There are different varieties of “starter” and they have a different characteristics as well – one of them might effect rise times and another might effect the “bitterness” of the dough, among other characteristics. However, one thing is true with all sourdough breads, the less starter you use, the longer you will need to let it rise and the more pronounced the sourdough taste will be.
You may not believe it but, sourdough bread is better for you than even whole-wheat bread. It's believed that the fermentation of the sourdough changes the nature of the starches in the bread, creating a more beneficial bread. Fermented foods often offer more health benefits than fresh foods, for example, the probiotics in yogurt. It's believed that the beneficial bacteria in fermented foods aids in digestion by balancing the natural flora in the intestines and that the lactic acid helps to increase the absorption of nutrients and minerals by our bodies.
The lactic acid in the bread also retards the growth of mold, thereby naturally preserving the bread for a longer period of time than yeast breads. The fermentation process of sourdough bread also breaks down the starches and gluten making the bread easier to digest and may even result in a bread that gluten sensitive people are able to eat. Because of this another benefit of sourdough bread is the effect it has on blood sugar control – you are less likely to have insulin spikes when you eat sourdough versus white or even whole-wheat bread.
You can get a starter by either purchasing a starter culture, getting some from a friend or making your own. Now, sourdough starters can be finicky (sometimes rising well and other times not rising much at all) so a lot of people will tell you to either buy a starter or get one from a friend that you know works well. If you have patience, I suggest you make your own. It's really easy and given enough time the starter should mature and give you the same results each time.
There are several different methods of making a starter – one way is just using water and flour, another is to use a citrus juice and flour, and another is to use raisin water (water from rinsed raisins) and flour. I'm sure that there are other methods out there as well. When I made my starter I combined all three methods and it seemed to work well.
My starter method
- I started with ¼ c of flour and a ¼ of water mixed in a quart jar (day 1), kept lightly covered and in a warm place. Then, I took an orange and squeezed its juice into a small jar, I added a few raisins, about a cup of water and soaked them for a day (day 1).
- The next day I added a ¼ c of flour and a ¼ cup of this water mixture (day 2), for the following 3 days (days 3-5) I did the same. You should begin to see bubbles in your starter and it may even start rising.
- For the 6th and 7th day, I added ½ c flour and 1/3 c water. At this point you will need to remove about a ½ c of starter per day and add new flour and water to your container.
- If you don't want to waste this starter you can use it in pancake batter or biscuit batter – use it as if it were a ½ c flour, cut back a little on your liquid and continue to use the baking powder called for in the recipe.
- After about 10 days your starter will begin maturing and you can start making bread. It will continue to mature for awhile and you will get better results (a lighter, less dense bread – more rising) after about a week.
I make bread about every 3-4 days, I make sure that I feed it the day before I use it and I feed it after I remove what I need for my bread that day, so I don't have too much of a problem with having too much starter. But you can either feed it less often (as long as you feed it the day before you use it) or keep it in the refrigerator for up to a month at a time without feeding, just take it out a couple of days before you need to use it and begin feeding it again.
There are different methods of making sourdough bread. Mostly they concern pre-mixing and rising methods. Once you start making a consistent loaf you can experiment on your own trying different methods to get the consistency and sourness that you like. You will need to knead sourdough for a longer period of time than yeast bread and it will also require a longer rise time – but I think the benefits are worth it.
Easy Sourdough French Bread1 ½ c starter
1 c warm water
1 tsp salt
1 Tbl olive oil
3 ½-4 c flour
Mix starter, water, salt and olive oil in a large plastic or glass bowl. Add flour one cup at a time, mixing thoroughly – to about 2 ½ cups. This should get you a thick moist dough. At this point, spread about ½ c flour on the counter, put your mixture on top of it, add a little more flour to the top of the mixture and begin kneading your dough – add flour as necessary to keep dough from sticking. Knead for about 20 minutes or until smooth. Place your ball of dough into a greased bowl, cover and let rise in a warm place for about 2 hours, cut in half. Fold one half into itself length-wise and then width-wise, shape into loaf, repeat with the other half. Place on ungreased baking sheet, cover and let rise in warm place for about 2 hours, make three-four diagonal slits on top of each loaf. Brush or mist loaves with water. Place a pan of water in oven on lowest shelf, place bread on middle rack and bake at 425 degrees for 25 minutes.
Once you get start getting a consistent loaf you can begin experimenting with different methods and even different ingredients. Rye bread has even more health benefits, and less gluten. I've never made rye bread though because I don't like the taste of rye. If you do make a rye bread, or really anything else you try, please let me know how it comes out. I make a wonderful bread substituting ½ c whole-wheat flour for ½ c regular flour and then add 1 tablespoon each of sunflower seeds, flax seeds, millet, amaranth and quinoa, it's delicious.
**LOW-SODIUM UPDATE – Just like the regular French Bread recipe (Jan 26th) this is calculated using 1 tsp of salt for the recipe. Because of the starter, this makes a slightly larger loaf of bread. I would suggest either cutting the salt in half or only eating 1 slice. Either way it's really not too bad depending on what you're eating it with. July 26, 2013**
Nutritional Data for Sourdough French Bread – 2 slices (approximately 24 slices per loaf)
Total Fat .8 g
Saturated Fat .1 g
Trans Fat 0 g
Cholesterol 0 mg
Sodium 97 mg
Potassium 26 mg
Total Carbohydrates 18 g
Dietary Fiber .6 g
Sugars .1 g
Protein 2.5 g
Vitamin A 0%
Vitamin C 0%
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