Thursday, 9 June 2011

Building a sourdough starter

I have been baking bread now for about a year. I don’t bake very often: on Sundays mostly but I have had to skip baking at numerous occasions. Still, baking bread has become something that I really enjoy and I have been debating whether to try going down the sourdough route for a while. I have always been a little worried that it would require too much time and attention or simply that it was complicated and just would not work, should I try.

But curiosity finally got the better of me and I decided to try a simple method I had come across on Serious Eats, in a piece written by Donna Currie. If you are interested in building a starter, I highly recommend reading this detailed, step-by-step article. All credit for the method goes to Donna so I will only summarise it here, in a way I am hoping will be useful as well.

How does it work?

In a nutshell, building a starter is as simple as mixing flour and water, adding both ingredients to the mix on a regular basis. With time, yeast and (good) bacteria will develop and you’ll end up with something lively and flavourful which you can use to bake delicious breads. Some methods will give you a working starter in 4-5 days, others (like Donna’s) will take a bit longer. The time element is not written in stone, and will depend on the type of flour, the temperature at which the starter is kept, etc. My starter took a while to develop, for instance. And it never rose much even though it was bubbly.

What do you need?

A jar, a spoon, flour and water. That’s it. A scale is handy, too.

What’s the process?

Every day (except one) you’ll be adding white bread flour (I used rye flour on day 0, though) and water to the jar (see table) and making sure everything is well mixed. You can mix as often as you like but you can get by (as I did) with just mixing two or three times a day. Keep the culture at room temperature and do not keep the lid of the jar hermetically shut: air must be able to flow. After a few days, you should see bubbles appearing. These are early signs of life, but do not mean that your starter is ready yet. With time, the right kinds of yeast and bacteria will take over and stabilise it. You’ll see bubble activity increasing and the starter will feel frothy. After 8 to 10 days, it should be ready to use. I fed my starter during 10 days.

Day Flour [g] Water [g]
0 15 (rye) 30
1 0 0
2 30 30
3 30 15
4 30 30
5 30 30
6 30 30
7 30 30
8 30 30
... 30 30

Sourdough starter from day 1 to day 10. Click image to enlarge. Disregard the dark blurry dots: my camera has problems.

How to harvest and use your starter?

When the starter is nicely bubbly, it’s time to harvest it and bake! The evening before baking, take out 120 grams of the starter. Place it in a large bowl, add 60 grams flour and 30 grams water. Mix well, cover with cling film and leave to ferment overnight. In the morning, you’ll end up with a ready to use sponge. For an example of how to use it and what to bake, see my first sourdough bread recipe.

What to do with the remaining starter?

If you bake often, you can leave the starter on the kitchen counter, keep feeding it and harvest when you need it. If – like me – you bake less often, you can now refrigerate the starter, to keep it alive but sleepy. Feed it before refrigerating, and revive it by taking it out of the fridge a couple of days before baking. When out of the fridge, you’ll need to feed it to make it spring back to life. The time needed to revive your starter will vary, but that is quite normal.

→ sourdough bread recipe

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