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Quarantiny Starter Master Plan

By Andrew Janjigian Published

So you want to create a sourdough starter using small amounts of whatever kind of flour you can find during the quarantine, aka a #QuarantinyStarter. Well you’ve come to the right place.

Andrew Janjigian

To date, It’s been more than a month since I—and thousands of others after me—started my own “quarantiny starter,” and we’ve all learned a lot in the process. So if you were working off of any of the previous versions of this recipe that have circulated, please consider this one gospel (for now, at least—there’s always more to learn about this process). Many little details have changed, but the biggest one is that I now recommend refreshing at a 1:1:1 water/flour/starter ratio until the starter is mature, as opposed to the 2:2:1 ratio I first described.

But first, in case you need a refresher:

A sourdough starter—also referred to as a culture or levain—is a mixture of flour, water, and a collection of wild yeasts and bacteria that together serve to flavor and leaven bread. These microorganisms are naturally present on kernels of wheat and on flour ground from them, but it takes time and proper care for them to multiply and transform the initial mixture into a culture that can leaven a loaf of bread. Initially, all you do is mix together flour and water, and let the mixture sit for a day or more until the dormant microorganisms on the flour wake up. After that, you “refresh” (or “feed”) the nascent culture on a daily or twice daily basis by moving a portion of it to a new mixture of flour and water and discarding the remainder. (You can eventually collect and save the “discard” for other applications.) After a few weeks, the starter will have built up a sufficient population of the appropriate yeasts and bacteria it needs, and can be used in baking. But keep in mind that will probably take a few more weeks beyond that to be fully mature and work reliably and optimally to leaven breads (this is particularly true if you are working with less-than-ideal flours).

Starting Your Quarantiny Starter

Makes: one sourdough culture of infinite size and potential

Note: The choice of flours is less important here than it will be when it comes time to bake. That said, you are more likely to be successful most quickly if you are working with unbleached and/or organic flours, and even more so if you can use a mixture of white and whole wheat or rye flour. (Many people who had access only to bleached flour have struggled to get their starters to work. But others have had success using all kinds of flour during the quarantine, so you should use whatever you can get until you can replace it with something better.) Filtered or bottled water is preferable as it will be free of chlorine that might kill the microbes we are trying to coax into being. If you are using a mix of white and whole grain flours, you’ll need to use more water as indicated below. Your starter container should be covered well but loosely; inverting the mason jar lid will allow the culture to breathe while still preventing it from drying out. Translucent containers are useful to allow you to see what is going on under the hood without needing to remove the lid, and narrow ones do a better job of letting you see when the mixture is expanding in volume.

Ingredients & equipment:

2 small, lidded containers, such as 4-ounce mason jars
1 larger, lidded container, such as a 16-ounce mason jar
About 3 cups of white flour (or, better yet, an equal-weights mixture of white flour and whole-wheat or rye)
Water (filtered or bottled if possible)

The Start (day 1):

Using spoon, mix 10 grams (4 teaspoons) of your flour or flour mixture and 10 to 15 grams (2–3 teaspoons) of lukewarm (75F) water in small container (mixture should resemble thick muffin batter). Cover and let sit at warm room temperature (70 to 80 degrees) until bubbly and fragrant—even pungent—24 to 72 hours.

Check your jar every 24 hours for activity. When it’s woken up, it should be bubbly and wet-looking, and will likely have a pungent, even offensive aroma (not to worry, this is totally normal—if it smells at all, it won’t usually smell good, at least not until it’s close to being mature). If it isn’t active yet, put it back in its warm spot and check again in another day or so.

When it’s active:

In your second small container, place 10 grams (4 teaspoons) of your flour or flour mixture, 10 to 15 grams (2–3 teaspoons) of lukewarm (75F) water, and 10 grams (2 teaspoons) of the previous batch until uniform. Cover and let sit at warm room temperature for 24 hours. Place the leftovers from the previous batch in the fridge as a backup.

Repeat this feeding (or “refreshment”) procedure every 24 hours, discarding the contents of the backup jar, cleaning it out thoroughly, and using it to store that day’s new culture. (That day’s old culture then becomes the new refrigerated backup. This way you go back and forth between the two small jars.) Over time the look and smell of the culture will evolve, and it will likely get quite quiet. This throws a lot of people off, since they think it should look bubbly and smell fragrant the whole time. It likely will not; do not worry about this, just repeat as directed.

When it gets really active:

Somewhere between 7 and 14 days after the first refreshment, your nascent starter should start getting very active, meaning it is bubbly and fragrant after 12 hours or less, and it starts to smell yeasty or bread-like. If so, start refreshing it every 12 hours instead of every 24. (Do not jump the gun here—if it takes longer than 12 hours, stick to once-daily refreshments.)

You should also at this point begin collecting the contents of the backup jars in the third, larger jar, rather than tossing them out. Seal and store this jar in the fridge next to each day’s backup. This is your “sourdough discard”, which can be used in recipes once you have collected enough (at least 1/2 cup). Don’t start collecting discard until it smells pleasant, however. (More on what to do with your sourdough discard is coming soon, so stay tuned.)

Top 5 Sourdough Starter FAQs

My starter looks inactive; should I start over?

No! Visible activity tends to slow down after the first 3 or 4 days, but things are happening whether or not you can smell or see them. However, if your starter continues to look inactive, it might be because the flour mixture doesn’t contain enough gluten-forming proteins to retain the gases that are being generated, or it might be because it needs to mature more. In either of these cases, you might want to try one or more of the following:

  • Switch to a higher-protein white flour such as King Arthur All-Purpose or any brand of bread flour if you can find it.
  • Try using slightly less water to refresh the starter, so that you concentrate the gluten (note: the mixture will be stiffer).
  • If you are still refreshing on a once-a-day schedule, try stirring in a touch of fresh flour at the 12-hour mark.
  • Try leaving the starter for longer than 12 or 24 hours (depending upon whichever stage you are at), until it shows clear activity.

The only sign that you need to start over is the appearance of mold, which looks like black, blue, or pink growth on the surface of the culture, which can occur if the starter is stored in a too-warm (above 80 degrees) environment. Discard the culture and refresh your backup culture, or start over from the beginning.

My house typically runs cold. Where’s the best place to keep my starter?

If your kitchen is below 70 degrees, try storing your starter in one of the following places (but make sure these areas—or anywhere that you might store your starter—aren’t more than a degree or so above 80 degrees, which can encourage mold growth).

  • Above the fridge
  • On a cooling rack set over a heating blanket or seedling mat set as low as possible
  • In an off oven with the light on (make sure nobody turns the oven on!)
  • in your microwave oven (again, take it out before using the oven)
  • In a small cooler or cooler bag

Why do you have to discard starter when “refreshing” it?

The answer is twofold. First, moving just 30 percent of your starter to a new, clean home clears out most of the waste byproducts of fermentation that could harm the microorganisms this process is trying to propagate. Second, the “discard” process ensures that the amount of starter you maintain is manageable and doesn’t triple each day.

How can a starter so tiny ever be enough to bake bread?

The amount of starter you maintain from day to day is not a reflection of how much you will have for baking, since a starter of any size can be scaled up once it’s mature. (Instead of discarding the excess, you’ll mix it all into a larger quantity of flour and water.) Maintaining a small amount of starter simply minimizes waste during the starter creation process.

How will I know when my starter is ready to bake with?

A mature starter will show the following three indicators:

  • It doubles or triples in volume within 6 to 12 hours of refreshing at room temperature.
  • It passes the“float test”: Place a blob of starter into a container with water. If the starter floats for at least 10 seconds, it’s producing and retaining sufficient amounts of carbon dioxide, a sign that the yeast is ramping up. This also requires sufficient levels of gluten; if you are using low-gluten all purpose flour and/or whole grain flours, it might dissolve before it floats.
  • It smells yeasty/bready/yogurty/vinegary

How to Scale Up Your Tiny Starter for Test-Baking

The ultimate test of a starter’s maturity is course is baking with it, using one of our recipes or someone else’s. To do that you’ll need to scale up from a tiny quantity to a larger one, using the guidelines below. If you aren’t going to be baking with it yet, then there is no reason to scale up, just continue to refresh twice a day at the 10g/10g/10g scale. (And if you do scale up, you can always scale back down to the tiny version when you want to conserve flour.)

Scaled Up, Not-So-Tiny 100% Hydration Levain

Yield: 60g

Note: You should ideally use white, unbleached, and high-protein all-purpose or bread flour here, or no more than a 50/50 mix of whole-wheat and white flour. It’s helpful to use a clear, straight-sided container here so you can easily judge when the levain has risen appropriately; you can wrap a rubber band around the container to mark its initial level. If the recipe you are using this in requires more than 60g (including leftover for backup!), simply repeat this process a second time, using larger amounts of each ingredient in an equal-weights ratio.

20g (7 teaspoons) flour
20g (4 teaspoons) lukewarm (76–78F) water
20g (4 teaspoons) starter

Stir flour, water, and starter together until uniform, cover well, and let proof at room temperature until the volume increases to between 2–3 times its original volume, 8–12 hours. The levain is ready for baking or further refreshing at this point.

 

And once you are sure your starter is mature, you'll want to consult this post: Care and Maintenance of a Mature Sourdough Starter

 

Ready to bake or use up that discard? Try one of these quarantiny starter recipes:

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.