Baking your own sourdough bread is not as hard as you might think. Once you have your starter you can use it in a whole range of recipes from books and online, and you’ll find yourself wondering why you didn’t do it sooner.
What is sourdough bread?
Sourdough bread is made using naturally occurring yeasts and lactobacilli or lactic acid bacteria. These yeasts and bacteria cause bread to rise by producing carbon dioxide. The sourdough way of baking has been around for thousands of years, long before more modern baker’s yeast or dry yeast were available.
It is these acids that produce the characteristic sour taste and texture which is absent from mass produced bread and so beloved by sourdough fans.
Why make sourdough bread?
With modern bread being made on a massive scale many people now yearn for the traditional methods of making bread, and distinctive sourdough has found its way back onto the menus of upmarket bistros and restaurants across the country.
One of the benefits of baking your own bread is that you can have complete control of what goes into your loaf, and know that your homemade bread is free from preservatives and flavourings. In the right quantities, the acids used to make sourdough bread also act as a natural preservative and slow the growth of mould – meaning there is no need for using the preservatives that many modern loaves of bread use.
A basic sourdough starter can be used in a huge range of bread recipes.
How to make a sourdough starter
A sourdough starter is very easy to make but it does take a little time and patience. The starter is made by gradually ‘feeding’ a mix of water and flour with an equal mix of fresh flour and water.
You can use any flour for a sourdough starter but rye flour is recommended because rye grains host large microbe populations. An organic wholegrain rye flour is best of all because the microbes live on the outside of the grain and organic farms will have used less or no fungicide, leading to a more active starter.
- Rye flour (30g to start)
- Measuring scales
- A plastic tub with a lid
- Wooden spoon
Day 1: get your starter going
Put your plastic tub on the scales and weigh out 30g of rye flour with 30g water (at about 20c). Stir vigorously until combined, making sure to scrape away any flour stuck to the side of the tub.
Leave your mixture to stand at room temperature with the lid ajar for 24 hours.
Day 2: feed the starter
Put your container back on the scales and again add 30g of rye flour and 30g of water. Combine, and leave to stand for another 24 hours.
At this stage your starter will probably look like sticky dough. There's no need to be alarmed if it hasn’t started bubbling yet as the amount of time it takes to get going will vary from kitchen to kitchen, with starters in cool kitchens taking longer to get going.
Day three: continue feeding
By the third day you will probably see small bubbles appearing on the surface of your sourdough mixture, and it may be smelling a little musty. Don’t be concerned if it hasn’t started yet, just have some patience.
Add another 30g rye flour and 30g water, and again combine and leave to stand.
Days four and five: continuing to feed
Your sourdough starter should be nearly. You should see bubbles forming and it should start to smell yeasty and slightly acidic.
Add another 30g of rye flour and 30g water, mix well, and leave to stand for 24 hours.
Day five or six: ready for use
By day five or six most starters will be bubbling nicely and have enlarged considerably. When you stir it you should find the dough feels looser than it did before. At this stage the starter is ready and can be used in bread recipes.
If you don’t plan on using your starter right away then put the tub's lid on and store your starter in the fridge until it is needed, feeding it once a week to keep it going.
If, on the other hand, your sourdough is still not doing anything then you will need to continue the daily feed until it starts to bubble. This could well be the case in a cooler kitchen, or if you are making your sourdough starter in winter.
Using your starter
Use your starter as per the recipe instructions and just replace what you take with an equivalent quantity of water and flour. You can vary the mixture by introducing different flours, if you like, or alter the ratio of flour to water – a looser starter will ferment more quickly than a stiff one.
Sourdough loaf with walnuts, prunes and honey
Goat's cheese and honey sourdough maslin
Storing your sourdough starter
Once you have a bubbly starter you need to store it for future use.
If you bake bread daily you can keep your sourdough starter to hand out on the kitchen counter, but otherwise you can leave it in the fridge until you need it. This will slow the mixture down so it won't need as much feeding.
You should aim to feed your sourdough starter once a week, but don't worry too much if you forget. After a few weeks or months without feeding the yeast and bacteria populations will decline and the starter will go dormant. If it does go dormant don’t panic, the starter can be revived by adding more water and flour (30g of each) and leaving it to stand at room temperature for a day or so, until it starts to bubble.
If you're prone to forgetting to feed your starter it might help to give it a name - it might sound strange but lots of sourdough bakers do this to help them remember.
The dough is not rising or bubbling
If the dough is not rising or bubbling all you can do is keep feeding your sourdough starter. Sometimes it can take a bit longer than six days, especially in colder kitchens.
The mixture separates
If the flour and water separate you could end up with a layer of brown liquid. Don’t worry, this is normal – you can stir it back in or pour it away. The brown liquid will actually be a bit alcoholic so it is better to drain it off as it can slow down the starter.
Learn more about sourdough
Every September the Real Bread Campaign goes on a mission to help people discover sourdough. Throughout the month, bakers across the country will be organising events and activities to share their skills, run tastings and raise awareness of this ancient method for making bread. Find out more here www.realbreadcampaign.org