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Sourdough Starters and Recipes | Old-Fashioned No-Yeast Batter | Old Farmer's Almanac

Sourdough Starters and Recipes

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How To Make Sourdough Starter from Scratch

Judy Gorman
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How about trying your hand at making a sourdough starter from scratch?! Here’s a little history about this age-old pastime, along with a no-yeast sourdough recipe (wild yeast) and commercial yeast recipes. Plus, find easy recipes for using your starter—to bake homemade bread, cake, and pancakes!

Sourdough: A Pastime With a Past

With more people baking at home, there seems to be a return to those wild yeasts of yesteryear! Sourdough is distinct rooted in American history. The early pioneers created wild yeast batters to make their distinctive sourdough, and the “tang” of sourdough comes from the natural fermentation process.

In the days before packaged yeast was sold in grocery stores, cooks who wanted yeast-leavened baked goods were forced to rely on various techniques for collecting wild yeasts from the air. Concoctions of potato water and flour were left at room temperature covered with a porous cloth for as long as necessary to attract local yeasts. After some time, bubbles appeared, indicating that wild yeasts were feeding on the flour and converting natural sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide (the process of fermentation).

It was hard to develop a good yeast batter. Some yeast strains were weak, leading to unreliable baking results. Mold and unwanted bacteria could contaminate a yeast batter. A good batter was therefore highly valued. Cooks guarded their containers of yeast, carefully nurturing the contents. A batter was never depleted, but perpetually replenished after each use with equal amounts of flour and water. If a loss did occur, the custom was to borrow a portion of yeast batter from a neighbor rather than to start all over again.

The yeast batter kept at cool room temperatures, as was the practice, developed a distinctive sour tang due to the fermentation, so quite naturally the mixture became known as sourdough. Early settlers—and especially prospectors in the American and Canadian West—often were called “sourdoughs” because of their reliance on their precious canisters of yeast batter. Because they dipped into the batter and replenished it daily to make pancakes, biscuits, and breads, refrigeration was unnecessary.

The sourdough taste from San Francisco was also distinct because the microbes (living and fermenting in a solution of flour and water) were unique to the landscape. It was this distinct microbial culture which gave the bread its sour and chewy traits. (Since those times, we have identified the microbes that make this sourdough special: The yeast is Candida milleri, and the bacterium is Lactobacillus sanfranciscenis.)

Make a Sourdough Starter

People still crave the delectable flavor and tantalizing aroma of sourdough breads. Many cooks are tending pots of fermented starter. Making real sourdough from scratch is a project, not a quickbread. It does require time and patience. However, it’s rewarding—not to mention inexpensive, useful, and comforting.

Starters simply begin with flour and liquid! Set out in a warm place, the solution will catch wild yeast that floats in the air. With a few days of care, the wild yeast and good bacteria (lactobacilli) in the flour and the air activate to produce carbon dioxide gas bubbles which cause the bread to rise.

You’ll spend up to a week “feeding” your flour/water slurry each morning but it will gradually turn into a bubbling starter that you can use again and again. Your starter can be used in everything from bread and cake to pretzels and pizza crust. Remember that your start is “alive” and literally a living thing that you just have to remember to feed. Otherwise, the bacteria is unfed and unhealthy and eventually dies.

Starters will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator if stored tightly covered in a glass or plastic container. Should the mixture develop spots of pink or orange, that means unwanted molds have taken up residence. You’ll have to discard the starter and begin again. Green, blue, or black molds are harmless. Just skim them off with a nonmetal spoon. The clear liquid that forms on the surface may be stirred in.

Although the pioneers used their starters daily, you will probably not be that devoted to yours, and refrigeration is therefore necessary. For maximum taste, however, let the starter come to room temperature before using. You may set the whole container on the kitchen counter the night before using it or measure out what you need a few hours ahead. And every time you remove a portion, be sure to replenish what you take. Stir the starter once a week.

And if you use it less than once every two weeks, take some out and give it to a friend, then replenish with fresh ingredients in order to maintain a strong, vital taste. If you forget to feed it, take it out of the fridge and feed it once in the morning and once at night for a few days to revive it. It should then be strong and ready to use again to rise your bread.

We have a great recipe to make a sourdough starter from scratch—and also included recipes using packaged dry yeast. 

Sourdough Starter from Scratch Recipe (Without Yeast)

Ingredients:

  1. Water
  2. All-Purpose Flour
  3. Optional: 1 cup whole wheat flour*

* Some baking experts recommend using whole wheat flour on Day 1 because it jump starts the wild yeast; but if you only have all-purpose flour, that is fine.

Directions:

  • Day 1: Stir together 1 cup of flour (whole-wheat if you have it, or all-purpose) plus 1/2 cup of cool water thoroughly in a 1-quart container. We prefer a glass container so we can track the starter’s growth. You could also use food-grade plastic. Leave the container for 24 hours, covered loosely and at warm room temperature (about 70°F), no colder.
  • Day 2: Discard half of the starter (about 1/2 cup); add in 1 cup new All-Purpose (AP) flour and 1/2 cup cool water. Mix thoroughly. Leave again for 24 hours. 
  • Day 3: You’ll feed twice today. On the third morning, keep 1/2 cup of the starter and discard the rest. Feed again with 1 cup AP flour and 1/2 cup water. Mix thoroughly again. Leave for 12 hours this time and feed again (repeat) in the afternoon.
  • Day 4: Repeat instructions in day 3 (discard and feed twice).
  • Day 5: Repeat instructions in day 3 but only discard and feed once.
  • Day 6: This depends on how your starter is doing. It should be rising and showing lots of bubbles to the point that it’s doubling in size by the next feeding. If not, discard and feed twice today.
  • Day 7: Once the starter is ready, give it one last feeding.

To judge when a starter is finished, it should be doubling in size within 6 to 8 hours of feeding.

Sourdough Starter With Packaged Yeast

For both of these starter recipes, we make a yeast batter for a sourdough bread using a dry commercial yeast; it’s not traditional, but it produces reliable results. You only need one package of dry yeast to begin the process. No more dry yeast needed to feed the starter.

A water-based sourdough is an excellent foundation for crusty bread, dinner rolls, biscuits, or pancakes. A milk-based starter contains a significant amount of sugar and is best used in coffee cakes, quick breads, and other sweet baked goods. (Although you can interchange the two types of starter in a pinch, results will not be the same.)

Water-based Sourdough:

This is the old-time sourdough made famous during the Gold Rush. It is based on water enriched with potatoes, a particularly hospitable medium for wild yeasts. Milk was never used in old-fashioned sourdough because it wasn’t available on the trail or in mining camps.

Ingredients:

  • 2 large mealy potatoes, peeled and cut in half
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 package dry yeast, dissolved in 1/4 cup warm water
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour, scoop measured
  • 1 cup warm water

Directions:

Place potatoes in a large saucepan with enough water to cover. Boil gently until the potatoes fall apart. Do not drain. Force through a sieve, liquid and all, and allow to cool to room temperature. Add water to the potatoes if necessary to make 3 cups. Pour into a large glass or ceramic bowl. Using a nonmetal spoon, stir in the sugar, dissolved yeast, and 2 cups flour. Beat until smooth and creamy. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and set in a moderately warm spot (about 70ºF). Allow to stand for 24 hours, at which point the batter should smell pleasantly sour.

Stir in the remaining cup of flour and 1 cup warm water. Cover with a towel and allow to stand at room temperature for 2 to 3 days. The longer it stands, the more assertive the flavor. Transfer the starter to a tightly covered glass or plastic container and store in the refrigerator. To use the starter, stir in any liquid sitting on the surface, measure out what you need, and allow it to come to room temperature. Replenish what you remove by stirring in equal parts of flour and water. (For example, if you remove 1 cup of batter, stir in 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup water.)

Milk-based Sourdough:

This starter is sweeter than water-based sourdough and contains lactic acid, a by-product of fermentation on milk sugar. Because lactic acid weakens gluten strands, it helps to create an exceptionally tender crumb structure.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, scoop measured
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 package dry yeast, dissolved in 1/4 cup warm water

Directions:

In a large glass or ceramic bowl, combine 1 cup of milk, 1 cup of flour, the sugar, and the dissolved yeast. Using a nonmetal spoon, beat until smooth and creamy. Stir in the remaining 1 cup milk and 1 cup flour. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and set in a moderately warm spot (about 70ºF). Allow to stand for 24 hours, at which point the batter should smell pleasantly sour.

Transfer to a tightly covered glass or plastic container and place in the refrigerator. Stir with a nonmetal spoon once a day for 5 days. To use the starter, stir in any liquid sitting on the surface, measure out what you need, and allow it to come to room temperature. Replenish with equal parts of flour and milk, plus 1/2 part sugar. (For example, if you remove 1 cup of batter, stir in 1/2 cup flour, 1/2 cup milk, and 1/4 cup sugar.)

How to Use Your Sourdough Starter

Crusty White Bread

The aroma of these loaves as they bake is irresistible, so go ahead and ignore the traditional advice to cool before slicing. Tear off a crusty piece straight from the oven and enjoy the incomparable taste of hot sourdough bread. Makes two 15-inch loaves or three to four smaller ones.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup warm water
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 package dry yeast
  • 2 cups water-based sourdough, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 to 5 cups bread flour, scoop measured

Directions:

In a large mixing bowl, combine the water, sugar, and yeast. Stir to dissolve the yeast. Add the sourdough, salt, and 2 cups of the flour. Beat vigorously until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl in ropy strands. Measure out 1 cup of the flour. Scatter some over a work surface and turn out the dough. Knead the dough, sprinkling on flour until the cup of flour has been absorbed. Knead in enough additional flour to form a smooth, non-sticky dough. The dough should spring back when you poke it with your finger. Place in a greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Set in a draft-free spot and allow to rise until doubled.

Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead again until smooth and satiny. Return the dough to the greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Set in a draft-free spot and allow to rise until doubled. Generously grease 2 baguette pans (or 4 smaller pans) and sprinkle with cornmeal. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and shape into 2 long loaves. Dust lightly with sifted flour and transfer to the prepared pans. Cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled. Make 3 diagonal slashes down each loaf with a razor blade. Dust again with sifted flour and bake in a preheated 450ºF oven for 25 to 35 minutes or until nicely browned.

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Sourdough Pancakes

Serve with plenty of warmed maple syrup. Makes 12 large pancakes.

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, scoop measured
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 3 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 cup water-based sourdough, at room temperature

Directions:

Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, soda, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Whisk to blend. In a separate bowl, whisk together the milk, eggs, and butter. Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in the sourdough. Then add the egg mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until well moistened. The batter will contain some lumps.

Place a griddle over medium-high heat. Brush the surface with vegetable oil or rub with a strip of uncooked bacon as the griddle warms. When the griddle is hot, stir the batter and add more milk if necessary to create a consistency like heavy cream. Ladle scant 1/4 cupfuls onto the hot griddle. Cook until the bubbles around the outside edge are broken. Turn pancakes and cook the other side. Repeat with remaining batter, adding additional milk if needed to maintain proper consistency. Keep cooked pancakes warm until all are ready.

sourdough-pancakes-recipes-bread.jpg

Streusel Coffee Cake

A cinnamon-flavored crumb topping complements this sourdough cake. Fold in a cup of fresh blueberries or chopped fresh apple if you like. If you want an even more fruity taste, try these recipes for blueberry streusel coffee cake and apricot streusel coffee cake. Makes a 9”x13” cake.

Ingredients:

  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, scoop measured
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 2 cups milk-based sourdough, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2/3 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Generously grease a 9”x13” baking pan. In a small bowl, combine 1/4 cup of the flour, the brown sugar, butter, and 1 teaspoon of the cinnamon. Cut in with a knife until crumbly, and set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the sourdough, milk, and granulated sugar, and blend well. Beat in the eggs and vegetable oil.

In a separate bowl, combine the remaining 2 cups of flour, baking powder, soda, salt, and the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons of cinnamon. Whisk to blend thoroughly. With the mixer set at low speed, gradually mix in the dry ingredients. Pour into the prepared pan. Sprinkle with the crumb mixture and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until a wooden pick inserted into the center comes out clean. Place pan on rack to cool.

Applesauce Walnut Bread

Studded with walnuts, this spicy sourdough bread makes a wonderful after-school snack. Makes 1 loaf.

applesauce-walnut-bread-recipe.jpg

Ingredients:

  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, scoop measured
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon allspice
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup applesauce
  • 1 cup milk-based sourdough, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Generously grease a 9”x5” loaf pan. Sift the flour, sugar, baking powder, soda, and salt into the bowl of an electric mixer. Add the cinnamon and allspice, and run the mixer briefly on low speed to blend the dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg and vegetable oil. Stir in the applesauce. With the mixture set at low speed, gradually pour the egg mixture into the dry ingredients. Add the sourdough and beat until thoroughly moistened. Stir in the walnuts.

Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, covering the loaf with foil during the last 10 minutes if necessary to prevent overbrowning. Loaf is done when a wooden pick inserted into the center comes out clean. Place pan on cooling rack; after 10 minutes, turn out loaf and cool completely on rack before slicing.

Let us know how your sourdough experiments turn out!

2023 Almanac Club