Pick a process, plan when you are going to start and have all the necessary ingredients and equipment on hand. You don’t have to follow my method, it’s not the only way to create a starter, but whatever method you choose, stick with it and be patient.
'Starter or Leaven?'
These terms are often used interchangeably, but I like to define them the following way. A starter is the small amount of flour and water you keep and maintain from day to day. You want to keep this at a manageable size, maybe around 100g so you are not having to throw away endless amounts of flour every time you feed it. This starter is then used to build a leaven, often at a ratio of 1:1:1 or 1:2:2. For example (1:1:1) 50g starter:50g flour:50g water = 150g leaven or (1:2:2) 50g starter:100g flour:100g water = 250g leaven. Confusion often arises when people take some of the starter to build a leaven in a separate pot and then don’t know what to do with any leaven they don’t use - in effect you now have two starters. What I do it create my leaven in my starter pot; when it needs feeding I tip most of it away reserving around 50g and then add my equal parts of flour and water at the required ratio. Once it peaks I use what I need for baking and then maintain the rest as my starter until next time.
‘I’m feeding my starter three times a day, but it’s not doubling in size.’
The fact you are feeding it three times a day (or even twice) is probably why it’s not doubling in size. You can’t force feed a starter - you only need to feed it when it’s hungry. I feed mine once a day, sometimes once every other day if I forget. Once your starter is established it will be way more robust than you imagine. Skipping a feed here and there isn’t going to kill it, in fact it’s pretty hard to kill a starter, the yeast will go dormant for weeks before it eventually dies. If you keep refreshing it before it has used up all its food, you will in effect be diluting it – reducing the amount of active yeast and making it weaker rather than stronger.
‘I’m following X’s method, but I didn’t have any wholemeal flour so I’m using all white. The recipe says I should see activity on day two, but mine’s not doing anything! Is it dead?’
Well, the problem here is that wholemeal flour or rye flour in a starter will get going much quicker than all white, so by changing the flour you have also changed the timings. A wholemeal mixture may have signs of activity within the first 24 hours, but white may take three days or more.
‘There is a brown liquid on top of my starter, what is it?’
The brown liquid is called hooch and it’s alcohol produced by the yeast during anaerobic fermentation. It usually develops when a starter is left unfed for a long time, a problem more commonly associated with starters kept in the fridge. It’s a clear sign your starter is hungry, so feed it. I always advise tipping the hooch off rather than stirring it in, alcohol kills yeast, so removing it from the starter seems like a good idea. If you’re worried about the starter becoming too thick as a result, just add a little extra water when you feed it. If you repeatedly leave your starter to get to this level of hunger, it will become more and more acidic. This is fine if you like a tangy loaf, but again be aware that excessive acidity will inhibit the reproduction of wild yeast and your starter will gradually become weaker.
‘When should I use my starter? On the way up, at its peak or on the way down.’
I would always recommend using it just before it peaks or actually at its peak. Basically, not too early and not too late, but don’t stress, you have a big window to aim for here. If your starter usually takes 10 hours to reach its peak, you could probably use it anywhere between 6 and 12 hours with no discernible or detrimental effect on your dough. If, as I often do, you forgot to feed your starter, but then you decide you want to bake, feed it using tepid water (below 25 degrees Celsius) or keep it warm after its been fed and it should be ready to go within 4 hours. I’ve had the least success with over mature starters (once it’s coming down from its peak it becomes more liquid and acidic), which has left me with denser and overtly sour loaves. The difference in texture may have been psychosomatic, but the extra sourness is tangible. If you prefer a tangier loaf then this might be something you want to experiment with.
‘I keep my starter in the fridge, but how do I feed it?’
I used to keep my starter in the fridge, but now I bake regularly throughout the week it’s just not necessary. When it comes to maintaining a fridge starter though, I have a few recommendations; feed it once a week and leave it at room temperature for a few hours before returning it to the fridge, you could also use tepid water. You need some time/heat for the yeast and cultures to become active so they can feed on the new mixture. This will lower the PH and help to prevent unwanted organisms contaminating it and mould from forming. I’d also recommend only reserving a small amount of starter and feeding at a higher ratio, maybe 1:5:5. The more infrequently a starter is used the more mature and acidic it becomes, gradually becoming a less hospitable environment for the wild yeasts. A good refresh at each feeding will help counter this and promote good yeast activity.
'My starter has gone mouldy, should I throw it away?’
If there is a little green mould on the surface of your starter, you should be able to salvage it. Scrape it off to avoid it contaminating the starter any further, then tip it all out, reserving just a tablespoon from the very bottom of the jar. Transfer this reserved amount to a new clean container and feed with 50g of flour (1/3 rye, 2/3 white) and 50g water. The next day you should see some activity and can then continue to feed as normal. Allow the starter to build up strength at room temperature for a few days if you are planning on keeping it in the fridge. To avoid this happening again, see advice above on maintaining a fridge starter. If the starter has any black or orange mould on it, then I would suggest throwing it away and starting a new one.
When you are just starting out, it’s tempting to want to emulate the perfect loaves you see on Instagram and Facebook with their cavernous, molten crumb, explosive oven spring and tectonic scale fissures, and to be disappointed with anything that doesn’t match up. But be realistic, if you went to play golf for the first time, would you expect to drive the ball 300 yards? Or if you picked up a guitar, would you expect to be able to play Isaac Albeniz’s Asturias straight away? Managing your own expectations is crucial, don’t set yourself up to fail with an unrealistic goal. Small steps, lots of practice and you’ll soon be making Insta-envious bread.
‘Can I use different flour to the one suggested?’
Most sourdough formulas are calculated around a specific flour blend. Different flours behave differently; from the amount of water they can absorb to their potential gluten development to their extensibility and strength. If you are following a formula for a predominantly white loaf, then swapping out the flour for wholemeal, malted or multi-grain will have a significant effect on the feel and quality of your dough, no doubt making it very dry and hard to work. Inversely, if you swap out wholemeal for white, you may well end up with a very sloppy, sticky mess that is totally unmanageable. Sometimes the substitution may be more subtle, i.e. bread flour for plain flour, but again the two behave differently. Plain flour generally isn’t as strong and even if you manage to bake a successful loaf, the crumb may have a less chewy, more cake-like texture. I would suggest that when you are starting out, you find a low hydration, predominantly white dough recipe to experiment with. One that can be completed in a day is preferable as an overnight cold proof just adds another level of complexity and potentially doubles the time investment, which just adds to the pain if the loaf fails!
‘I’m following a number of recipes’
As mentioned above, it is best to select one recipe and stick with it. By all means read as much as possible from books, blogs and forums, but when it comes to actually baking a loaf, just follow one formula. Flours, hydrations and starter inoculation percentages all have a significant bearing on bulk fermentation and final proof times. It’s tempting to try and guarantee success by cherry picking the extremes from each recipe, i.e. young starter, long autolyse, large amount of leaven, long bulk time, endless stretch & folds, warm dough temperature and an overnight cold proof – what could possibly go wrong?! Well, you could end up with a very flat, dense, gummy, under fermented, over proofed pancake…and then where would you start in trying to resolve any of those issues. If you follow one formula and it doesn’t come out as expected, you can hopefully identify the problem (or at least post a clear question online) and tweak the process for your next attempt.
'What is Autolyse and how long should I do it for?'
A true autolyse is achieved by mixing the flour and water from a recipe together and then leaving the resulting mixture to rest for a period of time before adding the leaven and salt. The main reason for doing this is to decrease subsequent mixing time. By allowing the flour to fully absorb the water, gluten naturally begins to develop, meaning rigorous mixing can be substituted for far less exhausting stretch and folds. During the autolyse enzymic activity also begins; breaking down starch into simple sugars so they are available to feed the yeast as soon as the leaven is added. A lot is made of autolyse durations, but I am of the opinion that 30 minutes to 2 hours is optimal, anything beyond that is drifting into the realms of diminishing returns. If you are using a mixer to make your dough, you are probably safe to skip this stage altogether. Some bakers do a cold overnight autolyse in the fridge, but this is not something I have tried. I did see someone ask on Facebook what would happen if they autolysed for 3 days? I think the answer is, you’d make a new starter!
'What is dough hydration?'
Dough hydration is simply the amount of water in relation to the total amount of flour in any given recipe, expressed as a percentage. If a recipe calls for 1kg of flour and 700g of water, the hydration would be 70%. Remember that the hydration should include the total water and total flour, so when calculating the hydration of sourdough, you will need to accommodate the water and flour from the starter. Also be aware that even if you are using a 100% hydration starter; equal weights of flour and water, this will still increase the overall hydration of a dough. For instance, if we take our 70% hydration dough above and add 200g of starter to it, the hydration would go up to 72.7%. You can find a more in-depth explanation of hydration and bakers maths in my blog post here.
‘Can I convert a regular yeasted bread recipe into a sourdough recipe?’
If you have a favourite ‘straight’ dough recipe that you would like to convert to sourdough, you can use the following method. Substitute the yeast for 20% leaven and then adjust the flour and water amounts accordingly. For example, if a recipe calls for 1000g flour and 650g water, I would add 200g leaven and then reduce the flour to 900g and the water to 550g. This will still give you the same quantity of dough as in the original recipe due to the flour and water in the leaven. You will obviously have to adjust proofing times and depending on your initial results, you may want to tweak the amount of leaven going forward, but 20% is a good place to start.
'How do I know if my loaf is cooked?'
With a bit of experience, you will start to instinctively know when your bread is done and be able to calculate in your head how long you need to bake certain sizes of loaves for. After repeating a recipe a few times with consistent results, you’ll land upon a preferred oven temperature and cooking time that gives you your desired bake. Light or dark, thick or thin crust, are all personal preferences and can be controlled by adjusting the cooking time and temperature. You’ll have no doubt been advised to tap the bottom of your loaf and listen to the sound to gauge its level of doneness. Like the ‘finger poke’ test though, I find this method too subjective and inaccurate. You can definitely bake a hollow sounding loaf that is still moist and gummy when cut into. So, until you’ve developed the necessary intuition, here are some guidelines that should ensure your loaf is cooked through. If you want to be scientific about it, then you can use a digital probe to measure the internal temperature of your loaf once baked. For non-enriched breads and sourdough this should be approximately 98c/210f, but again, it is possible to register a correct reading and still have an under baked loaf!
1kg Boule baked in a Dutch Oven – 240c for 25 minutes covered, 220c for 20 minutes uncovered
700g Boule baked in a Dutch Oven – 240c for 22 minutes covered, 220c for 15 minutes uncovered
260g Baguette baked on a sheet – 240c for 15 minutes covered, 220c for 10 minutes uncovered
90g Bread roll baked on a sheet – 220c for 25 minutes uncovered
'Why bake in a Dutch Oven (DO) and what size should I use?'
Professional bread ovens are steam injected, so bakers can introduce moisture during the early stages of the bake to ensure maximum oven spring and help create a crisp, shiny crust. By using a Dutch Oven to bake your bread at home, you can replicate this steam rich environment by trapping the moisture evaporating from your loaf as it cooks. If you bake on parchment paper you can boost the amount of steam by adding ice-cubes or a splash of water under and around the paper. The DO is not used as a pan to hold the shape the dough though, you are baking a free form loaf and as such it shouldn’t touch the sides. Therefore, when it comes to size, you want the largest pan that will fit in your oven, regardless of the size of the loaf you are baking in it. I use a 5.5 litre stock pot with a 28cm diameter, which can easily accommodate a 1kg boule.
‘The bottom is burnt’
I see this one a lot and it’s definitely a side effect of baking in a Dutch Oven. Fortunately, there is a simple solution that I’ve now made a standard part of my baking process. Where common practice dictates that you bake your loaf for approximately half the time with the lid on and half the time with the lid off, I have just taken this one step further and now bake my loaves for half the time with the lid on in the Dutch Oven and then half the time completely out of the Dutch Oven. When you reach the point at which you would normally remove the lid, take the pan out of the oven and then, using a spatula or an egg flipper, lift the loaf out of the pan and return it to the oven directly onto an oven rack. This way you no longer have the hot pan directly radiating heat into the underside of your loaf, and hey presto, no overly thick, dark bottom.
‘My bread’s just not improving’
It’s easy to get stuck in a rut; baking loaves that aren’t living up to expectation and not knowing what to do to improve them. It’s incredibly disheartening and immensely frustrating when things go wrong time after time…after time. Believe me, I’ve been there and my ‘solution’ was to bake more! Just keep on baking…and trying…and hoping I would miraculously turn out a fantastic loaf, the bread of my dreams, reach dough nirvana! But of course, that’s not going to happen, in fact it’s often said that ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’ – I must be insane! If you find yourself in this situation, take a step back, put the dough scraper down, repeating your mistakes is not going to help. Go and do some more research, read a blog, scroll through the posts in a Facebook group, watch YouTube tutorials, just expose yourself to as much information as possible. Undoubtedly you'll come across someone who's having the same problem and they might just have the solution you're looking for. Also try baking something else for a change, maybe just a standard loaf to replenish that confidence. Take the time to analyse your process and try to think objectively and rationally about what could be causing the problems. It’s easy to start blaming things like the autolyse duration or the protein content of your flour or the chlorine in the water or humidity in the air, but if you’re honest with yourself, you know none of these things have that much of an effect, it must be something more fundamental. List the things you haven’t tried: short bulk, long bulk, lower hydration, 50% increase in volume, 100% increase in volume and then try each of them one at a time. By following this process of elimination, it won’t be long until you pin point where the problem is and when you find it, you’ll be kicking yourself that you didn’t spot something so obvious much earlier on.