When you imagine a sourdough starter, a bubbly, wheat and water-based brew will probably spring to mind. That starter, known as San Francisco style, is probably the most commonly used to introduce American bakers to the concepts of wild yeast, cultures, and slow rise bread. It’s considered a good starting point for accumulating skills in the art of making delicious, homemade loaves.
There’s another sourdough starter, however, that rightfully deserves the unofficial title of “Easiest Culture to Keep.” Instead of requiring a week or two of constant attention, this sourdough starter only needs a couple of days of maturation, and feedings every five. A friend’s mother, when she first sent me a cup, referred to it as a “Southern style” sourdough. More commonly, it seems to be known as Amish friendship bread starter. And it takes ingredients you likely already have in your cabinet: sugar, water, a commercial yeast packet and—perhaps most importantly—potato flakes.
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Loyal readers will already know that potato flakes are near mystical in their ability to bring countless dishes together. In this application, they continue to be a most versatile culinary weapon. Potato flakes yield a super soft dough that melts in your mouth once baked. In contrast with the more familiar San Francisco-style starter, the potato flake version also lends a hint of sweetness to any recipe, making it perfect for any dough in which you want the sour flavor slightly toned down.
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This recipe makes about two cups of starter, so you’ll need a clean container or mason jar that can hold at least 32 ounces. As always, when attempting to grow a culture, make sure that the jar has not been contaminated with anything that could compromise the safety of the yeast.
To start, heat up one cup of water to reach the degree range of high 100s or low 110s (farenheit). If you’ve followed my recipe for making yogurt, the same rule for testing temperatures applies here: stick a clean pinky in the liquid. If it’s slightly uncomfortable, but not so hot that you can’t leave your finger in for several seconds, then it’s ready. You’re looking for slightly more heat than you’d expect out of a hot tub. When the water reaches that temperature, turn off the heat and add in a half cup to one cup of sugar and one package of commercial yeast. The amount of sugar you add will determine how sweet your starter is and how quickly it develops, since sugar (along with the potato flake) is the yeast’s primary food.
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Once the sugar and yeast are completely dissolved and the surface begins to bubble, which will take roughly five minutes, add in three to four tablespoons of potato flakes. Stir vigorously, put on a lid, and leave it in your kitchen in a warm location. The starter will need to develop in that area for two days, and will need a quick stir on the first day. Don’t be fooled into thinking you can simply shake it up. You need to open up your container and literally stir, in part to let the gas from the starter’s fermentation process escape.
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On the second day, feed the starter the same amount of sugar, hot water and potato flakes you used at the beginning of the project, but don’t add the commercial yeast. Stir liberally, and then wait another eight hours. Transfer the mixture to the fridge; after five days, pour eight ounces of the starter into a measuring cup. Feed the remainder of your starter—again with that sugar, potato flake, and hot water trio—put it in the fridge, and begin the entire cycle over again.
Before each feeding, it’s important that you either use or discard at least a cup of the contents, since this will increase the ratio of fresh food for your yeast, and prevent your starter amount from growing unreasonably quickly.
If you’re wondering why the commercial yeast isn’t necessary for follow-up feedings, its because it really only provides an initial boost. Unlike traditional San Francisco-style starter, which develops an active culture by harvesting wild yeast in the air, this potato flake version needs a helping hand. You should only need to add yeast once, however. After that, as long as you diligently feed the starter, it should continue to provide a perpetual supply without requiring a trip to the grocery store’s baking aisle.
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To use your starter, add one cup to any of your favorite bread recipes in lieu of commercial yeast. As with San Francisco-style starter, you’ll need to compensate for the added ingredients by adjusting the amount of wet and dry ingredients you use in your recipe. Traditional sourdough starter replacement methods involve replacing a cup of flour with starter, but since potato flake starter contains more liquid than San Francisco-style (it has an apple sauce consistency rather than a batter-like one), I recommend trying to sub out a cup of liquid first. You may need to play a bit with your replacement ratios to find the right amount. You’ll also need to increase your rise times. Commercial yeast usually only needs a couple of hours to double dough, but starter needs time to work its magic, so you’ll want to give your bread at least six to eight hours, potentially more in the winter.
Once cultivated, potato flake starter can be a wonderful addition to breads, rolls, and other yeasted recipes. The mother I received my starter from, for example, uses hers frequently in her signature cinnamon roll recipe. Experimenting with your own starter will also provide the confidence necessary to try out more complex baking recipes, since keeping the culture alive requires a cook to attend to the starter on a regular basis, and therefore encourages consistent practice. Yeast cultures may seem intimidating, but with the right starting point, they can be an easy, impressive addition to your cooking repertoire.
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