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Catching wild yeast and making sourdough

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Baking bread is a wonderful, delicious hobby. Bread can be as complex or as simple as you want. This instructable is about making simple but time consuming bread.

To make sourdough you will need a sourdough starter, which is essentially flour and water mixed and left to gather bacteria. Yes, sourdough is sour because of bacteria, which in turn eat away at the starter and produce waste (lactic acid). Yeast itself will produce alcohol when left to its own devices, which is why it is used to ferment things such as...well, alcohol. The bacteria eat that too, leaving behind what essentially amounts to vinegar. Neat.
Note: Thank you for the clarification, atomictesting. Fixed for correctness.

A fair warning before we get started: Completing this instructable can take anywhere from one week to several months, depending on the amount of time you are willing to spend and how many times you accidentally screw up.

I will not be using active-dry or rapid rise yeast at any point during this instructable at all.

Why wild yeast?
Why not? It's neat and, given the right about of time, your sourdough will take on its own distinct flour not quite like any other starter.

Why is it sour?
Bacteria and wild yeast. When you let the starter and the bread sit as long as you will be (days and weeks) it takes on that distinctive sour flavor.

How long does this take?
Forever. It's an ongoing process.

How much experience do you have?
Not a lot. I'm a hobbyist. I'm very open to suggestions or corrections if someone out there knows something that I don't know.
 
 
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Step 1: Starting the Starter

The first, most important thing to remember when making your first sourdough starter: It takes a while, it is going to smell weird, and it is going to demand your attention and love.

Other than that, a lot of this is just trial and error. If you don't like your result, scrap it and start over.

For this step you will need the following ingredients:

- A glass or tupperware container that can be sealed.
- White (standard, all purpose or bread) flour. Do not use self-rising flour. Buy the 5lbs all-purpose.
- Whole-grain wheat flour. Same rules apply as with the white flour.
- Warm, clean water (90-115 degrees Fahrenheit)
- A clean measuring cup.
- Something you can stir with. Non-metal spatulas work just dandy, and are preferred.
- Time. You will need to deal with this sucker once every 12 hours or so.
- Heat. Room temperature is great. The starter must be stored at room temperature (or close).

First things first. Pick a time when you will be available every day to start, and be sure that you will be available every day 12 hours later as well. I started mine at 7p.m. because I knew I would be awake at 7a.m. and home by 7p.m. Once you pick your time, gather your supplies.

This first step will be quick and painless.

Put 1/4c (cup) each of the white and wheat flours into your container. That is 1/2c total flour.*

*You do not have to use wheat flour. In fact, you can use only white flour or only wheat flour. It's a matter of taste. I like to add a little wheat flour to all of my bread, but that's just me. Maybe you don't.

Now, add 1/4c clean, warm water.

Stir 'em up. The water and flour should form a thick, sticky ball. Try to get all of the flour in there. Don't worry about it sticking to the walls. It's going to stick to everything.

Once you're happy, close it up and set it somewhere warm.

Walk away. For 12 hours. You can look, but don't touch.
Leave it alone.

Step 2: Feeding time!

All right. Here comes the monotony.

This step is going to take you like a week, seriously. At least it's pretty easy.

For this step you will need:
- 1/4c white flour
- 1/4c wheat flour
-1/4c warm, clean water
- 12 hours

Okay. It has been 12 hours and you probably have a somewhat warm, sort of crusty looking ball that hasn't done anything. Awesome. Good start.

Here is literally all you need to do:

Mix the 1/4c water into the blob. Stir it up and break it down into the water.

Mix the 1/2c flour(s) into the blob. Stir it up.

Let it go for another 12 hours.

At the next feeding it should be a little more liquid.

At any point now you can stop using wheat flour, if you are so inclined. I like using a little wheat flour to get things started. I will add some wheat flour to it every so often, but I feed my started almost exclusively white flour. If you really wanted, you could use only wheat flour. It's all a matter of taste.

Unfortunately my camera was fairly broken at this point. I don't have pictures of most of this, but honestly if you're following the directions even loosely you should be fine. This is not an exact science.

The second feeding (and onward)

Throw half of the starter away. I'm serious.

At some point soon the starter might be too big for your container. Move it to a bigger one.
Note: this is several days later. Broken camera, remember?

Add 1/4c water, stir it up.

Add 1/2c flour, stir it up.

Set for 12 hours.

The reason why half of the mix gets thrown away is simple. When this sucker really gets going it is going to double in size. Every 12 hours. Unless you want gallons and gallons of starter, throw half of it away.

If you want more starter: Just increase the amount of flour and water added at a feeding. Try to keep between a 2:1 and 1:1 flour:water ratio. I like to have a little more flour than water, but whatever makes you happy.

Step 3: Oh good god, it's bubbling.

Things are going to get a little weird for a while for the next few days. Just stick with it and we will make it through.

Okay, so you've been feeding your start for something like 1-5 days now and you're starting to see bubbles. Great!

It's also starting to smell a little weird. Great!

Keep feeding that thing on the 12 hour cycle from step 2 and press on.

Bacteria have invaded your starter and are pigging out on it right now. Gross, but good. More importantly, wild yeast is getting in there and doing the same. The bubbles come from the yeast and bacteria doing their job. The wild yeast comes from the flour you're using as well as the air in which you are living. That's why the starter may start rising even without help from commercial yeast. Neat, right?

Eventually your starter will start to develop that distinctive "sour" smell associated with sourdough. The yeast is doing its job and there is less bacteria.

Your ultimate goal is to get the starter to double in size between feedings.

Don't expect it to rise like active-dry commercial yeast though. It may take anywhere from 3-8 hours to double and start to fall.

Step 4: Refrigeration and on into infinity.

All right. Tired of the 12 hour regiment yet? At this point you've been feeding this starter for about a week, give or take. It's time to put this starter to bed.

Unless you really want to tend to your starter every 12 hours for...forever, this step is critical. If you do have that kind of time I applaud you. Move on to the next step.

For the rest of us out there, the refrigerator is going to be key.

Go ahead and give your starter the last 12 hour feeding and clear some space in your refrigerator. If you have roommates, children or loved ones mark your container. If they throw your start away, all is lost. You're back at square one and all that time was for nothing.

Take your starter and set it in the refrigerator, then close the door. That's it. You're not on the once-a-week plan. Congratulations.

Step 5: The weekly feeding and dealing with hooch

In the last picture you may have noticed the sort of brownish layer of fluid on top of the starter. That is called hooch, and yes it is slightly alcoholic. Please don't try to drink it.
I cannot be held responsible for anyone silly enough to try drinking hooch.

A week or less has gone by and your starter is just chilling out there in the refrigerator. Time to bother it again.

If you have a ton of hooch on your starter: go ahead and pour some off. You want some though.

Throw half of your starter away (or use it to make bread, which will be covered in the next few steps).

Go ahead and stir that hooch in with the water and then stir in the flour. Remember, between 2:1 and 1:1 flour:water.

If you aren't going to make any bread any time soon, go ahead and put the starter back in the refrigerator.

You now have a living, eating colony of organisms living in your refrigerator. Hooray! Don't forget about your starter and take good care of it. It will last forever, so long as you give it love and flour.

Experimentation:
This is just a basic starter. At this point you can do whatever you want. I recommend saving that half of your starter that you were going to just throw away and put it in its own container. Feed it and try adding weird things to it. I know people who add potato flakes and milk. Try using only wheat or rye flour. Do whatever. Different kinds of starters will produce different kinds of bread.

Step 6: The bread, part 1

You have a healthy, mildly frightening starter hanging around. Why not try making some bread?

Note: The longer your starter has been doing its thing, the stronger and more distinct the taste will be. You can use the starter to make bread at any point once it is capable of doubling in size. The longer it lives the more sour it will get.

Ingredients:
- 6c white flour.
- 1c wheat flour (Optional. If you want to add more feel free, but wheat bread will not be covered).
- 1 1/2c warm water.
- Honey to taste. I use like 1/4-1/2c. (It tastes good).
- 1tbsp (tablespoon) table salt. You can use less if you want, but I don't know that I would use more.
- 3/4-1c starter.
- Butter (optional).
- Anywhere from 1-2 days.

First of all, before you can get started on the bread you're going to need to get your starter ready.
Go ahead and take your starter out of the refrigerator and pour what you need into a bowl. I generally feed my starter first, then take what I need. That way you don't have to feed just what you poured off to use and nothing is thrown away.

Cover your starter and let it sit for awhile to let it get warmed up. You can use the starter right now if you want, but if you have the time let it sit, go ahead. Give it 12 hours if you can.

Once your starter is ready to go, throw your flour into a big mixing bowl.*
*If you plan on using the same bowl to let the ball rise, remember that the dough will double in size. You don't want to wake up only to find sourdough creeping across your freshly cleaned table.

Add the salt and mix the dry ingredients together. Get them nice and blended, because it's going to get pretty sticky and hard to mix pretty soon.

Add the honey

Pour the starter in

Mix what you have a little ways.

Add water.

Mix that dough like crazy. You want all of the flour and water mixed and sticking. You can use a spatula for the first part, but you really need to flour up your hands and get them into that dough. You will get messy.

Knead that dough until you get a sticky, elastic mess. Add flour and knead it in until you can shape the dough into a ball without it sticking to your floured hands without doing too much sticking. (If the dough is too sticky it will be a pain in the butt to deal with later, trust me.)

Once you're happy with your dough either clean out your mixing bowl or get a bigger once. I recommend getting a new, bigger one for this.

Step 7: The bread, part 2

All right. Time to let the dough rise.

If you want, take a little butter and let it. Throw it into the bowl you're going to be using and cover the inside with it. You do not need a lot of butter here.

Take your dough-ball and turn it in the bowl a few times to coat the outside with butter. Leave it in the bottom of the bowl.

Cover the bowl with plastic and leave it in a warm place. For at least 12 hours. Go for 24 if you want, but leave it for at least 12 hours. I am not kidding, don't touch it.

Take this opportunity to clean everything. If you have never tried to clean flour out of a bowl the next day, good job. It's not fun. You have a day to work with here. Clean.

When you're happy with the progress your dough has made, go ahead and move on to the next step.

Step 8: The bread, part 3

You should have a borderline terrifying amount of dough now.

Clean off your favorite surface and cover it in flour.

Flour your hands

Punch your dough down to get a little air out of it and pry it out of the bowl.

Get it on the floured surface and grab a floured rolling pin. Flatten the dough out as best you can.

Divide the dough into a few pieces. I split the dough into two loaves and one dinner roll sized ball.

Flour whatever you're going to be putting them in or on, cover them, and let them sit for an hour or two.

Heat up your oven early. Get it to 375 degrees Fahrenheit at least 20 minutes before the bread is going to go into the oven.

If you want a harder crust: place a pan or a tin of water in the oven 10 minutes before the bread is ready to go in. The steam will harden the crust and give you a chewy bread.

Optional step: Mix a little butter, an egg white, an egg yolk (optional. I use about a half) and a pinch of garlic powder.

Brush the dough with your egg mixture.

Use a sharp knife to make a few cuts in the top of the bread to allow for expansion and pop the dough in the oven.

Bake for about 20-25 minutes for a small loaf like the sandwich. The time may change based on how much dough you have and what the dough is in. My bread pans are a little slower than my cookie sheet.For loaves go more like 30-40. You really don't want to leave this stuff too doughy.

Once the bread is lightly browned and hollow when thumped (it's still hot, be careful) go ahead and pull it out and let it cool.

You're done! Feel free to change the recipe. Use more or less starter, add herbs, do whatever. Remember, this is a basic recipe. If you come up with a really good starter or sourdough, please let me know. I would love to try it.
Sarahbanana424 months ago
*Sourdough
Sarahbanana424 months ago
I'd never thought about adding honey to spurdough before! It sounds like a great idea!
Shaquan5 months ago
Is it possible to cultivate or produce more yeast from this dough? I am asking because I would like to know if quote, "Is it possible to make different breads from this yeast produced during the proccess?" Please leave a reply. Thanks for reading.
Shaquan5 months ago
Is it possible to cultivate or produce more yeast from this dough? I am asking because I would like to know if quote, "Is it possible to make different breads from this yeast produced during the proccess?" Please leave a reply. Thanks for reading.
dtfathedza1 year ago
I don't think it's necessary to roll the dough out. By doing so you're pressing air bubbles out of the dough and making it harder for the aerobic bacteria (yeast) to breath and therefore do their business. Its fine to work the dough with your hands but unless you want flat, cracker like bread then just cut pieces to fit the pans that you are using. if you're trying to make pizza dough then that is a different matter. You should make your dough, let it rise and then ball it, allow it to rise or proof again for a few hours and then stretch the dough out to make your crust. There are lots of good tips on pizza dough stretching over at youtube.
ludovic4 years ago
Three comments:
1. Make sure your starter doesn't go off -it can be lethal
2. Leave the starter outside to capture bacteria
3. Use organic rye flour to start the starter, it's got much more good bacteria in it

Check my blog for more details: foodings.blog.uk
The thing about rye is that it has no gluten, so the dough won't be elastic at all, because it's the gluten that forms the protein coils that pull it back together. This can be a nuissance if you expect your dough to behave like dough. Also, rye can be infected by different kinds of fungus, some of which can be harmful.
Indeed. Rye makes more compact breads, has much less glutens but works best for starters. I use a rye starter for my white or wholemeal (wheat) breads.

As for the fungus, it's called ergot and is killed by cooking the bread:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergot
Here's a brief wikipedia note on that:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rye#Diseases

Ergot fungus are used to harvest the medication ergotamine, which is used to treat postpartum bleeding and migraine, among other diseases, because if it's vasoconstricting effects on humans. Ergotism, on the other hand, can make you loose your fingertips and earlobes.

I only bake fresh rye flour when making rye bread, I never make the starter out of it.
I wouldn't worry about these rye diseases, they grow on rye in the field, not in a wet acidic starter culture. I say this from experience, I have maintained an all rye culture for quite some time now and it has never been contaminated with any unpleasant bacteria. In fact, my rye starter seems almost immune to contamination.
If you ever see colorful streaks in your starter it is no good anymore. It will be pretty obvious and pretty not good tasting. To my knowledge there is no danger in having a rye starter, it is quite common practice among artisan bakers.
 Rye has gluten, it's just different than wheat gluten.

yeah, you're right, sorry bout that
A comment to the comment,

It won't matter if the flour is organic or not. The flour is ground up starch from the inside of the seed, and not exposed to chemicals. Also no herbicide, fungicide, or pesticide would have been used on the wheat  prior to harvest. These chemicals go away with time and whould have left the plants prior to harvest.

You can use organic flour to support organic farming, but it won't make a difference when it comes to the starter.
Possibly. Chemicals can migrate into seeds, so I prefer organic.
ludovic1 year ago
I find it works much better with rye flour but it can he hard to find. My recipe is on my blog: http://richmondtransits.blogspot.co.uk/2009/05/my-no-knead-sourdough-bread.html
Kiulkaitis4 years ago
Hi!, I'm from Venezuela and this is the first time that I've heard of sourdough.  So I try this instructable from the beggining and I've just made my first one.  I really like the taste but since I've never try it before I really don't know if this is the real thing.  So please if you can describe the flavor of the sourdough It'll be really helpful for me.  Thank you!
Kiulkaitis, sour dough has a tangy taste and is usually full of air bubbles, which are nice for catching the butter. The wild yeast varies, depending on where you live. So the San Francisco sour dough has a distinctively different taste that the sour dough here in Oregon. I love this bread with cheddar cheese and avocado and a little balsamic vinegar.
consider trying other sourdough recipes on here and comparing
Your ARE tasting it.  Sourdough got its name from the fact that the dough was allowed to sour when the bakers didn't want to throw out the original dough and kept making bread with old dough.  Correct me, someone, if I'm wrong but I think it started around the San Francisco area in California about the time of the gold rush.
Oh, sourdough has been around for a lot longer than that. I've read somewhere that it was used some 6000 years ago in Egypt. Modern yeast that you buy in the store has only been around since 1850 or so. Another alternative way of making bread rise wich was used in the middle ages is barm, a bipruduct when fermenting to get alcohol. There is however a strain af lactobacillus called sanfranciscensis!
GummiBear1 year ago
I heard on TV that a bakery put a little bit of dough that was souring forever in each of their bread dough batches. Thats why their sourdough is the BEST!
tremend2 years ago
I keep my sour in a plastic bowl with a lid lightly placed on top - not 'clicked' on.

I have had a few flies buzzing around lately and today, I found a fly in the sour!

When I did click the lid on it suddenly blew off one night (scared my wife)!

Will baking kill anything nasty from the flies or must I throw it all away?
orosiriley2 years ago
Thank you for the instructions, it worked! We live in the highland tropical rainforest or Costa Rica where our climate is the same ever day with highs of 72° and every night lows of 60°. It took about a week to collect enough wild yeast, but my "started" is nice and bubbly.
We are making low carb, whole wheat bread using Tuscan farro.
The results have exceeding expectations.
bread 005.jpg
PurpleKat2 years ago
Just wanted to leave a comment to let you know that I've still got my starter going, and it's churning out some great bread. I have two batches of dough going right now, one of them for loaves tomorrow night with carrot and ginger soup (YUM!) and one for pizza the night after. I gave out jars of starter as Christmas presents this year, and they were a hit. :)

For anyone intimidated about trying this -- don't be. It's easy, and very forgiving. I neglected my "pet blob" during November, and it bounced right back from the missed feedings.
PurpleKat2 years ago
Thank you so much for this! I've seen sourdough starter recipes before, but nothing as hardcore and awesome as this. :) I'm looking forward to some wonderful sourdough!

Has anyone tried this starter with a bread machine, yet? I'm a big wimp, and I don't think my arms would survive the kneading process of making bread the hard way.
adnimo4 years ago
Yum! I've never had sour bread before, so I'll be definitely trying this out. Is there a way to avoid having to buy yeast altogether and being able to make things such as pizza, bread, etc?. One of my problems is that my yeast goes bad (they only sell the packaged, powder one which I personally dislike and the little blocks of yeast, which are way too big for my needs and they always end up going bad and into the trash bin...) Any ideas?
Hey, if you want your yeast to keep forever, get the dry yeast in those little glass jars and keep it in the fridge. My favorite, when I can get my hands on it, is Red Star. If you can't find it locally, you could probably order it online.

I had a jar of yeast that I bought right before I moved to a place where the kitchen was too small for my bread machine. Used maybe a couple teaspoons of the yeast. It sat in the fridge for, I kid you not, over two years. Then I moved to a larger place and decided to make bread again and -- the yeast was fine. Worked perfectly.
sourdough can be used for pizza, and this is obviously a bread dough..I've never heard of sourdough bagels though, that might be good, and different
jabapyth adnimo4 years ago
I always keep my yeast in the freezer, and it stays good for...a really long time.
tea_lover2 years ago
Just wanted to leave a comment saying thanks so much for this awesome instructable! I've had my starter going for a few months now and I love it so so so much. I've been feeding my starter 1:1 ratio of flour/water though because I didn't think the mix was runny enough. Thanks again
Thanks for having a simple recipe. I tried googling other recipes, but they had things like coconut oil, milk, eggs, dry yeast, etc.
Ben Mighall2 years ago
Also, how often and how do you feed it after you are off the "once-a-week" plan?
Ben Mighall2 years ago
Do you need to leave the lid open or do you leave it closed?
David_huai3 years ago
I am from China. The process is almost same for us to make the yeast for Chinese bread.
Mine doubled once but hasn't doubled again since then. Any idea what might be wrong?
If you've been feeding it once a day, try adding a pinch or two of sugar. If there's any yeasties moving around down there, maybe they just got a little sluggish and the sugar will help to kick them into high gear again.
I made this movie on how to make sourdough although I don't exactly understand how yeast exactly worksbut I'm able to get it to activate it every time with just water and flour.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNNwzt8eoTQ
Should you close the container, or leave it a little open when you place it in the fridge?
Thanks
You can do either I prefer to seal it with air inside.
pcline23 years ago
First, very nice 'able. i am in the middle of making my first batch. i was wondering about the use of metal in the making of the bread. i have a stand mixer with a dough hook but both are metal. i was wondering if using that would in any way effect the yeast/bacteria. using the stand mixer would make it exponentially easier.
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