Home Grown: Starting from scratch vs bought

Considering that sourdough has been around for thousands and thousands of years, long before the introduction of grams, temperatures gauges, refrigerators, electric ovens, or even the idea that the world wasn’t flat, one would think starting your own starter is a breeze.

Maybe it is, but I had a heck of a time myself. And when I was thinking “Why is this so dag nabbed difficult, it’s just flour and water” it was even more frustrating. But in reality, it’s more than just flour and water, it’s flour with the wild yeast still on it, water that doesn’t have additives meant to kill yeast and bacteria we WANT to cultivate, optimum temperatures, feeding at the right times so as to not throw out too many of the very small critter community, and probably the effects of goblins and phases of the moon. But whatever the reason, I was having one b***h of a time getting things going. I went through a half a brand new 10k bag of UAP just trying to get a half-cup of starter started. And this took the better part of three months.

Four or five different recipes later, I finally hit on one that worked, the Wild Yeast Sourdough Starter from SourdoLady over on TheFreshLoaf.com.  And to be perfectly honest, I have absolutely NO IDEA why this one worked where the others didn’t. And reading the posts in this and other starter threads on TheFreshLoaf.com and other sites, this works for some and not for others while some of the other methods were the opposite.

Just to be fair, I’ll link a couple of the others I’ve tried and strongly recommend you read them all over and make your own decisions on which you’ll choose to try. Perhaps I missed a step or the conditions were not right or my flour wasn’t ‘seedy’ enough… I’m not in any way saying these other methods are bad, just that I had problems and they could just as easily be MY problems.

Mike Avery’s SourdoughHome.com website is busting full of great info on sourdough, his starter page is here. He’s actually got three different techniques listed, I went with his own. Be sure to read his “Sourdough Myths and Folklore page where he debunks a number of quaint “old husbands’ tales” about sourdough. Like the big one: the yeast is “in the air” and you need to trap it.

Another from theFreshLoaf.com reproduces a firm starter recipe from Maggie Glezer’s bread books which many people found to work very well.

There are other recipes on the net that say you can start a starter with plain ol’ UAP or even just AP flour. This seems to be contrary to logic. The yeast, as you’ll have seen if you checked Mike’s Myths page, is actually on the grains themselves and the best (easily obtainable) source with the most yeast is organic stone ground rye. You can get this in health food stores or in the Organic $ection of the local grocery store. I got mine at Bulk Barn where it was 79¢/k versus the $1.59/k for UAP. Don’t have a clue why it was so cheap but there you go. You don’t need a lot, just 250g would be lots to start so don’t go hog wild on it if you don’t need to or don’t plan to make much rye or rye based breads. Regular (bleached) AP has had a bromide process to make the flour white which also kills much of the yeast you want. Unbleached is a little better but still nowhere as helpful as organic stone ground (few mechanical/hot/chemical processes) rye.

Scratch Vs Purchased?

Now I should point out that between my fourth (failed) attempt and the last one that actually worked, I’d given up somewhat and sent off my $1 US to Friends of Carl’s for their otherwise free dried starter, an ongoing project using a starter descended from an Oregon Trail starter in 1847. Now before anyone goes “Oooo! Ahhh! That must be a good starter, it’s so old!” keep in mind that the age of a starter – or the starter’s beginning – doesn’t impart anything particularly special to the current batch other than an interesting historical flair. It’s still got the same sort of yeast you’d get today on a grain of rye.

The better reason to get it, if you want, is that it’s a ‘proven’ starter and you’re pretty much guaranteed – for a whole dollar US – that it will indeed work. I got mine a week or so after my last from scratch finally got going and although I thought mine was doing well, rising to double in just over eight hours, once I got the 1847 starter revived and going (two days) it was beating the pants off mine, getting to three times volume in about 5 hours. So now I have two starters I am feeding and using, my scratch (I call it Audrey 2 – “Feed me Seymour, feed me now!”) and Carl’s. So which is better now that they’re both at the same speed? I’m still working out the dag nabbed baking glitches, so I don’t have a final report yet. Once I do, I’ll post the results and try to point out the differences.

There are other sources for starter cultures that you can locate on the web, but one that is mentioned quite often is Sourdough International (sourdo.com) who carry several different “strains” of starters with prices more in the $10 US range. If you want to try different types of starters they may well be a good place to get more exotic versions.

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