Baking without commercial yeast or starter always makes me feel that I am somehow getting away with something. My old rye starter had died of neglect, so I decided to start over, this time with equal parts rye, spelt, and bread flour. After some trial and error, coaxing along my initially reluctant starter, I finally got it to bubble vigorously enough to give it some lift. While it may require some patience, making your own starter is really quite simple, all it involves is flour, water, and a feeding routine. In terms of the latter, just think of it as a pet.
Making a starter
Start with equal parts flour and water (by weight), mix, and cover with plastic wrap. If you don’t have a scale, add some flour, then slowly add water until the dough has the consistency of thick pancake batter. Stir frequently. After a few days, you will start to see some activity. The starter may smell a little funny since different microbes are fighting for dominance. This is normal. As soon as you start to see bubbles, start feeding the starter regularly. To feed, discard all but one or two tablespoons of starter.* Add an equal amount of fresh flour and water (by weight). Initially a daily feeding will be enough. As the starter becomes more active, move towards feeding twice or even three times a day. If your starter rises and then deflates again before the next feeding it is a sign that you can feed more frequently. A mature starter will smell almost fruity and will easily double (or even triple) in size. Note: sourdough starter will become more sour if you wait longer between feedings. If you like a really sour note, feel free to neglect your sourdough periodically before feeding. Conversely, if you would like a more mild, yeasty flavor, feed often and regularly.
Baking with wild sourdough starter
I mixed 1/2 cup of starter with 4 cups of flour and about the same amount of water. After allowing the dough to rest for 30-60 minutes, I mixed in 2 teaspoons of salt, pulling and folding the dough over a few times. I let the whole thing sit overnight and scooped it into my proofing basket in the morning for another hour or so. I’m not sure the extra rise was necessary, but I like the form the basket gives the loaf. I baked the loaf on a lined cookie sheet at 400 degrees F. In the end, the loaf had a pleasant chewy crumb with plenty of air and the flavor was hearty and mildly sour. Unfortunately, the amount of water in the dough was too much to sustain the integrity of the form, so the dough flowed out to create a pretty flat loaf. Next time, I’ll try a little less water, or perhaps bake the loaf in a loaf pan.