Colonial Kitchen | Sourdough Starter + A Bread Recipe

I did it - I ordered the Ancestry.com DNA Test. I know, it's a big day for me, too. I've really been wanting to do this, and I know that it's mostly accurate and works because I've watched someone else do it. It was probably a year ago that I had a friend order the DNA kit, spit into the saliva sample tube, and get their results back six weeks later. It was so cool seeing all of the places their DNA came up, a lot of the places not what he was expecting. Since I've followed my family tree for quite some time and have a decently accurate reading of where my bloodline comes from, I'll have a good idea if my sample gets mixed up somewhere down the line. Ha! I'm really holding out for some Scottish heritage in there! Then my entire life will make sense. Here I come, Scottish Highlands!!

Did you know that it's rumored that Christopher Columbus brought a small crock filled with sourdough starter over to the new world with him in 1492? Before about a month ago, I had no idea what sourdough starter even was. I had baked several loaves of bread with active dry yeast and had looked at sourdough recipes, but when they called for starter, it was something that seemed way too complicated. And I wanted bread today!! So if you're looking to make bread today, then I might suggest these recipes to you (one | two | three). If you are looking to start a new adventure and learn all about sourdough starter, what it is, and how to make it, then please read on!

They say that the first bread was baked in Ancient Egypt, after someone left some flour and water to sit in a pot and collect yeast from the air over a number of days. The dough began to ferment bringing in natural lactobacilli and yeast. This in turn, made the dough have a sour taste and allowed it to last a bit longer than bread made with cultivated yeast. At this time, this was the only way to leaven bread, make it rise, and therefore was essential in bread making. It wasn't until the Middle Ages that cultivated yeast from brewing beer was used to leaven bread. 

It is with this art of creating sourdough starter that a bread baker really starts to hone in on how amazing this process of fermentation is. I knew as soon as my starter was ready that I had created something really special, that I was connecting myself to people of the past. You see, you have to make sourdough at least once in your life to really appreciate how much love and hard work go into making a beautiful loaf of bread. Bread is sustainability and life and love in a home kitchen.

WHAT YOU'LL NEED |

  • A quart size or larger mason jar. I use a 64 oz jar. Just make sure whatever you use is nonmetallic.
  • A wooden spoon
  • Cloth 
  • Rubberband
  • All purpose flour, or another type according to your preference. If you're a beginner, I'd use all purpose.
  • Water

Make sure you are not using any tools that are metallic or plastic. These substances could leach into your starter and not allow it to grow. You'll be using all of your supplies daily, so make sure you have what you need on hand. 

On day one... you'll add 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water to your jar. Stir well with your wooden spoon until the flour is well soaked. If it looks too floury, add a little more water. It should be wet, not dough like, but not soupy either. Cover it with cloth (I use one of our flour sack towels) and attach with a rubberband. 

On days two - seven... feed your starter. For the first week, I recommend leaving it out on your counter. If you don't bake as often as I do, about once or twice a week, then you can keep your starter in the fridge. Since you will probably be excited to use your starter once it is ready and you may forget that it's even in the fridge, just keep it out for the first week. It doesn't need to be kept it any weird, warm place. I just leave mine on the counter near my flour jar or on a shelf in the pantry. I can't say I ever leave it in direct sunlight or somewhere damp. 

To feed your starter, watch and taste it. You'll want to add up to 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water a day. If it's warm, it may need it twice a day. If you watch your starter, you'll start to notice the signs of when it needs to be fed. 

  1. It has collected clear liquid at the top. 
  2. It smells like alcohol or nail polish remover.
  3. It hasn't risen or grown any bubbles.

Sourdough starters are extremely resilient. They can go through some pretty harsh damage. Mine has smelled like nail polish remover rather frequently and always smells nice and sweet after a feeding. Sourdough cultures can literally live forever if you feed them often enough and correctly. Because it's been so warm out, mine probably needs a feeding twice a day. 

I've also read that feeding your starter a ratio of 50%/60% is good, the 60% being liquid. I was having some trouble getting my bread to stay leaven while baking until I started doing this! 

Now you've been keeping your starter for about seven days. I made the mistake of using most of my starter on Day 4 and resulting in a completely unleavened bread. I thought it had smelled sweet and yeasty enough, yet it hadn't risen on its own within the jar. My rookie mistake! I continued to feed it, waiting and waiting for the special day, and was graced with a perfectly sour and sweet smell on Day 8. My starter had grown to double the size it was the day before, like a big difference in appearance, and was bubbling like a gem. It gave off a very distinct odor that's hard to describe, but it smells somewhere like beer hops and sweet yeasty bread. I mean, what else does that smell like? Sometimes I think it smells like sweet corn, freshly picked.

Trust me. Patience is key! And a keen eye, sense of smell, and taste testing. Don't be afraid to eat a little bit of your dough. You'll notice the specific flavors happening and if anything seems off. Also, don't forget to wash your spoon well after every feeding. If it's covered in old dough, then your starter might die. 

Signs of a healthy starter:

  1. Doubles in size after every feeding (after 7-8 days)
  2. Bubbles
  3. Smells sour and slightly sweet, like sweet corn.

If your starter turns a weird red color, smells putrid, or has grown mold, then its not good and needs to be tossed. Another way to kill a starter is with too much heat. They can withstand the cold pretty well, but if you accidentally bake your starter, then it's pretty much done for.

How is your starter looking? Are you ready to bake? The first time you bake, it will be so fun! Most recipes call for about 1-2 cups of starter. It will be perfectly ready on day 7 or 8, so be ready to bake on that day. After you pour out the amount of starter you need, be sure to feed it afterwards. Replenish what was lost. Now is the time to get serious about how to keep your starter. There's lots of things to remember. Here are a few tips!

  1. Everyday after the first week, you'll want to discard half of your starter before feeding it. You only have to do this once a day, I feel, but make sure if you're not baking that day, to discard the spent starter. 
  2. Your starter is ready to use about 5 hours after its last feeding, or after it has doubled and starts to shrink back. 
  3. Try using the 50/60% ratio when feeding. 50% flour, 60% water.
  4. If you are baking once a week, you can leave your starter on the counter or pantry for the entirety of its life. If you don't bake that often, leave your starter in the fridge and feed once a week. If fridge-fed, make sure that you let it sit out of the fridge for at least 2 hours before returning it to the fridge. A good weekend task!

Okay. So now that we know a little bit of the basic science about keeping a healthy sourdough starter, let's bake. I have a fun recipe that's perfect for a first timer. It took me a long time to figure out which type of recipe and flour would work for me. I was having a really hard time getting my bread to leaven while baking. I would cut a slash through the top, and it would sink immediately! I discovered that I didn't have enough liquid and was not being gentle enough with the dough. It's also possible that you aren't shaping the dough correctly. Either way, I fixed it, and I didn't have to use any extra cultivated yeast. Yay! 

RECIPE | Makes 2 Loaves

  • 4 1/2 cups high gluten bread flour
  • 2 1/2 cups white rye flour
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 1/4 cups sourdough starter
  • 2 1/2 cups warm water

In a large mixing bowl, mix together all of the ingredients with a wooden spoon until a soft dough forms. 
Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and begin to knead with your hands. Knead until the dough becomes smooth and elastic, very bouyant and lovely to touch. It shouldn't take long, about 8-10 minutes. Shape the dough into a loose ball.
In a lightly oiled bowl, place the dough and cover with a damp towel. Let rise in a warm place free of drafts for two hours, or until doubled in size. 
Once risen, punch down and let sit for about 15 minutes.
Pat the dough out into a rectangle, a couple of inches larger than a sheet of printer paper. Fold it like an envelope, once on the right side and once on the left side, until it forms the shape of a bread pan. Place in a lightly oiled bread pan, cover with cloth, and let rise another 1.5 hours. 
Preheat your oven to 425. With a very sharp knife, slice two or three slits in the top of the bread. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until the crust is hardened and make an echoey noice when knocked upon. You'll know! This is how long it takes in my oven, but it may be longer in yours. 

Enjoy with some fresh butter and maybe a slice of cheese. I love Colby Jack! I know, not very fancy, but there it is. I am sure the colonists did not enjoy a slice of Colby Jack with their sourdough. This was the most common type of bread baked in the colonies until the late 1700s, since no one was cultivating yeast heavily at the time. I am sure there were plenty of starter crocks in every home. How magical! Have you made sourdough before? D you love it or hate it? I still have lots to learn, but hopefully I've excited you to try something new! (:

xoxo Kayla