creating a sourdough starter is a lot like having a pet. you need to feed it, clean it, watch it closely and occassionally play with it to keep it happy and healthy. it won’t bring you the newspaper or fetch your slippers, but it will eventually become delicious bread that you can share with your whole family. and weirdly enough, you can keep a starter alive for much longer than a typical pet. that last fact may seem a little morbid, but the boudin sourdough bread company in san francisco has been using the same starter for over 150 years!
let me caution: when you look at the recipe, you’re going to be overwhelmed. don’t panic. at its heart, a sourdough starter is nothing more than flour and water. no expensive ingredients, no fancy kitchen gadgets needed, no big loss if you screw up. secondly, it takes a few days, especially the first time around, so it’s helpful to read the entire recipe before starting so you can plan accordingly. although most sourdough recipes set hours against the feeding schedule, you can be very flexible with timing and still end up with an incredible loaf of bread. above is my starter on day 1. just flour and water in a tupperware container loosely covered in plastic wrap. the tape is there to mark the height of the dough so i can see any changes that occur.
here’s my starter on day 2. no changes, but just a few small bubbles. let me try and explain in as few words as possible what’s going on when you make a starter. yeast is the thing that makes your bread rise, and it’s in air all around us, right now. this isn’t quite the same yeast you can buy in yellow packets at the grocery store (although those work wonders). the stuff in the air is wild yeast, the kind of yeast that doesn’t always do what it’s told and stays out past curfew. but despite it’s rogue nature, wild yeast still likes to eat, and leaving a paste of flour and water out is like a giant all-you-can-eat sign. the really cool thing about wild yeast is that bread made with starters from different environments (for instance, san francisco vs say, washington, dc) will have unique tastes based on the environmental conditions.
here’s day 3 (or 4, can’t remember). the yeast jumped into action overnight and left my kitchen a mess. however, this was a great sign for the starter. the bubbles were caused by the yeast feeding on the sugars in the dough and giving off carbon dioxide. feeding the starter fresh water and flour every day allows the flavors in the dough to develop more slowly, which gives them more depth. this is the way bread was made in the good ‘ole days (commercial yeast is a relatively new invention in the timeline of bread).
now before i embarrass myself anymore trying to explain how wild yeast works, let me give you a few helpful resources i used during this process. first, the fresh loaf  is a great place to find common questions and answers about sourdough development. second, wild yeast blog  is an endless source of information and inspiration for at-home bakers. susan has tons of delicious sourdough recipes and lots of tips that will really help you take the next step to great breadmaking. be sure to check both out.
i used peter reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice , which instructed me on how to turn my starter into a “barm.” the barm is a piece of your starter plus a larger amount of flour and water than you’ve been adding to feed you starter. once you’re at this step, you can use the barm to make your final dough mix, or you can refrigerate it and feed it on a regular basis to keep it potent for use later. this barm is the “mother starter,” the basis for all of your future sourdoughs (and the thing that boudin bakery has kept going for so long).
so after a long labor of love, i finally baked my first sourdough loaf. the result? it was…okay. really not all that sour. although the starter and barm had really vibrant smells, the final bread was pretty underwhelming. i discovered that it’s actually a pretty common problem with the first loaf – the barm simply hadn’t had enough time to develop deep flavors yet. another possible issue could be the air in my apartment – it’s not quite the same as the san francisco sea air that fed the original boudin starter.
although i was disappointed, i decided to keep working on the barm for a week and make another few loaves, one of which is above. i was thrilled to find out that the flavor did indeed improve over time. one change i made in the baking process was the keep the oven at a higher temperature for longer than instructed (10 minutes at 500F, then turn it down to 450F), and the result was a much more pronounced and tastier crust. i’m learning that i need to allow the loaves to get darker than i think they should before pulling them from the oven.
i don’t usually set a timer when i make chocolate chip cookies anymore, because it’s gotten to the point that i can tell when they’re done by the smell and look. i’m not anywhere near that confident with bread, but i’m finding out that it’s more about using all of your senses than sticking to the recipe. i’m going to keep this barm going for as long as i can and make as many varieties of sourdough as possible. i’m getting hungry just thinking about it now…
from Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice 
1 c flour (any type, preferably dark rye or coarse whole rye)
3/4 c water, at room temperature
days 2, 3 and 4
1 c flour
1/2 c water, at room temperature
day 1: mix the flour and water together in a bowl until they form a stiff ball of dough. press this piece of dough into a 4-cup measuring cup and place a piece of tape on the side to mark the top of the dough. cover the cup with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.
day 2: in a mixing bowl, combine the day 2 ingredients with the day 1 sponge, mixing with a spoon until all of the ingredients are evenly distributed. return to the container and mark the height of the dough with a new piece of tape. cover with plastic wrap and let ferment for 24 hours at room temperature.
day 3: there may be some rise in the dough. there may also be an unpleasant aroma (this will improve with time). discard half of the starter and mix the remaining half with the day 3 ingredients. return to container, re-mark the height, and let ferment at room temperature for another 24 hours.
day 4: the sponge should have at least doubled in size. if not, allow it to sit out for another 12-24 hours. if the sponge has doubled, repeat the steps on day 3. cover and let ferment until doubled (this could take 4-24 hours).
3 1/2 c flour
2 cups water, at room temperature
1 c seed culture
stir together the flour, water and seed culture in a mixing bowl (you can discard the remaining seed culture or give to a friend). it will make a wet, sticky sponge. transfer this sponge to a clean plastic glass, or ceramic storage container twice as large as the barm. cover the container with a lid or plastic wrap and ferment at room temperature for approximately 6 hours, or until the barm is bubbly. the plastic wrap will swell like a balloon. when this happens, open the lid or release the plastic wrap to let the gas escape. replace the cover and refrigerate overnight before using. the barm will be ready to use the next day and will remain potent for 3 days.
2/3 c barm
1 c flour
1/8-1/4 c water
1. remove the barm from the refrigerator and measure it out 1 hour before making the firm starter. transfer it to a small bowl, cover with a towel or plastic wrap, and allow it to warm up for 1 hour.
2. add the flour to the bowl and mix together the barm and the flour, adding only additional water so that you can knead it into a small ball. lightly oil a small bowl and place the starter into the bowl or bag, turning to coat it with oil. cover the bowl.
3. ferment at room temperature for about 4 hours, or until the starter has at least doubled in size. then, put it in the refrigerator overnight.
4. remove the starter from the refrigerator 1 hour before making the dough. cut it into about 10 small pieces with a pastry scraper or serrated knife. mist with oil, cover with a towel or plastic wrap and let sit for 1 hour to take off the chill.
4 1/2 c flour
2 tsp salt
1 1/2 – 1 3/4 water, lukewarm
semolina flour or cornmeal for dusting
1. stir together the flour and salt in a mixing bowl. add the starter pieces and enough water to bring everything together into a ball as you stir with a large spoon (or in an electric mixer).
2. sprinkle the counter with flour, transfer the dough to the counter and knead by hand for 12-15 minutes. adjust the water or flour as needed. lightly oil the bowl and transfer the dough, rolling it around to coat. cover the bowl with plastic wrap. ferment at room temperature for 3-4 hours, or until the dough has nearly doubled in size.
3. remove the dough from the bowl and divide it into 2 equal pieces. gently shape into boules, batards, or baguettes. placethe dough on parchment lined sheets that have been dusted with semolina flour or cornmeal. mist the dough with spray oil and loosely cover the dough with a towel or plastic wrap. proof the dough for 2-3 hours at room temperature (or overnight in the refrigerator).
4. preheat the oven to 500 F. remove the plastic wrap from the dough 10 minutes before baking. dust a pizza peel with cornmeal or semolina flour and gently transfer the dough to the peel. score the top of the dough with a serrated knife.
5. slide the dough onto your baking stones (or bake directly on baking sheets). pour 1 cup of hot water into a steam pan on the oven floor. after 30 seconds, spray the oven walls with water and close the door. repeat twice more at 30-second intervals. after the final spray, lower the oven to 450 F and bake for 10 minutes. rotate the loaves 180 degrees, if necessary and continue baking for another 10-20 minutes, until the loaves are a rich golden brown. transfer to a wire rack to cool for at least 45 minutes before serving.