As a person who loves to cook and bake, I’ve been pretty bowled over by the ingredients suddenly available to me over here. The spices alone are enough to send me into overdrive (oh, piri piri, where have you been all my life?) but the flours! Oh, the flours! There’s a flour for everything, and some pretty cool specialty ones as well. While perusing the shelves at my local Waitrose, I came across Bacheldre Watermill’s organic line and thought, “I’ll bet these would make great sourdough starters.”
I’ve done sourdough starters in the past, but they’ve always been “cheater starters” that used commercial yeast to get the ball rolling. This time, I was determined to do it the old-fashioned way, just using the wild yeast already in the flour. Armed with a sack of stoneground strong malted blend, I settled down to find a recipe I could work with.
What I found was a whole lot of complicated. People out there are passionate about their sourdough, which is great and all, but I think they’re making things a lot harder than they need to be, especially for us newbies. They’re a bit too deep into the chemistry, and some of these recipes get out of hand. I found one that called for at least half a dozen ingredients. Others told me to add organic grapes to get the yeast going. Yet another called for ten pounds of flour mixed up in a barrel. Who the hell is making that much sourdough starter in their home? This was insane.
You know what you need for sourdough starter? Water and flour. That’s it. You don’t need special filtered water, tap will do just fine. You may want to go for an organic flour, though. I’ve heard the wild yeasts are a bit more active in it because it hasn’t been processed as much or sprayed with chemicals. It’s what I used, and it worked beautifully. You don’t need to stick fruit in there–in fact, I’d strongly advise against that, because that sounds like a great way to introduce mold to your starter. You don’t need pineapple juice or three different kinds of flour. White, whole wheat, or rye will work just fine, it all depends on your taste.
Let’s get started, shall we?
Day 1: In a large jar or plastic container (anything not metal), mix 3 1/2 Tablespoons of flour with 1/4 cup warm (not hot) water. Cover loosely so the gases can escape and set aside in a warm spot for the next 48 hours, stirring 2-3 times per day. You may start to see bubbles on the top during this period. If you do, great, you’re off to a good start! If not, don’t panic, it doesn’t mean your starter didn’t take. Some just take a little while to get going.
Day 3: After 48 hours has passed, feed the starter with another 2 T flour and 2T water. Once again, leave for 48 hours, stirring 2-3 times per day.
Day 5: Time to start really building this puppy up. Feed with 5 1/4T flour and 3T water. Leave for 24 hours, stirring 2-3 times. At this point, you should be seeing some bubbles in the top.
Day 6: Add about 1/2 cup flour and just under 1/4 cup water. You should now have your starter going. If this hasn’t bubbled at all and doesn’t bubble even a little after the last feeding, start over. Don’t be discouraged–this can be a slightly delicate process, and sometimes starters just don’t take. It’s probably not something you did. Try, try again.
What I saw: my starter bubbled up on the first day, which was gratifying. After the first few days, it settled down a lot and I just got a couple of bubbles on the top and could see a few on the sides of the jar. That’s normal, and my bread still rose just fine. Just because it’s not bubbling wildly doesn’t mean it’s dead. Starters, once they’ve gotten off the ground, are fairly difficult to really kill. Even if you leave it at the back of the fridge for weeks without feeding it, you can probably still resurrect it with a good feed or two.
You’ll start to notice your sourdough taking on some interesting smells as it develops. Mine started smelling strongly of vinegar–don’t worry about that, it’s completely normal. If the smell’s too strong for your taste, remove half the starter and feed as directed below.
Care and feeding: Like pets, sourdough starters need to be fed. The experts say that starters kept out on the kitchen counter should be fed everyday, though I have to admit, I didn’t do this with mine and it seemed just fine. So don’t panic if you forget about it for a few days. Unless you’re baking sourdough every day, you’ll probably want to put your starter in the fridge once it’s gotten off the ground. Refrigerated starters only need to be fed once a week or so, and since I tend to bake once a week, I just feed it when I’m baking. Saves on waste that way too, since I don’t discard what I remove from the starter to feed it.
To feed your starter: Remove about half of it. Either use that half in a recipe or discard it. Feed the remaining starter with equal weights water and flour, stir, let it sit at room temperature for a few hours, and once it’s bubbling a bit, loosely cover it and return it to the fridge.
Word of Warning: If you ever see mold inside the container your starter is in, throw it all away. The same goes for any liquid that has a reddish or pinkish colour to it. If, however, your starter gets a dark-colored liquid on top, don’t worry. That’s hooch. Just pour it out.