How to make a Sourdough starter

Starters are really a magical thing, almost like discovering that simple detergent and water is used to make wonderful bubbles. You are harnessing the wild yeasts in the air, and if that sounds slightly dangerous, don’t worry.  This has been done for hundreds of years and likely by your own ancestors. In Greece, the starter dough is called “prozimi”.  The holy water obtained from the Epiphany service was used to start the batch of dough each year.  However, holy water is not essential, room temperature non-chlorinated water will work well.

The starter is used to inoculate the bread dough with a healthy pre-prepared colony of micro organisms which will give your bread a wonderful flavour, crust and aroma.

Yeasts are present in a dormant state in flour.  The water that is added gives life to the yeasts to start multiplying.  The yeasts feed on the starches present in the flour and grow.  They release a gas which is indicated by the bubbles.  It is these bubbles that give the airy texture of bread. How fabulous!

Wholemeal flour has a greater proportion of wild yeasts since it is not as refined as white flour.  Organic flour is very good also, but tends to be a lot more expensive.  I tend to compromise on using a mixture of wholemeal flour and good quality white or organic white flour for feeding the starter.  I use unbleached bakers (high gluten) flour for the actual bread dough.  This results in bread that is mainly white, with a touch of wholemeal.

The chlorine present in most tap water will negatively impact your starter.  It is best to remove it from the water, by boiling the water or standing the water for at least 1/2 day (or overnight) so that the chlorine evaporates.  Spring water may be used too.  I do not recommend using distilled water or soda water, as the idea is to use water in as close to natural state as possible.

The process involves feeding and discarding the starter.  This may seem somewhat wasteful, but it is only required for the startup phase.  What you are doing is concentrating the colony of micro organisms while reducing the chance of the mix being overly acidic.

This method is low tech – all you need are some basic items to start.  Exact quantities are not so important, I usually measure by sight alone.

There is just one more ingredient needed and it is not found in the pantry, but in you, and that is “patience”.  Without this, there is less chance of success.

Sourdough Starter Recipe

You will need a lunch box sized plastic container with lid.

Ingredients

Wholemeal flour (good quality, but not necessarily organic)

Water (non-chlorinated), ideally spring water, at room temperature

Method

Day 1

Sterilise the plastic container and lid, by either boiling it or wash it using the hot cycle in your dishwasher.  Allow to air dry (do not wipe).

Add 1 cup flour and 1 cup water.  Stir until well mixed.  Keep starter at a comfortable room temperature (around  15-25 deg C).

Day 2

Remove half the mixture and use it to make Sourdough Pancakes or add to compost.  The excess starter can be accumulated for a few days (keep separate to your starter container).

Add 1 cup flour and 1 cup water to the starter.

Days 3-5

Repeat Day 2 process.

Day 6

The starter should be healthy and bubbly.  If it is not quite bubbly, you can continue for up to four more days.

You can now use the starter for making bread.

Or, if you are not ready for breadmaking, you will need to store the mixture in the fridge.  The cold environment will slow down the fermentation process so that the starter will need less feeding.

Storing the Starter

Remove all the mixture except about 1/2 cup. Once a healthy starter has been developed only a small amount is needed to be used for future batches.

Add 1 cup flour and 1 cup water to the starter, close the container with lid. Leave at room temperature for about an hour so that the starter can get a start on the new food. Store the container in the fridge. It may be stored in the fridge for a least a week or two.

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Troubleshooting

No bubbles after 10 days.  This isn’t good. Please check your ingredients are good quality.  Try another brand of flour.  If it is especially cold, you may need to move the starter to a warmer place.

Too many bubbles, container is overflowing.  You may need a larger container! Also check the temperature of the room is not too warm.

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Tending the Starter

Some time ago I set myself a target – to make good sourdough.  Seems reasonable enough, I love cooking and experimenting with different cooking techniques.  But what happened was unexpected.  It opened a whole new world for me, the world of fermentation.  This lead me on a journey towards cheesemaking too (I’ll save that for another post).  But back to sourdough.

I tried a recipe from the Internet from a well known personality, but did not have much success.  I picked up the Bourke Street Bakery book by McGuinness and Allam, and with a bit of patience I was off and running.

I don’t have any pets, but this starter became my real pet.  And a baby pet at that.  I tended it according to the instructions, used organic flour and spring water.  I worried about the conditions in the room, too hot… too cold?  It took a while, but I started to see some evidence of life.  A gardener tends his garden, I had my starter.  And it really is a living thing.  Once it got going, I found it was more tolerant to my sometimes neglect.

When I prepare the starter for making bread, I take a whole day and feed it three times, the first feed is wholemeal flour.  I use a 50:50 ratio of flour to water.  For the second and third feed I use a good quality flour, like Lauke single origin white flour.   Many recipes recommend organic flour, but I found this unnecessary.  The next morning, I start making the dough itself.  The starter will have become fluffier and somewhat bubbly.  At this stage it is hungry.

I take most of the starter for making the dough, but save at least one cup and stir in the same amount of flour and water.  It is stretchy and sticky at this stage.  I leave it to sit for an hour or so at room temperature, and then pop it in the fridge.  It will stay there, happily, until I make the next batch.

I try to make sourdough bread twice a week, it keeps well and makes good toast.  As Nigella Lawson says in her Women’s Weekly November article “..I’m always on the lookout for avocado toast, whatever the time of day..” .  The only thing I would add is to make that Sourdough toast – it just tastes better and dare I say, feels better.