If you follow me on twitter, then you know I've been propagating wild yeast for the purpose of making delicious, tangy, sourdough bread. I love baking and have been dancing around making bread more frequently. For a while I was baking with my mom's mixes and her white bread recipe, which I highly recommend for first time bread bakers, and then I tried the NYT's enriched white bread, which is good if you like a sweeter bread. But I recently read about the Blue Zone Diet who's scary test told me I was gonna die at 69 (nice) and part of the diet is "eat only 100 percent whole grain breads or authentic sourdough bread made from live cultures," so I took that as inspiration to make a starter and buy many kinds of dried beans (more on that in the future).
I'm going to take you through the method I used to make my first white starter, two whole grain starters and actual breads.
Step One: Wild, Wild Yeast-es
To make bread you need a sourdough starter, also known as a mother. If you have a family member who has a starter I'd ask them for a piece of their's and I've heard that most bakeries will give you some if you ask nicely, but I wanted to try this from the very very beginning.
To make a starter you need wild yeast, and lucky for you wild yeast is literally everywhere. You don't need to like set out a bowl of grapes (which is a weird thing every sourdough guide says and I have never heard outside of the bread baking community), it's already in the flour and water you're going to use, and even if your conditions aren't ideal the wild yeast will probably still come through eventually.
I started with a white flour, which is the harder way to go. A whole wheat flour will have more sugar for the wild yeast to eat and therefore your starter will be ready faster. I used a combination of all purpose white flour, cake flour and unbleached enriched white flour because that's what I had and I just wanted to go for it. Even if you're not going to be making whole grain bread, you can feed you're starter a whole wheat flour with or without your regular white flour to perk it up a little.
There's also this myth online that you need pure distilled water, but honestly if you drink your tap water you can use it. If there's a strong chemical, chlorine smell probably go for the distilled.
And finally, a starter will do way, way better in a warmer environment. When I feed mine I set it to the side (note: not directly in front of) the vent in my kitchen because it's winter and my kitchen is freezing. That's also where I proof my dough. Ideally the temp is around 75 degrees, but a starter will work in a colder environment it will just take longer.
To sum up: white flour will take longer than whole wheat flour, cold environment will take longer than a warm environment, wild yeast is everywhere so regardless your starter will probably turn out find regardless.
Step Two: More Than A Plant, Less Than A Dog
This is the guide I followed because it seemed like the easiest one. The process is basically mix together the same weight of flour and water at the same time every day until you see a lot of bubbles. I didn't have a baking scale at the start of the project so I would just measure 1/2 cup of water and around 3/4 cup of flour. I do recommend having a baking scale if you want to get into baking but you don't really absolutely need one, just know your hydration (the ratio of flour to water in your starter) isn't going to be exactly 100% (same weight of flour and water). But if you're making a whole wheat starter you probably are going to want more water than flour anyway so really, again, it's probably going to work anyway. Also I assumed I should mix in the flour first and then the water, but it is much easier to loosen the starter up with your water and then vigorously mix in your flour.
It's going to take time and attention. It's not high maintenance and once it's started even if you neglect it you can revive it, but until then think of it as a fickle plant, or one of those facebook games where you have to harvest carrots every day.
Some guides will tell you that after the first day to discard 1/2 the starter every time you feed it, so that you have 1/2 a cup of starter and you're adding 1/2 a cup of flour and 1/2 a cup of flour. I would say this is the way to go if you feed every 12 hours. But I didn't discard any starter when building it up and fed every 24 hours for the first five days, and then I got my scale in the mail so I weighed out 4 ounces of starter, water and flour and it became quite virile. I don't know if it was just its time or if the discarding helped, but for me discarding it every day felt wasteful and the starter worked without it. I started with just white flour and not a whole wheat flour, and because I didn't have a scale I realized that I was using way less flour than I should have been, which also impacted the time it took to really start producing gas bubbles.
Overall I would say my Tips To Make Sure It Works Faster And Better At The Very Beginning are 1) use at least some whole wheat flour, 2) use a scale for exact 100% hydration, 3) put it in a warm place 4) feed it every 24 hours and 5) discard half of your starter every time you feed it. Again, it will probably work anyway, because people have been making sourdough for longer than there have been digital scale and standardized measurements and central heating. And I personally didn't measure and was wildly off with the amount of flour I was using and it still worked.
Step Three: Oh No I Have A Sourdough Starter Now
My starters are currently in glass jars because they look pretty but oh my god they are hard to work with, so I'm moving them all into screw top plastic containers. Learn from my mistakes, use the classic crocks or something with a wide mouth so you're not struggling to fit a spatula into it.
I'm telling you right now, put it in the fridge. You will not use it everyday, only people who tell bread use their starter every day, you will not. Put it in the fridge, and once a week - if you're not baking with it - take it out like 12 hours before you feed it, feed it (discard half and add your flour and water), let it sit another 12 hours and then stick it back in the fridge. The fridge puts the yeast into hibernation, if your fridge is warmer they may still be eating and growing (this happened to my mom and she forgot about it and it turned her tupperware lid into a dome, this will not happen to you if you remember to feed it every week), if it's colder then they'll just chill out until you wake them up again.
Now if you make a whole wheat starter it's going to be way, way thicker than a white flour starter. You can start upping the hydration, which just means adding more water than flour. I would ease into it, shifting up 1/2 an ounce of water and down 1/2 an ounce of flour for a few feedings and adjusting until it's looser and easier to work with.
I used discard from my white starter to make a whole wheat starter and a rye starter with 100% hydration, but I'm going to be making my wheat starter more wet and the rye starter even wetter because they are like clay right now.
Because your starter has been well, started, you're going to start discarding what you're not using if you're feeding it and not making bread. This is aptly called "discard." I feel wasteful throwing it away so I've been using King Arthur Flour's sourdough discard recipes. The biscuits and pikelets (crumpets without the ring) are yummy and easy and use 1 cup of discard, so you might have to either adjust the recipe or how much starter you're making so that it works out.
You can also just throw the discard away and not feel guilty about it because it's just some sour goop with a few ounces of flour in it. Do not feel bad for throwing discard away it's 100% fine (but I'm still recommending the pikelets they're so so easy it's just sugar salt and baking soda and they taste like weird pancakes).
Step Four: And Finally, Bread
This is the recipe I have used for both white and half white half whole wheat loaves. I used it exactly for the white sourdough loaf and would not change a thing. The wheat didn't work quite as well and I would recommend lightly kneading instead of folding during the rising and degassing stage. This recommendation comes from my mom who has been baking bread way longer than me and whom I trust to know. I am planning to do this same thing with a 100% rye bread. Rye flour doesn't have gluten (my starter has a little bit though) so the kneading rather than folding creates the stretch. This recipe and method isn't what a lot of artisan sourdough websites recommend, they want you to start with like a tablespoon of starter and all sorts of stuff that I'm sure also makes sourdough bread. Do that stuff if you want, this is just what I do.
For this recipe you need 1 cup of fed starter, which means when you feed your starter don't discard any, just add your flour and water straight into your starter which you remembered to take out of the fridge earlier in the day so it's nice and warmed up. The goal is that in 4-6 hours your starter has doubled in size after it was "mixed down" ie you vigorously stirred in the water and flour so all the gas has been knocked out. If after six hours your starter hasn't grown, do this again until it has. You want a nice frothy starter to bake with.
Because after this you will be mixing your dough and then letting it sit for 4 hours or 12 in the fridge, then mixing in more flour and salt and then ideally degassing every hour by either gently folding or kneading, then forming a loaf and letting it rise another 2-4 hours, baking sourdough requires planning a timeline. This is a weekend bread: you can start Friday (or whatever the last night of your workweek is), put it in the fridge overnight (which may make it more sour), mix in the flour in the morning, degas it throughout the day, bake it in the afternoon and let it cool until dinner. The cooling is important, a lot of people say you should cool it off for like 8 hours which is ridiculous to me, a bread lover. As long as it is room temperature I will not judge you. Bread continues to cook as it cools and cutting into it when it's still warm will mess with the structural integrity. But also warm bread is so good and I will only judge you a little bit.
I, for now, do not have a dutch oven to bake my bread in. I want a dutch oven, but they are expensive and for me a single use tool so I'm holding off until I have a chunk of change. I also don't have a proofing basket, which I also want. What I did was bake on a rimmed sheet lined with parchment paper and a heavy sprinkling of corn meal on the bottom to keep it from sticking. For my white I did an oval loaf shape and the wheat I used a round loaf shape. The loaf shaping it my biggest struggle currently but this video was helpful. Basically, the more you do it the more your hands know what to do. Handling dough is something you learn through practice, so just make and eat a lot of pretty good and kinda bad loaves (which are still delicious even if weird looking) until you get it.
A dutch over also steams the bread and if you're not using one, while you're preheating your oven set a oven-safe pan on the bottom rack (I used a loaf pan for this). Then right after you put your bread in the oven fill it with boiling water and close the oven door quickly. Don't open for 20 minutes, then let the steam out (this is when you would normally be taking off the lid of you're dutch oven). I also removed the pan of water so the crust would get crisper. If you want a really crisp crust you can brush your dough with olive oil or butter or even an egg wash. All of this will make your loaf more attractive, but none of it is necessary.
Lastly, you can use a well greased loaf pan to make your sourdough, but it for me it didn't rise as well. I think the sourdough needs more space to spread but again this is an ongoing experiment and bread it fickle and I'm bad at shaping loaves. And I like the cornmeal on the bottom it's cool and yummy.
Bread is good and you should not be intimidated by it. Sourdough starters are hyped up but very resilient. Bread is hard but probably not as hard as you think, you just have to commit to making ugly bread for a while until your hands figure it out. If you're nervous I would recommend starting with mixes so you have a better idea of what to look for and how it should feel. If you're struggling ask me questions, if you make bread send me pics and if you want some starter and you're in the Pittsburgh area feel free to reach out on here or on twitter.