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Simple sourdough starter

Sick of seeing a dozen or more things on the ingredients list of an industrial loaf?

Well, here are the first step to making a loaf with just three!

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A bit about sourdough

True sourdough breads are made using a starter that contains a culture of naturally occurring yeasts and lactobacilli or lactic acid bacteria.  The yeasts produce carbon dioxide (CO2) that makes the bread rise and the bacteria produce lactic and acetic acids that affect characteristics including taste, texture and sourness of the finished bread.  In the right quantity, the acids also act as a preservative, slowing the onset of mould – a much more natural method than the spraying of calcium propionate that many modern factory loaves get.

Yeast

From a hundred or more species of yeasts, Saccharomyces cerevisiae (brewer’s sugar fungus) is the one usually predominant in sourdough cultures, the same species that’s sold as fresh, dried or instant bakers’ yeast. The main difference is that these industrialised versions are specific strains that have been bred (or even spliced together using GM technology) for characteristics such as speed and/or volume of CO2 production.   These are then grown as monocultures, often on molasses.

Added extras

Various instructions or recipes for making sourdough starters, leavens or whatever name you choose, call for ingredients such as yoghurt, grape skins or other fruits. Whilst there is a good reason behind some of these (live yoghurt contains lactic acid bacteria and yeasts adhere to grape skins) they are not necessary as colonies of both live on the skins of grains.  The argument that those best suited to feeding off cereals (and producing CO2 and acid as by products) are the ones found living on them is a very persuasive one.

 

Recipe/method

The following is both simple and effective.  Rye grains apparently host very large microbe populations and certainly, testing this recipe has produced a very active starter that’s made a mess of my kitchen worktop more than once.  As the yeasts live on the outside of the grain, your chances improve when using wholemeal flour, preferably from organic farms where they will have used less or no fungicide.

A plastic container with a lid is convenient for storage and if your starter gets frisky, the lid will simply pop off, where a glass jar with a screwtop or metal clip seal could crack or shatter.

Day one

30g rye flour
30g water (at about 20°c)

Mix together and leave at room temperature (again about 20°C) for 24 hours.

Day two

Mix in another 30g of flour and 30g of water and leave for another 24 hours.

Days three, four, five and six

As day two.

Once it's bubbling up nicely, you can use some of the starter straight away to bake a loaf of Real Bread, or keep in the fridge until needed.

Notes

  • For the first few days, the mixture might seem lifeless and could smell a bit iffy.  Don’t worry about this as by the end of the first week - perhaps even by day four or five - it should start bubbling and the smell will develop into something yeasty, slightly acidic and maybe even floral. If your starter is a bit lethargic (it will take longer in a cooler room and some flour will have lower amounts of, repeat the refreshment for another day or two until it comes to life. 
  • Don't worry if the flour settles out and you you end up with a layer of brownish liquid. This is just gravity working its magic and is normal. Either stir it back into your starter or pour it off. If your starter hasn't been used for a while, the second option is probably better as the liquid (sometimes known as hooch) will have started to become alcoholic, which can slow the starter down and also may lead to less desirable flavours in your bread.

Caring for your starter

  • Give it a name. You can’t call yourself a proper sourdough nut if you don’t.
  • Get to know it. Starters all have varying acidity, tastes, aromas and speeds at which they ferment.
  • Unless you are using it every single day, keep it in the fridge, which will slow it down and reduce the frequency at which you need to feed it.
  • Each time you use some of the starter, simply replace with an equivalent quantity of flour and water
  • When refreshing, feel free to experiment with different ratios and total amounts of flour to water in your refreshments: a looser starter will ferment more quickly than a stiff one; refreshing more often or adding a large refreshment will dilute the taste and acidity
  • Though you can use the rye starter for wheat breads, if you prefer 100% wheat, you can convert it by replacing the rye in refreshments with wheat flour (white or wholemeal) until it is all wheat.  Either that, or get a separate wheat starter going
  • Forget it. Unlike other members of your household, your starter will be very forgiving of neglect.  Though it will be happy to help you bake bread once a week or even daily, your starter can be left untouched at the back for the fridge for weeks or even months.  The yeast and bacteria populations will decline over time but enough will live on in a dormant state.  To revive, simply add flour and water and leave for up to 24 hours or until it’s bubbling again

For more on sourdough, click here.

© 2009 The Real Bread Campaign