Fermenting Experiment: Quinoa-Millet Gluten Free Sourdough Starter

Yes, that's right, I'm trying a gluten free sourdough starter. In my gluten-eating days, sourdough bread was at the top of my list. I remember helping my dad bake sourdough bread when I was a kid; my dad is a great bread baker and many an hour was spent in the kitchen with him kneading and watching hopeful loaves expand. As a teenager, I got a sourdough starter for Amish Friendship Bread, an overly sugared and buttery fluffy, white flour sourdough batter bread (the thought of that bread now makes me gag). But as an adult, I'd never tried my own hand at it. I was always so intrigued by the concept of the sourdough starter; a simple fermented mix of flour and water, full of live cultures that break down the grain proteins and naturally leaven the loaves. But when I baked raised bread, I always used yeast, which I hated to mess with. So, more often than not, I made quick breads, sweet or savory. When I bought sandwich bread or a rustic loaf, I most often bought sourdough or yeast-free breads, often from the French Meadow Bakery, a great bakery here in Minneapolis that makes yeast-free, naturally leavened loaves. As a side note, unfortunately, they do not bake any gluten-free breads, although they do make gluten-free pre-made and frozen batter brownies and cookies that, I hear through the grapevine, are awfully tasty. You can find their breads/brownies/cookies in co-ops and natural food stores all over the country.

Anyway, I love sourdough. Now that I'm embarking on a variety of kitchen experiments under my new dietary restrictions, I decided I wanted to try my hand at making a sourdough starter, with the end result of creating a naturally leavened, baker's yeast-free loaf of gluten-free bread. Maybe it is a bit risky to be fermenting my own sourdough with my Candida Albicans overgrowth, but I have been on a candida-friendly diet for almost 9 full months now, and reintroducing healthy fermented foods in moderation is a risk I'm willing to take at this point. Fermenting stuff is an interest of mine that I haven't fully explored to the extent of my desire yet - I'd love to try making my own sauerkraut, want to do more experimenting with kefir, and am now on the this sourdough starter kick. Fermented foods are wonderful, they are chock full of good bacteria. Naturally leavened breads allow for the full nutritional potential of the grain to develop, breaking down the complex carbohydrates and proteins in to sugars and amino acids, creating a more easily digested product.

So, here goes! I am using the basic recipe for sourdough starter from Paul Pitchford's amazing book, Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition, with a few alterations. I am using a mix of quinoa and millet flours instead of whole wheat, and am choosing to feed the starter on day 2. Many recipes online call for feeding the starter each day with additional flour and water, while others (like Pitchford's) say to stir each day, but not feed. So, I'm feeding it once. As a side note, Healing with Whole Foods truly is a must-have for anyone interested in the healing properties of food, natural health, and whole foods cooking and nutrition. It features excellent recipes and techniques, as well as extremely practical advice on natural treatments of ailments and diseases, from the common cold to cancer to fibromyalgia. It is full of so much incredible information I don't know where to begin, other than saying I reference this book constantly.

Without further adieu, let the fermenting begin!


QUINOA-MILLET GLUTEN FREE SOURDOUGH STARTER (gluten free, yeast free, vegan)

1 c quinoa flour and millet flour, combined, plus additional 1/2 c each later
1 c filtered water, plus additional 1 c later

large glass jar (32 oz or larger)
non-metal spoon (wood, bamboo, etc)
cheesecloth/cotton cloth
rubber band/string

Making the starter:

  1. Sterilize a spoon and large glass jar by boiling them in water. Use a non-metal spoon if possible, as metal affects the fermentation.
  2. Place water and flour in jar and stir to mix thoroughly.
  3. Cover with cloth, and secure with string or rubber band. Store in a warm place out of direct sunlight.
  4. Day 1: After 24 hours, stir with a sterilized spoon, recover, and let sit for another 24 hours.
  5. Day 2: Add additional 1/2 c water and flour, and stir to evenly mix. Cover, and let sit another 24 hours.
  6. Day 3: Stir again to evenly mix. Your starter is ready! In total, your starter will sit for 3 days, getting stirred each day and being fed on Day 2. To store, cover loosely and keep in a cool place, like a root cellar or your refrigerator.
  7. To use starter, remove desired amount from jar. Replace with equal amount flour and water, stir to mix, and put back in cool place.
This recipe is not exactly what I did...for my experience, read below...

10:30 pm
I sterilized my jar and spoon, measured out my ingredients, and mixed it up into a thick paste in the jar. I covered it with a cotton cloth, and put it on the shelf. It looks like a little ghost. Ready, set, ferment!
9 pm
My little starter baby has now sat for almost 24 hours. The thick grey paste has started to form bubbles, and a layer of foam has formed on the top. It looks like it has started to grow; the starter mixture seems to be taking up more room in the jar than it was yesterday. It doesn't smell 'fermented' yet, it just smells like wet quinoa. I sterilized a spoon, stirred it up and covered it again with cloth. I forgot to use a non-metal spoon, so tomorrow I'll use something else. Grow baby, grow! This photo shows the foam that started to form, as well as the bubbles on the side of the jar (sorry the second photo is so awful).
7:30 am
I glanced at my starter this morning before I left for work, and it has definitely grown! It is almost taking up 3/4 of the jar, and it barely took up half the jar when I first made it. The foam is bigger on top, and the mixture is starting to separate at the bottom. Lots and lots of bubbles, but no fermented smell yet. When I put my hand over the jar, I feel just a little warmth coming out of the top, a good sign that fermentation is happening. I can't wait to see what it looks like tonight...I hope it doesn't grow out of the jar...
9:30 pm
According to my dad, who is visiting me, the starter almost grew outside the jar by this afternoon, then, at some point, collapsed. Bizarre! When I found it, it was just slightly larger than yesterday, filling only about 1/2 the jar. It has grown very foamy and thick and is bubbling up storm. The bottom of the jar is slightly warm, and it has started to develop a slight sour smell - but not in a bad way. In a sourdough way! But it still smells like wet quinoa. I stirred it up with a sterilzed bamboo spoon, added an additional 1/2 c each water and quinoa flour, and stirred again until thoroughly mixed. It started bubbling again almost immediently. So, I covered it again, and put the jar in a sterilized glass bowl, just in case it overflows, and threw it back on the shelf. This photo shows more of the funky bubbles, and how the color sort of changed before I stirred it all up. Everytime I moved the jar, a bubble would pop and the surface would jiggle!
7:00 am
This morning my starter was not as active; there were some bubbles but it wasn't really foamy or crazy like yesterday. Maybe feeding it slowed it down a little bit? I thought feeding a starter was supposed to, well, FEED it. Make it bigger. So, we'll see! It is starting to smell a little more ripe, so that's a good sign. I'm curious to see what it looks like later today.
10:00 pm
It is starting to smell less like quinoa and more like sourdough, but still isn't bubbling like crazy like it was. A few small bubbles on the surface and the side, a little seperation of liquid on the top and bottom, and a little foam, but not much. My dad, who is spending his last night in Mpls this evening, and has made his own sourdough starter before, thinks it is doing okay. So, I stirred it up, and decided to let it go for a fourth day. I did not feed it. I forgot to take a picture.
DAY 4: WEDNESDAY, JAN 28, 2009
7:00 am
Not much different than last night, other than a slightly more sourdoughy smell. It looks good, it doesn't look or smell rotten, so I think we're on the right track. Dad and I are a little puzzled as to why there isn't the same kind of activity there was in previous days, but c'est la vie, that is the mystery of the starter. I'll take a photo to post this evening when I stir. Depending on what it looks like, I may let it sit out for another day. Either way, I plan on using some in a sourdough loaf in the upcoming days! Still trying to figure out the recipe, I'm thinking even portions millet-quinoa-buckwheat, with some added flax seed...


7:15 pm
I came home to find a bit of hooch on the top, the dark liquid that forms during fermentation. So, I dumped that off, took a whiff of my starter, and was met with a sourdough smell. Yippee! It looks a little foamy, and there are some bubbles on the side. So I'm struggling to know what to do next. Technically, my starter could be done. But some things I've read online say to let it sit longer than Pitchford's recipe calls for. So, call it "done", and use it? Stir and let it sit? Feed it and let it sit? My inclination is to let my starter baby sit for one more day...but to feed or not to feed, that is the question...

9:15 pm
I removed about 1 c of the starter, then added 1/2 c millet flour and 1/2 c filtered water, and stirred. For fun, I decided to keep the removed portion, and added 1/4 c millet flour and 1/4 c filtered water, just to see what would happen. I now have two starters, a big one, and a little one...until tomorrow!


7:30 pm
Okay, I've decided this thing is ready to use. A layer of the hooch liquid stuff formed at the top of both jars, and I dumped that off, and got a good sourdoughy smell. It looked just like it did yesterday, and I've read online that when your sourdough is ready to use, it may stop bubbling all together. So, I've decided to try using this bad boy. I'll be posting my first-ever recipe attempt at gluten free sourdough bread shortly! I've settled on a quinoa-millet-sorghum blend with flax seed, and it is rising in a bowl as I write this blog...

For fun, I mixed 1/4 c buckwheat flour in with the smaller of the two starters, along with 1/4 c water. I'm going to try keeping both of these alive, and we'll see what happens! I have a vision for a buckwheat-quinoa-millet bread using the buckwheat starter.  

So, in the end, I added more flour than my recipe called for, let it sit for two additional days, and have no idea if it will work. So, stay tuned for updates! 

UPDATE: Wednesday, 2/4
I decided to keep feeding and stirring both my starters every few days, and put them in my chilly, uninsulated kitchen pantry.  What a great change!  After about 10 days of fermenting, they worked way better, had a more "sour" flavor, and were bubbling up a storm after I fed them.  I used both in different sourdough experiments; I made a GREAT loaf using my buckwheat-millet-quinoa starter - check it out!  
So, I'd recommend letting it sit longer than 3 days.  More like 10.  Dump off any dark liquid, stir and feed every couple days.  Then try using it.  Then feed it, and put it in the fridge to hang out . Before you use it, let it sit out a day, feed it and stir it.  Yippee!!