It’s alive! It’s alive!!! I finally made a successful sourdough starter fully of happy, healthy yeasts. I feel I’ve gained a new pet – feeding it, watching it grow, putting it in the fridge when I need a break from it… wait. Scratch that last one. Don’t put your pets in the fridge.
This was my third attempt at making a sourdough starter from scratch and judging by the comments on the photo I posted to facebook – many are we who have woefully tossed a failed starter after watching many odd happenings in our countertop jars, but never achieving that sweet, yeasty goodness that rises and falls predictably.
But fear not, my friends, I think I’ve cracked the code. I’ve discovered the holy grail of culturing wild yeasts. The secret to success is…
Rye Flour. I promise. Go buy a 2 lb bag of rye flour and your sourdough woes will be over. You can be baking honest to goodness sourdough bread made purely with wild yeast in 6 days. (Sure, sure, the starter might not be ideally matured at that stage, but for those of us who need a baking confidence boost and absolutely can.not.wait another second to dive into this alchemy that is sourdough, a day 6 loaf will be full of the big, bubbly holes that you need to see to know that this time it really is going to work for you.)
I heard somewhere recently “Magic is just science that hasn’t been explained yet.” The process of creating a sourdough starter definitely feels a bit magical at times, but the science behind it can be equally enthralling. There are a few myths about sourdough that need to be dispelled if you want to overcome a past filled with jars of funky paste.
Myth #1 – A starter catches yeasts from the air.
Even though there are wild yeasts floating around everywhere, the yeasts you grow in your starter culture mostly come from the flour itself. Before the grain is ground into flour, it’s covered with all sorts of little yeasty beasties and other beneficial bugs. When you mix the flour with water, enzymes are activated that help break the starch in the flour down into sugars that the yeasts can consume. (I’m oversimplifying, but you just need the general idea here.) And I’ll be honest, there’s another factor that makes the rye flour an optimal choice that I’ve forgotten but just trust me and pick up a bag. The yeast in your flour counts way more than the yeast in your air.
Myth #2 – My awesome starter doubled on day 2 but then it just died.
If your started doubled in size on day 2, it wasn’t because of yeasts. I’m sorry, I know this is disappointing. When you mix flour and water, the result is a neutral environment that is a perfect home for a particular bacteria in the flour. Don’t worry, it’s not harmful and as it dies, it actually creates the acidic environment that your yeasts need in order to thrive. This is why some methods call for pineapple juice in the beginning – starting with higher acidity cuts this step out of the process.
Myth #3 – My starter doesn’t smell like yeast or double in size regularly, but it’s making “hooch” so I must have hungry little yeasts in there!
Again, I’m sorry – you don’t have a ravenous colony of yeasts. You have an overly hydrated starter. If it doesn’t smell and act like a colony of yeasts, it’s probably not a colony of yeasts. “Hooch” is a dark liquid that can collect on the top of healthy starter as a sign that the yeasts have consumed all of the available food in the jar for them and are hungry for another feeding. Liquid on top of your days old starter probably isn’t hooch, especially if you’re using a 100% hydration method (equal weights water and flour).
So – all of that to say. Get some rye flour. Mix it with an equal weight of water. (100 grams of each is a good start.) Discard half and feed it every 24 hours. Watch it grow and be amazed!!!
Once your starter is established, you can switch over to all purpose flour for regular feedings. Happy baking!