Before you can even begin to think about making your first loaf of sourdough bread you’re going to need a sourdough starter. Now this is where the sourdough journey begins and unfortunately ends for a lot of people, as creating and maintaining a starter seems to have evolved into a hugely complex, convoluted and complicated affair…and the truth is, it really doesn’t need to be.
I’m not going to go through the process of making one here as I have another blog post that covers that, along with a YouTube tutorial. The video is by no means one of my best, but there’s enough info in it to get you up and running with a healthy and active starter. What I do want to do in this blog is answer some of the common questions I see on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube and hopefully alleviate some of your starter concerns.
Should I buy a starter?
‘NO!’ would have been my answer 6 months ago. ‘Why would you waste your money doing that?’. I would then have gone on to berate you for half an hour for even suggesting such a thing and would no doubt have given you my ‘there’s a free starter in every bag of flour’ line! However, I’m much more relaxed about this now and if you want to buy your starter, then by all means go ahead. You can pick them up pretty cheaply now from Amazon and if it comes in a nice container that you can keep it in, even better. Give it a feed when you receive it and you might be ready to bake your first loaf the following day. My only concern would be that you are skipping an important part of the process. If you are going to get into sourdough baking and are prepared to spend a weekend hand making a loaf bread, it seems a shame not to have completed every part of the process yourself. If you buy one, your loaves will only ever be 90% self-made, but by creating your own you can hit the 100% mark. Sourdough baking requires patience and is fraught with problems and failures; skipping ahead by buying a starter may leapfrog the issues of creating your own, but what are you going to do when the next problem arises…because believe me it will. So, yes, buy a starter if you want to, but I would really urge you to make your own, because if you do, achieving that first successful loaf will be just a little more satisfying.
The history, age and origin of a starter is almost irrelevant to me. I know some people love to hear stories of 250-year-old starters that were created in deepest darkest Siberia and have been handed down from generation to generation of master bakers, but in the end what difference will it make to your bread. An active starter that was created two weeks ago can produce a loaf that is just as good…you can’t taste the history.
The question of origin is a hot and divisive topic amongst sourdough enthusiasts, but I fall into the camp of bakers that don’t believe in collecting and maintaining starters from different regions. Primarily because I don’t think you can, I mean, I don’t think it’s physically possible. For instance, lets take San Francisco sourdough as an example. If I brought a true San Francisco starter back from America to the UK and started feeding it with local flour, within a couple of weeks there’d be very little of the original starter left. Ah yes, you might say, but the original yeast is still there. Well some will be for sure but considering the overwhelming majority of yeast in a starter comes from the flour, even the original yeasts would have been all but replaced by the ones introduced through feeding. And that brings me on to the second point, what flour was used to create the starter in the first place. If it was King Arthur Flour, that is grown all over America – North Dakota, Texas, Oklahoma, etc. or maybe Canadian flour was used, either way the yeasts that develop and take hold of the starter will certainly not be specific to San Francisco, so can a 'true' San Francisco starter even exist? Now, you might switch tactics and come back at me saying, it’s not the yeast that determines the flavour anyway, it’s the bacteria and these are specific to San Francisco. But alas no, although the city lends its name to the Lactobacillus found in sourdough, L. sanfranciscensis has been found all around the world and is not endemic to San Francisco. (Rant over)
Making your own
So, maybe (and hopefully) I’ve convinced you to make your own. Good. All you need is flour and water, nothing else. I have spoken about this in my other blog, but there is no need for raisins, apples, grapes or pineapples. Just mix the flour and water together and be patient. Whether you use bread flour, plain flour or all-purpose doesn’t really matter, you can even switch between types for feeding if you run out of your regular one. Using a percentage of wholemeal flour or rye will help, but you’re still going to need to relax, sit back and wait a few days for the yeast activity to really kick in. When you do begin to see the first signs of life don’t get too excited and immediately start planning your first bake, just stick to your feeding routine and get the starter well established over a couple of weeks. Also don’t panic at the plethora of pungent smells that it will omit, this is quite normal and is not a sign that it has failed or that you should throw it away and start again! After a couple of weeks of regular feeding the smell and consistency will both settle down as your starter develops in to a strong, independent, young...leaven.
How often you should feed your starter is another contentious issue, and again there are many different answers and opinions out there. The key is to find what works for you. Two bakers who a lot of you probably follow are Kristen @fullproofbaking and Jack @bakewithjake, both produce amazing sourdough bread but have very different philosophies when it comes to starter maintenance. Kristen is an advocate of feeding three times a day, whereas Jack uses the ‘scrapings method’. He keeps just a tiny amount of starter in the fridge, only bringing it out to feed it the night before he wants to bake and attests to it being ready by the morning. Now I’m not going to disagree or argue with either of them and why would I, their results speak for themselves, but it shows there is more than one ‘right’ way. Generally, I feed my starter once a day, but it’s no big deal if I forget, it’ll be fine without a refresh for two to three days. If I know I won’t be baking for a week or so, then I’ll pop it in the fridge and like Jack, I’ll get it out and feed it the day before I want to use it. Feeding three times a day like Kristen is just not practical for me and although I’d absolutely love to achieve the kind of results she does, I can’t commit to that regime.
Just be assured that a well-established starter is not that frail - missing a feed here and there or sticking it in the fridge for a couple of weeks whilst you are on holiday isn’t going to kill it. Just take a day or two to refresh it and nurture it back to full activity and you’ll be back baking where you left off. That being said, I don’t want you to go away thinking it’s fine to neglect your starter and that it’s not an important part of the sourdough baking process. That would be a grave mistake to make or mindset to get into. A vigorous, active starter is probably the single most important element of sourdough baking - if you don’t get it right you can kiss goodbye to a light, open, airy crumb. You may have heard the phrase ‘content is king’, but when it comes to sourdough, fermentation is king and that relies on a healthy starter.