Sourdough Starter – My Journey to Making Great Bread

Scroll to the bottom for my 2020 update!

I love bread. If I had to pick foods to eat exclusively for the rest of my life, bread and cheese would be at the top of my list. However, good bread is getting pretty expensive. A nice loaf can cost $3-4 at the local grocery store, even more from a bakery.

My first loaf.

For years I’ve wanted to make really good homemade bread, so I decided to get the ball rolling by making my own sourdough starter.

What is sourdough starter and what makes it so special? Sourdough starter is the active yeast mixture that you use to make crusty and flavorful sourdough bread. It is essentially a living organism that starts by fermenting flour on the counter. It can live in your fridge for years, but needs to be fed more flour every so often to keep it alive.

Look at those bubbles! I set some starter aside to give as a gift.

Fun facts about sourdough starter

– The ancient Egyptians were the first to ferment flour to make leavened bread

– It can last years, even decades, if properly cared for

– Like fine wine, the older the starter, the more flavor it has

– It can be used for things other than bread, like waffles, pancakes, and cinnamon buns

– It has been known to be passed down generations in some families!

Super cool, right? The more I learned about sourdough starter, the more I wanted to make it. My first attempt, however, really didn’t work out. I left it out on the counter and gave it a stir every day, but nothing really happened. It did smell very sour, almost vinegary, but there weren’t any bubbles and was very wet and runny.

My failed starter. There was activity initially, but by day 2, everything stopped.

After spending way too much time googling, reading recipes, and watching YouTube videos, I decided to start over. This time, I made 2 separate batches, and made a few changes.

Batch A

I adapted a recipe from Half Baked Harvest, which included active dry yeast to kickstart the process. I stirred the following ingredients together in a 2 quart jar, covered it with a coffee filter, and left it on the counter.

2 cups unbleached all purpose flour

1 1/2 cups bottled water, slightly warmed with 1 tbsp honey mixed in

1 pkg active dry yeast.

Batch B

My second batch I wanted to be as authentic as possible, by creating “wild yeast”. In a 2 quart jar, I stirred together 3/4 cup and 2 tbsp unbleached flour, and 1/2 cup bottled water with about 1/2 tsp of honey dissolved in. I fed this mixture the same amount every day for the first 3 days.

I think this is Day 3. I should have marked the jars with the date. But they are both alive!

Looking back, I have no clue how I kept these starters alive. I think it was a mixture of determination and blind luck. There were days when neither looked active. Day 4, I discarded half from both and fed them with flour and water again. I also discovered my house needed to be warmer, so I spent some days warming them with a heating pad or keeping them by the kitchen vent. I also read if the starter looked inactive, it may need to be fed multiple times a day, so on the days there were less bubbles, I stirred more flour and water in.

When my wild yeast starter was doing well. I marked the jar to track its’ growth.

In the end, I think I killed my wild starter. I wasn’t paying attention on day 6, and added double the water. It’s still on the counter and I’m experimenting to see if I can bring it back to life. I went ahead and baked my first loaf of bread with starter Batch A.

Baking the bread

This ended up being more complicated than I expected. I read recipes and watched videos and everyone seemed to have a different method. Some used 1 tbsp of starter, others used a cup. Some measured everything by weight. Some kneaded the bread, others folded, or didn’t knead at all. I ended up winging it, and used the method from this great YouTube video by ilovecookingireland to guide the process.

4 cups unbleached flour

1 1/2-3/4 cups warm water (this really depends on how dry your house is, so you may need more or less)

1 cup starter

2 1/2 tsp salt

I used the dough hook on my mixer for 15 minutes, then continued to knead by hand for an additional 20 minutes, or until the dough became stretchy and had the “window pane” effect explained in the video. I let it rest in an oiled bowl for 3 hours, punched it down, shaped it, then let it proof overnight in the fridge.

I used a generously floured tea towel loosely folded over the dough in the fridge.

The next morning I preheated the oven to 475 degrees. Turned the dough out of the towel lined bowl into a Dutch oven, scored the top, and baked it for 30 mins with the lid on, and an additional 15 with the lid off.

I’m pretty happy with how my first loaf turned out. The crust ended up a little too thick, and the bread wasn’t as airy as I hoped. I’m pretty sure it was all due to the humidity and temperature in my house.

Now all I have to do is make sure my starter stays alive and I’ll have home made bread whenever I like!

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2020 Update

Boy am I glad I made starter over a year ago! Yeast is becoming a sought after item (along with toilet paper and Lysol wipes) and more and more people are trying to figure out how to make their own starters. 
I pulled my starter out of the back of my fridge, untouched for probably 9 months, and was able to revive it. It’s true what they say: you can’t really kill a starter! After pouring off the grey liquid called “hooch” (alcohol that acts as a protective layer), I scooped a heaping tablespoon into a new jar and stirred in 3 parts flour and 2 parts water. 

This is how my starter looked after I poured the liquid off. Not great looking.

Of course I have my usual problem…my house is never warm enough. I quickly messaged a local Sourdough expert, Elle Crevits @theellechef, and she gave me the tip of placing my starter in the oven with the light on. Well that solved all my problems! After letting my starter sit all day, stirring an extra tbsp of flour in the next day, and letting it sit in my warm oven, I saw bubbles and noticed some growth. 
I decided to try a slightly different recipe from King Arthur Flour and appreciated the tips and more casual approach to bread making (yay no more endless kneading!). My loaves turned out great! And I’m pleased to report since my starter has “aged” it has definitely added to the flavor of the bread. 

I used the Dutch Oven method on the King Arthur Flour website.

This is definitely going to be a weekly activity at my house now that we are all home all the time. Happy baking!