Introduction: Catching Wild Yeast and Making Sourdough

About: My current kicks are growing plants and baking bread.

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.

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.

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.

- 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.

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