How to make a Sourdough Starter
I wonder how many times I have failed at baking sourdough bread? I have been obsessed with the idea of making amazing sourdough at home, imagining the smell as the bread bakes, the crisp crackly crusts I would get, the sheer amount of bread with salted butter I would eat, the joy of learning a new skill. But, try as I might, I could never get much further than creating the starter, it was infuriating, maddening even. Sure I made some bread, but it was just bad. Dense, closely textured, boring flavour and, well, just bad. It’s possible that it was down to the fact that I never really dedicated myself to it. Having made bread for years with no real difficulties I had arrogantly assumed I could swan in and instantly make perfect sourdough. Not so. Sourdough needs practice, you almost need to unlearn a lot of what know about bread, you need to develop a feel for it, learn what the dough is telling you, and that takes practice. At the start of this year I decided enough was enough, I need to conquer my baking nemesis, I needed to make sourdough and be happy with the loaves coming out of my oven. I started baking sourdough whenever I had the time, pulling loaves from the oven day after day, quickly filling up my freezer, giving loaves to friends, clients I had meetings with.. Thankfully the practice worked and slowly my loaves got better and better, I started getting crusts that shattered like the best bread, a crumb structure that was more and more open and flavours that were just so much better than any bread made with commercial yeast I’d ever made. I became a true sourdough nerd and I love it, almost nothing is more satisfying to me now then taking off the lid from my cast iron pan as the loaves bake and getting my first glimpse at the bread I’ve taken for a couple days to make.
So now I want to pass on everything I have learned and I want to encourage you to try it. As much as it can seem daunting and there are many things you can do wrong. it is absolutely achievable for the regular home baker, and actually it might be a little easier than you think. First things first, the starter. When I was talking to you all on instagram the one topic that came up again and again was you either couldn’t get the starter to become active, or you killed it. Thankfully I think I can help as these were things I’ve struggled with and things I’ve learnt to overcome, but before we get to that lets make a starter. It should also be noted that there are many ways to create a starter, this is just the way I learnt and my preferred method.
Things You’ll Need
A jar with a lid
A 50/50 blend of organic wholemeal bread flour and white bread flour
A name for your starter, every starter needs a name (my theory is if you treat it like a pet there’s no way you’ll accidentally kill it)
Take your clean jar and add 50g of your flour blend and to that add 50ml water that is at 26C/78F. Use your spatula to mix together until no pockets of flour remain and everything is hydrated. Place the lid on loosely, you want the starter to be able to breath so don’t fully secure it. Place the starter in a dark spot and leave for 24 hours.
Repeat the process, adding 50g of the flour blend and 50ml water at 26C/78F, mixing together. Set aside once again for 24 hours.
Pour off all but 25g (about 1 tbsp) of the starter and feed as before with 50g flour and 50g water at 26C/78F
From now on we are going to feed twice a day, once in the morning and once at night (it’s normally the first thing I do when I wake up and the last thing I do before bed). The feedings are the same as day 3, discarding all but 25g of the starter and feeding with 50g flour and 50ml water.
Day 5 - Day 7
Now we just repeat the same process as in day 4, feeding twice a day.
By the end of this process you should have a starter that doubles in size every time it’s fed but lets break down what you’ll likely see as you go through this week. After the first feed normally nothing happens, occasionally you might see a lone bubble or two hanging out on the surface, but there’ll basically be no activity. After the second or third feeding you may see a lot of bubbles, it wont be increasing in size, but it will seem super active. At this stage it’s also possible the starter may smell a little unpleasant, maybe reminiscent of sweaty shoes, or bad body odour. In this early stage as you cultivate the natural yeast and bacterias the starter goes through a few different stages of bacteria growth some of which may be unpleasant. Once the start is a little more mature it will settle into something more pleasant. My advice here is don’t worry, persevere, a few more feedings will normally bring everything back to a more pleasing odour. It’s also worth noting that even though there might be a layer of bubbles, if the starter isn’t increasing in size its not ready for baking so keep going for now. After day 4 you should start seeing some more obvious activity, you should be able to see it increasing in volume after every feed. At this stage I like to track how active the starter is by marking where the volume starts, allowing me to see if it doubles with each feed, you can do this with a rubber band or simply marking a piece of tape and sticking it to the jar. Once you’ve done this for a week you should have an active starter. It may take a few more days but it will get there.
Tips to help your starter stay active and healthy
using lukewarm water helps as fermentation needs a slightly warm environment to really get going. I use 26C/78F as in my house this means my starter will rise and fall within about 8-10 hours. If your kitchen is cool you could up the temperature a little and if it’s warm you can cool it a little, just keep it consistent.
I had heard, for years, that sourdough starters needed to be made with filtered or bottled water, the chlorine used in tap water affects the bacteria. Im not going to say this isn’t the case everywhere but in London where i’m based the tap water works perfectly, I’ve had no issues.
Use Organic Flour
The reason this is important is organic flour is teeming with the bacteria and yeasts we are trying to cultivate. I have made starters with non organic flours, the sort you find in every supermarket and they work fine but I have found it can take a little longer.
Use a Blend Of Flour
I like to use a blend of wholemeal bread flour and white bread flour. The reason for this is two fold. I generally only have one starter on the go at a time and so I need something multi-purpose that can be used in all my sourdough recipes. This blend makes it useful in lots of applications. But why not all white flour? Until recently all my previous starters have been white flour but I took some advice from the Tartine Bread book and use a blend as the wholemeal flour helps create a stronger more active starter, you could also use rye flour to supercharge the starter but I use wholemeal for my first reason, I find it a more useful mix for multiple styles of breads.
Okay, you have an active starter what now? I know the reality is that you’re not likely to bake with it more than once a week and feeding it every day, twice a day, isn’t the most practical, that’s just too much flour to wasted. Whilst you can bake other things with the discarded starter I still like to reduce the amount of feeding needed and the amount of flour that will become waste. I’ll talk more about baking with discard at a later point but for now I’d just like to point out I don’t like to bake with the discard at this early stage. Whilst you’re still growing the starter the flavour can be a little off and I don’t want those flavours in my baking, so until the starter is a little more established you will need to be happy with a little discard. You can either throw this away or compost it.
Because of this my preferred method to reduce wastage is to keep the starter in the fridge. The chilly environment of the fridge doesn’t kill the starter it just slows it down, way down. We haven’t been able to cryogenically freeze people successfully yet but with starters we’re basically there. By popping the starter in the fridge it doesn’t need daily feeding, in fact it can hang out there for a couple weeks with needing a feed. There are just a couple things to keep in mind. When you put the starter in the fridge you need to do so an hour or two after feeding it, so that is at the start of the rise and fall curve, not the end of it. Secondly, when you bring it out of the fridge you’ll need to give it a couple feeds to revive it ready for baking. Practically this means that, if for example, you’re going to make the loaf on Saturday I would take the starter from the fridge the first thing Friday and give it a feed that morning and then again that night. Come the morning on Saturday the starter will nice and active. The third thing to note about keeping the starter in the fridge is its smell. Sometimes when you leave the starter in the fridge for a long time it will develop a thin layer of liquid on top, this is called hooch, its basically alcohol. This can give the starter an astringent, nail polish like smell. If this is the case, simply pour off this layer and, yes you guessed it, give the starter a few feeds, the smell will return to normal and you’ll have a nice healthy starter again. Trust me, my last sourdough starter was left abandoned in the fridge for a few months and had a lot of alcohol and smelled like it belonged in nail salon. After feeding it for a few days it was back to health.
I really hope you give the starter a go, its so satisfying when you pull that first loaf of bread from the oven and that s satisfaction only grows when you devour the bread. Next week I will be posting a video from a bakery where I went to get help with making the bread and to get answers to a whole bunch of questions you guys sent me about sourdough, so my go-to recipe for sourdough bread, my house loaf, will be posted the week after that. Until then, happy baking.