Nurture a Sourdough Starter for Old-World Bread

If you crave the tang, complexity, and chew of a good homemade sourdough loaf, then it behooves you to make and keep alive a homegrown batch of sourdough starter. Since we crave sourdough too, we’ve demystified and uncomplicated the process with a straightforward, reliable recipe for creating and maintaining a starter.

A starter is simply a culture of yeast and “good” bacteria, and making one is pretty simple, requiring time but little effort. You start by stirring together flour and water and letting it ferment for a couple of days at room temperature. Natural yeast and bacteria in the flour wake up and start to multiply, and the mixture evolves into a bubbly blob. From here, it grows strong through regular “feedings.” After a few weeks, it becomes chock-full of enough yeast and bacteria that a portion of it can leaven and flavor bread. As long as you keep it healthy and alive, you can use it for years to come.

We learned in testing that a 50-50 mix of whole-wheat and allpurpose flours works much faster than all-purpose flour alone, because the whole-wheat flour provides more nutrition for the budding organisms. Using filtered or bottled water is also important, because chlorine in tap water can kill the starter. The first stage is to make sure the microorganisms are alive and consuming nutrients. At this point, the loose, batter-like mixture smells like sour milk, but it’s a positive sign that the starter is established. Then feeding begins. Many recipes call for feeding every 12 hours, but every 24 hours is totally sufficient. After about two weeks of feedings, your starter will be pleasantly aromatic and ready for baking.

During the long-term maintenance stage, simply keep your starter healthy through weekly feedings. Discarding some starter before each feeding gets rid of waste that the microorganisms produce as they consume nutrients—and keeps the starter from taking over your fridge. It works best to feed the starter and leave it out for a shorter period of time than typically called for: Five hours is just long enough for the culture to dig in but not so long that it consumes all of the food too quickly. Back in the fridge, your starter continues to feed and grow at a very slow pace, staying healthy all the while.

Mix flour mixture with room-temperature water in glass bowl. Cover with plastic and let sit at room temperature until bubbly and fragrant, 48 to 72 hours.

Measure ¼ cup starter and transfer to clean bowl; discard remaining starter. Stir in another portion of flour mixture and room-temperature water. Cover with plastic and let sit at room temperature for 24 hours.

Repeat step 2 every 24 hours until starter is pleasantly aromatic and doubles in size 8 to 12 hours after being fed, 10 to 14 days. At this point, starter is ready for baking or storing.

To prepare for baking, measure out ½ cup starter and transfer to clean bowl; discard remaining starter. Stir all-purpose flour and room-temperature water into starter. Cover and let sit at room temperature for 5 hours. Transfer amount needed for recipe to second bowl. Cover and refrigerate for 12 hours to 18 hours. Refrigerate remaining starter.

Feed stored starter once a week to maintain.

Sourdough Starter

WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS A sourdough starter begins with mixing together flour and water. As the mixture sits, wild yeast and lactic acid–producing bacteria that are already present in the flour wake up and start to multiply, eventually creating the culture of microorganisms that will be able to leaven and flavor your bread. It’s okay to occasionally miss a daily feeding in step 2, but don’t let it go for more than 48 hours. Leaving the culture at room temperature after each feeding is also key. For the best results, weigh the flour and water and use organic flour and bottled or filtered water to create the starter. Once the starter is mature, use all-purpose flour to maintain it. Placing the starter in a glass bowl will allow for easier observation of activity beneath the surface. A starter that is ready for baking will double in size 8 to 12 hours after feeding. To double-check that it’s ready, drop a spoonful of starter into a bowl of water. If it floats, the culture is sufficiently active. If it sinks, let your starter sit for another hour or so.

4½cups (24¾ ounces) whole-wheat flour

5cups (25 ounces) all-purpose flour, plus extra for maintaining starter

Water, room temperature

1 Combine whole-wheat flour and all-purpose flour in large container. Using wooden spoon, mix 1 cup (5 ounces) flour mixture and ⅔ cup (5⅓ ounces) room-temperature water in glass bowl until no dry flour remains (reserve remaining flour mixture). Cover with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature until bubbly and fragrant, 48 to 72 hours

2 To feed the starter Measure out ¼ cup (2 ounces) starter and transfer to clean bowl; discard remaining starter. Stir ½ cup (2½ ounces) flour mixture and ¼ cup (2 ounces) room-temperature water into starter until no dry flour remains. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 24 hours.

3 Repeat step 2 every 24 hours until starter is pleasantly aromatic and doubles in size 8 to 12 hours after being fed, 10 to 14 days. At this point, starter is mature and ready to be baked with, or it can be stored. (If baking right away, use starter once it has doubled in size during 8- to 12-hour window. Use starter within 1 hour after it starts to deflate once reaching its peak.)

4A To prepare the starter for baking Measure out ½ cup (4 ounces) starter and transfer to clean bowl; discard remaining starter. Stir 1 cup (5 ounces) all-purpose flour and ½ cup (4 ounces) room-temperature water into starter until no dry flour remains. Cover and let sit at room temperature for 5 hours. Measure out amount of starter called for in recipe and transfer to second bowl. Cover and refrigerate for at least 12 hours or up to 18 hours. Refrigerate and maintain remaining starter.

4B To store and maintain the mature starter For weekly feedings, measure out ¼ cup (2 ounces) starter and transfer to clean bowl; discard remaining starter. Stir ½ cup (2½ ounces) all-purpose flour and ¼ cup (2 ounces) room-temperature water into starter until no dry flour remains. Transfer to clean container that can be loosely covered and let sit at room temperature for 5 hours. Cover and transfer to refrigerator. If not baking regularly, repeat process weekly. When using stored starter to bake, start step 4A 18 to 24 hours before baking.

Classic Sourdough Bread

Makes 1 large loaf

WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS Nurturing a sourdough starter opens up a delicious universe of bakery-quality breads. This classic pain au levain recipe is a great way to get started, with its open crumb and rustic appearance that makes you want to tear into it. Sifting the whole-wheat flour removed excess bran, ensuring a light and airy loaf. For deeply complex flavor, we let the shaped loaf proof overnight in the refrigerator then again in a turned-off oven. To achieve a crackling, bakery-style crust without having to open the oven to spray the loaf with water, we baked it in a covered Dutch oven to trap steam. We prefer King Arthur all-purpose flour here, but you may substitute bread flour. If you have a banneton or a lined proofing basket, use that rather than the towel-lined colander in step 3. Do not wait until the oven has preheated in step 6 to start timing or the bread will burn.

1cup (5½ ounces) whole-wheat flour

2cups (10 ounces) King Arthur all-purpose flour

1¼cups water, room temperature

1cup (8 ounces) mature Sourdough Starter

1¾teaspoons table salt

1 Sift whole-wheat flour through fine-mesh strainer into large bowl; discard bran remaining in strainer. Add all-purpose flour, roomtemperature water, and starter and stir with wooden spoon until cohesive dough forms and no dry flour remains. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature for 20 minutes. Sprinkle salt over dough and knead gently in bowl until incorporated. Cover with plastic and let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.

2 Holding edge of dough with your fingertips, fold dough over itself by gently lifting and folding edge of dough toward center. Turn bowl 45 degrees; fold again. Turn bowl and fold dough 6 more times (total of 8 folds). Cover with plastic and let rise for 30 minutes. Repeat folding and rising every 30 minutes, 3 more times. After fourth set of folds, transfer dough to lightly floured counter.

3 Gently press dough into 8-inch disk, then fold edges toward middle to form round. Cover loosely with plastic and let rest for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, line colander with large linen or cotton dish towel and dust liberally with flour. Repeat pressing and folding of dough to form dough on unfloured counter. Loosely cup your hands around dough and, without applying pressure to dough, move your hands in small circular motions. Tackiness of dough against counter and circular motion should work dough into smooth, even ball, but if dough sticks to your hands, lightly dust your fingers with flour.

4 Place dough seam side up on floured towel and loosely fold edges of towel over dough to enclose. Place colander in large plastic garbage bag and tie or fold under to fully enclose. Let rest at room temperature for 1 hour, then refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours.

5 Adjust oven rack to middle position and place loaf pan or cake pan in bottom of oven. Remove colander from refrigerator and place on middle rack; pour 3 cups boiling water into pan below. Close oven door and let dough rise until doubled in size and does not readily spring back when poked with your finger, 2 to 3 hours.

6 Remove colander and water pan from oven. Lay 12 by 12-inch sheet of parchment paper on counter and spray generously with vegetable oil spray. Remove colander from plastic bag, unfold edges of towel, and dust top of loaf with flour. Lay parchment sprayed side down over loaf, then invert colander onto counter. Remove colander and towel. Holding razor blade or sharp knife at 30-degree angle to loaf, make two 7-inch-long, ½-inch-deep slashes along top of loaf to form cross. Pick up dough by lifting parchment edges and lower into heavy-bottomed Dutch oven. Cover pot and place in oven. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Bake bread for 30 minutes (starting timing as soon as you turn on oven).

7 Remove lid and continue to bake until bread is deep brown and registers 210 degrees, 20 to 30 minutes longer. Carefully remove bread from pot; transfer to wire rack and let cool completely, at least 2 hours, before serving.