How to Make a Sourdough Starter – for People Who Can’t Bake

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

That’s it.

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:

CREATION

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.

FEEDING

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.

MAINTENANCE

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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How to Bake a Sourdough Loaf – for People Who Can’t Bake

Sourdough as a subject matter is emotive. It is personal, as you will understand if you’ve ever been on the journey. It is also likely to spark excitable and sometimes heated debate amongst people from all walks of life – as Sourdough is also accessible to all, and especially during these times of ‘excessive home living’ AKA ‘lockdown’ many a novice baker has turned their hand to the art of Sourdough. In fact I bet at any socially-distanced gathering of late, if you’d casually dropped into conversation “Oh, I decided to have a go at making sourdough bread” at least one other person in the room will have gleefully shouted “Me too, me too!” At this point you will have embarked on an over-zealous account of how your starter is and which flours you have used, despite the pained glances from everyone else- who aren’t initiated into the Sourdough secret society.

‘Real’ bakers are possibly appalled at the amount of middle-weight homemakers (such as myself) who now consider themselves ‘Sourdough Experts’ having baked a total of a dozen or so imperfectly perfect loaves. For sure, Instagram is rife with arty photos of the stuff as it is experiences a resurgence of popularity among the masses. And why not? Sourdough is GOOD for you. It can be classed as a ‘low gluten’ option, a fermented food that is good for the gut microbiome (good bacteria) and packs a nutritional punch too.

I make no apologies – the information you are about to receive is my personal account, my own findings along the journey of Sourdough. And if you haven’t read my post about how to make your own Sourdough starter then you should start here with my blog post; ‘How to Make a Sourdough Starter – for People Who Can’t Bake.’

sourdough

Image by Comidacomafeto from Pixabay

THE INSTRUCTIONAL BIT

If you now have a beautiful Starter that is more bubbly than Barbara Windsor then what you need to do next is have a go at making some actual bread.

I normally work using ‘bakers’ percentages.’ This is the formula:

1000g flour

800g water – 80% (of flour)

150g starter – 15% (of flour)

20g salt – 2 % (of flour)

In a nutshell, whatever amount of flour you begin with, if you stick to the percentages for the rest of the ingredients you are pretty much onto a winner. This formula gives you 80% hydration which in ‘sourdough speak,’ is decent. Your dough will be wet and sticky and hard to shape so if you want an easier option to start with feel free to take the water down to about 70% and see how you get on.

STEP ONE

Make your dough by adding the flour and water to a bowl. Hold off on the starter and salt for now, you want to let this mixture sit for about an hour. The technical jargon for this part of the process is ‘Autolyse.’ You probably won’t witness much occur during the Autolyse phase so don’t sit and stare at it. Calmly go about your business for now.

When an hour has passed now is the prime time to add your Sourdough Starter along with the salt. Once it’s all in the bowl you can gently fold it in using your hands. Stretch and fold the dough in the bowl until it’s all together and then cover and leave for 30 minutes.

STEP TWO

Stretch and fold – this is a technique you will benefit from looking up on YouTube. This video will help. You should do this every half an hour (in the bowl) for the next 2 or 3 hours. Time to go and watch a Netflix series with episodes approximately 30 minutes or length.

STEP THREE

Before you know it, it will be time for the first proofing. Exciting!

Once you have done your final stretch and fold, just let it sit in the bowl (covered with cling film or towel) – somewhere warm is nice but don’t put it in the oven whatever you do, no matter how tempting it is to speed up the process.

The first prove could take a few hours. Depending on variables such as the temperature of the room, how active your starter is and so on, this part could take anywhere between 2-4 hours. You’re looking for dough that has doubled in size.

STEP FOUR

Next you want to shape the loaf. Yes, you almost have a loaf! But this is where the skilled bit comes in. If you’re like me what will happen is this; you will turn the dough out onto your lightly floured surface and it will spread out like Jabba the Hutt. You’ll try and lift one side to fold it over and the whole mass will collapse drunkenly back again. Again with the YouTube video for this bit please! There’s this tidy little plaiting motion they all do that I never achieve even with all of the tools. ‘Shape’ the blasted thing as best you can and then leave it there. Discard it like a bad date and walk out (another 30 minute episode of your new favourite Netflix show will help here.)

baking sourdough

STEP FIVE

This phase is called ‘bench rest.’ You are letting the gluten do it’s thing – even if you do have to keep checking to see if it’s flopped off the edge of the worktop. Note: professionals don’t have to watch it, only me.

STEP SIX

It is time for the second proving. Shape your gelatinous lump once more and transfer it to a sourdough proving basket. I purchased one but don’t use it, I prefer to stick it back in the bowl… but if the basket works for you, by all means go for it. If your dough is of a nice consistency it will help with the shape.

Let it sit AGAIN. I make no bones about this, creating sourdough takes time. Lots of time. The amount of time you spend actually doing anything to your doughy friend (that sounds wrong somehow) is very little. But there is a lot of waiting, more than at the average wedding. In order to make sourdough you really want to be home or close to home for the best part of a day. Don’t make sourdough on School Sports Day or any other occasion when you’re likely to have to be somewhere. A large-item Amazon delivery day, is perfect for making Sourdough.

Right, so now your sourdough is sitting (proving) for a couple more hours at least. If it’s now evening, feel free to stick that sucker in the fridge overnight. It will be OK. The cool temperature of the fridge will slow things down a bit but the extra time it will spend in there will make up for that. Hopefully you will wake up to a sizeable, springy ball of dough that is ready to play.

If you’re not putting it in the fridge overnight but are still awake at this point then every hour or so you want to perform the ‘poke test.’ To do this, simply gently poke a finger into the dough and as you release it you should see the dent rise back (but not fully), leaving a shallow dent. At this point you know the dough is optimal for baking.

STEP SEVEN

We are nearly there! It’s almost time to bake.

The next important stage is preparing the oven. Sourdough is best baked in a dutch oven. This can be a large earthenware pot or a casserole with a lid – it just needs to have a lid to let the steam circulate and help the bread rise and create a beautiful, crispy crust. This needs to go in the oven (empty with the lid on) for about 45 minutes at a high temperature. My oven only goes to about 240C/464F so I whack the knob round as far as it will go. I think the general preferred temperature is around 260C/500F so if you have a good oven then by all means try it. Testing different baking conditions is all part of the journey.

When your oven and pot are red hot, you want to remove your dough from it’s final proving basket/bowl onto a sheet of greaseproof/non stick baking paper. Carefully drop it into your dutch oven and score the top with a sharp knife. All manner of beautiful designs can be achieved once you know you are doing. Sourdough loaves can literally become works of art! Check out some beautiful examples here.

sourdough
This stunning Sourdough design is by @gemthecolor

If you have a cheap oven that leaks heat like mine and you’re baking at around 240C then do so for approx 40 mins with the lid on and then remove the lid for a further 2-30 minutes or until you have a dark crust. If you can be patient enough to wait until it looks really dark, almost burnt looking, that is even better. When you saw into your finished loaf little bits of shrapnel will fly off so watch your eyes – I am speaking from experience. Sourdough in the eye is never good, although IS sign of a great crust.

If you have a ‘good’ oven and are baking at a higher temperature I would recommend going with 2o minutes lid on, and 20 minutes lid off, and see how you get on.

STEP EIGHT

The very final step is possibly the hardest of all because it requires a great deal of restraint. Once your loaf is baked and out of the oven, transfer it to a cooling rack. If you tap the bottom it should sound hollow. But (and here’s the rub) you can’t eat it yet. Oh no you really can’t no matter how tempting it is to slice through and see those wonderful air holes and spongy texture! It will call to you. The scent will drive you to madness. But. Just. Wait! If you cut into your loaf too soon you risk spoiling the internal structure. When you can’t resist any longer, do eat it warm though, with plenty of butter or olive oil. Oh, and watch out for the flying shrapnel.

Look at you! You just made Sourdough bread!

sourdough bread
Image by Karin Sjödahl from Pixabay

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Working in Your (my) Twenties

When I was younger I worked in corporate. Most companies didn’t have the propensity for lush, trendy work spaces like they do nowadays. I always felt liked I’d been sucked into some sort of impenetrable socially-acceptable goo with my mortgage and ‘hot desking’ (which was all the rage). However, at the time I was hooked on my ashamedly extravagant lifestyle of organic produce, proper coffee and the desire to one day have all my lingerie in matching sets. So I stayed.

Grandfather

I call to you now and ask you to reflect, to see through the dementia of years, through the medicated consolation, the depression, and the memory loss. See what I remember in this moment and feel my youthful hands grasp your weathered face as I plant a plush kiss on your weary forehead.

But most desperately of all, I implore you to remember the times I sat on your knee as a baby with my chubby fingers twirling your wispy white hair into bunches and how, like a genteel King of the pride, you let me play in bliss.

Succumb not yet to the Summerlands beyond. You are granted longer years yet.

The Wind Makes Me Mad

Wind travels across the world, occasionally dying and then being reborn elsewhere in a different guise as a breeze, but always taking with it…something. On occasion if I allow the wind to speak to me as it pummels my face, I feel a little soreness of heart that is not mine.

In the region of Provence, there exists a phenomenon known as Le Mistral which is gale force wind that sweeps across the South of France apparently with a similar effect to lunacy. Incidentally, the word ‘lunacy’ is derived ultimately from the Latin ‘luna’ (moon) and the once-held belief that one’s mental state was dependent on the phases of the moon.

When Le Mistral blows, it sets some people on edge or gives them a migraine, maybe due to lack of sleep caused by the howling noise it makes gusting up to 120 km/h. The dry cold air blows hard and evenly, and the sunshine is harsh and blinding. It blows dust in your eyes and leaves your teeth gritty with sand. It is an endurance test, but once it has finished it’s business it will leave the air clean and fresh.

There is an old French law stating that anyone who claims to have gone mad on account of the sound of Le Mistral may be pardoned of their crime, including murder.

A Day in Court – Observations from Real Life

I was wearing my best clothes for I did not own a suit then. I sat swilling bad coffee around a greasy mug contemplating whether by 2pm I might be doing the same thing behind bars under contempt of court.

When my Barrister arrived we sat down for the briefing. As his Superman ringtone went off I squinted at him over the melamine laminate table. He cleared his throat and stared at the portfolio before him. 

Of course the obvious game was people watching which was better than that of the English beachfront in the height of summer. I spent the time constructively glaring at the back of the Defendant’s head hoping to wither his resolve.

He showed a glimmer of strength in a weak ratio with life’s atrocities. He wore glasses that were too large and he was perpetually pushing them up on his elderly beak with a shaky finger. He was not turning to look at me but I could tell he was not sure how it had come to this. He was hard of hearing and the judge himself stood up to adjust the acoustics of the room by opening and closing windows, doors, moving barriers of stacked books and an alarming quantity of bibles. His Barrister, who actually looked like the type of girl I would get to know at a family wedding, turned occasionally to look at me.

The older man’s story was muddled and his concentration waned as the length of each answer was drawn out and diminished with every word. My own voice wavered also and I stumbled over my words, he and I, together in this party for the brave and soulless, with a blonde angel looking on from the back of the room.

He held his head in his hands briefly as the Judge made his ruling and as we all filed out of the room I found myself silently apologising to the defeated being who made one last gesture by holding the door open for me. “Thank you” I whispered, to the man who had once almost killed me.

Fantastic Mr Fox – an encounter

Urban foxes – we see them all the time, usually scooting across the road in front of the car at 5 a.m. or perched up high on their wheelie-bin thrones.

Yes, their fur is the traditional red colour, but it resembles the faded edges of velvet curtains that have hung in the window for fifty years and their eyes look like lemon sherberts dotted with ants.

Today I am not dressed for the occasion. Certainly I am not fit to be blessed with the presence of nature. But maybe today the fox with his equally ragged attire found it easier to come a little closer.

I got out of the car and shuffled over to the fence where the garage is and waited while the cold grass crept up into my shoes. We spoke silently for a few seconds, our eyes locked together. And then, as though it was a magic spell all of it’s own, my smile sent him scampering back down out of sight – although I did feel that if I had waited some more we could have played this game together all day.

Fox

Setting the Scene – A Short Story of an Artist at Work

Her beautifully painted red toes gripped the concrete floor as she padded across it’s iciness at 6.15am. Kicking an overthrown cardigan from the only seat in the room, she sat between two offensive rips on the brown leather upholstery and sucked in a sharp breath of hot steam from her coffee cup. Condensation attempted to saturate the window pane in vain and instead, on accepting defeat, rolled to the floor, drip by drip, off the edge of the sill. Her small dog licked the puddle away and looked at his owner bashfully.

The time had come for the morning routine a la frenzy. She pulled her long sleeves back from being wrapped around her chilled fingers and coffee mug, which was quickly discarded upon the floor in a careless fashion. Its life-giving qualities were forgotten in but a moment. Clothes were thrown from the wardrobe, hitting thirsty houseplants and the little dog in their wake as he gazed up at her, the whirling dervish of scent, fortitude and panic driven by the thought of waiting yet again for another unnecessary hour at the bus stop. The chilly air hit her body as she moved, her white limbs looking chalky white and contrasting sharply against her dark mane. As she dressed, her cold fingers trembled and she gripped her own waist fleetingly to enjoy the sensation, almost as though a lover had snuck up behind.

Eventually there she stood in the hallway, perfectly painted toes now cosseted within fine leather shoes, stockings free from ladders leading up to too-short-skirt and jumper and really little else. Like a chaotic Madonna with child, she held the dog under her right arm whilst the left one skimmed the top of the door frame for a key, ready to make her exit. And then she was gone.

Female artist

The familiar creative process began on a Friday night when upon returning home from work with renewed enthusiasm and she picked up a small brush playfully dabbing the dog’s nose, streaking him a Celtic warrior with forget-me-not blue. She chicaned around furniture gathering her crop of tools, the discarded coffee jars for water, the empty tubs for mixing large quantities of paint, pallet knives, battered looking teaspoons, pencil sharpening surgical scalpels and well loved brushes, all dumped in a big pile in the middle of the floor. Then she ran to the kitchen and pulled out some essentials; a jar of coffee, some less battered looking teaspoons, a stale box of cornflakes and a clean ash tray which she admired in awe of her own cleanliness for at least twenty seconds before ploughing back into the studio to her almost complete nest.

And so it began. Hour upon hour she worked the canvas and with each hour she smoked more, the now forsaken empty bottle of decent red wine and the once pure ash tray littered with deceitful butts. It was beginning to resemble a mass burial with those thin white bodies disposed of in a heap, rings of red lipstick around them as if blood soaked and grey ash ever falling to cover their sins.

She crouched on the unforgiving cold floor, a square tipped brush behind each ear. Bare feet as always, with loose trousers revealing the edges of pink lace lingerie like icing on a cake, there she was, peering at the picture before her and blissfully unaware of the quantity of yellow ochre on her face which made her look liked a jaundiced pixie. Moments of serenity hung in the balance always with her. Like a landmine with the potential for annihilation she was merely in constant suspension between this world and the world she could create, should she wish to.

Muse-ic and the Rhythm of Literacy

Physically, music could be understood as nothing more than a series of vibrations and waves of rhythm, but it has the ability to penetrate the molecular spaces of our very make up, touching us in places where nothing else can.

It can be transcending and life changing as by this very method it fuses with us and becomes part of us, sometimes apparent and sometimes subtle and to it, we are mere puppets on a string.

Rhythm begins life in the form of the Mother’s heartbeat to the listening infant within, the deep vibrations of melodic voices heard through amniotic fluid and when born, the patterns of all the Worldly sounds around them. The written and spoken word becomes intertwined with notes and tempo and tone.

The oldest living concept born from mysticism itself, nothing is more powerful or influential than music followed closely by literature. Both have the capacity to embody all emotions (and sometimes many emotions in one piece) depending on how well composed it is.

Literature was born out of a necessity to translate the rhythms of our heart and minds.

Those who have an ‘ear’ for music, and not necessarily people who can play an instrument well, but people who really hear these omnipotent hidden messages within the notes that are played, have the awareness of the complexity of dozens of drum beats played together in harmony and the aptitude to pick these out one by one and know the purpose of each for being there.

And to go further, the act of dance is the gateway into complete transcendence through music. The bounce of the guitarist feeling the riff, the nodding head of the drummer and the sway of the vocalist are all forms of dance, allowing the music to swirl through them like a hurricane. The music is not around us, it is inside us, and makes our bodies act in devotion.

So how, I argue, should music and literature not be worshipped as idolism? It is more than simply that, it is far more. It is more than love and more than hate, it is the very essence of our being and it is the only thing we truly know.

Perfectly Polite Penguins and the Use of Alliteration

Alliteration. The perfect tool for capturing a toddler’s attention – and trust me, that is no mean feat. I have read a lifetime of children’s books. Next to a good sing-song rhyme, the use of alliteration has the potential to keep kids coming back to the same story time and time again.

When looking for ways to capture an audience we can do worse than taking inspiration from the way children’s fiction is written, for alliteration helps form the building blocks to making words memorable. And who doesn’t want this for their brand?

Perfectly Polite Penguins is a book I purchased for my three year old to help him navigate those turbulent tantrum years. In the story, Polly, a naughty penguin who likes to throw fishy snacks and really needs to get her shit together finally comes to the realisation that it’s not all about her and is able to reintegrate into a society of Perfectly Polite Penguins.

Another favourite is Fussy Freda, a terrifying tale with box office potential about a young girl who refuses to eat what her parents cook until she begins to shrink and is eaten by the family cat. It’s perhaps still a little more censored than the story of a cannibalistic old lady who lives in a house made of gingerbread, but for me (and my three year old) the additional use of alliteration gives this story a impactful double-whammy.

A quick glance at pop culture shows that it is literally littered with alliteration. ( See what I did there? ) Coca-Cola and Mickey Mouse are now clever literacy devices that evoke nostalgic emotions for many. The rhetoric of politicians and the most memorable phrases of the greatest minds known to human kind have all used this memory-tool.

Is it sometimes over-used, dare I say it, cliche? Yes. It won’t suit all brands so proceed with a degree of caution. However if like me, you’re still a fan of the good old-fashioned flipchart and marker pen brainstorming method, then by all means go mad. Next time you pass a book shop pop in and browse the selection of early years fiction for you may just be picking up a valuable business tool. Remember, the same rhythmic patterns of our pre school years still resonate with the psyche of adulthood.

The best piece of advice I can give above all else and however you decide to use alliteration for your content, always, ALWAYS be a perfectly polite penguin.

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