Getting started with sourdough

Now that I’ve kind of settled in in Sweden, I decided to start a project that I’d been meaning to do for a while: make sourdough bread from scratch. In case you aren’t aware of the process, sourdough bread does not use packaged yeast like most bread. Rather, you cultivate a sourdough starter: a culture of natural yeasts and bacteria which feeds on a flour/water mixture. Since the starter is a living thing, you need to feed it daily to keep it happy and in balance. So basically maintaining a sourdough starter is like having a pet that you can eat.

You can get started making sourdough by taking some of a pre-existing starter and continuing to feed it, but it turns out it’s really easy to make starter spontaneously by letting some flour and water sit out for a couple days. The cooties naturally occurring in the flour and the air will begin to grow in the mixture, and it just takes a few days for the little ecosystem to get into balance. I used the basic guide in the Tartine Bread book: 50/50 mix of whole wheat and white flour, mixed with water to form a batter, put in a cool dark place for 2 or 3 days until it smells funny and bubbles. Then feed it daily by discarding 80% of it and adding fresh flour and water.

I just began this project 5 days ago, but my starter is already acting and smelling like a top-notch sourdough breed. I’m so proud of it. In case anyone is interested in jumping on the sourdough bandwagon, here’s a rough timeline of how my starter developed so you can see if you’re on the right track. The best way to detect changes in a fermentation process is by smell, so if you don’t want to hear me describe what bacteria smells like, just skip over this part.

  • Day 0: Create initial flour/water mixture.
  • Day 1: No noticeable bubbles, not much smell
  • Day 2: Some bubbles and a strong vinegar/jet fuel fermentation smell. Not pleasant but a sign of life. I did the first feeding then.
  • Day 3: Less jet fuel, more vinegary and a little fuller bodied aroma. Before the feeding it looked kind of dead but bubbles started forming within 20 minutes or so of feeding.
  • Day 4: Almost pleasant-smelling. Yeasty with some blue cheese notes. Even more bubbling/growing in the first couple hours after feeding than in previous days.
  • Day 5: Much more mellow aromatically, for the first time it actually smells a bit like sourdough.

At this point it already seems trained to the healthy 24-hour feeding cycle, but I’ll probably give it a few more days before trying to make bread with it.

Day 4

What if I’m not around for a few days, you ask? Will my starter starve to death, tragically unaware that it lives mere inches from a container with a lifetime supply of its food? Probably, but if I grow too attached to let that happen, Sweden’s got my back. A bakery here in Stockholm has opened a “sourdough hotel” where they will care for your beloved microorganisms while you are out of town. But that’s just a little too insane.