Welcome to SourDom's beginners blog, the tutorials are:
How to make your own starter.
How to use short kneads to handle moist doughs and bake a loaf with a yeast-based preferment.
The subtleties of proving a loaf using a ‘biga’.
How to shape a loaf using a hybrid recipe.
The final crucial steps and putting it all together to bake a 100% sourdough loaf.
What you will need:
Sourdough is the oldest form of leavened (or ‘risen’) bread. Baking presumably existed for a long time before that, mixing a paste of dried ground grains with water, and then baking it. However at some point someone must have discovered that if the paste or dough was left overnight, or for a couple of days, it started to change in appearance and odour, and that the bread when baked was lighter in texture, easier to digest, and stronger in flavour.
The oldest form of leavening was almost certainly due to this sort of accidental development of a starter, with small amounts of dough/paste being kept aside from one batch to leaven the next. At some point residues from fermented grapes or hops were used to provide an alternative source of yeast. Of course nowadays most baking is done with commercially isolated yeast.
Sourdough baking uses a technique akin to that earliest form of baking leavened bread. In this tutorial we are going to try to do deliberately what the ancients did inadvertently - to create an environment in which flour and water will naturally ferment. Once that fermentation has established we can use that culture of microorganisms to make our bread indefinitely (at least as long as we look after it properly).
Established starters contain a mixture of yeast and bacteria. Don’t worry, these bacteria are quite friendly (they are the same ones that are present in yoghurt, or that people consume deliberately in preparations like ‘Yakult’). The yeast and bacteria live together in a special sort of cooperative existence, with the yeast eating and breaking down sugars from the flour, and the bacteria feeding off some of the breakdown products from the yeast. The yeast provides the leavening action for the bread, but the bacteria are responsible for much of the flavour.
There are lots of different ways of generating a successful starter. If you are interested I have previously compared a couple of different methods.
One question is where the yeast come from that populate the starter. One theory says that they come from the environment (the air). Adherents of that theory (eg the ’starter doctor’ Brian Dixon) suggest leaving the jar/bowl open to the air - even having a fan over the bowl so that airborne yeasts will land in it. An alternative theory argues that yeast spores can be found in the flour (particularly wholewheat flour?), or alternatively on the surface of grapes/sultanas (that’s why some starter ‘recipes’ suggest using organic grapes or sultanas to get things going). If that is the case, then you can cover your starter with plastic wrap. I confess that I have always covered the top of my starter jar, without discernible problems.
To start with (lots of unintended puns here), here are some general principles gleaned from different sources.
1. Make sure that your containers are clean before you start. (I poured some boiling water in my jars and left them for 10 minutes beforehand, then tipped the water out). The idea is to try to avoid contaminating your starter with unpleasant organisms (the starter is especially vulnerable early).
2. Use filtered or spring water where possible
3. Use organic ingredients where possible (to maximise the concentration of microorganisms in your ingredients, and to prevent any inhibitory effect from preservatives/fungicides etc)
4. The aim of the refreshing steps is to add extra food for the organisms that you are culturing. Each time you refresh you need to add extra flour and water. You will need to throw some starter out to make room for this - otherwise you will rapidly accumulate litres of the stuff…
5. If you read around a bit the instructions all seem to differ, but are all quite dogmatic - you must use this, you mustn’t use that, you should cover, you musn’t cover etc. I think that what this probably means is that actually creating a starter is not that hard - there are lots of different ways, all of which can work.
6. Use a glass jar/bowl - you can see what the starter is doing…
The technique that I am going to use in this blog is one of the simplest of all. I am going to use flour (a mixture of rye and white) and water only, and we will see how we go.
The flour that I have used here is a combination of
Kialla white unbleached organic flour and
Wholegrain Milling organic rye
I made this starter in the middle of a Melbourne winter, so it was reasonably slow to get going. You may find that your starter becomes active quicker than these photos would suggest. If so that is great. You would still do well to follow the schedule for refreshing the starter daily for 2 weeks (see below).
Clean your jar and stirring spoon with boiling water
Add to the jar:
- 50g water
- 35g white flour
- 15g rye flour
Stir, and set aside for 24 hours.
Depending on the time of year and the ambient temperature, you may find it harder or easier to get a starter going. The best temperature for yeast activity (at least the sort that are found in sourdough) is about 30 degrees C (that’s 80F for any imperialists out there). If the weather is cool your starter may be slow to establish. If it is very warm there is a bigger chance of the starter getting contaminated with unpleasant bacteria. I have had most experience with getting starters going at about 20C.
There won’t be much to see yet, but that’s OK.
Add to the jar
- 50g water
- 35g white flour
- 15g rye flour
Stir with a clean spoon, cover and set aside for 24 hours
Still not much to see
- 50g water
- 35g white flour
- 15g rye flour
Stir with a clean spoon and leave for 24 hours
a few definite bubbles visible below the surface
Discard most of the starter (put it in the compost or the bin), leave about a tablespoon in the jar
Add 100g water, 70g white flour, 30g rye
stir and leave for 24 hours
More bubbles visible, but the starter hasn’t increased in volume perceptibly.
Discard most. Add 100g water, 70g white flour, 30g rye.
The starter has increased in volume (by a 1/3 perhaps), and has now lots of bubbles below the surface. It has a complex slightly fruity odour.
Discard most of the starter (leave a tablespoon at most in the bottom of the jar). Add 100g water, 70g white flour, 30g rye (getting the idea yet?).
Day 7 (onwards)
Using the above technique you will need to continue to refresh your starter daily for at least another week. Each time you will need to discard the majority of the starter, and add in new water and flour.
Your starter is ‘active’ when after 24 hours it has increased (doubled) in volume, has a thick layer of froth on the top, and a rich network of bubbles below the surface. It is now ready to use for baking.
(this photo was taken on day 8 of the above starter. You can’t see from the photo, but overnight the starter had reached the top of the jar, and a little had escaped. It had subsided since then (ie it is past its peak) - but I wouldn’t have any qualms about using it.)
1. Timing of refreshment
After your starter is refreshed - if you watch closely over the next 24 hours or so you will see bubbles start to appear, and the starter expand in volume. It will reach its maximum volume (’peak’) at a variable time, depending on the activity of your starter, and the temperature of the room.In a warm environment this might be at 12 hours or earlier, while in a cold room it might take more than 24 hours.
Generally speaking we would aim to use the starter at or close to this ‘peak’ time, though it will probably still work fine if it is used a few hours either side of this.
2. Low starter activity
If there is no sign of activity despite following the above instructions there are a couple of options. It may be worth while persevering for another week, refreshing daily. Alternatively it may be worthwhile starting again. You could try a different flour for your refreshment. You could also try adding about 10g of organic sultanas with the flour and water on the first day. Yeasts on the surface of the fruit will help to seed your starter and get things going.
3. Contaminated starter
If your starter smells unpleasant - like rotten eggs, or vomit, or something equally disgusting it may have become contaminated with less friendly bacteria. Don’t give up - it is often possible to resuscitate your starter. Wash a clean jar, and add a teaspoon or so of starter from your smelly batch. Add 100g water and 100g flour. Stir and leave for 24 hours.
Brian Dixon suggests leaving your starter out for 12 hours, and then putting it in the fridge. This might be worthwhile if your starter becomes contaminated in warm weather.
Once you have carefully nurtured and raised your starter, you don’t want to lose it. Make sure that you leave a little starter behind when you are making your dough - so that you have enough to make more. This is important - don’t forget!
If there is someone in your house who intermittently has a cleaning frenzy and empties the fridge of UFOs (unidentifiied fridge objects), make sure they know what your starter looks like. Strange smelling white slurries in unlabelled jars would be fair game otherwise!
Other troubleshooting - have a look at the starter doctor…
Your starter is bit like a pet, it will respond best to a bit of regular attention and food. On the other hand starters are quite resilient, and will often survive a fair bit of neglect (it is a good thing that there is no such thing as a Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Starters…)
Starters will have most activity if they are fed every day. However unless you are baking every day this necessitates discarding a lot of starter, and many people find the waste of flour and starter distressing. An alternative is to put your starter in the fridge when you are not using it. It will happily sit in the fridge without feeding for days or even weeks, ready to come back to life when you need it. However it is probably worthwhile trying to refresh your starter at least once a week to keep it lively. Also if your starter hasn’t been refreshed for more than a few days it will probably benefit from 2 refreshes before baking with it. Make sure your starter is covered in the fridge or it will dry out.
Refreshing starter (recently used)
If your starter is active and has been used recently it will probably only need one refreshment before using it.
Pour all of the starter in your jar out (into the compost or bin). (Don’t worry - there will still be some left in the bottom of the jar - this will be enough to seed the next batch of starter). Add half the weight of starter that you need in flour (plus a little bit), and the same of water. For example for 200g of starter add 110g flour and 110g water to the little bit of starter left in the bottom of the jar. Stir well and leave covered in a warm place for 24 hours.
Pour your starter into the mixing bowl. Add 50g of flour and 50g of water to what is left in the jar (this will replenish your stock of starter), and leave for 24 hours before putting back in the fridge.
Refreshing starter (not used for a while)
This is Mick’s recipe for bringing a starter back to life. It uses 2 refreshes 12 hours apart (if the temperature is cold you may need to make this 24 hours apart). This has the advantage of minimising waste.
Divide the amount of starter that you need by fifteen.
To this amount of starter add twice the amount of flour and water (1:2:2). Leave for 12 hours. Add equal amounts of flour and water and leave for 12 hours (1:1:1).
It is less confusing to talk in real numbers. For example for 300g starter. 1/15 x 300 = 20g
Add 20g starter to 40g flour and 40g water (total 100g). Leave for 12 hours
Add 100g flour and 100g water (total 300g). Leave for 12 hours.
Don’t forget to leave a little bit of starter behind to replenish your stock.
Some recipes call for rye or wholemeal starters. You don’t need to keep multiple different starters going (though some enthusiastic people do). You can convert your stock starter into a rye or wholemeal starter by simply refreshing it with that flour for a couple of days.
Note, that sometimes starters will go on strike when their usual food is changed. For example you might see a sudden drop in activity with the change to a different flour. If that happens you can either persist (the activity will often come back), or revert to your usual flour, and then add in the new flour more gradually. For example you could start with 30% rye, and then progressively increase the proportion of rye with each refreshment.
Chef - see starter
Leaven - see starter
Levain - see starter
Mother - this is the starter that you keep aside to replenish your stock, and use to create enough starter for baking
Refresh - to add flour and water to a small amount of starter
Starter - this is a mixture of flour and water containing bacteria and yeast, that is used to leaven sourdough bread. (aka leaven, levain, chef)