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Sourdough – Creating The “Starter”

Making and Baking A Sourdough Loaf –>>

A couple of people have asked me to describe how I create the Sourdough bread that I often tweet about baking. It’s too much for a Facebook post, and waaaay too much for a twitter thread, so I’m putting it here on my blog. This is part one – you need something called a “Sourdough Starter” to make sourdough bread, this is how I create my starter. Part two will describe making an actual loaf of sourdough.

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Nothing much beats a sandwich made with home made sourdough

I know this is seriously off-topic for a blog that is supposed to mostly considers Oracle tech & performance, working in Oracle/I.T, and thoughts on IT management & how people work, but let’s face it – the more semi-retired I get the more this blog is becoming somewhere I simply share “stuff”. However, there is a bit of a link. Over the last few years baking bread has been taken up by a surprising number of people in the Oracle Presenting sphere (and this pre-dates the craze for making your own bread that came with Covid-19). One presenter, Jože Senegačnik, even wins national awards for his bread in Slovenia.

What is Sourdough?

Sourdough is a rustic type of bread, usually white, with a dark, thick crust and usually more flavour than a standard loaf of white bread. I know I am biased, but the sourdough bread I make is about the nicest bread I have ever eaten (with perhaps the exception of the bread of some of my other baking friends). It is certainly nicer than your average loaf and better than “normal” bread I have made at home.

Sourdough bread has an open texture (lots of holes), so it is quite light and, at the centre, soft. Sometimes the bread has large voids in it. If you buy sourdough in a shop or it is part of a meal in a café/restaurant (it’s almost always the bread used in posh cafes with your smashed avocado and free range egg for breakfast) it seems to me that the posher the place, the larger the voids. Sometimes a slice of sourdough toast can be more void than bread. It does not need the large voids and, in my opinion, they are detrimental to the bread. You can’t make a sandwich or put anything on the bread without the contents falling through the big holes! It’s fine with soup & stews I suppose, where you are dipping chunks in liquid.

Sourdough is a type of wheat-based bread where instead of using dried yeast or fresh yeast that comes in blocks that look like soft cheese, you use an active, growing “porridge” of yeast. This is a fairly thick mixture of strong bread flour and water, with the yeast growing in it, slowly consuming the flour to produce more yeast.

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big voids to lose your topping through…

This “porridge” is called the Starter, and you add it to a mixture of more bread flour, water, and a little salt, to make your bread dough for baking. The starter smells quite strongly, distinctly sour, and I suspect (but am not sure) that sourdough bread is named more for the smell of the starter than the final loaf, which only has a hint of the smell if any at all.

The bread itself also has a distinctive tang to it, not as marked as the smell of the starter mixture, but it is a key part of the flavour.

The crust is an important part of a sourdough loaf. It tends to be thicker, stronger, and (when fresh), well… crustier than normal bread.

The key to it all is the starter, so how do you create and keep your starter?

 

 

The Jar

You need a sealable jar to hold your starter. I use a Kilner jar, as pictured, but a very large jam jar will probably be fine. The jar needs to be able to hold well over a pint/half litre. My jar can hold a litre, which is large enough to generate enough sourdough starter for a good sized loaf but not so large it won’t fit in my fridge (which is important).
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Once you have your jar, make sure you have:

  • a packet of white strong bread flour.
  • either some grapes or apples or, if you can manage it, some starter from a friend.
  • at least a week before you want an actual loaf of your own sourdough bread.

I would recommend you use white bread flour as brown or wholemeal (or even seeded) not only provides bits in your mixture where yeast cells would struggle to get to (so might make it more likely for your starter to get infected and “go off”) but as you add quite a bit of starter to the final dough, it’s always going to be partially wholemeal or brown if that is what your starter is based on, no matter what you want.

It has to be strong bread flour. Strong bread flour has a higher percentage of protein, gluten, in it. This is vital to support the texture of bread. Cake is lighter than bread and normal flour that you make cakes out of has less gluten in it.

Sterilise your jar before you use it. Either wash it in really hot water or, preferably, but it in an oven at about 120C for 20, 30 minutes. Let it cool to room temperature before you use it though. You want to sterilise it as the idea is to get a yeast colony growing in the jar that will out-compete bacteria and not-yeast fungi and keep the mixture clean and edible and not poisonous. To begin with there will not be a lot of yeast cells and any bacteria or fungus present could make the mixture bad before the yeast takes hold.

Making the starter

Put about 300 grams of the strong white bread flour in the jar and add about 300ml of water, stirring it. you might want to add the water in two or three parts, mixing it well as you go but don’t stir it for minutes. You will hopefully end up with a smooth mixture that is a bit thicker than porridge/wallpaper paste/pesto. Now add a little more water until it *is* the consistency of porridge. Thin enough that it would pour, thickly, but thick enough so that a spoon stuck in it will probably stay in place. Don’t forget to take the spoon out…

Now the tricky bit. Getting the yeast in it. Don’t use baker’s yeast or brewer’s yeast or anything you would buy to make a normal loaf of bread, you want something slower growing and, if possible, local. In some places, at least in the UK, you might have enough yeast in the air to get it going, especially if you live in the countryside near orchards. Leave the jar with the lid open for a few hours and then shut it. A more reliable way to get the yeast is to take the skin off four or five grapes, preferably ones you have had in the house a few days, or some peel (just a couple of long stripes) from an apple, either a locally grown one or one that’s been hanging about in the fruit bowl a few days (but is not rotten!!!). The peel from fruits like this are covered in many yeasts. Use only the peel, not the pulp of the fruit. Chop the peel into little bits and throw it in the mixture and stir.

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The yeasts on the skin will get it all going

If you are lucky enough to know someone who already makes sourdough who is local (in which case, why are you reading this?!? Go have a cup of tea with them or a glass of wine and get them to show you how to do all this – relevant covid-19 restrictions allowing of course) then get some off them, about 30ml will be more than enough. I got some from a local bakery a couple of years back who specialised in sourdough. You can even use dried out sourdough, as I did once. I’ll put the little story of that in another post.

The advantage of using some existing starter mix is that it gets going quicker and you an be pretty sure it will work. Getting your starter fully active from scratch using peel or the air can take weeks, a dollop of starter in it’s prime will get you a fully active new starter in days. I swap the jar I keep my starter in every few months, as they can get a bit gungy & crusty, I make the bread/water porridge and chuck in about 200ml of my existing mixture – usually what is left when I am making a loaf. I can use the “new” starter created in this way in a couple of days.

Shut the jar. If you were lucky enough to use existing starter, keep it out at cool room temperature if you are making a loaf in a day or two. Otherwise put it in the fridge.

If you really are starting from fresh, with peel, put the jar somewhere that is “cool room temperature”, that is about 16-18C, not near a radiator or source of heat, not somewhere cold. Hopefully, in a few days you will see little bubbles in the mixture. That means the yeast is growing and releasing carbon dioxide! After about 5 days, whether you see little bubbles or not, take out about a third of the mixture and discard, replace with the same volume of flour/water mix that you removed, give it all a good stir and seal the jar again. Do so again in another 5 days. If you do not see any bubbles by now, it has probably failed. Discard and start again.

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A starter in it’s prime, a day after being fed

If the mixture develops any colour other than pale cream/oatmeal (so if it goes green or purple or pink or grey) you now have a jar of poison. Bacteria or fungus have won and out-competed the yeast. If there are spots of grey or other colour on the surface, or fluffy spots, again it is poison. Throw the contents away, sterilise the jar, try again.

Once you have a pale cream/maybe very slightly oatmeal coloured gloop that bubbles a bit you have your starter. Well done. You now have a new pet in your life.

Looking After The Starter

Once you have created the starter you have actually created a living colony – and you have to feed and care for it. If the yeast runs out of food it will go dormant and that opens the door to bacteria or moulds getting a foothold and growing. You have to keep the yeast active and reproducing. To do this you feed it.

Professional bakers who are making a lot of sourdough bread are constantly taking out part of the starter mixture and using it in the dough. An 800 gram loaf will use between 150 and 250 grams of starter depending on how they make the dough. This is replaced with the same volume of flour/water mixture they take out. You can do this yourself, if you are going to make a new loaf every few days you can keep the starter at room temperature and replace what you take out with flour/water mix. The yeast in the remaining starter quickly works through the added mix and new yeast cells grow.

If you are going to make a loaf once a week you can extend this process by putting the starter in the fridge. You take the starter out the fridge a day before you are going to use it. This is so it warms up and becomes more active. If you have space in the jar, you might want to add a bit of extra flour/water mix for the yeast’s breakfast (about 100 grams flour) when you take it out the fridge – I do. You take out about a third of the starter when you make the loaf the next day and replace it with flour/water mix. I leave my jar out for a few hours/overnight after this to let it get going and then you put it back in the fridge.

If you keep your starter for more than a week in the fridge, or 3 or 4 days at room temperature, without using it, you have to feed it. Take out a third of the mixture and discard, replace with water/flour mix that you stir into the starter. So long as you regularly feed the starter it will last pretty much forever, but of course you are simply throwing away flour all the time.

If you are a bad starter owner and you forget about it, it won’t be happy. A layer of fluid will separate out at the top of the mixture and it will go grey. Grey is bad. If this happens, if the fluid and only the very surface of the starter are a light grey, no fluff, you can pour off the fluid and the top third of the starter, feed it, and it might be OK. I’ve brought back starters from grey gloom a few times. However, the starter won’t make a good loaf again until you have fed it a couple of times. If the grey comes back straight away, you best put the poor thing down.

If your starter or anything in the jar goes pink, orange, purple, green, or fluffy, you have let the yeast get too weak and you have grown something new. It might be useful to a microbiologist, it could even contain a new antibiotic unknown to man, but it is far, far more likely to be poison. Throw it away, start again.

When you feed the starter, make sure there is space for it to expand. I keep my jar about half full. When I feed it, the contents expand with the CO2 and then subside. If the jar is too full, there is no space to expand. Also, I suspect my jar leaks every so slightly so no pressure builds up. If your jar is totally sealed you might have issues with it spraying out when you open it. Let me know if you do, photographs of the mess would be appreciated.

The more regularly you use the starter, the better will be the bread you make. When I’ve kept my starter out of the fridge for a week or two and either made a loaf or simply fed the starter every 3 or 4 days, it gets more active and the dough rises more readily when I make a loaf. If I leave the mixture in the fridge for a month, only occasionally feeding it, the first loaf I make from it struggles to rise.

Starters Vary

I’ve occasionally had two starters running at the same time. I once had my home-grown starter and also one seeded from some starter given to me by Jože. I’ve also had a starter that was initiated from a sample from a local baker’s, as I have said, and I’ve created a new starter from scratch when I already had one going. The bread made from different starters have slightly different tastes. And the one I got from Jože was more active than my home grown one. I have to say, I did not notice much difference between the two home grown starters I had. I am sure this is down to a difference in the actual yeasts in the mixture (or not, in the case of my two home-grown ones).

I discussed this with a fellow Oracle Presenter Baker and we decided it was highly likely that the actual yeasts in there not only vary with where the seed material came from but also how you keep it. If you keep it in the fridge, yeasts that are more tolerant of cold conditions will survive better, keep the starter at room temperature and those yeasts that reproduce faster in warmer conditions will take over.

Whatever, a loaf of sourdough bread you make from your own starter is a real treat. I’ll describe my baking process in the next post.