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Gluten-Free Sourdough Starter
by Tara Barker
Originally Published in Issue 12::BREAD
There seem to be as many methods and “recipes” for getting a sourdough starter going as there are bread recipes to use it in, and all with varying degrees of strictness. With so many differing opinions and techniques, part of the fun of sourdough is finding a method that works for you.
With that said, here is the method I used to create my starter, and the way I feed it now. Thankfully, cultivating and maintaining a gluten-free sourdough starter isn’t much different than keeping a wheat- or rye-based one, outside of the obvious use of gluten-free flour, so if you’re the adventurous type, feel free to experiment with other techniques, too.
I had decided to create a brown rice starter, going off the assumption that a less-processed grain would have more naturally-occurring yeast cells present on it than a more processed one, like white rice flour, would. Stanley (the name of my starter!) is a 100% hydration starter, meaning that with each feeding, I feed it equal parts (by weight) of flour and water. While I don’t go out of my way to get truly “special” water for Stanley, I do use bottled water for each feeding; I’m wary of the chlorination of our municipal water, and what it might do to all the beneficial bacteria I’m trying to encourage to grow and thrive in my starter. I did “cheat” a tiny bit when I first made my starter, adding a tablespoon of plain yogurt to my flour/water mix. I was not 100% confident in brown rice flour’s ability to not go rancid before my starter acidified enough to keep any bad bacteria in check, so the addition of yogurt gave me some peace of mind. I knew that the lactic acid bacteria in the yogurt (cousins to the Lactobacillus bacteria that would eventually take hold in the starter) would be active from the start and keep any bad bacteria at bay until my fledgling yeast and lactobacilli colonies fully established themselves. That was the only time I ever added anything but flour and water to Stanley.
I like to keep my starter in a glass (not metal!) jar, with a lid that seals, so that I can clearly see what’s going on inside of it. This also benefits the feeding process: when I add water to the starter, rather than stirring it in, I just screw the lid onto the jar and shake it up until the old starter is fully blended with the water. This technique is believed to introduce oxygen to the mixture, which assists with yeast growth. And finally, depending on how much starter I need for my planned baking, I’ll often also feed the portion of Stanley that I’ve removed from the jar. This way, in four to six hours I’ve got plenty of peak starter, in case I want to make a batch of bagels, and pizza dough and a loaf of bread.
Making the Starter
large glass jar with lid
non-chlorinated warm water
brown rice flour
lowfat plain yogurt
- In a large glass jar, combine 100 grams non-chlorinated warm water, 100 grams brown rice flour, and 1 tablespoon lowfat plain yogurt. Stir with a wooden spoon until blended. Cover with a lint-free towel and place in a warm, out-of-the-way spot on the kitchen counter.
- After 24 hours, stir the starter with a wooden spoon. It should be slightly fluffier in texture, and be starting to have a pleasant aroma. Add 100 grams non-chlorinated warm water, screw the lid on tightly and shake the mixture until thoroughly blended. Remove the lid and vigorously stir in 100 grams brown rice flour. The mixture will be very thick. Cover it with the towel and place it back in its “spot” on the counter.
- After 12 hours, the mixture should begin to look puffy and appear to have grown a bit; it should also begin to have a distinctly yeasty scent. Stir it with a wooden spoon, add 50 grams non-chlorinated water, screw the lid on tightly, and shake until blended. Remove the lid and vigorously stir in 50 grams brown rice flour. Cover the jar with the towel, return it to its spot.
- After 12-18 hours, observe your starter. It may be puffy, bubbly and bigger, or it may look a bit deflated, if it’s already risen and fallen back on itself. Either way, the scent should be developing more complexity than just the easily-identifiable “yeast” smell. Repeat Step 3.
- After about 12 hours, your starter should have visibly risen by around 50% and be bubbly, with obvious yeast activity. It may also smell musty, or have a whiff of alcohol on its breath. These are good signs. Repeat Step 3.
- At this point, your starter will be getting too large for its container. (Depending on the size of your jar, it may have outgrown its container a day ago.) It should be increasing in size by at least 50% in under 12 hours, and if your yeast is particularly strong, it might be doubling in size. From here on out, you’ll need to remove a portion of it before each feeding, so that it doesn’t grow to unmanageable proportions. Stir your starter, then remove 300 grams of it before feeding according to Step 3. Toss the removed portion, compost it, or, if you keep hens, you may find that they like old starter just as much as mine do.
- The next day, stir your starter, remove and discard 300 grams of it, and feed it 150 grams non-chlorinated water and 150 grams brown rice flour. Again, cover it with the towel and put it aside.
- From here on out, you can decide if you want to keep your starter on the counter (requiring more frequent feedings) or let it live in the refrigerator (saving you on feedings, but requiring more advance planning when you want to bake with it). If it lives on the counter, you should continue feeding it every 2-3 days; a refrigerated starter can go up to a week between feedings (or longer, once it’s well-established and very strong). Either way, continue to remove 300 grams of old starter before feeding the remaining starter with 150 grams of water and 150 grams of flour. You can change up the flour you use, subbing half white rice flour, as I do for a lighter starter, or try using millet, oat or buckwheat flours; all have their own unique qualities, and it can be fascinating to explore them.
Although you can start baking with your starter once it’s a week old, it probably won’t have enough leavening power to really rise your dough. (Though it will begin to impart a desirable sourness to your recipes.) Therefore, in the beginning you may need to add ¼ teaspoon of commercial yeast to sourdough bread recipes to boost the wild yeast’s leavening power. Once your starter is about a month old, though, you should be able to leave the commercial yeast out and rely on just your starter for leavening. Just remember that sourdough starters work more slowly than commercial yeast, so don’t feel discouraged if it takes 4-6 hours for your dough to rise; this is perfectly normal.
Lastly, sourdough bread recipes will always call for “peak” starter. This simply means starter that has been fed and reached its peak activity level (usually indicated by doubling in size), before getting overripe and deflating a bit. A strong starter will usually reach peak stage about 4 hours after being fed, and will stay there for one or two hours. This gives you a nice window of time in which to mix up a batch or two of dough.
And of course, it is a tradition to give your starter a name. While this seems silly at first, you’ll soon discover that your starter has a personality of its own—complete with quirks—and naming it will seem like a natural step. I highly recommend choosing a name that amuses your children.
Find a recipe using this gluten-free sourdough starter in the following post.