We tried making a sourdough starter. Here's how we failed — and ultimately succeeded
Food and dining reporter, Rebecca King, shares the highs and lows of making a sourdough starter. NorthJersey.com
Let me tell you about Chip: my fussy, temperamental, difficult, effervescent, time-consuming child— I mean… sourdough starter.
I, like many amateur bakers, used the ample solitude quarantine has presented to make my own sourdough starter — a finicky and meticulously timed process that has defeated man. But, the rewards are great. A healthy sourdough starter can yield biscuits, waffles, pancakes, brownies and, of course, loaves of crusty, spongy sourdough bread.
Google Trends shows that the search "sourdough" saw more than a 100 percent increase from early March to mid-April, when COVID-19 was nearing its peak. It's still trending.
And, yes, people name them. Mine, after a few days of constant attention, was dubbed Chip.
Sourdough starters are the cornerstone of sourdough loaves, which use no commercial yeast (the kind you buy at a grocery store). Starters are made with a simple mix of flour and water. Together, these ingredients create enzymes that “eat” the flour and convert starch molecules into simple sugars, which builds a healthy environment for microbial reproduction. Yeast and lactic acid bacteria are cultivated in the starter, which causes bread to rise.
In its simplest terms, making a sourdough starter involves mixing flour and water in at least a quart-large jar (wide-mouthed and glass is preferable), putting it in a warm space, and feeding it with more flour and water when it gets “hungry.” Eventually, it will fester into a sour-smelling goop that creates gorgeous loaves of bread.
Sound easy? It’s not. If you won’t take my word for it, take that of Ariane Duarte, a Culinary Institute of America graduate and the owner of Ariane Kitchen & Bar in Verona. Duarte also used her time in quarantine to make a sourdough starter, aptly named Covi.
“I’ve tried several times, but I’ve always done it by the seat of my pants,” she said. “It was really difficult, but it was a bucket list item, so having time to do it right was great.”
I also called on the advice of Tomasso Colao, owner of Bivio pizza in Montclair and a man obsessed with his 24-year-old starter he calls “The Baby.” Colao is poetic when he speaks about his beloved starter.
“It’s so beautiful. It’s strong, floral and comes back stronger and quicker the more I feed it,” he said. “It’s a living organism. You have to adapt with it. When we’re cold, we put on a sweater. When your starter is cold, put it in a warm place. It’s the same idea.”
The Baby is fed every day, sometimes twice a day. It's a vital part of his business; he uses it to make the pizza and bread at Bivio. Colao has even brought The Baby with him on vacation so he can keep up on feedings — including one trip to Delaware where a ferry worker checked his luggage, found the starter and responded, “That’s a first for me.”
How to mess up a starter
My problems began on day one.
The basics of making a starter: measure flour and water into a glass jar, and, over time, keep it warm, remove some of the starter and add and more flour and water.
Of course, it's not that simple.
I didn’t have a glass jar that was big enough to hold the starter — at least four cups. Every website says glass is preferable. I went to the store and found a Rubbermaid plastic bottle and shirked the good advice of others. This became a problem later — the bottle widened toward the bottom, so I spent too long trying to reach a fork into its crevices to stir out dry chunks of flour. Also, the mouth was wide, but not quite wide enough. Pouring in flour was a powdery mess. However, the fact that it was plastic didn’t seem to present any problems. (Colao later told me plastic is fine.)
I also had no kitchen scale to measure the ingredients. The Internet experts stressed the importance of accurate measurements in grams. All I had were cup measurers and a can-do attitude.
I had no internal thermometer to check the temperature of the starter (which should be from 70 to 80 degrees to keep it warm, but not too warm, which could kill the yeast).
I had no water filtration system. Colao only uses filtered water or water from glass bottles. Even plastic bottled water is too impure for him, as plastic is an oil-based product. The chlorine and chemicals in tap water could contaminate or sully your starter, he said. But, alas, I had no choice. Tap water it was!
All this on day one. Lacking a scale, internal thermometer and Brita filter, I began to wonder if every adult has these kitchen essentials, and I'm simply woefully behind.
I took heart later, talking to Duarte. The professional chef had no at-home food scale either and put her starter in two separate purple mason jars. She did wind up buying a scale for herself later and said it has made a huge difference in the health of her starter. Colao, too, stressed the importance of a scale; cup measurements are simply too imprecise to make a healthy starter.
(For the record, I’m still plodding along with my heretical cup measurements.)
Despite these initial setbacks, I pressed on, cobbling together a scrappy mixture and leaving it on the counter. The next day I tended to it like a skittish new mom, moving it around to sunny spots in the house so it got enough warmth. By the end of the night, we were looking good. Chip had risen slightly and developed some bubbles. Excellent.
I moved Chip to a glass Pyrex container — the stretchy mixture clung to the edges of the Rubbermaid, making it impossible to work with — and fed the starter again. I waited 24 hours. I’ll let Duarte explain what this next part was like for both of us: “I rush things. I’m not a baker by any means and I have very little patience,” she said.
Nevertheless, 24 hours passed, and I had the morale boost of seeing Chip double in size and develop beautiful little bubbles. Like a mother, cherishing their child’s first curls, I loved those dang bubbles. I was doing something right.
Then came a long period of doing things very wrong. I began feeding Chip twice a day, as my schedule stated. But, instead of waiting for the starter to expand and deflate, I kept to the stringent every-12-hours schedule. Big mistake. By day five, Chip was limp and lifeless. Only a few millimeters of growth a day and some puny bubbles gave me hope that he could be resuscitated.
Indeed, Colao advises to keep working with your starter even if it starts acting strange. Reviving a faltering starter is very often better than starting from scratch.
By day six, I began feedings once every 24 hours, giving the starter time to develop that yeast and acid. A week and a half into the process (way longer than the six-day schedule I was following), Chip seemed healthy. He developed the pungent, sour smell of success. I dared to do what's known as the float test, plunking a bit of Chip into a tall glass of water.
It rose to the top.
I raised a sourdough starter.
I relished turning out the stretchy substance into its new, clean home (back into the problematic Rubbermaid bottle — I plan on buying a glass jar soon). I made bread the next day. It was dense and flavorless, but it was mine. I savored every bite.
Is it worth it?
Since then, I’ve made another, better loaf of rosemary bread, countless sourdough pancakes with the discard and a particularly delicious batch of sourdough pretzels.
Duarte has experimented with waffles, brownies and biscuits, as well. The latter might even make it into the breadbasket at Ariane Kitchen & Bar. Colao has used his to make tempura batter, cakes, focaccia and more.
“If you think of the starter as yeast and fermentation, it opens up doors to everything,” he said. “Experiment with everything you would use yeast for.”
Duarte is also slowly collecting the accouterments of sourdough making – a Dutch oven, shaping baskets, a bench scraper – because, of course, the starter is just one part of making sourdough bread. But, that’s a story for another day.
“If I can do it, you can do it. If you’re an avid bread lover, it’s worth it,” said Duarte. “I long for the day that my starter is three years old.”
How to start a starter
Here are the basics, which I learned from the blog Feasting At Home:
Day 1: Starting in the morning or at night, combine 120 grams (1 cup) of whole wheat flour with 120 grams (half a cup) of filtered, room temperature water. Use a fork to mix it into a nice paste. Put the starter, covered loosely with a lid, in a warm area of your house (around 70 to 80 degrees F).
Day 2: Wait 24 hours and check on your starter. If it’s begun to develop bubbles, discard all but 120 grams of the starter and mix it with 120 grams of white bread flour and 120 grams of lukewarm water. If there are no bubbles, wait a few more hours to feed. Mark where your starter begins with a sharpie or piece of tape to see if it grows. Place the lid on loosely.
Day 3: The next day, if the starter is bubbling and expanding, feed your starter twice a day, 12 hours apart. Each time, discard all but 120 grams of the starter and mix with 120 grams of white bread flour and 120 grams of lukewarm water. Watch to make sure your starter is rising and falling — it should double in size before starting to ebb. If it doesn't, give it more time. It could take up to 24 hours for your starter to need feeding.
Day 4 and 5: Feed your starter twice a day, 12 hours apart.
Day 6: Feed your starter one more time and put it in a clean jar. The volume should double within four to eight hours with bubbles throughout. If it does, take a tablespoon of starter and put it into a glass of water. If it floats, it’s ready to be used to make sourdough bread. You can keep the starter in your refrigerator after this point and feed once a week.