Note:  Directions are the same for all varieties of Sourdough starters- the only difference is the type of flour used.

You will need:

  • one quart canning jar or other glass jar
  • coffee filter or paper towel to cover jar, and elastic band to secure cover
  • wooden or plastic spoon
  • 1/4 cup flour (type depends on variety of Sourdough starter) for activation
  • 1/4 cup lukewarm water (filtered or spring water is best) for activation
  • 1 packet Sourdough starter culture

Activate your starter culture:

1)  Put 1/4 cup water into jar.  Sprinkle the starter culture into water, then stir until well mixed.  Allow to sit for a few minutes to soften a bit, then stir again.  Stir in the 1/4 cup flour, mixing well (stirring vigorously will incorporate bubbles into the mixture, which helps with activation). Cover the jar & secure with elastic band.

2)  Allow to culture at room temperature (68 to 78 degrees is ideal) for 24 hours.  Choose a draft-free spot, out of direct sunlight, where your Sourdough won’t be disturbed.  While not necessary, stirring again once or twice during this 24 hours will help get things going.

3)  After 24 hours, “feed” your starter with another 1/4 flour and 1/4 cup water, stirring well.  Let culture as before.  Within the next 24 to 36 hours, you will start to see bubbles as your Sourdough starter wakes up.

4)  Once your starter is activated, continue with once or twice daily feedings of equal parts flour & water.  Frequent feedings will keep your starter active and will increase volume more quickly for baking (amounts needed depend on your recipe).  Consistency should be like a thick pancake batter.

As you use your starter in recipes, always remember to reserve some back for your continuing starter.  If you plan to use it frequently, keep it in a warm place and continue with daily feedings.  If it will be awhile until you use it, store it in the refrigerator in a covered jar or container.  This will put your starter to “sleep”, requiring less attention until you’re ready to use it again.  While refrigerated, feed your starter weekly to keep it happy.

Reviving refrigerated starter:

1)  Remove Sourdough starter from refrigerator.  Feed the starter with equal parts flour & water, mixing well.  Cover with coffee filter & secure with elastic band.

2)  Place in a warm spot for 12 to 24 hours.  During this time you should begin to see bubbles, as your starter awakens.

3)  Feed the starter again, and let sit for 6 to 12 hours.  You should now have a lively starter again.  All that is left to do is build it up to the quantity you want for your recipes with once or twice daily feedings.

Now it’s time to Get Fermented!   

Download instructions here.

Sourdough Starter Cultures

Make your own hearty, healthy sourdough bread with our Sourdough Starter Cultures.  Just add the culture to flour and water, and watch the magic begin!  It is possible to make your own starter culture by allowing the wild yeasts in your home to accumulate and grow in flour and water, but is not always reliable.  Sometimes there are not enough wild yeasts available in the atmosphere to populate your starter (particularly if air filters are in use).  The wild yeasts in your home may not always produce a desirable flavor (any teenager’s sweaty socks hanging around?)  Using a specific starter culture is a way to ensure success and speed up the process.

What Is Sourdough Starter?

Sourdough starter is a symbiotic colony of various lactobacillus bacteria and yeasts that are allowed to ferment in flour and water.  The sourdough factor adds the slightly tart flavor to baked goods that we love.  The sourness is the result of lactic acid produced during the fermentation process.  Flavors can vary, depending on geographic location, humidity, elevation, hydration, length of time between feedings, temperature, and proofing time.  This all affects the microbiology of your starter.  The beneficial bacteria generally include saccharomyces exiguus and Saccharomyces cerevisiae.  The yeasts commonly found are candida milleri and candida humilis.  Your starter also acts as a natural leavener, allowing you to omit or use less commercially produced baker’s yeast.  The lactic acid fermentation gives off carbon dioxide gases, which create the bubbliness that adds the leavening factor.  Sourdough breads also tend to last a bit longer, due to the preservative nature of the lactic acid.

Origin

Sourdough has origins in ancient Egypt, and the oldest bread found was excavated in Switzerland, dating back to 3700 BC.  The use of sourdough could correlate with the beginning of agriculture, several thousands of years earlier.  It was the primary form of leavening into the Middle Ages, when it was largely replaced by Barm (a byproduct of the beer brewing process).  After that period, specifically cultured baking yeast was developed.

Sourdough starter was brought to Northern California during the Gold Rush of 1849.  It is still a large part of the San Francisco culture.  From California, it migrated into Alaska and Western Canada during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898.  The starter was often carried by miners and settlers in a pouch.  The sourdough was more reliable than conventional yeast, due to the harsh conditions.

Sourdough became less common with the arrival of commercial bakeries in the 20th century,  but came back into popularity with an influx of artisan bakers in the 1980’s.

Commercial Production

While commercially produced breads are convenient, they aren’t always the healthiest choice for you and your family.  They often contain added sugars (high fructose corn syrup being the leading culprit), preservatives, chemicals, and other additives.  Conventionally farmed wheat can contain pesticide residue, and formaldehyde is commonly used in its preservation.

Varieties

NW Ferments offers 6 heirloom varieties of sourdough starters.  The type of bacteria and flour used determine the flavor and texture of your bread.  Heirloom varieties are reusable, as long as some is reserved back for the next batch each time you use it. This is called “backslopping”. With proper care, you can keep your sourdough going indefinitely!

San Francisco is probably the most widely known variety.  It has a distinctively sour characteristic that people have come to know and love.  It tends to require a longer rise time, but good things come to those who wait!  In the 1970’s, the Microbiology Department at Oregon State University isolated the bacteria that gives San Francisco sourdough its unique flavor.  They named it lactobacillus san francisco.

Yukon is a close relative of San Francisco, and hails from the Klondike region of Canada.  It has a deliciously tart flavor, and has a bit faster rise time than its cousin San Fran. Try the Yukon Sourdough.

Camaldoli is an Italian variety with a mildly tangy flavor.  It is very hearty and has a fairly quick rise time.  It’s great for use in pizza crusts and other types of non-bread recipes. Camaldoli is a must have staple in your house.

Desem, made with whole wheat flour, means “starter” in Flemish.  It creates a hearty, fiber-rich bread.  Longer proofing time will increase its sourness, if desired.

Danish Rye is a dark and dense type that is a staple in Denmark.  The Danish call it Rugbrod, and they traditionally include cracked rye, grains, and seeds in the recipe.  They use this bread to make open faced sandwiches, called Smorrebrod.  Rye bread is highly nutritious, typically less sweet, has a harder crust, and lower gluten content.  Due to the low gluten factor in rye flour, sourdough starter is a better choice for leavening than baker’s yeast.

Gluten Free Starter is a great option for those preferring gluten free baked goods.  Made with brown rice, it is an active variety and has better success with more frequent feedings. If you’re looking for a gluten free sourdough, gluten free starter is definitely what you’re looking for.

Process

Sourdough Starter is one of the easiest ferments to start with.  Rehydrating a dried starter is quick and easy.  Place 1/4 cup of room temperature or tepid water in a glass jar.  A quart canning jar works well, as you’ll be starting small.  Sprinkle the starter into the water, and stir/swish until powder is dissolved well.  Avoid using metal whenever you are working with cultures.  Add 1/4 cup of your flour of choice, depending on what kind of starter you are making.  Stir until well mixed.  When adding flour now, and with later feedings, stir vigorously.  This will incorporate air into the starter, creating bubbles and assisting with activation.  Cover with a coffee filter or other breathable cover and secure with a rubber band.  Place in a nice and warm, draft free spot.  70-78 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal.  If your house tends to run cool, try to find a warmer “micro climate”.  Maybe on top of your refrigerator, near an appliance, or wrapped with a towel for insulation.  Allow to sit for 24 hours while the magic begins.  Though not mandatory, stirring again a couple of times during this 24 hours will help speed up the process.  After 24 hours, “feed” the starter again with another 1/4 cup each of flour and water, and stir well.  Let sit as before.  Within the next 24 to 36 hours, you should start to see small bubbles as the action of fermentation begins.

Once your starter is activated, continue with once or twice daily feedings of roughly equal parts flour and water.  Frequent feedings will keep your starter active and increase the volume quickly for baking.  If feedings are longer than 3 days apart, the balance of your starter can change, due to an increase in acidity.  The amount of starter needed varies, according to your recipe.  As you use portions, always be sure to reserve some back for your continuing starter.  If you’ll be actively baking, keep the starter in a warm place and continue with daily feedings.

Taking a Break

If you’re going to go longer between uses, or if you need a break from the sourdough cycle, you can cover it with a solid lid and store it in the refrigerator.  This will slow the fermentation process and put the starter to “sleep”, requiring less attention until you are ready to use it again.  During refrigeration, feed the starter weekly to keep it happy.  When ready to start again- remove from the refrigerator, feed, cover and place in a warm spot.  It will take 12 to 24 hours to wake back up and begin bubbling again.  From there, continue with regular feedings and you’re back in business!

Details

After refrigeration and with infrequent feedings, your starter may develop a dark liquid on top.  This is actually the alcohol (produced during the fermentation process) separating from the solids.  It’s commonly called “Hooch”.  This means your starter is hungry and needs a good meal!  Feel free to take a shot of Hooch, but it can also either be drained off or mixed back into the starter.  It’s not harmful, but keep in mind that it’s development is a sign of a less vital starter.

Rising time is generally a bit longer with sourdough starter than with baker’s yeast.  Using a bread maker can be iffy, and may require a slightly different process.

Use care in choosing your ingredients.  Organic, minimally processed flours are best.  Chemical additives and pesticide residue can interfere with your culture.  Water should be free of chlorine, fluoride, and other chemicals.  Filtered water can be used, or you can remove toxins by “off-gassing”- allow your container of water to sit, with a breathable cover for 24 hours.  This process removes chemicals through evaporation.

Too Much Sourdough?

If you find that the sourdough monster is taking over your kitchen, never fear!  There are many ways to use your sourdough starter besides making bread. Firstly, it can be shared with friends and family.  This rustic form of baking has come back into popularity, and you might be surprised how many in your circle would be interested in dabbling!

Try using sourdough in pancakes, waffles, biscuits, or muffins.  It adds a great flavor to flat breads, pizza crust, tortillas, and pretzels.  It can even be used  in making cookies, crackers, and egg noodles.

So, if you haven’t tried making your own sourdough starter before, it’s time to jump in the pool!  If you have, maybe it’s time to explore a different variety or experiment with gluten-free baking (not always an easy task).  Regardless, nothing compares to the satisfaction of making your own.  You not only get to exercise your imagination, but you can control what goes into your food.  And THAT is a great feeling!

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