Wild grape sourdough starter: what's the story?

When I first began baking with sourdough, I remember hearing older bakers talk about creating a new starter by first burying wild grapes in the flour they planned to use. Wild grape sourdough starter, while it wouldn’t ultimately perform any differently than starter created with “un-graped” flour and water, would become active more quickly, they said.

I never did try making that wild grape sourdough starter — until now.

Grape sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

The other morning, walking through a wild meadow with my dogs, I suddenly caught a whiff of grapes on the warm, humid air. I looked around and, sure enough, poking out of a thicket were the telltale heart-shaped leaves of grapevines.

Grape sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

I pulled aside brambles and twigs to find beautifully ripe grapes, some just starting to soften, others plump and firm. Eating a few, I found them thick-skinned and seedy, but wonderfully sweet.

Wild grape sourdough starter — if not now, when? Click To Tweet

Grabbing a handful of grapes, I headed home along the salt marsh, carefully holding them by the stem so as not to disturb their skin.

What’s up with that? The skin of wild grapes (as well as berries) is positively seductive to wild yeast. Wild yeast floating in the air will collect on grape skins. So legend has it that burying wild grapes in flour will transfer some of that wild yeast to the sourdough starter you make with the flour.

Let’s see what happens.

Grape sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

“Graping” the flour

Here I’ve buried a small handful of grapes in a scant 1 cup (4 ounces) of King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour. I’ll leave them in the flour overnight, then remove them when I’m ready to make my starter.

Disclaimer: This isn’t strict science. I didn’t weigh the grapes, nor did I ascertain what type they are, nor “vet” them for their wild yeast content. This is simply a seat-of-the-pants food experiment — one which I encourage you to perform yourself, should you get the chance.

I’ll compare my grape-enhanced flour against King Arthur White Whole Wheat Flour and plain King Arthur all-purpose flour.

Why the whole wheat flour? Starter created from whole wheat or rye flour quickly becomes active for the same reason grape-flour starter would: the microflorae in whole grains are attractive to wild yeast.

Grape sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

Three flours, three starters

Putting 4 ounces of each type of flour in three different jars, I add 4 ounces of cool water, lay the jar lids loosely on top, and set the jars on the counter.

Grape sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

The second feeding

Twenty-four hours later, the starters are beginning to work. At this point, the grape-flour starter (left) and plain flour starter (right) are a bit behind the whole wheat starter (center).

Look at the bubbles in each, though. It always amazes me that flour and water, given time, can become a bread leavener — a.k.a. sourdough starter.

I discard all but 4 ounces of starter from each jar, feed them each a scant 1 cup (4 ounces) of unbleached all-purpose flour and 4 ounces of water, and walk away, expecting I’ll feed them again the next day.

Grape sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

A few hours later

But within just seven hours … oh, my, look at those starters go!

The grape sourdough starter and plain starter are neck and neck, nearly to the top of their respective jars. But the whole wheat starter has poked its lid off and is starting to ooze onto the counter. The whole wheat starter has clearly maintained (and even increased) its early lead.

The takeaway

What can I conclude from this experiment?

There’s nothing wrong with burying wild grapes in flour and making a grape sourdough starter; it should perform well.

But if you’re looking for a fast start, begin with whole-grain flour, such as wheat or rye. You don’t need to continue to feed your starter with whole grains. But using wheat or rye as the vehicle for first attracting and trapping wild yeast is a smart choice.

As is taking your starter and making a loaf of Rustic Sourdough Bread.

Grape sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

Want to make your own sourdough starter from scratch? See our blog post, How to make your own sourdough starter. And learn everything you need to know about sourdough baking in our sourdough baking guide.

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Stephanie

    On day 1 of my wild black raspberry yeast infused starter! I picked a handful of unripe berries (I didn’t want them to leak into the flour, they’re more delicate than grapes) that had a lot of whitish residue in the ridges (presumably yeast) and rolled them around in about half a cup of whole wheat flour, which I then left out uncovered for a day (this is by no means a pure culture). Then I picked out the berries and proceeded with the starter instructions on a different King Arthur blog post on making sourdough starter. Obviously it’s hard to pin point the reason, but my starter was really quite bubbly by 24 hours, even with regular chlorinated tap water! I’m sure the summer heat and humidity and whole wheat flour are major factors, but I’d like to think the wild berries contributed.

    Reply
  2. Donna Martz

    So, is the starter that pushed out of the jar ready to use then? I am still trying to get to bread baking from the starter. Thanks

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Donna, the starter that’s pushed out of the jar is probably past ready to use. You want to use your starter when it’s reaching its peak of activity, when it still has some energy left to make your dough rise. We took photos to illustrate what sourdough starter should look like at each stage in its feeding — check it out here to see what it looks like. Hope that helps! Kye@KAF

  3. Marianne

    Thanks for the article. I had read on another blog about using red grapes to increase starter vigor. My starter had gotten very sick from my neglect, and I almost threw it out. Before giving up, I scooped out the best tablespoon of it I could get, put in four red grapes, filtered water and flour. Hours later, all around the grapes were tiny bubbles. I removed the grapes and kept just a tablespoon of it, fed it, and kept up with that pattern. My starter came back to life!

    Reply
  4. Hilary

    I tried this and it’s great, although my starter is never as goopy as the photos or the other sourdough recipes indicate it might/should be (even 2 months later). I can’t actually think of a similar substance – I can scoop out a cup for a recipe and it almost is self-adhering, into the cup, then into the bowl. It does not pour. I have never done sourdough before so I don’t have a comparison. Should I add a bit more water? Or just leave well enough alone since it works pretty well. It seems to be the same whether I feed it over a week in the fridge or overnight on the counter.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hilary, it sounds like your starter may be just a little heavier than our recipes intend, but this doesn’t mean it’s wrong – there are many different versions of a sourdough starter out there. If what you have is working for you, then there’s no reason NOT to stick with it. If you do want to experiment with adjustments, however, using a little less flour per feeding should do the trick. When measuring by volume (rather than weight), it can be easy to get a heavier cup of flour than the 4.25 oz we intend. To get a relatively lighter cup of flour, we recommend using our fluff, sprinkle and level method detailed here: http://bit.ly/1Q2PToo Hope this helps! Mollie@KAF

  5. Renate Wendeln Marks

    About 19/20 yrs ago my dear friend gave me a book, “Breads from the La Brea Bakery” by Nancy Silverton. The best gift ever! There was a recipe for starting your own sour dough. Red grapes, flour and water. So I did it, and all these years later my sour dough starter is still with us. It is very forgiving. It can go into the refrigerator for weeks, then feed it for a day and use it. ( Put a little of the starter aside and continue feeding it.}
    The breads are awsome! And there is so much room to play around. Mix regular flour with whole wheat, rye, add seeds, herbs, oils …
    Rosemary and olive oil is great, so are sunflower and pumpkin seed breads.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Renate, I have that book right here beside me. I considered trying her grape starter, but then decided to stick with my original test: seeing whether “tales” of burying wild grapes in flour made a difference in how quick/vigorous a starter you could make. Glad to hear you’ve had success with Nancy’s method – thanks for sharing. PJH

    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Sure, Kathy, your starter will just be a bit stiffer with bread flour; so splash in an extra teaspoon or so of water. Good luck — PJH

  6. Reid Stetson

    Dearest friends,

    I am working with an “heirloom” starter that is well over 100 years old. It was created from raisins (before everything dried was also sulfured) as a fund-raiser for a church in Central Ohio just about the turn of the 20th Century. A student of mine gave me some of the starter in the mid-70s and I carried it with me for about seven years. Less-fortunate times forced me to give it up but years later a friend in Central Ohio spoke of a starter he was given. It sounded all too familiar. In fact, it was the same one. I was given another starter and it behaved exactly as I remembered. This too was a direct descendent of the original; effectively, I am only the “fourth owner” of it.

    As I tell folks, please remember that these are largely “wine yeasts” (as opposed to beer or later bread yeasts.) They may not behave at all the way one might expect. Mine produces a delectable bread with a dense crumb, not entirely unlike the first stage of Zweibach. It also makes delightful pretzels as well as very good rye and marble rye breads. The gluten structure is not as sturdy so slashing the loaves to “release the Devil” results in something more suited to making “Melbas”.

    Every two weeks at the most, the starter is activated and wonderful breads are baked.

    I wish you all greatest success with your baking.

    RBS, CCB at J&R Kitchens in Gravesend, NH

    Reply
  7. Janice

    Thank you for sharing this. Starters are so interesting. This past Spring, in the baking class at the culinary Institute I am preparing to graduate from (woohoo), we were shown to wrap the grapes in cheese cloth & crush them.a bit to release some of their juices. We then out it into the flour & water for 24 hrs. We didn’t test the speed of the reaction, but the subtle flavor was a nice touch.

    Reply
  8. Libby

    I think that the point of sour dough is not about the way it rises, but in the way it tastes. For years now I have sampled many wild yeasts from the various leaves and fruits in many climates. One of my favorites is wild raspberry leaves from Minnesota. If you have ever tried SanFransisco starter, you’ll have gotten the notice that the yeast will acquire local strains and soon lose that “twang” that it starts with. I find the raspberry, and other local leaves, to have that twang, too. It’s the flavor, not the rise, that makes it special.

    Reply
  9. Chip

    Another good choice this time of year for a starter are the skins from apples bought at a farmer’s market. You can often see the haze of wild yeast on the apple skins. I suggest a farmer’s market because the yeast may have been washed off apples offered by grocery stores.

    Reply

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