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Sourdough Starter: A Stand Alone Ingredient with a Place at the Table

Written by Rebecca of CakeWalk.

I am passionate about quite a few things in my kitchen, but nothing captures my heart quite the way that sourdough starter has. I grew my starter more than a year ago using grapes grown on my family’s rural Wisconsin property, and ever since I saw my first bubble, I began finding ways to use it in things other than bread.

Honestly, this quest to use up my discard starter really began because when it was a young starter, it wasn’t strong enough to raise bread. Out of my frustration and frugal mindset, I started finding ways to incorporate it in nearly every baking opportunity I could. At first, I used it up in things like pancakes and loaves of bread that also used commercial yeasts to help with a good rise. (I like to call breads that use both wild and commercial yeast breads “hybrids”, and they are still my favorite “quick” yeast breads; they are the ones I turn to when I don’t have the extra time needed to bake my favorite all-wild yeast sourdoughs.)

I quickly grew to love incorporating it in quick breads and cakes, anything that had flour and liquid became fair game to be “sourdoughized”!

sourdough muffins

More reading and research led me to a better understanding of starters in general, and about baker’s percentages, those mysterious mathematical notations that riddled the bread-obsessed sources I devoured. By nature, I am not a numbers person. Baker’s percentages have and still do confuse me, but I didn’t (and don’t) ever let that stop me from experimentation. The only thing that is most important to keep in mind is the starter’s hydration percentage, the level of liquid present in a sourdough starter.

sourdough waffles

The most common hydration for starter is 100%, which means that it is fed equal parts by weight of water and flour. There are as many feeding regimens as there are bakers, but the common denominator that brings everyone to the same page is the hydration level of the starter. If you keep 100% hydration starter, you can “feed up or down” to arrive at different percentages of hydration, and more accurately follow written recipes. So far in my young sourdough career, keeping my starter at 100% hydration fills my needs well, and thrives well in my kitchen.

If you have 100% hydration starter, you can safely assume that for every 8 ounces of starter, 4 ounces of it is considered liquid and 4 ounces is considered flour. Since most home bakers bake by volume and not weight, this means that 1 cup of 100% hydration sourdough starter will equal roughly ¼ c. flour and ½ c. liquid in any given recipe. Using that basic formula, you can begin experiments of your own on nearly any flour and liquid containing recipe under the sun. It’s fun and addictive to see what will come of adding starter to a baked good.

sourdough wheat crackers

Some will argue that it’s not only fun but healthy as well. All nuts, seeds, legumes, and grains contain varying amounts of phytic acid, which render them indigestible in humans and other non-ruminant animals. But sourdough culture contains ample amounts of lactic acid bacteria, the same hugely beneficial bacterias found in fermented dairy like yogurt and kefir. If given enough time (generally, 7 hours or longer), these bacteria are able to break down the indigestible parts of the grain, making nutrients like iron and magnesium more available to our bodies. Even more than the health benefits, I love the way sourdough reacts in baked goods. It sometimes lends flavor and sometimes moisture, and I’m always pleased with the results.

100% sourdough starter pancakes
(pictured above)

Starter is outrageously unique. Because every baker and feeding schedule is unique, and every atmosphere carries its own variances and wild yeasts, I’ll wager that every baking experience using starter varies as well. There are some things that have a pronounced sourdough nuance when you make them, and some that are soft and barely sour at all. I’ve found that this can depend directly on your starter and when you fed it last. I personally find that the sourdough flavor is most mild (and most enjoyed around my house) when my starter is well fed and at room temperature. This isn’t usually a problem since I bake a lot and don’t refrigerate my starter, it sits out on my counter and eats once or twice a day. Sometimes, I’ll even feed my starter an extra meal just before my own bedtime if I want to make sure our favorite pancakes will be mild tasting in the morning. By the time the pan is heated these 100% hydration pancakes are ready to hit the griddle!

100% Sourdough Pancakes (adapted from Ruth Allman)
about 4 servings, recipe easily halved

2 cups sourdough starter, room temperature
2 T. sweetener (honey, maple syrup, sugar)
2 eggs
2 T. olive oil (I don’t measure, but just drizzle a bit of oil over the batter)
½ t. kosher salt
1 t. baking soda
1 T. warm water

Measure all ingredients except baking soda and water into a large bowl and mix well. Heat griddle (I like cast iron best), and just before baking combine the baking soda and warm water in a little cup. Add to the batter, and stir gently to make sure the soda is distributed throughout the batter. Wait a minute or so and griddle the pancakes, flipping once after large holes appear in the batter.

sourdough chocolate cake

Could the way we treat our modern grains be contributing to the rise of gluten intolerance and wheat allergies? It does seem possible. But my case for sourdough starter is, and mostly likely always will be, that is is a part of my life - an extension of my own self in my kitchen. The continuous learning and baking of wild yeast bread is really important to me, and being able to use up what could otherwise be considered waste makes me feel like a good steward of my resources. I joke that sometime, I’d like to have a week entirely made of sourdough, where I incorporate starter into every meal, every day. While that may seem silly, it’s probably not far out.

Here are just a few of the things I’ve already made, options suitable for breakfast, lunch, dinner, teatime, or dessert. These are a good introduction to using starter in places other than artisan-style, sourdough bread. I hope you will be inspired by these recipe links, and feel empowered to approach starter as a viable, living ingredient in your kitchen. Some recipes contain starter as a main ingredient and others use it along with traditional ingredients or commercial yeast, but all of them can add to your table in exciting ways. Happy experimenting!

Crepes (can also be fried into tortilla chips!)
Tortillas
English Muffins
Waffles
Dutch Baby Pancake
Chocolate Cake
Brownies
Applesauce Cake
CocoNana Bread
Wheat Crackers
Flatbreads
“Hybrid” Pizza Dough

meadot01
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Joined: 05/28/2010

Tell us about your starter - how do you use grapes to make one?

DebbieandHarry
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Joined: 01/30/2012

What an amazing resource! I've tried starter in the past and could never keep it alive and am just starting to try again. Now, I'm off to visit your blog for all of those recipes!

CakeWalk
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Joined: 06/08/2009

There are many ways to make a starter (including just using flour and water!), but I used the method outlined by Nancy Silverton in her book Breads from the LaBrea Bakery. You can read a post about it here, but essentially, the yeast that naturally collects on the grape is activated with regular feedings. It's really amazing that so many wild fruits are teeming with wild yeasts, and that they can actually rise bread. I never get over how special that is!