I tried to make it once and I had an active culture started, which went dormant about a week later. I gave up, it seemed too hard. Then late last year I decided I should try it again. Like all research projects these days I started out on Google. Naturally I found hundreds of entries with different ideas, recipes, horror stories and epiphanies. Which one should I follow? I took the three that sounded the best and made up my own way. Here's the story...
Sourdough bread is made from wild yeast that are in the air all around us and are also found lying dormant in flour. The idea is to attract the yeast to something and then colonize them. If they find a hospitable environment they will begin to breed and do whatever else it is that yeast do. Whole wheat flour seems to be the best for making the starter. It's relatively high in dormant yeast, has readily accessible sugars that yeast like, and it's fairly low in gluten. Trust me all of these things are good.
I use filtered tap water since Lambertville city water is fairly high in chlorine which of course is supposed to kill microfauna, like yeast. Sea salt and high-gluten bread flour round out the requirements. A little chopped fresh rosemary is nice too. This is all you need, along with about 2 weeks of forethought.
Step 1: Mix 1 cup of whole wheat flour with 1 cup of water in a nonreactive bowl. Cover loosely and set aside for a day, preferably in a warm part of your kitchen. The next day, throw away half and add a 1/2 cup of whole wheat flour and 1/2 cup of water. Mix thoroughly, cover and set aside. Repeat this every day for about 10 days.
Step 2: Then add 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water each day, still throwing out about half first. After 4 to 5 days you should be ready to make bread. If the starter doesn't smell like beer it needs more time. You have to make a judgement call here. Is there any sign of yeast? Do you see bubbles or some other evidence of the life in the container? If not you should keep feeding it every day and go over each part of the process in your head and try to think about why it isn't working. After 21 days if it doesn't have a really strong smell of beer then you should abandon hope with that batch.
Step 3: Take half of the starter and mix it with an equal amount of high-gluten flour. Knead with an upright mixer, or by hand, for about 5 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon of sea salt and continue kneading for 5 more minutes. Add more high-gluten flour as necessary. You don't want it to stick to the bowl and it should be a soft ball that stays together as one mass. Now add 1 teaspoon of fresh chopped rosemary if desired. Knead for 5 more minutes or so. About 15 minutes total kneading time is usually enough to stretch the gluten in the flour and form the strong bonds that will give the bread its structure. Cover the dough with a kitchen towel and place it in a warm spot to rise, until doubled in bulk. This part is tricky to prescribe because it could take from 2 to 6 hours or more.
Step 4: Once the dough has doubled in size it's ready to be shaped into bread. Remove it from the bowl and place on a lightly floured work surface. Punch it down and knead it for about a minute. Work it into whatever shape you want, a boule, baguettes or rolls. Cover it again and return it to the warm spot where it rose the first time and wait again. This time will go faster than the first rise, but it still might take a few hours.
Step 5: Once the dough has doubled in size again it is ready to bake. A 400 degree oven is best and you want some humidity. A pan of boiling water on the bottom of the oven helps, as does a spray bottle to mist the bread right before it goes in the oven and again about 3 minutes later. Humidity will retard the formation of crust which allows the bread to expand without breaking. It is also what gives the crust a very desirable chewiness. Bake until the bread is deep golden brown and sounds hollow when you tap it. Depending on what shape you chose for your bread this could be anywhere from 25 to 40 minutes.
Step 6: Let the bread cool to allow the sour flavor to develop completely, usually 30 to 60 minutes is perfect. Re-heat it and spread some sweet butter on it and you will be rewarded with a special treat for all of your work.
Remember now to keep your starter alive by feeding it at regular intervals. I use mine every day so it is really mature now. My bread rises in about 2 hours the first time and about 45 minutes the second time. You can keep your starter in the refrigerator once it is about 3 or 4 weeks old. At this point you only need to feed it about once a week. If you refrigerate it you will need to pull out half of it the day before you intend to bake with it. Feed both halves and the next day the one you pulled out should be active and ready.