A Simple Guide to Sourdough for the Real-Life Mama
Making Sourdough Work for Your Real Life
This post is about how I make sourdough work in my real-life kitchen.
I am not a sourdough expert.
So, if you are looking for a post about how to bake a loaf of bread that will wow your next dinner guests, you may need to look elsewhere, but if you would like to learn how to get a warm, crunchy loaf of whole grain sourdough bread on the table any old night of the week… Well then, I’m your gal.
You see, we’ve had a long road to walk when it comes to food.
There were many years before we reversed our food sensitivities that we had to go without most of the foods we love. We are thankful for that time of healing and growth, but boy did we ever wish for a warm, crusty slice of buttered bread!
And now, after reversing our sensitivities, we can eat all our favorite foods again!! EVEN BREAD!
But we are ever so careful to choose foods and preparation techniques that truly nourish the body and reduce the chances of our ending up back where we started with severe eczema and an extremely leaky gut.
Sourdough is one of those techniques!
We have found that when we eat true sourdough bread made with Einkorn and oat flour from our own kitchen at home, we can tolerate it without any adverse effects what-so-ever. <Angels Singing>
Read here more about what makes our sourdough/einkorn loaf such a good option for our family (and maybe yours too!)
But sourdough is super difficult, right?
Learning to keep a sourdough through trial and error can be pretty frustrating. My first attempts were absolute failures. My very first “loaf” was an inedible brick. It made a really nice clanging sound when it slid off the baking stone onto the counter top.
But I was determined to eat bread again and I knew that sourdough was the only way to make that happen, so I kept at it. And am I ever glad I did! The investment has been so well worth it!
And you know what? I’ve discovered that sourdough really isn’t that complicated after all. Really, it’s just flour and water stirred together in a jar. Once you understand a few basics, the only real challenge is choosing to adapt to a couple small inconveniences.
- Inconvenience #1 – Sourdough must be fed every day. Many people think of their sourdough as a pet and give it a name. Why not? It is alive after all. “Bubbles” for instance, is a great choice. (But don’t worry if you forget to feed it for a day or two. Sourdough is thankfully very forgiving, probably more forgiving than your cat.)
- Inconvenience #2 – You must plan ahead by at least 8-ish hours when you want to bake with your sourdough. If you’re starting dinner at 5pm, but didn’t think to mix up your sourdough earlier that morning, well, there won’t be any sourdough bread for dinner.
Reasons I LOVE sourdough
(and don’t mind the slight inconvenience of keeping it alive)
- Homemade sourdough breads have the fewest possible ingredients.. this is important for a family who has spent years working through food sensitivities. The fewer the ingredients in any given recipe, the easier it is to figure out if a certain food is causing a problem.
- and $$$ Hello! Flour + water + salt??! Does it get anymore frugal than that?
- We can digest it without any upset! Sourdough breaks down and decreases the phytic acid and gluten content, so that we are able to eat gluten-containing grains as long as the dough been truly soured. (Read more about the science behind fermenting grains here.)
- It doesn’t ever trigger a skin reaction. Even the best store-bought brands (like Ezekiel bread) usually cause a skin reaction for my kids, but if we faithfully stick to homemade sourdough, we can eat bread every day with smooth, clear skin!
- The natural fermentation process makes sourdough more nutritious. As the natural microbes and yeast from the starter eat the sugar from the flour they produce carbon dioxide. This process causes the bread to rise, vitamin content to increase, and sugar content to decrease.
- Sourdough is very forgiving. Even if it is sometimes neglected, it can usually be brought back to its lively, old self with just a couple good feedings.
And because I’ve had to learn a few things the hard way, I’ve got a few tips for making your first attempts more successful than mine.
Obtaining a Sourdough Starter
Most importantly, if you would like to be successful with your first attempt at sourdough, I recommend that you buy (or beg) a live sourdough starter (a starter that is already happy and bubbling when it first comes to make its home in your kitchen).
Do lots of people make their own starters? Yes! If you love a challenge then try it! Here’s a recipe to get you started. It is absolutely possible to make your own starter. Just remember that it may require a few false starts to get going.
Another option is to purchase a dried starter that has to be reactivated. This should theoretically work well, but my experience was less than desirable. Remember the brick I mentioned earlier?
If you are looking to get a loaf of edible sourdough bread on the table quickly, it’d probably be best to use a tested starter. I purchased my live starter from King Arthur Flour for $9. Small price to pay to avoid weeks of frustration (and wasted flour!) Or maybe you’ve got a friend who keeps a happy sourdough and is willing to share a bit of it? Even better!
A Home for Your Sourdough Starter
Okay, so once you’ve got your hands on that bubbly bit of sourdough (as little as one ounce will do) you’ll need to decide on a new home for it to live in. I’ve tried a few different options, but so far my favorite is a medium sized cookie jar (like this one) with a towel and rubber band for a lid.
This works great for three reasons:
- Your starter needs oxygen. It has to be able to breathe. You do not want to keep your starter covered with a tight-fitting lid.
- The glass jar allows you to look directly at your sourdough when you pass by. This way you can see whether or not it is happy (bubbly) or hungry (starting to gray).
- You do NOT want to allow any fruit flies to EVER get into that jar! EVER! They will lay eggs. The eggs will hatch. You will have larvae wiggling in your starter. You’ll be spending 9 more dollars at King Arthur’s to get a brand new, larvae-free starter. (Ask me how I know). During the summer, when fruit flies tend to be about the kitchen, I do not leave my starter uncovered even for a moment, unless I am staring right at it with both eyes!
Should I put my starter in the fridge or leave it on the counter?
Well that depends. Maybe you should take a personality test first…
Are you the type of person who can put something “out of sight, out of mind” and still remember to feed it at least once a week faithfully? Are you also the type of person who will remember to take the starter out of the fridge in time to give it a good feeding and allow it to become bubbly before mixing it into your recipe and allowing it to sour? Do you intend to use your starter only once or twice a week? If you answered yes to all of these questions, go ahead and stick that starter in the fridge.
Unfortunately, planning ahead and remembering to follow through are not character qualities that I possess in abundance. Putting my sourdough starter in the fridge leaves lots of potential for things (like dinner) to go terribly wrong. So I prefer to keep my starter on the counter top where I will see it (and hopefully take pity on the poor, hungry thing) as I walk past.
Getting Your Sourdough Starter Started
Likely, your sourdough starter will be very small when you receive it. Maybe as small as a quarter cup, so you’ll want to feed it a few times to increase it to a usable size as well as to help it get acquainted with its new surroundings.
The following are the instructions from the King Arthur Sourdough I purchased:
- Mix sourdough starter with 1 1/4 cup lukewarm (filtered) water and 2 cups flour. Cover and leave at room temperature for 8-12 hours.
- Stir and discard half the starter. (Share with a friend or send it to the compost bin.) Mix in 1/2 cup water and 1 cup flour. Cover and leave at room temperature for 2-4 hours more.
- Divide in half once more. Then feed with 1/2 cup water and 1 cup flour and leave at room temperature for 2-4 hours. Now the starter can be used, or refrigerated until needed.
Maintaining Your Sourdough Starter
From this point on you’ll need to feed your sourdough weekly if it lives in the fridge, daily if you keep it out. Twice a day is even better but, honestly.
Each time you feed your starter you’ll want to mix in one part water to 2 parts flour. This can be as much as 1 cup of water to 2 cups of flour (if you need to quickly increase the starter) or as little as 1 Tablespoon water to 2 Tablespoons flour (if you already have all the starter you need).
Some may argue that it ought to be equal parts water and flour. I’ve found that the ratio really isn’t as important as the end result. I do not usually measure this out. I keep in mind that I need roughly twice as much flour as water, but mostly I’m looking for a thick, but wet (not soupy) consistency. If your starter dries out and forms a crust between feedings, you may want to increase the amount of water you use. Again, there is lots of room for trial and error here. Don’t stress.
I find a danish dough whisk is very helpful for incorporating the flour, water, and oxygen into the starter, but a rubber spatula will do just fine too. No worries.
Stir until fully incorporated, scraping as much from the sides of the jar as possible. Over time the sourdough will harden on the sides and can become a bit funky. When this happens, simply scoop out your starter and put it in a new jar or temporary covered bowl until you’ve had a chance to clean the funky jar. If you were very particular, you could do this weekly. (Full disclosure: I’m not very particular and do it approximately monthly. You know, give or take. 😏)
This feeding process takes less than a minute. Please don’t make it a bigger deal than it needs to be. If you happen to walk past your starter and realize that you haven’t fed it today, stop and feed it. If you happen to miss a day, no big deal. Your next loaf might not have quite as high of a rise, but you know what? Your family will have bread to eat, which is always a win, especially if there’s butter.
Again, this is why I prefer to keep my starter on the counter. That way it can remind me when it’s hungry. If your starter ever begins to look grayish in color, this means that he’s VERY hungry! Feed him immediately and he should be back to normal in no time.
Using Your Starter in Recipes
Alright, your starter is bubbly. You’ve fed it within the last day, preferably the last 12 hours (extra bonus points if you gave it a little feeding 2-3 hours ago just to make it extra happy).
- First thing you’ll want to do is to scoop out a cup of starter into a mixing bowl (or whatever amount your recipe requires, though I find this in no way needs to be exact). I do not measure. I eye it, because I don’t need one more dish to wash, and because I often have just enough starter and don’t want to waste even a smidge on the sides of a measuring scoop.
- Next, stop and feed your remaining starter just as you normally would. Put the towel and rubber band back on and set it aside.
- Following the directions for your recipe to make your dough, add the fresh flour and other ingredients to your starter in the mixing bowl. Again, I usually use the danish dough whisk to mix and aerate thoroughly. I also use lukewarm water in whatever amount the recipe calls for. This will help my sourdough to feel warm and happy and will motivate him to get right to work.
* Note: Depending on the exact ratio of flour/water that you feed your starter, you may have a starter that is slightly wetter or drier. This will impact the amounts of water and flour you will need to get the right consistency for each recipe that you make. Don’t let this trouble you! You aren’t going to hurt your dough by adding a bit more water or a bit more flour until you get to a usable consistency. If you have already added the correct amounts of flour to any given recipe and find that it is still too wet, simply stir in a bit more flour, a little at a time, until you get it right.
- Cover your bowl of dough with a towel and rubber band (or even just a dinner plate) and leave at a warmish room temperature for the rest of the day. On my best days I start my dough in the morning while I’m making breakfast so that it can have a nice long souring before I bake it in the evening (preferably at least 8 hours, but again there are days when my dough only sours for 4 hours. Life goes on.) If it happens to be lunch time and you realize that you’ve forgotten to start your dough, don’t despair! Simply make sure that you use warm water and set it in a warm place so that it will have a better chance of souring quickly. Next to the fireplace, a heating vent, in a low-heat dehydrator, or even in the oven with the light turned on are good options.
- When it gets close to dinner time, finish by baking your bread, biscuits, pizza dough, or whatever it may be.
* And remember, a little bit of butter covers over a multitude of wrongs!
Ready to make some bread?
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And as always friends, please remember that I’ve got kids sledding down the stairs on Costco boxes as I write to you…
So, if you think I’ve forgotten something important, have any questions or comments, or simply a bit of encouragement to share, please use the comments below, send me an email, or find us on Facebook.
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