Sourdough starter - the making of Grumpy

Making my own sourdough starter was just way cool.  Each starter is unique to it's location.  I was fascinated by that.  That my sourdough starter would really be mine, uniquely.  In addition sourdough bread is considered to be much more nutritious, easier to digest and have a lower glycemic index than other types of bread.  It has long been my favorite bread, especially if it has rye in it.  But I never really knew all that about sourdough.  Just that it tasted good.   I have learned a lot from various websites, but especially, but it took a while for me to grasp it all.  I wanted to write it down so that I could repeat the experience should I need to at some point.  Here is how he started his life.

To mix together flour and water and expect it somehow to come to life almost seems to defy logic and science.  It is of course the magic of life and I am thoroughly in awe of my beloved Grumpy.  Sourdough starter is simply made by mixing flour and water and the yeast that is naturally on the flour and lactobacillus bacteria that is mostly on our skin will take residence and start to ferment.   Since there is a lot of micro organisms all around us, it is possible that some of them will try to take over the starter.  You will know that your starter is fine if it has a pleasant tangy smell.  Somewhere between beer and fruit.  The yeast likes an acid environment, oxygen and a temperature between 18 and 29 C (65 and 85 F), the middle being optimal.  I saw somewhere that some people put a tablespoon or so of pineapple or orange juice in the starter to increase the acidity.  I tried this once when I felt that the starter was a bit sluggish and it only improved.

But back to the birth of Grumpy.  I had made a starter previously.  That time I "cheated" a bit and put in some dried yeast.  That was fine, but I wanted to make it without any help.  So I took a straight sided jar and put about 50 g. /1.8 oz of Rye flour into it.  Then I added the same amount (50 ml /1.7 fl.oz) of room temperature water.  I used water from the kettle that has been boiled and cooled to room temp only because the cold water is really, really cold.  We have very good tap water here, no fluoride or chlorine added to it.  I would consider using bottled water if I lived where water quality is questionable.  Then I stirred the flour and water to make a smooth paste and get some air in there.  Clotilde of Chocolate and Zucchini suggest that one should have a wooden spoon dedicated to this and avoid using metal.  She didn't explain why, but I liked the idea and I now have one.  I also read somewhere that in Finland (the Finn people are renowned for their excellent rye bread) they had a special wooden bowl for the dough and it is scraped clean rather than washed.  That way the yeast culture simply dries and is easily refreshed with water and a feed next time.  I will consider buying a wooden bowl next time I go to Helsinki.  But for now I use a glazed earthenware bowl that my mother in law gave me.

Since I love rye bread I really wanted to make a rye starter.  Which is fortunate because it is one of the easiest flours to use to make a starter.  Even if one doesn't intend to bake a rye bread one can use a rye starter.  Or, alternatively, one can start with a rye starter and turn it into a wheat starter by feeding with increasing amounts of wheat once the starter gets going.

But back to Grumpy.  I placed the jar on the kitchen counter and waited.  Now, this was in February and even if I usually keep the house at 23-25 C (72-77 F), it will be cooler close to the windows in very cold weather.  Therefore it makes a bit more sense to start a starter in spring or summer.  It didn't take more than about 2 days for bubbles to appear.  Then I threw away some of it and added water and then some more rye.  This I repeated every day.  I discovered later that it is better to feed the starter twice a day and be sure to pour away half of it, feed it with equal amounts of flour and water.  Now I throw out all but 1-2 tablespoons and then add about 35 g. /1 oz of water and the same amount of rye flour.  I first add the water and make sure that it is at room temperature.  The water that is standing in the kettle is perfect for that.  Then feed the starter twice a day for a week.  That way you should get a very lively starter.

Being the miser that I am, I really suffered when throwing away half of the starter.  But you have to do it.  It is much less wasteful.  When the starter gets going it will double in a few hours.  Since you need to feed it an equal amount twice a day you would soon end up with a bathtubful of starter and the next day, two tubfuls, then four!  You get the drift.  It's exponential growth.  So throw away half!  Some people use what they throw away in waffles, pancakes, cookies or pizza dough, but I don't bake those, so I weep and waste.

Now the test of the starter isn't only the smell (which should be pleasantly sour) but the rate at which it rises.  You should not attempt to bake a bread with it unless it doubles in about 6-10 hours.  It won't be strong enough to raise the dough sufficiently if it doesn't.  Believe me, I tried!

Now, I wrote another post about baking a bread with the starter, but I want to finish this by discussing how to take care of the starter.  I had to try a few places for my starter and I used a thermometer to check temperatures.  I found the perfect place for Grumpy to feed in my living room on a shelf below my faithful November cactus (Schlumbergera truncata).  That cactus dates from 1977 when my husband gave me this little baby plant with one bud on it.  The bud promptly fell off and I, being young and childish, was offended and shamelessly tried to kill it.  I pushed it behind the curtains and didn't water it, hoping it would die.  But by spring it just started to grow vigorously.  So I began to take care of it and was rewarded by profuse flowering the following November.  Every year after that it would be like a ball of fire on the window sill.  When I moved to the States it got left behind, as did my other worldly possessions.  Years later my great aunt, who had lived on the floor below me, told me that she had stolen a cutting of it (because as everyone knows, cuttings take better if they are stolen, rather than given) and that her very large and robust cactus, that boomed like crazy every year, was that cutting.  When she died at the age of 96 my father came home with her cactus and gave it to me.  The cactus thrived, but to my great disappointment, it didn't flower.  I kept it in the best location, took good care of it but... nothing.  Until my father died.  That Christmas it started to bloom again.  And it kept going until the spring.  And bloomed again in the fall.  And it has been going ever since, blooming twice a year.  I can't think of a better place for Grumpy to rest while he feeds.

But back to him.  I  have been baking one bread a week and I store him in the fridge in the days between baking.  What now works for me is this:  I take him out early on Friday, measure about 70 g. of Grumpy, add 70 g. of water and 70 g of flour and stir.  I put him on his shelf and keep an eye on him.  If he doubles I make a sponge in the evening.  If he doesn't double I feed him once more and make the bread in the morning.   For the bread I use anywhere from 100 g to 200 g of the starter. I use double the amount of water and triple the amount of flour in any mixture I like (so 1-2-3) and then I add nuts and seeds as I fancy.  What is left of Grumpy gets a feeding and goes into the fridge until the next time.  And I just want to say that is is way easier than I ever thought baking bread would be.


  1. I read your story with great interest. I do not cook bread, but my sister is doing. She tried many times to bake Finnish rye bread, but it was not very tasty.
    I'll tell her about your experience . Thank you!

    In Russia, November cactus called the Dekabrist, from the word "Dekabr"(rus.) = December (eng.) :D it would be called a December Сactus or maybe Decemberist (?). :D :D :D

  2. Ambra, let me say I adore your style and I might even be your biggest fan :) You make me smile, chuckle, tear up and happy that bloggers like you are around to share with the rest of us. Now I want to come over a look at Grumpy and watch him feed under your cacti. Better yet, I want to come over and bake bread with you. Whaddaya say? Might lead to less wasting and weeping. Great post, luv it

  3. wow...i had no idea that bread could be made like this, it seems really complicated but i guess the end product is worth it. I will bookmark this page for this method is something i will try out one day.

  4. Thank you for your comments, guys. I have a confession to make, snuck away to southern Italy and am now sitting outside an internet cafe in Praiano. It's our last day and tomorrow we'll be heading home. I've been riding a scooter all around the Amalfi coast (and hubby too). Great therapy!
    Believe me, it sound complicated, this sourdough ting but once one starts to do it, it is so easy. I couldn't believe it. I'm not the bread baking type at all! But this is a piece of cake :)
    Cocobong, I would love to bake bread with you. You are welcome any time.

  5. Hello from Russia Ambra! This was fun to read, especially after taking a look at the Zuchinni and Chocolate rye starter. Haven't gotten around to making it yet. Do you have a similar post on yogurt dear? First batch didn't work out. Love, T.

  6. Hi, there :) Check out this post: it's from March 18 2011. I can add to that that the best trick is to hold the milk at the high temperature for a few minutes. It makes it very thick and creamy without any additives. I need to do another post about the yoghurt to share my wisdom after all this time :)


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