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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