I can’t wait to post my favourite sourdough recipes. But I can’t in good conscience jump ahead to the bread without covering the starter first.
You can find a few places that sell sourdough starter, but I would encourage you to make your own for a few reasons:
Firstly, in order to keep a sourdough starter healthy, you need to understand what you’re working with. You are cultivating your own yeast colony, and keeping it fed and hydrated, so you can turn simple wheat flour into something truly spectacular. Understanding the yeast is everything. And there’s no better way to learn about it, than to create your own colony from scratch. This will help solidify in your mind how the yeast will behave, improving your understanding of fermentation and proving.
Secondly, there’s something so magical about making naturally leavened bread, in that you can literally craft a loaf out of nothing but flour, water, and a little salt. Just with your technique and your knowledge, you can conjure up a delicious, life-giving loaf out of the simplest of ingredients. It’s a really powerful feeling to achieve this, and to have ‘cheated’ by buying a yeast culture will, I feel, take some of that joy away from you.
Lastly, sourdough starters are sometimes sold on the idea that a particular culture is very old, or from an award winning bakery. This is completely irrelevant to the loaves you will end up making. As yeasts die off, and are replaced by other yeasts, the flavour you get will be completely dependant upon the wild yeasts that exist in the air where you live. The fact that the starter originated from somewhere else has no bearing on the taste it will have after a couple of weeks.
Luckily, making your own starter is very easy. But it will also take a long time – you should expect it to take at least a week before you can make bread with it. By the time it’s ready to use, you’ll be desperate to make your first loaf!
Your aim is to cultivate naturally occurring yeasts by creating the conditions in which they thrive. All yeast needs to flourish, is wheat flour and water.
I make my starter by combining equal parts flour and water. The easiest way to do this is to weigh out your water first. I aim for 50g, but if I go over, it doesn’t matter, you just match with an equal weight of flour, which is much easier to weigh.
There is no need to add anything else to your starter. Yeasts should be able to thrive quite happily on the wheat and water alone. However, as an impatient man, I like to get things kicked into gear by adding a little sugar to help the yeast hit the ground running.
Traditionally, people would add things like grated apple, cut grapes, or sliced rhubarb to kick off the yeast activity. I like to use a liquid sugar. I’m using some barley malt syrup that I have in the cupboard, but you could just as well use golden syrup, treacle, molasses, or corn syrup. I think using a pure sugar is better, as it seems to decrease the chances of developing any unwanted bacteria that feed on the fruit. Just a small blob on the end of my spatula is plenty.
Give everything a thorough mix, until all the lumps have disappeared and you have a nice homogenous texture, and then cover tightly with cling film and leave for 24 hours.
After 24 hours, you will probably notice that you have some activity in your starter. Bubbles on the surface, and a lumpy appearance are a great indicator that there is yeast activity. You starter may not look quite this healthy after 24 hours – my kitchen is a warm and yeasty environment already! It will probably smell like a rubbish bin at this point, but don’t worry – that’s normal!
Give the starter a good stir, and then weigh out 50g into a fresh bowl, along with 50g water, and 50g bread flour. Stir your new starter thoroughly, and then cover with clingfilm again to leave for another 24 hours. Discard the rest of your old starter.
As you continue to refresh your starter every 24 hours, there will be a yeast colony developing, but there will be some bacteria colonies developing as well. As your yeast colony gains strength, it will eventually overtake the entire pot of starter, and all the unwanted bacteria will die off. You will need to refresh your starter every day for at least a week before it will be ready.
So how will you know when it’s ready to use?
If you notice that your starter rises up high in your container before falling back, this is great indication of strong yeast activity. You can see from the tide marks on the side of the bowl, just how far the starter is rising and falling.
Once you have good activity, you need to check whether the starter is ready with your nose. The starter should smell tangy and sour, but it shouldn’t smell bad. The yeast give off ethanol (alcohol) as they feed, so a boozy smell is also a good sign. If it doesn’t smell nice, or smells like parmesan cheese, it still has a lot of bacteria in it. In this case, you need to keep refreshing your starter for another couple of days and try again. If in doubt, always give it a couple more days.
Don’t be despondent if your starter isn’t developing as quickly as you’d expect. I would cultivate it for at least 2 weeks before being tempted to throw it out and start again; your starter will develop differently depending on a number of factors, not least how much yeast is airborne in the area in which you live. Also, it’s very unlikely that your new starter would magically develop better than your first attempt – just persevere!
So now your starter is ready to use, how should you look after it?
Choosing the right pot is quite important. You need something non-reactive, so glass, plastic and ceramic are your best bets. I like to have a transparent container so that I can monitor the activity of the yeast by the rise of the starter and the bubbles. If you’re going to be storing your starter at room temperature, you may also want to ensure that it’s an attractive container if you’re going to have to look at it every day. And lastly, you’ll want to make sure that it doesn’t have an airtight lid. Although you want to cover the starter to stop things getting in, it will produce gas as it ferments, and you don’t want it exploding!
My container of choice, after going through several, is a lidded glass pot without the rubber seal. Although I love the look of my rounded jar, you will find it slightly easier to keep looking clean if you have straight sides. Another time, I would choose the Le Parfait Super Terrines 500gms – if anyone from Le Parfait is reading this, please send me free ones for the recommendation 😉
A healthy starter should only need feeding once every 3 days at room temperature, maybe even once a week in the fridge.
You can neglect your starter for quite some time and still resuscitate it. I left mine in the fridge for 11 days when I went on holiday once, and I still managed to bring it back to life in a couple of days. If you are going to go away for an extended period of time, I would recommend that you store it in the fridge – you’ll slow down the activity and reduce the risk of unwanted bacteria developing.
If you find liquid floating on the top of your starter, this means that the yeast have run out of food, and you need to refresh your starter ASAP. If there is a film on top of the liquid, I would pour it out, but otherwise I just stir the whole thing up and refresh it as normal.
And that’s about it.
Looking after a sourdough starter is a bit of a lifestyle, kinda like having a house plant. It doesn’t take that much time to keep it healthy, but it does require you to remember it. For that reason, I like to keep mine sat on top of the microwave, so I see it every day. Keep your starter in good health, and you’ll be making delicious naturally leavened bread for many years to come!