Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sourdough Starter in 3 Days

When I was a kid, my dad loved to make the family sourdough bread on the weekends.  I loved watching him feed the starter, knead the dough, and put a raw lump into the oven to see a golden half-globe of bread emerge later.  We could get really good fresh San Francisco sourdough bread in the store, but that had nothing on my dad's bread.  It was one of my favorite foods.

I like my sourdough really sour in the San Francisco and pioneer traditions.  My dad's sourdough was from an old country recipe that was handed down from a farmer neighbors, the Lists.

Old List Family Sourdough  Bread Recipe

I decided to track down the recipe and re-create it, gluten-free.  When I get an idea in my head to re-create a recipe I loved as a gluten eater, I'm like a dog with a bone.  I just work on it tenaciously until the job is done.

I started researching wild yeast sourdough starters about a year and a half ago.  It turns out that gluten-free grains ferment very easily.  In fact, the first sourdough starters were made as long as 20,000 years ago from teff and sorghum.  So my very first attempt at a sourdough starter was a success, in that it grew tons of yeast and looked remarkably like a starter made with wheat flour.

My first GF SD Starter

It looked like what Pops used to make - but it didn't taste sour.  Plus, it was using up my precious bread flour at a rapid rate, and I sometimes couldn't get to the twice-a-day feeding on time.  Sometimes it would start smelling off, but I didn't know why.  It was like a finicky pet.

Today my starter is completely different, and in every good way.  It's sour, to start.  I only feed it once a day and I use plain sorghum, one of the less expensive and most easily available flours.  I only use 50 grams of fresh flour a day.  And the stuff smells delicious - just like I remember from when I was a girl.  It doesn't have the classic country crock look, but it's a formula that only takes three days to start up, rather than the typical two weeks of traditional recipes.

I came across the concept of a three-day wild yeast sourdough starter through the blog Ars Pistorica written by baker and sourdough expert Ian, (aka Ars Pistorica on The Fresh Loaf), who recently opened his own bakery Apiece in Launceston, Tasmania.  With opening a new business he decided to take a break from blogging, so his original wheat-based recipe and all his notes on gluten-free baking are not online at the moment.  I recorded and tested some of his ideas and used some of my own observations, and eventually came up with a sorghum-based starter that is stable, smells beautiful, and gives the bread great rise and flavor.  As a bonus, I only have to feed it once a day.

3-Day Wild Yeast Sourdough Starter


Sourdough starters, and gluten-free starters in particular, tend to grow yeast in abundance at the beginning at room temperature.  The following method gives the starter a much warmer environment favorable to acetic acid bacteria in the first step.  Once this type of bacteria are present, an acidic environment is quickly achieved and the desired lactic-acid bacteria (LAB) and acid-loving strains of yeast will grow in the culture.


Most of what you need are common kitchen tools:

  • Sorghum flour,* as fresh as you can get it.  If you grind your own, that's even better.
  • 1 gallon of Spring Water (DO NOT use tap water in the starter mixture)
  • Gallon-size Plastic bags that seal tightly
  • A digital scale - I like this one for everyday use
  • A kitchen thermometer.  I use the OXO Good Grips Chef's Digital Leave-In Thermometer, but you can get a thermometer for as little as $6 in most grocery stores.  It's worth it!
  • A small plastic container with a lid.
  • Some sort of vessel for holding your plastic bags of starter and maintaining a 95 degree temperature.  An insulated cooler can work, but you have to use lots of warm water and weigh the bag down to keep it from floating. You can use a large Thermos or insulated coffee carafe.  People have also used a bowl of water over a heating pad and, but you have to have a heating pad that doesn't turn itself off.

Step 1

In a gallon-size bag, mix:

50 g Sorghum Flour
120g Spring water at room temperature

Seal the bag and mix the flour and water until well-combined.  Let any air out of the bag and re-seal.  Double bag the mixture and let any air out of the second bag, too.  Place the bag in a container of water heated to 95 degrees (35 degrees C).  Seal the container or keep it on a heating pad.  Check it frequently to make sure the water temperature stays constant.  Keep the bag at 95 degrees for 24 hours.

Check to make sure that small bubbles have started to form at the top of your mixture.  If not, let your mixture cool a few degrees over the next few hours and wait for bubbles to appear before moving to the next step.

Step 2

Open your double-bagged sorghum mixture, being careful not to get tap water inside the bag.  If the mixture smells bad, this is a good sign.  It means you have successfully cultivated some of the bacteria that you need for the starter.  Add:

50 g sorghum flour
80 g spring water

Seal the bag and mix as before.  Let any air out, re-seal, double bag, and immerse the mixture in 90-degree water (32 degrees C) for 24 hours, making sure the water temperature remains constant.

Step 3

Your mixture should be bubbling after the second 24 hours in warm water.  This is a good sign.  The bad smell should be replaced by a more sourdough-type smell, but it can vary at this stage.  Mix the contents of your bag thoroughly.  In a small clean (but not chemically sanitized) plastic container place:

15 grams of the water-and sorghum mixture from step 2
60g spring water
50 grams sorghum flour

Let the mixture rest for 24 hours, covered,  at room temperature.

Congratulations, you now have a sourdough starter!  You can start using it to make sourdough bread now.


Feed your starter every 24 hours at the same time of day:

5 grams starter from the last batch
60 grams spring water
50 grams sorghum flour

Mix with a wooden spoon to combine, cover, and let sit at room temperature for 24 hours.  You can use your starter any time after the first 6 hours of fermenting, but always leave enough to make your next batch.  The starter will give you the best yeast flavor at six hours, but the optimal time for a sour bread flavor is between 18 and 24 hours.

Double/triple the recipe if you need more starter, but you should only need about 50-100 grams of starter per 2-lb. loaf.

Discard any starter that you don't need, or use it to cook something like these sourdough pancakes, which uses the discards of one day's maintenance.


If at any point you mess something up, don't hesitate to start over.  You will probably end up saving flour in the long run.

The number one problem I had was getting leaks of tap water inside the bag.  Tap water has chlorine in it to kill microorganisms.  You are trying to grow microorganisms.  Once I started double-bagging the mixture in step one and two I got much better results.

Don't worry about weird smells, especially at the beginning.  Sometimes it can take a week before everything really stabilizes in the starter, and it can smell different at different times of day, too.  The only smell that's a sign of serious problems is the smell of acetone, like finger nail polish remover.  It's a very strong and unmistakeable smell.  Acetone means you have to throw your starter out and start over.

If anyone has questions to trouble-shoot, leave them in the comments and I can add them to the trouble-shooting list.

* This recipe should work with dark teff flour as well, but I haven't tested it extensively.  Amaranth flour is the only other flour I think might work, but I've used sorghum because it's the most economical and the most widely-available gluten-free flour.  Other GF flours have not done as well as these three flours in published scientific experiments as well as in my own kitchen experiments.


Gluten Prude said...

I have made this sourdough starter, and after step 2 it seems like it's ready. It's all bubbly and yeasty, has a nice flavor, and it tastes sour. Can I use it to make bread this early? It seems like a waste to throw out all that starter when I'm so willing to make a loaf of sourdough bread!

Gina Kelley said...

I have actually tried this - using the sourdough starter after step two. I recommend waiting another day. The loaf I made with the starter that wasn't quite ready yet rose well, but the flavor of the bread was a little bit off. It wasn't terrible mind you, but I think the starter is still trying to balance out its microbes at this point. The acid flavor wasn't smooth like it is when the starter is mature.

Alex Commerer said...

Hey Gina - looks like you have some great information here! I appreciate you sharing it.

I currently bake sourdough bread but not gluten free. My gluten-free friend saw how delicious my loaves looked and was interested in me making her some GF bread.

I keep my wheat sourdough starter in the fridge so I only have to feed it once a week. Have you tried storing yours in the fridge so you don't have to feed it every day? I'd like the idea of not having to feed it every day.

Gina Kelley said...

Alex - Thanks for reading my blog! I need to do some experimenting on my starter. I think I might be able to come up with a schedule or method that will allow me to refrigerate the starter. It will change the flavor of the starter, but it should be doable. I'll make a post about it when I figure it out, but feel free to experiment and let me know what you find out!

Alex Commerer said...

Sounds good - When I get to that point I'll certainly let you know how it goes.

Still early days for me, I haven't decided upon a flour mix yet, as there really are so many ideas and options out there. It's a shame you aren't selling your personal flour mixes anymore... you mention that you spent a year devising your all purpose flour mix. I'd love to get my hands on it!

Gina Kelley said...

Alex - Check out this flour mix that I just posted about. It's better for bread than my A.P. mix anyway!

00goddess said...

I have a Brod & Taylor bread proofer. Could I use a glass jar inside the proofer, rather than a plastic bag in water? I don't use plastic bags.

Gina Kelley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gina Kelley said...

00goddess - A glass jar will work, but you don't want to seal it tightly. You could tie a cloth on the top or punch a hole in the lid, for instance. If you seal it too tightly the jar may build up pressure from the process going on inside, which could break the jar in theory. As for the proofer, I am not too familiar with them. If you can get them up to the right temperature it should work like a charm, I would think. Let me know if this method works!

00goddess said...

Thanks! I am going to give it a try this weekend. Mason jars will allow gas to escape when not too tight so that shouldn't be a problem (I have some peppers fermenting in the pantry right now in Mason jars.) I think I will also be refrigerating my starter once it is mature, because I probably won't be baking with it every day. Have you ever tried making a stiff starter with this? I hear they keep better in the fridge.

Gina Kelley said...

Yes, a mason jar with the lid kept loose should work really well. I actually have tried a stiff starter, but in my experience they are more delicate than a wet starter and they go "off" really easily, or grow mold. I haven't refrigerated this starter yet but I'd recommend refrigerating a wet starter when you try it. The typical way to refrigerate a starter is to feed it, let it rest a few hours, then refrigerate. I haven't tested this so I hope it works! Let me know!

00goddess said...

Thanks so much for your patience with my questions. I have one more that occurred to me tonight: it is ok to "feed" or build up a portion of the sponge with bread flour blend instead of sorghum?

I was thinking that instead of feeding the whole thing sorghum and then dividing it, I could divide it and feed part of it bread flour to use, and feed part of it sorghum to store. Have you tried that?

Gina Kelley said...

00goddess - Yes, I have tried that. You don't want to convert your whole starter to bread flour - keep maintaining that with the sorghum. I have tried making the starter with bread flour but it doesn't maintain well over several weeks. However, you can essentially make a sponge with the starter in lots of ways, which basically means that you're building up your bread dough over several days. This method can add more flavor or complexity if that is what you are going for. That method is basically a three-stage sourdough bread rather than the typical two-stage process. There are lots of different ways to do it - you just have to experiment with what works and what flavor profile you want to get out of it.

00goddess said...

Thank you! This has given me some great ideas for using the starter. I appreciate your help!It's very kind of you to share your discoveries here.

Gh said...

Hi Gina. Looks like it's very good recipe. I am in the process of making starter with a red cabbage. Will see how it goes I am doing this first time. And then I'm going to try your recipe, looks like it's faster and easier. I am very excited about that. Thank you so much, i'll let you know how it goes

Gina Kelley said...

Gh - I have made a starter with the cabbage leaf method before. It did eventually work, but it took a long time to start and later I read that some people believe the cabbage leaf to be unnecessary. My method is much faster, and I thought the starter tasted better as well. I'd be interested in hearing your opinion. Good luck with your baking projects!

Gh said...

Gina, I just finished my starter with the cabbage. It took five days. It looks pretty good but we'll see when I start baking how it goes. I am ready to bake the bread and I want to use your recipe, but I can't have potato starch what do you think I should use instead for gluten-free recipe? Thanks.

Gina Kelley said...

Gh - Five days is really fast to make a cabbage leaf starter - congratulations! I hope it turns out well. Sometimes this type of starter has changes in its flavor over the first two weeks, and that can be interesting for your bread making but sometimes you don't get really consistent results at first. As for potato starch, you can substitute any other kind of starch - corn starch, arrowroot, more tapioca, anything that you can find. Just keep in mind that you may have to adjust the liquid a bit. Potato starch absorbs a lot of water, so you may have to reduce the amount of water in the bread recipe if you substitute. I hope that helps!

Gh said...

Thank you, Gina. I made bread with cabbage starter and it came out okay. I use the same starter for your recipe. The Starter worked perfect as far us rising, however the Psyllium husks (20-40 g) with water came out like a glue- I used 40g. So I had to put way more water than it was in the recipe. Maybe it was too much husks that I used. Altogether the bread came out very good and Pretty, I didn't cut it yet because it sit in the Oven to cool off. And the smell of it is killing me,can't wait to try it.

Gina Kelley said...

Gh - That's great that your starter worked. The amount of psyllium husk you use depends on the flour blend you're using. I have a flour blend that I published recently that calls for 30g whole psyllium husk for 450g flour. If the psyllium husk is ground then you need less, about 20-25g for this flour blend, and you can mix it into the dry ingredients. I hope that helps!

Gh said...

Gina- my starter didn't come out right. From the first 24 hours it was bubbling very good. After second 24 hours it was flat and watery with almost no bubbles. When I was doing the step 3 The mixture came out to dry. Almost like a dough. I don't know what can go wrong I did everything by your recipe. And also what do I do with the rest of the liquid from step two.

Gina Kelley said...

Gh - Sorry this isn't working as expected. Here are some ideas. It's possible that you are using a different grind of flour than I am, which would explain why it's dry at the same hydration. (I use Bob's Red Mill Sweet White Sorghum Flour. It's a rough stone grind and essentially never looks like a dough just mixed with water. It's always chunky.) In the third step if it is too dry I would suggest adding more spring water until it looks like cooked oatmeal, and take notes so you know how much water to use the next day. Even if you have let your dry mixture sit for 24 hours, it might still be okay. I'd keep going with it for at least one more day to see if it's working. You will know if it's okay by the smell, and once you find the proper amount of water for your flour it will get little bubbles like in the picture of the tupperware container. The rest of the liquid from step 2 can be thrown out - although I have used it to make bread before, the flavor hasn't totally stabilized yet. Another idea for this discard liquid is to do some experiments since you haven't found the right amount of water yet - try a few different mixtures and see what works best after the 24 hours, taking notes of course. I hope that helps! Good luck!

Gina Kelley said...

Gh - I think I've had the problem with the starter not bubbling after the second step. I believe what I did was to let it sit longer, and I even let it cool down a few degrees, until it started bubbling before moving on to the next step. I believe this helped one time, but another time I realized I had killed the starter by letting some tap water into the mixture. The chlorine in tap water kills the microorganisms in a starter. Hopefully all is still well - I wish you luck!

Anonymous said...

Hi Gina, thank you for sharing your wonderful gluten free recipes on your blog, they look amazing and O'm sure taste delicious too. I have a question about the 3-day sourdough starter. I have baked with regular (non gluten free) sourdoughs but since I've developed an intolerance for wheat and gluten I'm excited to try your recipe. I'm living in the Netherlands and for some reason the gallon (or 4 liter) size sealable plastic bags are really hard to come by here. I wonder if I could make the starter the regular way, in a jar, without letting the air out. It's okay if the starter will take longer to develop, but I'd like to know if I can still use the same quantities and if the mixture will double in size this way too. Thanks for your help, Anna

Gina Kelley said...

Hi Anna - whatever you do, don't seal a glass or plastic jar too tightly when you make a starter. Supposedly this can cause an explosion! That being said, I don't know if this recipe would work in a jar or not. I no longer have access to the original (wheaten) recipe that I adapted for this recipe, but if memory serves the first phase was meant to culture anaerobic bacteria. That's why it was important to let out the air from the bag. I honestly don't know how important that is - you could try it as an experiment! Maybe it could even work better or be easier, who knows? However, there are many regular wild yeast sourdough recipes out there that take a week or two to cultivate a traditional wet sourdough. I developed this recipe in an effort to save some time and precious flour, but the recipe is admittedly a bit finicky. I hope you come up with something good!