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Considerable fortunes have been built out of bread, and it’s no wonder. Bread in its various incarnations has been with us since we first learned to grow our food instead of chasing it, and it can be accurately stated that it’s the very heart of good cooking. If this is so, a warm, crusty loaf of fresh-baked sourdough is it’s soul.

Sourdough baking seems to have acquired an aura of mystical secrecy which it doesn’t really deserve. There has to be well over a thousand sets of instructions for making starter, ranging from “mix up some water and flower, let it set a spell until it stinks a littul” to three-page masterpieces written with the sweaty intensity and detail of a physician talking someone through an appendectomy. My take on it is somewhere in the middle. Logic dictates that people should probably not eat unidentifiable compounds which stink a littul, and simultaneously demands an explanation as to how in thunder our pioneer grannies managed to make and keep their starters alive without thermostats, rubber tubing, ph testing kits, refrigeration and stainless steel containers stashed away somewhere in their covered wagons.

Without venturing into the facinating (albeit, superfluous) world of micro-oganism symbiotic relationships, a good starter is one derived from wild yeasts floating around in the air. I don’t mean they’re toke-happy little party animals with no morals...I mean they don’t come out of the little foil lined envelopes on aisle 12B. Free range yeasts, so to speak. They just don’t need that much encouragement to grow happily inside an old ceramic or glass jug, waiting for you to scoop some of them out and turn them into one of the most heavenly concoctions on earth.

You’ll need the following:

A large crockery or glass container with a loose fitting lid.
A couple of good-sized potatoes, unpeeled.
2 cups non-self rising flour, unbleached if you can get it.
2 tablespoons sugar.

Boil the potatoes in enough water to cover them until the skins split and the water becomes a little cloudy. Remove the potatoes (set them aside for some other use) and cool the potato water to about 110F. Mix about 2 1/2 cups of the potato water, the sugar and the flour in your container, and leave it uncovered for a few hours. Then cover it loosely...a sealed container will explode when the mixture ferments...and let it stand in a warm place for four or five days, stirring it once or twice a day. As it begins to bubble, sprinkle a small amount (about two teaspoons) of flour and a pinch of sugar into it at intervals and stir. Your starter is ready to use for pancakes or biscuits in about five days, although it won’t “ripen” enough for bread for about three weeks. Feed the yeast culture once a week with approximately a cup of potato water and a cup of flour, well mixed, discarding an equal amount of starter if you’re not going to use any that week. If you use some, replace that amount with the flour/potato water mix.

With a nod in the direction of modern sanitation, you may refrigerate your starter between uses. Even though it will be pretty acidic, occasionally a starter will become host to undesirable bacteria (if it starts to turn orange or green, get rid of it) and have to be discarded. Refrigeration will lessen the chances of that happening. However, if you’re planning to bake, you’ll need to let the starter stand at room temperature for about eight hours before you make your bread. Barring mishap or mishandling, such as heating it to over a hundred degrees F., your starter will last indefinitely. It’s not unusual for starters to be active and healthy for years at a time.

While you’re waiting for it to ripen, start rummaging through the available sourdough recipes online or in your favorite bookstore, because you’ll probably want to use them all.