Sourdough Starter

I have never had much luck in starting my own starter, although there are many books and websites that practically guarantee success.  I was lucky enough to have been given some starter years ago that a co-worker of my mom’s brought back to Sudbury from a bakery in Ottawa.  I was living in Montreal at the time, so it was quite the journey for this little lump of single-celled organisms!

I did take a sourdough course in Toronto several years ago, and most students in the class were able to get a starter going, so I have faith that it can be done.  I will do my best to summarize the guidance on starting a starter, and then tell you how I keep my starter going.  Then I will list some resources that I have relied on over the years when I get stuck.

What Is a Starter?

A starter, also called “barm” or a “mother”, is the mixture of flour and water and yeast and bacteria that you keep around to use to start your breads.  Most starters are wet, with a 50-50 mix of flour and water; however, some people prefer to keep a “firm” starter that is more like bread dough.

I keep mine wet using a 50-50 mix of organic bread flour and tap water.

How to “Catch” Some Yeast

If you do a Google search, you will find lots of “recipes” for starting a starter from scratch.  You will see additions ranging from honey, milk or grapes, to commercial yeast.  I don’t think you need any of these.  The yeast and bacteria you want live either in the air around you, or in the flour you buy (depending on what you read), so these additions are unnecessary and may lead to some pretty gross concoctions after leaving them sit on your counter all day.  Also, sourdough yeast is a different animal than the commercial yeast you buy, so that won’t work–I promise.

Most instructions for catching a culture instruct you to leave a large bowl out on the counter with a mix of flour and water, with strict timing for refrigerating the mix, dumping out half or more, and adding more flour.

Here is a summary of the instructions from the “Starter Doctor“:

– mix 2 cups of flour with 1 1/2 cups lukewarm water in a clear glass bowl (you will be inspecting for bubbles, which are easiest to see through the sides/bottom of a bowl, but it won’t affect the process if you use an opaque bowl)

– stir vigorously and fan some air across the mixture, then let sit for 24 hours in a warm place (80 – 85 degrees F).  Fan, mix, then fan again after 24 hours, and let sit again for another 24 hours.

– once 48 hours has passed (since the beginning), remove 1 cup of starter and add 1 cup flour and 1/2 cup warm water.  Stir it in vigorously and then continue as above.

– you will continue this 48-hour cycle until it is clear that bubbles are forming in your mixture.  This may take anywhere between 3 and 8 days.

– once bubbles start appearing, pat yourself on the back–you have caught a starter!  Now you will treat your mixture like “new starter” and follow the instructions below.

Taking Care of, or Reviving Your Starter

New starters can be very unpredictable, and will take anywhere from 1 week to 4 weeks to become hardy and abuse-resistant.  Make sure to take good care of them during this stage.

Most recipes call for cups and cups of flour and water, most of which gets thrown out, for no good purpose at all.  I keep a very small amount of starter, around 3 oz max, unless I am baking with it and then I will increase it to what I need for my recipe, plus 1 oz to work from next time.  However, I can also work with less.

I have also revived my good ole starter many many times.  Usually what happens is that I take a break from baking and my starter sits in the fridge, sometimes for months, slowly drying out into a hard puck in the bottom of a drinking glass.

But I can always get it back by following these steps, adapted for smaller volumes, from “The One Tablespoon Method” in the Starter Doctor document:

– use 1 tablespoon, or even 1 teaspoon, of your “dead” or “barely living” starter.  This refers to either new starter that HAS shown some life (bubbles) previously, or old starter that used to work but seems dead at present.

– in a drinking glass, add starter, 1 oz flour and 1 oz lukewarm water, and let sit, or “proof” for 24 hours in a 72 – 77 degree F environment.  Then check for bubbles.  If the starter looks “healthy” (see the Starter Doctor for these definitions), you’re good to go–time to make some bread!

– if your starter is still “dead” or “barely living”, refrigerate for at least 12 hours and then follow the above procedure again & again until the starter is “healthy”.  This WILL work–it just takes some time.  You can also try different flours to see if you get different behaviours.

Sourdough Links

There are lots of resources here, from the newsgroup.  The newsgroup is hilarious to read but they can be very mean to “Newbies”.  Lurk awhile and you will pick up more info about Sourdough than you ever needed to know.

Also try for all sorts of amazing baking tips.  Here is their Sourdough section.

Good Luck!

Now go and make some bread.  And remember, if you’re not quite confident that your sourdough will really rise, you can always add 1-2 tsp of yeast to the mix and follow conventional rising times (1 1/2 to 2 hours first rise, then form into loaves and let rise 60 to 90 minutes before baking).  It won’t leave enough time to fully develop the sourdough characteristics (full flavour, sourness, chewy texture), but it can be a way to ease yourself into the Sourdough frame of mind.  Good luck!


Sourdough: latest experiment plus recipe

Sourdough June 5Last night I made sourdough again (yum!) after a couple of batches of plain white bread.  That bread was fantastic–when it was fresh from the oven–but by the next day it just doesn’t cut it for me.  The flavour is so . . . simple.  And a bit on the sweet side.  So back to the sourdough, which seems to get even better as the days go by.  

I kept a couple of my alterations from my last experiment: I kept the water content on the low side, and I added 1/2 oz of high gluten (80%) flour (also known as Vital Wheat Gluten).  I also baked in my small loaf pans, and discovered that I do have 2 after all–my lovely yellow pyrex loaf pan is the perfect size for these little loaves. For some reason the Baker’s Secret ones I have are just a wee bit too big.

I also made one more change in this recipe after my little white-bread holiday: I used half white all-purpose flour in place of some of the “germ added back in” flour I’ve been using.  

The result: the best bread yet!  It’s much lighter in texture, and tastes complex, moist, not-too-sour, delicious.  The littler loaf pans shaped the loaves perfectly, and I will look forward to poached eggs tomorrow after I get some organic eggs from the farmer’s market.

Next time I think I’ll follow these same alterations again.


Here is my adaptation of the recipe I use for my “Basic Sourdough”, from Peter Reinhart‘s book “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice“.  I’m not going to write out the instructions step-by-step, but will write it assuming that you, the reader, know what to do . . .

Firm Starter

4 oz regular wet starter

4.5 oz bread flour

1 oz water

Mix this together, knead briefly, and then let it rise for 4 hours.  The recipe recommends refrigerating this overnight but I usually mix this up in the morning before I go to work, and then do the next step when I come home at lunch time.

Final Dough

10 oz white all-purpose flour

9 3/4 oz white “with germ added back in” bread flour

1/2 oz high gluten flour

1/2 oz salt

12 oz water, lukewarm

Mix the flour & salt together, then add all the firm starter, cut into chunks, and the water.  Mix with a spoon, or in a mixer until it all comes together, then knead for as long as you need, until the dough passes the “Windowpane Test“.  Form the dough into a ball and put into a lightly oiled bowl, rolling the dough ball so it is lightly coated in oil.  Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 3-4 hours, or until doubled in size.

Next, divide the dough into 2 and shape into loaves.  Proof (let rise again) for 2-3 hours, or until doubled in size.

Preheat your oven for quite awhile, especially if you are making free-form loaves. For these, bake at a very high temperature (450 or 500 degrees), using a baking stone and a steam pan and everything.  Bake for 10 minutes, rotate the loaves 180 degrees, then bake for another 10 to 20 minutes, making sure they 

I prefer to bake my bread in loaf pans so it makes a good shape for sandwiches and toast, and so I bake at a lower temperature for a longer time: 350 degrees for 20 minutes, then turn the pans and bake for another 20 minutes or so.

Good luck!  I will be writing an entry soon on raising/keeping starter, so stay tuned!

The latest sourdough experiment

My last two sourdough attempts (see Sourdough and More Sourdough) gave me two delicious loaves that were flat as a shoe.  I was determined to improve the rise this time in hopes of achieving something I could have with poached eggs.  That is the ultimate: poached organic eggs (the fresher the better) on fresh sourdough bread . . . heaven!  My other loaves were just too little to hold all of the runny yolk, making the eating process a little messy.

So I made two adjustments to my dough.  First of all, after doing some research online I read that a too-wet dough can sometimes be slack, and in fact I had been finding my final dough quite loose and not easy to shape into a nice firm loaf.  So this time instead of using the maximum amount of water in the recipe as I had been doing, I went with the minimum.  It resulted in a much firmer dough that shaped into a lovely loaf.

The second thing is that the only “white” organic bread flour I can find still contains the germ.  It’s basically like whole wheat without the bran.  Again, after some online research, I discovered that the phytates in whole wheat flour can affect gluten production.  I would also imagine if there’s all that germ in there, it must mean a lower percentage of starch and gluten than regular white flour.  

I am still not completely comfortable working with this flour.  It has never made a beautiful Windowpane even after kneading for over 20 minutes!  So recently I’ve been kneading for around 7-8 minutes and stopping when there is the slightest semblance of a windowpane.  One website (the amazing recommends adding some Gluten Flour (also known as Vital Wheat Gluten) to the flour to boost the gluten percentage of the flour.  I tried this–I added 1 tbsp, or 1/4 oz of Gluten flour to the final dough.  The dough definitely felt more springy when I was kneading it, and though it never got silky-smooth, the gluten did seem to develop more properly than it had been.

I also made a third adjustment, which was to use a smaller loaf pan for one of my loaves. 

The result?  Definite improvement!  The loaf in the smaller pan especially rose higher, and though I haven’t cut into it yet, I would imagine the crumb is slightly less dense than my other loaves have been.  

Next time I will try adding 1/2 oz of Gluten Flour to the mix.  Can there be too much gluten???  I will also keep an eye out for a second smaller loaf pan, so I can gain that height advantage on two loaves instead of one.  

The experiment continues . . .

When tiny baby arrives . . .

A friend of mine said to me yesterday, “I’ll be interested to see how you are able to maintain your frugality when the baby comes.”

Ahem, yes.  I’ll be interested in that myself.

I certainly won’t be able to bake as much.  I remember that when my girl was smaller–it was next to impossible to have 10 minutes to do food prep without her wanting mommy.  It was as if the very act of putting my attention toward something else made her want to be with me MORE!

So, the same goes for meals.  How many meals will I be able to make from scratch compared to now?  Right now it’s close to 100%, but I’m sure it will change with 2 kids clamouring for my attention.

Also, home made gifts will probably fly out the window.  

And forget about canning or preserving.

Hmmm . . .

But on the other hand, I’m sure there will be things I can hold on to.  For one, once we stop paying the babysitter and my Mat leave starts, my income will go up somewhat, which should help to accelerate the debt reduction.

Another frugal change with 2 will be less travel.  MUCH less travel, I hope!  When our daughter was born we headed down to Toronto with her 3 or 4 times and it was always much more costly than we thought it would be.  We cut that out when we started our belt-tightening, but it was a cost in those early days that I know we won’t have again.

And I’m planning to cut back on entertaining.  Not that we do it often, but it always costs a extra to put food on the table for 6 and a half intead of 2 and a half.  Or if we do entertain, we can stick to breakfast and lunch dates, which are always cheaper and easier, and interfere with schedules a whole lot less.

Some other strategies I will consider:

– getting/finding a bread maker.  Then all you do for bread is stick the ingredients in and press “go”.  I know this is one item that most people end up getting rid of after a couple years of not actually using it.  But, to paraphrase Tobias and Lindsay, “Could it work for me?”  “You know, I think it just might!”

– using the crock pot, especially for things like veggie chili and veggie curry that require little-to-no extra prep (browning of ingredients before adding)

– not moving apartments.  When our daughter was born, we had only really been here for about 7 months.  We still had boxes to un-pack and much of the space was simply not optimized.  When Tiny Baby arrives, we’ll have been here for just over 3 years and our use of the space is much more refined.  We have much further to go, but the rule still applies: a more efficient home is less costly.

– continuing our low-key lifestyle.  Basically this means, we stick around home a lot.  We go to the park and use the library.  We invite my brother & his girlfriend over.  We take neighbourhood walks and check out what’s going on in the outside venues.  We don’t go to the mall any more than we have to, we don’t shop as a hobby, we don’t visit expensive theme parks, etc.  By keeping things simple we save a lot of money.

I know that once the end of September rolls around, things are going to change–big-time–and I’m sure we’ll end up ording in for pizza and buying grocery store barbecued chickens more often than we plan for.  But if we can maintain some of the essentials of frugality, I think we can get through #2 without too much of an additional strain on our budget.

More Sourdough

First let me say–Yum Yum!!  It is so great to eat home-baked bread every day.  And the ingredients are no more than flour, salt, water and starter (which is really just more water & flour . . . plus a little magic).

So, yay me.  

But once again it didn’t rise much at the end, and the loaves are pretty flat.  I tried giving them a longer rising time and shaping them more “firmly” (in the hope that a tight shape would be less slack, and hence, rise more.  They did rise a little better than last time, but are still not what I would call “sandwich bread”.  These would be sandwiches for elves.

I’ve been doing some reading online to try and figure out what I can do differently, and came across something about whole wheat flour having more phytates in it, making it harder to work with.

Now, I’m using what might be referred to as “white whole wheat” or as the store explains, “white flour with the germ added back in”.  I can’t get organic white bread flour in downtown Ottawa.  Cannot.  So weird.  So I’m stuck with it for now.

One post I read suggested using some spelt flour in the mix.  Now, I know I can get spelt flour (though I swore I’d never use it!), so maybe I’ll try a little of that in the mix and see whether that improves things.

Another suggestion was to use less water to make the dough firmer.  I can try that as well.  And if all else fails I can stop dividing it into 2 loaves, and just make one rather dense, but “sandwich-sized” loaf.

The wonderful thing about all this is that in the process of trial and error, I get to eat all my mistakes.  And while they might not be beautiful, boy are they tasty!!


Once again I’ve revived my Sourdough culture.  It’s so exciting!  Over the last few days it’s gone from being a dried out puck in a glass at the back of the fridge to being a living bubbling yummy-smelling goop that will make deee-licious bread!

I was inspired this time by The Urban Homestead, a fantastic book about growing your own food and generally being an eco-radical, in the heart of the city.  They made some great points about sourdough:

– Sourdough is cheap!  You don’t need to buy yeast or any fancy ingredients; just some good flour, salt and water, and a bit of extra time.

– Sourdough is healthy! Because it is slowly lacto-fermented, more nutrients from the grains become accessible than in regular yeast-risen bread.

– Sourdough is magical!  How else can you describe the alchemy of flour, water, invisible beasties, and time that creates good things to eat?

– Sourdough is old-school!  Bread is the most basic of foods, and thousands of years before yeast was isolated and made into little beige granules that you buy in a supermarket, it was the wild organisms in the flour and in the air that raised our bread.

I’ve cut my sourdough teeth with the help of Peter Reinhart‘s book The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, and the newsgroup.  Their somewhat scientific, but very reliable help file is available here.

So, the “firm starter” is rising . . . I’ll report back on my progress later today or tomorrow!

Update: I made the bread in one day, and it turned out very very tasty, but as flat as a shoe!  I’m a bit uncertain about this flour I have, which is called “white” but has the germ added back in (??) so it’s not truly white flour.  It never seems to quite “get there” when I’m kneading it, and then I’m afraid I’ve over kneaded it.  

Perhaps I just need to get used to it, but in the mean time I’m going to try to source out another organic bread flour.  If I can find one–this is the only kind I’ve seen in downtown Ottawa!