Still mastering the art of sourdough breadmaking, I have become willing slave to the patient process. Sourdough is just magical to me, and due to the investment of time and energy into the process—by both me, and the happy lactobacillus!—the flavor is that much more satisfying.
The practice of making sourdough has been around for thousands of years. Tombs in ancient Egypt have been found to contain well-preserved wild ferments including sourdough, but it was the frontiersmen who brought sourdough to America. In the past, bread was leavened by breaking off a piece of the dough and using it to start the next batch of bread for consumption the following day. Many American pioneers carried a sourdough starter with them in a small wooden vessel that became so saturated with the wild yeast that a simple scrape of the wood inside could produce enough “start” for a delicious fresh-baked bread. Due to its curious nature and unique sense of terroir, some nineteenth-century women called their sourdough starters “witches’ yeast.”
What does sourdough need?
The key to ingredients for good sourdough:
- Starch: flour, on which the yeast feeds
- Moisture: liquid, usually water, but possibly something like potato water, to attract the yeast. If the medium is too dry, it will mold.
- Patience: time to allow the yeast to work its magic! This can take days if starting a new sourdough culture, or hours if the sourdough is already very active and working on a second rise.
Happy sourdough prefers:
- Glass containers (plastic is okay if you don’t have glass, but never metal!) that are at least twice the size of the starter inhabiting it. This allows proper space for growth of the starter; most recipes call for the starter sponge to double in bulk. For a visual analogy, the container for the sourdough starter is the equivalent of the “tank” for the fish. You’d never put your fish in a shot glass!
- Whole grain fiber/flour rather than overly refined (such as bleached) flours. This is not only healthier for the yeast—a living organism—but for those who consume it, us humans—also living organisms that began eating whole grains and have evolved to produce “grains” that are far from their natural state.
- The prime temperature for proofing sourdough that is not too sour is around 75°F, and activity will cease around 95°F. Having patience is challenging, but it’s well worth it! For more information on proofing sourdough, read these helpful tips!
- Refrigerate it if it is not being used every 2-3 days. This slows the metabolism of the yeast and maintains the starter for future uses without necessitating regular (and potentially wallet-draining) feeding.
There are many different recipes for starting and keeping sourdough, and many of them will require experimentation to know what you prefer. Starch, moisture, and the degree of patience necessary for any given sourdough recipe vary depending on preference and science. Try some of the recipes here or here, or if you are interested in experimenting with the most basic sourdough start, try this recipe…
- 1/2 cup flour (whole wheat or an unbleached flour)
- 1/2 cup warm liquid (milk or water)
- sugar, optional
- Let this sit in a warm (75°F-85°F) location for 3-5 days. If a clear liquid separates to the top, this is good—it is called “hooch” and has its own history of uses. The start should have a very strong, pungent, tart smell.
- If, after 3-5 days, little has happened, give it a gentle stir and allow it to sit another 2-3 days.
However, there is no one failproof recipe for a sourdough start. The most important thing to remember with sourdough is that it is a living organism; the sourdough start will respond to its environment to produce what is therein. I received part of a friend’s start last year, and still have not yet mastered the art of a consistently airy, light, tart sourdough loaf.
Sourdough Discard Recipes
I have begun to master, perhaps more so than the sourdough itself, the art of using all the byproducts of the process. In this case, the sourdough “discard” is the unfed sourdough start of which a portion is used to feed a new batch, and the remainder meant to be tossed out. Toss no more! (I hesitate to continue to call it “discard,” for lack of appreciating it appropriately, but that is the common term.)
There are so many wonderful sourdough “discard” recipes out there to be enjoyed. Though they don’t often showcase the bubbly feature of a beautiful sourdough rise, they carry the same tart flavor that is to love about sourdough. I am smitten with these recipes in the same way I love a freshly buttered slice of sourdough toast…butter these too!
Sourdough Biscuits (Using Sourdough Discard)
A good ol’ buttery biscuit never hurt anyone, and in fact, these two recipes are crowd pleasers. The use of sourdough discard adds that extra sour bite that is offered by any buttermilk biscuit recipe—without having to use buttermilk! The very basic Alberta Coop Buttery Sourdough Biscuit Recipe can be topped with a sweet jam, or made into a savory breakfast biscuit sandwich. This alternative King Arthur Flour biscuit recipe makes more savory biscuits that need nothing but hungry bellies to enjoy them!
Sourdough Pancakes (Using Sourdough Discard)
Spice up your weekend pancakes by trying out this sourdough pancake recipe. If you’re like me and have a classic family buttermilk pancake recipe, you may be skeptical about this change. These Sourdough Pancakes from “The Perfect Loaf,” though, like the sourdough biscuits, imitate the flavor profile of buttermilk with the addition of sourdough discard. And, I would argue that they have a slightly denser and less fluffy, “cakey” texture…making them hard to stop eating!
Sourdough Crackers (Using Sourdough Discard)
Ah, the delightful bite of a sourdough cracker! This King Arthur Flour Sourdough Crackers Recipe is surprisingly easy—even difficult to mess up!—and even easier to disappear. With the addition of any preferred herb, the tartness of sourdough complements nicely any pairing with these crackers, and they make a unique (and yet simple) appetizer to bring to any summer party.
Sourdough Pizza Dough (Using Sourdough Discard)
A nice twist on a classic, this Sourdough Pizza Dough Recipe from Mountain Kitchen is a wonderful way to use up sourdough discard on a regular basis; Friday night sourdough pizza night could become your new tradition! Since it does take a little more foresight to plan for dough rise time, it is also possible to make this as more of a thin-crust pizza if you’re in more of a rush, eliminating the rise time from the whole process—although the beauty of using sourdough is the lovely crusty bubbles it can produce!