Sourdough Experiments: An Exploration of Making Bread Laura-Ingalls-Style

I’ve been wanting to try my hand at making my own sourdough bread for awhile now.

Sourdough Experiments: An Exploration of Making Bread Laura-Ingalls-Style - horizontal

While I’ve never particularly cared for the taste of store bought sourdough, there’s been this little niggling thought in the back of my mind for months just whispering sweet nothings to me that I will LOVE homemade sourdough bread. I figure it’s a viable thought considering there aren’t many store bought breads whose tastes I particularly care for, and yet (I openly confess to you) there are days when I feel I could eat my body weight in homemade bread. I mean, come on….

– The sweet, ferment-y fragrance of activating yeast.

– The rhythmic thrum of kneading.

– The feeling of total surrender which comes with finding your arms hands totally covered in sticky wet dough.

– The smell of your luscious loaf baking. Need I say it again? The SMELL, people! Because there is simply nothing on earth like it.

– The knowing that the fruit of your very hands is what will soon be transformed into a token of blessing and nourishment for all who are called to partake at your table.

Yes, some sourdough experiments were definitely in order.

I’m happy to say that my mother had me in the kitchen helping her whip up (and sometimes having me whip up on my own) all sorts of baked goods by the time I was only a few years old, so bread making was definitely not something new to me. In recent years—spurned by an introduction to deliciously addicting homemade challah—I’d done quite a bit of bread baking on my own and had become more in tune with the various steps and important factors involved.

After having an inspiring conversation with a friend at church who nearly exploded with excitement once she heard of my interest in making homemade sourdough bread, and after discovering that my awesome, DIY-loving, natural-life-living, real-food-eating, luxurious-beauty-product-making cousin was in love with doing it, I knew I had to take the plunge.

In addition to my experience with bread making, I felt that my experience with fermenting at home as well as with making Amish friendship bread (the process for which is similar to that for sourdough) gave me a good head’s start on the whole endeavor. However, the one thing I did not realize about making sourdough was that unlike with some fermented foods (such as kefir), it’s actually possible to grow your own starter. Naturally, as soon as I discovered this—along with discovering how crazy simple it would be to do—I knew that’s the way I wanted to do it. I felt I was an experienced and skilled baker, and I wanted to master sourdough the hardcore way! For this particular endeavor, I wasn’t interested in buying a starter culture or getting one from a friend. I wanted to literally grow my sourdough from scratch—from as scratch as scratch can get!

And that, my fellow bread-loving friends, is where the experiment comes in.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with how to grow a starter, this is basically how it works (there are plenty of excellent tutorials available online, but honestly it’s so simple I’m not sure you’ll even need one after this):

To grow your own sourdough starter, you simply mix approximately equal parts flour and warm water together in a large glass jar using a non-metal spoon (using metal is a no-no when working with fermenting foods because it will negatively react with the acids within them) and cover the opening of the jar with a coffee filter or thin, tightly woven piece of cloth, securing it with a rubber band. Set the jar in a warm place undisturbed and continue to feed it equal parts flour and warm water once each day for a week. After two or three days, the yeasts in the air—often referred to by bakers as wild yeast or natural leaven—will naturally find the flour and water mixture and make their home in it, feeding off of it. After seven days, if all was successful, your starter will be strong enough to use as leaven in bread. And the best part? When you do, adding store bought yeast will not be necessary!

I had heard that rye flour works really well in sourdough, but I used whole wheat because that’s what we had on hand.

Sourdough Experiments, Day

Day 1

Sourdough Experiments, Day 1

Day 1

Day 1

Day 1 (note the gelatinous texture)


Day 1: There’s not too much I can say about day one besides the fact that I was elated to have finally given this a spin. I mixed up my flour and water, topped the jar with a coffee filter, and pushed it to the back of the kitchen counter as far away from our jar of milk kefir as possible so as to avoid cross-contamination. I then fervently hoped that my house was a yeast-filled one and desperately willed for those little yeast-y friends to come find my lonesome jar of flour.

Day 2: When I went to feed my mixture I noticed that a portion of the liquid (now a milky brown color) had risen and settled on top. When I stirred it, I found the mixture to have become quite gelatinous. Other than that, it looked pretty much the same as the day before, and it still didn’t smell like anything but flour.

Day 3: Ah, day three—the one I’d been waiting for…in hopes there would be an indication that some wild yeast had found my jar. I eagerly removed the coffee filter and took a whiff, anticipating the tangy scent of ferment and sweet scent of flour, or perhaps something in between the two. Boy, was I surprised at what I found! No, it wasn’t aliens…everything looked normal, mind you. But the smell…oh, the smell wasn’t at all pleasant like what I’d looked forward to. Disappointed, I jerked my head back from the jar opening and tried to push away the only thought in my head—it smelled like trash. Determined not to give up on only day three, I shoved the jar at my each of my parents and my brother and forced them to take a sniff.
“What’s wrong? Did I ruin it already? It stinks!”
“Nah,” my dad answered, “It just smells like fermenting wheat!”
At that, I stood there for a minute and considered. My milk kefir smells like sour milk. Back when I was making it, my kombucha smelled like sour tea. Fermented foods each taste differently; perhaps they each smell differently too. Perhaps my sourdough just smelled like…sour wheat. I wouldn’t exactly know since I’d never made it before, right? In any case, I wasn’t giving up three days into my experiment! So I fed my growing mixture and set it aside. After having hated the smell of kefir at first and then having come to love it, I decided maybe that would be the case with my sourdough.

Day 3 (note the froth beginning to form—that's a good sign!)

Day 3 (note the froth beginning to form…that’s a good sign!)

Day 4:  Day four was similar to day one in that nothing spectacular happened. I lovingly fed my growing jar of dough like normal and was pleased to find that it didn’t seem to smell so horrendous anymore. It was still a bit off-putting to me, but not as much, and I found that it was only so after I stirred it. Before stirring, the smell was ferment-y but sweet just the way I’d predicted the starter would be.

Day 5:  I don’t remember much about day five. Ha! I fed my starter like normal; by this point it had accumulated a nice layer on top—not exactly a bubbly one like I’d expected, but a definite froth!

Day 6:  I’d been feeding my starter every 24 hours—each day at around 11am—but on day five, I left the house at 9:30am and—of course!—forgot to give it its daily dose of flour and water before I did. I didn’t get home until 7:30pm, so my poor sourdough had a very late first meal of the day. 😉 I was worried that this might have affected it, but when I got home to tend to it I found that it appeared vibrant, healthy, and full of strong leaven! It had also formed a pool of liquid near the top with a thick (at least half inch) layer of froth on top of the pool. I wanted to get a photo of that for you guys but since my brother—aka my photographer and the person to whom all the credit for making this blog look so fancy-schmancy is due—was away for the night, I wasn’t able to. (Trust me, I tried…and let’s just say photography is his gift, not mine!)

Day 7:  Turns out it was a good thing I fed my starter so late on day seven because on day six I was forced to feed it even later. I didn’t have enough flour for a feeding, and my dad didn’t get home from work with more until 8:30pm! Even with that mishap though, my starter didn’t have to go as long without a fresh dose of food as it already had the day before with no problem. (Sometimes mistakes really do work out for the best, right?) By this point, too, my starter appeared to be ready for bread baking! It was plenty frothy with a few bubbles on top (before stirring) and possessed a definite “wine” smell—still not a scent I was in love with, but one I was getting used to. And one that told me my efforts had proved successful and that my sweet little starter was ready for use!!!

Day 7 (note the liquid layer, also called "hooch")

Day 7 (note the liquid layer, also called “hooch”; see below for more on this)

Sourdough Experiments


So how did the bread turn out??

I actually didn’t bake my first batch of bread until the ninth day due to a really busy schedule. I fed my starter just the same on day eight (around 8pm right after getting home from work, just in case anyone was wondering) and then let it rest for the remainder of the night. When I did finally bake my first loaf of bread, I went with a basic sourdough recipe containing only the simplest of ingredients—flour, water, starter, and salt. Honestly, I wasn’t all that impressed with the end result, but I think it was more to my doing than my starter’s. The bread didn’t rise much, but that was because my dough was too moist and since I attempted a free-form loaf [no pan], it couldn’t hold its shape. And…it was so sour! That, I believe, was actually due to an error in how I grew my starter.

Looking back, is there anything I wish I could change about my process?

Yes. As much as I thought I knew what I was doing, there are a few things I wish I had done differently while growing my starter. Namely, I wish I had read the eBook on sourdough bread making that I had downloaded for free onto my phone from Cultures For Health BEFORE starting the process. While I had skimmed through it, I greatly wish I had read the whole thing before beginning—not because I did everything completely wrong because of not doing so, but because I learned SO much from the little book. If there’s one thing I recommend that you do when attempting to make sourdough bread (or grow your own starter), it is read this book! It’s just brimming with tips and tutorials, beautiful color photos, and more recipes than you can count. It’s only about 100 pages long but includes another 100 or so pages of recipes, and best of all, you can download it for FREE here!

Secondly, I wish I had paid attention to all of those other bloggers out there who said to reduce my starter each day while feeding it. I know, I know…it sounds like such a pain—and a waste—but it was only after I baked that first loaf of bread that I realized how important of a step it is. See, because I wasn’t discarding a portion of my starter each day before feeding it, its volume was steadily increasing while the amount of flour and water I was giving it wasn’t. Because of that, I was actually starving it and didn’t realize it (something I would’ve known had I read that eBook first!). Turns out, that pool of milky liquid that was gathering on the top each day was actually alcohol that was being produced by the yeasts as they resorted to eating themselves. That liquid was a sign that they were hungry! What’s more, I wasn’t pouring the liquid off at all—by the end, I had nearly a week’s worth of “hooch”, as its called, built up in my starter which I know now is what caused my bread to taste so overwhelmingly sour! Had I simply read that blessed eBook heeded the advice of bloggers who knew better than me and reduced my starter in size every day or so, I could’ve avoided this.

(PS- Now that I’ve actually started implementing this step, I’ve found that its not wasteful at all! I simply transfer the portion of starter that I’m discarding into a separate mason jar, cap it tightly, and put it in the fridge to use within a day or two in recipes such homemade sourdough pancakes—which I’m now addicted to are the absolute easiest, healthiest, and tastiest pancakes EVER. Recipe coming soon!)

All in all, this sourdough endeavor has been a fantastic experience. It’s so much fun to experiment with new recipes every few days and intriguing to know that having sourdough starter on hand all the time provides me with an indispensable way to have all kinds of properly prepared grain treats—not only bread but things like pancakes, biscuits and brownies too—whenever the mood strikes!

Though the topic of grains is a heated one in the health world right now, I know there are many who don’t want to give up grains completely or can’t for certain reasons (financial, etc). That being said, I believe learning to properly prepare them is very important for our health. It’s also not much of a surprise that I’m loving being on the sourdough train seeing as I have a thing for ancient foods, as well as for ancient ways of life. What do I mean by ancient foods and ancient ways of life? Well, in short, wild yeast breads were the only type of leavened breads that existed up until about 100 years ago. That’s really another whole story in itself, but to put it plain and simple…if you tell me that using wild yeast is how Laura Ingalls baked her bread, then you can bet I’ll soon be attempting to do the same.

↓    ↓    ↓    ↓

‘But how do you make the sourdough?’ Mrs. Boast asked.

‘You start it,’ said Ma, ‘by putting some flour and warm water in a jar and letting it stand until it sours.’

‘Then when you use it, always leave a little,’ said Laura, ‘and put in the scraps of biscuit dough, like this, and more warm water,’ Laura put in the warm water, ‘and cover it,’ she put the clean cloth and the plate on the jar, ‘and just set it in a warm place,’ she set it in its place on the shelf by the stove. ‘And it’s always ready to use, whenever you want it.’

-From By the Shores of Silver Lake, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

. . . . .

Sourdough Experiments: An Exploration of Making Bread Laura-Ingalls-Style


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