Monday, January 26, 2009

Starting the Sourdough Starter

The Place Where Sourdough Starts

Have you ever wondered how bread rises? To any home baker, including myself, the experience of watching the dough double in size is still one of the great things about breadmaking. It's also a sort of preliminary litmus test as to how successful your recipe or technique has been. But to get the dough to rise, we need to create carbon dioxide gas, and lock it up in some sort of bubble, which will expand as the carbon dioxide fills it, like a balloon filling with air. We do this by creating a process where fermentation occurs in the dough. Carbon dioxide is given off as a natural bi product of any fermentation process. Sourdough Starter is the thing which begins and feeds the fermentation process in dough, as it is rich in bacteria, enzymes such as amalyse and natural yeasts. This combination provides a perfect medium for the process called leavening.
Leavening for beginners - how bread rises

There are lots of ways to make bread rise, but they all rely on the same process of fermentation I just mentioned. For example, Baking soda and some sort of acid (cream of tartare, lemon juice, vinegar or whatever) will create the necessary chemical reaction to begin fermentation in dough. This method is used in the production of Irish Soda Bread, and some commercially produced Sourdoughs rely on it as well. More commonly, refined yeast, known as Sacccharomyces Cerviseae is used for leavening virtually all types of bread you'll find; indeed, this single celled funghi is the most widely used rising agent in the world - because it's easy and fast to manufacture, and can be controlled by adjusting simple variables like temperature, moisture or acidity. It also can be fed in such a way as to make bread rise strongly and quickly via the use of another ubiquitous commercial bread additive, Bread Improver.

Unfortunately, commercial yeast is designed to be very bland in flavour. It can also be quite infectious when left to reproduce in the stomach of a human being. The temperature inside us, combined with our intake of sugar and liquids, can prove to be ideal for the growth of candida albicans; a common form of yeast infection leading to many allergic reactions and gradual immune system depletion. So it's not all that good for you. When you couple the use of refined yeast with yeast foods such as Bread Improver, the potential for long term ill health is multiplied many times.

An altogether healthier and tastier option, sourdough starter can be made quite easily to replace commercial yeast or baking powder to make the dough rise when you want tomake home made bread. I've already talked about my own starter in this blog, and now I want to provide the basic information you'll need to establish one yourself, easily and within 2 weeks.

I'll also mention before I begin that if this all seems like too much committment for a loaf of bread, you can buy dried starter fairly easily nowadays, and I'll soon be supplying my own 20 year old version for home bakers everywhere online. But more on that later...

The Fundamentals of Starter

Sourdough Starter not one kind of yeast, as with commercial yeast, but quite a few different kinds which vary according to the conditions they find themselves in. It is also a culture of 'friendly' bacteria, which helps to create the ideal conditions for the yeasts to multiply. But more importantly, a healthy Sourdough Starter has a stable microbiology; it's a living thing which, with the right conditions, can be trained to produce consistent and great tasting bread every time. Not only that, but most experts agree that sourdough bread is easier to digest and provides better nutrition than ordinary yeasted breads. So lets get started!

Once you understand the fundamentals of Sourdough Starter, you can keep it living and thriving and working to produce great bread for you as often as you wish.

Initially, you are looking to gather airborne and flourbourne yeasts, to culture and grow them, and then to use and feed them in a regular rhythm for home breadmaking. The process of building a starter takes from one to two weeks (at the longest), and once established, the starter can be fed and used on a daily basis if desired.

Basic Starter Recipe

Starter has the simplest of ingredients:
  • one part flour to one part water!
You can try just about any kind of flour (or even cooked grain). The rule of thumb is consistency - it should be a very thick batter to start with, so it just pours. If it's runny, it's too thin, and if it's a dough, it's too thick. You can vary the consistency later, when you know what you're doing. But for now, work within these parameters for best results. I will explain more about consistency later.

Types of Flour

Another point which has been made in other texts on the subject is that starter should only be fed on the type of flour you wish to use predominantly. While I agree this does produce the most consistent results, I have enriched my starters with things like brown and white rice, cooked barley, potatoes, millet and oats, raisins and sultanas, and the water these have mascerated in. I have used all types of flours, including spelt, rye, white and wholemeal wheat flour, and other flours besides. If you like to experiment like I do, then don't hold back! The worst that can happen is you'll have to pour off most of it and start again. Different flours have different properties, and you will arrive at a favourite which suits you over time.

A home for your starter

If you have a plastic container with a loose fitting lid, about 2 litres capacity, then you have the perfect vessel for starter to live in. If you only have, say, a honey container with a tight sealing lid, then puncture the lid with a knife so a little air can pass through.

Ultimately, this will become your starter's abode. It lives in your refridgerator between uses, and will be left out before use to thaw slightly, so as activity is happening. If you are in a warm climate in mid summer, you will need to only bring the starter out of the fridge for an hour or less when you are making bread. If you live in a cold climate, the starter may live out of the fridge all the time. This of course something which you will adapt according to your experience - but I have found that the fridge is the best default storage area, as they run at a consistent temperature and are reasonably immune from airborne contaminants.

Some tips before you try the recipe
  • In the early stages of fermenting a starter, you'll get some wastage, as you need to pour off some of the batter as you go, in order to feed it with fresh food. This batter you pour off can be used in your regular yeasted dough, or in pancakes or gravies, if you prefer to waste nothing at all.
  • The warmer the starter gets, the more activity there is, and so the more often you'll need to pour off some and feed it.
  • Equally, the lower the temperature, the slower the fermentation process. If the temperature is too low, fermentation will be overtaken by mould and the starter will become suffocated. However, even at temperatures below 5 degrees celsius but above freezing, fermentation can still be occuring. The mould which grows on the surface will very often dry out, and can be peeled off and discarded to no ill effect. The remaining batter can be fed and re established quite quickly, and become active and useful again virtually overnight.
  • Starter, despite much talk to the contrary, is actually close to immortal. Once established, it is really hard to kill off. Even a dormant starter can be revived rapidly with a good feed and a bit of warmth.
  • In the early stages, however, a starter is very fragile - but over time they grow stronger, as local yeasts and bacteria take hold. The most important thing in the early days is not to 'drown' the starter with too much food. Similarly, a watched pot never boils. It's better to leave it alone to do its thing than to fuss over it all the time. If things take a bit longer than I've stated, relax! The best action is inaction. Wait another day. Lash out if you like - wait two!
  • Starter will be sweeter when fed more frequently, but will take longer to leaven your dough. Conversely, it will be more sour when fed less often, but will get the dough going fairly quickly.
With this basic stuff covered, I'll return tomorrow with a simple procedure to follow to get things going. After that, I'll move on to some recipes and techniques too. Until then...

If you want more detail on starters, and recipes for different kinds, go to my website at:
Happy Baking!