Baking tips, FAQS & hintsSour Dough PrimerIntroductionA sourdough starter is a wild yeast living in a batter of flour and water. If you canimagine a world without any packets of active dry yeast available, you can imaginehow important your sourdough starter would be to you. Without it, you would bedoomed to some pretty awful eating. It is no wonder that sourdough starters weretreasured, fought over, and carried to all ends of the earth. To the early prospectors,a starter was such a valued possession (almost more than the gold they wereseeking), that they slept with it to keep it from freezing on frigid winter nights.(Ironically, freezing won’t kill a sourdough starter, although too much heat will.)There are sourdoughs that are centuries old which have been zealously fed andcared for by generations. King Arthur Flour has one that never made it out west butcan be traced back at least two-hundred forty years right here in New England. Butthere are starters around the Mediterranean today that make our American starterslook like newborns.The area you come from plays a part in determining the personality of a sourdoughstarter. The particular strain of wild yeast thriving only in the San Francisco area ofCalifornia can alone produce the unique flavor of San Francisco sourdough breads.Your area may harbor a wild yeast with its own exciting flavor.Keeping a sourdough starter is somewhat like having a pet because it needs to befed and cared for. But its requirements are simple and not time consuming. With aminimum of effort, you can keep one in your refrigerator to use whenever theimpulse strikes. Unlike more traditional pets, you can put your sourdough starter“on hold” by freezing or drying it. And like that ancient Mediterranean baker, youcan capture a wild yeast at any time and create a new starter that will be ready touse in a few days.Baking with sourdough is a very simple process. All it takes is a little planning andtiming. The results are so satisfying, you’ll grow to treasure your invisible pet theway our ancestors did.Fermentation:Wild Versus Domestic Yeast
Amazingly enough, no one knew until the middle of the nineteenth century that themagical rising action of a sourdough starter is due to a tiny, single-celled funguscalled a yeast. As the yeast feeds on the natural sugars in a dough, it multiplies andgives off carbon dioxide just as we do. This process is called fermentation. Theelastic wheat gluten in a dough entraps these carbon dioxide bubbles, causing thedough to expand as if it contained a million tiny balloons.Wild yeasts are rugged individualists that can withstand the most extreme ofcircumstances. There are many varieties of these tiny plants around us all the time.But because a wild yeast is a free agent, catching one to bake with is a bithaphazard as can be the results of baking with it. There are other ways to acquireone, however, which put the odds for success in your favor.Active dry yeast, the kind we can buy in packets at our grocer’s, is a domesticateddescendant of these wild relatives, one that has been grown for flavor, speed ofgrowth and predictability. There are others which have been developed to makeyogurt and cheese out of milk as well as beer and wine from the juices of grains andfruit. But domestic yeasts are much more fragile and can’t be grown at homewithout eventually reverting to their original wild state. Both wild and domesticyeasts have their assets and liabilities.Beg, Borrow or BuyThe easiest way to acquire a sourdough starter is to find a friend who already hasone. Most sourdough devotees are more than willing to share. It’s always nice tooffer something in exchange, a favorite recipe along with something warm from theoven, but usually your interest and enthusiasm is all it takes. People who lovebaking with sourdough love to have company. King Arthur Flour – The Baker’sCatalogue sells a 240-year-old sourdough starter 1-800-827-6836.If you don’t know anyone who has some active starter, you can often find smallpackets of dried sourdough starter in grocery or food specialty stores. When it’sdried, it’s still living but in a dormant state. Once you get it home, you can have itactive and bubbling in no time by following the instructions that come with it. Ifthere are no instructions, you can get the starter going by feeding it, just what youwould do for yourself if you hadn’t had a meal in a long time.Activating a Dried Starter 2 cups warm water
1 tablespoon sugar or honey (optional) 2 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour 1 packet (or other) dried sourdough starterPour the warm water (a temperature that feels comfortable on your wrist) into aglass or ceramic bowl. Add and dissolve the sugar or honey if you want to use it.This isn’t necessary but it gives the yeast an easy “first course.” Stir in the flour andthe dried starter. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place it where you’d place arising dough, someplace warm and free of drafts. Small telltale bubbles shouldbegin to appear on the surface within a few hours. Once you see them you’ll knowyour starter is alive and well.Let this newly activated starter continue to grow for a further 24 to 36 hours. Themixture will begin to separate after a day or so. Give it a stir every once in a whileto blend it back together and to help distribute the yeast evenly. When the starterhas a good clean, sour aroma, pour it into a glass jar with a lid (a large glass, notplastic, peanut butter jar will work well) and put it in the refrigerator.Or Start Your Own Letting active dry yeast go wild Catching a wild yeast of your ownIf you can’t find a source for either active or dried starter, you can easily make yourown.Letting Active Dry Yeast Go “Wild”The easiest and most successful method of making your own starter is to combinewater, flour and a tablespoon (or packet) of active dry “domestic” yeast which isavailable at any grocery store. By letting this brew sit for several days as you wouldwith a dried sourdough starter, the domestic yeast will go “wild” and develop thefamiliar tang of its truly wild cousins. You’ll probably catch some wild yeast in theprocess as well. 2 cups warm water 1 tablespoon of sugar or honey (optional) 1 tablespoon or packet active dry yeast 2 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose FlourPour the water into a two-quart glass or ceramic jar or bowl, add and dissolve the
sugar or honey and the yeast in that order. Stir in the flour gradually. Cover the jaror bowl with a clean dishcloth and place it somewhere warm. By using a dishclothinstead of plastic wrap, you’ll allow any wild yeast in the area to infiltrate andbegin to work with the domestic yeast which itself is beginning to develop “wild”characteristics and flavors.The mixture will begin to bubble and brew almost immediately. Let it workanywhere from 2 to 5 days, stirring it about once a day as it will separate. When thebubbling has subsided and a yeasty, sour aromas has developed, stir your starteronce more and refrigerate it until you are ready to use it. The starter should havethe consistency of pancake batter.The clear amber liquid that floats to the surface of your sourdough starter contains12% to 14% alcohol. When yeast is in contact with air, it produces carbon dioxide;when it’s not, it produces alcohol. When you blend the alcohol back into the starter,it helps produce the unique flavor you find in good sourdough breads. (The alcoholitself dissipates during the baking process.) For milder flavor, you can pour offsome of the alcohol if you wish, although this will thicken the starter, requiring a bitmore liquid to return it to its “pancake batter” consistency.The ‘49ers and “Sourdoughs” of Alaska used this alcohol in other ways as youmight have guessed. Because other “spirits” weren’t generally available, theyhappily availed themselves of this source. It has about the same alcohol content aswine, but an unforgettable flavor if its own which is probably better in bread.Catching a "Wild" Yeast of Your OwnA second way to get a starter going at home is to capture the wild yeast that residesin your own kitchen just as the Mediterranean baker did. Capturing wild yeast isfun though a bit unpredictable. The summer and fall are times of the year whenthere will be more of them around. If you bake with yeast fairly often there may beenough wild yeast in your kitchen to activate a starter. If you can afford the timeand the haphazardness of the results, it’s worth a try. When you’ve captured somewild yeast successfully, you’ll feel very accomplished. Here’s how to set your trap. 2 cups warm water 1 tablespoon sugar or honey (optional) 2 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose FlourMix the water, flour and optional sweetener together thoroughly in a clean, scaldedglass or ceramic bowl. The scalding will ensure that you’re starting “pure.” Cover
the bowl with a clean dishcloth. Put it in an area where there’s apt to be the highestconcentration of airborne yeast as well as the warmth that is needed to beginfermentation.If the surface begins to look dry after a while, give the mixture a stir. It shouldbegin to “work” in the first day or two if it’s going to at all. If it does, your trap hasbeen successful. As you would with a dried starter or active dry yeast, let thismixture continue working for 3 or 4 days giving it a stir every day or so. When it’sdeveloped a yeasty, sour aroma, put it in a clean jar with a lid and refrigerate ituntil you’re ready to use it.If the mixture begins to mold or develop a peculiar color or odor instead of a “clean,sour aroma,” give a sigh, throw it out and, if you’re patient, start again. Along withthe vital yeasts, you may have inadvertently nurtured a strain of bacteria that willnot be wonderful in food. This doesn’t happen very often though, so don’t let thepossibility dissuade you from this adventure.Starter VariationsThere are a number of variations on the basic flour/liquid/yeast combinations thatwill produce sourdough starters with different personalities.Substitute 1 cup King Arthur Traditional Whole Wheat Flour for 1 cup of theunbleached all-purpose flour.Rather than tap water, use water leftover from cooking potatoes. It containsnutrients which any kind of yeast loves. It may make your dough darker in colorbut, along with making the yeast happy, it creates great flavor in bread.Substitute 1 cup of buttermilk for 1 cup of water in your starter mixture.Caring for your StarterA sourdough starter, like children or pets, must be fed and cared for. Storing Feeding TroubleshootingStoringRefrigerating - Once your sourdough starter is safely in the refrigerator, it will need
a little attention, although once it’s cold and relatively dormant, it can survive quitea long time between “feedings.” It is certainly not as demanding as children ormore traditional pets, but it won’t just sit for months on end like a packet ofcommercially dried yeast either.Freezing - You may be able to ignore your starter for a month or even much longer,but if you know you’re going to be away for a time, you can store it, unlikechildren or pets, in the freezer. You may want to transfer it to a plastic containerfirst since it will expand as it freezes.When you are ready to use it again, give it a day to revive, feed it a good meal,give it another day to build up an armada of fresh, new wild siblings and it will beready to go to work.Drying - An alternative storage method is to dry your starter by spreading it out ona piece of heavy plastic wrap or waxed paper. Once it’s dry, crumble it up and putit in an airtight container. Store it someplace cool or, to be safe, in the freezer.To reactivate the culture, place the dried starter in a mixture of flour and water asdescribed in the first section. To help the dried chunks dissolve, you can grind theminto smaller particles with a hand cranked grinder, a blender or a food processorbefore you add them to the flour/water mixture.FeedingOrdinarily, you feed your starter when you remove some to bake with it. A goodrule of thumb is to replenish its food and water at least once every two weeks,preferably because you have used the starter for a wonderful loaf of sourdoughbread, a stack of pancakes or maybe Chocolate Sourdough Cake.While it’s been stored in the refrigerator, the alcohol will have separated and cometo the surface. With a spoon or wire whisk, blend it back into the starter and thenmeasure out the quantity of starter required by your recipe. Replace the amounttaken with equal amounts of flour and water, by weight. Since most of our recipesare based on using 1 cup of starter, you would stir in 1 cup of flour (about 4 oz.)and 1/2 cup of water (about 4 oz.).Let the replenished starter sit at room temperature for at least 12 hours to give theyeast a chance to multiply and become active before you chill it again.Troubleshooting
It takes a lot to “do in” a sourdough starter. Even after the grossest of neglect, alittle warmth and a good meal should perk it up and get it ready to go. Here are afew tips to help you keep your starter in peak condition.Feeding without Baking: If you have been busy or away, you can always feed yourstarter without baking anything. Stir the mixture together, take out and discard 1cup of starter and replenish as above, stirring in 1 cup water and 1 cup flour. (Orinstead of discarding the starter you removed, ask your neighbors if they would beinterested in adopting a starter of their very own.) Let the resuscitated mixture sit atroom temperature for several hours before you return it to the refrigerator.Treating a Sluggish StarterIf you live in an area where water is chlorinated, let some sit out overnight to allowthe chlorine to dissipate before you feed it to your starter. This will help keep itfrom interfering with the development of the sourdough microorganisms.Or, if at any time you feel that your sourdough starter is just not “up to snuff,”dissolve a teaspoon of yeast in the cup of water you mix into the starter when youfeed it.Sweetening a StarterIf your starter becomes too sour, take out 1 cup, dispose of the remainder, and add2 cups each of flour and water to freshen it.Increasing your Starter: If you want to increase the amount of starter you have,either to give some to a friend or, to get ready for a lot of baking, simply increasethe amount you feed it. Whenever you feed your starter, give it at least a day atroom temperature to “work.” This time period allows the yeast to multiply and getready for its next task.Resuscitating a Neglected StarterIf your sourdough starter has sat in the refrigerator months beyond the point ofhealth, give it a fighting chance for survival before you throw it out. A littlewarmth and a good meal of strong, high-energy carbohydrates may be all it needsto get it off and running again.The layer of liquid on the surface will probably be very dark, making it look as if
the starter must surely have expired. Quell your fear, wrestle the top off the jar andgive it a sniff. If it smells the way it should, though exceptionally sour, it may justbe sitting there is a dormant state waiting to be fed. The only way to know is togive it a meal.Blend it back together and pour it into a glass or ceramic bowl. (Take thisopportunity to give its jar a good wash.) As the starter will probably be quiet then,mix in 2 cups of flour a 1 cup of water both to nourish and thicken it. Leave thebowl out on your counter where it will be warm and visible.In a couple of hours you may see some tiny bubbles appearing. If so, cheer it on bykeeping it warm and covered overnight. In the morning, celebrate by makingSourdough Pancakes which are delicious and quick. Give the remaining starteranother feeding, let it sit for another day to ensure its reawakened vigor and thentuck it back in the fridge. Then you can quietly heave a sigh of relief andcongratulate yourself on your rescue.