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Tips for making sourdough starter

As sourdough’s popularity has soared, diets that demonize bread may be another casualty of the coronavirus.

Cooks kept at home by the pandemic have delved deeper into baking, with sourdough breads topping many lists of industry trends. Anyone fascinated with fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and kombucha, finds similar satisfaction in sourdough starters.

“I think that’s kind of the magical part of it,” says Maggie Gartman, a registered dietitian and baking enthusiast. “You’ll collect wild yeast from your environment.”

Sourdough starters are simply cultures of flour and water. Left at room temperature, the mixture becomes a hotbed of microbial activity as organisms activated by the water feed on nutrients in the flour.

“Let it sit and bubble,” says Gartman. “It’s alive — it needs the proper nutrients to survive.”

As the flour is consumed, the starter needs to be divided and fed fresh flour and water. Given enough time, the mixture is ready to bake bread, and it can be stored in the refrigerator, where it doesn’t need so much attention. Starters can be cultivated for decades or longer, and bakers often fondly refer to their starters by pet names. Gartman’s are known as “Van Gogh,” which is wetter than “Suzy the Sasquatch.”

“It’s really unique to you and your home.”

And it’s a piece of human history that informs more and more bakers. Long before commercial yeast, nearly all the bread produced and consumed around the world was sourdough in one form or another, says Gartman, who operates Blue Dragonfly Nutrition and Wellness in Central Point and consults with Rogue Valley Farm to School.

The move to mechanize making bread required bakers to use commercial yeast to speed up the process. The result, many nutrition experts say, are breads that are harder for humans to digest, which has ushered in gluten sensitivities and allergies to grains. Traditional sourdough starters, by contrast, work to transform the bread flour’s chemical composition for a day or so before loaves are baked.

“It’s fermenting all of the grains,” says Gartman. “It’s just so different.”

It’s a difference that some customers can feel in their gut, says Rosie Demmin, co-owner of Rise Up! Artisan Bread in the Applegate. The bakery is known for its sourdoughs and produces four types sold at Southern Oregon farmers markets, stocked in some local grocery stores and used in a variety of food-service operations around the region.

“I do hear many people saying, ‘Your bread doesn’t give me indigestion,’ ” says Demmin. “Overall, our sales have gone up everywhere, especially with our sourdoughs.”

Recent studies, says Demmin, do imply that traditional, whole-grain sourdoughs are more healthful than breads baked without fermentation. The starter’s microbes, says Demmin, not only break down grains’ gluten but also phytic acid, a natural substance found in plant seeds that impairs the human body’s absorption of iron, zinc and calcium, which can lead to mineral deficiencies.

Gartman cites similar research showing that traditional sourdough is easier to digest than breads baked with modern methods. Sourdough breads, she says, may have lower gluten levels, lower glycemic index and greater bioavailability, as do other foods touted as “probiotic.”

“The longer fermentation is unlocking more nutrients from the grains themselves.”

The key to successful sourdough recipes, says Demmin, is good-quality, whole-grain flour. No-knead recipes ensure the gluten isn’t overdeveloped, she says, adding that Rise Up! bakers fold its dough every 40 minutes, using an artisan technique.

“The gluten will develop passively with a no-knead recipe.”

A Dutch oven heated to 500 degrees is the ideal cooking vessel, says Demmin, because the lid traps steam released during baking, causing the bread to rise and yielding a crisp crust. Using a small Dutch oven, filled only halfway with dough, helps the loaf to rise properly, she says. Loaves should nearly double in size during baking, she adds.

“There are so many good references online,” says Demmin.

Gartman agrees, recommending King Arthur Baking Company’s sourdough recipe and also The Sourdough School, a British baking course that promotes sourdough’s health benefits. Sourdough starters can be purchased from numerous online sources. Or follow these instructions, published by Tribune News Service, to make your own.

The Basic Formula

Creating this sourdough starter is a simple process: In a small container, stir about 1 heaping tablespoon flour with 2 to 3 teaspoons lukewarm water (for exact measurements, it’s 10 grams flour and 10 to 15 grams water). Tightly cover, set aside in a warmish spot and wait three days.

After that, it’s “refresh” mode. Follow the same formula — mix together 1 heaping tablespoon flour with 2 to 3 teaspoons lukewarm water — but add another step: Stir in 1 teaspoon (5 grams) of the ever-developing starter. Cover, and then repeat, daily, for about a week.

After that, double down on your efforts and follow the procedure twice a day, in the morning and the evening. By the end of another week or so, you’ll have a starter strong enough to bake bread.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.