Have you considered what you would do if you could not buy yeast at the grocery store? This is a question I have thought about often, but especially in recent times when we’ve seen how quickly supply chain issues and other troubles can occur. As an avid home baker, I love to bake bread, and when I could not find any yeast, I wanted to have a backup plan. That plan turned out to be a simple and timeless solution: growing a sourdough starter.
You may be familiar with sourdough bread loaves and their signature tangy taste and crunchy crust. That kind of bread is made with a sourdough starter. The oldest and most natural homemade sourdough bread loaves are made with sourdough starter instead of yeast. This makes the bread naturally leavened, thanks to the fermentation properties of the starter.
Because sourdough is made from naturally harvested bacteria and yeast, it is one of the only self-sufficient ways to leaven bread. As such, every homesteader needs to know what sourdough is, how to grow it, and how to use it.
The History of Sourdough
Sourdough bread is one of the oldest forms of leavened bread. Discovered by the Egyptians around 3500 BC, sourdough starter was used by them to make some of the first leavened bread loaves in recorded history. Since then, people worldwide have used sourdough starters to naturally leaven bread.
During the days of the pioneers in the West, sourdough starter was the only leavening agent available to them. Clearly, homesteaders have been using sourdough starters for quite a while.
One of the most incredible things about a sourdough starter is that it can last for centuries. In a remarkable recent story, a man harvested a sourdough starter from Egyptian pots dated to around 4,500 years ago and used it to make a completely edible sourdough loaf. The naturally harvested yeast and bacteria in sourdough make it possible for bread to be made with these ancient sourdough starters.
The Science & Sustainability of Sourdough
While sourdough starters may only be developed with flour and water, the science behind sourdough starters lies in what grows in them. The lactic acid bacteria, specifically, are what makes sourdough sour. With over 100 different bacteria species that can live in sourdough starters, the ratio of bacteria will vary between every batch of a starter. The location, ingredients, and even the process used to develop the starter will result in slightly different flavors and results.
Because sourdough starter involves the natural fermentation method of “catching” yeast and bacteria, it is a sustainable and almost entirely self-sufficient leavening agent. All that is required is flour, water, and a large jar or bowl. If you have a refrigerator, less flour is needed, which means less to rely on. Once your sourdough starter is strong, you may only need to use one cup of flour a week, depending on how often you bake with it. Additionally, if you maintain the starter, it can last forever.
How to Grow a Sourdough Starter
Growing your own sourdough starter is a straightforward process. Unlike complex baking recipes or scientific mixtures, sourdough starter only requires two ingredients, some patience, and a dash of gut-healthy invisible bacteria. Below is a simple process for growing your own sourdough starter:
- Flour (all-purpose works well; whole wheat can be used, but bear in mind that it will have a slightly different flavor).
- Large Bowl
- In a large bowl or another container, mix ½ cup flour with ¼ cup warm water. The mixture should look like a thick pancake batter; add more water if necessary.
- Cover the bowl lightly (not air-tight), and place the mixture in a warm place, away from other fermented products.
- Every 12 hours, feed the starter with ¼ cup flour and 1/8 cup warm water and mix well.
- Repeat the feeding every 12 hours for at least 7 days.
- Once you have seen the starter bubbling for several days, throw out all but 2 cups of the mixture and place this in a dedicated container with a lid that can hold at least 4 cups. Put the lid on loosely and place the starter in the refrigerator.
- At least once per week, take the starter out of the refrigerator and discard 1 cup of the mixture (or use it in a recipe).
- Feed the starter with 1 cup flour and ½ cup water and allow the starter to sit out for around 8 hours.
- Stir the starter down and place it back in the refrigerator.
- Feed the starter at least once per week or every time you use it.
How to Use a Sourdough Starter
Using a sourdough starter is just as easy as using dry yeast. First, decide if you need a discard or active starter for the recipe you want to make. A discard starter is the portion of the mixture that you throw out once a week or so, while an active starter is the main portion and is best used 6-8 hours after you feed it so that it is strong.
For a discard sourdough starter recipe, if you have a starter in the refrigerator, simply take it out and allow it to come to room temperature. Then, stir it down and measure out the required amount for the recipe you will be making. After that, feed the starter as you normally would.
In the case of an active starter recipe, take the starter out of the fridge and either discard the one cup or use it in a recipe, then feed the starter as usual. After 6-8 hours, when it is bubbly, stir it down and measure out the amount you need for the recipe. Feed the starter again so that you have a consistent supply.
There are countless recipes where you can use a sourdough starter instead of yeast. The best place to start is with an easy sourdough bread recipe. You can find many of these recipes online, which is where I find all my favorites.
Whole wheat sourdough bread is a favorite of homesteaders because it combines the sustainability of sourdough with the healthy nutrients in whole wheat.
I recommend collecting discard sourdough starter recipes so that you never have to throw out a portion of the starter. If you are only baking once per week, you can use the day you feed the starter to make a loaf of bread (or other delicious baked good) with the discard.
The King Arthur sourdough bread recipes are some of the most popular choices for those who are just starting with a sourdough starter. The Rustic Sourdough Bread recipe is perfect for beginners with a starter that may not be super strong. If your starter is a high-riser and full of bubbles, then the Naturally Leavened Sourdough Bread recipe is the one I recommend, especially for anyone who wants to bake a loaf of bread using only sustainable, natural yeast.
Sourdough starter is a fantastic and easy way to have a sustainable leavening agent for your baked goods. It is not only perfect for bread, but you can make a Sourdough Cinnamon Crumb Cake or even Blueberry Sourdough Muffins.
For homesteaders, a sourdough starter is the best self-sufficient yeast product you can use.