The Ultimate Guide to Sourdough
Winter is coming...
Which, for us, means life slows a bit. Having daylight from 4:30 am to 10 pm during the summer months just seems to mean we try to fill the hours with all the tasks and chores we possibly can. Keeping up with cherries, the garden, and animals requires more than even these extended hours offer.
So, winter is a welcome season that allows us to take on tasks with less urgency. It is also the season for turning on your oven and baking! If you aren't following us on social media, here's a fun picture of our 1969 double oven- it still works gloriously and I'll be devastated if it ever gives up on us (also, peep the brown, ceramic sourdough crock to the left).
My favorite baking staple is sourdough, and, since I get many questions about this spectacular natural yeast, I thought I'd share what I know.
What is Sourdough?
Most people are familiar with sourdough by name. We associate it most commonly with bread. But, few stop and consider what actually makes something "sourdough." And, honestly, if you stop and think about it, it doesn't seem like it would be overly appealing. Sour. Dough.
But push past this name and think of all the delicious things you have heard of using sourdough: pancakes, bread, pastries. The list is more endless than you might imagine.
Sourdough is essentially a captured and usable natural yeast. The flour and water ferment a bit and steal the yeast in the flour and air to make a bubbly, leavening-powered concoction. Sourdough allows you to bake without adding commercial, dry yeast.
I'll share some tips on how to get started and leave you with a few recipes that anyone can try!
How Do You Make a Sourdough Starter?
Most people stop before they start, thinking sourdough is complicated. Trust me, once you fire up a crock, it really isn't that bad! Grab a container that holds at least 6-8 cups; it should be either ceramic or glass, not metal. You'll have a countertop starter within the week.
There are generally two ways to approach making your starter:
With commercial yeast
The quickest way to get a starter going is to make one that includes a little commercial, dry yeast. As I will address in the FAQs below, this isn't "cheating" and that commercial yeast doesn't stay long! Adding the commercial yeast just jumpstarts the yeast quantity to shorten the time it takes to develop an active starter. You need:
2 cups flour
2 cups water
1 pkg yeast
Mix yeast with warm water to dissolve and then mix in your flour. It should be a similar consistency to pancake batter. Cover with a cloth and secure with a rubber band. Stir once a day for about 2-3 days and you have a sourdough starter. You should notice bubbles and signs of activity. You will start the maintenance process, and if it bubbles up when fed (see below), you have successfully activated a starter.
Without commercial yeast
This is the traditional way to make sourdough as the purpose of sourdough was to stand in for yeast. Our modern commercial, dry yeast wasn't readily available so sourdough starter was the leavening agent itself! You will need a glass or ceramic container that is at least a quart in size. Then, add the following:
1 cup flour
1/2 cup water
Mix these together to get a thick, almost paste texture. Add a little water if needed to incorporate all of the flour. To turn this mixture into a sourdough start, you need to give it time to let the natural yeast do its thing and multiply. That happens through "feeding" each day for about a week. Watch for signs of bubbles or activity in your mixture. The first time, this can take up to 48 hours depending on temperature. Once you have the bubbles (may not be a ton, but look for signs of air pockets), do the following each day for around 6 days:
Remove some starter, leaving only 1/2 cup in your container
Add another 1 cup of flour and 1/2 cup water
Mix well and set aside for 24 hours
When you see that it has bubbled and collapsed a bit, repeat steps 1-3. By day 6, you should see it really grow and collapse after each "feed." You have an active starter ready for bread!
How do you maintain your starter?
Maintaining your starter requires "feeding" it or storing it in a cool place. If you want to have starter available and quickly ready to use, you'll go through the feeding process below. If you want to maintain your starter, but not have to mess with it, you can pop it in the fridge or freezer.
Feeding your starter
For a ready-to-use sourdough starter, you will want to maintain your starter on your counter. For us, we can keep it happy and relatively ready to go by feeding once a week. Some people feed theirs every day- you'll get a feel for what works best as you go. As long as you don't go beyond feeding at least weekly, and the temperatures in your house are not consistently too warm, it's relatively hard to "kill" your starter.
Feeding your starter means removing your existing starter, leaving about 1/2 cup in your container. Add in equal parts water and flour and mix well. I tend to use a 1/2 cup of each because it's an easy measurement.
The key is to reintroduce new flour for your natural yeast to work on breaking down. Thus, "feeding" your yeast.
Storing your starter
There are periods during the year when we have no time for baking or turning the oven on sounds like a hot and unwelcome task. During those moments, we put our starter away to use in later weeks or months. Your starter can go untouched in the fridge for about a month, or for much longer in the freezer.
If you want to be able to decide during the week to make pancakes that weekend, the fridge is the way to go. Your starter is still alive and ready to feed in the fridge. So, while the cooler temps slow the yeast down, you can re-energize your starter within a day to use in recipes.
If you need to store your starter for more than a month, use the freezer. You can pour your starter into a freezer-safe container and store it for quite a while. We never store for more than around 6 months, but I imagine you could go longer. Restarting this requires thawing the mixture and feeding it for a couple of days to get it lively again.
Sourdough Frequently Asked Questions
Whenever I post recipes or pictures about our sourdough starter, I often get a series of questions. So, here is my complete list of frequently asked questions and the answers as I know them. Keep in mind that most people who work with sourdough have their own flair and processes they apply, so my answers may be slightly different than what you might hear from others.
Is sourdough hard to make?
This is probably the most common question I get, along with various iterations implying that sourdough is a bit intimidating. I'll admit I felt this way for years as well. What I will say is that reading an entire guide on sourdough makes it sound relatively complicated. My best advice is to divide it into two categories:
Making the starter
Maintaining the starter
Read up on making a starter (like the brief instructions I gave above) and then put aside any information on maintaining your starter until you get there. You will realize that making a starter is relatively simple!
Is sourdough hard to maintain?
See what I did there? I am putting the starting and maintaining into two different questions, just like you should! Maintaining your starter is easier than making it. And, I'll refer you back to the previous question to know that making it isn't complicated either!
Most instructions will tell you to "feed" your starter every day (see the section on feeding above). This is simply adding equal parts flour and water- I usually do a 1/2 cup of each. You'd run out of room if you didn't take some out each time, which is why there are a plethora of "sourdough discard" recipes. You usually remove about a cup in order to add the cup of fresh flour and water.
However, life happens. I often will go a few days (up to a week) between feeding the starter. It doesn't hurt anything. Just watch for any color or signs of mold if you neglect it a bit.
Can you keep a moldy sourdough starter?
If you don't feed your starter, or the temperatures suddenly soar, your sourdough may take on the appearance or smell of going bad. Mold on sourdough starter is often a pinkish hue. Healthy and lively sourdough starter will stay a uniform color. Some liquid may form on top that has a slight yellow tinge, but patches and pink are typically signs of mold.
Mold doesn't mean the yeast is dead. Some people scrape the mold from the top and keep going with the remaining starter. I have always started over. I don't like cutting mold off cheese either. If you are just starting out and see mold, I would recommend restarting from scratch. If you are a sourdough connoisseur and feel comfortable identifying a good starter via sight and smell, do what you are comfortable with. Healthy starter will have a bit of a tangy smell, but it shouldn't smell bad.
Does it matter where the starter comes from? I want San Francisco sourdough!
There are online options to order a sourdough starter. If you really want a starter hailing from the bay area, by all means, snatch it up! These starters also often come with instructions for reactivating and maintaining your sourdough starter which can be a help to those new to sourdough.
However... once you have fed this starter a few times, it's likely that very little of the initial San Fransisco yeast is present. I've longed for my own story of a sourdough start passed down through generations, assuming there was some heritage yeast compound that only 100-year-old starters had. But, ultimately, my year-old countertop starter is virtually identical to what one would be had it been passed down to me for generations. It may be missing the love, care, and incredible story but the yeast content would still be my own Eastern Oregon yeast from my flour and air of 2021.
What is the difference between discard and active sourdough starter?
This is an important detail to sort out as you set to making recipes that use your sourdough starter.
Full disclosure... I'm a "throw all the ingredients in at once" type of baker- I rarely do all the cream and fold and first dry then wet type instructions. Most things turn out alright and I only have myself to blame when I realize a step was important to follow in order (these are the moments my husband kindly asks the question he already knows the answer to: did you follow the instructions? No, husband, I did not.)
That being said- discard and active starter are different ingredients and will respond in your recipe differently. In simple terms, discard is just that: discarded starter when you are prepping to feed. It is the starter that went through its bubbling and eating phase and is calming down with less yeast activity. There are copious discard recipes because many people balk at just tossing the extra you need to remove to feed your starter. I'm a balker- I always try to make something! Discard starter won't give you a buoyant rise in bread, but it's great for a million other uses!
Active starter, conversely, is the starter when it's at its peak yeast performance. This usually occurs a few hours (up to 12) after you have fed your starter. You'll see lots of bubbles and the starter is threatening to exit your container during its active stage.
This picture shows a good, active starter hours after being fed.
This is when your starter is most able to provide that incredible leavening effort in recipes. Most bread recipes will call for active starter, as do some of the better pancake recipes (in our humble homesteading opinion).
I included our favorite pancake recipe below, as well as beginner's frybread and dinner roll recipes.
How do you use sourdough starter?
So, you have set up your sourdough and it's happily bubbling away on your countertop. The whole reason for finding and reading this post is to eat the creations made from your time and effort into a starter. Be sure you understand the difference between active and discard, and check out these favorite recipes of Forest Cove Acres!
The most Simple Sourdough Frybread recipe to dip your toe into using your starter. The downside to many decadent sourdough recipes is that they often can consume multiple days, at the very least hours from start to devour. I want you to jump in and try something with almost instant satisfaction. It's also nice that a good flat bread is super versatile. Keeping with my "throw it all in, don't mind directions" theory of baking, mix together the following:
1 cup sourdough discard
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup plain greek yogurt
2- 2.5 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
dash of salt
Mix and then knead your ingredients together until your dough is smooth and consistent. If you need more moisture, add milk, if you need it a touch drier, add flour. It can be a little shaggy but don't make it over dry. Divide the dough into 8 balls and let rest for as little as 20 minutes and up to a few hours. Roll each ball into a flat disc and fry in lard (or oil). You'll get the perfect crunchy outside and soft inside that makes fry bread a forever favorite.
The best Sourdough Dinner Rolls you’ll ever make adapted from somewhere out of memory at this point and recorded on a lined sheet of paper in my recipe folder.
1 ¼ cups active starter
2 ½ cups to 3 cups flour
¾ cup water
½ teaspoon sugar
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon yeast
Remember that whole "I add everything at once" detail? Well, my paper only has these ingredients, no instructions. So- throw it all in there and get to kneading. Knead until it's a good, smooth consistency and let it rise until double. Punch down and shape dinner rolls then let rise again until you are inpatient enough to throw them in the oven. These do well with a slight egg wash and baked at 375F until they sound hollow when you tap them.
The best Sourdough Pancakes you'll ever make; adapted from our favorite Return to Sourdough Cooking cookbook. Please disregard all prior comments about dumping all ingredients without care of timing or instructions. For this one, it's important (so important, I'm only going to give the ingredients for each step as it comes!
The night before you want pancakes, mix together:
1 cup sourdough discard
2 cups flour
2 cups milk
dash of salt
Let this bubble and activate overnight (or around 12 hours). Then to your lively starter concoction add:
2 tsp baking soda
3 T lard (or melted butter)
2 T sugar
It's going to be crazy in your bowl as the baking soda reacts to the acidity of the starter mixture. It's our favorite part of making these pancakes. It's science! And the bubbles make these pancakes ridiculously delicious. Griddle up the batter in whatever shape or size you prefer! This batter could probably make a mean waffle, too.
Feel free to reach out if you have sourdough questions. If you are local and want to jumpstart your sourdough baking, I'll gladly pass you a jar of my sourdough discard as a ready-made starter!