The quarantine time has come upon us. As bad as these times are, they’ve brought a lot of people into baking bread. For the first time in my life, I see both flour and yeast short in supply! I bet yeast manufacturers didn’t see this one coming!

As commercial yeast looks to be short in supply, many of my friends and coworkers have come to me to ask: “How do I create and use my starter?.” For this, there are many great tutorials on youtube, and with discipline, it will be simple enough.

It takes time to understand what happens with your starter, especially if you’re new to bread. This blog post plans to deliver knowledge and imagery that hopefully will help you know your starter.

Do I really Need a Starter?

Simply put, no, you don’t. Levain has two main functions: Leavening and Flavor.

There are many ways of leavening bread: Commercial Yeast, Natural Yeast, Baking Soda, etc. As a fun fact, some mass-production toast bread does not even take any leavening agent; they use machines to emulsify the dough and bake it right after.

In terms of flavor, flavors in the bread develop over time with the fermentation process. The starter is just one of the many pre-ferments that exist.

You don’t need much to Start

I learned how to make the sourdough starter from a bread baking book: “Flour, Yeast, Salt, and Water,” by Ken Forkish (by the way, Ken’s artisan bakery in Portland, Oregon is fantastic, and I highly recommend trying it out). In the book, and as with many tutorials, they recommend using a massive amount of flour that will undoubtedly go to waste. All you need to start is just as little as 25 grams of flour and 25 grams of water. I used whole wheat flour to start as it has a more significant content of natural yeasts.

From left to right and top to bottom: A brand new starter recently mixed. How it looks in day 1, and finally how it looks in day 2 when it’s ready for its first feeding.

As you can see in the photo, after mixing a small portion of water and flour, I got enough to get started feeding a much larger batch. The starter has leavened to triple its size, and it has a powerful sour smell, borderline disgusting. About this last point, many people believe their starter has gone bad because of this smell, but you should expect a very sour smell when the time of feeding the starter has come.

What Kind of Flour Should I Use?

I get this question a lot. You can use any kind of flour. The difference will be noticeable on the flavor profile of the bread. I like the combination used in the book: 50% white and 50% whole wheat. But I use 100% whole wheat for my toast bread.

Get to Know the Stages of the Starter

Your starter will have a cycle, from young to overripe. Many tutorials talk about feeding it every 24 hours, but this is not quite accurate. You want to feed your starter when it’s ripe or overripe; you know this by tasting it, looking at it often, and smelling it. The following photo shows the different stages of the starter.

From left to right and top to bottom: You can see how the starter grows in size and changes the texture from when it’s recently fed, to a young stage, mature, and ripe.

According to some literature, there are four different stages of ripeness:

  1. Young: A few hours after fed, you start seeing some volume and bubbles. Typically you won’t be able to leaven a loaf with it. The flavor will be on the sweeter and creamy side.
  2. Mature: The starter has more than doubled its size, and you see a significant amount of bubbles. At this point, it should pass the float test (see next section). You also will perceive the sour notes on the flavor.
  3. Ripe: The starter is now full of air and bubbly, but started losing its volume, which means the yeast is beginning to exhaust their food. You can still use the starter to leaven a loaf but not to the full extent. The flavor at this point should be sour.
  4. Overripe: The starter has lost all the volume, started to develop intense aromas and flavors. At this point, the yeast does not have much to eat, so it’s necessary to feed it.

How Do I Know it’s Ready to Use?

You want to use the starter when it’s mature or ripe. You will know by the flavor, the volume, and the consistency. Finally, there is the float test. I made a video that shows how a successful float test looks like.

In this short video, you can see how a scoop of my starter vigorously floats in water, passing the float test.

Minimize The Waste!

In the beginning, when you’re trying to establish your culture, you will see yourself pouring out a lot of starter to the trash, as recommended by many books. The overripe starter is still edible. I learned this trick from a YouTuber: Fry it and season it! Often I see myself with leftover fresh herbs, so I combine the two. Chop some dill, some green onion, and mince some garlic. On a non-stick frying pan, sautee the herbs, onion, and garlic in 1 tablespoon of olive oil, add salt and pepper to taste; about 2 minutes. Next, pour all the starter that you intend to dispose there and wait for it to cook on one side. Finally, as if it was a pancake, flip it over, cook the other side, and serve! It makes a really good post-workout snack. I cut it in 4 and snack on it during the following days.

From left to right and top to bottom: Overripe Starter goes to a nonstick skillet with some garlic and onions, to become a very nutritious probiotic treat.

Conclusion

Using a starter can be fun, challenging, and wasteful at the same time. It requires some discipline and knowledge, but using the starter will take your bread baking to the next level. I hope you find this useful. Feel free to post any questions or comments in the comments section.