My baking focus has lately been predominantly on my sourdough starter maintenance and maximizing fermentation, and I’ve made some of the best bread I can remember (all the bread pictures in this post were made with this starter). This is somewhat a continuation of my Managing Starter Fermentation post that I wrote quite a while ago, but pinpoints on following my process of initial feeding, watching the rise to peak, building a levain and finally discarding a portion of my sourdough starter over the course of a day.
Baking in the winter always presents problems here at my house: it’s cold! Probably not quite the cold you get in other parts of the world but it sure is cold to me, and my starter. Kitchen temperatures are consistently hovering between 68º and 70ºF which really inhibits yeast and bacteria activity. I’ll typically offset this by changing the percentage of mature starter carryover or by heating up the water used in my feedings, but you really want to try to keep your starter around 75º to 80ºF — this is not easy to do when winter is bombarding your area. You just have to make do with the warmest spot you can find in your kitchen, for me this is next to my whisky collection… almost poetic.
My wife keeps telling me: “every time you bake you keep saying ‘Wow this is the best bread I have ever made’ the saying is getting kind of old now… Hmmm, this is really good bread though, I think it is your best so far.”
I’ve had a number of recent bakes that have just been a step or two above my usual and I just can’t stop eating slice after slice with anything I can even moderately justify placing on top (I even scraped up some onions & currants from a recent meal we had and used it in a sandwich oh. my. God. was that good… See the end of this post.). It’s dangerous when your bread just comes out right; you become a somewhat selfish person and hoard all the loaves for yourself. At this point, however, my freezer is literally full of bread and I’ll have to start giving them away to friends and family again. I know they won’t be complaining.
As the fall winds started to beat against my office window, I decided if I was going to write an entry about how I started and maintain my now 2 year old sourdough starter, now was the time. Once the temperatures drop outside, and subsequently inside, yeast activity does tend to slow but I have some tips to help you start from scratch even in the winter. Get ready to create a culture that will require only minimal maintenance and care but will help you to produce the best sourdough bread you’ve ever eaten.
While I usually look forward to the changing seasons, and all fall/winter has to offer, for some reason this year I wanted summer to go for just one more month. I’m the type of person who craves the warm sunshine outside, I shy away from that change to winter with the short dark days and chilly air. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big snowboarding fan (especially since I live 30 minutes from some really incredible mountains) but even that can’t completely make up for a casual jog in the sun with my dog, a couple hours outside hiking with my wife in the mountains, or grilling some steak out in the backyard. With the coming cold I know that I’m going to have to alter my bread baking. Longer bulk fermentation times due to decreased fermentation and a slightly modified starter maintenance schedule are just two things on my mind requiring change.
This journal entry will help you create your own 100% hydration sourdough starter from scratch, even in the colder months of the year. Of course you’ll have to adjust a few things for your location and your temperatures, but I’ll discuss what to look for and a few tips that will ensure success. This 100% hydration starter will not only allow you to bake any bread you find in Tartine Bread, but also give you a reliable starter that you can train to bake any sourdough you desire.
A Quick Note on Starter Consistency: What is “firm”?
I think this was one of the most challenging things I struggled with when creating my first sourdough starter a few years ago. My starter would always turn into this very soupy, vinegary, runny mess by the end of the day. How do we keep your starter firm but not a dry lump of flour in a jar? The key here is to ensure you’re using equal parts water, flour, and inoculation (leftover starter from previous feeding). You might need to adjust your flour amount a few grams up or down from there depending on how dry your climate is, but that is the general rule.
When you do your feeding and start to vigorously mix everything back together to incorporate all the dry bits of flour, it should actually be a bit challenging to get it to mix together but after a minute or so all the dry bits will disappear. The mixture should be firm enough to almost hold a mound shape in the bottom of the jar. I will typically stir the newly fed starter around a few more times after incorporating all the flour to clean the sides and create the mound in the middle.
You can replace any of the items below with your own materials, even stuff just laying around your home, but these are the materials I’ve found to ease starting and maintaing your starter.
You can see a rundown of all the tools I use for baking sourdough, vetted after years of trials and many, many bakes, over at my favorite sourdough baking tools page. I’ll go over a few of the necessary tools below, just to get your first starter up and running and a few loaves out of that oven:
Weck glass jar
The reason I like these Weck jars (#743, 3/4 liter jars) is they taper out towards the top, making it easy to stir with no reaching your spatula down around hard to manage lips or edges. Also, using the glass lid without the provided rubber seal & clips provides just enough of a seal to keep moisture and heat trapped inside. Glass is important here, you want to be able to visually inspect any fermentation happening as you will be able to see little bubbles around the sides and bottom. Visible bubbles and the smell of your starter are the two cues we will rely heavily on throughout this process.
One other important reason: they’re great quality and super cheap online. You can use these jars for a ton of other things around the house (pesto, jam, dried fruit, and so on).
I use a small plastic spatula to do my feedings. This thing is easy to clean with a sponge, but if things get really dirty you can easily pop it into the dishwasher.
This is indispensable. Buy a scale right now if you haven’t already, it will make life easier. We do everything by weight in grams, not imperial volume measurements (different flours, salts, etc. could weigh differently and we want to go by weight not volume).
Stainless steel or plastic water bottle
I filter my water with a standard Brita filter and let it sit on the counter overnight before using it. I’ve noticed over time that my starter performs better with filtered water and I let it sit out to reduce the amount of chlorine present in tap water. You could also use bottled water, but that’s a bit wasteful and expensive, and I’m always trying to reduce my footprint and my costs.
If you’re using a Brita filter like me, filter some water now and pour it into a stainless steel water bottle to sit out at least overnight to dissipate any chlorine in your tap water.
Using good rye flour is a must. I’ve now started several sourdough starters over the years and rye flour is a sure fire way to get your culture on its feet.
All purpose unbleached white flour
I mix 50% all purpose with 50% rye flour for my feedings. You could easily do a 100% rye flour with no problem. One thing to be mindful of with flour is that you should keep your flour consistent throughout this process. If you choose to go with a 50/50 rye and all purpose mix, stick with that to the end. Changing your flour mixture percentage or types (e.g. white to wheat or rye to wheat) will slow down the process, your starter becomes accustom to a certain type and will slow down until it gets used to the new flour source.
In the beginning your starter feedings will occur just once a day. As your culture becomes more and more active you’ll increase this to twice, and eventually three times a day. Knowing this, one of my goals is to help you set things up so it’s easy and quick to do your feedings and move on with the rest of your day. Once you get the hang of it, and your starter has become reliable and predictable, it really only takes 3 minutes to feed and cleanup. So about 5-10 minutes per day on average is all it takes to keep your little guy living. No biggie.
The following schedule will provide you with a reliable and strong sourdough starter in just 7 days. Once you have the culture stable it will last indefinitely as long as you feed it regularly. If you don’t plan to bake frequently you can toss the starter in the fridge and feed it only once a week, or even once every two weeks. I’ll discuss this in more detail later in this entry.
Your schedule will basically follow the natural rise and fall of your starter. As soon as you feed it the yeast in your starter will begin to consume the sugars found in the flour, creating carbon dioxide as a byproduct. This gas is what causes your dough to rise when baked and causes your starter to rise through the day and eventually fall as the food becomes depleted. I took a picture every hour for a single day to show you just how this rising and falling occurs.
The process is essentially this, each day at the same time:
- Stir your starter a little bit with your spatula
- Discard part of your starter into a small dish, just enough to get your jar and starter weight back to jar weight + 40g starter (e.g. if your jar is 311g like mine, at the next feeding you will discard everything in there until you reach 351g; 40g starter + 311g jar).
- Scoop in 40g of your fresh rye/apw flour mixture
- Pour in 40g room temperature water
- Mix vigorously until all bits of dry flour are incorporated
- Cover and set in a shaded, slightly warm, area in your kitchen
That’s it! Once you get your process down it should take no more than a few minutes each day.
Let’s get started with Day 1.
A baker’s true skill lies in the way he or she manages fermentation. This is the soul of bread making.
I think sometimes it’s easy for me to fall into the routine of blindly feeding my sourdough starter at set times during the day and forget that it and it’s strength are the keys to good bread. Feedings shouldn’t happen on a strict schedule, they need to be adjusted based on cues obtained by sight and smell (perhaps this sounds peculiar but it is one sure fire way to learn the habits of your starter) until the starter is predictable. Visual cues such as large air pockets and smells like ripe fruit or vinegar are indicators of good fermentation and tell you if a feeding should happen soon.