By Nadia Arumugam |

Grow Your Own Natural Yeast Starter: The First Step to Perfect Sourdough Bread

When I was at culinary school some years ago, a core part of the curriculum was bread-making. I remember my final exam involved preparing a three-course meal which included made-from-scratch ravioli, puff pastry, and  bread, all within the space of about 5 hours, and then there was all the other dishes we had to make. As you can probably guess, time wasn’t on my side: every second, minute, was hugely valuable and couldn’t be compromised. There was no waiting around endlessly while the bread dough languorously  extended its gluten strands. I had my deadline, and the finished loaf had to be there, risen, baked and golden-brown when I needed it to be. It was with this philosophy in mind that I have been making bread for the last 6 or so years. And the key, if you’re racing against the clock, is to use instant, fast-acting yeast, and a lot of it.

Boy, did I have it wrong all that time.

I recently attended an artisanal bread-making course at NYC’s Institute of Culinary Education. If there was one thing I took away from the 3-day program, it was that you simply can’t rush bread, or great bread, at least. In fact, it seemed that if I wanted the ultimate, most ethereal sourdough loaf with a crackly, crunchy crust, tender yet perfectly chewy interior and flavorful tang I had to mold my schedule to the needs of this high-maintenance creature.

From start to finish, a loaf can take nearly 24 hours to produce, and that’s even not including the time spent nurturing your entirely home-made starter (add another couple of weeks for that!). Sure, you can make bread using instant yeast – I did, for many years, but once you taste a loaf crafted by your own hands that was made by a  home-grown leavener – or raising agent – you won’t want to go back. Instant yeast makes for decent enough bread  but because it has little “character,” and the bread rises so quickly and doesn’t have the time to develop its own personality, the flavors are one-dimensional and bland compared to the wonderfully nuanced, tangy notes produced by a genuine sourdough starter.

What actually is a starter, then? Essentially it’s a leaven consisting of a loose batter of flour and water in which yeast is continually re-producing helped along with regular, weekly feedings of more water and flour. As the yeast in the starter consumes this fresh food and digests the sugars in the flour, they not only remain alive and kicking but they reproduce, and expel carbon dioxide – which is why you’ll see little bubbles in your starter. Happily co-existing alongside the yeast are bacteria, harmless ones, which give sourdough its flavor. This benign bacteria known as Lactobacillus, produces a lot of lactic and acetic acid, which is responsible for the characteristic tang.

Generally speaking, when a little bit of this starter is combined with flour and water to produce a dough, the yeast within the starter becomes even more active and stimulates the dough to rise by producing much-needed carbon dioxide which is what gives bread its light, airy texture. The dough is then shaped, left to rise again, and baked.

Some sourdough starters are made from commercial baker’s yeast, but this isn’t a true natural starter. The best starters rely only on the natural yeasts that exist in the environment around us – and believe me, there are plenty of them. You’ll see the difference in the crust and you’ll definitely taste the difference – wild yeasts seem to contribute a more complex, multi-dimensional flavor, and bring more tang to the table. An additional benefit of natural starters is that they have far superior keeping powers than commercial yeast so your loaf will last considerably longer.

I was lucky enough to have been given some natural sourdough starter from the instructor of my bread-making course – Peter Berley, who incidentally, is a terrific teacher – check out his website for a list of all his culinary courses in NYC and in his North Fork kitchen. But if you don’t have the same fortune to come upon a good-natured stranger who’ll share his stash of carefully cultured yeast, below is a recipe from Peter Berley’s cookbook, The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen, on how to make your own natural starter from scratch.

You’ll note that Berley uses grapes to give his starter a boost. He says that that because white flour is the product of just the endosperm of the wheat kernel, it is without the lactic acid-producing bacteria and wild strains of yeast that live in the outer layers of the seed coat. The grapes compensate for this lack. If you have a super clean kitchen, you might want to leave it to get a little more, um “lived in,” just to encourage some of those yeasts to thrive. I don’t mean you should let your kitchen get scummy, just lay off all those ultra strong disinfectants and bleaches for a while. And leave out some fruits and vegetables – as this too will encourage the yeasts that you want in your starter.

Click on for the recipe! And don’t forget to check back in a few days for a step-by-step guide on how to actually make that perfect loaf of sourdough.

White Sourdough Starter
from The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen by Peter Berley

1/2 pound organic sweet red or green grapes
5 pounds organic unbleached white bread flour
Nonchlorinated water

1. Rinse the grapes briefly under cold running water if necessary. If the grapes appear clean, do not bother to wash them, so as not to sacrifice any of the yeasts clinging to their skins. Place the grapes in the center of a double layer of cheesecloth and tie up the corners to form a neat bundle.

2. In a 2- or 3-quart sterilized glass, plastic, or earthenware container, combine 2 cups of the flour and slightly more than 2 cups of the room-temperature non chlorinated water and stir to form a paste. Squeeze the bundle of grapes over the batter so that most of their juice comes out. Stir well. Submerge the cheesecloth bundle in the batter and secure the container with a tight-fitting lid or several layers of plastic wrap. Set aside at room temperature, out of the way of drafts or intense heat, for 3 days.

3. Once a day, uncover the starter and, using a sterilized utensil, stir the bundle of grapes around in the batter.

4. On the fourth day, uncover the container and stir in 1/2 cup room temperature water and 1/2 cup of the flour. Replace the cover and set aside for another 6 days. Make sure that the starters does not get too warm. Don;t worry if the starter separates and has a yellowish liquid on top. It may also have a funky or sharp alcohol odor after 4 or 5 days, but eventually the yeasts will build up in number and begin to exude a pleasant aroma.

5. Starting on the tenth day, you will need to feed the starter 3 times per day for 4 days. Rinse out a 1 1/2 to 2 quart glass, plastic, or earthenware container with boiling water. Let it air-dry ad cool well and pour 2 cups of it into the prepared container. Give away or discard the remaining starter. Add 1/2 cup room-temperature water and a heaping 1/2 cup flour. stir well, cover, and let the starter ferment for 4 to 6 hours. Finally, feed the starter 2 cups room-temperature water and let ferment another 4 to 6 hours, Finally, feed the starter 2 cups room- temperature water and 2 cups flour. Stir well, cover and let the starter ferment overnight, for up to 12 hours.

6. The next day, discard all but 2 cups of starter, and repeat the same feeding schedule for 3 more days. Remember to begin the process each day with only 2 cups of the starter.

7. About 8 to 12 hours after the final feeding on the 14th day, your starter is ready to be used. At this point you can store it slightly covered in the refrigerator.

FEEDING YOUR STARTER
Making a great starter is only half  the battle, you also have to maintain it, which is not unlike having a pet, or, some might say a very low-mainenance child! Once a week remember to feed it with 1/2 cup of non chlorinated water and 1/2 cup of flour. or, you can do this twice a week with 1/4 cup of water and flour. When you feed it, you might want to discard a tablespoon or two of the starter so that the amount doesn’t grow too big. Remember your starter is alive and growing which means it’ll increase in volume.

Stay tuned for the next post where we’ll get into the nitty gritty of how to make bread using your natural, homegrown starter! I’m off to feed mine now…

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22 Comments

  1. Mary Nugent Henninger | November 30th, 2011

    Best article I’ve read on this complicated subject of baking bread–sour-dough bread, “this high maintenance creature.”

  2. cia247 | December 11th, 2011

    I home school my girls and this is going to be our new science slash social experiment.

  3. lynn | May 19th, 2012

    I’m confused. At both points that you retain 2 cups of starter, is the starter you are to throw away able to be used in breads? At one juncture you say you can give it away. Can’t I just use it in quickbreads or a nice loaf at that point? Please clarify.

  4. Nadia Arumugam | May 20th, 2012

    Hi there Lynn – First off, thanks so much for checking in with us at SS. On your questions about the sourdough starter, you cannot use the 2 cups of starter that the post says should be thrown out to bake with because the starter isn’t potent enough at that point.(Although one thing you could try is to use the starter supplemented with active dry yeast to give it a boost. As I described in the post on making sourdough bread, when using the starter to bake with, you first need to measure out just a tablespoon of the starter then feed it overnight. It’s after this step that I would add the active dry yeast dissolved in a little warm water). I, or rather Peter Berley (who is the authority behind the sourdough starter recipe) suggests giving it away because it can be used as the base of a brand new starter. Hope this helps – let me know if you have any other questions!

  5. jill | May 27th, 2012

    A bit confused on steps 6 thru 7 … So same 3x a day feeding schedule for days four thru 8 … Then on days 8 thru 14, simply keep feeding 2 cup flour and 2 cup water?

  6. jill | May 27th, 2012

    Whoops never mind, was misreading instructions. Thanks!

  7. Nadia Arumugam | May 29th, 2012

    Hi Jill – Hope all turned out well with the starter. Let me know if you need any clarification. It’s a tricky thing to get your head around, but totally worth it when you have that first loaf of truly natural sourdough!

  8. Julie | July 12th, 2012

    Sounds wonderful! I like to mill my own flour from wheat berries. Can this be started with that? If not, once it was started per the recipe, is it possible to make the bread with fresh milled flour? Thanks.

  9. Nadia Arumugam | July 12th, 2012

    Hi Julie – That’s amazing that you mill your own wheat! I’ll be honest with you, I have no idea how successful the starter would be with home ground flour. Perhaps it’s best to use store bought flour for the starter, then I can’t see any reason why you can’t use your own flour to make the bread. Good luck – it sounds like a great experiment. And keep us posted on how it goes!

  10. Vivien | July 23rd, 2012

    Hi Nadia,

    I live in Berkeley, CA and have had an easy time making starter from scratch in the past. My first attempt was a winner.

    Now I am staying with friends in Seattle for three weeks, and did the same thing I did in Berkeley, but there are not enough CO2 bubbles to to get my starter to pass the float test. I’m embarrassed! I promised great tasting bread and here I sit with starter that shows minimal signs of life. Do you have any suggestions on how to get my starter to turn into a vigorous one without having to lose my two weeks of feeding and work?

    Thanks for the help!

    Vivien

  11. Nadia Arumugam | July 24th, 2012

    Hi Vivien – Sorry to hear you’re having trouble with your starter. It’s amazing the amount of difference the local environment can make to a starter. It could be that home in Berkeley there’s just a lot more starter-friendly microbes hanging around in the atmosphere.

    One thing that I’ve done before with a starter that isn’t as active as it should be, is to add a little dry active yeast to the amount that you set aside to make your bread. Combine with a little warm water and stir into your starter then wait 20 to 30 minutes until your see bubbles and growth before trying the float test. The dry active yeast should give your starter the extra little boost it needs. Hope this works – keep us posted, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed!

  12. Peter walls | August 1st, 2012

    HI, Great Blog,

    Im a chef for a few years now here in Toowoomba Australia, I have been experimenting with bread and dry yeast and I’m keen to try making bread with my own natural yeast.

    You mentioned earlier on that if your kitchen is super clean to leave some fruit out, and i suppose you are chasing the smell and gases it lets off, with that in mind could you surround your starter with native flours such as wattle and gum leaf or some type of wood (iron bark) to give it a unique flavour.

    Also what are the ratio’s for fresh to dry, so if a recipe use 12 Grams of dry yeast whats the equal.

    Pete

  13. Peter walls | August 1st, 2012

    Oh sorry just a quick one, can I use this yeast for all types of bread and pizza bases of is it only for sough dough?

  14. Nadia Arumugam | August 14th, 2012

    Hi Peter – Sorry for taking a wile to get back to you, yes you can absolutely use this starter for a pizza base. It will definitely have a distinctive tang to it, which is characteristic of this kind of fermented starter, but it will still be delicious.

  15. Nadia Arumugam | August 14th, 2012

    Hi again – I’m not sure about whether the starter would absorb any flavor from woods or wattle. The reason why you should put fruit out is because the fruit will naturally have yeast that when naturally released into the environment will activate the starter. As for your question on fresh yeast do you mean the stuff you buy that’s moist and compressed into a block, or do you mean a starter? If it’s the former, you want to use twice as much fresh yeast as you would use active dry yeast. Hope this helps!

  16. Confused Scholar | September 3rd, 2012

    Looking this process over, the flour alone exceeds 12 pounds…not to mention a torrent dishes and utensils that must be boiled, soiled, and washed again.

    High maintenance pet indeed.

    I could see this being easy to manage at a restaurant, where you can simply feed it as part of your daily or weekly prep routine, but it seems a bit overkill in the home. There are SO many flavors and textures that can be generated by different strains of yeast and tertiary bacteria, it almost seems unproductive to go through all of this effort for a common sourdough starter. (especially the use of fresh grapes. Raisins or any organic dried fruit soaked in warm sugar water should provide a much more efficient and interesting start)

    I would love to see an article somewhere that expounds on which dried fruit will yield which particular flavor. I am curious about the myriad strains of beer yeast and what flavors they might yield in bread. If one could find a tasty strain from a home brewing supply, that yeast could be nurtured by the above method into much more coveted unique starter.

  17. shannon | October 7th, 2012

    Sourdough is our go to bread in the Cannon house. This does seem very high maintenance but I am going to try anyway. Hope it works better than then Vivian’s starter since we live little south of Seattle. Wish me luck!

  18. Katy | November 2nd, 2012

    Hi there,
    I have my own starter that was given to me by a friend happily bubbling away on the counter. I was wondering, once I have a large batch of starter, if I wanted to set some aside for later use (if I have no one to give it to) could I put it in the fridge to stunt the growth or would that just kill it outright? I know that dough can be stored in the fridge and brought back to room temperature to continue rising but wasn’t sure if this worked the same.
    Thank you for your help so far! This article is great.

  19. Carolyn | December 16th, 2012

    Does the grape in cheesecloth remain in the starter thru day 14 and beyond???

  20. JJM123 | January 14th, 2013

    Sounds a lot like the efforts we went thru for the ‘Friendship Bread’ we used to make. Unfortunately lost the instructions and starter. If remember right, the starter was the small baggies we saved in the freezer and sucessfully used at a later time rather than just stunting the growth in the fridge.

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