I thought I would kick off this section with the basics of a Sourdough Starter, how to make, maintain and bake with it. This and all sourdough baking aspects are covered in my Sourdough workshops.
If you are local to Wakefield, West Yorkshire, and would like to collect some free sourdough starter from me, just get in touch!
Sourdough bread does not need to taste sour. The “sour” in sourdough refers to the sour smell of the starter when it has been left unrefreshed for a while. Don’t be alarmed if your starter really stinks. Once you have refreshed it, you will notice it smells sweet. Also, as described above, the longer you take to put the final dough together, the more sour your dough will smell and taste. Because the term is a little confusing, many bakers refer to sourdough bread as wild yeast bread or natural yeast bread.
A lot of bread that is sold as sourdough also has commercial yeast added to it. It will have the flavour and some of the texture of a pure sourdough bread, it just won’t be “pure”. Adding commercial yeast allows the baker to control, more precisely, the timing and nature of the proofing (how long it takes to rise and how high it gets). If you are concerned, read the label or ask the baker.
General Rules for storing and using a Sourdough Starter
If you want to make your own starter, simply follow the instructions given below. Once it is made you can use some straight away (it’s bubbly and alive) but make sure you don’t use it all. You need to hold some back for the next time you want to bake.
To keep it forever and leave it to your grandchildren, you need to care for it properly. To do this you have various choices.
Choice One – keeping your starter in a permanent state of refreshment by feeding it every day
Realistically if you are not baking in volume, this option is not really viable. You just do not use enough starter (replacing what you use with fresh flour and water) to keep a manageable vat that stays lively. However, if you really want to feed the starter every day, give it a try. You may find that one of three things happens.
One: your vat of starter gets bigger and bigger and bigger because you are just not using it.
Two: your vat of starter gets weaker as it gets older. This is because you have a bigger and bigger vat of starter to which you are adding a small amount of new food. The yeast eats up the new food in record time (you see it froth up almost instantly and then an hour later it’s calm again) and goes to sleep. Sleepy yeast does not make great bread. This is why many books tell you to throw half of your starter away on a regular basis. I am against this method when we have refrigerators because I don’t believe in wasting food unnecessarily.
Three: you go away and forget about your starter and it dies.
Professional bakers use lots of starter and they put lots of flour and water back every day. And they generally keep their starters in the fridge overnight anyway, just in case.
Choice Two – refreshing your starter when you need it
You can freeze your starter, you can dry your starter, you can refrigerate it in an air tight container (tupperware with clippy sides is best, avoid glass as it can, on occasion, explode) and it will just go to sleep. That way, you can ignore it totally until the next time you want to bake. What you cannot do is leave it in a liquid state at room temperature much longer than a couple of days without feeding it. That is because when it is sitting at room temperature the yeast will eventually eat everything in sight and then starve to death. At that point, the starter will go moldy and die. If your starter has serious mould on it, best throw it away.
To refresh the starter when you need it, simply follow the instructions in the recipe you are given. The recipes that we use assume you will store your starter in the fridge and that it will need refreshing. To that end, they always say, “Day one refresh the starter” and “Day two prepare the dough and bake”.
Other people’s recipes may assume you are starting with a refreshed starter. Look at the time the recipe takes and look at the ingredients. If you are asked to put everything together in step one, in most cases the author is assuming you are using a starter that you have already refreshed.
If you kill your starter, it is not the end of the world. You can make more in less then one week. It is not like running out of yeast. If that happens you have to find a shop and buy more. That is fine in the modern age of shops but not fine a few hundred years ago. However, even if you had no sourdough and you happened to be transported back in time, the only implication of your foolishness is that you and your family would be forced to eat pancakes for a few days until you made more starter. That, my friend, is not a drama.
When you make a new starter, it will be frothy on the morning of day 5 and you can either use some of it and put the rest in the fridge or put it all in the fridge until you are ready to bake. Whatever you do, use a big container. A tupperware with clippy sides works well. Please avoid jam jars (explosions) and normal tupperware (not air tight enough). Your starter will continue to froth up before it calms down and if your container is too small, you will find starter all over the floor of the fridge. After a while it will calm down, go quiet and separate into liquid (floats on top, called hooch, you can ferment things with it) and solid. The liquid may turn brown, it will certainly stink. All of that is normal. When you use the starter, stir it up so the liquid is incorporated into the solid. Then measure it out and follow the refreshment instructions. Mould, on the other hand, is not normal. If your starter goes mouldy through it away and get a better container.
The golden rule: Make sure you don’t run out of starter
Refreshing your starter – weigh your starter and add the same amounts of flour and water. Stir well and then cover with cling film and leave it overnight on the counter. This refreshment ratio is important. Too much starter and too little flour or water and the starter will gobble it up in a matter of minutes and go back to sleep. Too little starter with too much flour and water and there is not enough active yeast to liven up the flour and water.
In the morning, your entire vat will be bubbly and you can either put it back in the fridge for the next time you want to bake or you can put together dough for a loaf of bread. Please ensure you don’t use all the refreshed starter up!
The process of baking with sourdough is similar to that which is followed to bake with fresh or dried yeast. There are, however, a few important differences:
1. You can make your own sourdough starter. Unless you have a lab, you cannot make your own yeast.
2. Sourdough can be stored indefinitely as long as it is stored properly. Commercial yeast, on the other hand, has a shelf life. You can freeze your starter, dry your starter (smear it on some grease proof paper and let it dry before crumbling it off and popping it into an airtight, glass jar), or simply put your starter in an air tight container in the fridge. It will always come back to life when you mix it with some flour and water.
3. The amount of sourdough you need to make bread is different from the amount of fresh or dried yeast you need to make bread. Further, the amount of sourdough starter that you need depends on the base flour of the starter and the type of flour used to refresh the starter and make the final dough. Until you are familiar with your starter and how it behaves when you refresh it and bake with it, use a recipe. There is no harm in that.
4. Sourdough bread takes longer to rise. Whereas you can make good bread at home with commercial yeast in about 3 hours (minimum and on a hot day) your sourdough bread will take at least 3 – 6 hours (and frequently longer) and that assumes you have refreshed the starter first.
It is this enforced longer rise that makes sourdough easier to digest than bread made in a shorter time. Over the hours that dough rises (proofs/ferments), the yeast is actually digesting the flour, breaking it down so that we can process it very efficiently. We extract the nutrients quickly from the flour that is already broken down by the yeast and then get rid of what we don’t need. The food does not hang around fermenting in our stomachs making us bloated, giving us diarrhea and constipation (or both), and causing us to simply store it as fat and gain weight.
5. Sourdough bread does not rise as much as bread made with commercial yeast. Commercial yeast is simply more powerful. With commercial yeast you are always looking for your dough to double in size – at whatever stage. Sourdough bread will only rise by about 1.5 times before the yeast begins to lose its puff. The relative weakness of the natural yeast in a sourdough starter is one of the reasons that your dough should be more sticky than you may be used to: all else being equal, wetter dough rises faster and expands a bit more easily than dryer dough. Give your dough a chance.
Tips for beginners
1. Use recipes. Follow them slavishly before you experiment. Get your head around how sourdough works and you will begin to see how you can make it work for you. Don’t confine yourself to one recipe book. As above, there are many methods and you need to find the methods that work for you and that bake the kind of bread that you like.
2. Use tins to bake until you get an eye and a feel for the dough:
a. A tin physically contains wetter dough more effectively than anything else.
b. If it is greased the dough will never stick and the loaf will come out in a regular shape (no bulging, no flat pancakes).
c. It is easier to tell if dough in a tin is ready for the oven.
3. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Bread is forgiving and the ingredients are cheap. If your loaf is ugly you won’t win a prize but everything is good toasted.
Making a sourdough starter
Mix 50 g flour (white or wholemeal wheat bread flour, rye (dark or light) usually work best, but any flour will do) and 50 g warm water together in a big bowl. Cover with cling film or put a dinner plate on top of the bowl and put it somewhere warm (airing cupboard, on a heated floor, sunny place) for 24 hours.
Add 50 g flour and 50 g warm water to the Day 1. Mix. Cover and put somewhere warm.
Add 50 g flour and 50 g warm water to the Day 2. Mix. Cover and put somewhere warm.
Add 50 g flour and 50 g warm water to the Day 3. Mix. Cover and put somewhere warm.
Your starter should be bubbly. If it is, you have a viable starter.
If your starter is not bubbly by the morning of Day 5, don’t add any more flour, just cover it and let it sit for another 24 hours. If nothing has happened by then, your house is just too clean! Seriously. Stop using bleach, Dettol or other antiseptic sprays on every surface. Revert to hot, soapy water to clean surfaces. You need germs. So does your sourdough.