Bubbles are a sign that your sourdough starter is doing its thing and might be ready to use in recipes. [Contributed by Maggie Perkins]


A rubber band around your sourdough starter container can help you measure its growth, another way to keep track of whether it’s ready to use. Look at all those bubbles, too! [Contributed by Maggie Perkins]


If there is a star among the projects that keep us busy during our shelter in place, all social media news feeds point to sourdough baking taking top billing. Your neighbor has a starter. Your BFF has one. Your great uncle has one. Isn’t it time you jumped on the bandwagon, too?


Developing a sourdough starter may seem somewhat mystical and complicated. The truth is, it’s deceptively simple and within the reach of bakers and nonbakers of all ages.


A sourdough starter can be a delicious home school project: The history, science, math and even literature of sourdough bread can fill the at-home school days as the fragrance of baked bread fills homes.


Bread is older than metal, and sourdough, the earliest known form of leavened or risen bread, made as early as ancient Egypt. Budding scientists will discover a microbial garden in sourdough starters, a veritable fermentation factory of natural bacteria and wild yeast. Bakers’ math is full of percentages, fractions and metrics (of which this baker always needs a pre-project refresher). Bread shows up in literature of all ages; my own tattered and spattered copy of "The Bread Book: All About Bread and How to Make It" by Carolyn Meyer was perhaps my first favorite cookbook.


For those of us social distancing solo, a starter can be a welcome distraction from the unusual quiet of our current lives — almost a new pet, with which to keep our minds and our hands busy. Some have even taken to naming their starters. My latest is named as a sign of her time: (Quaran)Tina. Read on for how to start your own.


What you need


A container: This can be any nonreactive (glass, stainless steel, or plastic) container, but for purposes of measuring later in the development of the starter, I recommend a 32-ounce wide-mouth glass jar. This gives you plenty of room for mixing and measuring. If it is marked with measurements, all the better. It can be helpful to employ a thick rubber band to mark the sourdough level in your container and measure its growth between feedings.


Flour: I like to use a combination of whole grain flour and all-purpose unbleached flour to begin a starter. Flours suitable for a starter include unbleached all-purpose flour, bread flour, whole wheat flour, whole grain flours or any combination of those. Organic flours are great — you might find them more active than non-organic — but if nonorganic is the only flour available, use it. Don’t use self-rising flour, bleached flours or gluten-free flours.


I used Barton Springs Mill whole grain rye flour to begin my most recent starter, and fed it with all-purpose flour, until I ran out of all-purpose flour and switched to bread flour.


Filtered tap or bottled water: Although regular tap water can be used, chlorine will affect the fermentation process and can slow down or even kill any starter activity. If filtered or bottled water is unavailable, collecting tap water and allowing it to sit out overnight, uncovered, will suffice. Our early ancestors had no bottled water and they still managed. A note about water temperature: If your home temperature is 70 degrees or above, use room temperature water in your starter. If your home temperature runs cooler, use lukewarm water, roughly body temperature.


Measuring cups/food scale: Specifically, you’ll need 1 cup and 1/2 cup measuring cups, or a scale that measures in grams, if weighing ingredients. A note about weighing: Professional bakers weigh their ingredients instead of measuring ingredients by volume, and for best results, it’s a smart habit for home bakers to adopt. Consider the difference in weight in 1 cup of various flours: All-purpose or bread flour is 125 grams; cake flour is 140 grams; self-rising flour is 125 grams; and whole wheat flour is 120 grams. You can see that measuring by volume can cause inaccuracies in a recipe. If you don’t have access to scales, our instructions include both weight and volume measurements.


DAY 1: Getting started


In a pristine clean container, mix 113 grams (a scant 1 cup flour) and 113 grams (1/2 cup) cool (room temperature) or lukewarm (body temperature) water (remember what I said about water temperature). Stir well, making sure no dry flour remains. Cover loosely (I use a linen kitchen towel) and store on your countertop if the ambient temperature in your home is 70 degrees or higher. Between 70 and 80 degrees is ideal for starter development. If your home averages cooler temperatures, look for a warmer spot such as a sunny corner, the top of an appliance, or your oven, turned off but with the light on.


Let rest for 24 hours.


DAY 2: Am I seeing bubbles?


You might not. Nevertheless, discard all but 4 ounces (1/2 cup) starter (which is about half of the starter), add 113 grams (1 cup) flour and 113 grams (1/2 cup) water, stir well. Cover loosely.


Let rest for 24 hours.


DAY 3: Ooooh, ACTION


But just a little bit. Maybe some bubbles. A sweet aroma. A little bit of growth. It is time to move to twice a day feedings. Stir down starter. Discard all but 4 ounces (1/2 cup) starter. Add 113 grams (1 cup) flour and 113 grams (1/2 cup) water. Stir well. Cover loosely.


Let rest 12 hours. Repeat feeding. Let rest 12 hours.


DAY 4: Wait. Did I kill it?


No, no, you didn’t. Often around day 4 it seems like activity slows. Keep feeding. It’s going to come back around. Stir down starter. Discard all but 4 ounces (1/2 cup) starter. Add 113 grams (1 cup) flour and 113 grams (1/2 cup) water. Stir well. Cover loosely.


This is a good day to add a rubber band to the routine, placing it around the jar at the level of your starter, and measuring for expansion at feedings.


Let rest 12 hours. Repeat feeding. Let rest 12 hours.


DAY 5: This is the day, right?


Maybe. Maybe not. Generally, the earliest you will see your sourdough starter doubling in size is the end of the fifth day. Depending on factors including temperature, flour, humidity, change in climate and simply the flora and fauna of your starter, full fermentation can take anywhere from five days to three weeks.


You know it's ready to use when you see a doubling of volume within about five hours of feeding. You’re also looking for bubbles — different sizes, a net of bubbles within before being stirred down, little rivers of bubbles on the surface — and a great yeasty, sour-ish smell.


If your starter isn’t showing that much activity, no worries. Continue to feed it every 12 hours until it does.


If your starter is "ready," give it one more feeding. Discard all but 4 ounces (1/2 cup) starter. Add 113 grams (1 cup) flour and 113 grams (1/2 cup) water. Stir well. Cover loosely. Let rest eight hours. Repeat feeding. Let rest 12 hours.


Now your starter is ready for use in the myriad baking projects that call for sourdough starter. Your discard can be used in recipes that specifically ask for sourdough discard. They are not usually interchangeable, but you might occasionally find a recipe that calls for either one.


Remove what is needed for your recipe. (If your recipe calls for as much as or more starter than you have, feed and rest several times without discarding, until you have enough for the recipe, and 4 ounces or 1/2 cup left to feed.)


Transfer the remaining starter to its permanent jar or crock home and feed it once more, then let rest about four hours before covering and refrigerating. If using a screw-top jar fasten loosely, not tight. Feed your starter about once a week, whether you are baking that week with it or not, with the same procedure: Discard all but 4 ounces (1/2 cup) starter. Add 113 grams (1 cup) flour and 113 grams (1/2 cup) water. Stir well. Cover loosely. Let rest at room temperature about four hours before refrigerating.


If you are planning to bake with your starter, you’ll generally measure out the starter you need AFTER this feeding/resting at room temperature procedure. This is referred to as a "freshly fed starter." Occasionally you’ll be asked to portion out "unfed starter," in which case you’ll measure the starter requested, then feed and rest afterward.


Why all that discarding? The larger the starter, the "hungrier" it is, and its ability to "find" enough wild yeasties to feed it, diminished. Also, you’d have a much larger starter to store and maintain than is practical.


Sourdough Herb Crackers


You can collect and use your sourdough starter discard in recipes designed for it, including waffles, biscuits, pretzels and pizza crusts. I recently shared a Facebook Live session making these crackers that I can’t get enough of from starter discard. It is simple and just might satisfy your impatient craving for sourdough as your starter develops. (The steps I outlined are for a 100% hydration starter, meaning there is a 50/50 ratio of water to flour.)


Ingredients


1 1/3 cup sourdough starter discard, stirred down (100% hydration)


1/4 cup olive oil


1 teaspoon salt


2 tablespoons dried herbs of your choice (including rosemary, thyme, dill, or dried spice blends such as Fines Herbs or Herbes de Provence)


Additional salt for surface, optional


Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a large bowl mix discard, olive oil, salt and dried herbs. Whisk until fully blended.


Line a half sheet pan (18 by 13 inches, or similar size) with parchment paper. Spread the batter out to the edges of the pan in a smooth, even layer.


Sprinkle additional salt on surface, if using.


Bake in preheated oven for about 50 minutes, monitoring closely for your preferred color/ doneness.


Remove and allow to cool completely before breaking into natural crisps/crackers. Store in an airtight container.