Sourdough bread starter

I attended a bread baking course some time ago and I have been baking bread regularly (once, maybe twice a week) since then.

I used to bake bread using instant yeast but now I use wild yeast.  The preparation process takes a bit longer, in time (not effort) but the end result and depth of flavour is definitely worth it.

This will be the first of a couple of posts.  I thought I’d start with documenting how to get a wild yeast starter started.

“When you have only two pennies left in the world, buy a loaf of bread with one, and a lily with the other.”
- Chinese proverb

Here is some information that I gathered about sourdough bread:

Sourdough bread is the outcome of a fermentation process that happens as a result of the activities of wild yeasts and other micro-organisms, transforming the mixture of flour and water from an unpalatable mass into a nourishing food that is easy to digest and packed with vitamins and minerals.

When making sourdough, a starter is added to the mixture of flour and water and to speed up the process and allows more control of the flavour and texture of the bread.

It is often the chemicals used in commercially baked bread that causes people to have wheat/gluten intolerance and when eating a more natural/whole type bread may reduce/eliminate many of the side effects of eating commercial breads.

The most common way of making bread is by using a fast fermentation process, using large amounts of commercial yeast together with flour, water and other additives to make bread that is not easily digested and goes stale or mouldy very fast. Yeast is used as a rising agent because time is not allowed for the natural fermentation process to take place.

Sourdough bread is made by using no commercial yeast at all; instead a small amount of pre-fermented starter, made of flour and water, is introduced into the dough.  The bread has a unique flavour due to the natural fermentation process.  The fermentation process releases enzymes crucial for our digestive system. (The fermentation process serves a similar purpose of soaking nuts prior to using them.)

The starter used in the bread is usually used and replenished from one baking to the next, each time feeding it with flour and water after each baking and then left to develop. It can be kept in the fridge and replenished at least once a week, to keep the starter active. It may seem like a lot of effort but the flavour improves if it is used and replenished more often.

The sourdough starter likes a routine (and it makes it easier for you to remember as well), so even when not using it, it should be replenished anyway.  There are many fantastic resources available for suggestions of what to do with the sourdough starter.
(I will try veganise some of the recipes and post them – watch this space :D )

Making a sourdough starter

(If you are lucky enough to know someone that already has a starter, I suggest you beg, borrow or steal some from them, it certainly is much easier in this instant gratification society that we live in… it is torture waiting for 7 – 10 days before you can actually start using it the first time.)

Ingredients

  • ½ cup white or whole wheat unbleached flour (it seems like a good starter flour is flour that includes malted barley).  You can substitute for rye flour, if you do not want any wheat flour in the starter
  • ½ cup rye/spelt flour
  • 1 cup filtered water
  • 1 tbsp pineapple juice (fresh not sweetened)

Instructions

  1. Mix all together in a glass jar and set in a comfortably warm place for 24 – 48 hours, mixing it once or twice a day.
    Do not use a jar that seals to tightly, you need to allow the culture to breathe.
    You should see bubbles on top of the mixture and it should have a pleasant smell.
  2. After the initial stage of 24 – 48 hours, add ½ cup water and ½ cup flour (could be rye flour, if you want a rye only starter).
    Mix well and leave for a further 24 hours.
    At this stage, you should see some rising and bubbles and the smell should be slightly sour but pleasant.
  3. Repeat the feeding (½ cup water and ½ cup flour).
    Leave for a further 24 hours.
  4. Discard half of the mixture and add 1 cup water and 1 cup flour.
    Mix and leave again for 24 hours.
    It should rice nicely during this time and be ready for use.
    If the starter is not rising, repeat step 4 again.
  5. Put the starter in a bigger jar (up to 4 times its size) and mark the level of the starter in the jar after mixing (this is a handy tip to see how much it has risen).
    The starter should rise at least double before using it.
  6. Feed the starter one more time before baking with it, just to ensure that it is active.

Notes:

  • Just to get into the lingo – When the starter is growing, it is called a ‘culture’. Only once it is stable and mature enough to bake with, is it referred to as a ‘starter’.
  • It is important to use good quality filtered water.  You need to make sure that most/all of the chlorine is removed from the water.  Spring water is also a great option.
  • Use the best quality ingredients you can find. Wherever possible, use organic.
  • Stone milled fresh flour is the best for nutrient and flavour rich bread.
  • Use flours without improvers and that have not been fortified.
  • The temperature of the room, jar, water will have an impact on the dough.  If it is too cold, it will not be very active. If it is very cold, use slightly warmed water (not too hot, you do not want to kill the starter).
  • Rule: cold weather takes a bit longer, hotter weather shortens the rising time.
  • The tablespoon of juice is optional.  I have read a couple of sites and most of the people just stick to good quality water (with no chlorine).  One site, did not use water at all but only used unsweetened pineapple or orange juice.
  • A great idea I saw from another blogger is to make your own wheat flour to start with. Get wheat berries and put in blender/coffee grinder to produce starter flour (the wild yeast is on the grains and you just need to provide the right conditions to wake it up).
  • It does seem to be a common behaviour to name the starter.  Some cute names that I have encountered are Stinky, Monster, Seymor, Cousin It.

Replenishing the starter

  1. 1 Tbsp starter
  2. Add ¼ cup water and shake vigorously.
    The theory is that this will introduce oxygen (which promotes yeast reproduction) into the mixture.
  3. Add ½ cup flour and mix well (can be done with a metal spoon).

Starter notes:

  • If not using the starter daily, keep it in the fridge to slow down the process.
  • If the starter is acting a little sluggish, substitute whole rye flour for about 5% of the white flour, for one feeding. Rye flour is great for really getting fermentation going.
  • If you plan to use the starter in a day and you are keeping it in the fridge, leave it out to activate.
  • If you keep the starter in the refrigerator, take it out a couple of hours before replenishing it.
  • Remember to feed the starter regularly, even if you are not using it.  Replenish the starter at least twice a week to keep it active.
  • The starter should always smell pleasantly sour.
  • If the starter has a foul smell or develops any kind of mould, discard it and start again.
  • If the starter develops a crust on top, peel it off and use the centre to extend the starter.
  • If you are going away and have to leave the starter behind (as normal people would do, I hope) – make a double batch, mix it well, put it in the fridge.  To activate it again, take off the crust and use the centre of the starter to continue.
  • The starter can also be dried by mixing in some flour and rubbing it until you get bread crumb consistency, then dry on a tray and store in a clean sealed container in the freezer.

Additional resources

(These sites are not vegan, but you can get some great tips from them)

  • Raising a starter – Wild Yeast Blog – link
  • Maintaining a starter – Wild Yeast Blog – link
  • Maintaining a starter – link
  • Wild yeast sourdough starter – link
  • Sourdough for home baking – Wild yeast starter – link – you can buy many different starters from this site

What’s next?  I will post some very easy sourdough bread recipes soon.

Related posts

Basic sourdough bread recipe

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8 Responses to Sourdough bread starter

  1. This is very informative. We make most of our bread with sourdough starter. It’s a great way to do that.

    • Initially, I thought it seemed like a lot of effort, but by the third time of doing it, you get the hang of it, and then it is really easy and I love the final product.
      Now my biggest issue is to not eat the entire loaf at a time ;)

      • Our Growing Paynes says:

        Oh I know. We love fresh bread with cheese. Add a bottle of wine and we’re very happy! :)

  2. Allison says:

    Thanks for all the great information in this post! My girlfriend is the real baker in the household, but we’ve still never tried making sourdough, so I’m going to send this link on to her :)

  3. Teresa says:

    I made a mistake when feeding my starter and added too much flour. Can I correct this?

    • I am found that the starters are actually quite forgiving.
      As long as you keep the ratio 1 : 2 (water : flour) it will be fine. Some people like their starters more watery, then you can keep the ratio 1 : 1 (water : flour). Next time you feed your starter, then you can default back to your usual water : flour ratio.

      Good luck, I am sure your starter will not mind the extra “food”.

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