Cultivating your own sourdough starter isn't difficult. All you will need is water, flour, a few basic kitchen gadgets and the right environment. A scale and food thermometer will take the guesswork out of the process.
Before commercial yeast, bakers used wild yeasts for baking and leavening breads. Baking takes more time with wild yeasts, but the effort is well worth it. Commercial yeast allows for a larger yield of bread in a relatively short period of time.
However, this compromises the integrity of the acetic breakdown (fermentation) of the grain that we need to be able to digest grains efficiently. Breads made from commercial yeast has no comparison to breads made with a natural sourdough culture! The flavors have depth, the texture sturdier and more pleasing to chew.
Tips Before You Begin:
You will need a warm room to create the starter. Somewhere between 70F and 80F degrees is perfect; a room that feels pleasant to be in.
Try to use either a glass or ceramic jar. Food safe plastic can be an option as well. An important note to remember is that the starter is acidic and can react with metals.
There are many debates on what kind of flour and water are best to use. The flour I used to start and maintain my starter is a 50/50 blend - half white and half whole wheat flour. Try and find the best flour you can.
The wild yeasts used to create a sourdough starter are present in the flour and in the air around you; it is everywhere. To use these lovely wild yeasts, you have to "catch" them and cultivate an environment for them where they can become predictable and stable enough to leaven bread.
The scale is important here because whole wheat weighs more per cup than white, so you will want to make sure you measure the ratio by weight instead of volume.
For the water, warm water is best (80-85F) and if you can drink it you can use it for the starter.
Make the Starter:
Mix together 600g of white (bread or all-purpose flour is fine) and 600g whole wheat flour. You will use this to start and maintain the sourdough culture.
In a bowl or glass jar, add 200g of warm water with 200g flour blend. Mix with a wooden spoon, a small whisk or your hand until there are no clumps or dry flour bits. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let sit in a warm environment until bubbles begin to form on the surface and along the sides of the mixture, about two days.
The warm environment is important for the fermentation development. If your house is on the cooler side and the bubbles do not form after two days, don't worry, let it sit another day or two.
More bubbles will form and the smell will be acidic and a little funky. This is your starter. The next step is to train it how to become a leavening agent by feeding it fresh flour and water at regular intervals.
If you see black dots or a fuzzy white coating on the mixture at any point, the environment inside the jar has been contaminated and you should start over.
To feed the starter remove 50g of the starter and place in clean bowl or jar; discard the rest. Add 50g warm water and 50g flour mixture to the bowl and mix until there are no dry bits. Feed the starter every 24 hours in the same way; remove 50g and place in a clean jar or bowl. Discard the rest. Feed with fresh flour and water in a 1:1 ratio. Cover and let sit at warm room temperature.
After a few days, or even up to a week, the starter will become billowy, full of bubbles and will rise and fall in a predictable pattern between feedings. The smell will shift from stinky to a sweet smell similar to yogurt or ripe fruit. Once all of these characteristics are true, then the starter is ready to leaven bread.
If you would like to reduce the amount of starter you keep, that is fine. When feeding always apply the 1:1 ratio of fresh flour and water. For example, remove 25g of starter, discard the rest, and feed with 25g of flour and 25g water.
If you are not using the starter on a regular basis, you can place the starter in the fridge. This will put the starter in a semi dormant state. You will need to feed the starter once every one to two weeks. Take the starter out, feed it, let it sit at room temperature for at least two hours and then you can place it back in the fridge if not using. If there is a liquid forming on top of the dormant starter, it is the alcohol from the fermentation separating from the starter. You can choose to pour that out or just mix it in before discarding and feeding.
To make the dormant starter active again, take it out of the fridge. Feed it twice, once in the morning and once in the evening to activate the wild yeasts again. If it is not bubbly, feed it once more and it will be ready to use.
If you encounter questions as you go, feel free to send me a message! I would be happy to try and answer any questions you have.