I have been excited about sourdough for years, but am just beginning to delve into the wonders of natural leaven. I have been delighted at how straightforward, low-key, and forgiving it can be to care for and bake with sourdough! So far, I’ve made a handful of fairly successful bread loaves, and discovered how amazing a scoop of starter can be in crackers, pie crust, pizza dough, cornbread, biscuits, and more! Even if you aren’t able to find the time to make bread very often, it’s worth keeping a jar of starter going just to enjoy quick, easy, flexible, and scrumptious sourdough pancakes and waffles!
I cannot speak to the process of cultivating a sourdough starter from scratch, since I was gifted a jar of starter from my farming and baking mentor at Chrysalis Earth, who had received it from another friend. (It’s origins are reputed to stretch back over a hundred years). There are a plethora of resources in print and online that explain the process if you need or want to entice wild yeast to your service — all you need is flour, water, and patience. But if you know a friend or bakery that makes sourdough bread, no doubt they have starter to spare. If you can beg even a spoonful, you’ll be ready to dive right into sourdough baking within a few days.
Maintaining a Starter
Most instructions for caring for sourdough starter call for frequent feeding and discarding of starter to keep it fresh and vigorous, or else letting it languish in the fridge before reviving it from its stupor a day or so before you plan to use it. It seems plausible to me that this results in a particularly strong starter that produces exceptional bread. It was precisely the constant demand of time, attention, and flour, only to throw away all but a few tablespoons of the product, that held me back from attempting sourdough baking for so long.
Instead, I follow a simple, frugal, imprecise method that suits me better, and has produced several satisfactory loaves and yummy baked goodies, by my standards anyhow.
I leave my sourdough starter out in room temperature, in a jar covered with cheesecloth. About once a day, I feed my starter 2-4 heaping spoonfuls of flour, and a splash of water, just enough so that all the flour can be incorporated, stirred thoroughly into a thick batter. Add a little flour or water as necessary until it is about the consistency of cornbread batter. If the weather is hot, the starter has been a bit neglected or starts to smell a bit “off,” or I know I will be baking with it soon and want to build up the supply and vigor of my starter, I may feed it a larger amount or more often. If I have no plans to use the starter for a while, or the weather is cold, slowing the fermentation, I may only feed small amounts, or every other day. Gluten-free flours seem to need replenishing more often than wheat or rye. With this method, using my starter once or twice a week, I generally build up just about the amount of starter (1/2 to 1 cup) I need for most recipes. I leave just a spoonful or so at the bottom of the jar, and feed it about a quarter cup of flour and a few tablespoons of water to bring it back to the right consistency.