The Eclectic Quill

Website of Joshua McGee

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Sourdough Starter: Care, Feeding, and Use

Sourdough starter is a symbiotic colony of yeast and bacteria that requires care and feeding.  Fortunately, both are pretty easy, and you only have to do it once a week.  All you need is a jar and a kitchen scale.

Sourdough starter

A vigorous fed sourdough starter

How to feed your sourdough starter

Once a week (set a reminder!), you will need to give your starter new food so that it won't die out.

  1. Remove your starter container from the refrigerator, pouring off any floating liquid.
  2. Stir your starter in its container.
  3. Pour 110g of starter into a measuring cup for liquids.  You will have some unfed starter left over.  Discard the leftover amount; place it into a new container to propagate; or use it in a recipe that calls for "unfed starter".

    sourdough-popovers

    Sourdough Popovers, an example of what you can make with unfed starter
  4. To the measuring cup, add 110g of unbleached all-purpose flour and 110g of lukewarm water and stir.
  5. Thoroughly wash your starter container under hot running water, being sure to scrape off all the crusty bits inside.  Don't use detergent.
  6. Pour the fed starter back into the container.
  7. Leave on the counter, with the lid slightly ajar, for two hours.
  8. Close the lid and return to the refrigerator.

How to use your sourdough starter

Plan 24 hours ahead from when you want to use your starter.

  1. Remove your starter container from the refrigerator, pouring off any floating liquid.
  2. Stir your starter in the starter container.
  3. Pour 110g of starter into a measuring cup for liquids.  This will allow you to continue your starter.  Follow the instructions for feeding your sourdough starter, as above (add flour and water, wash the starter container, return the starter to the container, wait two hours, and return it to the refrigerator).
  4. Pour another 110g of the original starter into a large jar.  Add 110g of unbleached all-purpose flour and 110g of lukewarm water.  Stir.  Leave the jar on the counter with the lid slightly ajar for 12 hours.
  5. After 12 hours, add 220g of unbleached all-purpose flour and 220g of lukewarm water.  Stir, set on the counter with the lid slightly ajar, and wait until it has doubled or tripled in volume.  This can take as little as 4 or as much as 12 hours.
  6. Use in your recipe that requires "fed starter".

    Extra-Tangy Sourdough Bread

    Extra-Tangy Sourdough Bread, an example of what you can make with fed starter

How to propagate your sourdough starter

The most fun part of maintaining a sourdough starter is sharing it with friends.

Sharing Sourdough Starter

Propagated sourdough starter, ready for sharing!
  1. When it comes to feeding time, follow the instructions for feeding your own sourdough starter, but also place 110g of starter in a separate, clean container for your friend.
  2. To your friend's container, add 110g of unbleached all-purpose flour and 110g of lukewarm water.  Stir.
  3. Leave the jar on the counter with the lid slightly ajar for 2 - 4 hours.
  4. Replace the lid and give it to your friend.  If you are not giving it away immediately, you can store it in the refrigerator for up to one week without feeding it again.  You might want to add a date to the container to show when it was last fed.

Troubleshooting

  • I went to feed my starter, and it has a thin layer of brown liquid at the top.  Is it ruined?

    • No.  That's alcohol, another fermentation byproduct.  Just pour it off.
  • My starter smells much sharper than when I put it into the fridge.  Is it ruined?

    • No, there's just a lot of vinegar in it.  Without delving too deeply, lactobacillus produces two primary acidic metabolites: lactic acid and acetic acid.  Lactic acid is what gives yogurt its tang, and it's mild.  Acetic acid is vinegar, and it's sharp.  Refrigeration suppresses production of lactic acid, so your starter will have developed more vinegar than it has developed yogurt-acid.  When you feed it and leave it at room temperature for a couple hours, it will dilute the vinegar and give the bacteria some time to produce lactic acid at room temperature.
  • I fed my starter twice to use in my recipe, but it's not bubbly.  Is it ruined?

    • Probably not.  This often happens if it has missed a feeding or if your kitchen is not warm enough.  After the two feedings (waiting 12 hours after each), if it hasn't reactivated, set aside 220g of the mixture, add 220g each of flour and lukewarm water, and return to the cleaned jar until it doubles or triples in volume.  If that doesn't work, repeat after 12 hours.  Sorry if this threw off your baking schedule.
  • I fed my starter four times at room temperature (and waited 48 hours total) like you instructed, and it's not bubbly nor increasing in volume.  Is it ruined?

    • Probably.  You will need to start over.  Sorry.
  • I took my starter out of the refrigerator, and it doesn't smell sharp or boozy — it smells putrid!  Is it ruined?

    • Yes.  You will need to start over.  Sorry.
  • My refrigerated starter has billowy mold on it.  Is it ruined?

    • Yes.  You will need to start over.  Sorry.

Did I miss anything?  Anything unclear?  Let me know in the comments!

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The best bread in the world (according to my dad)

Rosemary Dutch oven bread with Parmesan and Romano cheeses

When I shared this with my father, another dyed-in-the-wool foodie, he told me that this is the best bread he has ever tasted.  He said "You know, I used to go to Brothers restaurant in Solvang. They had a baker come in every morning and prepare bread for that night's dinner. I loved that bread. And this is the best I've ever had."

rosemary_dutch_oven_bread_with_rosemary_parmesan_and_romano

It's a simple tweak on a traditional Dutch oven bread recipe, with the addition of rosemary and cheese along the way.  All it takes is patience (letting it rise undisturbed for 18 hours); a piece of equipment you may already have in your kitchen (a Lodge cast-iron Dutch oven with a skillet lid); and one little trick (cooking the bread in an inverted Dutch oven).

The basic recipe for crusty Dutch oven bread is as follows.

Ingredients: [1]

  • 405g bread flour [2]
  • 1 tsp active dry yeast
  • 1½ tsp salt
  • 1½ cup (355ml) warm water

Whisk together dry ingredients in a bowl.  Stir in warm water until well-combined.  Cover bowl with a lid, or tightly with plastic wrap, and set on the counter for 18 hours to rise on its own.

Preheat oven to 450°F with the Dutch oven inside, with the lid separate from the base.  After your oven has reached 450°, it will take another 30 minutes or so for the Dutch oven to reach 450°.

During this preheating time, remove the sticky dough from the bowl with floured hands and placed on a heavily-floured surface.  Stretch the top into a smooth surface and tuck the edges underneath to form a round loaf.  Let it sit on the surface until the Dutch oven is fully heated.

Carefully remove both pieces of the Dutch oven from your oven and place on the stovetop.  Set the dough ball on the skillet side (the interior of the lid) of the Dutch oven, and carefully place the Dutch oven itself, upside-down, on top as a dome.  (Yes, you are cooking in the interior of an upside-down Dutch oven.)

Carefully replace the Dutch oven into your preheated oven.  I cannot stress the "carefully" bit enough.  For best results, wear silicone cooking gloves in which you are holding cloth potholders.  A heavy piece of 450° cast iron can cause serious injuries.

After 30 minutes, remove the dome, leaving the bread on the skillet surface.  Bake for another 10 minutes to brown and shake onto a cooling rack.

To turn it into rosemary bread with Parmesan and Romano, reduce the salt in the recipe to ½ tsp.  Take 1½ sprigs of fresh rosemary.  Rinse and pat dry.  Remove the leaves and snip the leaves into thirds with a pair of kitchen scissors, discarding the stems.  Add to the dry ingredients, along with unpacked, coarsely-grated Parmesan and Romano cheeses (about ⅓ cup total).  Add the warm water as you would in the basic recipe, and proceed as above.

And voila!  You've just made "the best bread in the world".  According to my dad.

[1] Yes, it's a little weird that I'm switching between imperial/metric and weight/volumetric units like this, but it's how I measure it.  Feel free to convert it.  405g of bread flour is about three cups.

[2] Using bread flour is important.  All-purpose flour does not have the necessary gluten percentage to form the delightful big air pockets.