Getting and Processing Sourdough Starter

sourdough bread starter

Sourdough starter. Photo Wikimedia, Public Domain

One way to discourage people from baking with sourdough is as follows:

1. One makes acquisition, maintenance, and processing of the sourdough look like a time-consuming and convoluted process.

2. One admonishes the potential baker that sourdough starters must be fed every few days.

3. To top it off, one shows a picture of the starter that makes it look like some slimy beast kept in the lab, as in the photo on the left that we found on the Internet.

You should ignore all that. Instead, read the information below about getting, using, maintaining, and repairing the starter. Finally, you will see that the starter bacteria constitute a living system that adapts to its environment.

Getting Sourdough Starter

A number of companies supply sourdough starter; just search the Internet for “live sourdough starter” or “where to buy sourdough starter.” We have not made a scientific study of the various offerings, so cannot tell which is best, if there is even such a classification.

But according to reviews by a number of customers, the starter offered by Breadtopia contains the appropriate bacteria. You can obtain it for around $10 (2018) including shipping in the US.

When you get the sourdough starter in the mail, follow the instructions to resuscitate it. In all likelihood that step advises that you add water* and wheat flour. In our case, we suggest that you add coarse rye flour instead of wheat flour.

After 8-12 hours, the mixture will rise or produce bubbles, depending on how much water was added. Either case confirms that the bacteria are fully active. You then should add more water and coarse rye flour, and in another 8-12 hours you will have a sourdough starter for baking rye bread as well as wheat bread. The next section describes how you maintain and use that starter.

* Note: Whenever we specify water in connection with sourdough baking, we mean filtered water and not tap water. The chlorine in tap water harms sourdough bacteria.

Using Sourdough Starter
sourdough starter, replenished

Replenished rye sourdough starter

Here is the basic process used with the starter.

1. The day before you want to bake, remove the starter from the refrigerator.

2. Remove the starter from the jar, wash and dry the jar, and set it aside.

3. Combine half of the starter quantity with warm water, flour, and so on as specified by the particular recipe. This is covered in detail in Formulas for Baking Rye and Wheat Sourdough Breads.

4. Place the second half of the starter into the jar again. Add 1/4 cup of water. Stir until the starter has completely dissolved in the water, getting a soupy mixture. Gradually stir in coarse rye flour until it is impossible to stir in additional flour. At that time, use the flat blade of a knife to knead in some more flour until that is no longer possible.

4. You have a crumbly mixture of flour and water that is about halfway between wet and dry. Cover the jar with an appropriate lid, and place it into the refrigerator.

Maintaining Sourdough Starter

If you bake at least every three weeks, you use and maintain the starter as described in Using the Sourdough Starter. But if you bake at longer intervals, you should remove and discard the top half of the starter from the jar every three weeks, then replenish the lower half as described below in Step 4 of Using the Sourdough Starter.

Here is the reason for this process. The sourdough bacteria in the starter feed on the coarse rye grain. At the same time, undesirable airborne bacteria want to invade the sourdough. As long as the sourdough bacteria can feed on the coarse rye grain, they can repel those undesirable bacteria.

But when there is no more food left for the sourdough bacteria, as happens after the third week, the sourdough bacteria start to lose the battle and the airborne bacteria begin to invade the sourdough.

So after the third week, the sourdough starter develops a darkish top layer, which indicates that undesirable bacteria have invaded the sourdough. If that ever happens, repair the starter as described below.

Repairing Sourdough Starter

Now and then the following happens despite your best intentions. You have placed the starter into the refrigerator and have forgotten about it. Five weeks later you decide to bake again.

At that time, a greyish, maybe even blackish crust covers the starter in the container. Remove the crust carefully with a spoon without pushing parts into the underlying layer. Discard the removed material.

The rest should be of brown color and have a fresh, slightly acidic smell. If so, proceed to use that remaining quantity in the normal process. If you have waited too long and the starter has a greyish/blackish appearance right to the bottom of the container, do not fret. You need to restore the starter by repeating the following step for several days:

Discard all of the starter on hand except for a tablespoon quantity taken from the bottom of the container. Place that quantity into a clean container, add 1/3 cup of water, and stir in coarse rye flour until you get a soupy mixture. Cover the container and keep it at room temperature for 24 hours, at which time you repeat this operation.

After the third or fourth day, the starter begins to have the fresh, slightly acidic smell you experienced before. Continue with the process for two more days to obtain a perfectly good starter.

Sourdough Bacteria: A Living System
rye grain soaking sourdough bread

Rye grain soaked in water for 24 hours

Since you always replenish the starter with rye flour obtained from whole grain, you also add bacteria living on the surface of that grain. The photo provides evidence of the bacteria. The rye grain had been soaked in water for 24 hours. The water activated the bacteria, which then started to produce carbon dioxide gas.

Some of the bacteria of the grain die, but others survive. Thus, the sourdough bacteria population keeps on shifting and adapting. This mimics somewhat the original method of getting sourdough: Mashing grain, adding water, and letting the mixture sit for a while.

As a result, the sourdough keeps on adapting to the rye grain, so to speak. Of course, when you replenish the sourdough starter the first time, this is a minute effect. But when carried out over years, the sourdough starter surely shifts in composition and thus adapts to your rye grain.

Post Navigation

Baking Sourdough Bread: Overview
Purchasing Grains and Flours
Equipment for Grinding Grain, Baking, and Slicing Bread
Getting and Processing Sourdough Starter   ← You are here
Formulas for Baking Sourdough Rye and Wheat Breads

Have any questions or feedback about sourdough starter? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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