Sour Dough Starter Blog_2
Photo by Donna

For those who want to capture and grow your own yeast to make bread for the BLT From Scratch Challenge, or for anyone who simply wants to make delicious bread at home (bread far more flavorful than that made from commercial yeast), here's how to do get a starter going and do it fast.

A while back, Carri Thurman, of Two Sisters Bakery in Homer, Alaska, left a comment on my blog about using purple cabbage as the source of abundant wild yeast.  Last week I decided to give it a shot. Worked so easily (I had a bubbling starter in 48 hours), I didn't trust it and did it again.  Worked great.

I've long been a huge fan of Nancy Silverton's Breads of La Brea Bakery, a book devoted to breads leavened with sourdough starters.  It's a great bread book, but her method for achieving a starter takes fifteen days and gives highly specific flour and water amounts for feeding the thing, all of which is clearly unnecessarily difficult by about 12 days and pounds of wasted flour.  I know she was trying to make it fool proof, so that even a beginner would be successful, and when I did her version years ago, it did indeed work.

But so did Carri's and it's so easy.  In a quart measuring cup or other container, put in equal weights of flour and water, about 8 or 10 ounces of each.  Stir it and and put a leaf or two of organic red cabbage. Carri covers it, I leave mine open hoping to lure more unsuspecting gas producing microflora.

Let it sit overnight, then add another addition of flour and water, same amounts as before.  You should have an active starter after another night.  Carri recommends 12 hours between feedings.  Also, if conditions are too hot or too cold, this may affect your starter.  If you don't have a bubbly starter after 48 hours, give it another day.

Here's a picture of Carri's really healthy starter.  This has been well developed and well used; it takes a little more feeding and use to get it this healthy. The starter pictured above had been fed about an hour before the photo was taken, so the yeast is just starting to get going. The more you work with your starter, the more you'll get a sense of its activity level and so you'll know when they'll make the best bread (make bread when they're very hungry!).

Carri's ratio for bread is right on the money, too.  1 part starter : 1 part water : 2 parts flour.  Add salt, about 2% of the total weight. So for a good sized country loaf, use 10 ounces starter (and thus .8 ounces salt). If you're metric, use 300 grams starter, 24 grams salt.

Carrie says it doesn't have to be cabbage but anything that attracts "that white film…grapes, even cumin," she says.  Funniest part of the story is that Carri got it via Martha, a fact she seems slightly embarrassed by:

"My version came from a very old Martha Stewart episode where she was visiting a bakery in NYC and the guy there did it. It was at least 10 years ago, I was home from work with a sick  child and saw the program and immediately wanted to try it, though I had no oganically grown red cabbage to use. Oddly enough the next day a good friend stopped by with some red cabbage from his garden and the rest is history!  Martha was my only way of getting information at that point in my life!"


Cheers to you both! People who grow their own cabbage, to make their own starter, for the BLT Challenge get extra points!

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69 Wonderful responses to “Simple Sourdough Starter”

  • Toluca Gourmet

    My starter did very well using Carri’s excellent recipe. I would suggest taking out the cabbage after a day, the starter produced some water at the bottom that I think must have come from the leaves.
    Carri’s ratio for the dough was a little low on flour for me. I probably added almost another part flour to the dough. Which surprised me as I’m in So California and it’s almost 90* outside.

  • chris brandow

    another data point for the source of cabbage’s effect: i took home a handful of shredded red cabbage from our local Souplantation (certainly washed, certainly not organic) and I had a very nice strong bubbling starter within two days.

    FWIW

  • Lisa

    A friend sent me this link upon hearing about my Silverton starter that’s almost 2 years old and thriving. This starter is so strong, that when I was away from home for 3 months due to a severe knee injury, surgery et al.., and the feedings were few and far between because friends and family forgot, it still kept it’s strength and flavor. In fact, I don’t think I’d call it ‘Nancy Silverton’s grape method starter’ anymore, as I’ve futzed with so many different flours, grains, hydrations, used it in mixed starters for new starters etc..that it’s taken on an identity of it’s own. I actually named it – *drum roll, please* Herbie..LOL

  • babushka bakery

    I tossed some chopped coleslaw mix into a portion of my Silverton sour. Got very fast fermentation and a sweet smell. Even turned pink! (chopped cabbage bleeds). I think the professor needs to consider the role of sulpher in the life span of the yeast organism and the bacteria found naturally in these starters. I have a nice photo comparison if it’s possible to upload. Re; Sherri; I would advise using a higher gluten flour, more water,pinch of commercial yeast, oven temp to 450 and bake loaf to 200 degrees.

  • carri

    sherri, I would make a guess that it’s your dry (compared to our humid, rainforest-like humidity) air, the flour is sucking up lots more liquid than mine, I think…that might explain Ruhlman’s slack dough, since Cleveland is more humid, even, than up here…add more water until you get a dough that feels right to you, the starter should have plenty of power to make it rise!
    We often mix the dough and then retard in the fridge for 8 hours or so…let come to room temp, form into loaves, rise again…then bake. I go for 195-200 degree interior temp.

  • Bob delGrosso

    Right! I forgot about the water in the starter. All other bases covered, 75% percent water should produce a lighter crumb. Like Carri implied.

    What Ruhlman said too :-)

  • sherri

    Thank you for your prompt answers BdG, Carri and Ruhlman.
    1. I weighed the ingredients, per instructions: 100 g water, 100 g starter, 200 g King Arthur AP flour.
    2. The dough had a single rise 2-3 hours until doubled in size, punched down and rose a second time while oven pre-heated to 500 degrees.
    3. Steam-assist in the form of water poured on cast iron griddle pre-heated in oven when bread was put into oven.
    4. Temperature lowered to 425 and baked +/- 35 minutes, until interior registered 185 degrees.
    5. Let cool.

    I have been baking for a while and thought this was a very stiff dough when I was kneading it, so yes, I did sneak a little extra water into it.

    25% humidity here, house is 80 degrees w/AC.

    Maybe I am more accustomed to the wet doughs I have been working with recently but I’ll keep trying because I like the starter and want this to work. More hints appreciated.
    Thanks.

  • carri

    um, in this case isn’t more of an 75% hydration rate since there is water in the starter (which is made up of 1/2 water, 1/2 flour)…sherri, what kind of flour are you using? is it dry where you are? As Bob said, add more water for a lighter crumb.

  • ruhlman

    sherri,

    it’s also important to let the dough rise after it’s been shaped. if you shaped it and baked it right away it would be very dense.

    After shaping the dough let it rise for an hour, or better, shape the dough, put it in the fridge over night, pull it out an hour before baking. Try baking in a dutch oven covered for the first half hour for an awesome crust.

  • sherri

    Oops, typo on my post above. lhe salt should read 2% by weight, not .2 as written.

  • Bob delGrosso

    Sherri
    1 part water: 2 parts flour is a 50% hydration rate and will produce a dense loaf. That’s just the way it is. Add more water to lighten the crumb.

  • sherri

    Am I the only person to have had trouble with the bread recipe itself? I found the ratio (2 flour:1starter:1water:.2salt, all by weight) to produce a *very* dense loaf. The starter itself is wizard; thanks for the great cabbage leaf truc.

  • carri

    ATCer, it could be that something funny got into the starter to make it go, though, it seems like it just over fed itself.(in this case, we throw away all but a pound and feed it a pound each of flour and water) Bob delGrosso, might have some thoughts on this as well!

  • Bob delGrosso

    Carri & ACTer

    This is a classic case of leuconostoc bacterial contamination. These bacteria are partially responsible for the fermetation of saurkraut and require anerobic ccnditions to thrive.

    Because ACTers initial was “too thick” it was, in essense, anerobic. For it to be aerobic it would have had to be thinned and aerated (by stirring). When ACTer added the cabbage he/she inoculated it with leconostoc bacteria which produce lots of gas, then lots of stink gas as the colony matures.

    One cure for this is to lower the pH with cooked pineapple juice. These bacteria do not do well at low pH but the wild yeasts do.

  • carri

    nice rip BdG…I knew we could count on you! ACTer…next time wash the cabbage leaf off in the water, then mix with the flour. if it does the same thing after a couple of days, try the pineapple juice thing Bob suggests…you may have a ph problem.

  • Robert

    Alaskans are a crafty bunch. Imagine my consternation after keeping a Nancy Silverton grape starter fed and watered for all these months just to realize that Alaskan cabbage is the easy way to great bread. I have only gone through the process to simulate Varasano’s pizza.

    I want to know Carri’s opinion on pizza in Homer. Finn’s or Fat Olive’s?

  • Carri

    Robert…it depends which one I’m closest to. Since I am good friends with both it’s merely a matter of proximity when I’m hungry!

  • ATCer

    Here’s what happened to me. I’d like to hear if anyone knows what went wrong.

    Day 1: Mixed 8 ounces by weight water and flour. I thought the mixture was too thick to do anything. I added an outer leaf of red cabbage from garden.

    Day 2: I was surprised to see that the mixture had thinned out and had a lot of bubbling action. I added another 6 ounces flour and water and mixed it all together. I left the leaf in mixture. I didn’t have time to make anything with the starter that day.

    Day 3: Mixture had overflowed the cup during the night, but was now flat, broken and very stinky. Similar to a very strong washed rind cheese. I added another dose of flour and water. After a couple hours of no action and putrid smell, I tossed it.

    Should I try again? What went wrong?

  • Rhonda

    Ok, looking forward to reading this thread tommorrow for an Ass-Whippin, but I stand my ground.

    Bacteria, yes, of course, but I do want some confirmation that the CD gas is in the equation.

  • Ziggy

    The wild yeast is contained in the flour. All you need is flour and water to create a sourdough levain. It’s not rocket science and our ancestors have been doing it for thousands of years. Yeast that lives on cabbage, grapes, and other such items is yeast that is natural to those ingredients, not flour.
    I’m amused by all the hysteria over a very simple process.

  • Marla

    I’m entering day 3 of this starter right now, using organic kale (with lots of good white film/dust) in lieu of the cabbage. It’s going quite vigorously – can’t wait to try it in a baked good.

  • Rhonda

    Ok, yes, it is the yeast. But why, Chef delGrosso, why?

    Because of the Carbon dioxide that the yeast emits!

    Thank you, everyone, I will be here all week…

    Also, Chef delGrosso, I read your tweets and, well, you are just going to have to agree with me.

    You know what I am talking about!

    All I am at liberty to say is that perhaps a certain bread starter was “originalized” :)

  • Darren

    I’d read once that you could fake a sourdough starter with store bought yeast and live culture yogurt. I’ve had a starter before but it never really got sour, never made a tangy bread. Any thoughts on the yogurt? Maybe do the cabbage thing, then with the second addition of flour and water substitute milk and add some yogurt?

  • Just me

    To answer the question of why it works … the article itself says it’s the yeasts on the cabbage leaf. The woman who washes the cabbage leaf off is obviously using the warm water wash in the final mix.

    Covering works to keep other things from contaminating the starter. I’d do that if you’re dosing your starter with something in particular such as a San Francisco strain. The starter should stay what you originally dose it with so long as other organisms don’t out-compete the original colony. So covering can help keep your starter pure.

  • elsimom

    I just turned 40, so I think my dad has had his starter about 30 years. He got it from some friends. It was back in the days of the “brandied fruit” sitting on everyone’s counter as well, and he liked bread better than fruit, so . . .
    When he gets sick of dealing with, he just throws it in the freezer – sometimes for months (a year?) at a time. He mostly uses his for the coffee cake that his grandchildren love. (You can’t imagine how cute it is to have a semi-verbal 18 month old come running and yelling “coff CAKE!!!!” at the mere mention of the stuff).
    Maybe I’ll start one of my own!

  • allen

    Let’s not forget sourdough pizza, sticky buns and even brioche (just add sugar, eggs, whole milk and a little vanilla). I make them all the time with a starter that I’ve had for over a year. Just put it in the frij. when you won’t be able to feed it and it will come back to life right away when it gets to room temperature. I made mine with grapes, and found that what you start with is not important, the starter becomes whatever is naturally occuring in your house, if you take San Fransico starter to Atlanta it becomes whatever is occuring in the air in the room in Atlanta. Oh and pancakes, lets not forget pancakes and waffles. Num num num…

    Here’s a good link for beginers that has video demos: http://www.breadtopia.com/

  • Veron

    I had a starter for a while but I killed it…I did give it a proper burial though. I am inspired to try again after seeing that overflowing starter from Carri’s blog.

  • carri

    um, yeah…Bob, You and my bakery partner (Sharon) should get together…she loves all that test batch stuff…me, I just wanna make bread.

  • Bob delGrosso

    Carri

    Well, if you are washing the cabbage in warm water there is not going to be much yeast or bacteria on it so perhaps what it is doing is adding sugar.

    To get a better handle about what the cabbage is doing I would break the starter into three samples.

    Sample 1 is a control that you do nothing to.
    Sample 2 contains washed cabbage
    Sample 3 add a 3% (the typical sugar content of cabbage) of the weight of however much cabbage you put in sample 2 as dextrose or fructose (fruit sugar)

    If there is no difference in the behavior of 2 & 3 you might conclude that the cabbage is upping the sugar content and acting as yeast food.

    I’d also try using washed and unwashed cabbage to see if there is a difference.

    In any case, it’s fair to say that if your starter has lasted 8 years the cabbage is not introducing anything nasty.

  • carri

    It’s true, Bob, our starter has lasted !the first) time about 8 years…feeding and using every day.(people up here love to brag about how long there starter has been going) I have stored starter in the fridge for a week or two at a time. Let it come to room temp before feeding it, so it does require thinking ahead. We often mix our dough and retard in the fridge overnight for even more flavor. on the issue of the cabbage, you’re right, it can be anything that has that white film on it. I wash this off in the warm water and do not generally leave the the cabbage in the starter. I have tried it both ways, the guy I saw do it tried it both ways…didn’t seem to make much difference. You’re getting all agro on me with that fruit acid thing…totally tripping me out!

  • luis

    The best thing about this method is the two day duration. Similar to no knead bread. If it produces a beautiful starter like the picture shows then its worth a shot.

  • luis

    I also like the idea of covering the starter. The whole point is letting the yeast from the cabbage ferment the dough. I organic cabbages are easily available in most markets. This is great Ruhlman, more ideas I can use.

  • MattyDC

    So…when we say “feed” the starter, is it only adding flour and water in equal weights, or does the “feeding” include adding more cabbage.

    Also, does one mix the flower and water together prior to or after adding it to the starter vessel.

    Thanks.

  • blowback

    I just use unbleached stoneground organic wholewheat flour with bottled still water and my starter starts everytime. The natural yeasts that love wheat are already sat on the outside of the grains just waiting for their chance so give it to them. No fungicide, chlorine, bleach or heat to kill the natural yeasts and away they go.

  • Rhonda

    Carri, you Rock!

    Chef delGrosso — you are a Super Model now and it will do you no good to be smart…

    Stab in the dark… Cabbage works due to the emmission of Carbon Dioxide Gas?

  • Rhonda

    For those of you just following along & for your edification and pleasure — Chef delGrosso knows EXACTLY why this works. He is a genius and if he is not too cranky today, he may share…

  • carri

    Bob, I THINK it’s the yeast collected on the leaf. perhaps it has just the right surface for such a thing to cling to…Rhonda, I am not worthy! And for ‘old wives tale’ Paul, I think that it could work if you have an environment where there is alot of yeast flying around…rumour is there are hundreds of year old bakeries who never use yeast…it’s already in the bowl!

  • Peter

    I would imagine that the reason cabbage works for this is also the reason cabbage makes for some awesome Kim Chi. I assume it has something to do with the sugars in the cabbage, maybe they’re an unusual type that is excellent for yeast reproduction.

  • Karin from Cleve and missing it in VA

    I have always been lost about the “feeding part”

    The few sourdoughs I make are for the loaf only and not from maintaining a starter.

    When do you feed? I know it can go in the frige and become dormant.

    After you use it in your recipe, how do you keep it fed for longevity?

  • Bob delGrosso

    Well, I may be a genius but I quit being a supermodel (I may be a poseur but posing for photos all day is too boring.) and I’m really not sure what is going on here. Neither am I sure that there is anything unique about cabbage in this application.

    Onions, grapes, apples, potatoes, virtually any plant will produce a similar result when you add it to flour and water.
    And what you add when you introduce these things is not only yeast, but sugar, bacteria and, in some instances, organic acids.

    It is VERY suspicious that you note that adding the cabbage results in vigorously bubbling within 24 hours, because this is exactly what you would expect if you had deliberately added leuconostoc bacteria (http://tinyurl.com/nuhxjx)-the bacteria that are naturally present on cabbage and other plants and that play a key role in the fermentation of sauerkraut. You will know if this is what happened, if over a period of weeks, your starter develops off odors. Peter Reinhart has noted that new starter cultures often become contaminated with leuconostoc bacterium and suggests dosing the starter with canned or cooked pineapple juice to drop the pH to a level that favors yeast growth. (http://tinyurl.com/afmgo5)

    Note that you cannot use fresh pineapple juice due to the presence of the protein digesting enzyme bromelain.

    I like to experiment with my starter by adding fruits, veges, juices etc. and have at various times produced mixtures that smell like swamps, turned dough into slime (from protein digesting bacterial enzymes and some that have tasted like vinegar. It’s obvious that I regularly dump my starter and start a new batch.

    I have not tried cabbage yet, but will do so as soon as I get some.

    Finally, the value of any method of producing starter is a function of how many months or years the starter is effective without becoming colonized by organisms that funk it up.

    Sad to say (because I’m a lazy baker and always looking for easier ways to do things) that the time-tested way to assure that a starter stays that way is by making it and feeding it with wheat or rye and water. In other words, if this cabbage-fed starter will be as good as the type that requires throwing away pounds of flour, it will last as long -which is to say “as long as you feed it.”

  • ruhlman

    paul, i disagree. i’ve made a starter with just flour and water sitting out, but it doesn’t always work. or else took a long time. this one worked twice fast.

    you can store starter in fridge indefinitely. take it out a couple days before using and feed it to rejuvenate.

    and i’m a martha fan too. on TV she doesn’t have a stupid smile plastered on her face like almost every single dump and stir host.

  • cwolfe

    And does it have to be organic cabbage? Michael’s post doesn’t specify, but Cari’s comment about the origins of the recipe does.

  • babushka bakery

    Love the idea of using cabbage leaves….I’ve been using the Silverton method for over 10 years and it can behave sickly if not refreshed properly and often. I will certainly try this to refresh my Silverton starter. As for the organic question; sometimes the chemicals found on non organic grapes can cause the starter to die. I’ve had starters last years when using organic grapes.

  • cwolfe

    What I want to know is: who coordinated the blogher ads to be the same shade of purple as the cabbage? lol

  • Paul Kobulnicky

    Old wives tale Michael. You can get a bubbly starter in two days with two conditions:

    Start wet … use 1 to 1 flour and water by weight whole wheat flour (the coarser and more whole the better). You did this in the cabbage recipe and most other 15 day recipes make you start with a higher ratio of flour.

    Do it in the summer so the starter can be nice a warm yet still out in the air (which is where the bacteria are). It is the summer you know.

    The addition of cabbage, grape skins, etc is totally unnecessary expect for the story.

  • Jenny

    Rhubarb mother from Fergus Henderson’s Beyond Nose to Tail cookbook is another alternative. We still have plenty fresh in Seattle, anyway.

  • Sam

    Does it have to be red cabbage? I have a couple of green ones almost ready to go in the garden.

    Also, does it have to be a leaf from the head of the cabbage or would one of the outer sun-drawing leaves suffice? (These get composted anyway, etc.)

  • Sam

    I got red cabbage from my CSA last week, so it looks like I will be making a starter soon. On a side note, I went to Homer last April and had the pleasure of eating at Two Sisters… What a great bakery!

  • Tags

    Although some folks seem to home in on the few flaws she has revealed to us, Martha Stewart’s contributions are an overwhelming plus compared to her negatives.

    My favorite Venetian butter cookie recipe came from her show. And she’s never been afraid to use plenty of butter.

  • Laura

    How wonderful! I’m quite excited to give this a try. I too had been following the Nancy Silverton method and did that totally arduous method of creating starter that she recommends years ago. But my god, way too much. Lately I’ve been loving Dan Lepard’s book A Handmade Loaf. He suggests a much short and less wasteful method for making starter, although it still takes six days. But I love his recipes…many of them are virtually no-knead which is quite attractive to a lazy girl like me. But then you can’t get much easier than Ruhlman’s bread ration, now can you?

  • Tom Hirschfeld

    I made Nancy Silverton’s version and had it for seven years until my in-laws threw it out while I was on vacation cause they thought it was food gone wrong. I have not redone it since but instead used canned pinnapple juice as recommended by Peter Rheinhart in his whole wheat book. It works great, too. Got some red cabbage in the garden think I will five this a try

  • Rafe

    Shame at learning things from Martha Stewart is misplaced. My wife has collected a number of truly awesome recipes from her show, including the best meatloaf I’ve ever had and a meatball recipe that is just ridiculously good.

  • carri

    Great Post Michael! I am flattered and excited to share this with so many people…I do have one change that we recently made in our salt and we have now reduced it to 1% total dough weight…it gives a lighter browner, crustier loaf! Thanks again…but are you trying to get something going between me and Martha? LOL!

  • dadekian

    I did a starter with grapes once and didn’t love it, but the cumin idea sounds very interesting. Thanks.

  • Natalie Sztern

    just a week ago reading an insider magazine my pizza guy gave me to eat and read, i read about a man who makes his dough using grapes and I thought amazing…so now i humbly realize i have such little knowledge.

    have to say that since this blog i am becoming an artisan snob and i find myself going out of my way to make sure my product is artisanal.

  • sara

    I was thoroughly soured (no pun intended) on making sourdough starters after slogging through the wasteful process described in the Cheese Board Collective’s baking book. The focaccia came out good exactly once, and then I got really annoyed that I was going through so much flour, and went on to regular yeasted breads.

    So, I’ll be trying the cabbage leaves when my cabbages in the garden are ready :)

    Plums and grapes are a good source of natural yeast for the starter, too, I hear tell.

  • Charles

    Series of potentially annoying questions – How do you keep the starter or leftover starter? Move it to the fridge? And how long can you keep it there? Bring it back to room temperature before using?

    Thanks – much appreciated. I have just begun baking my own bread – learning all the tricks and techniques is almost as fun as eating the bread…

  • lisaiscooking

    I followed Silverton’s instructions for my starter but went with the half quantity suggested to reduce wasted flour. My starter has been doing great in the warm summer weather. For regular feedings, I bring it to room temp. and give it a cup of flour and half cup water. To feed it the day before baking with it, I do the multiple feedings as suggested in the La Brea book. It’s now achieved a really nice flavor, and the bread from it keeps getting better.