I’ve been cooking and baking professionally for over a decade, and sourdough always intimidated me. I could make complex desserts, truffles, perfect layer cakes, silky ice creams, and 500 cookies before 7 a.m., but this fermentation thing just wasn’t in my wheelhouse. Maybe it was the percentages that gave me mild PTSD from elementary school math class. Maybe it’s that pastry and bread are two different disciplines, two teams, and you’re on one or the other. All the books out there were too intimidating to even get through the intros, as I panicked at terms like autolyze and bulk fermentation. Are you stressed out yet?
All this anxiety and self-doubt kept me from the true pleasure and satisfaction of wild yeast until relatively recently in my career, when someone showed me how to do it in such a simple way. Rigo, our kitchen manager at Gage & Tollner, is hands-down one of the best chefs I’ve ever met. He also happens to be a self-taught fermentation expert. When we were writing the menu for Gage & Tollner, we knew we wanted to do bread in-house. Of course, this sent me into a panic, but cool-as-a-cucumber Rigo brought in the starter he had been nurturing for a year, and just showed me how to feed it. He had me do it each day, until that part of the process made sense to me and became routine. Then he showed me how to mix, shape, and bake some boules. He didn’t talk about percentages and hydration. It was just a daily task, and once my hands were in it, doing it, everything made sense. My fear and anxiety just melted away, like butter on a still-warm-from-the-oven boule.
To put it simply, sourdough starter is natural yeast. It’s made with nothing more than flour, water, and time. Time allows it to gobble up all the wild yeast in the environment, and then fermentation occurs. You don’t have to do anything but feed it properly! Sourdough bread uses that active starter, some more flour, salt, and whatever else you like. All that wild yeast and fermentation allows it to rise.
Why use wild yeast as opposed to commercial? For me it’s all about flavor and texture. Wild yeast makes things tangy and chewy, and I really dig that!
How to Make a Sourdough Starter
Alright, let’s make a 100% hydration starter. Don’t let this talk of percentages scare you; it simply means that it’s equal weights of water and flour, left to ferment. I like a 100% hydration starter because I’ve found it to work well in so many baked goods, and it’s just so easy to do equal parts from a brainpower standpoint. Each day you feed it a bit and discard a bit to give all the yeasty microbes something to nosh on. The more it eats, the more active it gets. After about a week it’s usually ready, but it can take up to 14 days, depending on temperature and your environment, so don’t worry if it’s going slowly. Just keep up the daily feedings.
What’s up with the discard? Discard is the portion of starter that gets, well, discarded with each feeding. There are a few different approaches and schools of thought, but from my standpoint, discard is necessary for two reasons. First, with a new starter, the yeast needs to eat a lot to get really active. If you don’t discard some of the starter, it just won’t have as much food and may go slower. Second, if you don’t discard some, you’ll very quickly have vats of starter fermenting in your kitchen, and if you live in a Brooklyn apartment like me, you likely don’t have the space or use for gallons of fermenting starter. Often it gets thrown out, but I implore you, don’t! It’s got so much going for it in terms of flavor and versatility, plus it reduces food waste if you can work it into a baked good! But more on the discard later. For now, let’s get this starter going.
- A Digital Scale. A scale is important for accurate ratios, and makes sourdough baking easier. You can get a great one for around $20. If you choose to measure instead, stir your flour to lighten it, use a spoon to sprinkle it into the measuring cup, and level off. (Measure the discard when it is dormant, but measure the starter after it has doubled.)
- Unbleached All-Purpose Flour. I like a farmer-ground variety or King Arthur Flour.
- Rye or Whole-Wheat Flour. Try to get local, farmer-ground flour, as it will ferment faster and have better flavor. I love Janie’s Mill and Belle Valley Ancient Grains, both available online.
- A 32-oz jar with a lid, or a small piece of cloth and a rubber band
- A small mixing bowl and spatula
- Tape or a rubber band that can fit around the jar to mark the level of the starter
In a small bowl, combine 100 grams lukewarm water (1⁄2 cup) with 100 grams rye flour (1 cup plus 2 Tbs.) or whole-wheat flour (1 cup minus 1 Tbs.). Stir until well combined, and transfer to the jar using the spatula. Cover, vented, and let stand overnight. You may see some bubbles after standing, but if not, that’s okay. Total current weight: 200 grams.
In a small bowl, combine 100 grams lukewarm water (1⁄2 cup) with 100 grams rye flour (1 cup plus 2 Tbs.) or whole-wheat flour (1 cup minus 1 Tbs.), and mix well. Add 100 grams (1⁄3 cup plus 1 Tbs.) of the Day 1 mix. Discard the rest. Rinse and dry the jar (do not use soap), and return the starter to the jar. Cover, vented, overnight. You may see a few bubbles forming. Total current weight: 300 grams.
In a small bowl, combine 100 grams lukewarm water with 50 grams rye (1⁄2 cup plus 1 Tbsp.) or whole-wheat flour (1⁄2 cup minus 1 Tbs.), and 50 grams (1⁄3 cup plus 1 Tbsp.) farmer-ground all-purpose flour. Add 200 grams (3⁄4 cup) of the Day 2 mix. Discard the rest. Rinse and dry the jar (do not use soap), and return the starter to the jar. Cover, vented, overnight. Total current weight: 400 grams.
In a small bowl, combine 100 grams lukewarm water with 50 grams rye or whole- wheat flour, and 50 grams (1⁄3 cup plus 1 Tbsp.) farmer- ground all-purpose flour. Add 200 grams (3⁄4 cup) of the Day 3 mix. The rest is discard; now you can begin to save in the refrigerator. Rinse and dry the jar (do not use soap), and return the starter to the jar. Cover, vented, overnight. Total current weight: 400 grams. Continue this process for Day 5 and Day 6. You will see bubbles and growth, and it will have a yeasty aroma, like ripe fruit, wine, or beer. Start tracking its daily growth. After you feed and discard the starter, use the tape or rubber band to mark the level in the jar so you can see how much it is rising after each feeding, up to twice its volume in several hours.
Feed and discard the starter, as above. The starter will likely be active enough to bake with, yet to be sure look for these two things: First, after feeding, if it doubles in size within a couple of hours, it’s ready to be used. Second, after it has doubled in size, drop a little starter in room-temperature water. If it floats, it’s ready. Try using it in the Sourdough Focaccia. If at Day 7 your starter isn’t ready, continue with the daily feedings; it can take up to two weeks. In the meantime, use the discard—the Savory Pancake recipe is a good place to start.