I like sourdough. After all, I lived in Alaska for almost 20 years, and in the San Francisco Bay Area for another 5 or so, so I was probably predestined to like it. Hell, once you’ve spent a year in Alaska, you’ve even earned the title “Sourdough,” to distinguish you from the Cheechakos.
And like so many others, I even bought into the myth that the only place you could get genuine San Francisco sourdough bread was in San Francisco—or at least close to the Bay Area. That had to do with the fact that the wild yeast strains native to the area aren’t found anywhere else.
But today I found out that’s just not true:
Here’s what SERIOUS EATS has to say about it:
What gives San Francisco sourdough its particularly sour flavor? Some argue that it’s the makeup of the wild yeast strains native to the area, but if that were the case, you wouldn’t be able to make sour breads in other localities without introducing some of that extra-sour San Francisco yeast first. This is clearly not the case, and indeed, once the particular strain of lactobacillus bacteria responsible for San Francisco bread’s sour flavor was identified, it’s been discovered all over the world. L. sanfranciscensis is what French and Italian country-style loaves owe their sourness to, it turns out.
So what does make San Francisco sourdough bread so special? From my own knowledge of history, as well as a reading of what experts have to say on the subject, it’s experience. Sourdough arrived in the Bay Area in 1849, along with the Gold Rush. And when you’ve been baking for over 165 years, you’ve had plenty of time to perfect your technique—as well as the magic formula for the perfect sourdough bread.
As near as I can tell, the magic formula has to do with how much starter dough you mix with your bread dough. In some San Francisco loaves, the percentage is as high as 50%.
So What Does This Mean?
In practical terms, it means that if you happen to visit San Francisco and buy one of the ubiquitous packages of genuine San Francisco Sourdough Starter, you don’t have to worry about it becoming “corrupted” or devolving into a Rochester sourdough starter. (I picked Rochester because that’s where I live.) So no matter how many times I move, my genuine San Francisco Sourdough Starter will remain just that.
Or, in my case, since I’m going to make a batch of starter from scratch this week (and it will take the whole week), no matter where I take it, it will always be a Rochester Sourdough Starter. That’s assuming I cheat and use commercial yeast to start it. If I do it the traditional way by letting the natural air-borne yeast do it, it will probably be the above-mentioned L. sanfranciscensis, so in that sense, I could probably legitimately call it genuine San Francisco Sourdough Starter!
Anyway, all of this is by background and introduction to today’s topic which (surprise!) is sourdough starter and how to make it.
Here’s my tried and trusted recipe for an easy sourdough starter, which
has been handed down from mother to daughter for hundreds of years in great secrecy I found on the web a couple of years ago.
How To Make A Sourdough Starter
Love sourdough breads? Wondering how to make your own sourdough starter? It’s easy. While the internet is full of sourdough starter recipes that call for odd ingredients like pineapple juice, orange juice, potato flakes or sugar water, to make a truly good sourdough starter you need just three things: flour, water and time.
established sourdough starter (optional)
1 tablespoon baking yeast (optional)
Starting the sourdough:
Whisk 1/4 cup flour with sourdough starter or yeast (if using) and 3 tablespoons filtered water in a small bowl. Pour this into a jar, and let it sit for twelve hours. Twelve hours later, whisk in 1/2 cup flour with 1/3 cup filtered water and continue adding 1/2 cup flour and 1/3 cup water every 12* hours for one week until your starter is brisk and bubbling. As you feed your starter, take care to whisk in the flour and water thoroughly into the established starter—aerating the starter will help to yield the best and most reliable results.
(*Note: this isn’t absolutely critical. Even if you only manage to do it once every 24 hours, it will still work.)
To accommodate for expansion of the sourdough when it’s fed, make sure that your jar is only half full after each feeding. If you’ve made too much sourdough starter for the capacity of your jar, pour some off and use it in sourdough biscuits, sourdough pancakes or sourdough crackers.
Maintaining the sourdough:
After a week, your sourdough should be sturdy enough to withstand storage. If you bake infrequently (that is: if you bake less than once a week), you can store your sourdough in the refrigerator, bring it to room temperature and feed it well about twelve hours before you plan to bake. If you bake more frequently–every day or a few times a week–you can store your sourdough at room temperature and feed it with 1/2 cup flour and 1/3 cup filtered water once a day.
If a brown liquid appears floating on top of your sourdough starter, simply pour it off. Sourdough bakers call this liquid “hooch,” and it is harmless; however, it often signifies that you’ve fed your starter too much water in relation to flour or have let your starter go too long between feedings. Sourdough starters are relatively resilient, and bounce back quickly once you resume proper care of them.
Aeration of the starter is essential to ensure that the bacteria are well-distributed throughout the starter and can, thus, begin to ferment the new flour and water mixture added to the starter at each feeding. Proper aeration of the sourdough also helps to ensure that the production of hooch – a thin liquid that sometimes rises to the top of sourdough starter – is minimized.
As an aside, “hooch” is highly alcoholic. In fact, the infamous “pruno” made by convicts in prisons is a variation of this by-product, produced by fermenting raisins and other fruits, along with sugar and water. Personally, I use the fact that a half inch or so of hooch has accumulated on the top of my starter as a sign that it needs to be stirred down again.
Fed Sourdough Starter
Most sourdough recipes will call for 1 cup or so of “fed” sourdough starter. Here’s how to turn your refrigerated starter into “fed” starter.
- Up to 12 hours before beginning a recipe, stir the starter and discard 1 cup. Or give 1 cup to a friend, or use 1 cup to make waffles. However you do it, you want to get rid of 1 cup of starter.
- Feed the remaining starter with 1/2 cup lukewarm water and 1 cup flour.
- Let it sit at room temperature, covered, for 4 to 12 hours, till bubbly. It’s now “fed” and ready to use in a recipe.
- Once you’ve removed however much starter your recipe calls for (usually 1 cup), feed the remainder with 1/2 cup lukewarm water and 1 cup flour. Let this remaining starter sit, covered, at room temperature for 2 to 4 hours, until bubbly.
- Stir down, return to its container, and refrigerate.
If your starter isn’t refrigerated, there’s no need to do this. Just use the starter as it is.
For more about “hooch,” see this article on Wikipedia.