After a number of years of building Weston A. Price Foundation principles into my daily life I learned I had multiple food sensitivities and had to let go of some beloved foods, namely butter and homemade sourdough rye bread. Unable to find suitable store-bought gluten-free and allergen-free breads I began a journey of culinary discovery that taught me more about gluten-free sourdough baking than I ever could have imagined. Over time I coupled WAPF guidelines with modern gluten-free baking principles and came up with some lovely breads, muffins and pancakes that have become nutrient-dense, highly digestible comfort food for me and my family.
For those who must accommodate similar food sensitivities, I hope the following instructions for producing gluten-free starters will ease the transition to this way of baking. The devil is always in the details, and I have provided advice based on my experiments as I came to devise recipes that were successful.
Let’s start with a few definitions:
STARTER: A culture of wild yeast and lactobacilli in a flour-and-water medium used for leavening bread products.
PLAIN STARTER: Simply brown rice flour and water (not as potent or dependable as a boosted starter).
BOOSTED STARTER: Brown rice flour and water boosted with one to two tablespoons of water kefir, dairy kefir, kefir whey or kombucha.
FRESHLY MADE STARTER: A new starter made without any previously fermented starter.
ONGOING STARTER: A small amount of potent starter reserved from every batch and used to ferment the next batch.
RESTING STARTER: Starter stored in a covered jar in the refrigerator. It needs to be fed every two weeks. To feed, remove from the refrigerator and allow to come to room temperature. Add equal amounts of flour and water. Let ferment for at least four hours and return to refrigerator.
When I first began experimenting, I used plain starters but didn’t find them to be potent enough to be dependable. Now I always use a boosted starter. I have found that brown rice flour makes a very dependable and versatile starter and is a good base from which to try variations.
Working With Starters
There are three ways to work with starters:
- You can use up all your starter each time you cook or bake. You would create a new starter for each time you want to cook. Just allow enough time, usually three to four days, for the starter to be ready.
- You can have an ongoing starter at room temperature stored on the counter indefinitely, feeding it two to three times a day. You take out what you need for that day’s cooking, leaving a small amount for the next batch, feeding it and letting it continue to ferment.
- You can store some starter in the refrigerator between cooking and baking days. It must be fed every two weeks. Take it out of the refrigerator, let it come to room temperature, feed it with equal amount of brown rice flour and water. Let it ferment on the counter for four hours. Then put it back in the refrigerator. When you need it take it out, let it come to room temperature and feed it. It will be ready for cooking in one or two days.
If you need a lot of starter you can use one cup flour and one cup water for each feeding. If you need a small amount you can start with one cup flour and one cup water and use smaller amounts, such as one quarter or one third cup flour and water each for subsequent feeding.
If you miss a feeding check to see whether the starter seems less potent or too acidic. If it’s less potent it may still be fine for pancakes. if it’s too acidic, the finished products may be unpleasantly sour. It may be best to discard it and start over.
I find the best starter consistency is not too soupy and not too thick. Using roughly equal amounts of flour and water with a little less water than flour, gives a nice balance. If the starter is very soupy right before cooking you can use just flour and no water for the last feeding or two. If right before cooking the texture seems too thick you can always add a little water, a tablespoon at a time, whisking as you go until you get the right consistency.
Visible Stages of a New Gluten-Free Starter
These stages are approximations of the actual time. The stages may take a total of two to four days depending on season, climate and temperature of kitchen.
DAY 1: Mix flour and water. Sometimes solid sinks to the bottom, liquid stays on top. This is okay.
DAY 2: Small bubbles come up when the starter is moved or stirred.
DAY 3: “Hill stage.” The solid part forms a soft hill at the top of the water level (this stage doesn’t always happen).
DAY 4: Bubbles of different sizes come up when the starter is moved or stirred. Sometimes there is a hissing or burbling sound when they come from the bottom of the bowl. Sometimes the starter will become spongy like a wheat or rye starter, but is almost always a viable starter even if it doesn’t produce this effect.
Boosted Brown Rice Starter
Start with one cup brown rice flour and put it in a ceramic or glass bowl. Pour in slightly less than one cup water and whisk smooth. Add one to two tablespoons of water kefir, dairy kefir, kefir whey or kombucha and whisk again. Cover with a cloth or paper towel and secure with a rubber band. Leave it on the counter away from drafts or extreme temperatures.
Feed the starter every eight to twelve hours, or two to three times a day, for a total of four days, with nearly equal amounts of rice flour and water, a bit less on the water, whisking smooth each time and covering.
After two days put the starter in a clean bowl and continue feeding. (Change the bowl so that the dried out starter that clings to the sides of the bowl stays out of the living starter.) After about forty-eight hours the starter should show signs of viability. If you don’t see any bubbles or “hilling” you can add another tablespoon of water kefir, dairy kefir, kefir whey or kombucha.
By the third day you should see small bubbles, especially while stirring. By the fourth day you may see bubbles of different sizes and there may be a hissing, burbling sound when they rise from the bottom of the bowl.
It should take about four days for a new starter to be ready for cooking. It may take less time in warm weather and more in cold weather. With a little practice you will get to know when your starter is ready. If you want ongoing starter, when you’re ready to cook or bake, remove a small amount 1/4 to 1/2 cup) and put it in a clean bowl. Feed with roughly equal amounts of flour and water and whisk smooth. Cover and set aside to continue fermenting. This will be your starter for your next batch. Proceed with your recipe using the remaining starter.
Using my guidelines to get you started, I hope you and your family will soon be enjoying nutritious, satisfying and easily digested gluten-free baked goods. You’ll soon discover that there are many variations that you can use to tempt your family. Happy baking and good health!
Gluten-Free Sourdough Pancakes: Basic Recipe
These gluten-free pancakes are different from most people’s experience of regular pancakes. It’s important to keep an open mind about what this particular food tastes and feels like rather than comparing it to wheat pancakes. These pancakes are nutrient dense and very satisfying. They can be used for sweet as well as savory meals. With a little practice one can master the subtleties of working with this gluten-free starter.
For pancakes, prior to cooking, use 1/2 cup of buckwheat or gluten-free oat flour for the last feeding. A pure rice flour starter tends to be on the thin, soupy side–add buckwheat or oat flour; this will give the pancakes some needed density. For four pancakes:
1 cup mature brown rice flour sourdough starter (in the bubbling stage)
1 tablespoon oil, melted butter or fat
large pinch of salt
1-2 tablespoons freshly ground flax seed (grind in a coffee grinder dedicated to this purpose)
Mix oil, salt and ground flax seed into starter and let sit for at least fifteen minutes to allow the flax to thicken the batter. The batter should be like a thick cake batter. If the batter is too thick whisk in a little water, one tablespoon at a time, until you get the desired consistency. (The batter can also sit for up to 24 hours in the refrigerator. The finished pancakes will be thinner and lighter.)
Grease the pan or griddle and heat to fairly hot. Spoon or ladle out the batter onto the pan. These pancakes will take longer to cook than wheat pancakes so flip well after bubbles show up or the edges start to dry out. Cook another one to two minutes and serve.
You can also cool the pancakes on a rack and refrigerate them in a covered container for three to five days. Just reheat them in the toaster.
Gluten-Free Pancake Breads
With a few changes in the recipe, the gluten-free pancakes may be used as bread for sandwiches. Begin with three to four cups of starter. Add a little water to the batter for a thin batter and make large pancakes, five to six inches in diameter. Store them in a container in the refrigerator, and toast them before using as bread in sandwiches.
You may spice up basic pancakes with these suggested additions to the batter:
Pumpkin pie spice
Ground hot pepper
Chopped or sautéed onion
Ground sesame seed
You can use different flours in the starter as it grows or you can use a different variety of flour for the last feeding. Each type of flour brings a different quality to the finished product: teff flour (grind in a coffee grinder) thickens it and gives it weight; sorghum flour fluffs it up; amaranth flour (grind in a coffee grinder) lightens the batter and gives it a nutty taste; gluten-free oat flour lightens and fluffs it; buckwheat thickens it almost to a cake-like consistency, and makes a very substantial pancake.
Note that buckwheat flour is so dense that fermentation bubbles may not move through the starter easily. It will nevertheless be alive and potent. Because of their density, buckwheat pancakes may not show bubbles in the pan so look for darkening around the outer third and then flip them.
Another variation: Use leftover cooking water from boiled potatoes (including any starch or potato bits on the bottom of the pot) for the water portion of the starter. This produces as excellent starter giving a wonderful potato pancake taste. Try it cooked with chicken or duck fat and topped with chopped liver or liver pâté.
4 cups boosted brown rice starter
1/2 cup sweet rice flour
1/2 cup buckwheat flour
1/2 cup amaranth flour
1/2 cup gluten-free oat flour or arrowroot flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon stevia powder or 1 teaspoon crushed stevia leaf
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 cup ground flaxseed
1/4 cup expeller expressed sunflower oil
Place flours, salt, stevia and spices in a bowl and whisk together. Put starter, ground flaxseed and oil in mixer bowl and mix gently. Add flours to starter mixture and mix on low speed for 15-30 seconds until spongy. Do not overmix. Fill greased muffin tins half full. Let rise for 8 hours. Bake at 375 for 15 minutes. Let cool for 5-10 minutes and remove muffins to rack. When completely cool, refrigerate, wrapped in a cloth in a plastic container. The muffins freeze very well and are great toasted after freezing. Yield: 12 muffins or 24 mini muffins.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2009.