So you Want to Try a Sourdough Starter?
What is Sourdough?
If you know anything about breadmaking, you might already be familiar with the term sourdough, but if not, it's simply a way of having ready-to-use baker's yeast available whenever you need it. (Yeast is the leavening agent you need in order to get your dough to rise).
When I was a kid, my mum used to make bread occasionally, but she always used 'proper' yeast - it looked like a sandy-coloured lump of wet clay - and it made great bread. However, fresh yeast is hard to get these days, and most home bakers tend to use the active dry variety.
If you make a lot of bread, or are thinking about making it regularly, having a sourdough starter on hand means you can knock up a loaf anytime you like. Also, making bread this way from scratch, is very satisfying and gives you a real sense of tradition.
Yes, but what exactly is it?
Okay, so what I'm talking about is a sourdough starter that is a ready-to-use yeast made from flour and water, not the Sourdough Saloon in Beatty, Nevada, which I'm told is a great place to hang out. But let's get back to the task in hand.
Yeast is a leavening agent - it's what makes the bread rise. However, rather amazingly, the wild yeast spores and bacteria you need to get your starter going are in the air all around us. All flours naturally have loads of yeasts and bacterial spores in them, so all you are doing is providing an ideal environment for them to flourish.
Don't I need an apple?
There are a huge variety of sourdough starter recipes around that reflect the tastes and palates of the world's bakers, and it's true - many of them use apple or pineapple juice, an actual apple, or even natural yoghurt. However, I think the best way to start is to keep it simple. Once you get the hang of it, then you can start trying different recipes. Also, I think it's useful to try the easiest method first, just in case you find sourdough really isn't for you.
What You Need
- 200g plain flour, I use ASDA's own brand
- Equal amount of water, warm tap water is fine
How to do it
There are lots of different recipes for making a sourdough starter and you should probably look at a few before trying one of your own. However, my method is pretty simple and provided you have time to 'feed' your starter regularly, it'll work out fine, and the best thing is - you don't need a load of kitchen gadgets to get going:
- Put 200g of plain flour in a large jar or Tupperware-type container - ideally something that has a lid, though this isn't essential.
- Add an equal amount of warm/tepid water.
- Mix it up thoroughly.
- If your container has a lid, rest it on the top - don't fasten it down as your starter needs air. Otherwise, cover it with a tea towel or loose cloth.
- Place your starter somewhere safe, though keep it away from anything hot - average room temperature is what you need to get it going.
- Leave it alone for a day or two.
- Stir it occasionally.
- After a couple of days (or maybe sooner if you're lucky), you'll start to see bubbles appearing on the top (like in my photo). This is what you're looking for, as it shows your starter is working.
- At this point, add more flour and water. Do this every day or so for about a week. Now, in terms of the amount, some folk say you should add the same quantity again ie doubling the mixture, but I don't entirely agree with this since these same folk also say you should throw half your mixture away (see below).
- To feed the starter, I usually add about 100g of flour and the same amount of water, and so far this has worked perfectly.
- After a week or so, your starter should be smelling yeasty and maybe a bit fruity and sweet. This is what you're waiting for. Now you can use it to make bread!
The Throw Half Away Argument
When your sourdough is ready to use, you'll be 'feeding' it regularly. Now, many bakers go with the idea of throwing half the mixture away at this stage. There are various reasons for this, including that it keeps your starter in tip-top condition and at a manageable level. However, I can't bear to throw anything away, and because I use my starter two or three times a week to make bread, there isn't really any need to get rid of half of it each time I feed it.
Obviously, you'll discover for yourself what the best method is, but if you don't want to get rid of half the mixture, and you don't use it too often, the easiest thing is to pop it in the fridge for a few days. This way, it'll slow down a bit, but won't come to any harm. Simply get it out the fridge and allow it to come back to room temperature again for a day or so before you use it.