Have any of you ever tasted fresh, warm from the oven, sourdough bread? It has a singular flavor and texture. If you haven't ever had this delicacy, I HIGHLY recommend you try some. Oh...you don't have a bakery nearby? Well, guess what...I'm going to walk you through making ALL of it, including the starter, the very thing that makes most people fear baking sourdough bread.
First off, let me explain (for those who don't already know) what a starter is. Typically, when you use a bread recipe for home baking, it requires you to use active dry yeast to make it rise. A starter takes the yeast's place. Most recipes (there are exceptions) for regular bread CAN use a starter for the rise. Normally, you simply exchange 1 cup of starter for each packet (about 1 tablespoon) of active dry yeast.
So why isn't it mainstream, you ask? Probably because people view making a starter as difficult. It's really not...it just takes time, patience, and ability to carry through. After all, a starter IS a living thing. You have to feed it to maintain it...almost like a pet, without shedding (ROFL). Typically, it will take about 7-10 days to MAKE the starter, then you simply maintain it by occasional feedings.
Ok, every good recipe starts with preparation, so let's gather what we'll need. You CAN start small for your container (1-2 cups), but you will eventually need a larger one (3-4 cups), so if you want to start off with a bigger one, that's fine, too. Do NOT use any metal bowls, please. Plastic, ceramic, glass are all fine, but metal tends to change the flavor of the starter, and NOT in a good way. You won't need a lid, but you will need some plastic wrap to cover it with. You will also need a measuring cup set, a fork or spoon, some WHOLE-GRAIN FLOUR (rye or wheat...you will end up using unbleached white flour, but to start off, you need the other) and patience. One caveat...because of the nature of whole-grain flour, you may smell a weird odor for a bit (even to a point of being almost fishy), but don't let it discourage you. It's VERY common, and goes away as the starter matures. Let's begin!!
In your container, mix 1/4 cup water (tap water is fine if it tastes and smells good, otherwise, use bottled) and 3/8 cup whole-grain flour. Mix it up well, and cover with the plastic wrap...and set it on your counter. AFTER about 12 hours, take a peek at it. Has it started to bubble and grow (top has bubbles, and it's risen higher than it was when you mixed it)? IF it has, then repeat the first step...this is called feeding your starter. IF it has NOT changed, simply wait...give it another 12 hours, then check it again. If, after 24 hours, you see no changes whatsoever, then ditch it and start again.
The changes you are looking for are due to bacterial growth (yeast is also a bacteria, so don't be squeamish). As the bacteria grow, they must eat. Now, I know you didn't PUT bacteria in your container. The bacteria is actually IN the flour you use, which is why you need the whole-grain flour...processed flour loses alot of the good "bugs" for making a starter, and won't grow as well. As the bacteria eat, they produce gas...THAT is what makes it grow. That same gas gives the lift to risen baked goods. Without it, the bread stays flat.
Anyhow, IF you did have growth, and fed your starter once, you are on your way. Simply wait another 12 hours or so (around when it reaches double it's size), then remove HALF of what's in the container (you can throw it away), and feed it again...1/4 cup water, 3/8 cup whole-grain flour. Mix it well, cover, and let it sit to rise yet again. Once you've done your 3rd feeding, you are well on your way to making the starter!! You are going to do around 6 feedings this way (remove 1/2 the contents, then feed)...but with your 4th, you need to increase the amount you feed it to about 1/2 cup water and 3/4 cup whole-grain flour. After all, just like a growing body, it needs more food at this point. Do your feedings roughly every 12 hours or so for those first 6.
Once you've done your first 6 feedings, it's time to train the starter to regular unbleached all purpose flour. It WILL grow slower with that, so don't expect to feed it every 12 hours. On average, when you switch to white flour, you'll feed it once a day, using the same calculations...remove half, then add in 1/2 cup water and 3/4 cup flour. You want to do this for around 6-7 days. By the time you are ready to bake with it, it should have a good, slightly sour tang to the smell. By now, a total of about 10 days has passed. Like I said, it's not HARD work...just takes alot of time.
As long as your starter is rising and doubling with each feeding, it's now time to use or store it. To store a starter, simply put it in a quart size mason jar, cap loosely or cover with plastic wrap, and store it in your fridge. The cold will slow the growth to almost a crawl, and from this point on, you only need to feed it once a month. Simply pull it out, let it rise to room temp, dump half, and let it grow. Wait 12 or so hours, feed it, let it stand for around 4 hours, then put it back in the fridge. With care, a starter can last you indefinitely!!
To use a starter that's been stored, take it from the fridge, bring it to room temp, let it grow for 12 hours, then feed it. Do this for 2 days (feeding once daily) BEFORE using it (example...if baking on Saturday, pull it out Thursday morning). That will get the growth to optimal, and you'll be amazed at the results!! Look, I know it sounds a little complicated, but once you taste the results of your first loaf of homemade sourdough, you will NEVER regret trying it!!
1 cup sourdough starter
1 1/2 cups warm water (about even with your body temp...check on your wrist)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup corn oil (vegetable oil will work)
6 cups unbleached all purpose flour (also called bread flour)
In a large bowl (or stand mixer) mix starter, water, salt, sugar, and oil. Sift the flour, and add 1 cup at a time to the starter mixture, blending thoroughly. Yes, you will use pretty much ALL 6 cups. Once mixed, turn out into a large GREASED (use vegetable oil or cooking spray) bowl, and turn to coat the surface of the dough. Cover loosely with plastic wrap, and allow to rise overnight (at least 12 hours) at room temperature.
The next day, turn out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead the dough by hand for about 10 minutes (you shouldn't have to add any extra flour, but if you do, do so sparingly...only enough to knead it). Divide in half. Grease 2 loaf pans (typically 8x4), and place the dough in each. Cover and let rise again, about 1 hour, until doubled in size.
Bake in a preheated 350 oven for 40-45 minutes, until golden brown and hollow sounding when tapped (it will brown some by 30 minutes...let it go a little longer). Makes 2 loaves.
There you are, folks...genuine sourdough bread. ENJOY!!