OK, let’s get a few things out of the way. I don’t really like to call bread made with natural leavening “sourdough” because a lot of people immediately turn off, saying, “I don’t like sourdough bread.” Naturally leavened bread doesn’t necessarily taste sour. The phrase “naturally leavened” is a little leaden and pedantic, so I instead favor the French word “levain,” which sounds pretentious and, uh, pedantic. Oh well, “You pays your money and you takes your choice,” as they say. “Starter” works pretty well when it’s not ambiguous.
Here are the top six reasons why I bake bread using natural leavening, in rough order of importance:
1. It tastes better.
2. It tastes better.
3. It tastes better.
4. It stays fresh longer.
5. It is healthier (lower glycemic index).
It seems amazing and delightful to me that the only store-bought ingredients in my bread are flour and salt. The water comes from the tap and the yeast comes from the starter, and ever-renewable resource.
So if the first objection is “I don’t like sourdough,” the next set of objections seems to be that baking with starter is intimidating because it is complicated and time-consuming. I would say: It can be, but it doesn’t need to be. Here’s what works for me. It does add an extra step or two, but it’s worth it.
Before I get to telling you how easy it is, maybe a little aside. Yeast is not really like other ingredients, because it’s alive. When you buy it in packets, it is in a state of suspended animation. When it’s part of an active starter it’s alive, and things that are alive need to be fed, otherwise they curl up and die. At room temperature, starter doubles roughly every 12 hours. So to keep your starter going, take some amount (say 200 grams), and add 200 grams of flour and water in appropriate proportions, and mix it together, for total of about 400g. 12 hours later, take 200 grams of your lovely bubbly, fragrant mixture, throw out the rest, and repeat. Simple, but a lot of work to do this twice a day for the rest of your bread-baking life! This is where your fridge comes in. The lower the temperature, the slower the yeast grows. You do need to feed it occasionally, but I have left my starter in the fridge for two or even three weeks without any problem.
As I have said elsewhere, I am a big fan of Ken Forkish’s “Flour Water Salt Yeast.” My only serious reservation about the book is that he makes the whole natural leavening thing more intimidating than it needs to be. On the plus side, he does reduce the feedings to once a day (which means that instead of feeding it enough to double you have to feed it enough to multiply by four or more). But he winds up using a lot of flour (about a pound per feeding), his recipe is a little complicated, and he is not at all encouraging about the use of the fridge.
My main recommendation: keep it simple. Use a starter that is equal parts (by weight) white flour and water. Trust me: this makes everything much, much simpler. I keep my starter in a 2 qt Mason jar with plastic wrap over the top, loosely. You can use pretty much anything, but don’t seal it tight because it needs to breathe and you don’t want it to explode. Let’s say you have 400g of starter in your Mason jar (you are using a scale to measure your ingredients, right?). Here is how to organize your workflow to make it easy. We’ll start you Friday morning, and you will have great bread on Saturday afternoon.
Friday morning: dump your starter into a bowl. I use a rubber spatula, and to get it to work with the Mason jar I use a relatively narrow one. Your starter is about 400g, and you need to double it. To keep the equal parts flour and water, add 200g of flour and 200g of water, mix it with your rubber spatula, cover the bowl with plastic wrap (you can re-use what was on the Mason jar), and put it someplace warm (I use the top of my fridge). Forkish recommends 85-90 degree F water (29-32 degrees C). It certainly won’t hurt but honestly you can probably do just fine with water straight out of the tap. I wash the Mason jar, but purists probably wouldn’t.
Friday evening: Mix the dough. If you are using a Forkish recipe you will need to change it a bit (see below) but it actually gets simpler than his recipe. I use 200g of starter in the dough, but as long as you have 200g left at the end it’s fine, which means you have as much as 400g to play with… so you can prepare great waffle batter for the next morning, if you want. [Edit 12 Apr 2020: King Arthur Flour has a great list of recipes for starter you are discarding.] After you mix the dough, you will have various bits of down time, which you can use to replenish the starter: take 200g of the remaining starter, put it in the Mason jar, feed it with 100g of flour and 100g of water, mix it up with your rubber spatula, stick it back in the fridge with the plastic wrap on top, and forget about it for a week or two or even three. Definitely don’t bother warming the water for this feeding.
Saturday: just follow the Forkish recipe, or whatever recipe you are using.
So: very easy. Compared to a yeast bread, it adds the extra feeding step Friday morning, and you need to replenish your starter in the evening and stick it back in the fridge. Totally worth it.
OK, how do you modify a yeast-based recipe? Also easy: just start with the total amount of ingredients in the finished dough (“total recipe quantity” in Forkish’s book), and work backwards from there.
For example, my oven is now pre-heating to bake Forkish’s “Overnight Country Brown” which I mixed up last night. The total ingredients in the recipe are 700g of white flour, 300g of whole wheat flour (for a total of 1000g of flour). Then there are 780g of water (that’s 78% hydration for bread geeks), and 22g of salt.
When he mixes, he calls for 216g of starter (levain) but we’re not going to be that fussy, we will use 200g. Now because we kept it simple, we know that our 200g of starter has 100g of water and 100g of white flour. So for the autolyse (the first phase, mixing just flour and water), you will need to add: all 300g of whole wheat flour (since there is none in the starter that you add later); 600g of white flour (since the 100g in the starter will bring this up to the 700g total); and 680g of water (again, the 100g in the starter will get you to 780g in the final dough). For the final mix you add your 22g of salt and the 200g of starter, and you are good to go.
Want to change the recipe? Your kitchen is cooler so you maybe you want to use 250g of starter? Your 250g of starter will have 125g of water and 125 of white flour, so when you do your autolyse you will still need all 300g of whole wheat flour, but only 575g of white flour, and 655g of water (since 655g + 125g is the 780g total we are shooting for). I hope you see how the 1:1 ratio of flour and water in the starter makes things easy.
That is all there is to it! What are you waiting for? Oh, maybe you need starter to get started with. You can order starter on line, e.g. from King Arthur Flour, but I found it satisfying to make my own. I followed the instructions in Samuel Fromartz’s “In Search of the Perfect Loaf,” but Forkish has his own instructions and you can easily find others on the web. [Edit 12 Apr 2020: Or see below.] I was not careful the first time I tried and needed to redo it but it worked like a charm the second time around. Unless you know there is chlorine in your tap water, or unless your first outing fails, I wouldn’t bother to use filtered water as Fromartz recommends. And you probably do want your starter to be nice and active for a week or so before you start sticking it in the fridge, so making your own starter is a bit of a project. But the one I made several years ago is still going strong, so it’s usually a one-time thing. [Edit 21 Feb 2017: today’s email from King Arthur Flour has their instructions for making starter from scratch, which look pretty sensible.]
Addendum 4 Mar 2017: Here is another way that I simplify Forkish’s instructions. He has you measure your starter into a container with some warm water in the bottom so you can remove it easily. This seems crazy to me. I put my 6 qt container with my flour-water mixture (autolyse) on my scale, zero it, sprinkle the salt on top, zero it again, and then push starter out of its bowl using a rubber spatula.
Addendum 10 July 2020: The King Arthur Flour website has this great piece on “10 tips for new sourdough bakers.”
Addendum 12 Apr 2020: Sudeep Agarwala, a synthetic biologist who works with yeast both professionally and as a baker, wrote this piece about yeast in the Washington Post. I like his use of dried fruit for the initial yeast, so here are his instructions:
30g (roughly 1 heaping tablespoon) dried fruit (raisins, apricots, dates, cherries)
40g (roughly 3 or 4 tablespoons) drinking water
40g (roughly 4 or 5 tablespoons) white flour (wheat or rye flour produce more vigorous results)
1. Combine fruit and water in a jar or bowl. Stir fruit around to release some of the yeast.
2. Add flour to the mixture and stir to create a thick paste
3. Cover the container loosely so nothing can fall in, and store in a warm (not hot) part of your kitchen: Above the refrigerator or in the oven with the light on work great.
4. Allow the mixture to sit for 24 to 48 hours, depending on the temperature of your kitchen. Small bubbles should form in the first 12 hours; these should grow considerably as you let the mixture sit.
5. To cut back, take ½ teaspoon of the bubbly mixture, and add it to a new container with roughly 40g water and 40g flour and let it sit until bubbly again. You don’t need to transfer any fruit at this point. Repeat this step three or four times before your first bake with your starter. Always use newly cut-back, vigorous starter for your baking.
Notes: This method is incredibly versatile. Don’t have dried fruit? Try it with some fresh grapes or plums you have around. Short of that, try any dal you have (chana, urad or masoor work well). Or try boiling cut potatoes in some water, let the water cool, and mix it with an equal part flour. In a pinch, just mixing equal parts water and flour, or equal parts water with rye flour will work too. This will take much longer but should produce active starters.
Don’t have flour? Try using other sources: fine cornmeal or semolina flour. Or, blend some oats to replace the flour. You can try experimenting with any number of things here.
Safety: Young starters — before the yeast can really get its footing — are the most vulnerable to infection by the wrong sort of bacteria, including possibly E. coli. A pinkish or orange-ish tint may indicate bad bacteria. Discard and start again if you see this color change, or mold.