Learn the basics of handling an organic sourdough starter and creating sourdough bread from scratch plus the history of sourdough and more!
Bake Sourdough in your own home
Before we begin, there is a lot of information on sourdough. I get it, it can seem overwhelming. That’s why I wrote an entire guide called The Journey of Sourdough that explains the sourdough process, start to finish, including all of the information you need to refresh and build your sourdough starter, make levain, bake a Classic French Boule (start to finish, including how to properly shape and score your loaf), as well as recipes and FAQs.
To make it even easier, I’m sharing my Organic, Spring Water-Fed Sourdough Starter ($10) with you. It’s solely fed with organic bread flour and refreshed with my favorite spring water straight from East Tennessee. I know you’ll enjoy it!
How did sourdough begin?
Sourdough is known to be the original form of leavened bread (meaning bread with wild yeast, not commercial/store-bought yeast). It’s unclear exactly where sourdough originated and it’s believed that, with most discoveries, it was created by accident.
Some of the oldest sourdough breads date back to 3700 BC from Switzerland, though it’s believed that the original orientation of sourdough comes from the lands of Egypt. Honestly, as you research the origins of sourdough, it’s really unclear! There’s one thing for sure: sourdough has been around for A LONG TIME.
How was sourdough created by accident?
This is probably what happened: someone mixed water with ground grain and left it out at room temperature for days. It was left out for so long that the wild yeasts in the air combined with the water and grain mixture and began eating the natural sugars from the grain.
Lactic acid is created from this, which gives the mixture a sour flavor and smell.
Alcohol and carbon dioxide are also created, which creates air in the mixture. This air makes the bread rise!
And when you work this mixture together with your hands, the air stays trapped and eventually creates air bubbles or holes (or soon you’ll learn this is also called the “crumb” in bread), which you’re familiar seeing.
Wild yeast vs. commercial yeast – what’s the difference?
Wild yeasts are the key ingredient of a true sourdough loaf. They’re found floating around in the air or on surfaces, especially on vegetation. They can be extracted from almost anything like pinecones or blueberries and they’re even on our skin.
Like the name states, they’re wild! And there are millions upon millions of them. When working with sourdough, the beautiful wild yeasts congregate in your kitchen and become part of your home. As you bake more and more with your sourdough starter, the wild yeasts from your hands will join in with your bread and starter. This is why people say, ‘You can only get San Francisco sourdough bread from San Francisco’. Your starter will truly be one of a kind over time!
Wild yeasts are what make your bread rise. In sourdough, you shouldn’t need to use store bought yeast in a packet. As of about 160 years ago, wild yeasts were the only way to make your bread rise.
The fermentation process in sourdough results in less gluten which then creates more fiber and good bacteria all from the wild yeasts. This sourdough is absolutely gut and gluten-sensitivity friendly!
If you need a little more science…commercial yeasts were created by extracting one single strain from a wild yeast culture. Most call commercial yeast “baker’s yeast”. This yeast became a fast, convenient, and reliable way to bake, especially in the industrial baking world. This resulted in a cheaper and faster way to mill out bread. Commercial yeasts also require more sugar, which can result in a higher gluten bread (aka NOT good for your gut).
Tools you may need to work with a sourdough starter and bake sourdough bread
Keep it simple. I try to use the same bowl for making my levain and dough in order to reduce the clutter in my kitchen. Some of the items listed below are completely optional.
- Digital scale: although it seems scary and maybe even confusing, a digital scale will create consistent and accurate baking, resulting in a great loaf! “Baking is a science that requires accurate measurements to achieve predictable results” –Amy’s Bread, 2010, p. 20
- Large bowl
- A strong all purpose or bread flour
- Fine sea salt
- Timer – I like these digital timers.
- Tea towel, plastic wrap, silicone cover – anything to cover your dough that’ll keep moisture in. We want to avoid your dough from drying and creating a crust. Your dough cannot expand if there’s a crust forming.
- Dutch oven with a knob that’s safe enough to reach 500 degrees in the oven
- Scoring lame or sharp knife
Ingredients for baking a simple sourdough loaf
Again, sourdough likes to stay simple. The ingredients are simple – flour, warm water, salt, and an active, bubbly levain or starter will do the trick.
- A strong all-purpose or bread flour
- Warm water
- Fine sea salt
- Active, bubbly sourdough levain or starter
What is a sourdough starter?
A sourdough starter is a mixture of flour, water and time. Time allows for the natural, wild yeasts and good bacteria (aka lactic acid) that’s in the flour to colonize and eventually ferment when added to water. This means your starter is alive and active! When these wild yeasts and bacteria get together, they give off CO2, gas, and alcohol. This is what makes your bread rise and gives your bread its distinctive taste!
What is a dry sourdough starter?
I wrote a guide on how I use the dry starter method called The Journey of Sourdough. In this guide I explain why the dry starter method is important for saving money, saving flour, and saving time.
A dry starter is a dense, stiff, full-of-active-and-wild-yeast dough kept in a container with a tight lid, tucked inside your fridge, waiting patiently until you’re ready to bake.
I make levain with my dry starter just about every day and only need to feed or “refresh” my starter once a week or two. This is MEGA! A dry starter will only need to be fed once you have 10g/1 Tbsp. left in your container (you can read more on this in my post How to make sourdough levain). And it’s one of the biggest differences between a wet starter. A what? I’ll explain.
The dry starter method is influenced by Carla Bartolucci, founder of Jovial Foods and Bionaturae. Here’s a good video by Carla.
What is a wet sourdough starter?
A wet sourdough starter is what you may be more familiar with. You know, the bubbly liquid in a jar sitting on the counter at room temperature that you have to feed once (or twice) per day, discarding a good portion of it, and sometimes forgetting the last time you fed it (and you’ve also probably wondered ‘is it supposed to smell like that?’).
I’ve been there too! I’ve kept a successful wet starter in the past, but a wet starter goes through a lot of flour due to feeding it once or twice per day in order to keep it strong. This can feel wasteful. I went through A LOT of good quality flour to keep my wet starter alive in the past and it felt like I was throwing money away!
Then, if you forget to feed it over a few days, it’ll need another few more feedings (and time to rise) before you can bake again. All in all, this can be very discouraging, especially for a sourdough newbie.
What is sourdough levain and how to make it
Levain is a wet dough and it’s about the consistency of thick pancake or cake batter. This is the very first step in making bread (or if you decide to make pancakes, focaccia, bagels, etc – you will always start here). This batterlike dough means your starter is now active, bubbly and ready to be made into dough on the day of baking. Making levain is like saying, “Wake up starter! Drink some warm water, eat some flour, and let’s make bread!”
Find my post here on how to make sourdough levain. It’s not as scary as it sounds!
My Sourdough Recipes
- How to make Sourdough Levain
- Easy, Fluffy Sourdough Tortillas
- The Easiest Rosemary, Garlic, & Parmesan Sourdough Focaccia
I will continue to add to this post as your questions come up!
Until next time,