The easiest way to make sourdough

Not all of us are so lucky to have a sourdough starter passed down to us from our bread-baking forefathers and foremothers. Thankfully, making a fresh batch of starter is as easy as stirring together some flour and water and letting it sit. That's right! No expensive heirloom starters, mashed-up grapes, or mysterious rituals required — just flour, water, and a little bit of patience. Here is how to make your own sourdough starter from scratch. Easy-peasy. Equal parts flour and water to make a sourdough starter What Is Wild Yeast? Before you get started, let's talk about wild yeast, which is the key to a sourdough starter. Before we had active-dry yeast or instant yeast, we had wild yeast. Actually, we still have wild yeast. It lives everywhere — in the air, in a bag of flour, on the surface of grapes. Domesticated commercial yeast replaced wild yeast for most baking because it's easier for companies to mass produce, it's easier for bakers to store and use, and it proofs our breads and pastries in a fraction of the time. By contrast, wild yeast can be fussy and finicky. It needs a medium, a sourdough starter, in order to be useful to bakers. This medium has to be constantly maintained and monitored. Wild yeast also likes cooler temperatures, acidic environments, and works much more slowly to proof breads. So why bother? Because wild yeast is amazing stuff! The flavor and texture we can get from breads and other baked goods made with wild yeast are no contest to breads made with commercial yeast — the flavors are more complex and interesting, the texture is sturdier and more enjoyable to chew. What Is a Sourdough Starter? A sourdough starter is how we cultivate the wild yeast in a form that we can use for baking. Since wild yeast are present in all flour, the easiest way to make a starter is simply by combining flour and water and letting it sit for several days. You don't need any fancy ingredients to "capture" the wild yeast or get it going — it's already there in the flour. (Also, the yeast adapts to whatever environment it is in. So even if your cousin in San Francisco gives you some sourdough starter, it will eventually no longer be true San Francisco sourdough, but rather New York sourdough or Austin sourdough or London sourdough.) After a day or two, bubbles will start to form in the starter, indicating that the wild yeast is starting to become active and multiply. To keep the yeast happy, we feed the starter with fresh flour and water over the next several days, until the starter is bubbly and billowy. Once it reaches that frothy, billowy stage, the starter is ready to be used. Ripe, bubbly starter, ready to be used. (Image credit: Emma Christensen) Using Whole-Grain Flours to Make a Starter This recipe uses regular, everyday all-purpose flour, but you can certainly make sourdough using whole-wheat, rye, or any other kind of flour. Wild yeast is everywhere, after all! If this is your first time making sourdough, I'd recommend starting with all-purpose flour because it tends to behave the most predictably. If you're feeling ready to branch out, just start feeding the starter with whatever whole-grain flour you would like to use for baking. Personally, I keep a constant batch of all-purpose sourdough starter in my kitchen, and if I want to make a rye starter or a whole-wheat starter, I scoop 1/4 cup from my all-purpose starter and use that as the seed for a new starter with the whole-grain flour. How to Use This Starter in Bread Recipes This starter uses equal parts flour and water, a 1:1 ratio, which I find to be the most versatile for baking. To use this starter in any recipe, take a look at the ratio of flour and water the recipe is calling for in their starter. Next time you feed your starter, just feed it the ratio of water and flour called for in the recipe. If you want to stick more closely to the recipe's sourdough, just scoop out 1/4 cup of your starter and feed it with the ingredients called for in your recipe's starter. Once you're done with your recipe, go back to feeding your starter equal parts flour and water.

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