I’ve read that there’s an argument in anthropological circles about what exactly prompted early nomadic peoples to build permanent settlements. One side argues that bread – a grain-based staple whose mass production was aided by permanent ovens for baking – made agriculture make sense. The other argues that beer, a heavy liquid product derived from grain that couldn’t easily be transported, planted us finally into one spot.
Whichever vision is accurate, it’s clear that the ability to produce massive amounts of storable calories through grain agriculture was a core consideration for early people. This choice led to specialization across society, and, only several millennia later, airplanes, cell phones, and the Internet. So go agriculture!
Anyway, early people figuring out the whole bread and beer thing were able to exploit a neat trick inherent in grain, air, and water itself – live yeasts and bacteria that colonize edible substrates. They, in turn, produce valuable byproducts, like C02 and alcohol, that give lift to bread and punch to beer. They do this without much prompting, to be honest, and the trick for the later-model human is to encourage good conditions for yeast growth and know how to evaluate your sourdough starter before trying to rise a batch a dough with it.
Make Your Own Sourdough Starter
I’m, at best, an occasional and entirely amateur baker, but even I’ve learned how to put together a sourdough starter that’ll create a decent loaf of bread to serve at holiday meals. (More serious bakers will benefit from the enormous insights at places like Breadtopia.com or this thorough sourdough tutorial at King Arthur Flour.)
My approach to sourdough starter is quick and dirty, but it seems to get the job done. It can successfully be made with all purpose flour by itself, but I’ve found that mixing in a less processed flour will really supercharge the process.
The key: Mix approximately equal parts of flour and water, then do it again once or twice a day, discarding some as you go. Some people are very committed to weighing or measuring things out, but of course I take a lazier approach. I end up with a wet paste, and through feedings over a few days, get a bubbly wet paste. Here’s what a sourdough starter made only with all purpose flour looks like after four or five days:
That’s shortly after a feeding. I’ve had even better luck by blending a bit of rye flour in with the AP flour, but the ratios will remain the same – about one part flour to one part water, stirred together once or twice a day (discarding about half if your volume is getting too large, which you can use for various things). I usually start with a tablespoon of flour and grow my starter from there. I don’t discard at every feeding, but I also don’t maintain a starter indefinitely. They’re easy enough to get going, and I just don’t bake enough (or eat enough bread) for it to matter if I have to wait a few days to begin.
How do I know if my Sourdough Starter is Ready?
This was my biggest question mark with sourdough starter – how can I tell if it’s strong enough to raise a loaf of bread? When is my sourdough starter ready? And then I realized what a simple question that is. The whole point of the starter is to get a healthy, vigorous population of organisms that produce carbon dioxide gas, which raises dough and creates those lovely pockets in bread.
The answer? Drop some into water. If the starter is vigorous, it will float. If it isn’t vigorously producing gas, it’ll sink. You want sourdough starter that floats in water. If I’m planning on baking that day, I’ll typically feed my starter, then test it a couple of hours later. If it isn’t ready, I’ll try it again a couple of hours after that. Temperature is a giant variable, but lately I’m finding that four to six hours gives me a bubbly, floaty sourdough starter that will product a good dough.