Friday, June 18, 2010

The Lineage of my Gluten-free Sourdough Starter

When people think of sourdough starter lineages they often think of the famous San Francisco or Alaska starters originally brought over from Europe. I imagine the people who brought starters along with them were courageous people looking for a better life. I imagine they dehydrated their starters in the old country and carried small amounts of it in pouches or tiny clay pots carefully tucked into whatever belongings they could carry with them in the boats. When they got to the land of opportunity it is said their bread starters took on a new flavor, the flavor of their new locale. Hence the fame of the San Francisco or Alaska sourdough flavors.

I first learned to make sourdough using an old-fashioned 7-day rye bread recipe. It was a goopy, no-knead recipe that produced a rich, malty, dense loaf. The starter was built over seven days, yielding a giant bowl of sponge-like starter. When it was time to assemble the breads rye flour, water and salt were incorporated into the starter. This “goop” was then spooned into the loaf pans as this bread did not stand up by itself, it needed “walls” to hold it up. It was so sticky that the less handling involved, the better the finished product.

When I began to work with gluten-free starter possibilities I used this spongy, goopy technique as a guide and after a year of many failures, had great success while incorporating a few important changes through trial and error:

• extra daily feedings to prevent spoilage
• boosting and preserving it with a bit of an old fashioned fermented drink, water kefir.

I found the starters to be rather delicate and did not regularly store well. I found that I could easily begin a new starter so using it up was never a problem. In fact, I found the fresh starters resulted in breads having a consistently fresh taste while the stored refrigerated starters often carried some “off tastes” I associated with over-fermentation. The over-fermentation also seemed to result in less than satisfactory leavening.

This sponge-goop technique is very different than wheat sourdough techniques that benefit from extensive kneading and shaping. Unlike their rye counterparts traditional wheat breads also stand up, rise and bake without the support of the walls of a loaf pan.

Some seasoned wheat sourdough bakers have had poor success with my technique when they apply their years of experience with wheat sourdough to my rice starter. They expect to take a small amount of starter and knead large amounts of flour into it, shape it, let it rise and bake it. My technique, however, is the opposite. I grow a large amount of high-moisture starter by feeding it at least twice a day. I then stir in a small amount of flour and pour or spoon it into a loaf pan or muffin tin. From there I let it rise and then bake it.

I think the main reason the wheat technique doesn’t work for my recipes is that my technique was originally derived from the 7-day sourdough rye sponge-goop technique which is really quite different than the wheat technique.

One definition of lineage is “the descendants of one individual”. The descendants of the San Francisco and Alaska sourdough starters are available for sale and supposedly retain some of that “genetic” material referring to the local bacteria and yeasts that grow in the starter. When one purchases those starters they know the lineage of their starter.

I don’t sell starters, I sell a technique. I think about my technique as a “technical” lineage, much like a technique or practice handed down from teacher to student, or master to apprentice. My “technical lineage” is a descendent of the 7-Day Sourdough Rye Technique.

I am deeply grateful for the people willing to try my technique because in addition to feeding ourselves we are also keeping alive a technique that could easily be forgotten in these modern times. We keep it alive by learning it, practicing it, feeding our families with it and teaching it to others.

We successfully unite the past with the future when we reclaim an old-fashioned technique like 7-day rye sourdough and successfully, and palatably, use it to address the modern dietary challenges of gluten intolerance.


  1. I'm working on a gluten free sourdough myself and followed a recipe using my own brown rice flour starter, bob's red mill all purpose baking flour, and a bit of xanthan gum. When I finished, I tried the dough and it tasted awful! Do you think there is any hope for good bread if the dough doesn't taste good?

  2. Hello and thanks for writing,
    I looked up bob's red mill flour to see the ingredients. There is nothing in there that would give and awful taste.

    I'm wondering if your starter was overfermented or nearing spoilage. I had this trouble when I first started working with gluten free sourdough starters. On a friend's recommendation I added 2 tablespoons of water kefir liquid (which I make myself from a water kefir culture) which boosted the enzymatic activity and prevented spoilage.

    Now my starters never get that bad taste but I feed them 2-3 times daily when I am getting ready to bake, which also prevents overfermentation and off-tastes.

    I have heard from people feeding their starters once a day or once a week and they say that a bad tasting starter will "correct" itself with a few more feedings. I have not tried that method yet and am hesitant to because I am focused on creating food that is fresh and has nothing in it that would stress my health.

    That bad taste, I believe is from dead yeast and bacteria, (yuck) and I don't want to put that in my body.

    If you haven't seen my starter recipe please download it for free at:

    I know people are hesitant to pay the $18-$30 for water kefir culture but it makes the starters nearly error-proof and can also be drunk as a tonic to keep the digestive system healthy. I also use it to boost the soaking of beans which makes them easier to digest (read: minimal gas)

    Good Luck and let me know how it goes,

  3. Hi Sharon, just found your blog through the comment you left on mine! Thanks so much, I can tell already I'll learn so much from reading here. I was curious whether you thought using another fermented liquid would work as well since I don't have any kefir grains at the moment. I read another recipe that used fermented veggies in the starter (such as saurkraut) which I have on hand. I would hazard a guess that even adding some whey to the starter would work well. I'm going away to visit my sister in a couple of days but can't wait to start experimenting when I get back. I was just getting into sourdough baking before I decided to go gluten free... Will be adding you to my blog list!

  4. HI Jul,
    Thanks for your comment! I have used whey from kefir milk and that worked very well. I have never tried using fermented veggie juice but I have always wondered if it would work. Seems like it should. If you try it please let me know how it goes. Good luck with your sourdough baking. Your digestion will thank you for it.

  5. Thank you for visiting my blog.
    I love to see the blossoms from the efforts of the good people in this leaky gut/ Celiac community. I honor the Pioneers who help us all make something not only fit to eat, but nourishing.

    -A mom to several Celiacs

  6. Thanks Mom to Many for your heartfelt comment. There are many of us pioneers looking for the best food we can make for ourselves and our families. It is a gift to be well from the foods I have learned to make for myself.

  7. A question I have asked many times, regarding where the starters originated, thanks for some information/history of the starter.

  8. I've never tried a sourdough starter. Perhaps it's time to change the record.

    Thanks for visiting and following my blog :)

  9. I am so glad I found you too! (don't know how you did must have a good eye!) I will pass your blog on to a couple of friends.

  10. Biren,
    let us know if you try the sourdough starter!