Sourdough: Starting My Starter

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One of my great BreadYear goals is to bake a sour, crunchy bread bowl and ladle piping hot soup, chili, or chowder into said bowl. The first step to an excellent sour sourdough bread is an excellent sourdough starter. This week I decided to give it a try.

A starter is a living mix of flour, water, and naturally-occurring microorganisms multiplying like a third-grader at a pop quiz. (Did I mention that I’m terrible at similes?) The starter requires constant (once or twice daily) feeding of additional flour and water. It’s typical to remove some of the starter before adding more, so it stays a manageable quantity.

You can use a starter in most any bread recipe – just replace the yeast and some of the water and flour with some starter. The quantities are a bit tough, however, and after reading some websites it sounds like this is all about experimentation.

There are a few options for getting yourself a starter. There are mail-order starters that purport to be (and probably are) centuries old, and others that are available for free. Breadtopia says that the Friends of Carl organization has an excellent starter and they’ll send you some for the cost of a self-addressed, stamped envelope (so they can send it back).

Anyway, I searched around found a few recipes to create a sourdough starter. I was particularly interested in starting one without using any yeast. That’s right, the starter was comprised of flour and water. The natural yeasts in the flour would react and multiply, and as I fed the starter it would ferment and become a rich, sour base for countless breads to come.

No such luck. The starter didn’t kick in. I used whole wheat flour and tap water, but after 2 1/2 days there was no bubbling, growth, or change in odor. I tossed the natural starter.

After two days of impatient feeding, I went forward with a second starter recipe, with the “cheating” method of using a bit of yeast: I used Emeril’s Basic Sourdough Starter recipe. Two days later, this starter was going crazy. I had to toss about a cup of it because continued feeding would have overflowed my four cup container.

Tonight, I tested the young starter by making two small boules. Since I used wheat flour to begin with, they’re a little heavier and more dense than I’d hoped. It’s also possible that they would have risen more and become lighter with time. After 8:30pm, I figured it was time to give in and bake them.

They came out tasty, though not sour at all. I didn’t expect much. But I am quite pleased, and given how little work went into making these small loaves I can certainly envision baking loaves off this starter on a regular basis. I’m looking forward to continued flavor development as the starter matures.

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