Unlike conventional bread that uses commercial yeast to help it rise, sourdough uses the magic of natural yeast found in the air and fermented lactobacillus bacteria (the kind that are good for your gut health) to leaven the bread. This is your sourdough starter.
As it’s teaming with life – a teaspoonful of starter will have around 5 million yeast and 5 billion bacteria in it – you need to look after your starter once it gets going… and feed it like a pet to keep it alive.
It takes about 5-6 days to get a starter going, but once it’s on its way, it can go on for a very long time. Mine’s been on the go for two years at the time of writing, but other people have them that are up to 100 years old, passed down through families. The older a starter is, the deeper the flavour of the sourdough that is borne from it.
If you bake on a regular basis – say every two days – you may as well keep your starter out of the fridge and simply feed it* every time you use some. If you bake double quantities and do two loaves a week (you can freeze one), in between you can store it in the fridge which puts yeast and bacteria growth into slow motion. Simply take it out of the fridge two days beforehand and feed it* on both days.
Creating your first starter
What you need:
- A couple of jars that can hold around 900g/900ml of a liquid (double the size of your starter at its height)
- A digital kitchen scales
- Good quality strong white bread flour
- Water at around 20c (luke warm)
- A dough whisk, flat knife or fork
Simply put 50g of flour into your jar and 50g of water and give it a good stir to create a thick paste. Make sure there are no lumps (total 100g).
Don’t expect much to have happened. Your paste will look and smell like the kind of paste you get when making papier-mâché glue with kids. Add 50g of water and stir well, followed by 50g of flour (total 200g).
You might see some activity now. A few bubbles at the top of your paste or a slightly musty smell coming through. Add another 50g of water and stir well, followed by 50g of flour. Stir back to a thick paste making sure there are no lumps. Scrape down any flour on the sides (total 300g).
There should now be more activity and an even mustier smell. You may even see some rise marks on the side of the jar where the starter has risen a little and fallen back. Take a fresh jar and pour 200g of the starter into it, discard the rest. Then add 100g of water and stir well, followed by 100g of flour (total 400g).
If your starter is playing nicely, it will be having a party now. There will be more bubbles as the yeast and bacteria multiply and you will get a strong fermented smell coming through. Grab a clean jar, pour in 250g of starter and add 125g of water and stir it up. Then add in 125g of flour and stir back to your thick paste (total 500g). Place the starter on a small plate – sometimes activity can go through the roof here and you want to catch any drops that push out over the jar.
Time to bake?
If your starter raises up to 50% higher than when you left it, it is ready to use in baking. Try and catch it at the top of the rise, when it is springy, spongy and has lots of air bubbles in it. If this does not happen, repeat Day 5 for up to 2-3 more days. If you see no activity, something has happened (perhaps the starter got contaminated) – this is extremely rare but you might have to start again.