Updated: Feb 27, 2019
If you want to make sourdough bread, you’re going to need a sourdough starter. A mixture of flour and water that has been allowed to ferment and become a bubbling hive of activity for wild yeasts, enzymes and lactobacilli bacteria. This starter will be teaming with microbes that work in harmony to create carbon dioxide to raise your loaf, and acids to give it that distinctive tang.
Now there is a wealth of information out there on building and maintaining starters, yet for some reason, this simple process seems to cause no end of problems for bakers who are new to the sourdough game and I have a sneaky suspicion it’s because people are over complicating it and just not being patient enough. I guess we live in an age where everything can be obtained instantly, no need to wait - music, films, apps, shopping, you name it, it can be streamed or delivered to your door within minutes. But wild yeasts are from a bygone era, these little guys aren’t interested in 21st Century living – they’re happy to wait for their weekly soap opera and monthly magazine subscription, they have no need for express checkout or next day delivery, they enjoy a slower pace of life, in fact they demand it. So when it comes to sourdough starters and sourdough bread for that matter, a change of mind set is required, a re-calibration of time – as the old adage goes ‘good things come to those who wait’.
So, first things first, when you decide to embark on your sourdough adventure, give yourself a reasonable, unpressured time frame for when you want to bake your first loaf. I’d set aside a weekend a couple of weeks in the future; that’ll give you a good 12 days to get your starter up and running. It’ll also give you time to study your starter a bit, get to know its routine, how it reacts after a feed, how long it takes to peak, what it smells like, even what it tastes like (just a little dab on the finger, don’t go drinking it – it might smell like beer, but that’s where the similarity ends!) You want to go into your first bake knowing your starter is at its peak and raring to go! A sluggish under-active starter = flat dense bread…and disappointment…and frustration…and tears.
All you are going to need to make your starter is flour and water – no grapes, no pineapple, no raisins – just flour and water. Sure, the addition of these fruits might make it look like your starter is fermenting more quickly, but it’ll be with the wrong variety of yeasts and bacteria. You need bread friendly ones, not fruit friendly ones! The yeasts you want are already in the flour, so you need to encourage those ones to multiply. I do advocate using a proportion of wholemeal flour though, the majority of the wild yeasts are found on the outside of the grain which is sifted off when making white flour, so you want to keep the yeast rich bran in there too. Also using organic flour to get things started is a good idea; the grain will have had fewer chemicals sprayed on it, so in theory more microbes should have survived.
I only maintain one starter and use it for all my sourdough baking. I know some people keep a rye starter, a wholemeal starter, a spelt starter, etc, but I just keep the one and adjust it to what I want during the final feed/leaven build. So if I want a plain white loaf, I will do my final feed with white flour only. Yes there will still be a tiny bit of rye in the final loaf, but it is negligible and this way is a lot easier than keeping two or three starters on the go at once.
I keep my starter in a glass container with a loose fitting lid; a round Kilner jar with the rubber seal removed is perfect. You can ‘whisk’ your starter with a fork and not worry about scratching the sides and you can easily see it rising and falling to gauge its growth and catch it when it peaks. Also, make sure it is big enough, mine is 0.85 litres which is fine for maintaining a small amount of starter from day-to-day; it only occasionally overflows when I do a big feed before a heavy weekend of baking!
Strong White Bread Flour
Wholemeal Rye Flour
A useful tip is to weigh your empty jar without its lid on and make a note of it. Then in the future you can weigh your pot of starter, deduct this weight and work out exactly how much starter you actually have in there.
Put your clean jar onto some kitchen scales and weigh into it 50g of strong white bread flour, 50g rye flour and 100g water. Using a fork whisk the ingredients thoroughly to make a thick ‘batter’. Cover loosely with a lid and then find a nice home for your new starter. Somewhere warm is preferable, particularly whilst it’s getting going - I keep mine on top of the fridge.
After two to three days your starter will begin to ferment, nothing dramatic, but you should notice a few little bubbles through the glass and on the surface. If there are no signs of life, just leave it for a further day or two and it will start to ferment. Once you see those bubbles appearing it’s time to give your starter its first feed. Add another 50g of strong white bread flour, 50g rye flour and 100g water. Again give it a good whisk with a fork, cover loosely and leave for another day or two.
Your starter should now have some clear signs of life; bubbles around the sides and on the surface and it should have a slightly vinegary, pickley smell to it – maybe even a touch of compost too! These are all good signs and indicate that your starter is ready for its next feed. Before that though we need to remove some of it, I tip mine directly into the bin but if you have a compost heap maybe put it on there. You want to be left with 50g of old starter in the jar (this is why we weighed the empty jar at the start), to which you add another 50g of strong white bread flour, 50g rye flour and 100g water. This is a 1:2:2 feed - 50g Starter: 100g Flour: 100g Water and will give you a 100% hydration starter. Give it all a thorough mix with a fork, place the lid back on and leave it for another day.
Your starter is now up and running and will require a daily feed following the procedure in step 4. Tip most of it away reserving 50g and then add 50g of strong white bread flour, 50g rye flour and 100g water. Repeat this for a week and you’ll have a well-established and mature starter. You’ll notice the aroma settles down, becoming less harsh and vinegary, and more mellow, beery and well…yeasty.
You can now start baking with your starter, following any sourdough recipe that calls for 100% hydration starter and that’s most of them.
If you are not going to be baking every day or at least once a week, you might prefer to keep your starter in the fridge where it can happily go for a week between feeds. The cold climate will make the yeast go dormant, so it won’t be gobbling up all you precious flour. In this state you can feed it just once a week; take it out of the fridge, feeding it (as per step 4), then leave it at room temperature for an hour or two before putting it back in the fridge. What’s important though is that when you are planning to bake with it, you make sure it is good and active. Remove it from the fridge a couple of days in advance and feed it daily whilst keeping it at room temperature. If you are planning on baking at the weekend, I’d get it out on Thursday morning and give it a feed, then a second feed Friday morning and then its final feed Friday evening before you go to bed. Then it should be active, bubbly and full of life first thing Saturday morning…even if you aren’t!