How to make my own what? What’s a sourdough starter anyway? And why do I need that?
Well, essentially there’s a couple of ways of making bread:
One: with commercial, store-bought yeast, either in the fresh plasticiney-like blocks or the dried pelletised form.
Two: with your own wild yeast, sourdough starter. A substance that essentially starts your bread off. We’ll come to the “sourdough” bit shortly.
It is the latter – the sourdough starter – that I decided to kickstart and experiment with in bread-making for the best part of the last year. I’m most definitely no master baker as yet, but getting some reasonably decent looking and tasting (most important thing!) as a result. I’m also close enough to some of the initial trial-and-error experiments and lessons learnt to share those.
So what’s in this starter?
A sourdough starter – and the process of making it – is a very, very simple thing. It is quite literally three things – two of which you need to provide, and the third Mother Nature happily chips in with, in fact totally uninvited and no questions asked.
So it is literally:
- Flour – can be any all-purpose flour, but I like to go with a good quality, organic bread flour
- Water – yup, the stuff outta the tap
- Wild yeasts and bacteria from the air around you
Hang on, wild yeasts and bacteria? What the heck?!
Yes, all around us is an unseen, microscopic miasma of all sorts of micro-organisms – viruses, bacteria, fungi, molds and yeasts (and probably some others to boot). Sounds delightful, right? Well, it’s these little critters that get to work on the flour and water mix, chomping away on the food we have so kindly left out for them, processing it and fermenting it.
And it’s the yeast plus the addition of Lactobacillus bacteria that:
(a) Make sourdough starter resistant to moulds and fungi (your starter should not go mouldy if you feed it and look after it, I promise you)
(b) Process the flour a good deal more than regular store-bought commercial loaves, making it easier on the tum, easier to digest and eradicating or at least minimising that bloat feeling you can sometimes get after eating bread; and
(c) Give the sourdough its delicious distinctive flavour.
So “sourdough” then?
So back to the “sourdough” bit I mentioned earlier. For the first few days and even the first couple of weeks you really get to understand where this term comes from. Believe me. Actually don’t believe me – try it for yourself!
There will be all manner of “intriguing” odours coming from your little pot of floury-watery-yeasty goodness. The odours range from nail varnish remover, through to sweaty old gym socks, through to almost a kind of fruity smell. Well, it did/ does with my sourdough anyway.
Right, how do we make this starter then?
Before I delve into that, there is one more thing that is needed before you can hop into making bread, and that is time. From the process of getting the starter on the go you’ll probably be looking at 2-3, perhaps more, weeks before you can start making your first loaf, baguette, pizza dough, focaccia or whatever bready-goodness you dream of.
It will take at least a week, at the very minimum, in any case. Mine took around 3 weeks in the height of the central Victorian summer, if I recall correctly, to get to the point of being right (and I’ll tell you what “right” means in a mo).
Find yourself a decent sized jar or plastic tub. Bung about half a cup of flour and about a quarter of a cup of water into your chosen receptacle (don’t worry about those quantities being exact, there or thereabouts will be fine).
Mix the flour and water together with a fork. It should become like a thick paste, perhaps a bit thicker than a thick Greek yoghurt (lots of thick in that sentence!).
Pop some cheesecloth/ muslin or a clean, unused dishcloth over the top. Don’t put a lid on – you want that lovely bacteria and yeast to get in there.
Pop your jar or container of thick paste in a nice warm spot and leave it to do its thing for about the next 24 hours or so.
This step is dead easy – look at the nascent starter mix. You might see some wee bubbles beginning to appear. That means fermentation is happening. Whoop!
And then…. do nothing. Let it sit and do its thing for another day or so.
Time to get feeding. But first chuck out about half of the starter mix. And add in another half cup or so of flour and quarter cup or so of water. Mix it together with a fork. Cover it over again with the cloth and let it rest again for another day.
This is super easy, right?
Continue to repeat Step 3 for the next 4 days (or until you get to the point I mention below…).
Each day take a whiff of the mix – it will start out smelling pretty darn funky. As I said, nail varnish remover, stinky sweaty footwear, eyeball melting astringency even. Eventually though it will start to morph into a sweeter kind of smell. Mine did it almost like magic one day – stinky socks to sweet, sweet apricots.
You’ll also get heaps of different sized bubbles, large and small. This is when you know it’s ready to go!
Hoochie Coochie Man
Over the week or so that you get to the point of readiness with the starter you might notice a layer of clear to darkish looking liquid either on the top or in a layer within the mix. This is a delightful substance called hooch and it’s the bacteria and yeast saying “hey! We’ve used up all the food in here and could really do with a feed!”. When you find yourself with this be sure to drain it out and give your starter a good feed up with the flour and water.
One more little tip. OK, two
Because the starter is fermenting and rising and falling you might end up with some overtopping of your jar or container, so pop it on a tray or a dish for easy clean up. And once it’s ready to rock and roll it’s nice too to pop it into a lovely clean jar.
How do I keep this sucker alive?
You can now keep your starter going in a perpetual state of readiness to make bread (more or less) by doing one of two things:
(1) Keep your starter in its spot on the counter top or other cosy location and keep up with the daily feed of flour and water. I just do a weekly chuck out of the excess starter, which ends up being about half of it, and feed daily.
(2) Pop the starter in the fridge and ensure you take it out and feed it once a week.
And that’s it.
Easy peasy lemon squeezy!
There will be no other strain of sourdough starter quite like yours!
And remember that the sourdough starter is very much a localised thing. Different parts of the globe, different locations, will have different wild yeasts in the air. So the starter you make will be unique, as will be the bread you produce from it.
It also stands to reason that one batch of starter will not behave in the same way as another in terms of how it processes the flour and even in how it performs in baking to someone in the next town. As such, there will always have to be a little trial and error in your own baking, but we can come on to things like that in future posts.
And because it’s a unique entity it has to have a name (that’s a “thing” apparently, amongst sourdough aficionados) – mine is called Fred!
Happy starter starting!
PS – I’ve been all excited to get this post written and up on the blog so it’s kinda text heavy I know. What I shall do however is get a new starter on the go and chart its progress visually for you, share and update this post across the next week or so, so you have a visual guide too.