The Rise & Fall of Sourdough Starter. | The History & Recipe

Who wants to make a blob of guck that turns into bread?!  I know.  Everyone does. I mean, it’s the year of Coronavirus where the two most popular things in the world are baking sourdough bread and thinking about baking sourdough bread.  To do it, you need to know how to make sourdough starter.

Sourdough starter hit its stride in the year ohhhhh 1500 BC or so. The Egyptians were all over it. For thousands of years it was the only way to make bread. Then something horrifying happened – progress.

With the invention of instant commercial yeast by Louis Pasteur in the 1800s, sourdough starter was abandoned by bakers.

Commercial yeast gave predictable results, was easier to use and a lot faster than the homemade levain people had been using for centuries.  All but the most discriminating of bakers (the French) switched to using the commercial yeast.

What breads made with commercial yeast didn’t have was the flavour of bread made with the traditional sourdough starter. But bakers were willing to give that taste up in exchange for convenience.

100 years after the invention of commercial yeast, around the 1980s, the popularity of sourdough starters began to rise again before levelling out in the 1990s. 

Nobody (except every infectious disease expert around the world, plus that guy who made the movie Pandemic) could have predicted what would happen in the spring of 2020.

The entire world would shut down.  And together we were alone.

Collectively, without prompting, the world knew what to do. We would bake bread.

The word “bread” spiked to an all time high in Google searches.  This was partly because everyone locked inside their homes wanted to do and eat something that was comforting. What’s more comforting than the smell of freshly baked bread and a warm hunk of it slathered in butter.

Even more explosive were the results for sourdough starter a week later when everyone started to realize yeast was suddenly sold out everywhere.

 

 

Overnight, sourdough starter and bread became the “it” thing.  Nothing like this had happened since the Cabbage Patch doll riots of 1983.

Winter is coming again, the virus is in its second wave almost everywhere and even though you might not be in lock down, the safest place for you to be is at home. 

So.

Who wants to make sourdough starter?

If you were alive and coherent in the 1980’s you might remember the fad with people passing around a gross glop of dirty looking glue. You were supposed to take a bit out and pass along the rest to a bunch of unsuspecting friends. It was like a chain letter but with if someone accidentally sneezed on it, you were going to eat it.  Blech.

THAT was sourdough starter.

Sourdough starters have been known to be passed on from generation to generation.

It’s a mixture of flour and water that’s been left to ferment and turn into liquid yeast. It does this by “catching” wild yeast that’s in the air.

Sourdough starter, which makes bread rise,  tastes different than regular yeast because it contains different yeasts and bacterias. It’s fermented and has a slight sour taste to because of that. It’s what gives sourdough the unique flavour it has.

O.K. NOW do you want to know how to make this miracle of nature that has you catching wild yeast from the air known as sourdough starter?

I thought you might.

By the way, catching wild yeast is a bit of a romanticism.  You are in fact catching wild yeast, but yeast is pretty much in abundance everywhere.  You know when grapes have that white haze on them?  YEAST!  Yup.  The white haze on grapes is yeast.

Yeast is in the air, on your hands, and possibly on the spoon you use to stir your concoction.  Which is lucky for we sourdough starter makers.

Before I get to the sourdough starter recipe I know you’re going to have this question:

What flour is best for sourdough starter.

What kind of flour? Most people like rye and feel it ferments more quickly than other flours.  BUT you can use whatever flour you want or have; rye, whole wheat, white …

I use rye to start my starter. Then for subsequent feedings I may switch over to white.

 

How to make sourdough starter

A bit about hydration.

This is for a 100% hydration starter. That means it has 1 part flour to 1 part water. Different hydrations of starter and breads create different results.  A lower hydration (more flour than water) will give you a more sour taste and needs to be fed less often.  A higher hydration (more water than flour) will be milder tasting and need feeding more often.

There’s a LOT more to it than that, but if you’re a beginner I think this 1:1 starter is a good place to start for you.

  1. Mix 1/4 cup clean room temperature (filtered or bottled) water with 1/4 flour.  

Stir everything together until all the flour and water have mixed well.

2. Cover it with a cloth and let it sit for a couple of days in a room that’s approximately 23C (75F).

I’m using a bowl but you can also use a glass or mason jar.

 

After just 8 hours you can see tiny bubbles starting to form.

 

 

3. Once you notice bubbles and a yeasty smell (after 2 or 3 days) you can get rid of half of your mixture. Just scoop it out and throw it down the drain.  It may have dried out a bit. That’s O.K.  Add 1/4 cup of water and 1/4 cup of flour to the remaining starter, mix and cover up again. This is called feeding the starter.

Continue feeding the starter in this exact way every 8-12 hours for the next 2 weeks or so.

Remove half the starter, then add 1/4 cup water and 1/4 cup of flour.  Wait 8 – 12 hours and do it again.

After several days of doing this you’ll notice the bubbles are starting to get bigger.


Sourdough starter not rising?

If you don’t think your starter is doing much you can:

  1.  Put the starter close to an open window so it has more access to wild yeast. (no idea if this is a fable or not, but I did it and it worked)
  2. Put the starter in a warmer part of the room, or warmer room in general.
  3. Increase the amount of flour and water you add from 1/4 cup of each to 1/2 cup of each.

 

By day 12-15 you’ll notice your starter will start to double in size after you feed it.  It won’t just get a bit bubbly, it will literally double in size!

 

 

Once your starter reliably doubles in size for several days, you can break out the cigars because you are the proud parent of glop.  Some people suggest you keep feeding it on the counter like this for up to a month to really get the sour taste.  

Those people must not have a life.  Because just feeding this starter twice a day for two weeks is enough to make a person crazy.  Trust me.  By the end of two weeks you’ll be as sick of feeding this starter as you are of feeding your family every night.

Once you have a successful starter you can stick it in the refrigerator until the day before you’re going to make bread.

Reviving sourdough starter

The day before you make bread the starter should be removed from the refrigerator and brought up to room temperature. Once it’s warm, add 1/4 cup of bottled water and a 1/4 cup of flour. This will help activate the starter and get it bubbly again. 8-12 hours later, do it again. Your starter should now be ready to use.

Sourdough Starter

5 from 1 vote
Print Pin Rate
Total Time: 17 days
Author: Karen Bertelsen

Ingredients

  • Bag of flour
  • Filtered tap water or bottled water

Instructions

  • Day 1 - Mix together 1/4 cup flour and 1/4 cup lukewarm water. Let sit for 2-3 days until bubbles form and it smells of yeast. During this time, stir the mixture whenever you think of it.
  • Day 4 - Remove half the starter mixture and dump it down the drain. Feed the remaining mixture with 1/4 cup flour and 1/4 cup water. Mix.
  • Continue to dump and feed exactly the same way every 8-12 hours for 2 weeks or until the mixture reliably doubles in size after feeding.
  • Store the sourdough starter in the refrigerator until the day before you're ready to make bread.  The day before, remove the starter, let it get to room temperature and then feed it.  (add 1/4 cup flour and 1/4 cup water)  8-12 hours later, feed it again.  It is now ready to use in the sourdough bread recipe of your choice.

So there you have it.  Sourdough starter glop.  Pass it on.

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The Rise & Fall of Sourdough Starter. | The History & Recipe

135 Comments

  1. Cindy C. says:

    Can you post a recipe for sourdough bread that you like?

  2. Caroline says:

    Hi Karen, thanks for another great article. I just thought I’d mention – and forgive me if you or someone else has, I didn’t see it in your article – your white flour has to be unbleached, so regular AP flour won’t work, as I understand it.

  3. Susanne says:

    Any suggestions for a sourdough bread recipe???

    • Karen says:

      I often use the recipes from The Perfect Loaf. But know that making sourdough is very different from making regular bread. It’s more … intense, lol. ~ karen!

  4. Emie says:

    Love all of your post. You’ve given me permission to try new things…. and if by chance they fail, I don’t feel bad because at least I tried.
    Just a question about blog metrics… I receive your email notice when you have a new post. I always click the button that takes me to your web site. I’ve recently discovered these “clicks” are counted??? If I click more than once…. so I open your new post several times from the same email, does it help the percentage numbers? Or, do they know I’m clicking from the same email? Just wondering if clicking more than once helps the metrics? I’ve been doing this for a few of my favorite blogs to “help out” (I don’t want these blogs to call it quits) but if it doesn’t help I guess I won’t bother any more.

    • Karen says:

      Hi Emie! Thanks for thinking of me and my metrics. :) There’s no need to go clicking like crazy. Every time you visit a blog and look at a post it gets counted and I get paid from the advertisers. The longer you’re on the page, the further down you go on the page, the more I make. When you click from an email I sent out, those clicks just tell my email server whether or not you opened the email and clicked on the link. But if you don’t look at the bloggers actual post and scroll it, it doesn’t really make an impact. Thank you for thinking of us and recognizing that without readers and advertisers we couldn’t do what we do. ~ karen!

      • Emie says:

        Thanks you for the information…. it’s important to me to support the writers behind my favorite blogs. Right now we can all use a little extra dose of positivity and I definitely get that here! Cheers, Emie

  5. C.K.Watt says:

    Hello, I will try the recipe soon as i want to get back into my sourdough baking. The reason for the post was to say you do have blokes that read and post :-)

  6. Cynthia says:

    Don’t dump the starter down the drain! It makes fantastic pancakes. Or at the very least put it in your compost. No sense wasting all that hard work!

  7. Pam says:

    I am an avid bread baker and sadly have come to the realization that I dislike the taste of sourdough. Am I alone? I have raised and used a homemade starter with great success but just can’t love that tang.

  8. Cindy Wolf says:

    Oh my! This after the vanilla extract recipe (2 ingredients and then do nothing for 4 weeks)! I’ve got my vanilla extracting, but will skip sour dough feeding. Kudos to all who actually do it! Especially you with the almost kitchen.

    BTW- a friend gave me sour dough starter in the 80s. My roommate and I stared at it on the counter for a few days and it magically disappeared. I hope the sour dough fairy took it because we were warned not to let it die.

  9. Gayle says:

    When decided I didn’t want to continue the feedings all summer when I did little or no bread baking, I dried mine for storage. Worked great! (You can also go small–20g starter/20g water20g flour to keep a very small batch going. Takes a few days to get it back to baking volume.

  10. Kathryn Cuming says:

    Question: why do you say to throw half of the starter away? It seems like such a waste and I’ve never seen any other recipes for sourdough starter say this. Now for me to find somewhere that is 23C. The SO likes the house cool (I think it is the Scottish parental unit’s fault).

    • Karen says:

      Hi Kathryn. All starters require you to get rid of half or so. Because you’re constantly adding to it to feed it to keep it strong and active, you have to keep the proportions right by discarding a portion, then adding to it again. Also if you didn’t discard a big portion of it, by the time your it was ready you’d end up with a jar of starter the size of an oil barrel. ~ karen!

  11. Marci says:

    Karen,

    Once you have the sourdough glop how much/how do you use it to make bread. I search your site and didn’t see a recipe. I plan on begging some starter from a microbiologist friend who I know will have grown it correctly. I really don’t want to go through all that work! Recipe please!

    • Jane says:

      Marci,

      I use the 1:1:1 ratio, i.e., 100g starter, 100g flour, 100g water, wait for it to get bubbly (usually around 12 hours in an unlit oven) and use it in place of yeast in whatever recipe. My go-to recipe uses 1 c sour cream, 3 tbsp butter, 1/2 c sugar, 1/2 tsp salt, a pinch baking powder, and enough flour to form a decent dough (maybe around 4 c flour). This gives me 12 dinner rolls.

  12. Priscilla says:

    Karen,
    You are my hero!

  13. Sandra Blackwell says:

    I took the easy way to get starter-I asked a friend. She calls it zombie starter, cause she just can’t kill it. What I need is an easy, yet killer bread recipe now.

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