My mother kept a sourdough starter when I was young, and the pancakes and bread she made are now a treasured food memory. Rehydrating sourdough starter from dried flakes is one way to keep the tradition alive.
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Some years back, my BFF Jenny gave me a copy of "The Art of Baking with Natural Yeast,” by Caleb Warnock & Melissa Richardson. The book is all about starting and using Sourdough Starter in baking as a health consideration, the basic premise being,
Commercial yeast is so foreign to our bodies that many people are allergic to it. But natural yeast converts dough into a digestible, vitamin-rich food that's free from harmful enzymes and won't spike your body's defenses.
The authors explain that almost all yeast used in baking today was created in a lab, stating “for the first time in 6,000 years, humans are eating bread that is not made with natural yeast.” In other words, according to the authors, it isn't the gluten that is causing so many to develop Celiac and other related digestive diseases; it is the synthetic yeasts that we ingest that are predisposing our bodies to gluten intolerance.
One study using sourdough bread made with specific strains of bacteria found that it could reduce gluten intolerance in people sensitive to wheat gluten. While that doesn’t mean that people diagnosed with gluten intolerance can eat sourdough bread with impunity, it does suggest that the bread is more easily digested than other breads made with wheat flour. (Reader’s Digest)
[While I can't speak to the greater Celiac community, I can say that in this individual case, this theory ended up playing out true. Despite having a lifelong Celiac diagnosis and never tolerating commercial breads, Jenny's daughter is safely eating and enjoying real bread again - long-rise (13+ hours), natural sourdough bread, that is. Read all about it in Kaylen's Bread.]
Post Updated March 30, 2020: (Originally published August 27, 2013)
The first thing you need to do when you decide to start baking with sourdough is make (or get) a sourdough starter.
There are a may ways to procure a sourdough starter, including:
- Get some from your Nana: ready use in no time.
- Make a Rye Sourdough Starter: ready to use in 4-5 days. (NOTE: Rye sourdough starter is – by far – the easiest organic sourdough to start. All you need is rye flour and water.)
- Make a Starter from Dried Starter Flakes: ready to use in about two weeks. This is the method that we are going to discuss today.
Where to Get Dried Sourdough Starter Flakes
- Order Free Online: "Friends of Carl" will mail you Carl Griffith’s 1847 Oregon Trail Sourdough Starter in dried form for the cost of a self addressed stamped envelope. For details, visit Friends of Carl.
- Buy Dried Sourdough Starter Online: There are any number of purveyors of sourdough starter online. Breadtopia Marketplace, for example, will shipped to you dried (dormant) or in the actual living form.
- Buy Caleb's Book: To aid readers in the process, when you buy "The Art of Baking with Natural Yeast,” Caleb will mail you dry sourdough starter for the price of a self-addressed, stamped envelope. I mailed my request off to Caleb and had these little babies in hand a week later.
Starting a Sourdough Starter from (a Very Small Amount of) Dried Sourdough Starter Flakes
Starting sourdough from dried flakes was a whole new experience for me, so I thought I'd go through it for you day by day, in case you are confronted with the same dilemma I was, in that I had just a very small amount of sourdough flakes with which to begin.
The directions in the book say that I need about one tablespoon of starter to “get started,” but Caleb only sent me about ½ a teaspoon, so I’m just going to push through and see what happens. Keep in mind that I've never used dehydrated flakes to start sourdough, so what comes next is learning experience.
Here's how the first week went:
Day 1 - As instructed in The Art of Baking with Natural Yeast, I soaked my starter flakes in a tablespoon of water for a few hours. And nothing happened. I mean nothing!
The flakes got a little soggy, but there was none of the breaking down I was told to look for, and certainly not any "milky water." Just shrimp color flakes.
At this point, I decided they looked too lonely at the bottom of that big jar anyway, so I moved them into a cozy little bowl (it's about four inches in diameter). Then I waited for another few hours, probably six or eight total. Still nothing but soggy flakes. So I took my finger and kind of smooshed them onto the side of the bowl to break them up some, and went on to the next step, which was to add flour. (I used all-purpose flour.)
Having had plenty of time to consider what to do next, I consulted Paul at Yumarama, who advised,
"I’d suggest in your case with the very small amount of flakes to start pretty small in the wetting and feeding quantities. You don’t want to overwhelm the reduced number of yeasty critters right at the start."
I had already added a tablespoon of water and didn't want to take any out for fear of taking some of the cultures of too, so I left the water alone and just added one teaspoon of flour, which still seemed like a lot for my little less-than-half-teaspoon of starter flakes. Then I covered it loosely with plastic wrap and set it on my counter.
Here's what it looked like (for reference, the little bowl is 3 inches in diameter):
Day 2 - No changes. None.
Day 3 - Still no changes. I start to get a little worried. Maybe I put in too much flour. Maybe there's too much water. Maybe I should have put it in the fridge. Maybe it needs to be warmer. Even though there is a ton of flour in there, I sense that I need to feed it, so a put in another ¼ teaspoon of flour.
Day 4 - No changes, except I am worrying more.
Day 5 - I "think" there is something happening! Just maybe. No visible changes yet, but it just feels different.
Day 6 - Yay! I can see tiny little bubbles!!! I think it is possible I have not killed it! I am so excited!!! I am supposed to feed it every 3-4 days, so I add another ½ teaspoon of flour, but no extra water.
Day 7 - More bubbles! And even more exciting, my little bowl of starter is starting to smell like sourdough!! Oh, I am so exited!
Back when I was a little girl, somewhere between Mr. Ed and Charlotte's Web, I fell in love with the name Wilbur. I've always wanted to give the name to a pet, but I've never had one for whom it seemed right - until now.
You see, according to all the sourdough people I've read, maintaining a sourdough starter is kind of like keeping a pet, in that it requires ongoing care and attention, regular feeding, a certain amount of air, and a clean, comfortable place to live. So I've named my starter Wilbur. I just thought you should know.
Day 8 - Not as many bubbles today, and I'm wondering if maybe I need to feed Wilbur more. Normally on feeding days, you are supposed to add enough to double your starter. For example, if you have a cup of starter, you are supposed to add a cup of water and a cup of flour. But with these small amounts, I'm not sure I should be doing that - I'm still concerned about overwhelming those little critters - so I add 1 teaspoon of water and one teaspoon of flour.
Day 9 - Smells like sourdough. Not much happening though.
Day 10 - No activity, so I decide it's time to feed him again. For the first time, I double the amounts, adding one tablespoon of flour and one tablespoon of water.
Day 11 - Not much happening. Bubbles are confined under a thin layer of water.
Day 12 - Remember that scene in Charlotte's Web where Fern has to move Wilbur out of the house and into him pen in the yard? That was today. Wilbur is finally big enough to move to a new home - a vintage canning jar with a very loose lid. I moved him, fed him and said a little prayer. From now on, I am going to try to feed him every Sunday and Thursday.
Day 13 - Bubbling away in the fridge!
Day 14 - Still bubbling!
Lesson: Stick with it, even when it seems as though you aren't making any progress.
Epilogue: Wilbur grew up to make many, many loaves of delicious sourdough bread.
Feeding & Maintaining Sourdough Starter
Sourdough starter can live forever - as long as you regularly give it a little attention.
Healthy Starter can be refrigerated for up to a week between feedings. (Honestly, I often leave it FAR longer with no problems.) However, most sourdough experts recommend feeding Sourdough Starter at least twice a week for best results.
This is a 100% Hydration starter. A 100% hydration sourdough starter is a sourdough culture which is kept and fed with equal weights of water and flour. (If you don’t have a kitchen scale, that equates to about ⅔ to ¾ cup of water for every cup of flour.)
The amount you feed your sourdough starter depends on how much of it you have to start with. You want to approximately double your starter each time you feed it. So, for example, if you have 8 ounces of Starter, you will feed it 4 ounces of water and 4 ounces of flour.
If, however, you have more starter on hand than you anticipate using for baking, you can toss (or share!) a cup or more of Starter and then double what remains.You always want to have at least 8 ounces of Starter after baking to keep the process going.
Always use a wooden spoon to stir when you feed your Starter. (Never allow metal to come in contact with your sourdough starter.)
Allow the starter rest in a dark 70°F place for 12 hours and then place in the refrigerator if you will not be using it in the next 24 hours.
What should I do with my Starter if I want to bake with it?
First, you need a mature Starter. Then you need to determine if your recipe calls for Fed, Active, Ripe, Unfed Starter or Discard. (For example, my Easy Sourdough Bread recipe calls for Unfed Starter).
Cycle of a Healthy Sourdough Starter
- Fed Starter – Fed Starter is active, healthy starter that has been fed within about 2 hours. By hour 2, it will be producing little bubbles on the surface.
- Active Starter – Starter is Active about 5 hours after feeding. By hour 5, you should be able to watch large bubbles actively rising through the Starter and making their way to surface.
- Ripe Starter – Starter is considered Ripe about 8 hours after feeding. The volume has doubled, and the top is just beginning to show signs of sagging under its own weight.
- Unfed Starter – Unfed Starter is healthy, vigorous Starter that has not been fed for 12 hours or more. By hour 12, it collapsed after Ripening, and is ready to be fed again or put in the fridge until next time. (Note that this is NOT neglected Starter that hasn’t been fed in days.)
- Discard – Sourdough discard is the portion of your sourdough starter that you get rid of when you do a feeding. It should be healthy and vigorous, with some small bubbling activity
If you aren’t up to making bread, you can always use up extra Starter by making pancakes, waffles, etc.
When baking, always reserve at least 8 ounces of Starter to feed and keep the process going.
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