So, what’s the deal with everyone and their sourdough starters?
If you’ve been spending any amount of time on social media lately you likely noticed a lot of bread pics proudly staged for all the Instagram followers to see. Since people are spending more time at home these days, it seems they are more inclined to keep a watchful eye on its progress, staying ready to bake the bread at exactly the right time. And let’s be honest; fresh-baked sourdough bread on a wooden board over a rustic cloth is not hard to look at. The yeast is given so much time to properly ferment – right at home – producing a beautiful crusty bread hole-pocked with air bubbles. You can’t beat the smell of freshly baked bread—especially when it’s the sweet tangy scent of crusty sourdough.
Province by province, city by city as regulations set in and we were “sent to our rooms,” with nowhere to go except shop for groceries and to the pharmacy, some people decided to try their hand at making old things new again. Bread baking and sourdough starter is one of them.
To make a proper sourdough starter a person needs time, attention and care to give to it as it sits for days before it can actually be worked into a bread. The purpose is twofold; to produce a vigorous leaven and to develop the flavour of the bread. After fermenting for several days the starter is then added to the dough and left to rise. Though the process might sound complicated it’s actually straightforward and ends up in a bread that is crusty outside and chewy inside with plenty of air pockets.
There are two methods to yeasted bread; either quick rise (from 30 minutes to a few hours) or slow/fermented (from at least 24 hours to weeks). Adding the yeast from a packet directly to dough will give you a rise that’s quick and consistent, totally efficient. Adding yeast from a sourdough starter will give a slower rise and also a depth of flavour that quick rise yeast can’t achieve. Think of sourdough starter as yeast. Only in this case, instead of buying a packet of yeast from the store, you are making your own living “wild yeast” by fermenting flour and water. The ratio of water to flour in the starter (the hydration) varies so some starters may be a fluid batter while others, a stiff dough. In addition to flour, water and yeast, the starter also contains bacteria and when these bacteria feed on the sugars in flour, they produce acidic by-products. This is what gives sourdough its sour taste.
Think of it as a kitchen lab experiment and your job is to check in on the ‘specimen’ - your sourdough starter – to see how it is doing. To make sure it’s growing and giving it the time it needs to allow the yeast to properly ferment. That’s it! Once it’s alive, it’s a low-maintenance task with a high achiever result.
Here’s what you need to do to make a sourdough starter from Exploratorium:
1 small handful (1/4 to 1/3 cup) white flour
1 or 2 tablespoons of water
a small bowl
a towel, napkin, or another piece of cloth
a large spoon
In a mound of flour, make a small well and add the water.
Slowly mix the flour and the water, bringing more flour into the centre of the well. The mixture will gradually transform from a paste into a small piece of dough.
Knead this small piece of dough with your fingers for about 5–8 minutes, until it becomes springy.
Place the dough in a small bowl, cover it with a damp towel, and let it sit in a warm spot for 2 or 3 days.
When it’s ready, the dough will be moist, wrinkled, and crusty. If you pull off a piece of the crust, you’ll find tiny bubbles and smell a sweet aroma.
Throw away any hardened crust. “Refresh” the remaining piece by mixing it with twice the original amount of flour and enough water to make a firm dough. Set aside as before.
After 1 or 2 days the starter will have a new, fresh look. Remove any dried dough and mix with about 1 cup of flour.
Once again, cover the bowl with a damp cloth and leave it in a warm place for another 8–12 hours.
When the starter is ready, it will appear fully risen, and a small indentation made with a finger won’t spring back.
Now the starter is ready to be used in virtually any sourdough recipe. Remember to save a small piece of the starter: You can put it in the refrigerator for several days, then refresh it again as above and use it to make another loaf. A good starter will serve you for years to come!
Once your starter is ready to go, the final step is making a delicious loaf of sourdough bread. We love Jill Winger’s Best Beginner Sourdough Bread Recipe, check it out below!
½ cup active sourdough starter (see above)
1 ¼ cup lukewarm water
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons fine sea salt
In a large bowl, combine the starter and water.
Stir in the flour, and then add the salt.
Use a fork to mix everything together until it becomes stiff– then switch to your hands to bring the dough together in a rough ball (Remember: don’t overmix! This is supposed to be a no-knead-style wet dough.)
Keep the rough dough in the bowl, cover it, and let sit for 30 minutes.
After this resting time is complete, stretch and fold the dough a few times to form it into a ball.
Cover the dough with a clean dish towel and let it rise in a warm place overnight or until doubled in size (or about 8 hours). I like to make the dough before bed and leave it in my turned-off oven (I leave the oven light on) to rise overnight.
The next morning (or after 8 hours) turn the dough out on your counter. Fold it over a couple of times to tighten it into a ball, then let sit for 15 minutes.
After this resting period is complete, gently shape the dough into a ball once more place into a well-floured proofing basket or a bowl lined with a well-floured dish towel. Remember: don’t add too much flour and do not knead the dough!
Cover and rise for 2-3 hours, or until doubled.
Preheat the oven to 450°F.
Sprinkle a thin layer of cornmeal in the bottom of a Dutch oven (optional, but this helps the bottom not to scorch).
Tip the loaf out of the proofing basket onto a sheet of parchment. Lower the parchment into the Dutch oven.
Place the lid on the pot and bake for 20 minutes.
Remove the lid and bake for an additional 30 minutes, or until the loaf is deeply browned and crispy on top. (For a less crusty finish, bake for the entire time with the lid on.)
Move to a cooling rack and allow the loaf to cool completely before slicing it.
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