The dough (a 50-50 mix of white and rye flour) at the beginning of the adventure.

I don’t know why, but I want to make bread that is ONLY risen by a sourdough starter. I’ve messed around with sourdough starters for years. Years ago I used a recipe with baker’s yeast (not a good idea. The acidic environment in a good sourdough will kill bakers yeast). I also tried one that used yogurt to get things going (not a bad idea, as the wild bacteria in good sourdough is a lactobacillus bacteria, and so are some of the bacteria in an active yogurt culture. This would also explain why some starters feed with flour and milk, rather than flour and water, but…yuck…warm milk sitting on top of my fridge…can’t go there). I’ve made some tasty starters, but I have never been able to create a starter that could rise a loaf of bread on its own. Turns out, I still can’t. Here’s my adventure.  

Searching with my friend Google, I came across Tons of great information on all things sourdough, if you are willing to read through it. Sounded like this guy had done his research, in spades, and he had been a commercial baker. It was worth a try.

The site recommended the Professor Calvel method for making a new starter. This recipe was different in several ways from ones I had seen before. It used a 10:6 ratio of flour to water (much higher flour than is typical), a bit of barley malt and salt at the beginning, and rye flour (which I had heard was a good source for the bacteria you want). So off I went to buy some rye flour and some barley malt. I’d been meaning to visit Jim’s Homebrew Supply in Spokane anyway.

Not feeling comfortable throwing out all that flour as the starter got going (you dump 1/2 the starter every time you feed it, which is 5 times in 48 hours), I decided to try cutting the recipe in half. Perhaps this was my mistake.

I can’t begin to express how hard this “dough” was to work with. Ugh.

At the fourth feeding, the dough was too sticky to knead. Think wall paper paste. Thank goodness I have a standing mixer. Silicone spatulas were essential. By the fifth feeding, the dough was supposed to be doubling in size after every feeding. Mine had a nice sour smell, no signs of spoilage and a few bubbles, but was definitely NOT doubling. I wanted a hare. I got a tortoise.

I kept going. The Sourdough site is very very insistent that you need to feed your starter at least twice a day. Somewhere on the 4th day I decided to reinoculate the mix with more rye flour, since this is where the sourdough yeast and bacteria is supposed to come from. Maybe by cutting the recipe in half, I had somehow not reached a critical mass? Nothing.

The thinned starter is much easier to work with. These bubbles indicate it is active.

Around the 6th day (and most of a 5 lb bag of flour later), I decided I had a good starter that was not going to rise on its own, and switched to a 1:1 ratio of flour to water by weight when feeding, which substantially thins out the batter, making it easy to work with (I was tired of trying to get flour glue out of all my bowls).

I added cornmeal to the “starter” until the dough was workable.

What to do with all that “thrown out” starter? Well…I hate to throw stuff out. So except for the first feeding, I saved the mix in a container in the refrigerator, and after a couple of days, I made dog biscuits. (The first few days, the starter is not “fit” for human consumption, but I have dogs who eat…well, you don’t want to know some of the things they have eaten. So I figured a well-baked dough would not hurt them.) A bunch of corn meal I needed to use up, some meat drippings, a little sugar and garlic powder, some salt and an egg later, and voila, a dough I could roll out and work with. (My go to dog biscuit recipe is posted below – what I made with the sourdough reject dough was loosely based on this).

Five minutes in a 450 degree oven on a pizza stone. Yum.

Once the dough was sufficiently “sour” after a few days, I kept the “throw away” dough and made it into pizza shells for a quick supper (who needs Boboli). This suggestion came from the Sourdough site, and was a good one.

So, does this starter make a good bread? I don’t know yet. But I will be adding yeast for leavening when I try it. I may just go back to my old standby. The “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” method is great, gives a good “sour” flavor as the dough ages, and does not need to be fed twice a day. Mother Earth News has several good articles on this method to get you started (I have terrible luck with their internal search engine – try putting “artisan bread five minutes mother earth” into Google). Highly recommended.

Sourdough Starter with Rye
(Calvel Method – adapted to English volume measurements for those without a kitchen scale or the ability to measure in grams).

Note: Based on the Calvel feeding schedule, the best time to start this recipe is 6:00 pm. I cut the recipe below in half and did not have great success – so you might want to make the whole thing.

  • 2 cups Rye Flour (stone ground if possible – I used Hodgson Mills. Bulk organic from a natural foods store would also be a good choice – this is less than 1 lb)
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour (unbleached and organic if possible)
  • 1 1/2 cups warm water (filtered if your tap water has chlorine)
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3/4 tsp barley malt extract (any kind – there are a lot. Borrow a bit from a brewer friend if possible. Comes in liquid and powder. I used powdered).

Step 1: Mix all ingredients together and knead briefly. Place in a measuring bowl (glass prefered) so you know the starting volume and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Set in warm place (80 degrees is ideal) for 22 hours.

Step 2: At 4:00 pm the next day, measure out 1/2 the dough and knead in 2 cups all-purpose flour, 3/4 cup warm water and a pinch of salt (around 1/8 tsp). Toss out the rest of the dough, clean out your measuring container, put new dough back in now clean container, cover again and place in warm place.

At 11:00 pm, repeat step 2 above.

At 6:00 am, repeat step 2 above.

At noon, repeat step 2 above.

At 6:00 pm, repeat step 2 above. Your dough should now be doubling in size between feedings, and should be fed twice a day for at least a week before any refrigeration.

Let me know if this works for you or what your sourdough adventures have been. For me this one was a bust.

Loki and Freya’s Favorite Dog Biscuits
Adapted from the “Sniff N’ Bite Biscuits”, out of MacPherson’s K-9 Cookbook, plus a recipe I found on the internet

  • 2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup powdered skim milk
  • 1 tsp brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/3 cup meat drippings (I save bacon and other grease in a jar in the freezer until I am ready to make these).
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp ice water

Combine flour, powdered milk, sugar and garlic powder. Blend in meat drippings. Make a well in the mixture and stir in egg and ice water until blended. Form dough into a ball. Divide in two. Knead each ball on a floured surface for about 2 minutes. Roll out dough to between 1/4 and 1/2 inches thick. Cut with biscuit cutter or knife (Christmas cookie cutters would be really funny here). Bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees. (I flip mine mid bake and use parchment paper to prevent sticking). Cool. (Make sure these are thoroughly baked if you live in humid climates or they will mold in the bag. I often just leave mine in the oven with it off until it cools).

Update: The starter did subsequently “wake up”. See follow up post.

Miles Away Farm Blog © 2010, where we’re miles away from a self-rising sourdough, but our pizza dough rocks!