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A sequel of sorts to my slightly long-winded look at the science of sourdough, boiling it all down to a few practical pointers for creating, maintaining and baking with your sourdough starter at home. Does the Internet really need another one of these? Possibly not. Also, the idea was to keep this short and sweet. Oops…

PART ONE: Create your starter

  1. Mix together flour and water. Any flour is suitable, but the higher the ash content the better, so you’re best off with rye, followed by wholewheat, and then whites such as strong bread flours. Place in a covered container – you want it to breathe, but don’t want flies and the like getting in. A ‘Le Parfait’ jar is perfect.
  2. Find somewhere warm – you want an ambient temperature of 25-30 degrees centigrade. This may be in a low oven (or with only the pilot light on), in an airing cupboard, or – if you’re a real fancypants –   in (or on the lid of) a temperature controlled water bath.
  3. Leave it for a couple of days in your chosen warm environment, giving it a stir occasionally to aerate. It should start to bubble slightly. It’s alive!
  4. Feed the starter every day – add equal quantities of flour and water (around 50g each should be fine) per day. Again rye or wholewheat are best. Aerate each time. If possible, split the feed into 2 or 3 feeds per day. Once per day, discard most of the mix before you replenish it. This gets rid of the exhausted flour and encourages quicker yeast growth.
  5. After around 7 days you should have a fairly sweet and mildly sour smelling, nicely bubbling starter. There is, however, always an element of unpredictability when creating a sourdough starter. If it hasn’t worked (see PART TWO first), then throw it away, sterilise your storage jar and try again.

NOTE: Creating your very own starter can be fun, but for guaranteed results and a better chance of longer term starter stability you’re better off nabbing a healthy bit of sourdough from elsewhere – a baker, a friend or the Internet. All it takes is a spoonful or even a piece of starter that’s been frozen or dried out, added at step one above to get things going in the right direction.

PART TWO: Dealing with a faulty sourdough starter

  1. So your sourdough has gone belly up or your attempt at creating a starter from scratch doesn’t seem to have worked? Don’t throw it away just yet. First, sniff it and look at its colour. If it smells awful or there’s yellow, green, or obvious signs of mould then chuck it, otherwise…
  2.  If it looks muddy then that just means it’s separated and that it probably needs a good feed. Check your storage temperature (lower is better for yeast), make sure you feed the little guy three times a day for a while, and try adjusting the flour to water ratio to form a wetter starter for a while.
  3. If your starter smells too vinegary, then either make it wetter, try raising the storage temp (but not beyond 35 degrees C) or do both. Feed and see how it is after another 3 or 4 days.
  4. If your starter smells like nail varnish remover, then lower the storage temperature and, again, feed for a few days more.
  5. Your starter is yeasty but doesn’t seem particularly sour? Time to raise the storage temp a little. Also consider making the starter a little more fluid for a few days.

PART THREE: Long-term sourdough care

  1. If you’re going to make bread every 4-7 days then keep your sourdough in that warm storage spot. Try to feed it three times a day for 2-3 days before each use, otherwise once a day should keep it happy. Remember to check the smell and adjust the heat and fluidity as required (see PART TWO).
  2. If you don’t need the starter for a while then you can put it in the fridge. Yeast and lactic acid bacteria activity will slow right down and eventually halt. When you need to use it again, bring it back out a few days in advance, and either stir all the gunk back together or discard the dirty liquid at the top. Go back into intense 3 times a day feeding mode just to get it nice and bubbly/sour again.
  3. For ultra long storage you can try freezing or dehydrating your starter. All you need is a couple of spoonfuls. To dehydrate it, simply spread it thin onto a plate and place in the fridge for a few days until dry. To bring it back to life go back to step 1 in PART ONE, and add it as you would a sample of somebody else’s starter.

NOTE: It’s worth freezing or dehydrating a portion of a healthy sourdough, just to give yourself a backup plan in case your lovely starter take  a turn for the worse somewhere down the line.

PART FOUR: Using your soudough

  1. If you’ve been changing the fluidity of your starter to tweak its properties then you want to adjust the mix just before usage to get a 1:1 ratio. This will then work with any sourdough recipe you choose, or at least make it easier to calculate the correct amount.
  2. Been feeding your starter rye or wholewheat but want to create a pristine white sourdough loaf or baguette? Just make sure you switch to white flour for the last three days before usage, remembering to discard most of the old mix each time.
  3. Don’t forget that sourdough takes much longer to rise. Adjust the first and final rise times accordingly if adapting a recipe with baker’s yeast, and also remember that you’ll need to cook at higher temperatures to get the same level of browned crust.
  4. Remember the bit about throwing away most of your starter every day? You don’t have to chuck it in the bin. It can be added to a basic bread recipe alongside a (reduced amount of) baker’s yeast to make a sort of hybrid loaf. Even better it can be use as the basis for a superb batter for fish and pretty much anything else you want to deep fry.
  5. You can check to make sure your starter is healthy enough to bake with by mixing a tablespoon with 100g of flour, 70g of water and 2g of salt, and checking to make sure it rises by 50% after around five hours.
  6. The ideal ratio of sourdough starter to fresh ingredients is 20 percent. Most recipes stick roughly around this area. Here’s an example recipe…

BASIC SOURDOUGH BREAD (technique shamelessly adapted from Dan Lepard)

Ingredients: 200g of sourdough, 500g of flour, 320-340g of water, 10g of salt.

Roughly mix together by hand or with a mixer. Leave for a few minutes and then form into a ball on a floured or oiled surface Push the dough, fold it back over, turn again and repeat a few more times. Leave it for 10 minutes more and then do it all again. Do this 3-5 times in total and leave until expanded by 50% from original size. Shape your loaf (watch this youtube video for some techniques), leave until risen by 50% again. Place in an oven pre-heated to 220-240 degrees centigrade for at least an hour, placing a pan with freshly boiled water underneath in the oven. If possible don’t use fan-assisted heating, at least not for the first 10-15 minutes. Turn down the heat to 200-200 degrees at this point. Cook for a further 20 to 35 minutes, depending on whims of your oven and final desired crust, consistency and moistness.

AND FINALLY: Go buy yourself some good bread books. Dan Lepard’s The Handmade Loaf or Short & Sweet (bread and much, much more), Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, plus Dough and Crust by Richard Bertinet are all worth your time and money.

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Scribbling, ponderings, and maybe a little food porn…

by Mark Ramshaw

owner at feast for the senses
food design, private catering, consultancy

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