Several years ago, my sister and I were talking on the phone about making homemade bread. I was just starting to get the hang of making bread by hand and not using a bread maker, and she was venturing into the world of sourdough. She started telling me all about how to make your own sourdough starter and bread, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to bother with making my own starter, so she offered me some of hers.
Well, I made sourdough for awhile, but eventually my starter spoiled for a lack of care. I got some more from my sister when I was ready to start again, but after awhile, that one spoiled too. It was time for me to learn how to make my own. I hadn’t loved how “complicated” it felt to feed the starter twice a day, or how I had to throw out a portion every time I fed it. It seemed so wasteful to throw part out, and I could never remember to feed it twice a day. I wanted something easier. Lucky for me, I own the Nourishing Traditions Cookbook, and there’s the most straightforward recipe for both sourdough bread and starter! The way this recipe is intended, you can make 3 loaves of bread once a week.
I’ve modified the recipe just slightly, because I didn’t need quite so much starter, and because there was no way we could go through three loaves of sourdough a day. We tried. My kids like it, but don’t love it, so we don’t go through it as fast as we could if we used this for all sandwiches. Anyway, this makes for a pretty dense bread, and seeing as it only uses natural yeast, it can take a LONG time to rise. I have far better success with this in the warm months than I do in the cold months. It’s not that it won’t work, but we keep our house cold in winter, so it takes a lot longer to rise.
To make the starter:
- 2 cups rye flour (I use a medium rye)
- 2 cups cold, filtered water (I use water from our water filter at room temp, and this works just fine)
- Flour sack towel
- Plus additional flour and water each day until the starter is ready
You can mix the starter in a bowl, a jar, or a crock (I use a crock). Whatever you mix it into keep in mind that this will make about 2-3 quarts of starter. You will actually need two containers for the starter, as you will be transferring the starter from one to the other every day. I have two crocks on my counter, just for this purpose. (My cookbook recommends using 2 gallon-sized bowls, but since I make a little less than the recipe in the book calls for, I can get away with something smaller.) You will need a flour sack towel, and a rubber band. (You could use cheesecloth instead of a towel, but I prefer a flour sack towel.)
In your container, mix 2 cups of flour with 2 cups of cold, filtered water. The mixture will be pretty soupy, similar to a pancake batter consistency. It doesn’t need to be completely smooth, but it shouldn’t be really lumpy, either. (I like using a rubber spatula for mixing, because it allows me to scrape down the sides when I’m done mixing, which makes washing the crock easier.) Cover the mixture with a flour sack towel secured with a rubber band to keep insects out.
Keep in a warm, open area indoors, or outside in the shade if it’s warm enough.
The next day, mix your rye flour and filtered water in the clean crock/bowl/jar, and then add in the starter from the other bowl. Mix well, and cover. (Note, the starter gets transferred to a different vessel everyday, alternating back and forth between your two vessels. I mix the new water and flour first as I find that it mixes more easily this way.) Do this every day for a total of 7 days. The starter should start to get bubbly and smell a little like wine after a few days. As my cookbook notes: “It should go through a bubbly, frothy stage, and then subside. After 7 days, the starter is ready for breadmaking.” (In the end, including the day you started with the 2:2 water/flour, it will be a full 8 days.)
*The cookbook I use says to mix in 1 cup water and 1 cup of flour everyday, but I do not. I mix in fresh flour and water, but not in that quantity. I do about 1/2 cup of each, as this will create the volume I need to bake sourdough bread once a week. If you were going to be making a lot of other sourdough products, like pancakes, crackers, or rolls, you can mix in more as needed, as long as the ratio remains 1:1. I have yet to make anything but bread with mine.
Do not add any honey or sugars to your starter. Your starter may take a little longer to develop bubbles if you live in a newly built building, as the amount and types of yeast in your home likely won’t be at the same levels as in an old farmhouse like mine. We can get things to ferment pretty quickly here under the right conditions!
For the Bread (Makes 2 Loaves):
- 5 cups of starter
- 7+ cups of flour (it could take up to 10)
- about 1 cup water
- 1 1/2+ Tbsp sea salt
I do not have an exact amount of flour that this recipe will take. It varies all of the time for me based on the conditions or if my starter is a little more wet one time than the next. The cookbook recommends using spelt, but I have also made it with just rye, or with whole wheat, or white flour, as those are easier for me to get than spelt. Depending on the type of flour you use and the weather, you might end up using a little or a lot.
Measure your starter, salt, and 3/4 cup water into a large bowl, and mix with a wooden spoon until the salt has dissolved. Slowly mix in your flour. I have learned that it is recommended to mix in a half cup of flour at a time when making bread, but when you have 7 cups of flour to add, I usually pour one cup in at a time until I reach cup 5, at which point, I add flour a little more slowly. Eventually, the dough will be hard to mix with a spoon, and I often find it difficult to knead the bread in a bowl, so when it’s no longer wet and sticky, I flour the counter and continue to knead and add flour until the dough is not sticky.
To see if your dough is ready, rip off a small ball of dough and do the “window pane” test where you stretch it out and see if the dough rips easily. You should be able to stretch it and see through some of it and not have it rip immediately. If it is still ripping, it probably needs a little more flour and some more kneading. Though I noticed that my sourdough is not nearly as elastic as a sandwich dough.
When you are done, divide the dough in half, and shape the dough into loaves. Place these into bread pans, slit the tops of the loaves, and let sit in a warm area, covered, for anywhere from 4-12 hours. The warmer it is, the faster it will rise. Sometimes my house is too cold, so I have to warm the oven for a bit, then turn it off, let it cool a bit, and put the bread in with the door open, or I might put it next to a heating vent, or just in the sun if possible. The rising part can feel painfully slow! With my most recent batch of sourdough bread, I had to do the oven thing a few times. If you want to keep the bread from drying out as it rises in the slightly warmed oven, cover the bread with a damp towel.
When it is done rising, put in an oven to bake for about an hour at 350 F. Let cool completely before cutting. This bread can be pretty crumbly, and is very dense. It will probably take a bit of experimenting with the recipe to be able to “read” the dough, as it handles a little differently than most bread dough you might be familiar with.
I like to start this bread first thing in the morning because of the long rise time. I don’t make it on the day I plan to use it, because I cannot always guarantee that it will be ready in time for the meal I want to use it for. But this bread can last for up to a week, out on the counter, keeping it covered. If I have used part of a loaf, I’ll usually put it into a bag to keep it from drying out.
I recently bought some long loaf pans because I didn’t like how big the slices of bread are when I make homemade bread, so the new pans help with that, especially when it comes to the sourdough bread. A pack of two was about $10 on Amazon. When it comes to a hearty sourdough, you probably aren’t going to want to eat quite as much as you would with a “sandwich bread.” Two thin slices of this bread with a piece of sharp cheddar, turned into grilled cheese really flavorful and very filling!
You can also use this sourdough starter in other bread recipes. If you want a faster rise, you can probably add a bit of sugar when you first put your starter into the bowl for mixing the dough.
When you have finished mixing your dough, take your empty crock or container, mix in 1/2 c. water and 1/2 c. rye, and then take the starter you have remaining after making dough from the first crock and mix it in. Cover. Repeat the feeding cycle until you have enough starter to make another batch! (About a week later, if you feed it like I do.)
If you are not going to be able to make more sourdough for awhile, store your starter in an airtight container in either the fridge or freezer. The recommendation if you store starter in the fridge is to feed is to remove a cup of starter and toss it (or feed it to your chickens), and mix in a 1:1 ratio of flour and water.
I prefer working with rye, but you can also make a starter using white flour mixed with whole wheat flour, or just whole wheat. Whole wheat tends to be very active and will produce a strong flavor.
If you ever miss a day feeding your starter, or you remember about 12 hours late, it’s not a huge deal. You don’t have to scrap the starter, but it may develop a stronger flavor. You can counteract this a little by feeding it more frequently. Also, if you store your starter in the refrigerator and it starts to dry out, you can still revive it with water, but it may take a little longer to be able to use it again.
In the summer months, my starter goes absolutely crazy, and has even overflowed quite a bit on a really hot day. I have to be sure it’s not in the sunlight, but in winter, I keep it closer to a window where I know it will get sun, which helps keep it active enough to use.
I think it’s amazing that you can make bread with just flour, water, and a little bit of salt, don’t you? What’s really nice about making a simple sourdough is that you are less likely to run out of ingredients. I buy flour in bulk, and I always keep a lot of salt in the house, so if I don’t want to break the budget because I ran out of oil or sugar or yeast, I can still bake some really delicious bread! Sourdough is definitely something you should learn how to do in the event you would ever fall on hard times!