I decided to make a gluten-free starter this summer. I was compelled to do this because I was determined to make a gluten-free version of my the dark sourdough rye bread that my grandmother used to make (Leib in Estonian). More on that later.
It took a couple of months and a bunch of trial and error to get a starter that was really good. There are a lot of variables involved and if you are interested in making a gluten-free starter be prepared to make adjustments to account for the moods and whims or your particular starter. It really is like having a pet. When you first get a pet you know generally how you are supposed to care for it, but with time you figure out that YOUR cat needs to be fed kibble right before you go to bed or it will start crying and scratching at you at 5 in the morning. Not that my life is ruled by my cats…or anything…
Sorghum flour seems to be the favourite flour for gluten-free sourdough starters so I bought a few big bags of at an Indian grocery. Sourdough starters eat a lot of flour so I recommend buying your sorghum flour at an Indian grocery, if you have access to one, because it will be more affordable. It will be labelled Jowar. I did a bunch of research on-line and I found these directions at The Healthy Beehive to be clear, helpful and not too intimidating. It was a good place to start!
STARTING THE STARTER
- sorghum flour
- filtered water (it is important not to use water right from the tap, unless you live somewhere that does not put chlorine in the water. Chlorine will kill the starter)
- 2 outer leaves from a head of organic red cabbage (It is important that the cabbage be organic. If it has been sprayed it is possible that the good bacteria that you are trying to catch has been killed with chemicals)
- Find a large plastic or glass container and a wooden or plastic spatula. It is important that you not use metal on a sourdough starter.
- Combine the flour, water and cabbage leaves in your large non-metal bowl using a wooden or plastic spatula. Leave this mixture sitting out at room temperature. If you need to cover it, use some cheesecloth or a dish towel.
- After 12 hours, feed the mixture another cup of flour and another cup of water and stir to combine.
- Repeat the feeding every 12 hours for about 2 days. When the mixture starts to have a yeasty, sour smell and some bubbles it is ready. If you leave your cabbage leaves in for too long the starter will turn red and it will be no good. From what I read, if your starter turns red at any point it’s turned off and will need to be thrown out.
TROUBLE SHOOTING- WEAKNESS , MOLD, BUGS, HOOCH AND VORACIOUS APPETITE
After I threw the cabbage leaves out, I fed my starter a cup of flour and a cup of water every morning. I continued to keep it out on my counter. At this point it made pretty tasty pancakes (with the help of some baking soda) and some decent bread (with the help of a bit of yeast), but the starter was not strong enough to make bread rise all by itself (even with a very long proofing time). My loaves of bread were dense and VERY sour (the longer you leave sourdough bread to rise the more sour it becomes).
I wasn’t really sure what to do. My friend Bethany, who has a non gluten-free sourdough starter said that it might just need a few weeks to get going. I was going out of town, so I left my husband very detailed instructions which he followed exactly.
Sadly, I had left my husband to care for the starter in the heat of NYC summer and I failed to specify that he should change the tea towel every once in a while and scrape the sides of the container down. Also, I was using an earthenware pot instead of a glass or plastic container. So in this dark, damp, hot container my starter grew a mold garden AND fruit fly larvae set up shop on the damp tea towel. Fun times. Lucky for me, my husband is a really level-headed guy who is not particularly squeamish. Plus, he was also did not want to be the one who killed my new pet. So, he threw the buggy tea towel out and started changing it regularly. He scraped and wiped all of the mold off of the side of the container and, using a clean spatula, scraped off and discarded the top inch of the starter. Once he had cleaned it all up, he continued to feed it. When I got home the starter was looking a little grey on top but otherwise it was fine. I did some reading and confirmed that my brilliant husband had done exactly the right thing.
The starter was still weak though, and it was producing a lot of greyish boozy smelling liquid, called “hooch”. As the name suggests, it is actually mildly alcoholic and the starter makes it when it isn’t getting enough to eat. I started pouring off the hooch and feeding my voracious starter twice a day. It was bubblier, but still not strong enough to make good bread plus it was costing a fortune to feed and becoming enormous. My husband and I can only eat so many sourdough pancakes for heaven sake!
ONGOING CARE FOR A STARTER
In the end, I did a lot of reading on forums about (non gluten-free) sourdough starters and I made a radical shift in how I was feeding my starter. I threw away all but 2 cups of my starter. I transferred the two cups of starter to an eight cup plastic Tupperware with cup measurements on the side. I fed my two cups of starter 2 cups of flour and 1 and 1/3 cup water.
Now my container was about half full (four cups). I left it to sit uncovered at room temperature and for a few hours it looked to me as though I had killed my pet. It had almost no smell and no bubbles. I went into the other room to work and when I came back to the kitchen (maybe 6 hours after feeding) my starter was bubbling almost over the edge of the container!
I made bread with no yeast and it was awesome! I made pancakes and they were better than ever!
The feeding ratio that works for my starter is- 1 cup of flour and 2/3 cups water for every 1 cup of starter
I put the lid loosely on the container with the remaining cup or two of starter and put it in the fridge. The cold puts the starter to sleep so that it does not need to be fed so often. Some people take their starter out twice a week to feed it, but I have been taking it out only once a week and it seems to be doing fine.
I take it out on friday night and feed it 1 cup of flour and 2/3 cups of water for each cup of starter. On saturday morning the starter is bubbly. I make pancakes and bread and then put two cups of starter back in the fridge until next week. I have also fed my starter teff flour which it seems to like just as well as sorghum. I have read that bean flours do not work well (they get too sour).
FURTHER NOTES (Added May 30th, 2013)
It turns out that I have a really hard time throwing away extra starter and have spent the last few months frantically searching for people to give starter to. Luckily, I recently discovered that you can freeze starter in small portions. Freezing slows down the rate at which the starter needs to be fed and also allows you to ripen just enough starter to make a loaf of bread.
I now have three gluten-free sourdough bread recipes, dark Eastern European style bread (inspired by Estonian Leib), a light sourdough boule and an everyday brown bread (I’ll be posting that soon). These recipes each call for between 23 and 25 oz of ripe sourdough starter That is starter that has been fed and allowed to sit at room temperature for 4-8 hours. It is bubbly, sour and full of the power to make bread rise.
I have been freezing my starter in 12 oz portions. When I want to make bread, I thaw a portion and feed it 1 cup of sorghum flour and 2/3 cup of filtered water. I let it sit for 4-8 hours and then measure out the amount I need and make bread. It is usually about the right amount!
WHAT DO I DO WITH MY STARTER WHEN I GO OUT OF TOWN OR GET TIRED OF BAKING? (Added May 30th, 2013)
I recently discovered that I can freeze my starter. The starter is still alive, it just goes into a deep, deep, sleep. You can freeze your starter for 2 or 3 weeks while you go out of town. Very useful! I am personally wondering how far you can push this technique since we are about to enter the sweltering hot, no baking, season in NYC. My plan is to do an experiment over this summer. I will divide my starter into four portions and freeze them. I will thaw out one portion after one month to see if it is still viable. If it is I will try another portion in two months and so on. I’ll let you know how it turns out!