How do I make sourdough starter, or where can I get it?
There are a lot of resources and guides to creating your own starter from scratch. Personally, I used the instructions in Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice and it worked perfectly for me. The Perfect Loaf has an excellent, detailed tutorial.
If you don’t want to make your own starter, see if you have a friend who bakes with sourdough and ask them for a little starter — most bakers have plenty of discard they’d be happy to share. I’ve also heard of people asking for / purchasing starter from their local artisan bakery.
Finally, you can purchase starter from places like King Arthur Flour.
How do I maintain my starter?
For anyone new to sourdough baking, I recommend keeping your starter at room temperature and feeding it 1-2 times daily for at least a couple weeks. One of the keys to successful sourdough baking is managing fermentation; and simply observing the daily life of your own starter will help you hone those skills, even if you aren’t baking that often. (If you’re worried about “wasting” starter, you can always put it to use in a number of ways.)
I typically refresh my 100% hydration starter twice daily, once around breakfast and once before I go to sleep (roughly every 12 hours). My goal is to have the starter at peak activity every time I’m ready to refresh, which keeps yeast activity high. During the summer, I usually refresh at a ratio of 1:6:6 (starter:flour:water) and during the winter 1:3:3, using all-purpose organic flour. Ratios can vary widely depending on the strength of your starter, your climate, and the type of flour you’re using; so my best advice is to be observant and adjust your feedings as needed.
Once your starter is well-established and you’ve learned how to “read” it properly, you can continue to keep it at room temperature or store it in the fridge if you don’t plan on using it as often.
Also, a word on what flour to use for feeding: I’ve tried a number of different types of flour and flour mixes, from all white to half whole wheat to partially rye. Nowadays for cost and ease I just use organic all purpose. I do find that partially whole grain starters exhibit more/faster activity, but since I feed mine quite often it still performs well enough for my purposes.
How do I store my starter?
If you don’t plan to use your starter frequently, you can store it in the fridge between uses. Feed your starter as normal, let it sit at room temperature for a couple of hours to get some activity going, then refrigerate it. Take it out a couple of days before you’re planning to bake and give it a couple of refreshments to “wake” it up before using (make sure it’s at least doubling between feedings, which signals it’s ready to be used). Keep in mind that prolonged refrigeration greatly slows down yeast activity; so if your starter has been sitting in the back of the fridge for months it may need several feedings before it’s ready to be used.
You may notice that after some time in the fridge your starter may form some liquid (known as “hooch”) on the top — this doesn’t mean your starter has gone bad; just a sign that it needs feeding. Pour it off before stirring your starter and proceed feeding as normal. If, however, you see actual mold on your starter, it’s time to toss it and start over again.
You can also dry your starter for longer storage, or for shipping to a friend. I like to have a bit of dried starter on hand just in case something accidentally happens to mine (not yet, but there’s a first time for everything…!).
I’m a new sourdough baker. What should I make first?
I do think consistency is really helpful in the beginning, so I’d choose a basic recipe and try it a few times to start. This was one of the first recipes I made and is a good, basic sourdough loaf. Sourdough focaccia would also be a great starting point — you don’t have to worry too much about shaping and can top it with delicious things!
How do I start incorporating more whole grain flours into my breads?
I love the taste whole grains add and typically incorporate 25-30% whole grains in most of my breads. Try starting with a small percentage (say 10-15%) of one type. Using a recipe you’re familiar with and doing a simple wholegrain for white flour swap will help you gauge the effects most easily. You may need to add a little more liquid and adjust your fermentation schedule (more whole grains usually means faster fermentation). Increase a little more each time, or add a small percentage of another grain. Whole grains tend to spoil relatively quickly, so you’ll want to buy in small quantities and use within a month, or store them in the freezer. Both King Arthur Flour and Bob’s Red Mill carry a variety of whole grains that perform consistently.
Local, freshly milled grains are also a real treat if you can get your hands on them — Eat Grain has some wonderful flours. I have also enjoyed milling my own grains using the NutriMill Harvest Stone Grain Mill“.
How do I achieve a more open crumb?
I don’t consider myself an expert on open crumb — I’m still working to achieve it consistently myself! If you’re a beginner, my biggest piece of advice is to focus on proper fermentation first, and not specific crumb structure. Often big holes in a loaf, especially early on, isn’t really open crumb — it’s often underfermented and / or improperly shaped.
If you want an in-depth explanation of crumb structure and how to work on achieving various styles of open crumb, check out Trevor Jay Wilson’s e-book Open Crumb Mastery. His instagram account also has lots of useful tips and explanations.
How do I improve my bread scoring?
See tips and tools in this blog post.
How do I improve my sourdough skills, especially when I can only bake once a week (or less)?
Simply put, there’s not really any replacement for hands-on practice. Reading and watching videos may help a little, but you just have to actually physically practice to improve. For more “bang for your buck” try baking a double batch each time you make bread, and give one loaf away — that will give you extra shaping practice and probably earn you some brownie points ;). Or, if you have time, make smaller loaves more often — each loaf is an opportunity to learn and improve, and the mistakes of the last round will be fresher in your mind. You can find more thoughts on practicing sourdough baking in this blog post and this blog post.
I think it also helps to consider what you want to achieve as a home baker. Is it trying a lot of different recipes and bread styles? Consider baking through a cookbook like Hamelman’s Bread or Bread Baker’s Apprentice. Do you want to have a consistent loaf that you can produce every week for your family? Focus on a single recipe and fine tune it to fit your schedule and preferences.
Finally, if you have access to hands-on classes or lessons with experienced bakers I think that would be extremely helpful. I would love to take some courses in the future myself. Bread Baker’s Guild lists courses on their website, and King Arthur Flour runs baking classes in two locations.
How do you store sourdough bread?
For 1-2 days storage of lean, hearth-style breads, I use a paper bag or a beeswax wrap (please, NOT the refrigerator — that will cause your bread to stale more quickly). Enriched breads such as milk bread keep well for several days in a sealed plastic bag. Any longer than that I prefer to freeze individual slices and just pop them into the toaster or onto a cast iron pan when I want ’em. A light fry in olive oil does wonders for slightly stale bread (either as toast or the best croutons ever); and even several-days-old sourdough milk bread makes exceptional French toast.