Just remembering the smell, the crusty outside, breaking off a chunk and smothering it in butter, and of course the tangy taste makes me want to stop writing this post and head out to Mimi’s Café.
When I first considered making my own sourdough bread, I immediately thought about this restaurant-style bread with that distinctive sourdough bite to it. You know, delicious with a little butter, but maybe a little weird for breadcrumbs, hamburger buns, or garlic bread.
I was a little skeptical that sourdough could be anything different, but I was very wrong.
Let’s face it – that kind of sourdough is NOT good for peanut butter and jelly.
But before we talk about that stuff, let’s dive into what sourdough is and how it works first. This is a complete guide after all.
What is Sourdough and how does it work?
Sourdough is one of the oldest methods for naturally leavening and fermenting grains. Our ancestors figured out how to make this mixture of fermented grains into bread and eventually how to save a portion of it to use it for later.
The portion that they used for later is what we now call the sourdough starter.
Sourdough starter refers to the bubbling sourdough concoction that you’ll keep in a mason jar in your fridge. You’ll keep it alive by feeding it with flour and distilled water.
Did you know that making a sourdough starter involves a mix of flour and water, and letting it sit on the counter. That’s it! Pretty cool right?
So … why does mixing flour and water all of sudden make sourdough?
Every kind of grain flour contains wild yeast and friendly lactobacilli bacteria. The sourdough starter is how we cultivate the wild yeast and bacteria.
The yeast and bacteria live in a symbiotic relationship, helping each other break down the sugars, gluten, and phytic acid found in the flour. The yeast and lactobacilli produce an acid which creates the signature sourdough flavor and helps the starter (and bread) rise. The acid also kills off unfriendlies and protects the environment for the yeast.
That is a very simplistic explanation of how it all works, but anything more than this will probably bore you to tears.
Why Should I Use Sourdough?
Sourdough, in my opinion, is the best way to prepare your grains. Sure, sprouting is healthy, but I find it harder to cook with as it has a strong taste that can overpower whatever you’re making.
Here’s why you should cook with sourdough:
- It’s delicious
- You can manage how “sourdoughy” it tastes
The easiest way to control the flavor’s strength is to change how long you let the dough sit or ferment. For example, if you’re baking bread, you mix the ingredients up and let it sit for 12 hours or so before baking. If you want a more subtle flavor, leave it for 8 hours.
Our naturopath, who taught us about sourdough, has told us that if we feed our refrigerated sourdough a small amount daily, that it reduces the sourdough flavor a bit as well. We haven’t tried it, but that’s another option.
Adding baking soda will neutralize the lactic acid as well which is what the signature taste comes from. More on that in the trouble shooting section.
- It’s Probiotic
Sourdough is the first in our probiotics series, and it’s easily our favorite one. It supports gut bacteria, one of the most important aspects of your health.
But we should clarify something, that while the starter is definitely full of probiotics, once you cook it they are killed off. However, even the dead probiotics have benefits!
- It’s versatile
Remember we said above that it might be weird for PB & J or garlic bread?
In our experience, this homemade sourdough is subtler in flavor, and works great for just about anything. Refer to point #2 for help controlling the flavor.
We use our sourdough for pancakes, hamburger buns, pizza dough, bagels, and bread!
- Breaks down gluten, antinutrients, and other nasties
Most of the junk associated with flour becomes obsolete after it has been fermented with a sourdough culture.
Some of the gluten is predigested, the phytic acid (which steals nutrients from your body) is neutralized, and it’s even more diabetic friendly than normal flour.
Some people with gluten issues can safely eat sourdough without any problem. That being said, don’t go eat a whole loaf if you have celiac disease. I said SOME people!
- You don’t need yeast
Most commercial yeasts are processed, which runs counterproductive to creating something healthy. Sourdough is a natural leavening agent!
- It doesn’t need to be flavored
Often with plain Jane wheat bread, you need a little extra somethin’ to spice it up – like honey or sunflower seeds. Sourdough is so flavorful that you only need water, flour, salt, and starter, meaning you can save calories and costly ingredients.
- It’s cheap
Like I mentioned, your ingredients are dirt stinkin’ cheap. Like a loaf of bread costing less than $.50. That’s key to saving money on a real food diet where store-bought healthy breads can run $5 or more.
How Do I Get A Sourdough Starter?
There’s 3 ways to get yourself a live and bubbly sourdough starter. Get some from a friend (thanks mom!), buy a starter (it will probably be air dried when you get it), or you can even make it!
The easiest thing to do is get some from a friend. They’ll just scoop out a chunk of their sourdough culture/flour/water mix (remember, that’s called the starter) and then you can take it home and start feeding it… like bringing home a puppy from the pound!
If you decide to buy some, it usually needs to be activated – it’s pretty easy and the package will have instructions. However, you can buy fresh sourdough starter that just needs to be fed.
To make your own, all you have to do is mix some water (distilled!!) and flour in a 1:1 ratio and put it on the counter. After a day or so, you’ll see bubbles forming which is the yeast and bacteria multiplying. Keep feeding your starter once a day the same 1:1 ratio of water and flour.
For the science as to why this works, check out this article at The Kitchn.
After several days (probably around 5 or so) your starter will be honeycombed with bubbles. Now it’s ready to either be made into a recipe or stored.
That leads us to the next step!
How Do I Store My Starter?
There are several ways to store your starter. The 4 ways that I know of are: stiff dough method, air dry method, countertop daily method, and the one that we use, the refrigerator method. Depending on how often you want to use your sourdough will determine which method you want to use.
[box type=”warning”] NOTE* Always use distilled water as tap water contains chemicals that will kill your sourdough bacteria. Also, when I specify how much flour to use, always use a heaping measuring cup. For example a 1:1 ratio would be 1 C distilled water, and 1 heaping C flour.[/box]
Stiff Dough Method:
Mix ½ C of starter with enough flour to make a stiff dough. Store it in a mason jar and surround it with flour and cover it. You can keep this on the countertop for up to a week and much longer in the fridge. (We’ll use this one for long term vacations).
Air Dry Method:
Take your sourdough starter and spread it out thinly on some wax paper. After it dries you can break it up into flakes and store it in a container to be reconstituted later. (This is awesome for long term storage and making a plan B starter if your plan A dies).
Countertop Daily Method:
This method is best if you’re making bread daily. All you have to do is feed your starter daily as you use it to make bread and reserve some for the next day. (If you do this, I’m guessing you have a REALLY big family).
This is how we store and feed our sourdough starter because it’s super easy and convenient:
Video Recap: Take the starter out of the fridge, and remove about 1 C of the starter from the jar. This is used either to activate it for a recipe, or you can just throw it away. The idea is to keep your jar from overflowing with sourdough! Next, add 1 C of water and 1 heaping C of flour to feed it, stir it all together, put back in the fridge with lid. SUPER easy!
You now know what a starter is and how to store it. Now we want to actually make a loaf of bread so …
How to Get Your Starter Ready For Baking:
When you store your starter, the growth slows down and goes dormant. Most recipes call for a fresh or active starter. An active starter is growing (doubling every 8-12 hours) and is bubbly.
You don’t have to refresh your starter if you’re using the countertop daily method because it is always active.
I would suggest if you used the stiff dough or air dry method to reconstitute it with water and flour before getting it ready for baking to make it easier to feed. You don’t have to bother with doing that if you use the refrigerator method because the starter is wet and fluid and easy to mix.
In the video below I’ll show you how to refresh your dormant starter, which is the same for every method.
Video Recap: Take 1 C of starter and put it into a ½ gallon Mason jar. Feed it with 1 heaping C of flour and 1 C of water and mix it all together. Place rubber band around the starting point. Let it grow about 8-12 hours, stir out the air bubbles, and feed it again like you did before. Replace rubber band and feed it again the same amount. (Basically just feed it 3 times waiting 8-12 hours in between) Stir our the air bubbles and add the needed amount to your recipe!
These steps for the tender love and care of your sourdough are all in a perfect world. However we all know that life happens and all of sudden it’s been 2 (or more) weeks since you have fed your starter. Or your starter isn’t rising and bubbling like it’s supposed to. Or maybe it tastes WAY to sour!
Now what do you do?
Hooch = that nasty smelling grey liquid that’s forming on top of your sourdough starter.
In the video below I’ll show you what it looks like and what to do.
Video recap: Pour off the hooch, take a little bit of starter (I took about a half cup but you can even use just 1T) and mix it with a cup of water with a heaping cup of flour. Basically, Thanksgiving for baby Sourdough! Hooch is a sign that you need to either feed your sourdough more often (at least once a week) or give it more food when you do.
How much starter do I need?
VERY good question! That depends on how many times you plan on feeding your sourdough when you’re activating it and of course your recipe.
Rule of thumb is that you activate the same amount of dormant starter as the recipe calls for active starter. It’s always best to overestimate because if you don’t have enough starter for your recipe then that’s just annoying!
For example, if the recipe calls for 1 C fresh starter, take out 1 C out of your stored starter, feed it 1 heaping C of flour and 1 C of water. Repeat feedings at least 3 times every 8-12 hours of whenever the starter has doubled.
Starter isn’t bubbly and growing:
There are a couple of reasons this might happen. The worst reason is that your sourdough is dead. I miraculously haven’t killed our starter yet so it’s purty hardy. Before you give up on it, you can try some of these methods.
Make sure your starter is in a warm place while it is trying to grow. Ideally between 70-75 degrees
- Use warm water when feeding it.
- Feed it more often – every 4 hours or so. You can even try a tablespoon of starter mixed with a cup of water and a cup of flour like you would when you’re trying to save it from the hooch.
- If those don’t work then it might be time to get out your backup starter, which hopefully you made when you first started with the air dry method described above.
Sourdough is too sour:
There are 2 main reasons why your sourdough is too sour. You either let it sit too long in storage, or you let it ferment too long without letting it rise – meaning you’ve activated your starter on the counter and just left it too long.
Make sure you are feeding your sourdough at least once a week in storage. When you’re activating your sourdough make sure you are only letting it rise as long as it needs to. Usually it’s around 8-12 hours or until the sourdough has doubled in size.
Feed your sourdough several times before activating it. I’ll feed my starter a smaller amount for several days (while still storing it in the fridge) before taking it out to activate it. The acid won’t have enough time to build up in the starter.
You can also use baking soda in your recipe which neutralizes the sour lactic acid and produces carbon dioxide which makes the bread rise. I usually use ½ t with 1.5 C of starter.
Sourdough isn’t sour enough:
Let your starter when you’re activating it and your dough rise for a longer period of time (12-24 hours). If that doesn’t seem to work you can try keeping the starter on the counter and feed it several times before making your dough.
My sourdough has grown mold on it:
First of all eeeeeeewwwww!
I’ve actually never had this happen to me and it’s not very common because the starter is rather acidic.
You can try scraping off the top layer of starter with the moldy part. Then use the very bottom of your starter – and hope it isn’t contaminated. If you want to play it safe you can just throw it away and start all over.
Switching starter to a new flour:
My mom was using barley flour when she gave us some of her starter and all we had was wheat flour. We did it cold turkey and it turned out just fine, but not all flour works that easy.
What we should have done is divide the starter into 2 groups and store one in the fridge (as a backup in case the switch doesn’t take) and feed it the same flour. Take the second group and make sure it is active and healthy, so you may need to feed it with the old flour several times waiting 8 hours or so in between feedings.
Next you can start feeding the second group of starter half old and half new flour. After you feed your starter several times and it is still bubbly and active, you can switch to just using the new flour. Several feedings after that, your sourdough should be acclimated to the new flour.
My bread didn’t rise:
Not gonna lie, this is a very common problem with us! I could have used my first loaf as a door stopper. Those loafs we usually just turn them into breadcrumbs. Have you had onion rings with Sourdough breadcrumbs? They better have that in Heaven.
I got so fed up with my bread not rising that I actually just started using a no-knead artisan bread that has turned out perfect every time.
But if you’re set on the traditional kneading-required loaves, here’s how to help:
- Make sure your starter is fully active.
I think this is our main issue that we have when our dough doesn’t rise. I’ve read several places that you should feed your dormant starter at least 3 times before making your dough. You know your starter is fully active if it is honeycombed with bubbles, smells fresh and yeasty, and doubles in size in about 8 hours.
What usually happens is that we’re in a hurry, so we only feed our starter 1-2 times to activate it on the counter – ideally it should be 3 times.
- Make sure you knead your dough enough to activate the gluten.
The good bacteria in the sourdough break down gluten, which produces acid, which makes the bubbles, which causes the bread to rise. No gluten = no rising bread.
Use the window pane test to see if you have kneaded your bread enough. Do this by taking a piece of your kneaded dough and try pulling it a part. If you are able to make it thin enough so you can see light through without the dough breaking then you are good to go.
- Make sure you are allowing enough time for your bread to rise.
Anywhere from 4-24 hours depending on your recipe, how sour you want your dough (longer is more sour), and the temperature of your kitchen (warmer grows faster).
- When baking your bread, you can use half unbleached white flour and half wheat flour to help it rise.
Clearly, it’s ideal if you’re baking with whole wheat flour because it’s more dense than white. However, it’s a little trickier to get to rise. Yes, you’re getting virtually no nutrients from the white flour, but the amazing health benefits of sourdough help offset that.
Our Quick Guide to Sourdough
Ok, that’s sort of a lot.
We wanted to lay out everything you might need, from troubleshooting, to switching flours, to the four kinds of storage methods.
To simplify it, here’s a quick guide to show you what we do on a weekly basis for our sourdough:
- We keep our starter in the fridge. Usually we have about 2 cups of starter in a quart-sized mason jar, lid screwed on.
- We feed our Sourdough once a week (or try to remember) and usually bake with it once a week.
- On Thursday night, pull out about 1 C of starter (or less, depending on how much you’re going to need for baking) and put into a ½ gallon mason jar. Add 1 C (heaping) flour and 1 C distilled water. Leave this on the counter to activate, with the lid set loosely (not screwed) on top. Put the unused starter back in the fridge with the lid screwed on.
put a rubber band on your ½ gallon mason jar at the starting level so you can see when it’s doubled so you know your starter is growing.
- Friday morning, after your starter has doubled, stir out all the air bubbles, add 1 C (heaping) flour and 1 C distilled water, and stir it all together.
Sometimes, if your dough is a little old or had hooch, it might not double. If you see it bubbling a little and smelling yeasty, you’re on the right track. By the second or third feeding, it should be doubling and be good to bake with.
- Friday evening, repeat step 4.
- Saturday morning, bake with your activated starter!
- Whatever activated starter you don’t use, dump back into your dormant starter in the fridge. This counts as feeding it. If we’re accumulating too much, we’ll dump it all out except for about a cup.
If our stored starter is kinda old and you have left over starter, I will throw out the old stuff and just put the new stuff in the fridge
Hopefully that helps you and hopefully it all made sense! Leave a question in the comments if you’re confused about something and we’ll be happy to help.
Btw, we’ll show you how we do our no-knead artisan sourdough bread! It’s delicious and costs pennies to make.