Sourdough – Make you own Starter

If you want to make your own Sourdough bread, you’re going to need a Sourdough Starter (a.k.a. Levain, Leaven, Culture, …).

The quickest way would be to tap up a friend or acquaintance for a sample of their starter and start to feed that up to make a batch of your own.  However, as the bacteria & natural yeasts that develop in the starter are developed from the ambient conditions surrounding the starter itself,  so using a sample of Great Aunty Ada’s 300 year old culture which has been making generations of prize winning Sourdough bread may sound appealing, as soon as it moves to a new location and starts to be fed, new strains of bacteria will develop, eventually replacing all of those from the original sample so it doesn’t guarantee you perfect results by any means.

It isn’t difficult to make your very own personal culture – it just takes a little time (about a week), but will give you a source of Sourdough culture which you could literally use forever…

If you search the internet, at first you may be a little confused/disappointed.  There are plenty of recipes on how to make your Sourdough breads once you have a starter, but fewer which actually start at the very beginning.  Then when you finally find those starter instructions, you may be surprised to find so many different variants.  The good thing to take from this is that a) there doesn’t seem to be a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way, and b) they’ve been making this for thousands of years, even you could research your recipes on the web, so the chances of failing seem quite slim.

Famous last words, as this is my first attempt and I’m sharing my experiences as I go…

Basic requirements include:

  • Bread Flour
  • Water
  • A Mixing Bowl
  • A container – c1-1.5 ltr capacity

In addition to this, some recipes call for something to encourage the initial yeast production – this can be grapes or raisins, but in the case of the recipe below, I’m using a small apple.  One thing that you MUST NOT USE is shop-bought yeast.  This will only encourage the production of more manufactured yeast – definitely not what you’re trying to achieve

Day 1

  • Into a mixing bowl add 500g strong white flour and grate in 1 washed apple, skin and all (excluding the core/pips) and mix well
  • Stir in approx 450ml water to make a thick batter-like consistency
  • Pour into a large clean container (a glass jar is best, as you can see the mixture develop) and seal
  • Leave to stand in the kitchen for around 3 days…

Day 2

Bubbles starting to appear…

Day 3

Growing!  A little liquid settled on the surface overnight, but gone by evening

Day 4

Bubbling away nicely, using up all of that energy. Time to feed the starter.

  • Pop the lid (literally, given all of the gas inside) and take a first sniff of the starter.  I was a little apprehensive – these can smell absolutely disgusting or really quite pleasant.  Mine smelt of a mild cider vinegar, definitely an acidic smell so quite pleased.
  • Swish around a little in the jar and tip about half into a clean mixing bowl, discard the rest and rinse the jar
  • Add 250g strong white flour and 175ml cold water into the mixing bowl with the starter.  Stir well
  • Return the mix to the jar and seal again

Day 5

Token growth after yesterdays feed, but not too much to show today…

Day 6

Oh!!!  Look at the big buildup in liquor on surface of the starter!  What’s more, you can see the level of starter has fallen.  Similar to Day 4, but much more.  This is alcohol (known as ‘hooch’) created by the breakdown of the flour and yeast by the bacteria, and can be a sign that the starter just doesn’t have enough food.  The mixture seemed a little wet, so I just stirred in another 100g of flour, no water, to kickstart the activity.  As for what to do with the hooch, opinion is divided.  Some pour it off, as it’s a waste product, others stir it in, as it’s part of the ‘process’, adding flavour and necessary hydration.  I stirred mine in…

Day 7

It’s here that things go a bit panicky in my mind.  And I don’t update the ‘days’ on the photos at the right times – sorry, just the way I am.  Yes, there’s been some recovery since yesterday – no more hooch in sight and an amount of growth.  But I was expecting so much more.  Why isn’t my starter 3/4 of the way up the jar?  The ambient temperature has dropped quite sharply over the last couple of weeks – is it just slow, or too cold to make any vigorous growth?  Am I still not feeding it enough?  Time for an experiment…

If we had a little more growth, I’d have planned to use this starter now.  As it stands I must give it another feed.

As with Day 4, I need to split the starter (but this time I don’t throw away the excess this time…)

  • Pop the lid and take another sniff.  The acidity was still there, but the smell was actually sweeter this time.  Stuff is still going on, and I’m feeling that we’re definitely progressing in the right direction.
  • This time I ‘fed’ the other way around – it was much less messy.  Add 250g strong white flour and 250ml cold water into the mixing bowl and stir well
  • Pour in half of the starter and mix again
  • Rinse out out the jar and return the starter before sealing

But instead of throwing the remaining half of the starter away, I decided to create ‘Flora’, a sample I’ll use to test whether my ambient temperature is just too low for really vigourous starter growth in such a short space of time.

  • Find another clean jar
  • Feed the spare starter with 100g Flour and 100ml water before adding to the new jar
  • Seal and move to a warmer location – I’m trying my airing cupboard which is consistently warmer than the kitchen, but not hot.
  • As I’m also paranoid, I stood the jar in a baking tin just in case everything exploded in the middle of the night

Day 8

So this is quite encouraging – the original batch has healthy bubbles running through the mixture.  It’s clearly quite healthy if not as vigorous as I had expected.

But what of Flora?

Interesting – a little warmth has set her off.  She’s gone mad with big bubbly growth, but if you look carefully, the activity is only within the top 1cm or so of the batter.  There is a definite layer below which has no obvious bubbles of any size.

The conclusion I’m drawing from this is that my starter is probably active enough to use, an once we get to the rising and proving stage, we’ll get the growth we need, especially if we increase the ambient temperature a little

So, I decide to take my first sample of starter from the main ‘mother’ starter to make my first sourdough loaf…

Meanwhile, later that day, it’s clear that Flora’s overnight activity has rendered her completely exhausted (oh, those where the days…).  By the afternoon on day 8, she’s completely collapsed.  She’s much darker than the main starter with a sweeter, less acidic smell.  I’ve also used a good proportion of the main starter for my first loaf so on the off-chance that the starter is still not active enough, I’m giving both batches a feed.  Same routine as before:-

  • Put equal amounts of flour (250g) and water (250ml) in a bowl and mix well
  • Stir in an equivalent amount of the starter (about 250g) and discard the surplus
  • Rinse out the jar and return the newly fed mixtures.  Seal the jars and mark on the new ‘heights’ of the starter for reference

A couple of points to note – I’m completely out of strong white bread flour now, so the Flora feed was based on on 180g.  Both batches were left out in the kitchen this time, and within 2-3 hours, They were both bubbling away more vigorously than we’ve seen so far

Day 9

Quite amazing – for the first time at room temperature, both batches have bubbled up to the top of the jars overnight and collapsed.  Small bubbles exist throughout the structure of the starter.  I think we’ve now got an active starter we can use for our Sourdough bread in the future 🙂

They say that having an active starter is a bit like having a pet, but one that can get away with a little abuse without the risk of of you getting arrested.

Experiments aside, I have no use for Flora, so like the old dead goldfish, she will be quietly flushed away.  For the time being, I’ll keep the main starter fed every 2-3 days whilst I try a few more sourdough recipes.  Once/If I no longer have a need for regular sourdough baking, a sample of the starter will live in the fridge, fed weekly and brought out in advance of the next sourdough bake…

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  1. Pingback: James's Recipes

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