This morning when I got up, my husband announced to me that Horace the Sourdough Starter had grown so much that it had reached the top of the jar. Since he really isn’t into baking, it was a source of some amusement to me that he even noticed. On the other hand, I suppose sourdough starters seem awfully mystical and complex – almost magic. Never mind that’s how all leavened bread was made for centuries!
I’ve been reading a lot about sourdough starters – how to start them, how to maintain them, everyone’s super-secret foolproof method for making one. I gotta say, I think people are making this way too complex. Some people swear by pineapple juice to start it (never bothered, myself) and others insist that fake mashed potato flakes are the key. I’ve seen reports of tossing in a grape or two. The reason grapes turn into wine is that they collect yeast on their skins. What, did you think early winemakers went to the brewing supply store?
When I started Horace, I started him in the springtime, so yes, I did have the advantage of warmth. I also started him in a kitchen that sees several loaves of bread baked in it every week, so the air was full of wild yeast. And I did use a glass jar. I didn’t worry about stirring him with a wooden or plastic spoon, but just used my usual stainless steel.* I did cheat and use a miliscrunch of yeast to get him going, but from then on, I was just feeding him with a 1:1 volume mix of flour and water. Since I bake a lot, I keep him on my kitchen counter. He’s good and strong, so skipping a day or two of feeding really has no negative effect on his activity. I’ll pop him in the fridge when it gets too hot to bake. This is a far cry from the twice a day feeding and careful weighing of the water and flour feeding that you’ll see some sites recommend. Seriously, people, do you think medieval bakers treated it like alchemy?
What I think is missing when people get complex about the starter is that they don’t pay attention to the real basics—clean utensils and containers, unbleached flour with a fairly high gluten content and water that isn’t too chlorinated. If your tap water tastes good, you’re probably fine. Otherwise, you might want to filter it. In the town I lived my first thirty-odd years, yeah, filtered or bottled water would be better. Where I live now? Tap water is fine.
For flour, make sure you’re using something that’s good for making bread, and there are many so-called all-purpose flours that aren’t. You don’t have to go overboard with this and buy specialty bread flour. Something like King Arthur flour (which I do use) works just fine and isn’t really pricey.
The last problem I see is patience. Most starter recipes will say to wait for 24-48 hours to see the initial bubbling get started. That’s a good average, but don’t sweat it if it takes more like 72 hours. Even then, you’ve only got a beginner starter. It won’t be strong and stable for another week. A lot of people don’t want to wait that long, but really, you want to.
And after that, you’ll have a starter that will last pretty well as long as you’re interested in baking with it.
* Some people think metal will kill a starter or that the acidity of the starter will react with a metal container. That’s true if you’re using tin from the 1800s. Not so much so from modern stainless steel.