Sourdough Bread Baking, by Sarah in California

You may have a years worth of wheat (or more) stored, but will you be able to make it into bread and other baked goods after TEOTWAWKI?  Sourdough is the solution for preppers.  No need to worry about expiration dates on your commercial yeast packets, a properly cared for sourdough starter can last indefinitely, providing an unlimited source of yeast.  There are several known sourdough starters in the United States that are over 100 years old.

Sourdough is a method of bread preparation that has been used for thousands of years.  It probably originated in Egypt around 1500 BC and was widely used until the Middle Ages.  Today, true sourdough is rare (store-bought “sourdough” bread is usually artificially flavored [with vinegar to make faux sourdough]) but making a comeback among artisan bread bakers. With modern conveniences of dry yeast and cheap store-bought bread, homemade sourdough bread has fallen out of favor with the general public, but mastering the sourdough technique is helpful for anyone choosing to decrease their dependence on commercial goods.

What is sourdough?

Sourdough bread products utilize wild yeasts and friendly bacteria to leaven the bread (i.e. cause it to rise).  A small amount of sourdough starter is added to a larger amount of flour and the dough is allowed to ferment for a time.  During the fermentation the dough is pre-digested, making it more palatable and nutritious, and the chemical process releases gases, causing the dough to rise.

Sourdough gets its name from its slightly tangy flavor caused by the production of lactic acid by the lactobacilli during fermentation. Though it is usually associated with bread, it can be used to make many different kinds of yeasted (for example, pizza dough) and unyeasted (for example, muffins) flour-based baked goods.  

Why sourdough?

Modern bread recipes require a continual dependence on dry yeast manufacturers.  On the other hand, sourdough is a self-generating, never ending supply of yeast.  Sourdough has many further benefits and advantages for the prepper as it is simple, versatile, and nutritious.

Sourdough may seem intimidating for a beginner, but the technique can be quickly mastered. Cultured yeast requires a specific temperature in order to activate and rise.  Sourdough is more forgiving, especially for flat breads. Many recipes call for just four ingredients (flour, water, salt and oil) in varying proportions.  For example pizza dough, crackers, bread, biscuits, tortillas, pita and rolls can all be made with just these four ingredients.  

Sourdough is also versatile.  With just a few more ingredients on hand, a myriad of other baked goods can be made including muffins, cinnamon rolls, noodles, cookies, english muffins, crepes, cake, pot pies, pocket pizza, pancakes and waffles.  An additional benefit of sourdough is that it pre-digests the flour in a way that gives the dough a lighter flavor and texture, making whole grain versions of baked goods like cinnamon rolls more appealing than their non-soured, whole grain counterparts.

Furthermore, utilizing the sourdough method increases the nutritional benefits of baked goods.  As previously mentioned, the souring process gives baked goods a lighter flavor and texture, making whole grain goods more palatable to picky eaters.  Whole grains are higher in B vitamins, fiber and minerals than refined grains.  Furthermore, souring breaks down phytates which are present in whole-wheat flour, anti-nutrients which inhibit the body’s absorption of minerals.  The souring process also makes whole grains easier to digest and breaks down some of the gluten.  In recent years, many people have developed sensitivities to gluten (possibly because of our modern bread-baking techniques) but many of these people can tolerate baked goods that have a long souring time, because the gluten is pre-digested for them.

How to make and care for a sourdough starter.

As previously mentioned, sourdough involves using a little sourdough starter mixed into a larger amount of flour.  Therefore, the first step to making sourdough baked goods is to make (or obtain) a sourdough starter.  If you plan to make sourdough goods on a regular basis, you will want to have a sourdough starter on hand at all times.  That means once you make or obtain a starter, you will want to continuously feed and maintain it, although you can take breaks by putting it in the refrigerator for up to a couple weeks.

Sourdough starters can be purchased from various internet sites.  They come dehydrated, and you just add water to reactivate them.  If you know someone who makes sourdough goods, you can get some of their starter (I have given starter to at least four of my friends since beginning my sourdough journey a year and a half ago.) 

Another option (which is also a great skill to learn for future use) is to make a homemade starter.  There are as many opinions on how to make a starter as their are recipes for using your starter.  I will give you the method that I used, but feel free to research others.  Most people say that it is easier to start a sourdough starter when it is warm outside, but I was able to begin my starter pretty easily on the first try in the middle of a December. (Granted, I do live in a coastal area where winters aren’t too cold.)  Regardless, it is helpful to keep your starter in a warm area of the kitchen (such as next to the stove, crockpot or in the oven with the light on).

To make a starter from scratch, take a cup of water and a cup of flour, and mix together in a glass bowl, large mason jar or ceramic crock.  It is important to use non-chlorinated water, as the chorine can inhibit the growth of the helpful lactobacilli in your starter.  If you use unfiltered tap water, leave it on the counter for 24 hours before using it to allow the chlorine to evaporate.  Make sure to only use wooden or glass utensils to stir, as metal can react with the starter.  After stirring, scrape down the sides of the bowl or jar.  Cover with a cloth to keep out dust.

Let this mixture sit in a warm area of your kitchen for 12 hours.  Then remove half of your water/flour mixture, and add another half cup of flour and half cup of water.  Continue removing half of the mixture and adding more flour and water every 12 hours. (I aim to do it while making breakfast and after making dinner, which is about 12 hours and coincides with my time in the kitchen.)  After about 3-5 days you should start to see some bubbles forming around the side of the glass and/or on the surface of the starter.  This shows that wild yeasts and bacteria are starting to colonize the culture.  You will want to wait until your starter is very active before attempting to bake with it.  Bread shouldn’t be attempted until the starter is well established, as it requires the most yeast activity to turn out well.  Once your starter is established, you don’t need to throw out half of it every time you feed it, but plan to use it regularly so that your don’t have too much starter building up (you can use up extra starter by making pancakes, I share a  recipe for that below).

Caring for your sourdough starter is simple, but it must be faithful.  Keep in mind that your starter is full of living, active bacteria and yeasts.  It must be tended to and fed like any member of your family.  Keep your starter in the warmest part of your kitchen except for in the hottest parts of the summer, when you may want to keep it in a cool part of the kitchen (such as on a low shelf of a cabinet… but don’t forget about it!).  Your starter needs to be fed at least twice a day. (I shoot for first thing in the morning and then after dinner at night) with equal parts of water and flour.  You can rest your starter in the refrigerator, during which time it only needs to be fed once a week, but don’t let it go for more than a few weeks in the fridge without pulling it out and using it.  Store your starter in a glass bowl or mason jar, and stir it with a wooden spoon or other non-reactive utensil.  Your sourdough starter should never come in contact with metal (though I sometimes use a stainless steel spoon for a quick stir after feeding it, as stainless steel has low reactivity,)  After feeding your starter and stirring, make sure to scrape down the sides to discourage the growth of mold.  Always cover your starter when not in use to keep out bugs and dust.  Fruit flies are especially attracted to the scent of sourdough starter.

Depending on your rhythm of life and frequency of baking, you may choose to keep your sourdough starter on the counter continuously (during which times it needs to be fed at least twice per day), or you may choose to let it lay dormant in the refrigerator for periods of time (during which times you only need to feed it once a week.) I have used both methods in my year and a half of doing sourdough, because of varying life circumstances.  To give you an idea, I will provide some examples from my experiences with sourdough.

For my first six months of doing sourdough, I was feeding seven people three meals per day (my husband and I had four foster children plus my mother living with us) and my starter rarely went in the fridge.  I was making sourdough baked goods on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times per day.  I was continually taking from my starter and continually feeding it.  I rarely had too much starter and often faced the problem of not having enough due to poor planning or forgetfulness.

Then the four children went back to living with their birth mother, and my mother moved out, and I was down to cooking for two.  I was pregnant and trying to up my protein intake, and I decreased the amount of grains that I was preparing.  During this time, I kept the starter in the refrigerator and sometimes went for 2-3 weeks between uses (without feeding it for the whole time and it survived.  Sourdough can be very forgiving!)

Currently, we have a college student living with us, two babies and frequent guests over for meals.  I keep my starter out about half of the time, and in the refrigerator the other half of the time.  I usually lay out a meal plan at the beginning of each week, which helps me to know when I need to keep it out and build up the starter, and when I can leave it to rest in the refrigerator for a few days.  All this is to say that you can make sourdough fit with your lifestyle, and it will bring great benefit if you do.

Sourdough Recipe Tips

Few modern cookbooks include sourdough recipes, but there are an increasing number of recipes to be found on the internet.  It can be intimidating to know where to start for someone new to sourdough.  I have found the most reliable recipes come from sites that emphasize traditional foods and preparation methods.  Here are some terms and other things to be aware of when choosing recipes to try.

Souring time.  The longer the souring time (also called rising time), the more nutritious the end product will be.  Look for recipes that call for 8-12 hours of fermentation, which is enough time to break down most of the phytic acid.  If a recipe calls for a shorter time than this, it often requires supplemental commercial yeast.

Percentage of hydration.  In some recipes you will see terminology about the percentage of hydration.  This has to  do with the flour/water ratio of your starter.  For example, 100% hydration means that a starter is fed equal parts of water and flour.  I find that a starter fed equal parts water and flour works for most recipes, but to be safe, you can stick with recipes that call for 100% hydration until you are more familiar with sourdough baking.  If a recipe does not specify the percentage of hydration, it is usually safe to assume they are calling for a starter fed equal parts of flour and water.

Your flour. Store bought flour is more compacted than freshly ground flour.  So, depending on the type of flour you use, you might need slightly more or slightly less than a recipe calls for.  I have found that the more times that I make a recipe, the better the idea I get for how the dough should look and feel, and I can adjust accordingly.  If possible, use freshly ground flour.  Not only do whole wheat berries store longer than flour, but freshly ground is the most nutritious form of flour.  By some estimates, flour loses 90% of its vitamins within three days of being ground. (Although refrigerating or freezing freshly ground flour will slow down this micronutrient loss.)

Sourdough bread requires more skill and patience than other sourdough products.  Approach bread baking as a learning experience, and expect to make a brick from time to time, especially at the beginning. Instead of throwing out a dense loaf, grind it up into bread crumbs, store it in the freezer to use when you need bread crumbs for a recipe, or feed it to your chickens, ducks or pigs.  To ensure success with bread baking, make sure your starter is very active and that you allow the bread to rise in a warm place (I like to put it in my oven with the oven light turned on.)

I will leave you with a recipe for sourdough pancakes, which is probably the sourdough recipe that I use the most.  It is easy and forgiving, and a great recipe to start with as you learn sourdough. Even a weak starter that is just a few days old can be used for this recipe.  When you have an excess of starter, this is a good way to use the extra up quickly.  It is also a quick and easy breakfast for when I fail to plan ahead, as it only calls for starter and requires no souring time.

2 cups sourdough starter
2 tablespoons sweetener (honey, brown sugar, etc)
4 tablespoons of butter or coconut oil
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg
1 teaspoon baking soda

Heat your seasoned griddle to a medium-high heat.  Mix together all ingredients except the baking soda.  Add the baking soda right before you are ready to pour the batter.  Cook the pancakes on the griddle until they are golden brown on both sides. 1/3 cup of batter per pancake makes about nine medium sized pancakes.  Enjoy!