Starting, and Maintaining, a Sourdough Starter

Starting, and maintaining a sourdough starter is perhaps the most difficult part of making sourdough. I have had two so far. The first one I started from scratch, but unfortunately died from lack of use. The second I bought a little bit of dried sourdough starter from the Companion Bakery in Tasmania to speed up the process. Alternatively, if you know me in person feel free to ask for some of mine I am happy to share! This second starter I put together in January 2013 and is still going strong, even though I only make one loaf a week.

Ingredients

+ Combination of strong white and wholemeal bread flour (70/30 ratio)
+ water

  • For the first stage: A cupful flour (about 150 g), and a cupful of warm water (about 250 ml)
  • For the first feeding: A cupful flour (about 150 g), and a about 250 ml warm water
  • When established: we keep around 20g of the existing starter, add 40 g flour and 20 ml of cold water. A ratio of 1:2:1.

Method

TO MAKE A STARTER: You will need a really large plastic or earthenware container with a lid to make your starter in. It needs to be big enough to allow plenty of room for frothing – at least 3-4 times that of your initial batter. You can use any sort of flour you like; however I recommend using a combination of white wheat and wholemeal bread flours. The wholemeal in it means your starter will be ready to use sooner.

Mix 150 g flour and and 250 ml water to make a thick batter and whisk it well the more air you incorporate the more yeast spores there will be. If you have a food mixer, place your mixture in the machine for ten minutes at a medium-high speed. Put the batter into your storage container, put the lid on and leave it somewhere fairly warm a warm kitchen is fine, or inside a pantry. At some point, your starter will begin to ferment. This depends on many factors, such as the flour used, how much you whisked it, which yeasts and bacteria happen to be around, and how warm it is.

Check your sourdough every 12 hours or so. When you see the first signs of fermentation, give your starter its first ‘feeding’ by whisking in another 150 g of flour and another 250 ml of warm water. Replace the lid and leave on the bench.

Continue to feed your starter every 24 hours until it is quite active. This will take around 4-7 days. Once active, I should warn you about the smell. Our starter has  been described as sickly sweet or sickly sour, smelling of vinegar or rotten apples, off brandy or off milk. Keep smelling it over the week, and you will notice that the smell will mature and become less harsh and more like that of a sourdough you would buy at a bakery.

You are now ready to make your first loaf of bread!

TO KEEP YOUR STARTER ALIVE: Once you have made your first loaf, you need to decide how often you want fresh bread. If you are planning on baking daily (as a bakery does) then you can continue to feed your starter daily. If, however, you plan on baking only once a week like us, then you need to slow the fermentation process so you are not literally pouring flour and water in the bin. This can be done by reducing the quantity of starter and placing it in the fridge to make it colder.

Every time we feed our starter we reserve 20 g of starter (using the rest to make a loaf), and add 40 g of flour and 20 ml of cold water – mixing to combine. It is a ratio of 1:2:1. We know eyeball it, but the ratio is useful until you get a feel for texture.

We bring our starter out of the fridge, and feed it, before leaving it on the kitchen bench for at least 4 hours, or overnight, prior to making a loaf. Make up your sponge (see here for more), which will use most of your starter and feed your starter before returning it to the fridge (so it has something to consume until next week).

Just be sure if you go away for a longer period of time, to feed your starter a larger quantity of flour to sustain him for longer without your nurturing. If we go away, I will always feed our starter even if I am not baking with him. 

If when you return from holiday (or you simply have neglected your starter and accidental missed feeding him) and fear you\ might have killed your starter (ie/ it is smelling rather gross and looks very watery and thin) you can probably resurrect it by keeping it out of the fridge and feeding for 3 days in a row.

If you are brave enough to try to make your own starter and have problems feel free to comment below if you have any difficulties and I will attempt to help you out!

Original recipe sourced from Bread – River Cottage Handbook No. 3.

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