When I decided to experiment with making sourdough bread, I started looking up information on making the “starter” cultures that were needed for the dough. Time and again, the recipes and instructions I found had you start with large quantities of flour and water, then after allowing it to sit and ferment, take all but a small amount and, get this, THROW. THE. REST. AWAY. The reason for this last step was because you would need to add more flour and water at regular periods and so if you didn’t throw some out, you would eventually have a monster bowl of sourdough starter.
At first I faithfully followed the instructions, but it really bothered me to be tossing so much potential food. I tried to use up as much of the discarded starter as possible, but so much was still wasted. It finally dawned on me that the answer was very simple: just start with less and continue to add less. Easy. No need to use so much flour and water if you’re only going to throw the excess away. (Here is the recipe for my Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread). If you’re in a hurry, I’ve got a “cheater’s version” of starter for you, too!
I also found out later on that there is no need to purchase special cultures for making sourdough, though if you want a particular flavor to be imparted to your breads this is an option. Flour naturally has yeasts and other microorganisms that will turn simple flour and water into a living tool that can transform your bread and impart that special tangy taste that characterizes traditional sourdough.
No-Waste Sourdough Starter Recipe
Many municipal water sources contain additives to keep the water free from germs. Some of these may inhibit the natural yeasts and other organisms in your flour from being able to live. If you are not sure if your water source contains these additives, you may want to use filtered or bottled water.
In a non-reactive bowl (glass, stainless steel, plastic) put in one tablespoon of water and then stir in two scant tablespoons of flour. Cover tightly with either plastic wrap or a lid that seals. Allow to sit undisturbed for 24 hours in a draft free area .
Uncover and stir. Your flour mixture may already have some bubbles forming. Add another tablespoon of water and another two scant tablespoons of flour and stir in. Cover again and allow to sit another 24 hours.
Repeat this process for the next 2-3 days until the mixture has a slightly sour, alcoholic smell to it. At this point you have true sourdough starter! If at any time your mixture takes on an “off” smell, or turns weird colors, you will want to toss it and start over. Sourdough is made from a wild mix of organisms and sometimes they just don’t play nice with each other. If you can’t seem to get a proper culture going with your sources of flour, you may want to consider seeding it with one of the cultures I mentioned above. Keep in mind that you will use a small portion of it since you will be starting with smaller amounts of flour than they will recommend. You will still be able to follow the instructions I have here.
So what to do if you aren’t ready to bake anything, yet? Just put it in the refrigerator in a tightly closed container until you are ready. Many internet sources claim you need to “feed” your starter on a weekly basis, again leading you to have too much and have to throw some out. Stay away from the dark side!! I have found that my starter can be neglected for easily a month or more, no harm done (update: my record is now three months!). You will see a buildup of a dark grey liquid on top, just stir it in and you are ready to go. If by any chance it did go bad, just start over.
When you are ready to bake, determine how much starter you will need for the amount of baking you plan to do, keeping in mind that you will need to keep at least a few tablespoons aside for starting your next batch. Remove your starter from the refrigerator 24 hours before you plan to bake and place it into a larger, non-reactive bowl. For every amount of water you add to your starter, you will add just shy of twice that of flour (for example: ½ c water, and not quite 1 c flour). If your recipe calls for a cup of starter, you will want to measure how much you already have and add enough water and flour to make that cup plus a little extra to set aside. If you make too much, don’t worry, just store all of the leftovers in the refrigerator again after you are done baking. No harm done, no need to toss it. If you find yourself with very little left, no problem, just add the same 1 part water and 2 parts flour to your bowl of starter bits and mix it all together. The little yeasties will start reproducing before you know it and you are good to go!