Making and looking after a sourdough starter

Making sourdough bread can be incredibly rewarding and the bread can be incredibly delicious. When a loaf goes right you will always want just one more piece of bread for your dinner or one more piece of toast for your breakfast and you will have to force yourself to walk a suitable distance away from the bread board.

Sourdough can also be frustrating. Although, do not let that statement put you off. Part of the pleasure of sourdough is that it presents a challenge. Relax about it, don’t worry if the loaf you have made isn’t perfect, next time it will be better and the next time after that.

There are a number of factors that affect the fermentation of the dough, including the weather – it will react differently on a warm day to a cold day. The biggest factor though will always be the health of your starter and if you can get that right then your loaf will always be good and sometimes it will be great. Again, my advice is to relax about it. It really is very easy, if you have been given a starter then you can keep it in the fridge form the get-go. If you are starting from scratch then it will need your attention for a few minutes twice a day for the first five to ten days, after that it too can live quite happily in the fridge only needing your attention the day before you want to bake.

Three sourdough starters
Three vigorous starters. White at the bottom, wholemeal in the middle and rye at the top.

Starting a sourdough starter:
TIPS:
Use organic flour to get your starter off to the best start. Organic flour will have more yeasts and good bacteria in it than a flour that has been treated with pesticides and fungicides.
Tap water is fine to use, unless you live in an area that has highly chlorinated water. In the UK, our tap water is acceptable to use. If you really want to, you can use spring water, but I have always used tap water.
The yeasts work best when oxygen is freely available to them so stir your starter regularly to give the yeasts an oxygen boost.
You can choose which flour you use in your starter but I would recommend that you start with wholemeal rye flour as this will be the most vigorous. In the photo above I have three different starters, this is only for the purposes of my sourdough courses. You only need to maintain one and you can change it from one flour to another by giving it a refresh. If you wanted to change a rye starter to a white starter then take 1 tablespoon of rye starter and add 100g white flour and 100g water and stir briskly and leave to rise for 6-8 hours. You can then use it or repeat to build up a stronger white starter.
Day 1
In a small pot mix together 25g organic flour (your choice of white, wholemeal or rye) and 25g water. Give it a brisk stir. Cover lightly and keep in a warm place. Not too warm, anything over 55℃ will kill the yeasts, so don’t keep it on the back of a warm oven. Leave it for at least 8 hours or for 24-48 hours, stirring every so often. It may develop a few bubbles, this is unlikely to be the yeasts yet, so don’t worry if these bubbles disappear the next day.

Day 2
Add 25g flour and 25g water and give a brisk stir. Cover lightly and leave again for at least 8 hours and for as long as 48 hours. Stir it a couple of times during this period.

Day 3
Add 25g flour and 25g water and stir. By the end of the day you should have some bubbles appearing. Don’t worry if you haven’t keep persevering. Your starter won’t be ready for use yet and will have an unpleasant smell. 

Day 4 
If your starter is now becoming too large you can discard half of it. Add another 25g flour and 25g water. Stir briskly to incorporate air.  

Day 5
Add 25g flour and 25g water. By the end of this day your starter should now be bubbly and vigorous. It should no longer smell unpleasant, but have a hint of sweetness and a smell like apple cider vinegar. If it is like this you can use it to make your first loaf. If it hasn’t developed the fruity smell and still seems a bit lacklustre with few bubbles then keep giving it a daily dose of 25g flour and 25g water and stirring vigorously a couple of times a day. (My first starter wasn’t ready until day nine). It will take longer if your kitchen is cool, for example.

Once it has developed that pleasant fruity apple cider vinegar smell you need to give it a good boost.  It has spent the last five to ten days being weakened by acidity and enzyme activity so now, to get it ready for making a loaf, add at least three times its weight of flour and water at a hydration rate of 67%. So discard all but 50g of the starter and add 150g of flour and 100g of water. Give it a brisk stir. 

Once it has rested at room temperature for at least six hours it will be ready to use.

How to maintain your starter:
Now you have a mother starter. You can now keep this perpetually.
I keep my starter in a plastic jug with a piece of clingfilm draped over the top. The clingfilm keeps any dust out of the starter. Every couple of weeks I decant the starter into a clean jug so that I avoid having crusty bits of starter up the sides as this is where bad bacteria will be given a helping hand to breed. By using a jug I can better see how well it is rising after each feed. Do not keep in an airtight container. It will build up pressure when fermenting and the pressure will have no way of escaping and the container may explode.

Unless you are using your starter three or four times a week to bake then my advice is to keep it in the fridge most of the time. Once you have an established starter it will happily slow its fermentation down in the fridge and then you can give it a boost to wake it back up the day before you want to bake again. This method reduces waste and minimises the amount of time you have to spend to maintain your starter. If you leave your starter at room temperature you will have to feed it daily to keep it healthy and then you will have to discard half each time you feed it. Discarding so much flour can become frustrating and expensive.

Once you have a healthy, active starter and it has got all vigorous and bubbly then pop it in the fridge. Remember to label it or a family member might throw it away mistaking it for something else. This does not lead to happy family relations!

The day before you want to bake your next loaf bring the starter out of the fridge. My starters have sat happily in the fridge for three weeks or more, so don’t worry if you have been away on holiday or not had time to bake, your starter will wait for you. Have a look at the starter. If there is a black mould sitting on top, this is bad news. You will need to throw it away and start again. If there is a liquid hooch sitting on top (a bit grey and smelling very vinegary) that’s fine, strain it off and discard. Most likely, the starter will have grown a crust or skin. Take a clean spoon and lift this off the top and discard. Underneath you will have a soupy mixture which was the same colour that the starter was when you first put it the fridge. Discard all but a couple of tablespoons. Add 100g flour and 100g water and give it a really brisk stir. Leave at room temperature for 6-8 hours and it should have become bubbly and vigorous. If it still seems lethargic, repeat by discarding all but a couple of tablespoons and adding 100g flour and 100g water. It should double in size. It is then ready to use in a recipe and pop the unused portion (always remember to keep back at least 1 tablespoon) back into the fridge for next time.

I hope this helps demystify the process of starting and maintaining a sourdough starter. If you have any questions please feel free to get in touch.

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