Whether a gluten-free lifestyle came to you uninvited or by choice, you’ve likely discovered that gluten-free baking can be quite challenging. Recipes often call for numerous ingredients to improve texture such as xanthan gum, guar gum, psyllium husk and others that are hard to pronounce, hard to find, and for many people cause digestive issues, which is probably why you went gluten free in the first place! Furthermore, typical recipes call for multiple flours and encourage you to measure by weight with a kitchen scale so things actually turn out. In the end you still may end up with a brick or crumbly mess. Sigh. All this tedium and exactitude is not my style. So, this summer when we figured out that our three-year-old was having issues due to gluten, I knew I needed to figure out a process that would still allow us to enjoy family favorites, but without too much hassle or blowing our grocery budget on store-bought GF items (not to mention, so many of the store-bought products are hard to find organic, and they typically have a ton of “extra” ingredients I don’t care for health-wise).
So home-made it was going to be. I stumbled upon my secret quite by good luck, and this is it: gluten-free baking with a sourdough starter is incredible! I only discovered this because the first thing I wanted to do when we started the gluten-free diet was to start a gluten-free sourdough starter to replace my traditional (wheat-based) sourdough starter. My reasons for this center around the amazing health benefits of sourdough, which I go into in my post, Sourdough Baking: Why and How. Once I got my gluten-free sourdough starter going, I was pleased to find recipes that actually seemed simpler than non-sourdough gluten-free recipes. It turns out that the fermentation process of sourdough actually helps the proteins to form a better structure, holding the product together and improving the texture. The yeast that is naturally present in the sourdough culture also helps get you a lighter, fluffier result.
I will admit, I haven’t ventured into every type of bread product yet, but I do feel that I can confidently stand by the methods I’ve been using for pizza crust and pancakes, and the muffins are close to there. I will continue to add recipes, so stay tuned! But first, you will have to get your starter going. The process is nearly identical to regular sourdough with a few minor adjustments.
Acquiring a Gluten-Free Sourdough Starter
Option 1: You can actually purchase specially formulated starters that are a gluten-free! Here is great option based on brown rice flour from culturesforhealth.com. 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. Since you’re looking for a gluten-free starter, your best bet is probably to get some from a friend, however you may be lucky enough to find a bakery that works in gluten-free sourdough who would share some with you. If you find such a bakery, tell me about it! Another option is to acquire a regular sourdough starter and transition it over to gluten-free by feeding it only gluten-free flour. This is what I did, and it worked well. I felt that the amount of gluten left in the starter was safe for our purposes after about four feedings (each time dumping some of the old starter and replenishing with GF flour). You will have to determine for yourself whether this is a good option for you based on the seriousness of your intolerance and whether slight contamination at first is acceptable.
Option 3: Make your own sourdough starter. I haven’t yet tried starting my own gluten-free starter from scratch, but I based my method of transitioning my starter to gluten free off of the instructions at Yellow Bonnet Homestead. I think she’s got it down, and especially with the mix of flours she recommends, I think you will get off to a good start. Even so, I would opt for one of the first two options if you are able, just because your results will be more predictable.
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 every five days, 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. You can store your starter on the countertop or in the fridge, depending on how often you want to feed it. More on that below.
How do I feed my starter?
To one cup of starter, add about one cup of any combination of gluten-free flours (brown rice works well and is easy to find) and a scant 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?
The big difference with a gluten-free sourdough starter is that it needs to be fed more often than a regular starter. If you keep your GF starter at room temperature, you will need to feed it at least once a day, preferably twice. If you keep your starter in the fridge, you should feed it every other day to keep it nice and healthy. You can let it go for a week or even more, but it will probably take a few feedings at room temperature to get it good 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. After the peak is the time to feed it again. 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! Really, it’s ok to be kind of lax with feeding your starter, especially if you’re using it for recipes besides bread, which will likely rely on an addition of baking powder or baking soda for an extra lift anyway. When baking bread, however, you will have the most success and best flavor with a well fed, very active starter.
A clear, brown or black liquid will may show up on the top of your starter, especially if you have left it unfed for a time. This is normal – you can pour it off or mix it in.
How do I use my sourdough starter?
Ideally, use your starter at its peak or shortly after, while it is still bubbly. 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.
There are countless ways to use your sourdough starter! I will continue to add recipes, but for now check out these two pancake recipes. And please, feel free to ask any questions or share tips in the comments section below.