Starting a Starter

I like bread. I like to bake it, even though I’m not great at it. I used to be better before living in Montana and having kids. I just didn’t get it done there and so I’m waaaay out of practice. Lately I’ve been grinding my own wheat and experimenting. I made a really good, moist loaf of wheat bread not too long ago. Was pleased.

When I lived in Indiana (before moving to Montana), I took up trying to figure out sourdough bread making. I bought a starter and for the most part, learned a lot, though I never felt that my bread was sour enough (I grew up not far from San Francisco–there’s nothing like strolling through the city with a fresh sourdough baguette straight from the oven). That starter long ago died. This week I decided to try a new one–the pineapple juice and flour method as described on the Breadtopia website, and in Peter Reinhart’s books.

I’ll admit, I didn’t have a lot of faith in starting one with wild yeast. I followed the instructions, and after four days, the recipe says that if I’m not getting fermentation, I should toss it out and start again or go buy some. After four days, I wasn’t seeing fermentation. All the same, it smelled good, like it’s supposed to. So I decided to repeat step two and feed it some more pineapple juice and flour. My house tends to be relatively cool because if I run the heater, I keep it at 62-63, which is not ideal for sourdough starters. I thought maybe the coolness had slowed the process. Lo and behold, another 24 hours later and I’ve got a starter. Fermentation, baby!!

I still have more steps–feeding it up and then using it. But I’m pleased that it worked because I never thought it would.

A random note about grinding my own flour. In the past couple of years, I did a lot of reading about gluten sensitivity (not Celiac disease, which is something altogether different). My son was really sick (throwing up 15-20 times a day) for nearly two years. So obviously we thought it was his stomach and maybe gluten was the culprit. Turned out it wasn’t really his stomach and gluten wasn’t an issue’t, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is I did a lot of reading about gluten because I wondered if that was a problem.

I encountered several articles that pointed out that people with gluten sensitivity in the USA didn’t seem to have it in Europe. The articles (which I can’t find right now), postulated that gluten sensitivity it related to the over-refinement of flours. I’ve been on a kick to eat more ‘real’ things and no one in my family is gluten sensitive, but I have a good friend who is sensitive. (Chocolate also makes her horribly sick–poor thing). Anyhow, she’s eaten some of the bread I’ve made from flour I’ve ground, and she doesn’t gluten issues with it. Which is good for her, because she really likes bread.

I’ll not doubt continue to update you on my bread odyssey. I’m learning a lot about working with whole wheat that I didn’t know. Oh, and also random–you know those strips you sometimes see advertised that go around cake pans to keep the cakes even and relatively flat rather then weirdly humped? I used them today and holy crap! They work!

Anybody out there bake bread? Stories you want to share? Advice? Thoughts?

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About Diana Pharaoh Francis

A recovering academic, Diana Pharaoh Francis writes books of a fantastical, adventurous, and often romantic nature. She's owned by two corgis, spends much of her time herding children, and likes rocks, geocaching, knotting up yarn, and has a thing for 1800s England, especially the Victorians. Check out samples of just about everything on her website:


Starting a Starter — 19 Comments

  1. I’ve never tried making starter–my house and yours hover at the same temperature, it sounds like. I think it’s very cool that you’ve started your own wild yeast strain, though, and I’m impressed that you grind your own flour. I know that we have a lot of folks here in Maine who are doing that. Sounds yummy!

    • I tried heating up my rice sock in the micro and then put the canister in with it to help warm it up to a better ambient temp. Wasn’t very constant about that, but I at least did it a little bit.

  2. I have a long, checkered history of bread-making, and as a teenager I had a thriving, dare-I-say aggressive starter pot that produced a lot of bread. The one thing I had never been able to achieve was that perfect crackly chewy crust. Last summer I started to work on that; my younger daughter and I took a sourdough beginner class that included a small pot of wild-yeast derived starter (I can’t remember what I named mine–Maude, perhaps–but the kid named hers “Trust Fund Baby”) and made bread all summer long.

    About half way through the summer I finally achieved (by dint of baking the bread in a Dutch oven) the crust of my desires. This after eating all the experiments prior, which were tasty. Now I have to pace myself, because with fresh bread in the house I would eat more or less nothing else.

    • I have a dutch oven I thought I’d try, and this other thing which is clay that I can soak in water before I cook in it. Not sure what the bread would shape up like, though.

      I’ve got to start my first batch, now, though. Of bread, that is. Did you use extra yeast to leven it? The Reinhart book calls for some in some of the recipes and I’m trying to decide.

      • I have used an unglazed clay ‘thing’ to bake bread in. It works beautifully. Line it with parchment paper though otherwise it will stick to the bottom. Well soaked it produces a lovely crust. And a gigantic rise in the oven. Shove it in before it is fully risen as it will continue to rise while the heat is penetrating to the inside of the clay.
        The results are referred to as crack-bread. Totally addictive!

  3. I use the laziest bread recipe ever, but it makes great bread!
    It’s flour, water, yeast and salt mixed into a dough. I then either let it rise for a couple hours, or I shove it into the fridge for a while (which could be overnight, or up to 10 days). The longer it waits, the better. Once it comes out of the fridge, I shape it, let it warm up a while, and then bake it. I love that there’s none of the ‘traditional’ kneading, waiting, kneading process, or folding or whatnot. I’ve screwed up the ratio of flour/water and still gotten a loaf of bread out of it. It works well with different sorts of flour. I’ve been very pleased with the recipe. I much prefer making bread instead of buying it.

      • 3 and 1/4 cups flour
        1 and 3/4 cups water
        2 and 1/4 tsp yeast
        2 and 1/4 tsp salt
        I tend to use 2 cups bread flour and the rest all-purpose, or something more exotic. Using all all-purpose works fine.
        Sometimes I’ll add in a handful of spent grain (from beer making). This does not replace any amount of the flour. It’s just added to the dough.
        Sometimes I have to use a little more, or a little less water. The type of flour seems to play a roll. Usually I add about a cup and a half of water to the flour, and then add more water as needed to get it to form a dough with no dry spots.

        Mix all the dry, add water and mix until it forms a sticky dough.
        Loosely cover and let sit 2 hours on the counter (up to 10 days in the fridge). The longer it goes, the more sour it will get.
        Form – either in a round on a flat pan (I will put parchment paper, sprinkled with cornmeal, on the flat pan) or put it in a greased loaf pan.
        I then let it warm up a while, especially if it’s been in the fridge. It will fill out a loaf pan much better if you let it hang out for a while once you put it in there.
        Bake at 450 for 30 minutes.
        If you want a crunchier crust, also put a pan of water in the oven while baking it for added moisture.

  4. I’ve been buying flour from Capay Mills at my farmer’s market. They grow — and get from other farmers nearby — heirloom wheats and grind them. Pricey, but omg is the bread made from them tasty. Not just the yeast bread — I made the best banana nut bread ever from their Sonora wheat flour. Whole grain wheat, of course.

  5. My grandparents were from San Francisco, so I too adore a good sour, sour dough. Sadly I am gluten sensitive — to the point I can’t walk through a bakery without coming down with a migraine. So I make a sour dough with 3 parts rice & 1 part mong bean. I soak over night, grind for 20 min in my food processor, then I let it ferment on the counter until bubbly (usually 2 days). From there, I mix with 1 diced onion, 2 grated carrots, 1 cup diced celery or grated celery root, 2 Tbs cumin, and 1 Tbs brown mustard seed. I pan fry them, like pancakes, then toast them for lunch. If you let the onion ferment with the batter, then you get extra sour!

  6. I want a good starter that will work in non-wheat grains without yeast added. Could I use European or NZ or Canadian wheat? I don’t know–willing to experiment but very nervous about it. Just changing the grind is both intriguing and scary. It effects the way I think, you see. Not just the gut.