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Last updated: Wed. Mar. 26, 2014 - 11:20 am EDT

Sourdough 101: Starter course

Many lessons when growing, using base from scratch

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I didn’t put much thought into my decision to embark on a sourdough journey. In fact, I am not sure I thought beyond, “Well, if this acquaintance can do it, so can I.”

Friendly competition may be a good thing when it comes to, say, baking a beautiful cake for the 3-year-old birthday boy or hosting an at-home version of “Chopped.” It’s a whole different thing when you find yourself drinking your sixth cup of coffee at 10 p.m. as you wait for your dough to rise a second time.

After all, that’s what you do when you have a sourdough starter to maintain – or so I’ve learned over the past two months.

And learned I have.

Lesson No. 1: The basics

At its roots, sourdough bread comes from flour, water and wild yeast and bacteria that are in the air. The process of feeding the starter encourages the airborne yeast and bacteria to grow. You can buy a kit, cheat with store-bought yeast or go old-fashioned.

I went old-fashioned.

Following a tutorial from, I began with 1/2 cup flour and a 1/2 cup distilled water in a glass jar I found at a big-box store. I followed the routine, adding equal parts flour and water to the starter, for five days – a day longer than specified because following directions is not my strong suit. It’s also probably why I added a 1/2 cup flour each time and not the 1/2 cup plus two tablespoons. After that, it was ready to put in the refrigerator and continue to grow.

Over the first week, I noticed that A) glass jars take up a lot of room in my refrigerator; B) a starter is a lot like a pet that you have to remember to feed; and C) a liquid will form on the top. It is called hooch, and it’s OK. Stir it and be on your merry way.

Lesson No. 2: Embrace the mixer

I first learned to make bread as a teenager at a cramped kitchen table with my mom. Using a well-worn paperback version of “Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook,” we fashioned traditional loaves and braided varieties from scratch.

There was satisfaction not only in the finished product (and whose bread turned out better), but the process of kneading the dough. It was hard work to do by hand, especially as recipes often called for up to 10 minutes of kneading, but a rewarding act and substitute for therapy.

I was ready to reap those benefits for my first batch of bread with the sourdough starter – a basic loaf recipe from – but after 2 minutes, my arms were burning, the dough was a sticky mess and I had added more than the recommended flour. I was ready to throw in the towel and toss the starter when I remembered my friend, the stand mixer.

I tossed in the dough, attached the dough hook and happily watched as the sticky pile became a shiny, elastic ball.

For a brief moment, I felt like I had let down my mom … until I realized she didn’t have a stand mixer.

I’m sure there’s some benefit to doing it by hand, even if it’s only bragging rights. But the extra flour I had to add made for a denser, less tasty bread, and product quality trumps method in my mind.

Lesson No. 3: On the rise

In my experience, a typical loaf of bread requires two rises, maybe even just one, of 1 1/2 to two hours.

A true sourdough bread, with no help from store-bought yeast, requires more – a lot more.

I was feeling ambitious and boastful when planning a birthday dinner for my sister-in-law, and I decided the pasta party required a sourdough baguette. I found a great “simply, homestyle” recipe from the New York Times and, excited to try it, I got started on it a day early.

Good thing, too.

The recipe called for three rises with two of at least five hours and up to eight. There was also time for the dough to relax that needed to be accounted for, as well as the actual baking. The entire process took nearly a day.

Other sourdough recipes have called for extended rises or, at minimum, creating a sponge overnight. It’s best to have a recipe in mind several days before you need to use the starter for this reason.

Lesson No. 4: More than bread

The first two weeks of sourdough baking included a beginner bread and a sourdough oatmeal bread.

It was four loaves of bread for a family of two adults and a toddler. Even for the most carb-loving family, it’s a lot of bread, and I quickly realized that my pants would not permit me making bread every week.

So I began exploring my options which, as it turns out, are many – waffles, pancakes, coffee cake, banana bread, pizza crust and bagels.

The banana bread was the favorite, producing a tangy and only slightly sweet treat. A close second was the waffles because I loved making enough to freeze for a week of breakfasts.

The coffee cake, though, was the clear loser. I was missing the sweetness of store-bought varieties, and the texture was quite dense. You really did need a cup of coffee to eat it.

Lesson No. 5: Science and art

Yeast. Carbon dioxide. Leavener. Gluten. There’s a lot of vocabulary to learn when it comes to sourdough and bread-making in general.

The process is dependant on those things and the chemical reactions. Yeast eats sugar to produce carbon dioxide to leaven the bread, and the right amount of gluten will allow the bread to capture the carbon dioxide. If you do something wrong, you can kill the yeast and, in turn, ruin the bread. Knead too much or not enough, affecting the gluten, and it will not have the right amount of protein to capture the carbon dioxide to allow the bread to rise.

While sourdough bread isn’t using commercial yeast, it is yeast and subject to such considerations. But I’ve found that you have to get to know your starter – what it wants, how it works – and not just blindly follow directions.

For example, the feeding of the starter. Some directions call for 1/2 cup of flour and 1/2 cup of water, and others direct you to use weight measurements. Without a digital scale, I went with the even ratio but found the starter was more soupy and less like the desirable pancake-batter consistency. I now feed it with 1/2 cup of flour and 1/3 cup of water.

I also like to let the starter get a bit wild before going to work, so I’ll set it out the night before to come to room temperature. I might even feed it if I’m baking a lot.

Or drank too much coffee.

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