This post is either loooong overdue, or exactly on time.

People have been asking me for a couple of years now if I would share some wisdom about making homemade sourdough breads and doughs. I can’t honestly remember when I first started dabbling in the art that is sourdough baking — I think L. was just about 6, so as we’re coming up on his 9th birthday (gulp!), I guess I’ve been favoring starter over packaged yeasts for about 3 years. The thing is, as soon as you start baking with sourdough, people want all your secrets. But I quickly realized that I wasn’t ready to share. Sourdough baking is not difficult at all, but it is completely different from any other baking you’ve ever done. I started baking breads around age 14, under the tutelage of my Uncle Olof (a great bread-baker if ever there was one). I was a comfortable bread baker by my 20s, able to go off-recipe and still have my dough turn out. But sourdough is a different animal altogether, and before I shared, I wanted to be sure I knew sourdough as well as I knew any other bread method.

So this post probably seems incredibly late, to those of you who have wanted to see it all this time. But I consider it perfectly timed. I now know sourdough well enough to do it almost on auto-pilot, AND it’s the thick of summer — literally, here, the thick of summer today, with humidity that’s making the air heavy and slow. In other words, it’s a perfect time of year for sourdough. The warmth and stickiness of the air will help yeasts to flourish, which means conditions are just perfect for either baking with a starter you’ve already got….or collecting a starter you’ll use for years to come.

If you’re intimidated by sourdough, don’t be. Just remember: For centuries, people who wanted to bake leavened breads used this technique. There was no such thing as commercially available yeast until the late 1870s; before that, people mainly either gathered yeast from brewers in their villages, or used sourdough. Maintaining a sourdough starter at home and using it to bake with would have  been a relatively common survival skill, which is good news for you. If the average housewife (or her daughters) could do it in centuries past, there’s no reason you can’t do it now.

A note about starters: Many of my friends over the years have tried to dabble in sourdough. Most of those people got their sourdough started by using a purchased culture of some kind. These are widely available and are a popular way to inoculate your starter for faster and supposedly more reliable results. HOWEVER — and this is purely anecdotal — every single friend of mine who has used a purchased culture for their starter  eventually found that the starter died. Knowing that, I chose to try collecting a wild yeast starter for my experiment, and 3 years later my starter is still healthy and happy. Take that entirely unscientific anecdote for what you will.

The best advice I found on collecting my starter was from a site called Rural Spin. I’m distilling the instructions here for you, but if you need more in-depth analysis of the process, head on over there and check out what they’ve got to say.

To collect a wild yeast starter (and yes, you can do this — there is wild yeast all around us all the time!):

  1. Get a large, clean bowl, preferably glass or ceramic. Whenever you’re dealing with fermentation, minimizing the contact of your product with metals is generally good practice. Add 2 cups of all-purpose flour and 2 cups of warm, filtered water (not too warm — about 85 degrees is the right temperature).
    Note: You may be a whole-wheat devotee, but for collecting and maintaining a starter, all-purpose flour is much, much better. Don’t sweat it — you’ll be able to bake with whatever flour you like once your starter is healthy.
    Also Note: When working with sourdough starter, you want equal amounts by volume — which means that you can forget about the old dry measuring vs. wet measuring cups. Measure both your flour and your water in the same dry measuring cup for best results.
  2. Stir the flour and water vigorously. You want to incorporate a lot of air into the mixture at first. When I was first collecting my starter, I found that whipping it with a fork (wooden is better, if you’ve got one, but don’t sweat it if not) was most effective.
  3. Cover the bowl loosely with a tea towel. Set it aside in a warm place, and not in direct sunlight. If you’re collecting your starter in warm weather, go ahead and set the bowl outside as long as it’s not oppressively hot or in a very sunny spot; that will help you get as much wild yeast as possible.
  4. For 24 hours, you’ll want to vigorously stir the starter every 3-6 hours (no worries about getting up in the middle of the night or any such nonsense — just stir well before bed and then first thing in the morning).
  5. Now you start looking for bubbles. It may take 2 or 3 days for naturally occurring bubbles to start appearing; when I first collected my starter, I think it was at least 3 days before I really felt that it was taking off. That’s okay. I recommend stirring well about 2-3 times a day while you’re waiting for the starter to take hold.
  6. You’ll know the starter is ready when it has visible bubbles that are not the product of your stirring — there’s a difference between an air bubble you create, and bubbling action that is coming from the starter itself. It may also start to smell vaguely yeasty or a little bit like beer. Also, if you’re seeing a layer of slightly sour liquid come to the top of your starter, don’t worry — that’s actually a good sign (provided it smells yeasty and not rancid). It’s called hooch, and it means the yeasts are doing their job! Just mix it back into the starter.
  7. As soon as you’ve got a bubbly starter, add another cup of flour and an equal amount of warm water. Mix well, then transfer to a large Mason jar and seal. Now you’ll leave it out for another 24 hours. At the end of that time, you can either bake with the starter, or store it in the refrigerator.

Coming soon: How to bake with what you’ve got! If you decide to collect your own starter, leave me a comment and let me know how it’s going!