seemed to be the most successful for me.  I first read about this method on a bread website called “The Fresh Loaf”, and the person who came up with it (I don’t have their name, but they go by “SourdoLady” on that site) , used pineapple juice as the acid.  The idea behind it, is that the acidic base provided by the juice, prevents the bad bacteria from getting a foothold in the flour and juice mixture, while the naturally occurring yeast and good bacteria are still inactive.  When they finally “wake up”, the bacteria and yeast do a good job of preventing the bad stuff from getting established.  The lactobacillus (again, the good bacteria that makes the bread taste delicious) are able to get established along with the natural yeast.   It’s not uncommon, however, for a new sourdough starter to be able to raise a loaf of bread, but not have the strong flavor often associated with sourdough, at first.  Over time, the flavor will become more pronounced, as the good bacteria becomes more established.

To get started, you will need some rye flour, preferably organic, but use what you have access to.  You will need a container, such as a quart size canning jar, to mix and store the starter in. (If you are going to use a metal container, make sure it’s a non reactive metal, such as stainless steel.)  Personally, I feel glass is the best to use.   You will also need an acidic liquid, like pineapple juice, or orange juice.  (I didn’t have either of those, so I used water mixed with a small amount of cider vinegar.)

Sourdough Starter, Day One

Day One: Mix two tablespoons of rye flour, with two to three tablespoons of pineapple juice, orange juice, or water mixed with roughly a quarter teaspoon of cider vinegar (I used the water & vinegar mixture).  Mix well,  cover, and leave in a relatively warm spot for about 24 hours.  I realize some folks prefer a very specific set of instructions, and while I’ll do my best to provide that, I admit that I tend to “eyeball” things.  I’ve found that bread dough, and starters tend to be a bit forgiving if you don’t have exact measurements.

Day’s Two & Three:  Mix two tablespoons of rye flour, with two to three tablespoons of pineapple juice, orange juice, or vinegar/water mixture.  Mix well, and leave out 24 hours in a warm spot.  (I just put mine on the kitchen counter but if your kitchen is a bit on the cool side, some folks will put their starter on top of the fridge.)

My starter all bubbly, showing signs of life

Day 4:  Stir your starter, and discard about half of the starter.  Mix in to the remaining starter, roughly a quarter cup of flour (Can be regular white flour, whole wheat, or rye at this point.) and a quarter cup of water.  Again, mix well.  This is the point where you will likely start to see some life, in the form of bubbles.  You might even see it sooner, like day two or three, but by day four things should start livening up.  (This particular starter showed some bubbles around day three, but between day four and five, really became active!)

Day 5:  Repeat day four, however this is when I like to start marking where my starter is right after feeding (mixing in the new flour and water) it.  I do this because I want to be able to tell when my starter is strong, active, and ready to use for bread.  A good rule of thumb for judging it’s readiness, is when it’s at least two weeks old (three or more weeks is better!), and starts doubling in size between four and six hours.  I’d be inclined to not try baking bread with it before two or three weeks, because you may end up with a dense brick, rather than a fluffy, nice loaf.  That being said, if your starter is doubling within the four to six hour mark sooner, it may be ok to use.

The top of the band marks where the starter was right after feeding. It hasn’t doubled, but is starting to get stronger.

I’ll be posting a sourdough baking tutorial very soon, including a bread recipe and directions on setting up a baking schedule, so that those of us busy folks can still have a life outside of bread baking. (It’s possible, I promise!)  In the meantime, make sure you feed your new starters daily, leaving them at room temperature for at least two weeks, or until it’s going strong, and doubling within four to six hours.  If you are like me, and the idea of throwing out the discarded portion of the starter before every feeding bothers you, it can be used in things like sourdough pancakes, or even cinnamon rolls!  I’ve seen recipes for sourdough crackers, and pasta floating around on the internet, as well.





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