Sourdough starter

Surdegskultur

A nice bubbly sourdough starter

Although you can buy good sourdough bread from some excellent artisan bakers in many parts of the world, I hope you will be tempted to try baking your own! It is very satisfying and the results are so good!

Content

If you have never made a sourdough starter before I recommend that you read all four sections before you start.
• The recipe,
• Background information and tips,
• Looking after your starter,
• Possible problems.

Feedback

I hope I have explained everything clearly, but if not please let me know so I can improve it. Good luck! John Duxbury

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The recipe

Recipe summary for a sourdough starter

Ingredients for each "feed"

50 g* wholemeal (dark) rye flour
50 g tap water at room temperature
½ tsp honey, on days 1 and 2

*These days most bakers use grams for flour and liquids

Method

The first stage of making a new sourdough starterAfter 0 hours

1. Rinse out your container with boiling water and then add 50 g of rye flour, 50 g of water and ½ teaspoon of honey to the container. Using your fingers like two prongs of a fork mix thoroughly, until it looks like thick porridge. Lightly cover and leave somewhere warmish, such as on top of a fridge, for 24 hours.

Views of a sourdough starter after 24 hoursAfter 24 hours you should see some signs of activity.

2. On day 2, add 50 g of rye flour, 50 g of water and ½ teaspoon of honey and mix thoroughly. Lightly cover and leave somewhere warmish for 24 hours.

A starter after 48 hoursAfter 48 hours the starter should have more signs of fermentation and it will probably smell a bit sour.

3. On day 3, add 50 g of water and 50 g of rye flour (but no honey) and stir thoroughly. Lightly cover and leave somewhere warmish for 24 hours.

4. On day 4, transfer 50 g of starter to a new container and discard the rest. Add 50 g of water and 50 g of rye flour to the new container and stir thoroughly. Lightly cover and leave somewhere warmish for 24 hours.

A new sourdough starter after 4 daysAfter 4 days your starter should be nice and lively with lots of bubbles. The aroma should be pleasant, somewhat sweeter than after 2 days, but still slightly alcoholic.

5. Discard 100 g of your starter, to leave about 50 g. Add 50 g of water and 50 g of rye flour and stir thoroughly. Lightly cover and leave somewhere warmish, but this time for only 12 hours.

6. After 12 hours, add another 50 g of flour and 50 g of tap water and mix thoroughly. Lightly cover and leave somewhere warmish again for 8-12 hours. Your starter should then be ready to use.

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Background information and tips

If you use a nice bubbly sourdough starter (sometimes called a leaven or a pre-ferment) for your bread baking you will end up with sumptuous flavoursome loaves, a world apart from most mass produced breads. It doesn't matter whether you are making a rustic rye loaf, flaky croissants, Neapolitan style pizzas or crusty soft-crumbed cobs, using a sourdough starter is a good way to pack flavour into your bread.

The ultimate slow food

There is a downside of course. Sourdoughs take longer: you need to plan ahead. It will take about a week from starting to make your first starter to ending up with anything to eat! But once you have got your starter up and running it should keep for years if you look after it properly.

Although sourdough baking is a slow process it is not time consuming. A no-knead sourdough will probably takes less than 15 minutes of your time: it's just that it maybe spread over 3 days! The result of allowing the dough to develop slowly is much more flavour: it is the ultimate slow food.

Understanding what's happening when making a sourdough starter

Yeast and microorganisms in a laboratory

A sourdough starter can be made by just mixing flour and water together, which seems pretty amazing! As soon as you mix the two things together an enzyme naturally present in the flour starts breaking down the complex flour starches into sugars. The process really takes off because naturally occurring wild yeasts feed on the sugars produced.

Wild yeasts are different to yeasts that you buy. They live all around us in the air and on plants, grains and fruits. There are some naturally present in the flour and more gets incorporated when you stir the flour and water together with your fingers. The wild yeasts feed on the sugars and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. The bubbles that you see in a starter are full of carbon dioxide.

The starter also contains some non-harmful bacteria called lactobacillus. This is the same bacteria present in yogurt and many cheeses. The bacteria also feed on the sugar produced by the flour and water, producing two type of acid: lactic acid that gives the sourdough its mellow rich flavor and acetic acid that gives its tang and punch. (We can't actually taste the wild yeast, only the acids that they produce.)

The acids also serve another purpose: they kill off nasty bacteria which would make us sick. It is the presence of the acids that prevents starters developing moulds. 

Other ways of producing a sourdough starter

Sourdough starter using a kit

There are other ways of producing a sourdough starter in addition to the method outlined above. For instance, you can use white flour instead of rye flour or you can buy a commercially produced starter packet. The advantages of the method above are:

• you don't need to wait for your starter packet to arrive,
• it is a bit cheaper,
• if anything goes wrong it is easy to start again,
• it can be used to make a 100% rye bread.

A universal starter

A white sourdough loaf

Although this starter is made from rye flour it can be used for all types of sourdough, including croissants and white loaves. It is also possible to make a starter using wheat flour, but I don't want to bother looking after two different types of starter. Hence, I only ever make a rye sourdough starter.

Honey

I have suggested a little honey to help get the fermentation started. Instead of honey some bakers use:
• a teaspoon of grated organic fruit (an apple or a pear) on days 1 and 2,
• a teaspoon of currants or raisins and a teaspoon of live low-fat yoghurt on days 1 and 2,
• nothing, just rye flour and water.

I have used good starters made from just rye flour and water in a bakery, but I have found that they are have not worked consistently at home. Presumably this is because there are not as many airborne yeasts floating around in my kitchen as in a bakery, so the fermentation process is slower to get started.

Whatever the reason, I have found that the addition of a small amount of honey seems to improve the chances of a starter taking off. Of course, if you prefer, you can omit the honey, but you might need to allow a couple more days before your starter will be ready to use.

The container

An ideal sourdough container

Choose a container for your starter that is:
• Cylindrical because it is easier to mix the starter if there are no corners,
• Made of plastic because although you can use glass or earthenware, if you drop it you will lose your starter,
• Transparent so you can see if it is nice and bubbly,
• At least 700 ml (3 cups) to allow plenty of room for the starter to froth up,
• Supplied with a lid that can be loosely clipped, so that air can still get into the container.

Use your fingers!

Since sourdough starters ferment because of airborne yeasts that collect naturally on surfaces and grains stirring the starter with your fingers can help the fermentation! There is no need to use a spoon or to wash your hands (within reason!).

The temperature

The temperature controls the rate of fermentation. Ideally it should be between 20-25°C (70-80°F). In a fridge the reaction slows right down and if the temperature gets too high the fermentation can go too fast.

Optimum feeding

Once a starter is established it should be fed with four times the quantity of existing starter every 24 hours. To avoid ending up with an enormous amount of starter, this normally means discarding most of the existing starter.

For instance, for every 50 g of starter that you keep you should feed it with 100 g of water and 100 g of rye flour every 24 hours.

Looking after your starter

Once you've made a starter you need to look after it. In fact, starters are fairly resilient so you can't really kill them, but I recommend reading the section on looking after your starter to ensure that you can keep it in tip-top condition.

Don't worry if it doesn't float!

Some sourdough starter floating in water

One common way of testing a starter is to drop a little bit into water to see if it floats. The idea is that the carbon dioxide produced during the fermentation process makes it lighter than water. If your starter floats you know it is nice and bubbly!

However, don't worry if your starter doesn't float! Half of the starter shown above floated and the other half sank! Sometimes I have seen the starter sink, only to float to the surface a couple of seconds later! The important thing to look for is plenty of activity: you should be able to see bubbles of trapped gas and it should have a slightly alcoholic sweet smell. If you can't see lots of trapped gas, refresh your starter again as described below.

Is it easy?

Sourdough bread does have a reputation for being difficult to bake, but if you follow the recipe below I think you will produce a lovely bubbly sourdough starter. With a lively starter, the rest is easy!

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Looking after your starter

Starters are very resilient and extremely difficult to kill completely! Nonetheless, you want to look after your starter well to keep it in tip-top condition, so it is always nice and bubbly when you use it.

Refreshing a new starter

A new starter will benefit from being kept at room temperature for a few more days and fed every day. Each day you should discard all but 50 g of the starter and then feed the retained starter with 100 g of water and 100 g of rye flour. This will build up the strength of the starter.

Storing in a fridge

Once your starter is well-established it can be kept in your fridge when you are not baking much. The lower temperature slows down the fermentation process so it doesn't need feeding as often. It can be kept for two weeks without difficulty, but if you keep it for much longer you will become "tired" and need to be refreshed a few times before it is ready to use again. (See the section below on refreshing a tired starter.)

Refreshing a cold starter

Three stages of refreshing a starter(1) Immediately after the first refreshment, (2) 5 hours later, (3) 12 hours after the second refreshment.

1. Remove the starter from the fridge and leave at room temperature for an hour or two.

2. Rinse out a bowl with boiling water and then add 2 tablespoons of your starter, 70 g of rye flour and 70 g of lukewarm water. (About once a month, add half a teaspoon of honey as well.) Using your fingers like two prongs of a fork mix thoroughly, until it looks like thick porridge. Lightly cover and leave somewhere warmish, such as the top of a fridge, for 5 hours. Return the rest of your starter to the fridge.

3. After 5 hours, add another 70 g of rye flour and 70 g of lukewarm water and stir with your fingers again. Lightly cover and leave somewhere warmish overnight.

4. Check that your refreshed starter is nice and bubbly. If so, take what you need and get baking. If not, either wait a bit longer or repeat step 3.

5. Discard your old starter, rinse out your container and add the unused refreshed starter along with 50 g of rye flour and 50 g of water. Stir and pop it in the fridge.

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Refreshing a tired starter

Three stages in the refreshment of a neglected starter
(1) A tired starter that has been neglected for six weeks, (2) after being refreshed for 2 days, (3) after 3 days.

If your starter has been neglected for more than 2 weeks the refreshment process needs to be more thorough.

1. Remove you old starter from the fridge and leave at room temperature for an hour or two.

2. Rinse out a bowl with boiling water and then add 2 tablespoons of your old starter, 50 g of rye flour, 50 g of water and half a teaspoon of honey. Using your fingers like two prongs of a fork mix thoroughly, until it looks like thick porridge. Lightly cover and leave somewhere warmish, such as the top of a fridge, for 24 hours. Discard the rest of your old starter.

3. Clean out your old starter container with boiling water. Pour your refreshed starter into the warmed container and add another 50 g of rye flour, 50 g of water and half a teaspoon of honey and stir with your fingers again. Lightly cover and leave somewhere warmish for 24 hours.

4. Add another 50 g of rye flour and 50 g of water (but no honey this time) and stir with your fingers again. Leave somewhere warmish for 24 hours.

5. Check that your refreshed starter is nice and bubbly. If so take what you need and get baking. If not, repeat step 4.

6. Before returning your unused refreshed starter to the fridge, add 50 g of rye flour and 50 g of water, mix thoroughly and leave for an hour or so.

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Possible problems

1. The starter doesn't froth up much, even after 4 days. The most probable cause is that there is too much chlorine in your tap water. Pour a jug of tap water and leave it at room temperature for 24 hours before using, so that the chlorine has time to evaporate. If you live in a hard water area I recommend using tap water that has been standing for at least 24 hours.

2. If your starter is getting a bit weak and it doesn't froth up enough, then give it a second refresh using rye flour, water and half a teaspoon of honey.

3. A layer of brownish liquid forms on top of your starter: this is quite common if your starter has been stored for a week or two. Simply pour the water off and refresh as above.

4. The kitchen is cold at night in the winter: refreshing your starter will take longer when it is cold. Move your starter somewhere a bit warmer, such as in an airing cupboard with the door left open a bit.

5. The kitchen is too warm in the summer: refreshing your start will be quicker, perhaps only 5 hours. However, it should be fine to use after an overnight refreshment, even if the level is starting to drop.

6. The starter froths up too much and overflows. Discard some of your starter before refreshing, so that the container is never more than a third full before you refresh it.

7. The bread tastes too sour. As the yeasts and the bacteria ferment they produce acids which overtime can make the bread taste too sour. This is why some of the old starter should be discarded when a starter is refreshed. Treat the starter as "tired" and follow the advice above for refreshing a tired starter.

8. Some mould appears on the starter. I've never seen any mould on a starter, but it that occurs dispose of your starter, thoroughly clean your container and start again.

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Sourdough bread in three days

Sourdough bread in three days

The sourdough loaf shown above was made over three days, which is how I prefer to make sourdough if I have the time. Three days may seem a long time before you actually have anything to eat, but I think the wait is worth it!

The dough is refrigerated a couple of times, which improves the flavour slightly and makes the dough easier to handle. Of course, you have to plan ahead if you use this method, but it produces very reliable results so I recommend trying it if you are new to baking sourdough. More…

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