Debunking the 10 Myths of Sourdough

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Melissa Ryan)

When it comes to sourdough starter and baking sourdough bread, misconceptions and mistakes abound. We’re here to clear up some of the long-standing myths surrounding sourdough. Are any of these myths lodged in your brain? Time for debunking.

Myth 1: It’s easy.

Throw some flour and water in a bucket, and voila! A few days later you’ll have a bubbling, tangy-smelling sourdough starter all ready to use in bread.

Not in my kitchen. My first two attempts to create a starter from scratch resulted in nasty-smelling, moldy-looking mixtures that ended up on the compost pile. That said, with a few tips, creating a starter is entirely doable.

Myth 2: It’s hard.

Throw some flour and water in a clean bucket at a good temperature, and voila! A few days later you’ll probably have a bubbling, tangy smelling sourdough starter all ready to use in bread. Yes, it can be that easy.

But what appears to be a clean container might have a residue of dish soap or grease from the dish sponge. My first successful starter came after a beer-brewing friend recommended I rinse my container with baking soda, a practice used in beer brewing, to remove any residues. I used my hand and not a sponge, and also cleaned the stainless steel mixing spoon, which I then used only for the starter to avoid re-cleaning.

An average room temperature (around 70°F) also aids a new starter. When I tried to create one at a colder temperature (the 60°F I endure in winter to keep the heating bill down), the starter seemed sluggish, like the microorganisms were having trouble thriving and multiplying. When I tried at a hotter temperature (the 80°F I enjoy in summer to keep the power bill down), the starter seemed to be overtaken by microorganisms that are not the ones desired for bread-making.

Creating a clean, warm environment will encourage the right yeasts and bacteria to live in your new starter.

Myth 3: It’s complicated.

When I first created a starter, I wondered about a lot of things: What kind of flour was best? Should I avoid tap water? Should I investigate this “cheesecloth” I kept reading about, which would ensure my starter could breathe without letting any fruit flies in?

I decided to run an experiment: six canning jars of starter with different conditions. I had a “control” starter (A), which followed a recipe that started with rye flour and gradually switched to all-purpose flour, used bottled water, was covered, and was fed every 24 hours. In addition to the control starter I had a starter that (B) used bread flour instead of all-purpose flour, (C) used tap water instead of bottled water, (D) was uncovered instead of covered, (E) had an instant transition to all-purpose flour instead of a gradual one, and (F) was fed whenever it reached maximum height, instead of every 24 hours.

The tap water starter was slightly lower than the others, and the uncovered starter seemed to struggle a bit, but otherwise, they looked about the same.

Myth 4: You need fruit.

There are many recipes for starter that involve orange or pineapple juice or grapes. The idea is that the additive contains microorganisms that help the population of bread microorganisms get started. However, you don’t need to use them.

Myth 5: Really old starter tastes better.

When you first create a sourdough starter, it will have a mild flavor. With time, the flavor increases. This leads people to brag about their decades-old starters, as if a 100-year-old starter has a better flavor than a 10-year-old starter.

While flavor does increase in the beginning, eventually it plateaus. So while a 100-year-old starter is still an exciting thing, it doesn’t necessarily make better bread than a younger starter.

Myth 6: A starter’s birthplace determines its flavor.

For decades, bakers believed that starters contained wild yeasts and bacteria specific to the location where they were created. So a California starter would taste different than a New York starter. Bakers also debated the stability of starters that changed location: Would they maintain their original flavor or take on a new flavor? Data indicated that a population of microorganisms had some ability to resist outsiders.

Now many believe that the flour and conditions used to create a starter determine its microorganism population, not the location where it is created. Francisco Migoya, head chef and coauthor of Modernist Bread, agrees. “The microbes from flour are very important. If you have an old starter, for example, using the same flour to feed it will help maintain that particular culture to some degree. There are other important factors that influence how a starter develops, including holding temperature, feeding schedule, proportion of flour and water, contamination from nearby sources, and fermentation technology. Consistency in all of these factors is key if you want to preserve a SCOBY [Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast].”

Myth 7: You can’t overfeed sourdough starter.

I’ve had numerous distressed bakers tell me that their starter died, even though they fed it constantly. While starters do need regular feeding, it is possible to overfeed one.

Each time you feed a starter, you thin out the population of microorganisms by adding flour and water. The remaining yeasts and bacteria eat the new flour and multiply, rebuilding the population. But this takes time. It manifests as your starter bubbling and rising.

Unless you are reviving a dormant starter, you should only feed your starter when it is at maximum height, full of bubbles. If you bang the container on the counter, the starter should collapse as the gas escapes it. If you feed it too often, you’ll continue to decimate the population until it doesn’t exist, and you’re back at the beginning: a mixture of only flour and water.

Myth 8: You have to feed starter every week.

It’s common for sourdough starter keepers to feed it weekly. This makes sense if you bake bread every week: you use half of the starter to bake, and feed the other half to save for next time.

You don’t have to feed starter every week, though. Starter can live for months in the refrigerator, and while it wouldn’t work great if used directly, it can be quickly revived back to its usual vibrant self. (You can even freeze a starter for short amounts of time — say, the time you are away on vacation. No babysitting necessary.)

Myth 9: You need a scale to work with starter.

Starter and sourdough bread recipes often use weight measurements. After all, how can you measure a cup of starter when its volume is constantly changing?

If you use a dough-like starter, you can easily approximate the amount needed, and adjust the consistency of the resulting dough by holding back some water or adding extra. When you feed the starter, it doesn’t really matter if you use the exact number of grams specified. Starter is forgiving.

Myth 10: If you forget to save some starter, it’s gone.

Not so fast! Is your loaf of sourdough rising overnight before baking? Even though it contains salt and other ingredients, this loaf can be used to recreate your starter. After all, the microorganisms making it rise are the same ones you lovingly cared for in your starter.

Simply take a bit of the dough, mix it with warm water and flour to approximately double its size, and let it sit out on the counter. When it has risen, feed it again. You don’t have to worry about exact amounts. Keep feeding it, letting it rise fully each time, gradually thinning out the salt content, until you’ve built up a sizable starter that rises regularly.

(Image credit: Kitchn)

The Soul & Science of Sourdough

Kitchn is partnering with Modernist Cuisine, the brilliant masterminds behind a new masterwork devoted to bread, Modernist Bread (October 24, The Cooking Lab), in our series The Soul & Science of Sourdough.

We’re obsessed with sourdough bread and how it blends both soul and science, history and modernity, and we invite you to discover the magic of its fundamentals together. Bread is a treasured part of life — how can it fit in yours? Find out this month at Kitchn!