I am notoriously bad at baking. In my career as Mother and general house-servant I have somehow managed to absorb the recipe for sponge fairy cakes which can be used for pretty much anything because as long as you whack a sugary substance on the top everyone will eat it without question.
However, one thing I have become quite good at during the age of Covid is making Sourdough bread – proper sourdough, not the stuff you get in supermarkets. And I have learned quite a lot along the way. It is in fact a rather fascinating pastime.
WHERE TO BEGIN
So you need to start with your starter. Seems like a good place to..um..start.
Your Sourdough Starter is the yeast you would normally get out of a packet. Only this is a very wet and sticky concoction that is very much a living organism and requires feeding on a daily basis. Yes my friends, we are in Gremlins territory here. You must feed it every day but never after midnight. There are also rules about water. But let me get on to that..
To make your Sourdough starter mix the following:
-1 cup strong bread flour (any will do)
-1 cup water
You want to do all this in a glass jar of some sort but not an airtight one. I used a mason jar and removed the rubber seal so I could allow the lid to drop closed but meant my starter was still free to pick up microbes from the surrounding environment.
Which brings me on to the science-y bit:
Your Sourdough starter will be unique to you. It will be made up of not only flour and water but air and everything contained within it. It will use the microbes in the environment to ferment and it will literally come alive!
The sourdough starter you create will be different to the one your neighbour makes, or someone in a coastal region who will have a different starter to a baker in an urban City, and so on. Mine does especially well next to some kind of plant. My first starter enjoyed the company of a basil plant. My current starter is living with a young pepper plant in my kitchen and they have become well acquainted. Apparently they also do well next to fruit bowls and out of direct sunlight. Some warmth is good to get an active starter but don’t keep it right next to the oven or hob. Basically you need to go all ‘location location location’ with your Sourdough Starter. And you need to name it.
I decided to name my Starter ‘Virgil Van Dyk’ – because he’s a ‘guaranteed starter.’ This is a football joke which I don’t really understand but it makes my Husband laugh every time he says it. My second starter was called Dough Sallah (again, football). Dough Sallah was the child of Virgil Van Dyk but I’m not going to get into genetics here. Once you have an active starter it is perfectly acceptable to give some away – and so a whole lineage of starters can be created.
So we have covered the conception and storage of your new baby (like I needed ANOTHER mouth to feed during lockdown.) Now I will explain how to care for him/her/them.
You have mixed your flour and water in your glass container. On day 1 don’t expect to see much action, it’s just going to sit there looking like a jar full of flour and water. Possibly even on day 2, so be patient. You may mix it gently with a wooden implement if you really want to do something.
Your starter will need to be fed every 12 hours for the first couple of days. However, a word of warning – it is going to GROW. You do not want an overflowing jar of the stuff by day 7 (think Stay Puft the giant marshmallow man from Ghostbusters when they blast him and he explodes) so you first need to discard HALF. If you have used my above formula to start with this means you need to take out 1/2 cup of mixture and then add the SAME back in – so that’s a new 1/2 cup of flour and water. And stir.
If your starter begins to look like this, run away.
By day 3 you should start to see bubbles appearing and the mixture may double in size. A really active starter can triple in size so keep your eye on it. Keep feeding it and by now you may only need to feed it once a day. If you keep this up then by about day 6 or 7 you will have a starter you can use!
How to tell if your starter is hungry:
-It looks especially wet and thin on top – sometimes watery or with a grey liquid called ‘hooch.’ If you’ve seen ‘Orange is the New Black’ on Netflix, you’ll know this word. It is yeast and therefore the precursor to alcohol.
-It deflates and the bubbles disappear. It looks a little sad. It’s screaming out to be pancake batter.
How to tell if your starter is active and ready to use:
-It will have lots of bubbles running through it.
-When you lift some out of the jar it will have a glutenous texture or look a bit like a thick slime that will stick if you throw it. (don’t do this, just use your imagination.)
-If you drop a teaspoon full in a glass of water, it will float. See, more fun sciencey stuff!
Now is the time to get baking so start your engines. Honestly this is worth a blog post all of it’s own. So I have written one – and you can find it here.
I’m going to share a few tips for keeping your starter going. Some starters have been around for decades and get passed down through family generations. Therefore it’s worth thinking about how long you want to keep this living creature/pet. It takes a degree of commitment but will pay dividends if you do. Think beautiful, fresh bread for the rest of your life. You will need to feed it every day – and that can mean buying flour on a regular basis.
Tip 1 – Each day ensure you discard half and feed it the same amount of whatever is left in the jar. If you are planning on baking once or twice a week then 1/2 cup is a good amount to aim for.
Tip 2 – Always feed it bread flour. Plain or self raising is unlikely to work as well. Purists will advocate using organic. I have tried organic wholemeal and non-organic white bread flour and the white flour one made a stronger starter for me.
Tip 3 – If you want to have a break from feeding your starter, you can actually store it in the fridge for several weeks or even months. It just simply deactivates and then when you are ready to use it again you can bring it out and feed it for a couple of days to wake it up. It’s just like cryogenics.
Tip 4 – It is really hard to kill a starter – but I have done it. Sadly after a couple of months Virgil went mouldy. I left him too long on the kitchen worktop without feeding and it was hot. Orange streaks across the top of your starter is a sure-fire way to know that this is one bad starter and should be thrown away. It can be a sad moment.
So there we have it. All the information you need to make a great Sourdough Starter that will be with you for years to come. I suppose it’s about time you baked a loaf, right? Check out this article; How to Bake a Sourdough Loaf – for People Who Can’t Bake.
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