Nancy Silverton's grape sourdough starter is the gold standard of starters but it's not for the faint of heart. Yes, her cookbook (affiliate link) Breads from the La Brea Bakery will give you the most amazing starter of your life but you'll also get a lesson in patience and repetition.
For this Cooking Club entry I am sharing all my tips, tricks, and necessary tools for a successful Nancy Silverton grape sourdough starter.
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A few years back I decided to learn the art of bread making and I figured, why not learn from the best? So, I bought Nancy Silverton's cookbook titled Breads from the Le Brea Bakery a few years back and it quickly became my bread bible. This sourdough starter is really the foundation for the majority of her bread recipes, so you have to make the starter first before you can get to baking.
Nancy's cookbook guides you through the starter instructions like a story, with easy-to-read descriptions and explanations of what is going on and what to look for throughout the process. When making her starter, I never felt lost and I had a better appreciation for what was bubbling away in my glass jar.
Why Nancy uses grapes in her starter
One really unique ingredient that sets her starter apart from the others is the use of red grapes. Using red grapes in your starter recipe helps to build the fermentation because grapes have wild yeast on the grape skins.
When using grapes for your starter, Nancy suggests using organic grapes that are unwashed so you can really harness as much wild yeast as possible! (Psst - I have an organic grape shopping tip below!) When ready to ferment, wrap the grapes in a cheese cloth before submerging in your starter.
🥖 9 Tips for making Nancy Silverton's sourdough starter
I have made Nancy Silverton's sourdough bread starter three times now and each time I learn something new. Here are a few tips and tricks from my own trial, error, anticipation, and eventual sourdough success!
- Make sure your calendar is clear before you start. When you begin your starter, you are committing to 15 days of development and fermentation. Some days are more involved than others but this would not be the best time to go on vacation!
- The best time to find organic red grapes is in the spring and summer. While Nancy does give ingredient modifications if you can't find organic grapes, I insisted on following her instructions to a T. I live in Phoenix, Arizona but I am almost certain that you would be hard pressed to find organic red grapes anywhere in the US during the fall and winter months.
- Start at the same time everyday. I found it best to tend to my starter first thing in the morning so I never forgot a day and the timing was always consistent. I even put the starter near my coffee pot so I would see it right away and would get to work on it while my coffee brewed.
- Always have enough flour on hand. Nancy's starter uses a lot of flour. I suggest buying about five or six 5 lb bags of flour ahead of time so you don't have to run to the store every few days. When you get into the final feeding stage, you will go through a lot of flour pretty fast. (Also, check out tip #8) Plus, any leftover flour can be used for your bread making!
- Don't modify Nancy's timeline, just stay the course. Yes, this starter recipe takes a long time to develop but I promise the wait will all be worth it! It may be hard not to Google shortcuts because you want to get to bread making as fast as possible but any time modifications will alter the final product. I've seen many starter recipes that you only feed every 24 hours and is 'finished' in just a few days but they are not nearly as good!
- Keep track of your days with tally marks on a scratch pad of paper. Around day 4 my days started blurring together and there is no way I could have kept the days straight only going off of memory.
- Don't dump your starter down the drain without diluting. Part of starter development involves daily discarding of your starter. The starter you are dumping is thick and sludgy, so it can clog your drain and is too heavy, stinky, and liquidy to toss in your trash. I learned this awesome tip from the King Arthur Baking Company there they recommend diluting your starter with water before you dump it down the drain. Works like a charm!
- I did halve the recipe starting on Day 10. This may be controversial but I halved the recipe once regular feedings began. The starter recipe calls for so much flour, which was more than I was willing to use and subsequently dump the next day. I kept the starter, flour and water ratios the same, just cut everything in half. // First feeding: 4 oz water, 2.75 oz flour, 9 oz starter. Second feeding: 8 oz water, 5.5 oz flour. Third feeding: 1 lb water, 11 oz flour.
- Preserve your starter by drying it out. One of Nancy's very last starter instructions talks about drying out your starter - do it! Once my starter was active for a few weeks and I had made my best sourdough loaf yet, I dried my starter using Nancy's described method and I am so happy I did. I keep the starter flakes in a jar in the back of my fridge as my starter 'rainy day fund'. It gives me such peace of mind!
👩🍳 About Nancy Silverton
Quick bio: Nancy Silverton is a famous Los Angeles pastry chef and her breads are legendary. You've probably seen her on star on Netflix shows or as a celebrity guest judge on TV.
She founded La Brea Bakery, which started as a small storefront which grew to the largest artisanal bakery in the US. She was the lead pastry chef for Wolfgang Puck, business partners with Mario Batali, and is a James Beard Award winner for Best Pastry Chef.
⏳ 15 Day grape starter timelapse
Use the below timelapse as a loose guide for what your starter should look like. Climate and humidity can play a factor in your starter development, so just use the below images to give you a general idea of the various starter stages. Yes, your purple water build-up is normal!
Have you tried Nancy Silverton's sourdough starter? Leave any additional tips in the comment section below!