Sourdough Starter

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IMG_20150823_170451[1] 25/08/2015

A starter (also known as a polish or levain) is a fermenting dough or batter, all or part of which is used to raise a batch of bread. The term sourdough broadly applies to bread raised with wild yeasts. Defining characteristics of such breads are a slower fermentation and distinctly sour (but by no means unpleasant) flavour. Both are the result of high acidity caused by the presence of certain bacteria, among them lactic acid bacteria (the same bacteria used to make yoghurt), which colonise the starter among the yeasts. Making a starter is easy. Yeasts need sugar, warmth and moisture to reproduce. All you need to do is provide these. Here is the recipe, if you can call it that.

For the first stage:

  • A cupful of flour (about 150g)
  • A cupful of warm water (about 250ml)

For the first ‘feeding’:

  • A cupful of flour (about 150g)
  • A cupful of warm water (about 250ml)

For each subsequent feeding:

  • A cupful of flour (about 150g)
  • A cupful of warm water (about 250ml)

The first stage:

You need a big plastic container with a lid to make your starter in. It should be big enough to allow plenty of room for frothing – at least four times the volume of your initial batter (because you will add more later). You can use any type of flour you like; I have made excellent starters from rye, spelt and wheat. I recommend that you use wholemeal rather than white flour though; it will ferment sooner and more vigorously.

There is no need to be precise about the quantities of flour and water. For the first stage, just use roughly equal volumes of each to make a thick batter and whisk it well – this incorporates more air and therefore, more yeast spores. Put the batter into the container, pop the lid on and leave it somewhere fairly warm.

The first feeding:

At some point, your starter will begin to ferment. This depends on many factors such as the flour used, how much you whisked it, which yeasts and bacteria happen to be around and how warm it is. Check every 12 hours or so and when you see the first signs of fermentation (small bubbles at the surface), give your starter its first ‘feeding’ by whisking in another 150g flour and 250ml warm water. Replace the lid and leave it again.

Check your starter again after another day. Don’t worry if all this takes longer than you expect – it will get there in the end. When it does, I should warn you about the smell. You will either love it or hate it. It might be sickly sweet or sickly sour, smelling of vinegar, rotten apples, brandy or gone off milk perhaps. Breathe in deeply; I want you to remember this smell.

Subsequent feedings:

Now tip out half of the starter and discard it. Replace this with another 150g flour and 250ml cold water this time. Whisk really well and leave it another day, at a fairly cool room temperature now. For the first week at least, while your starter is getting established, it is best to feed it daily, discarding half and replacing it. Keep smelling it and you’ll become aware of the aroma changing, becoming less harsh and more complex as it matures. You will also notice different smells at different stages of fermentation. You will get to know when it needs feeding, when it is most active, when it is tired and sluggish and when it could do with a good beating. About a week into your routine of daily feeding, when fermentation is vigorous and regular and the smells have become established, you are ready to use your starter.

IMG_20150823_170613[1] IMG_20150823_170535[1]

If you are likely to bake regularly, keep your starter as it is – a thick batter at room temperature, feeding daily. If you will only be using it every couple of weeks or less, you should slow the fermentation then you’ll need to feed it less. To do so you can make it cooler or drier or both:

  • Keep your dough in the fridge and it can go for a week without being fed.
  • Add enough flour to make a stiff dough and you could happily feed it every three or four days. To feed a dough, discard half, make a new flour and water dough the same volume as the discarded part and knead it into the remaining starter.
  • You could also do both of these then the dough will only need feeding every couple of weeks.

What is important is that your starter is really active when it comes to baking, so at least a couple of days ahead, remove it from the fridge and bring it back to a thick batter by adding water and feeding daily until you bake.

Nurtured in this way, your starter will live forever. You can even freeze the dough if you will not be using it very frequently.

Making bread with your starter:

Sourdough baking is different from conventional bread baking only in that the process takes longer.

I have provided a detailed recipe for a basic sourdough loaf in the next post (unfortunately, my IT skills lack to be able to insert a direct link for you).

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