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Say hello to my pet sourdough!

Monday, May 3, 2010

I’ve been making my own bread for about three years now, but up to this point I’d never really given sourdough much consideration. While clicking around some food blogs a while back, it suddenly dawned on me that sourdough starter means so much more than sourdough bread. Why, there’s sourdough crumpets! Sourdough English muffins! Sourdough pancakes! Sourdough banana bread! Sourdough lava cake! (These are all basically breads, I suppose, but not bread in the breadiest sense.) It blows my mind! And so, I had to find a starter.

The problem is that sourdough starters seem to be these mythical creatures that are only kept by grandmothers of yesteryear, and they’ve kept the same vat going since the Civil War. In order to obtain some starter, you’ve got to know someone who knows someone who knows a grandmother, or you’ll just have to buck the system and try to start your own. I posted on Facebook that I was looking for a mythical grandma with some starter, (obviously the #1 go-to-place for sourdough starters) and I got lots of helpful tips on starting my own from the air, and one friend suggested that I order some dried starter from the internet. It had never occurred to me that you could purchase dried starter – but commercial yeast is dried, and if the starter has been properly preserved, the bacterias should survive as well. She recommended this eBay seller, and for only $6.50 I figured what did I have to lose? Plus, since I started my starter back in February, I didn’t think I’d have much luck catching good yeasties from the air in my cold, dry, cold, cold, dry house. (You can also buy fresh starter from King Arthur Flour.)

My starter came in the mail on a Tuesday, and I decided to start it that night. Seeing as my house gets down to 58 °F during the day and night during the winter, I was worried it would take forever for the yeasties to get going. So I did what any sensible person would do – I tucked the jar of starter in my coat pocket, and took it on the bus with me to work. The building where I work is about 1.3 billion years old, and in the winter the steam radiators that pump out heat constantly. So starting that Wednesday morning, I set my starter on the windowsill next to the radiator, and a bag of flour resided on my desk. Because I am a giant dork.

Sarah’s Starter Lab Notebook

Day 1: At about 9 p.m., I mixed 1/2 tsp of dried starter with 1 Tbsp flour and 1 Tbsp water in 8 oz canning jar. Ripped a small square of paper towel, and screwed the jar rim over the paper towel to let it breath. Set near the heat register (in my house) overnight.

Sourdough starter Day 0

Day 2: In the morning the starter was not showing many bubbles. Took it to work, and set on the windowsill near the radiator. In the early afternoon a small patch of dry goop had formed on top of the starter, added 1 Tbsp flour and 1 Tbsp water at this point because I was worried it was getting dry. So this was about the 16 hour mark. Checked in the late afternoon, very small bubbles are apparent on the surface and when the starter is gently swirled in the jar. Did not feed again at 24 hour mark.

Sourdough starter Day 1

Day 3: In the morning the dry layer had returned to the top of the starter. The layer was quite a bit larger this time, covering the entire starter, and sticking to the sides. It actually formed a slight dome because of the bubbles underneath! This time I decided to peel the dried patch off the top of the starter. Fed 3 Tbsp flour, 3 Tbsp water. Very obvious yeast and fermented smell from the bacteria (like a brewery) and lots of bubbles! Towards the evening, the starter wasn’t doing much, so I threw away about 3-4 Tbsp of the starter and added another 2 Tbsp flour + 2 Tbsp water. The starter doubled quickly – within an hour, so it must have been hungry.

Sourdough starter Day 2

Day 4: When starter has calmed down, consistency is much more runny, it has very small bubbles, and the yeast smell is more apparent over the sour smell from the bacteria. (The sour smell is a little more developed now – yesterday it was more like a brewery, today it is a little more like a fermenting apple, neither of which are bad smells in my opinion!) Kept just 1 Tbsp of the starter in the jar, and added 2 Tbsp flour and 2 Tbsp water. Starter had doubled after about 3.5 hours. The instructions say not to feed your starter before it has reached its peak, because that will make for a weaker starter. Let it sit another hour before dumping all but 1 Tbsp of starter again, this time I added 2 Tbsp flour, 2 Tbsp water. Starter doubling pretty rapidly again, already doubled after 3 hours. Hopefully starter will double by the evening, and I can start a loaf of bread! The recipe I am looking at calls for 2/3 cup of starter, so this afternoon’s feeding I will give more flour. (I only ended up with 1/3 cup that night, enough for 1 loaf. It continued to bubble away vigorously over the weekend and I had several cups by the following Monday.)

(Some people will say you should let your starter go for a week or two before using it, but I figure what do you have to lose! Except some flour. My first loaf of bread from that weekend was successful, but subsequent loaves have had a better texture.)

Sourdough bread starting

This is called expanding the starter, for the first loaf of bread that I made. Basically the wet starter becomes part of a stiffer bread dough. Later these pieces are cut up and incorporated into more flour, water and salt for making a traditional sourdough loaf.


I started my starter about two months ago, and I’ve been keeping it in the fridge and feeding it about twice weekly – tossing all but 1/4 cup and feeding it with 1/2 cup flour and slightly less than 1/2 cup water.  After my first few loaves, and some sourdough pizza dough, I decided to give sourdough English muffins a try. These little buns are surprisingly easy and fun to make, and the finished product is nothing short of fantastic.

Sourdough English Muffins

I’ve wanted to make English muffins for a while, but the Alton Brown recipe I was familiar with required metal rings (fashioned from tuna cans or purchased) to mold the muffins on the griddle because of the very wet dough. I am not a canned tuna aficionado, so I was happy to find a recipe that used a somewhat stiffer dough which allows the muffins to be griddle-baked without assistance.

This recipe comes from Clotilde, who is having a lot of fun with her own little sourdough starter friend named Philémon. (I think that all sourdough starters should have clever nicknames. I’m trying to think of one for mine!) The dough comes together quickly, and it is soft and somewhat reminiscent of a certain pretzel dough from the bit of butter and sugar in the mix. I was able to complete these in an evening – and depending on the activity level of your sourdough starter (and when you start the muffins), you may or may not have to fridge them overnight before the second rise. Subsequent batches I have let fridge overnight, and I do think it allows the flavor to develop a little more. Luckily a bit of commercial yeast ensures they will rise eventually!

Sourdough English Muffins

I think griddle temperature is probably the most crucial thing here – a careful balance between efficient internal cooking and slow surface browning is key. The muffins are finished in the oven for 6-8 minutes after the griddle to ensure the interiors are cooked through. My first batch browned a little too quickly in the griddle, and needed just a few extra minutes in the oven to make sure everything was cooked in the center. They won’t brown much more in the oven, so you have a little wiggle room with your first batch!

Sourdough English Muffins

I wasn’t going to sample one of these right after they came out of the oven, since it was already after 10:30 p.m. when I got around to baking them, but the slightly sweet smell from the honey in the dough and the cornmeal on the griddle – well, I just had to check to make sure the crumb was right? For science? And then I danced around the kitchen for a moment after splitting open the first muffin – success! Craggy and chewy and crumby, and a flavor that goes above and beyond anything I’ve bought at the store. So give these a whirl, for the sake of science if nothing else.

Sourdough English Muffins

Adapted from Chocolate and Zucchini

Makes 6-8 muffins, depending on how big you make them. Doubles or triples with ease, and your friends will love you forever if you tuck 4 of them in a quart-sized zip-top bag and bring them over to share!

These keep for a week or more in the fridge, and will probably freeze well although I have not yet tried freezing. Fork-split before toasting – stab the fork tines all around the middle of the bun and split to get the craggy interior crumb.


8.5 oz (about 250 g) bread flour, or a combination of 1/3 white whole wheat flour and 2/3 bread flour (Feel free to experiment with this ratio)

3 oz (85 g) ripe sourdough starter, fed 12-24 hours before if you store it in the fridge (6-8 hours before if you store it on the counter, Clotilde has a picture in another post.)

1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp instant yeast (SAF Instant or Red Star Bread Machine/Rapid Rise Yeast, not active dry)
1/2 Tbsp honey
1 Tbsp butter , softened
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons milk plus more if needed (You can also use buttermilk, although I haven’t tried it.)
cornmeal or semolina flour for sprinkling

Make the dough

1. Place flour, starter, milk, salt, yeast, butter and honey into the bowl of a stand mixer. Stir by hand with a wooden spoon, or the paddle attachment just until the dough comes together. Add a little more milk at this point if unable to incorporate all of the flour. Switch to the dough hook and knead for 8 minutes on low to medium-low speed, or knead by hand ont the counter for 10 minutes. The dough will be smooth and tacky, but not sticky.

2. Wipe out the stand mixer bowl and lightly oil, and roll the dough to coat. Cover lightly with plastic wrap or a towel and allow to rise on the counter for 4 hours. At this point, you can proceed to make the muffins or place the dough in the refrigerator overnight.

Shape the Muffins

1. If the dough has been stored in the refrigerator overnight, allow to come to room temperature before proceeding.

2. Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured counter, trying to deflate as little as possible. Using a small knife or bench scraper, cut the dough into 6-7 equal pieces. (I used the scale, each should weigh about 2.5-3 oz/70-85 g) Shape the muffins by pinching the bottom and rolling lightly to seal and form a tight skin. (Clotilde links to a shaping tutorial in her recipe.)

3. Generously sprinkle a silicone baking mat, parchment paper, counter or baking sheet with cornmeal or semolina flour. Place the shaped muffins on the cornmeal, and sprinkle the tops with more cornmeal. Cover loosely with a piece of plastic wrap, and allow to sit at room temperature for 2 hours, or until puffed and almost doubled in size. (Pre-puffed, puffed.)

Bake the Muffins

1. I used a well-seasoned cast iron skillet without any grease or oil, but you could also lightly grease any non-stick skillet. Preheat the skillet over medium-low heat, and preheat the oven to 350°. Have a baking sheet lined with parchment or a silicone baking sheet ready for the finishing the griddled muffins.

2. Gently transfer the muffins one at a time to the preheated skillet, being careful not to deflate. In my 10″ skillet I can fit 3-4 muffins. Be vigilant – check the muffins frequently, especially with the first batch, and turn the heat down if you find they are browning too quickly. Once the muffin is lightly golden brown, gently turn to the other side and repeat. (Err on the side of lighter brown, remember you will be toasting them again!) The muffins took anywhere from 3-6 minutes per side, depending on my skill with the temperature setting. The longer cooking in the skillet, the less time they will need in the oven.

3. Repeat the process with subsequent batches, starting the next batch on the griddle while the previous batch is finishing in the oven.

4. Transfer the griddled muffins to the prepared baking sheet, and finish in the preheated oven for 6-8 additional minutes. I tested the internal temperature of the muffins, and checked that they were above 190 °F (88 °C) before cooling.

5. Cool the finished muffins on a wire baking rack. Do enjoy one hot out of the oven – no additional toasting required!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Wednesday, May 5, 2010 7:31 am

    So glad you had good success with that recipe! I haven’t made these in a little while, but you’re making me want to start a batch right now. 🙂

    • Wednesday, May 5, 2010 6:13 pm

      Thank you for all of your sourdough inspiration! I have recently been experimenting with the baguettes and they are oh so tasty!!

  2. Meggie permalink
    Monday, June 7, 2010 7:50 pm

    LOVE your blog. Keep posting!

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