The Care and Feeding of Gluten-Free Sourdough Starter

Bread Series, #2

In the first of my posts on baking gluten-free yeast breads, I noted the importance of IMG_3014bread baking, sharing, and eating to communal participation and bonding. Perhaps the aspect of bread making that best materially exemplifies its role in binding generations, cultures, and individuals to one another is the use of a sourdough starter as leavening in a loaf of bread. The passing down of sourdough starters from parent to child provides a tangible link between generations, just as the practice of leavening bread with a sponge links bread-bakers in the 21st century with bread-bakers in c 300 BC Egypt, the first people believed to have used yeast for bread. In our family, the passing of the sourdough starter worked its way backward; my son passed his gluten-free sourdough starter up to me. I have since shared our family gluten-free starter with the wonderful people who took the gluten-free bread baking class I taught this past March. Share sourdough starter, share the love!

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Baking bread slowly, with the use of a starter or sponge, is making a come-back, even in the gluten-eating world. The popularity of such bread cookbooks as My Bread: The Revolutionary No Knead, No Work Method, by Jim Lahey, and Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, by Joe Hertzberg and Zoë François, attest to the rise in interest in the return to traditional methods of baking yeast breads. The recipes in these cookbooks rely on slow fermentation for leavening. Slow fermented breads are more flavorful, and their nutrients are more bioavailable (easier for the body to absorb).

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Although many people value the wholesomeness of slow-fermented, home-baked bread, without the objectionable ingredients found in commercially processed breads, many people also appreciate the breakdown of gluten that occurs when bread dough is slowly fermented. The slow fermentation actually makes the bread more digestible. Today’s commercial bakeries use fast-acting yeasts to speed up the rising of the breads they produce; furthermore, these bakeries often add extra gluten to the dough of whole wheat breads, in the form of vital wheat gluten. The vital wheat gluten aids the elasticity of  whole wheat flour, which has a lower gluten density than white flour. These relatively recent changes in the way mass-produced bread is made has, in fact, lead to speculation that the growing incidence of gluten-intolerance may have more to do with the way bread is made, rather than the gluten that it contains.

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Baking bread from scratch makes sense for people who have to eat gluten-free for the same healthy eating reasons as it does for gluten-eating people. Although commercially processed gluten-free breads seem to contain fewer objectionable  ingredients than commercially produced gluten-containing breads, they still contain some ingredients some people may prefer to avoid.We also have additional incentive to put time, energy, and resources into baking bread from scratch. Although home-made bread always tastes better than commercially produced bread, people who eat gluten can find decent gluten-containing breads in stores and bakeries everywhere. They don’t have to bake their own bread to enjoy a nice slice of bread. Commercially produced gluten-free bread that has a decent flavor and texture is, however, almost nonexistent. To enjoy a flavorful piece of bread that also has the texture of the wheat bread we remember from our pre-Celiac diagnosis days, we gluten-free people just have to bake it ourselves.

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Sandwiches made with gluten-free sourdough bread hold together and taste delicious.

Fortunately, slow-fermentation works as well for gluten-free bread baking as it does for gluten bread baking, so people who eat gluten-free can indulge in chewy, moist, flavorful breads made with sourdough starter. Gluten-free sourdough starters are as easy to begin and maintain as gluten-containing starters. Even though the gluten-free version of sourdough bread don’t have the same airy, large hole-y interiors as their gluten-containing counterpart, they do have that pleasant tangy flavor and chewy texture. But also like their gluten-containing counterpart, slow-fermented breads leavened with this starter, don’t have to be sour. Some measures, such as adding baking soda to sourdough bread batter, can reduce the level of sour flavor in the bread. Perhaps best of all, gluten-free sourdough breads hold together wonderfully for use in making sandwiches, and it makes perfect French toast, waffles, and even croutons.

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Gluten-free sourdough waffles we made with half the starter removed from the starter during the feeding stage.

Beginning and nurturing a sourdough starter (also known as a levain, a French word referring to a culture made by mixing flour with water, used interchangeably with sourdough starter in the United States) is intimidating, but once one gets the hang of it, keeping the starter going is no problem. Sourdough starter that refers to are a testament to the natural wonders and miracles that occur around us in this beautiful world every second of every day. Consider this: all one has to do is mix some water with flour, leave it for a few days, and yeast happens! Just like that!!! In addition to yeast, uncooked flour also contains enzymes that break down the starch molecules in the flour and turn them into sugar. These enzymes begin their work when water is mixed into the flour. As the yeast feeds on the sugar, it excretes two waste products: carbon dioxide and alcohol. The carbon dioxide is the waste product that we’re most interested in, since the bread gets its rise from this gas. The start and maintenance of sourdough starter involves discarding half the starter each time it’s fed. The reason for this step is that flour hasn’t much food for the microbes to eat; discarding a portion of the starter in which the food has all been used by the microbes keeps the microbes from having to work too hard to eat the new food. I’m simplifying the fermentation process a bit, here, but for starting a levain and baking bread with it, a summary of the biological process involved in fermentation is all we need!

At this point, speaking of biology, I must point out that the idea of yeast just floating around the air, looking for some flour and water mixture to ferment, is probably more myth than reality. Any unsterilized flour contains enough microorganisms to populate a new starter; studies using sterilized flours to start fermentation show that sterilized flours mixed with water fail to ferment. If yeast were just floating around in the air, waiting to be captured by a flour – water mixture, then successful sourdough starters would be possible to make even with sterilized flour. What this fact means is that any variations in the flavor of bread from sourdough starters have more to do with variations in their maintenance (so, sadly, the idea of a sourdough quality specific to San Francisco is also a myth).

Maintaining a starter is somewhat like maintaining a pet, at times, in that it must be fed and tended to, to be kept alive. The good news is that, unlike real pets, sourdough starters can be kept dormant in the refrigerator or freezer for long periods of time between feedings. They can become moldy and otherwise become spoiled, but mostly sourdough starters are hearty and difficult to destroy (which is why some families have been able to pass down sourdough starter for over a century – although some kill-joy scientists try to put a damper on the idea of centuries-old starter).

All you need to begin your gluten-free sourdough starter  (or levain) is a glass jar, some gluten-free flour, and some purified water. That’s it! Well, some people say that the threat of chlorinated water to the health of a sourdough starter is exaggerated, but personally, I believe that gluten-free starters need all the help they can get. I always use purified water when I feed my starter, as well as in the dough for which I use the starter to leaven. You can use most gluten-free flours to start your starter; nuts and starches will not ferment, however, so cannot be used to make a successful starter. I use Bob’s Redmill brown rice flour (which I never use at all for food I bake). It’s the least expensive rice flour available, and since a pretty good amount of flour is necessary to begin, maintain, and ready a starter for use, I prefer to use the least expensive rice flour I can find. My son actually used King Arthur’s gluten-free whole grain flour to begin and maintain the starter he shared with me; according to the King Arthur website, this blend of grains increases the enzymatic action during the fermentation. After the starter is well established, it can be maintained with brown rice (or other gluten-free grain flour), only. Avoid using starchy gluten-free flours such as sweet rice, tapioca, or potato flours; these flours will cause the starter to feed too fast.

Some people jump-start their sourdough starters by adding commercial yeast.  Using a small amount of commercial yeast is an acceptable method for beginning your starter. This method will speed the fermentation process up a little bit; however, a successful starter can be established without the use of commercial yeast. Some people prefer to use such fruit and vegetables as unwashed grapes and unwashed red cabbage to begin their starters. Grapes and red cabbage have yeast on them, and people believe this yeast helps speed up the fermentation process. Some people also use kombucha or kefir to begin their starters. The use of these other ingredients to begin a starter, however, may actually inhibit the fermentation process and stability of the starter. All sourdough starters, gluten-free or gluten-containing, begin just fine with the use of two ingredients mixed together: flour and water. What can be more simple?

You will need to make sure you have equal amounts of flour and water, so to ensure equal amounts of each, I recommend that you weigh the water and the flour on a digital scale. Gluten-free sourdough bread requires much more starter than gluten-containing sourdough bread, so you will want to have to jars of starter going at a time.

Sourdough Starter

Day 1:

In a 16 oz mason jar, mix 8 oz of purified (or other chlorine-free) water and 8 oz of King Arthur’s gluten-free Ancient Grain Flour Blend until smooth. Cover the jar loosely by either fastening cheese cloth over the jar with a rubber band, or just placing the lid of the jar loosely on the jar, without screwing the lid on fast. The starter needs to have some air, so do not seal the jar lid, or cover the jar lid with plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Allow the starter to sit at room temperature. After about eight hours or so, you should see some bubbling activity:

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After eight to twelve hours, discard about half the starter and add 4 oz of King Arthur’s Ancient Grain Flour Blend and 4 0z of purified (unchlorinated) flour to the starter remaining in the jar. Mix the water, flour, and starter together until smooth.  Be sure to keep the amount of starter in the jar, the amount of flour, and the amount of water added to the starter about equal.

Day 2:

Repeat the process from the second feeding of day one, discarding half the starter, and adding 4 oz King Arthur’s Ancient Grain Flour Blend and 4 oz unchlorinater water, stirring until smooth. Cover the jar loosely, and leave at room temperature. After eight to twelve hours, repeat the feeding process. Your starter should be looking bubbly by now.

Day 3:

Repeat the steps of day two. Your starter should look something such as this:

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Day 4:

Repeat the process of days two and three.

Day 5:

Repeat the process of days two, three, and four, but this day you may switch to brown rice, sorghum, or some other gluten-free flour (but no high starch flours). After this day, your starter will be ready to use. Be sure to use it while its still high in the jar, with a bit of a dome on top. If you wait too long to use it, so that the level of starter in the jar is falling a bit and a little liquid (called hooch) is forming on top, it won’t be as strong a leavening. Use the starter when it looks something such as this:

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Some very delicious cakes, brownies, pancakes, waffles, and sundry other baked goods can be made with the portion of the sourdough starter that must be discarded during feeding. All you have to do, to use the starter you would be discarding (for discarding it seems such a waste at times) is to replace equal amounts of flour and liquid in a recipe with sourdough starter. Since sourdough starter contains equal amounts of flour and water, for example, you can use it to replace 2 – 4 0z of flour and 2 -4 oz of liquid in a recipe.

Your sourdough starter will keep in the refrigerator for several months, or in the freezer indefinitely. I always keep two jars of starter going, since gluten-free sourdough bread dough requires at least two or more cups of starter in order to rise. When I’m not using my starters, I feed them once every couple of weeks. I take the starters out of the refrigerator, let them warm up to room temperature. I either stir in, or pour off, the surface hooch, then follow the feeding process of discarding half, then adding equal amounts of brown rice flour and unchlorinated water. I leave the starter out overnight to get a little bubbly, then I put it back in the refrigerator.

To use a starter that has been resting in the refrigerator, you have to think ahead by a couple of days. Remove the starter from the refrigerator at least two days before you want to bake your sourdough bread, then start the feeding process. After about two days of twice daily feedings, your starter should be awakened enough to be used in bread.

Sometimes, a resting starter will become tinged with a pink color. If the color is only on top, you can just carry on with the feeding process, discarding the pink portion in the process. If the pink color (or any other strange color or mold, etc) is throughout the starter, discard the entire starter and begin a new starter in a clean jar. Sourdough starters, gluten-free or otherwise, are very difficult to destroy. With just a little attention now and then, and in the absence of extreme heat, your should be able to successfully care and feed your starter. You shall have delicious gluten-free sourdough bread whenever your heart desires!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “The Care and Feeding of Gluten-Free Sourdough Starter

  1. I just mixed up my starter. please clarify that it should be 8 oz of ancient grains by digital weight and not by measuring cup which weighs 4.9 oz. Looking to make GF, DF, EF bread for my daughter.

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    • Hi, Denise! Yes, you are correct. The gluten-free flour and water need to be measured by weight, rather than by volume. Please let me know how your bread turns out!

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      • Thanks, I will. I had a package of KA Ancient grains that I’ll use this go around. It is a bit pricy so I’ll look for Bob’s red mill products from publix. I was his concerned @ the consistency.

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