Growing up, my family kept not a sourdough starter, but a loaf of bread in the refrigerator. Sometimes it would be there for days, sometimes a week or two. It was essentially a white sandwich loaf with enough whole wheat and oats that it could masquerade as something healthy and whole wheat. The bread wasn’t exceptional but it did the job. It never went bad and is still a loaf you can buy at the grocery store.
In culinary school, we spent 12 weeks on breads over the course of 2 years—I am embarrassed to say that my retention was little. I do remember that the levain that was kept on in the bread classroom was over 50 years old (though I am sure that some hapless culinary student in their early days of learning tossed it into the compost bin). I came out of those classes with dozens of recipes that I never used again.
Upon graduation, I worked in different bread bakeries and remained somewhat clueless and intimidated. It all seemed like magic to me. How did anyone know when the bread was ready to be baked? How did the bucket of flour and water that was fed so lovingly every 12 hours, with no days off for holidays, make that delicious loaf of polenta sourdough that I was madly in love with?
I can say with certainty that the majority of what I know about making naturally leavened breads came with a lot of trial and error in my home kitchen with my first sourdough starter. Before I came to BAKE!, I was in graduate school and had a dining room table that could seat 15 people. Every Saturday morning, I would wake up at 6 am to make sure that the bread was going to be out of the oven by 6 pm for the dozen or so classmates who would come for dinner, but really just wanted loaves and loaves of bread. I loved that starter. We got to know each other well. I didn’t yet know about the importance of naming starters, and sadly, it did not survive the move to Michigan.
What I now know, 20 years on, is that there is still some magic in naturally leavened breads, but it’s more patience and paying attention. You don’t need the water of San Francisco or flour made by monks in Texas to make amazing bread at home. But you need to fail a few times, and you need to know that there is a level of commitment, albeit small, and that it can be a part of your day and your life.
With that in mind, here’s my day-by-day guide to starting your own sourdough starter.
Visit our YouTube playlist for videos for Day 2 and beyond!
Turning your starter into bread! (All videos can be found here.)
We’re going to keep baking with Jerome; follow along on the Zingerman’s Bakehouse Facebook page as I still have some more bread to bake…..
Sourdough Starter FAQs
1. What tools do I need to get started on my sourdough journey?
- Good, wide-mouthed bowl (12 quart is a good size)
- Plastic card
- Bench knife
- Small container with lid (for starter)
- Larger container with lid (for dough)
- Wooden spoon
- Bread Baskets
- Patience, patience, and more patience
2. Do I have to have whole wheat flour to begin my starter?
The bran and the germ on the outside of the wheat berry contain critical nutrients and enzymatic goodness to get your starter going. All-purpose flour contains only the endosperm of the wheat berry and it is more difficult to get your starter going.
That said, if you have any sort of whole grain (spelt, kamut, rye) that should get your starter going nicely.
3. What should I name my starter?
Anything you want, as long as you keep it alive. Some previous starter names that stand out include: Bread Pitt, Fred, Albus, etc…
4. What do I do with my sourdough discard?
Please check out our BAKE! Facebook group (or email [email protected] if you aren’t a member already so we can add you) for great ideas as to what to use your discard for.
5. Why are there so many ways to get sourdough starters going?
Many bakeries and bakers have sourdough methods that work for them. There are many types of starters (firm and liquid) out there in the world but the idea behind them is the same: capture the wild yeast that is all around us in the world and use that to leaven your bread and add flavor.
6. Do I have to throw my starter away? Why? Why?
Please listen to this lovely video from Vanessa Kimball, a baking instructor who is well versed in all types of sourdoughs and does a magnificent job of explaining what’s going on inside your starter.
7. Do I have to feed it every day?
You do…but only in the beginning! Once you get in a good relationship with your starter (you know how often it needs to be fed, it knows when you will feed it), you will be able to refrigerate your starter for days at a time and then bring it out for feedings. This will probably take 2 weeks.
8. What is this Put Away Farm and/or Levain stuff? Do I need to have all that AND a starter?
A very fine question.
Put Away Farm is a piece of farm bread dough that has been cut off before the loaf is proofing, put in the fridge, and used within 5 days. After 5 days, you pull it from the fridge, feed it, let it sit for 6-8 hours and at that point it becomes levain. If you are not baking with it it goes back in the fridge and it turns back into Put Away Farm.
Levain is Put Away Farm that has been fed, left to ferment on the counter for 6-8 hours, and then used in any naturally leavened bread recipes that calls for levain (this recipe is on page 42 of the cookbook).
Once you have your Put Away Farm, as long as you feed that and keep it alive, there is no need to maintain a starter as well.
9. Some of your breads use Put Away Farm and some use Levain. How come?
They are the same guy, the same little organism, doing ultimately the same good work, they are just at different stages of their flavor development and leavening power.
If you take the Put Away Farm from the fridge and do not feed it, and attempt to use it in place of the Levain, you are going to get very flat loaves.
10. It seems like bread recipes I read assume a more wet/hydrated sourdough starter made with a higher ratio of water. How will we use this firm starter in a recipe like that?
Right now, with the Zingerman’s way, we are making a firm starter that is 54% hydration. How did I get that number?
107 grams of starter
110 grams of all-purpose flour
58 grams of water
Water/AP Flour (58g/107g)= 54% hydration
If I want a more liquid starter, I can just start feeding the starter more water. For example, if I want 70% hydration:
107 grams of starter
110 grams of all-purpose flour
77 grams of water
Water/AP Flour (77g/110g)=70% hydration
And so on. Every recipe is a little different; it all depends on what they ask you for BUT once you have a robust starter going it’s easy enough, with about 3 feedings, to transition one starter to the other.
BAKE! Principal and Instructor
At the age of 4, Sara climbed on the kitchen counter to 'taste' vanilla extract. Disappointed by the taste (how could something that smelled so good taste so bad?), she was caught by her mother and had to sheepishly explain what she was up to. Fast forward ten years and Sara was selling homemade sandwiches and cookies to her friends at lunch and still running lemonade stands with her best friend. This love of all things food, and especially baking, led Sara to the Culinary Institute of America where she got her degree in baking and pastry arts. She baked and cooked her way across the country, working everywhere from NYC to San Francisco, Atlanta, Alaska, North Dakota, and even Cambridge, England.
Sara received her master's degree in hospitality management from Cornell University, where she helped teach and develop curriculum for an undergraduate restaurant course. After years of wondering how Zingerman's made their deliciously perfect Cosmic Cakes, she is thrilled to be a part of the team and learn the secrets to pass on to BAKE! students.