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Sourdough Basics and Maintenance

October 1, 2016

 

Maintaining and using a sourdough starter is easy, once you get the hang of it.  To start, you will need just a few basics:  A scale, starter, non-chlorinated water, flour and a container.  

 

Scale with a capacity to measure grams.  This does not need to be fancy, a very inexpensive and basic one is all you will need.  I've used this one for years, but you can find very adequate scales for even less money.  

 

Starter:  Get a live starter from someone you know, sourdough bakers are usually more than willing to share, or start your own.  There's lots of complicated methods out there for making your own starter, but here's a simple way to start your own.  I call it:  The World's Easiest Sourdough Starter.  

 

Non-chlorinated water:  While it is fine to use chlorinated water occasionally, it can have an affect on the health and effectiveness of your starter.  Chlorine kills bad bacteria, but good bacteria as well.  You need this good bacteria for your sourdough starter to thrive.  Non-chlorinated water can be store purchased spring water, or home purified water.  You can also leave some water on the counter for at least 30 minutes, and ideally 24 hours which allows the chlorine to dissipate; however, if your city uses chloromine, this will not be effective.  If your city does use chloromine, you will need to get water from another source to feed your sourdough starter.  

 

 

Flour:  I am not in your kitchen, so what kind of flour you use is entirely up to you. However, since I focus on healthy real food, I am going to recommend using whole grain einkorn flour. Einkorn is an ancient grain that has not been hybridized.  It's genetic structure is simple.  It does contain gluten, but it's gluten structure is simple and different than modern wheat.  I like to maintain a whole grain starter, because healthy whole grain is is more nutritious and better assimilated than refined grain.  

 

I also use several recipes that call for all starter, with no additional flour; another reason to use a high quality and nutritious flour in my starter.   For instance, when I have lots of starter on hand, I make up all starter pancakes/waffles, or crepes.  If you're familiar with sourdough, you know that you need to regularly feed your starter. It will continue to grow, and grow and grow.  The more it grows, the more you have to feed it.  It can get really out of control, unless you reduce it.  Most bakers discard half of their starter and feed the remaining amount to keep their starter from getting out of hand.  I never discard starter, because I am using high quality and nutritious flour. It's not cheap and additionally, why would I throw out perfectly good, nutritious and cultured flour?  I use that discard, or excess amount of starter, to make something delicious, like pancakes, waffles, or crepes.  My family never complains!  Check out my sourdough category under the recipe tab for other ideas.  

 

Back to the type of flour, some flour absorbs more liquid and some absorbs less. Even whole grain einkorn, versus all purpose einkorn, absorbs liquid differently.  You will still feed your starter the same as described below, but if you use a different flour in your starter and when making my recipes, or someone else's recipes, it will affect how much liquid and/or flour you will need.  This can take a bit of trial and error.

    

Container:  Clamp down jars are really cute for a photo shoot, but sourdough should not be kept in an airtight container.  Many people keep their starter in a wide mouth canning jar, loosening the lid slightly, so pressure can escape.  You don't want your new little pet exploding.  I prefer a more shallow container like this, as it is easier to measure into and out of.  You can often find single containers at discount stores, Walmart, Target and larger grocery stores.  The size of your container is important as well.  You need a container that is at least twice the size of your starter.  Starters expand when they are active and bubbly. You don't want your container to overflow and make a mess, so give it room for expansion. 

 

  How to Maintain and Care for a Sourdough Starter

 

Sourdough is an art and no one does it the same as the next person; thats ok.  In fact, I change up how I am feeding my starter depending on what I am doing.  Sometimes it's in the fridge for awhile and sometimes I have it on the counter and feed it 2 times a day. However; when you're just starting and becoming familiar with your sourdough starter, it's helpful to have a set pattern.  That way you know exactly when to pull it out and how much to feed it.  It becomes a routine that doesn't feel overwhelming.

 

If you are new to sourdough, below are two methods to get you going.  We are not going to venture into bread just yet.  Take time to get to know your starter, how it reacts, and how to care for it to keep it healthy.  

 

As you begin to get more familiar with sourdough, you'll be able to adjust to a method that works for you.  For now, I'm going to give you two very basic methods to start with. Read both and choose one for this week.  

 

Many sourdough bakers bake once a week, usually on Saturday.  They keep a starter, their mother starter, in the fridge and pull it out once a week to use and feed.  This is a good way to get familiar with your starter and not become overwhelmed.  Right now, as you get familiar with your starter, we're going to focus on recipes that do not necessarily require an active starter.  Everyone is excited to try bread right away, but let's get familiar with some easier recipes and learn how to maintain a healthy starter first.  

  

 

Mother Starter:  There are many methods for maintaining a sourdough starter. However, one of the simplest ways, is to maintain a small amount of starter in your fridge. We will call this a mother starter.  A standard amount to keep in the fridge is 1/4 cup-1 cup. This mother starter will remain in the fridge and will need to be reduced by at least half and fed enough to replenish the half that you removed, once a week.    

 

Method 1

 

Take your starter out of the fridge.

 

Remove at least half of the starter from the container in the fridge.   

 

Use that amount to make something such as  sourdough crackers.  If you don't have enough starter for the crackers, you can make a half batch.  

 

Feed your remaining mother starter and return it to the fridge.  *See notes below on feeding.

 

Let your starter, culture in the fridge for a week.  

 

Next week, pull out your mother culture, repeat method 1 or 2.  Make more crackers, or try something new.  

 

Method 2

 

If you have made sourdough crackers already, or want to give something else a try like quick all sourdough pancakes or waffles, our favorite waffle recipe, or crepes; you'll likely need more starter.

 

Remove at least half of the starter from the container in the fridge.

 

Feed the starter you have removed from your mother starter with enough flour and water to make sufficient starter for your recipe.  *See notes below on feeding.    

 

Feed your remaining mother starter and return it to the fridge.  *See notes below on feeding. 

 

Let the amount you have removed from your mother culture, and fed, culture on the counter for 8-12 hours.  If you need even more starter for your recipe, feed this amount again in 8-12 hours.  

 

Use the amount you have removed from your mother culture, fed and fermented to make your chosen recipe.

 

Next week, pull out your mother culture, repeat method 1 or 2 and try something new.  

 

Feeding

 

Feeding the Beast:  I mean your mother starter, but sometimes it feels like a pet that you have to feed:  some people even give it a name.

 

A Standard feeding:  is 1-1-1.  What in the world does that mean?  It means 1 part starter, to 1 part flour, to 1 part water.

 

How to Measure:  When dealing with sourdough, it's best to do things by weight, rather than volume.  So go get yourself a scale.  They are not expensive.  Volume is terribly inaccurate especially when measuring flour.  It might not make a huge difference when making a cake, but it can makes all the difference in maintaining a dependable and consistent starter, that produces consistent results in your recipes. You will also notice that sourdough recipes are most often in grams, so make sure your scale is one that has an option for grams.  

 

For Example:  If you have 1/4 cup of whole grain einkorn sourdough (approximately 70 grams) you would feed it 70 grams flour, and 70 grams non-chlorinated water.

 

If you had 1/2 cup starter (approximately 140 grams), you would feed it 140 grams flour, and 140 grams non-chlorinated water.

 

If you have 1 Tablespoon of starter (approximately 18 grams), you would feed it 18 grams of flour and 18 grams of non-chlorinated water.   

 

I mentioned that weighing is important.  And it is important for your flour and water; however, it's ok to estimate the amount of your starter, so you will know how much to feed it.  Here are a few scenarios for a 1-1-1 feeding.

 

  • 1/2 cup starter = approximately 140 grams.  Feed 140 grams flour and 140 grams water. 

  • 1/4 cup starter  = approximately 70 grams.  Feed 70 grams flour and 70 grams water. 

  • 1 Tablespoon starter  = approximately 18 grams.  Feed 18 grams flour and 18 grams water.   

 

Happy, Healthy Starter:  A 1-1-1 feeding once a week will keep your mother starter in the fridge happy, healthy and ready to go in a week.  

 

A 1-1-1 feeding is also an appropriate amount to feed any amount you have removed from your mother to feed and culture on the counter to use in a recipe.  

 

That being said, you can feed your starter a bit more if you need to produce more starter, such as 1-2-2 (1 part starter, 2 parts flour and 2 parts water).

 

You can also get away with occasionally feeding your starter less than 1-1-1, but the bacteria in your starter are hungry; just like a child, or pet, you don't want to underfeed it and you don't want to overfeed it, to keep it healthy, happy and dependable.

 

How Often to Feed:  You don't want to wait too long to feed your starter, and you don't want to feed it too soon.  Again, it's like a child, or pet in this way.  If you wait too long, it will be very hungry which can affect it's health, or effectiveness and flavor.  If you feed it too soon, it hasn't had time to process (or culture) what you have already fed it.

 

A mother culture kept in the fridge needs to be fed 1 time a week, to keep it in good shape. For future reference, at room temperature, a starter needs to be fed 2 times a day, 12 hours apart.  If the temperature is unusually warm, you may need to feed it 3 times a day, 8 hours apart.      

   

If you're going to be away for longer than a week, I recommend feeding your mother starter 1-2-2 and storing it in the fridge.  That being said, starters are hardy creatures.  I have had starters in the fridge for a long time without being fed.  I just scrape off the top, salvage a bit of it that looks the healthiest, give it a feeding or two and it is generally ready to go.  

 

The Cycle:  Reducing by at least half and feeding, reducing by at least half and feeding is the cycle you will need to follow to keep your starter in optimal health.  

 

Why reduce:  If you don't reduce your starter, you will have to feed it enough to keep it healthy.  That is fine if you need a large amount of starter, but as you feed it, it will increase in size.  Next time, you'll have to feed it even more and it will increase in size again. You can't get away with not feeding it, just like an unfed pet, it will starve and become unhealthy, unusable and eventually die.  Follow the feeding methods above and it will be just fine.   

 

Trouble Shooting:  A starter that is hungry will have a less appealing taste; it will not be active enough to rise a loaf of bread; and if it gets really hungry, it will develop a layer of liquid on the top, or hooch.  It's harmless and can be stirred in, or poured off, but it's a sign that you're neglecting your hungry little pet.  If it has been neglected, all is not lost.  A once healthy and active sourdough starter is a hardy creature. You can get it back in good shape with a little patience.  

 

If it tastes, or smells unpleasant (even like fingernail polish remover), just remove and discard all but 1 tablespoon of the starter.  Feed the remaining 1 tablespoon starter about 18 grams of water and 18 grams of flour.     

 

Continue to feed this convalescing starter on the counter every 8-12 hours, reducing as needed, until it begins to spring back to life with bubbles and a pleasant yeasty aroma.  You can use the discard for any recipes that do not require an active starter like pancakes, waffles, and crepes, as soon as your starter smells pleasantly yeasty.  This could be after the first feeding, or it could take a few feedings.  By now, you know I don't like to actually discard starter in the trash, but if it's unpleasant smelling, it's best to do so at least once, or twice until it smells ok.  When you do throw it away, make sure it's in the trash, rather than the garbage disposal, as it hardens like cement!     

 

Return your now healthy mother starter to the fridge and continue as before.  

 

 

Best of luck in your sourdough adventures!  

If you have any questions, leave a comment below. 

You can also leave a message on Instagram @realfoodinafastworld  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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