It is hard to imagine that over 365 days have passed since the UK entered lock down 1.0 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and I, like thousands of others used this opportunity to try and master sourdough bread. Quickly jumping back to basics, sourdough is a naturally and traditional leavened bread which used a starter made of fermented flour and water instead of commercial yeast – to rise. When I started my sourdough journey – I kept thinking… this method must be a cinch as it has been going on for thousands of years, and early man could master this without the internet, cooking books, thermometers, scales, timers etc…but I struggled. I almost threw in the towel completely at the starter stage after several failed attempts. Thankfully I persisted. For the sake of making this process easier to digest, the post will focus exclusively on growing, and maintaining the starter. Without getting this right there is no sourdough bread. It is definitely worth the wait. Once you have successfully cultivated your very own wild yeast, why not check out my slow-ferment Sourdough loaf recipe?
I will be the first to admit that having seen a number of YouTube videos, read countless blog articles, and even bought a couple of books on the subject… my first attempts at making a starter were a total failure. Maybe I was simply overconfident, as I had a pretty reasonable track record with baking more conventional yeast-based breads. Perhaps my expectation was unrealistic (not helped by so many resources suggesting that this was easy) – but for a recipe made of two principal ingredients – water and flour.. what could go wrong? By no means am I trying to discourage you – far from it – I just want to be realistic. I am neither a scientist, nor a Zymologist (and how I wish I was!) but an amateur baker who wanted to make sourdough bread from scratch. And repeat.
To everyone who has had great success from the start… I envy you – and for everyone else, myself very much included – there are three key ingredients money cannot buy… perseverance, patience, and love. The typical physical ingredients which should be readily available are… good quality unbleached bread flour, filtered water and the key component here – temperature. You shouldn’t have to spend a fortune on kit and caboodle either – accurate digital weighing scales, a couple of good quality preserving jars (I use Weck) and a thermometer will get you sorted.
The Sourdough Starter (Wild Yeast!)
Like it or not – there is no sourdough bread without the starter. You may be lucky enough to have a friend willing to share theirs with you, or source from an artisan baker / buy online…. the reality is that growing your starter, then maintaining it is probably one of the most stressful parts of getting into Sourdough baking. And believe me, I never though that a concoction made of just four and water could cause me such angst. Before delving into my dark and sad tale of starter-icide (somehow I kept killing it!), once I achieved success, the same starter has been loved and maintained for 12 months.
So, how did I fail, and what did I learn? As mentioned earlier, my expectation was set as one of ease by a number of resources online. The one thing I couldn’t control.. or understand the significance at the time… was consistent temperature. The ambient temperature of my property is very hard to regulate. With thick stone walls (property is over 300 years old), and with 3 metre high ceilings and in Yorkshire… all these affect the temperature. Nearly every recipe I have found refer to ‘room temperature’, but this is also ambiguous. Depending on the time of year, indoor temperature at home can fluctuate from 8 degrees Celsius to 28 + degrees Celsius. It all makes a significant difference.
It is also tradition that a starter should be named – after all the plan is that it will continue to live with you for life. I originally chose ‘Mayanne‘ after my Malaysian sister-in-law… all I can say was attempt 1 was a disaster. I had created a jar of gunk with a vile sour stench…. and after 2-3 days the rancid concoction ended up in starter heaven. Assuming the problem was the flour, or the water… I went all out with some fancy organic flour, bathed in imported mineral water… and Mayanne 2.0 was born. It was looking more promising, I followed the same feeding schedule… but after 4 days I had created ‘hooch’ and in spite of all attempts of starter CPR, Mayanne 2.0 was no more. How could I keep screwing this up? My search continued, until I landed on ‘the pineapple juice solution‘ by Debra Wink, a Microbiologist. Rather sceptical at first, I started to read up about the science. By making a starter we are growing ‘wild yeast’, and adding pineapple juice at the early stages reduced the pH thus creating an optimal environment for the yeast to thrive. As I couldn’t face killing off then namesake of my sister-in-law for a third time, I went with the very unoriginally named ‘Alpha 1.0‘ which, to this day, lives on.
You could be much luckier than me and succeed the first time using a more conventional method, and if so, I salute you. If you want to go old school, I highly recommend The Clever Carrot’s Beginner Sourdough Starter Recipe. To try and minimize the trial and error, I urge you to invest in a litre of pineapple juice and follow Debra Wink’s approach.
Sourdough Starter – The Pineapple Juice Method
- Glass preserving jar with lid (I use Weck 580ml)
- Digital measurement scales
- Unsweetened pineapple juice
- Filtered water
- Dark Rye Flour
- Unbleached strong white bread flour
- Day 1: In a small container, combine 2 tbsp (20g) rye flour with 2 tbsp pineapple juice (30g) and mix thoroughly (I use a metal chopstick). Stir 2-3 times per day to incorporate air into the mixture. Cover loosely with a paper towel to allow the mixture to breathe, but prevent any unwanted visitors. Leave for 24 hours at room temperature.
- Day 2: Add 2 tbsp (20g) rye flour with 2 tbsp pineapple juice (30g) to the existing mixture, and mix thoroughly. Continue to aerate 2-3 times per day, and keep the paper cover. Leave for 24 hours at room temperature.
- Day 3: Add 2 tbsp (20g) rye flour with 2 tbsp pineapple juice (30g) to the existing mixture, and mix thoroughly. Continue to aerate 2-3 times per day, and keep the paper cover. Leave for 24 hours at room temperature. You might start to see some activity now in the form of small bubbles.
- Day 4: Mix thoroughly and discard all but 50 grams of the original stater. Transfer to a preserving jar (such as Weck). This time, add 50 grams of unbleached bread flour and 50g warm filtered water (35-40 degrees Celsius). Stir thoroughly with a fork, cover loosely, and leave for 24 hours at room temperature. You should start to see an increase in activity as the starter grows in size.
- Day 5: Discard all but 50g of the starter, and add 50 grams of unbleached bread flour and 50g warm filtered water. Stir thoroughly with a fork, cover loosely, and leave for 24 hours at room temperature. The starter should become even more active.
- Day 6: Discard all but 50g of the starter, and add 50 grams of unbleached bread flour and 50g warm filtered water. Stir thoroughly with a fork, cover loosely, and leave for 24 hours at room temperature. The starter should become even more active.
- Day 7: By now, the starter should have doubled in size and be active. Congratulations, your Wild Yeast should be ready to go, and you can start to bake your first sourdough loaf. If you have not yet followed tradition and named your starter, it is not too late!
- Now: As you have successfully created your very own Sourdough starter, it is time to bake your very own slow-ferment Sourdough bread loaf.
- Please note: the switch to unbleached bread flour on day 4. You may also see a thin skin develop on top of the rye flour/ pineapple juice mixture. This can be easily peeled off and discarded.
- If you are not seeing that your starter double in growth within 6-7 days, do not despair. Everyone’s environmental conditions are different. Nearly every recommendation I have read refers to ‘room temperature’ but there are many variables.
- Some people have great success in their kitchen – mine is simply not warm enough throughout the day and I initially resorted to my boiler room. Depending on the time of year, this is usually around 20-22 degrees Celsius – a bit warmer would be preferable.
Maintaining a Starter
Congratulations (I hope)!. Your starter baby is alive and kicking. Whatever name you chose for it… remember, if maintained properly- this can be with you for life. As it ages (mine just celebrated its one-year birthday), the starter will mature, take on a slightly different characteristic and flavour. Every baker has a different schedule, and I would recommend planning the feeding around your baking schedule. Will you be baking one loaf a week? Will it be two?
I will share my routine with you, and it has not failed me yet (in other words, I have never killed the starter, nor run out) at a very inconvenient moment ;o). You also need to determine how much starter your loaf requires (I always use 50g from which to make the Leaven). Daily bakers may keep their starter at room temperature and feed daily.. mine lives in the fridge and comes out and gets fed every Saturday morning.
- Remove starter from fridge, take off lid, and leave it for an hour at room temperature.
- Using electronic weighing scales, take an empty matching glass jar, and zero the scale.
- Mix the starter thoroughly, put on scales, and discard all but 50g starter.
- Add 20g rye flour and 30 gram unbleached bread flour.
- Measure 50g warm (ideally around 35-40 degrees Celsius) filtered water. I use a Brita, then boil to 50C then allow to cool slightly.
- Pour the water into the jar, and mix thoroughly using a metal fork.
- Leave for a couple of hours with the jar loosely covered with the lid, then seal and cover until you bake again.