Sourdough bread is such a magical food. And a sourdough starter, or Levain, is what allows this delicious bread to be so magical. Keeping one around the house is something that I’ve done for many years. It takes just a few minutes either every day or a couple times a week, and can be done by anyone no matter where you live.
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It takes a good few days to get a sourdough starter going. But once its active it becomes a bit like a pet, and can bring a whole new level to your bread baking.
What is a Sourdough Starter?
For those who are in the dark, and have just come to this page out of curiousity, we will start at the beginning. Before the invention of commercial yeasts (dried or fresh) breads were made using only the naturally occurring bacteria around them.
It’s said that the beginning of risen bread started with someone (thousands of years ago) mixing together a bowl of flour and water. Then leaving that bowl in the corner of a warm kitchen and essentially forgetting about. A few days later when they saw that it was bubbling, larger and smelled funny, they decided to bake it. Isn’t that I lovely way to think of it? Like bread wanted to be created and it was all just a lovely series of happy accidents? I love it.
And sourdough is really that simple. The starter acts in the same way that we would use our store bought yeasts, but you need to feed it with new flour and water regularly to prolong its life and give it strength. For the first few days, the starter is left uncovered for an hour or so to allow new bacteria to arrive and begin feeding and growing. Then it’s covered and those bacteria (yeasts) eat the sugars in the flour and water to produce CO2 which causes the whole mess to rise up and bubble. When they’ve eaten their fill, the mix deflates and smells sour. You feed it more and the cycle starts again!
I feed my starter every day, but this doesn’t need to be what you do. You can easily feed it as little as a few times a week, and still be successful. Yeasts don’t like working in the cold (can you blame them?) so by using your starter, then feeding it and popping it in the fridge, you can pause it. The yeasts will go dormant and you can simply wake them up a couple days before you want to use it.
Sourdough starter upkeep works best if you do all your feedings in the morning. It doesn’t need to be super early, but try to get them fed before noon. It’s also important to have a scale for this task. It can be done without one and just using volumes, but you’ll have better results with a scale. Even a simple one like this is a worthwhile investment.
On the first day find yourself a glass bowl or a very wide mouth glass jar. Make sure the vessel is very clean, is easily covered or sealed, and can be easily emptied and filled. I use a glass mixing bowl, and in the past I’ve used an old gigantic glass pickle jar. Like the ones from Costco.
Weigh whatever vessel you’re using and note the weight. You’ll need this later when you are discarding the extra starter.
Add 200g of whole wheat flour and 200g luke warm water (non chlorinated). Combine with your hands until it’s fully incorporated and sticky. Using your hands is messy but it helps you really feel if all your ingredients are mixed in.
Leave it uncovered for an hour, then cover it tightly and let it sit in a warm place for 24hours.
In the morning, throw away about 3/4 of the initial mix, leaving the rest in your bowl. You don’t need to be precise here just yet. You can eyeball the amount by volume. Add back another 200g whole wheat flour, and 200g luke warm water. Mix with your hand until combined. Leave the mix uncovered for about an hour. Then cover tightly and let sit in a warm place for 24 hours. By the evening of day 2 you may start to see bubbles.
On the morning of Day 3 your mix should have doubled in size and have a very alcoholic smell when you open it. Once again, throw away 3/4 of the mix, leaving the rest in your bowl. Add another 200g whole wheat flour, and 200g luke warm water. mix it up with your hand. Leave it uncovered for about an hour, then cover tightly and let rest in a warm place for 24 hours.
On day 4 your mix should have, again, doubled in size. Today you will need to weigh out how much you keep. You want to throw out all except 100g of the starter. The total weight on your scale should be the weight of the original container plus 100g. Again, add 200g of whole wheat flour and 200g of lukewarm water. Mix it all together, cover immediately and let sit in a warm place for 24hours.
Last day! Today is the last day of building and the first day of normal feeding. Try to do this feeding before 9am. Throw away all but 100g of your mix. To the starter add 200g White Flour, 50g Whole Wheat Flour and 200g or room temperature water. By the late afternoon of the 5th day the starter can be used in recipes.
Sourdough Starter Feeding:
If you will be feeding your starter every day, try to feed at the same time each day. I find the mornings are best. It’s easy to just add it to my morning routine. We feed a lot of animals in the mornings, so whats one more feeding right? Every feeding day, throw away all but 100g of your mix. Add in 200g white flour, 50g whole wheat flour, and 200g room temperature water. Stir to combine, cover and let sit for 24 hours.
Storing and waking up your starter:
If you would prefer to not feed your starter everyday, then you can store it in the fridge and refresh it when you’re ready to use it. The refreshing process takes two days, so prepare for that in your schedule. After you’ve baked a bread with your starter, throw away all except 150g. Cover it very tightly, and place in the fridge.
Two days before you want to use it, remove it from the fridge. Discard 50g. Add back 200g white flour, 50g whole wheat flour, and 200g water. Stir to combine, cover and let rest in a warm place for 24hours. On the morning of the day you plan to bake, discard all but 100g of the mix and feed again in the same way as yesterday. By the late afternoon your starter will be ready to use again.
I have found that keeping up with a sourdough is all about getting into a schedule. I only bake bread a couple times a week, but feeding the starter everyday is part of my mornings now because it works better for me then putting it to sleep and waking it up. Find a system that works for you and you’ll be eating scrumptious sourdough bread and treats in no time!
You may have noticed you throw out a lot of sourdough. The stuff you throw away is called sourdough discard, and it can actually be added to recipes too! it will only give a tiny bit of rise, but it had some really lovely flavour intensity. Try out these Sourdough Brownies for a fudgy, decadent treat.