How To Make A Sourdough Starter From Scratch

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How To Make A Sourdough Starter From Scratch
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When coronavirus caused the nation to shut down and many Americans were under stay-at-home orders, a curious phenomenon occurred: Many people started to do a lot of baking.

All of the sudden, there was a high demand for flour and yeast, and conversations about sharing sourdough starters were everywhere.

What is a sourdough starter?

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Isn’t sourdough started like any other bread? And can this starter be used for things that aren’t sourdough? Well, no, not exactly... but also yes. 

"A sourdough starter is a live mix of water and flour, where yeast and lactobacilli live. It's basically a combination of water and flour that creates a wild yeast,” says Erwan Huessaf, chef and host of Tastemade's Lightened Up

Once you get the ratio right, that’s all it is: mixing and watching and waiting! And this really is all about the flavor.

Adds Huessaf, “Because of the lactic acid being produced in the starter, you get a distinct sour flavor that you can control through the way you feed your starter, which makes the end result more appealing.”

For those who like bread, they really like sourdough. But this is not an easy process, and it’s one that will take some trial and error, and also patience!

“If you are not a patient person, don't attempt to make sourdough at home. Just go to your closest bakery and pick up a fresh loaf! For those who are not a fan of baking or measurements, making sourdough can be a stressful experience,” Huessaf advises.

Here's how to make a sourdough starter, including the ingredients you need, and a list of instructions.

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But first, there are some things to keep in mind.

1. It takes time and patience.

First and most importantly, you must have time to make sourdough bread.

“This type of bread making is not for the 'throw it together and get it done' baker,” warns Chef Michelle Poteaux, pastry chef of Bastille in Alexandria, Virginia.

Remember that your starter is a living thing and requires care and attention.

“If it smells good, it is good. However, if it smells bad or even has mold, throw it out,” Poteaux adds.

2. Choose the correct flour.

Use freshly milled flour for your sourdough starter. The fresher the wheat and whole grain, the more dimension your bread (or whatever you bake) will have.

“Think of AP flour as 1 dimensional, and fresh whole wheat flour as 3D — more flavor!” suggests Graison Gill of Bellegarde Bakery

3. Use your sourdough for other cooking as well.

Use sourdough for more than just bread because it really has a lot of potential. And if you're working this hard, you may as well get a lot out of it.

Says Gill, “Your sourdough starter will add more flavor to your pasta, cookies, crepes, or scones. It will also make whatever you're baking healthier and more digestible.”

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4. Break out the juice.

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Use unsweetened fruit juice, to be precise. Because a little bit of unsweetened fruit juice goes a long way.

“At the beginning, it can get funky quickly, so only add it once as you build your starter,” suggests John Adler, Vice President of Culinary at Blue Apron. “In the first 3-5 days, replace 1/4 of the water you plan to add, with some unsweetened fruit juice, which will add to that sour fruity aroma you're looking to build in your starter.”

5. Of course, you can also use a mixture of flours.

Much like with other things we cook, allowing a mixture of flavor and texture can be a big help with baked goods.

“If you can find them, a good ratio for a starter is 20 percent rye flour, 20 percent hard red wheat, 60 percent bread flour,” says Adler. The different wheats offer different aromas due to their varying protein and sugar contents, and make for a more floral and complex starter.

6. Don't 'discard'.

As you use your starter, you have to remove some of it so you don't end up with endless quantities, and so the starter remains fresh and alive.

“Instead of discarding the 'discard' starter, you can use it in pancake batter, waffles, biscuits, pizza dough, focaccia or even scones,” Adler suggests. 

7. And if all else fails...

Ask your local bakery for some sourdough starter since starting your own can be a lot of work. It’s okay to let the professionals do the work for you. Advises Gill, “Ask a local bakery if they’ll give you a starter or let you purchase for a small fee.”

Now that you know all the do’s and don’ts of making a sourdough starter, here’s how to keep the process as simple as possible.

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How do you make a starter?

According to Adler, “It is really quite simple, because all you need is flour, a bit of fruit juice (if you want), water and air. The basic ratio is 1 cup of flour (either bread or a mixture of flours) and 1/2 cup of room temperature water.”

Here’s what happens next:

1. Mix the ingredients together in a container at least 3 times their total volume, and let them sit uncovered for 1 day. There are natural yeasts floating all around us that will begin to feed off the sugars in the flours. 

2. The next day, remove half the flour and water, and discard it. At the beginning, the discard doesn't have enough going on, so it doesn't make sense to use in other baked goods.

3. Add another cup of flour and 1/2 cup of water (or 3/8 cup water and 1/8 cup unsweetened fruit juice), and mix into your starter. 

4. Cover loosely and let it stand at room temp for another 24 hours. By the next day, you should start to see some bubbling. 

5. Mix your starter 'down' (i.e., deflate it), and measure 1/2 half cup. Then, transfer it to a new container. 

6. Discard the remaining starter, or use it as part of your base for homemade pizza dough or pancakes.

7. To the reserved 1/2 cup, mix in 1 cup of flour and 1/2 cup room temperature water. Recover and let stand. 

8. Repeat this for 4 more days — measuring out 1/2 cup, discarding (or making something else with the discard — and you have a sourdough starter!

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Aly Walansky is a NY-based lifestyles writer who focuses on health, wellness, and relationships. Her work appears in dozens of digital and print publications regularly. Visit her on Twitter or email her.