The Only Foolproof Shortcut for Sourdough Starter
I’ve failed four times at making my own sourdough starter. But the lure of retaining the services of a living, breathing, belching collection of yeast, bacteria, flour, and water existing solely to better my breads, cakes, and Sunday brunch waffles is too appealing. I love to bake and as an — I’ll generously assess myself — intermediate-level baker, I simply must have a sourdough starter, especially if I ever want to be the next Nancy Silverton.
But for a variety of reasons — forgetting feedings, wonky water, or mason jar lids getting screwed on too tight — my starters haven’t, you know, started (or seemed to, anyway… more on that later). Plus, at home, I already have a dog and an 11-month-old baby — basically a sourdough starter that can crawl, eat lint from the carpet, and open cabinets — so it’s just not the best time for me to carefully usher another creature into this world. That got me to Googling and asking around about how to ensure my next batch of sourdough starter actually worked. As I looked into essays, book excerpts, and YouTube clips, Food & Wine Associate Food Editor Kelsey Youngman reminded of something that I had heard dozens of times before and never considered: A lot of people get their first sourdough starter from somebody else.
In fact, I remember making sarsaparilla and sourdough bread in the third grade as part of our Oregon Trail curriculum (which is a big deal when you grow up in Oregon). My teacher’s sourdough starter was kept in a clay crock and had been passed down for at least a few generations as a family heirloom. Unfortunately, I had no birthright to any starter, but the practice of asking a friend or neighborhood baker for a portion of their starter is certainly an option. From there, it just takes proper weekly feeding and refreshing to keep it happy, and you’re good to go. This, it seems, was the only foolproof way for a fool like me to get a starter going.
I should take a moment here to state that you definitely should try to make your own sourdough starter. Don’t let my failures preclude you from attempting your own batch. The process is easy (like, ridiculously so) and if all goes according to plan, a rewarding experience. That said, sometimes you just need a shortcut. Luckily, some local bakers and a well-known flour company are here to help.
“Since my bakery’s inception, home bakers and professional bakers have asked me for a small piece of my starter (her name is Paula). With the rarest of exceptions, the answer is a flat out no,” Zachary Golper chef and owner of New York’s Bien Cuit told me via email. “Being that this was such a commonly requested thing, I decided to empower the baking world with the knowledge of how to start one’s own sourdough starter, so I gave the recipe and method in my book. To ensure it would work, I had 24 different people test it out at home. 23 successes and one failure. The failed 'sourdough tester' later admitted he forgot to feed it for four days while it was at room temperature... Oops. That will do it."
Eventually, Golper relented. “I decided to start a new one (using New York State grapes and New York State flour... just like I did with Paula), and offer it as a living sourdough starter in a jar that we sell both online and at our retail locations. We offer some very nice flour and a few bread-making accouterments as well to ease the process of getting started making bread.”
Josey Baker, founder of San Francisco’s Josey Baker Bread, admits he’s given starter away in the past. In fact, it was the gift of starter from a friend that got Baker started baking to begin with. “There was a phase where we only accepted trades for the starter: a poem or other art of your making,” Baker said via email. “Now we engage home bakers in conversation rather than just handing over the starter. Often they actually already have a starter, they just believe that they've ‘killed’ it. What most people don't realize is that sourdough starters are in fact very hard to kill, they're just easy to make unhappy.” Perhaps all of my "failed" starters were just mad at me. I wouldn't put it past them.
Regardless of whether you start your own or co-opt someone else’s, proper care is the only part of the process you shouldn’t skimp on. “We help people understand that their starter is probably just a little sick, and through a daily feeding regimen of flour and water, they can nurse their own starter back to life,” Baker said. “Please note that heavily chlorinated water is bad for a sourdough,” Golper warns. “If that is what comes out of your tap, just fill a pitcher, cover it with cloth and let the chlorine evaporate overnight. It will be good for feeding your starter once it is chlorine free.”
King Arthur Flour (which has a website that is a veritable treasure trove of baking information and supplies) recommends feeding starter by taking out four ounces by weight, adding to that four ounces of water and four ounces of flour, mixing until combined thoroughly, and then letting that sit out for an hour before returning it to its usual storage container (ideally something that doesn't seal completely). Then pop it back in the fridge for another week.
To be fair, a few of the other bakeries I reached out to informed me they do not, as a rule, give out or sell their starter. (It makes sense, from a business perspective, to keep people buying bread not making it.) That said, if you are going to source your starter from somebody else, it’s probably best to approach a friend or a baker whom you consider a friend when asking for a glob of their precious starter. If you’re anti-social, you can also buy sourdough starter from King Arthur Flour and have it shipped to your door. A one-ounce jar of starter will set you back about $9 or $31 with a cool storage crock.
And even then, mail-order starter will need to adapt to wherever you happen to live (which is why making an at-home starter is preferable). “The simple truth of a sourdough starter is that it is a culture of yeast and bacteria which is suited for the region it lives in and survives best on flour sourced from the same region it lives,” Golper explained. “If you transport a starter to a new region, it will change slightly according to the biology of the region it’s been introduced to and the pH of the water. The flour plays a role as well, no doubt, but once the starter has adapted to a region, and with regular feedings, it will be healthy and strong.”
And bakeries are by no means completely cloistering their secrets. Josey Baker Bread offers classes and, of course, many bakers have put the process down in writing in various baking books (including Josey Baker and Bien Cuit’s Golper) so the expertise is out there for you to access wherever you are.
Armed with these bakers’ advice and confidence and a little more know-how on my part, I’ll try to make my own starter again, to be sure. I still can’t shake the cool factor of have my own “brand” of bread. But by begging, borrowing, and stealing some sourdough starter, at least my loaves can still be tangier and toothier in the meantime.