I have a bubbling jar of sourdough starter going at all times and use it for absolutely everything – bread, muffins, doughnuts, pizza dough, pancakes, biscuits, you name it. If it contains flour, I make it with sourdough. Why would I do this? What am I even talking about? I’m so glad you asked! A sourdough “starter” is just a mixture of flour and water populated with lactic-acid-producing bacteria – these are the “good” bacteria, or “probiotics” you’ve probably heard about. This is the same genre of bacteria that is used to culture milk into yogurt. There are so many benefits, but to me the biggest are that the bacteria work in the flour to break down gluten and phytates (or phytic acid) – making the end product easier to digest and the nutrients in the flour more bioavailable. There is a bit to dig into here, so if you’re up for it, read on. Otherwise, you can skip down to the instructions for getting started!
About Gluten: It’s not just raised awareness that accounts for the dramatic increase in gluten sensitivities and celiac disease we are seeing today – these problems truly have skyrocketed in the last 60 years (source). There are different theories for why this might be, but one major suspect is the introduction of modern wheat in the 1960s. Norman Borlaug actually won the Nobel Peace Prize for increasing the world food supply through his development of semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties. It is said that his work saved over a billion people worldwide! However, we are perhaps now seeing the unintended consequences of these new strains of wheat, which have much more gluten than ancient varieties – and in particular one type of gluten that is a trigger for the majority of Celiac Disease patients (source). With these proteins and the overall gluten load being so much higher in modern wheat, it may be that more people’s systems are hitting their tipping point. However, the bacteria in sourdough break down gluten into amino acids, making the flour much easier to digest, even to the point where some people with gluten sensitivities can tolerate sourdough bread products (source).
About Phytates: All grains, nuts and seeds are high in phytates, which is actually an amazing part of God’s design! Phytates are found in the hulls of seeds and are responsible for retaining the nutrients within the seed until just the right conditions are present for germination. At that point, an enzyme called phytase is released, which breaks down the phytates, allowing the seed to sprout and the nutrients to be freed up to support the growth of the seedling. These phytates can preserve seeds even through the digestive tracts of animals, which is part of how seeds are spread far and wide. So yes, phytates are important! But the same properties of a seed that protect its contents until germination also “protect” those nutrients through our digestive tract. Not only do the phytates hold tightly to the nutrients they are bound to (critical minerals like calcium, magnesium, copper and zinc), they also bind to nutrients in our digestive tract from other food we’ve eaten and strip them from our system. This is obviously not good. The amazing thing about sourdough is that the lactic acid produced by the bacteria create the right environment for the wheat’s phytase enzymes to be released, which then in turn breaks down the phytates and makes all those nutrients available to us (source 1, source 2). Amazing!
There is so much more to learn about the health benefits of sourdough, but the above two topics alone are enough to make me want to feed myself and my family sourdough products as much as I am able – and enough to make me want to convince you to, too! So, here it is, what you’ve been waiting for – how to get started!
Acquiring a Sourdough Starter
Option 1: Purchase a sourdough starter online or from some natural food grocers or brewing supply stores. It will come as a dry powder and will include instructions for activating it. This option is good because you can count on the powder to easily populate your starter with all the good bacteria you need, thus getting your starter off to a strong start.
Option 2: Find an established sourdough starter. This may mean getting a cup of starter from a friend or a bakery that bakes true sourdough. After accidentally killing my starter this year, I was able to get a new starter from the Great Harvest Bread Co. franchise in my city. The owner was friendly and simply sent me home with a paper cup full of starter from the supply she keeps. Finding an established starter is your best bet for success and is the least work!
Option 3: Make your own sourdough starter. I haven’t actually had to do this myself, so I am simply going to refer you to thekitchn.com. They have a good recipe that is easy to follow. I believe you can have success with this option, but assuming you are a beginner, the first two are probably better routes to take.
Caring for Your Sourdough Starter
Yes, your starter needs to be cared for. I know this may sound unappealing, as you may already feel maxed out on the number of living things you are caring for, but this is easy, I promise! At most, you will need to take a few minutes a day to “feed” your starter, and if you don’t plan on baking any time soon, you can keep it in the fridge and feed it about once a week, or put it in deep hibernation in the freezer and leave it there with no cares for as long as you like! Here’s all you really need to know:
Where do I keep my starter?
Store your starter in a glass container that can hold at least 4 cups. A quart-sized mason jar, bowl or glass tupperware will all work fine. You will want to cover the jar loosely, keeping dust and bugs out while allowing gases to escape. This could mean a loosely fitted lid and ring for the mason jar, a towel draped over the container or perhaps a paper towel secured with a rubber band. There are no real rules here.
How do I feed my starter?
To one cup of starter, add about one cup of whole wheat or rye flour and about 3/4 cup water. Stir really well. Cover loosely. Your starter will double in size when it rises, so make sure you have the room in your jar. If you have more than one cup of starter in a 4-cup mason jar, you will have to pour some out before you feed it. You can either discard the extra or use it in a recipe.
When do I feed my starter?
Basically, if you keep your starter at room temperature, you will need to feed it once a day (twice might be best if your house is really warm). If you keep your starter in the fridge, you should feed it about every three days. You can let it go much, much longer than that, but it will take a few feedings to get it nice and active again. To keep your starter vibrant, the key is to watch for the rise and fall of the starter – after you feed it, it will start to bubble, rise to about double its size (if it’s good and healthy), and then fall back down. This is the time to feed it. If you wait too long after it has come back down (as in days), it will start to languish, but can almost always be revived!
If you are keeping your starter in the fridge, it would be ideal to let it sit at room temp for a couple hours after feeding it before putting in back in the fridge, but it’s not necessary. Also, brown or black liquid will likely show up on the top of your starter. This is normal – you can pour it off or mix it in.
How do I use my sourdough starter?
The ideal time to use your starter is when its at it’s “peak” or shortly after. If you are baking bread, it is more important to use the starter at its peak of activity. Other recipes typically contain baking powder or baking soda for added lift, which will help you out even if your starter has become less active. If you have left your starter in the fridge and haven’t paid any attention to whether the bubbling activity is on its way “up” or “down,” your safest bet is to take it out and feed it once at room temperature once before using it.
Below, you can see the bubbles indicating that my starter is active. I like to keep mine in a half-gallon jar so I can build up a larger amount of starter at once.