How I Use My Sourdough Starter
Introduction: More Right Ways Than Wrong Ways
I’m writing this note on how I use my sourdough starter because a friend started a starter, and then contacted me with questions. Among other things, she had become confused by the fact that there are so many different “recipes,” or directions for how to start a starter.
This makes sense, though, if you think about food preparation generally. Is there one recipe for baking a chocolate cake? One recipe for making chili? One recipe for something as simple as cooking a steak?
Of course not.
And, yet, if you want a steak, you can end up with a good steak whether you marinate it, or not. You can end up with a good steak whether it’s cooked on the stovetop, or in the oven, or on a BBQ.
Sure, some ways might make things better than others. But when you’re first starting out, you usually just find one way—one “recipe,” if you will—and follow it. A recipe, after all, is nothing more than a set of instructions for how to achieve a desired goal.
As you learn, and become more experienced, you’ll perhaps start to try other “recipes.”
A Word About the Words, Particularly “Starter”
I’ll talk in the next section about “sourdough.” Here, I want to discuss, particularly, “starter.” Starter goes by many names: starter, culture, sponge, mother, mother culture, and, for some people, even Betty (or her full name, “Betty Breadmaker”), Clint Eastwood, etc.
Yes, people name their starters. Some names are quite clever.
I call mine, “starter.” Or, sometimes, “culture.” I never really picked a name. I did once refer to it as “No Name,” since I had not picked a name. Maybe I should call my starter, “Shmullus.”
Other words that might become important to you are “levain,” “leaven,” and “autolyse.” None of these particularly matter right now. Just know that they share some things in common with “starter,” but they’re different.
A quick note about “levain.” It’s a French term that basically means “starter.” So it can be confusing. In all the baking I’ve learned, a levain is something you might derive from your starter to mix into your dough. For some people, the only difference is that levain just is starter, mixed into your dough.
Leaven, as a noun, is just the anglicized version of “levain.” But, again, some people differentiate “storage leaven” for the part you keep in your fridge (or on your countertop, if you’re a frequent-enough baker), and “starter sponge” for the part that goes into the bread mixture.
Oh, and autolyse, like a lot of other baking words I’ve found, can be both a noun, and a verb, but either way basically doesn’t really involve starters. It is a process by which you take the flour, and water, that you will use for your bread recipe, and pre-blend them. This lets the water and flour start interacting in ways beyond the scope of this article, before you actually get down to the nitty-gritty of adding in the rest of the ingredients, including your salt and starter.
What is “Sourdough”?
This was, and to some extent, still is, the thing that confused me when I got started. “Sourdough,” by the best definition I know of, is just any bread made from a fermented culture that occurs through the use of naturally-occurring yeast and bacteria (specifically, lactobacilli). It is usually contrasted with “yeasted” breads, which are breads made with commercially-produced, store-bought yeast. There are different kinds of those store-bought yeasts, too, but I’m not going to get into that here. After all, this started out as an article on “How I Use My Sourdough Starter.”
An important thing I’ve learned about “sourdough” is that it isn’t always sour. The yeast and bacilli involved in fermenting your flour are primarily found already in the flour. They were there before the wheat was ground into flour, and they naturally continue to exist within the flour, unless something kills them off. Exposing your flour-and-water concoction to the air will allow local varieties of yeast and bacilli to get into the mix.
What makes the most famous of all sourdoughs—San Francisco Sourdough—have its signature flavor is the kind of yeast and bacilli specific to the San Francisco area, which get into the cultures.
Sadly, even if you buy “San Francisco Sourdough” starter starter off Amazon, you’ll notice that eventually, if not right away, it will start to lose its characteristic San Francisco Sourdough flavor. It will adapt to the yeasts and bacilli in your area.
There are ways to increase the “sourness” of any sourdough culture, but I’m not going to get into that in this article.
A Recommendation for Starters Starting Starters, and Planning to Become Bakers
Before getting into the details of how I started my starter, and my path to being a home baker whose breads are loved and admired by millions—if not at least a half-dozen—friends who have tried my bread, I have a few recommendations.
Start a Bread Journal
First, and most importantly, do yourself this big favor: start a bread journal. This will be a place where you keep track of things including recipes, but also exactly what you did with them.
Now, if all you ever do is follow someone else’s recipe, and you don’t really care to learn the details of bread making, then you don’t need to follow this step.
I keep details of things like when I put my starter in my proofer, when I took it out of the proofer, when I added water to my flour, when I added the starter to the dough, how much of this or that I put in, etc.
You don’t need to be that fanatical about things. I do it because I’m trying to learn what makes a difference, and in what way. I’m constantly experimenting, and I try to create my own recipes by adding interesting things I might not have seen in a recipe before (such as my Cambozola and pine nuts sourdough bread).
Also, my bread journal is kept in Ulysses, which is a kind of bare-bones note-taking program available to my Mac, iPad, and iPhone. This way, I can make recipe notes on any of those devices, and it updates on the others because it’s in iCloud.
Lastly, I have different “folders” for different things. Under “Bread,” I have “Recipes,” and “Bread Journal.” It should be obvious why.
A lot of recipes call for using measurements like “cups” and “tablespoons.” I do not like these words. I do not like these recipes. I do not like them for sourdough breads. I do not like them for sourdough cookies.
Recipes that use these words can make for unrepeatable recipes. I consider recipes that use these words more like “suggestions” than “recipes.” If I find one, I first convert everything to grams, so that I can make things more consistent for my baking, and my bread journal.
Partly, the problem is some flours can be more dense, or weigh more than others. So if you use a different flour than exactly what the recipe called for, you could be off on your measurements. Even if you’re using the exact same kind of flour, maybe one time you’re filling a cup, and you unintentionally push down a little, compacting your flour, and end up with more flour than the time before, when you successfully skimmed off the excess without packing.
Yeah, you’ll get a bread anyway, because you almost can’t even ruin bread. But you won’t get consistent results unless you weigh things. This will matter even more if you start experimenting with your own recipes, instead of following someone else’s already thought-out recipe.
I personally own two scales. One is for weighing the larger volume stuff, like flour; the other is for smaller volumes, like salt, or pepper flakes. Obviously, the one for smaller volumes is more precise. It also can’t hold as much on it without erroring out.
Read, Watch, Learn, Ask
If you really want to learn how to make sourdough breads, you’ll want to start reading, watching, learning, and asking questions.
There are a number of excellent books on the subject. As you might expect, some are easier than others, and some contain more information than others.
In addition to books, watch videos. YouTube is an excellent resource for free starter, and bread making, videos. Some are done by home bakers; others by professionals. You can even buy video lessons on places like Udemy.com and Masterclass.com, if you want.
Learn everything you can. Another excellent way to do this is to join a Facebook bread makers group. One of my favorites is “Baking Bread with Friends (Yeasted or Sourdough),” which, as the title indicates, isn’t limited to breads made using your own sourdough starter.
How I Started My Starter
The Actual Start of My Starter
You’re probably going to hate me for this, but I don’t remember the details of how I actually started my starter. That was a couple years ago. And these days, if I want to start a “new” starter, I just switch up how I’m feeding some of my existing starter, but in a new container.
For my first starter, I bought one from Amazon. I don’t remember now which one, and looking at Amazon didn’t jog my memory on it. But I did find this one called “Sourdough Starter Genuine San Francisco Culture with Easy Foolproof Recipe the True Original Organic San Francisco Sourdough Starter with the Best Recipe on the Internet.” If you want that one, it will run you $15, plus $3 for shipping and handling. But it comes with “Easy Fullproof Step by Step Recipe,” and it says “This Recipe Makes a Wonderfully Sour and Dense Sourdough Bread with a Very Fine Crumb and a Perfect Crust.”
What I Have Now
So now, about two years after I started my starter, I have a “sourdough” starter that usually doesn’t make very sour-tasting bread. I don’t remember if it ever did.
Don’t get me wrong. It makes great breads. All different kinds. I make “regular” sourdough bread, which basically just tastes like really good plain sandwich bread. It’s great, too, because it has only three ingredients, when you think about it: water, flour, and salt. Yes, it uses my Shmullus (I think in writing this article, I’ve finally named my starter) with “his” miracle ability to inflate and impart special nuanced flavors to the bread. But it’s not even a little bit sour in taste.
I can also make more sour sourdoughs with Shmullus. But I usually just add flavorings like minced garlic (which you have to sauté first, if you don’t want to have bitter bread), Kalamata olives, or different kinds of cheeses (I like Cambozola), chocolate, bananas, or other fruits, or whatever else you can think of. I also like to add alcohols, like Kraken rum, or wine, or beer.
But, I digress.
My starter, Shmullus, is just one of several starters with which I started. This one is the one I use all the time. I keep it in my main refrigerator. (BTW, if you really get serious about baking, you might end up with another refrigerator, so you’ll have room for cold ferments, and for storing flour.)
Shmullus lives on a diet of unbleached white all-purpose flour.
In addition to Shmullus, there are various other unnamed cultures living in jars in my outside refrigerator. Some haven’t been fed in over a year. I leave them there just to see what, if anything, is happening with them. I suppose I might one day clean them out. I have no idea if any of them can be revived. But one reason I keep them is because I’m trying to decide if I want to try.
SideNOte: Do NOT Ever Used Bleached Flour
You do not want to ever used unbleached flour, by the way.
Bleached flour is essentially ruined flour. Why in G-d’s name anyone still makes this stuff, or uses it, is completely beyond me. Bleached flour is basically flour that was bleached to make it look more white. (Regular “white” flour can look more, or less, off-white, or even tan, depending on a number of factors.)
This process of bleaching ruins the flour, bleaching out all that is good about flour. I would imagine is also kills off all the naturally-occurring organisms that we sourdough bakers desire to nurture. It drains out other good things, like flavor and nutrients. So, oddly, after they bleach the flour, they then have to add stuff back into it to “fortify” or “enrich” the flour.
Why not just leave off the bleaching to start with?
How I Use What I Have Now
Where Shmullus Lives
As I said, Shmullus lives (usually) in my inside refrigerator. This is because I bake about once a week, but at least once every two or three weeks. I think the longest I’ve gone is three weeks.
If you were baking more often than once a week, you might want to leave your starter out on the counter. I don’t recommend this unless you’re going to be using it pretty much every day. The reason is because if its in the refrigerator, you don’t have to feed as often, because the refrigerator slows things down. Yeah, the bacteria are still working, and the yeast might have a tiny amount of activity, but mostly not much happens. If you go long enough without feeding, the yeast will start dying, and the bacteria will predominate. This is a good way to get your culture to be more sour, by the way.
If you keep your sourdough on the counter, all this happens more quickly, and so you’re going to need to keep feeding—probably at least once a day. For me, that’s a huge waste of flour, because I don’t usually bake more than once a week.
Incidentally, if I do decide I’m going to bake more than once in a day or two, what I will often do is keep a small part of the starter I already fed for the first bake, feed that and that will be for the second bake. If I need more than what I have left-over, I’ll pull out some more Starvin’ Shmullus.
Feeding and Using
I’m combining “feeding” and “using,” because I don’t usually feed the culture until I’m going to use it. Shmullus almost never really eats. I don’t really deliberately feed him, unless I’m using him. Some people would say this is wrong. It seems to work fine for me and Shmullus. He doesn’t die. And I don’t waste flour.
When I plan to bake something for which Shmullus needs to be fed—and there are recipes that use Starvin’ Shmullus—I think about how much I’m going to need for the final recipe. If the answer is “320 grams,” then I will remove anywhere from 110 to 130 grams of Shmullus from his home jar.
That amount gets put into a Cambro container. (I love these things!) Then I add an equal amount of water, and an equal amount of all-purpose white flour (organic, if possible).
So that means if I took out 110 grams of Shmullus, then there is also 110 grams of water, and 110 grams of flour. This is a 1:1:1 mixture. But some people use a 1:2:2 mixture. I’ve done that, too. But if you’re trying to get a sour bread, keep in mind that the more water and flour you add there, the less sour the end result will be.
Let’s stick with my example above. When I’ve used 320 grams of starter, there should be a little bit left over. Some people will throw this away. I re-open the Shmullus Habitat, and while chanting the words, “I return these to thine ancestors,” I put the extra back in the jar. That’s usually the closest the ancestors ever get to being fed, although once in a while, I will feel sorry for them, and want to clean their house for them.
I will usually wait until there isn’t much left in the Habitat, and then I’ll remove it all into a new clean jar, to which I will add equal portions of flour, and water, so I have a 1:1:1 ratio again. I’ll leave the jar lid loose. All my jars are glass, and the tops will seal tightly, which is how Nearly-Dead Shmullus usually hibernates. But if Shmullus had a real, fresh feed, he’s going to grow a bit, and fart a lot. Leaving the lid loose avoids making a bomb out of the glass container.
So, that’s a lot of information. To a certain extent, I blame Ben Franklin. He allegedly noted in a letter to a nephew, “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have time.”
Similarly, here, I started writing, and thoughts came to my mind. While I was writing, I noticed that my friend for whom I was writing this was posting numerous comments to Facebook that indicated she was very, very eager to get going.
So I started writing faster. And, as thoughts kept coming, this note got longer.
Maybe one day, I’ll go back and break it up, or thin it down.
But the key take-away is this: just as there’s a right way, and a wrong way, to write an article, and I’ve largely taken the wrong way (just freeform write it and don’t go back to edit when you’re done), but I still got an article, so it is with starters.
Mix some water and some flour. The next day, do it again, but this time mix in some of what you had made the day before. So now you’ll have your prior stuff, plus water, plus flour. The next day you grab some of the stuff from the day before, plus water, plus flour. Usually after about 5-7 days, you’re going to have starter you can use to bake.
Just make sure you don’t use all your starter up. Because you’re going to start the starter starting again, by feeding it, and storing it in the fridge until the next time you need it.
Unless you started using your starter too soon, got lousy bread, in which case you’re going to start your starter starting again, and keep it on the counter for a few more daily feedings, until you get the starter to start starting properly. 😉