Saturday, February 14, 2009

Getting Down to It

If you've been following this blog, you'll know that sourdough starter is one part water to one part flour. But what's the method, exactly, to get it going?

A quick note before we begin - starter doesn't like metal at all. Always use plastic, glass or wooden utensils when dealing with it.

Day 1:

Take 25 g (a tablespoon) of wholemeal flour and mix it with enough luke warm filtered or spring water to make a thick paste. A small plastic countainer or glass jar will do for a container, just make sure the lid is not airtight, because you want it to breathe.

Leave it overnight in the room to begin the process.

Sourdough Starter Day 1: No Bubbles; smells like flour and water.

Day 2:

Now add twice the amount of flour (two tablespoons) and enough water to maintain a thick paste. Cover and put to one side for another day. By the end of this day you will see bubbles forming and it will take on the consistency of a sponge.

If it looks like it's going too fast, put the mixture in the fridge to slow it down.

Sourdough Starter Day 2: Bubbles starting to form. You can just detect a very faint smell of Bananas.

Day 3:
Remove from the fridge, if you have refrigerated your mixture. You should get a slightly tangy sweet smell from the mixture. Feed with a quarter of a cup of flour and enough water to maintain a paste. Mix it in roughly with a plastic or wooden spoon. Don't worry about lumps - these will be eaten as the yeast begins to form.

Sourdough Starter Day 3: More Bubbles, and you can smell bananas now.

A word on Sourdough Yeasts

I shoul
d mention here that this particular sourdough starter is one that encourages wild yeasts which thrive in cool conditions. Different types of yeasts live at different temperatures. Winemaking yeasts, for example, like temperatures below 10 degrees centigrade. Generally, breadmaking yeasts like to multiply rapidly at above 25 degrees C, but are almost dormant below 15 degrees, so can be stored here for quite a few hours. We are going for yeasts which do well below 15 degrees C. These yeasts breed in cold conditions, and when they get warmed up, go absolutely crazy with reproductive zeal. Thus, they make great tasting bread which also rises well.

Day 4:

By now you will start to see quite a few small bubbles in the still unripe sourdough starter. You should also be able to easily smell something - the smell will be quite like ripe bananas if the starter is beginning to ripen. The texture will be changing too - you'll see a progression from what looks like bubbles in batter to something resembling a sponge . Feed with a half a cup of flour and a half a cup of water the same way as yesterday. After an hour or two, put back in the fridge to control the temperature.

Sourdough Starter Day 4
: Quite a few bubbles, and the smell of ripe bananas.

Day 5:
There will be more bubbles, and more banana smells. If things are going well, there
will also be a quite tangy smell now. The texture will be spongy by now, which is good. This tangy smell indicates that a secondary level of fermentation is occurring. Feed with half a cup of flour and enough water to keep a paste consistency.

Sourdough Starter Day 5: A lttle spongy, and the banana smell will be getting tangy now.

Day 6:
The smell will now be becoming quite tangy. If you have kept the temperature quite low throughout the process, the smell of bananas will still be there, but the tanginess will be steadily increasing. There will be bubbles on the surface of the mixture, and some throughout too.
If you can't detect bananas now at all, and the tang is quite vinegary, the fermentation is getting ahead of itself. Easily fixed. See day 7!
Sourdough Starter Day 6: Tangy and Spongy now.

Day 7:

You should be able to detect vinegar in the smell, and there will be quite a lot of bubbles in the mixture now. It's time to either use some in dough, or feed your sourdough starter for the fourth time.

Add a cup of filtered or spring water, and anoth
er cup of wholemeal flour. Stir it in with a plastic or wooden spoon until combined. Allow the freshly fed starter to stand for an hour or two and/or return to the fridge in warmer weather. Now the cycle will begin again, only it will be accellerated somewhat. You have a component of fermented sourdough in your mixture, and this will feed on the batter you have given it. Because it is already alive, you will find that everything you observed the first time around will be magnified. Once the starter has returned to bubbling after this feed, it is ready to use again. This will take about a day.

Sourdough Starter Day 7 (before feeding): Tangy, spongy, and it's dropped down a bit.

It is imp
ortant to note here that while the first cycle of feeding is complete, this sourdough starter will not make bread rise very well at all. If you do get bread to rise, it will tend to fall over or rise unevenly. There is not yet a stable acid / alkali balance in the mixture - but the good news is that progressive cycles of feeding you will now quickly get this acid balance right, and thus your starter will soon be making sensational bread!

Sourdough Starter Cycle:

There is a distinct pattern to be observed when fermenting sourdough starter. I have tracked it thousands of times, and I can tell you it goes like this:
  1. Smells like fresh flour - no bubbles, just a thick batter.
  2. Smells faintly like bananas - maybe one or two bubbles in the mixture.
  3. Smells more like bananas, and quite sweet - can be quite a lot of bubbles in there now.
  4. Smells like tangy bananas - and the texture is starting to become spongy.
  5. Smells like vinegar and bananas - the texture is completely spongy.
  6. Smells more like vinegar than bananas - the sponge collapses a bit. Now it is ready to use, provided that your starter is established via one or more feeding cycles.
Days 8, 9 and 10:
You will observe the same process as the whole of the first week over these next three days. On about day 10 your fermented mixture will smell quite tangy, and the sponge will collapse a little. This is when your starter is ready to make bread, though the starter can be used whenever it becomes very bubbly. You might find that the dough doesn't rise as well as you might like. This will improve each time you feed and ripen the sourdough starter - the more you do it, the better the bread gets!

Close up of Sourdough Starter Day 10: it's risen and sponged again very quickly, and dropped back a little.

You can use your ripe sourdough starter any time after it has dropped back a little after the third feed. It will still be good to use for up to a week if it's kept in the fridge, even if all the bubbles have gone and it looks quite flat and lifeless. Often, at this stage, the water will separate and come to the top as a kind of greyish liquid. A small feed will revive it, and can be used in a few hours. If you are building up too much starter, pour some off. If left for too long, starter will become alcoholic, and will not make edible bread. A simple solution is to feed it again. Wait until there are a lot of bubbles in the mixture and then use for making bread. If you don't think you'll get time to make bread, simply freeze the starter after feeding. It will keep in the freezer indefinitely, and can be revived by simply thawing.

In future posts, I'll provide a number of other storage options which are designed for medium term storage where a freezer might not be available. I will also explain how you can keep starter 'cowboy style' for when you're camping or hiking. So stay tuned!

An Easier Way?

People always tell me that this process is complex and time consuming. While I find it quite fascinating and quick to do, I can fully understand where they are coming from. That's why I'm currently developing my own powdered instant sourdough starter, which comes from the ferment I've been nurturing for over 20 years now. But in the meantime, the method I've documented here will produce very consistent results at home for those who are prepared to get bitten by the sourdough bug. Once you've got your sourdough starter to this point, you will find that it is very easy to manage, with just a feed each time you want to make bread. There are ways to control things so that you can make bread as often or as little as you like. I'll be providing these tips over coming posts, which will save you going though all the pain that I went through when getting sourdough breadmaking at home comfortably into my routine.

I have a great Spelt Sourdough Starter recipe on my website at Check it out!

Until then, happy fermenting!

1 comment:

  1. Very helpful, my starter seems to be coming along pretty well (day 5). I'm looking forward to making my first loaf with it.