The Easiest Shortcut to Having the Perfect Sourdough Starter
Like many people spending lots of time at home during the coronavirus pandemic, I decided to try making sourdough — that tangy, airy style of bread made with wild yeast — for the first time.
But when I started reading sourdough recipes (and daydreaming about the perfect, crusty country loaf emerging from my oven), I quickly became overwhelmed at the thought of performing the first step: Making the starter.
Instead of dumping in a packet of dry yeast from the store, sourdough bread harnesses the fermentation power of naturally occurring yeast and bacteria that are all around, in the air, on our hands, and on our kitchen countertops. A sourdough starter — also known as a "mother" or "culture" — is a gooey flour-and-water mixture that, over time, collects enough wild yeast and bacteria to give the bread its signature tang and open structure.
Making a mature starter usually involves a week, sometimes two weeks, of daily "feeding" with a new supply of water and flour (while discarding some of your existing starter at the same time). Setting aside this significant investment of time and energy, there are lots of ways your starter can go wrong — it may get moldy, turn grey, or, perhaps most likely, it may do absolutely nothing at all, which means it won't leaven your bread. (Once your starter is mature, aka contains enough yeast and bacteria for a whole loaf of bread, you still have to keep feeding it regularly, but you can basically put it on autopilot.) To me, making my own starter sounded a lot like rocket science.
I did eventually summon up the courage to make my own starter. But while I fed mine daily and waited for it to mature, I decided to take a little shortcut, too. I called Dry Storage, a local bakery and artisan grain mill in Boulder, CO, to see if they'd be willing to share some of their mature starter with me. They said yes, and I drove over to pick some up, along with some funky-sounding flours I'd never heard of before.
For $3, I got a small container of Dry Storage's tried-and-tested starter, which I fed and used to bake my first loaf of sourdough the very next day. My first loaf wasn't perfect, of course, but it was a great jumping-off point; I've been baking a loaf every week ever since.
Many bakeries around the country are more than happy to share a little container of their starter for free or a small fee, which is a foolproof way to set yourself up for success as a home baker. And no, it's not cheating, since that little bit of starter is now fully under your care — you're responsible for feeding and maintaining it so that you can keep baking sourdough into the future.
While you're picking up some starter, don't be afraid to ask them a few questions, too. These experienced bakers are a huge untapped resource and most are glad to share their wealth of sourdough knowledge and offer some tips and advice.
"We have people come in all the time with questions and it's great, I like talking to them," says Luke Miller, who helps bake more than 150 sourdough loaves per day as head baker at Dry Storage.
The most important factor for a happy, healthy sourdough starter is maintaining the right temperature. Home bakers can adjust the ambient air temperature of their home with their thermostat or by investing in a seed germination mat, which maintains a set temperature for plant seedlings. Miller keeps the bakery's starter at 73 degrees Fahrenheit. "Starters like consistency, not drastic drops and rises," he shared.
Also remember that the yeast and bacteria in your starter are hearty and resilient, so even though it feels like a delicate, sensitive substance, you're not likely to ruin your starter beyond repair if you forget to feed it periodically or don't exactly measure the flour and water you're adding in.
"Just relax and breathe because you're not going to kill it," says AJ Brown, founder of Knead Bakehouse and Provisions in St. Louis, MO. "This is supposed to be fun. Take the pressure off yourself."
Beyond maintaining your starter, baking the perfect loaf of sourdough won't happen overnight. As with anything, practice, practice, practice, Brown says. The repetition will boost your confidence and help you start to understand the subtle factors that can affect your finished bread.
"It's a marathon, not a sprint," says Brown, who sells the bakery's starter for $8. "If you make bread every day or every week, you'll see a difference. You can do the same thing — or what you thought was the same thing — and it'll be slightly different based on things you can't really control or things you have to learn to control over time."
"You know that old proverb about the fisherman teaching you how to fish instead of giving you the fish? It's the same thing for starter," said Lionel Vatinet, who shares his starter and teaches baking classes at La Farm Bakery in Cary, North Carolina.
If you are going to use a local bakery's starter in your sourdough, consider attempting to make your own, too. Most likely, you'll get a bubbly, healthy starter on your first try — and even if it fails, you'll learn an important lesson that will help make you a better baker in the long run.