Sourdough, Part II: The How and WHY of Getting Your Starter Started

flavorRD is on a sourdough baking kick! Last week we started with a crash course on sourdough’s history, science and nutrition benefits. This week, it’s all about getting your own culture started.

Want to know the coolest thing about getting started experimenting with sourdough in your own kitchen? You don’t need to have connections with a veteran baker or buy a special culture – the microorganisms that make up sourdough are all around you, just waiting to forge a symbiotic relationship with you and your baking habit. Wild yeast and lactobacillus bacteria live on the surface of flour granules and in the air around us, and when you provide them with the right conditions, they’re happy to set up shop.

How do I capture a culture?

All it takes is a container of flour and water mixed together on your counter. At regular intervals, you feed the culture with more flour and water, after first removing some of the mixture before feeding time (in addition to making sure you don’t end up with a giant doughball that takes over the city, this basically serves to keep acidity in check and to cull the herd, allowing a smaller population of microorganisms to eat what you feed them and multiply with less competition, and fewer byproducts of metabolism that might slow their growth). Simply follow the feeding schedule, and you’ll have your own thriving culture in about a week!

I’m not going to break down a step-by-step schedule here, because it’s been done well many times on the web already. When I started my starter, I mostly followed this guide by the people at King Arthur Flour, with the benefit of some extra insights from Smart Nutrition and The Kitchn. The simple flour/water/time protocol yielded a healthy, happy starter that just chills contentedly in my fridge all week, and unfailingly springs to action when I take him out to play.

OK, but remind me again why it’s worth it to take time from my busy schedule for the care and feeding of a living baking ingredient?

Excellent question. With the word-count I’m saving by outsourcing the how-to, I’m choosing to dig a little deeper into the why-to. Home-baked sourdough bread is a nice way to enhance a happy-healthy life, but it does take a little effort. You might think of it in the same light as other “healthy habits” that you’re motivated to work into your life, like taking time on the weekend to chop up a surplus of your favorite veggies.

So let’s consider motivation. Sourdough’s health benefits are a good reason to incorporate a starter into your baking repertoire, but honestly, I knew about those facts for months before I mustered up the will to get started. Motivation is about a personal, emotional connection to your goal. If you feel like you want to do something, take a moment to think about WHY you feel that way. Once you can define your motivation, you can use that connection to fuel your inspiration, to decide that it’s worth your effort to start it up and stick with it.

Sound like a chore? It’s really just about getting in touch with the good feelings you have about your aspirations. Allow me to demonstrate with the easy-breezy answers that come to mind when I ask myself the question:

Why Should I Start a Sourdough Habit?

Because it makes me feel like a baking wizard. Or at least, you know, some kind of baking MacGyver. I can’t diffuse a bomb with a paper clip, but I can make a mean loaf of bread with just flour, water, salt, and time. Knowing about traditional methods of food production is a valuable life skill; we come from a long line of humans before us, and it’s good to be in touch with our roots. During my weekly baking sessions, I often think about my post-apocalyptic survival skills, and how my camp will still be enjoying the pleasures of leavened breads as long as we can get our hands on enough flour!

Because science is fun. It’s good to be curious, and science is really just organized curiosity. Some of my reasons for creating this blog centered on joining like-minded readers in the joys of paying attention to the wonders of the world around us, and working with sourdough is a great opportunity to learn something cool. I love that my sourdough science project takes me back to my college days in microbiology class, except even better (ie. instead of cramming for exams, I’m cramming baguettes in my mouth. science rules!)

Because life is too short for bad bread. Before I took up my sourdough project, I often settled for some pretty uninspiring grocery-store bread to keep up with my household’s carb appetite. Now, since almost every weekend yields a batch of awesome home-made sourdough baked goods (often with leftovers to bank in the freezer) I’ve cut way back on the riffraff. Good bread makes life better!

Starting a sourdough starter is really a pretty easy, foolproof project – it’s amazing what you can do with just a little flour, water, time, and motivation! If you have your own culture or plans to cultivate one (or if you could use a little more inspiration first), don’t miss next week’s post: I’ll be talking about the simple steps of my weekly sourdough ritual, and the best recipes in my baking rotation.

2 thoughts on “Sourdough, Part II: The How and WHY of Getting Your Starter Started

  1. You might also add that sourdough bread made the traditional way is safe for people needing to follow a low Fodmap diet. The microorganisms feed on the fodmaps, thereby reducing levels in the bread. It was recently tested by Monash University in Australia. Hooray for those of us who had previously banned wheat from the kitchen!

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