For several years I have been looking after and nurturing my sourdough starter. In doing so we have enjoyed countless sourdough loaves of different flavours, as well as pizzas and delicious scones, muffins, crumpets, and pancakes. However, inexplicably and to my absolute horror I left it out in all the heat and forgot to refresh it. Now its not the first time I have had to provide life-saving recoveries to my starter and to date all have been successful. However, on this one occasion through a combination of heat, idiocy and busy schedules I just plain forgot and couldn’t bring it back from the brink. Actually, it was well beyond the brink.
So here we are, I must start again if I am to continue to enjoy those homemade treats. Given this I have decided to share my starter journey and beyond. Why? Because I want to show you just how easy it is to develop and to hopefully share the passion for all things sourdough. Not only that you will suddenly find that you have a lot more friends and family popping in more frequently.
Some say sourdough becomes an obsession, not just a passion and I guess there is some truth in this. Certainly, there are few things in life more therapeutic and enjoyable in making and eating homemade bread and butter, or pizza dough made by your own fair hands. Nor is there a greater compliment than for a friend or in my case daughter turning up and asking me for a bit of my beloved starter. Without it there is no Panzanella (a delicious Italian bread salad), or wonderfully warming and silky bread and butter pudding. Nor will those winter nights be the same without those butter slathered sourdough crumpets; not to mention breakfasts of scrambled eggs on toast or earthy mushrooms with a touch of garlic and parsley. And did I mention those sourdough pizzas with so many delicious toppings to try. Then there is that self-satisfied smugness that you lose because you can’t pull that warm, baked loaf out of the oven, its evocative smells filling the room when your friends arrive for lunch.
So yes, I guess you can tell I am still a bit down on myself especially as I have had the ignominy of having to try my new batch of homemade spiced plum jam on some over processed shop bought bread. However, whilst I may have to wait a few days I will soon be able to enjoy sourdough once more. All you and I need for our starter is flour, water and time. Simply put, it is a mixture of flour and water and wild yeast. Don’t panic !! The yeast comes from the atmosphere and the mixture is left to ferment (the sour) over 6 or so days and fed a daily diet of yet more flour and water. Yes, it’s that simple!
Now there are some short cuts to this, you can go along to your local bakery and most artisan sourdough bakers would be happy to provide a few spoonsful of their treasure. You can buy some on Amazon or cadge some for friends or family. However not wishing to suffer the ignominy, of not looking after my starter baby, I have decided to start from scratch.
Now whilst you can make a starter from almost any flour, the experts say that it is better and more resilient to make it with a wholegrain rye flour. As well as the flour, you’ll need something like a clean airtight Kilner jar, though you won’t need to close the lid at this stage, and a muslin cloth. Once up and running, I have been known to change my recipe and I have fed my starter a mixture of rye and wholemeal, just plain flour or strong white bread flour, buckwheat, or several combinations. The point is that the starter is a flexible beast and at the end of the day just needs regular daily feeding (if not kept in a fridge) on a diet of flour and water. My personal preference is a combination of strong white bread flour and wholemeal bread flour. Though many bakers use rye flour.
So, let’s get started! On day 1 mix 50g of my mixed flour with 50g of water (I have also used 4tbsps of lour and 4 of water) and cover the jar with the muslin or a clean tea towel.
Then daily for the next 4-5 days remove a tablespoon of the mix and add another tablespoon of flour and water, giving it a good stir, and leave on the worktop. You’ll soon find yourself checking up every so often on what is happening and whether you are getting a lively bubbly mixture, but rest assured by day 5 or 6 you should see a pretty active starter with a slight smell of alcohol. Now your starter is ready for what you have planned. After the initial 6 days or so, storing depends on how often you are going to use it. If it is every week or so then my advice is to keep it in the fridge, though it will still need a feed every 2 weeks with 50g of flour and water. Starters are pretty robust and if you are going away on holiday, you can freeze it, but when you want to use it ensure you defrost it and once at room temperature give it a regular daily feed until its nice and bubbly again.
If you are leaving it out, as I do, then ensure you give it a daily feed (Don’t do what I did and forget). Missing the odd day is not the end of the world, and usually the mixture can be rescued, however if you get that earthy Brussel sprout, boiled cabbage smell then it’s time to ditch it. You may see liquid on the top of the starter, have no fear this is just nature’s way of saying feed me. You can syphon off the liquid, known as hooch or leave it in – it is up to you. Over time you can experiment.
Now you are ready to start your sourdough adventure. There are plenty of great books and YouTube videos out there, like Dan Lepard’s, The Handmade Loaf or Flour and Water Salt Yeast by Ken Forkish. Another great book is Bread and Butter by Richard Snapes, Grant Harrington and Eve Hemingway. For sourdough pizza, I love the book The Elements of Pizza again by Ken Forkish. You could even try a short-day course with the likes of the Bread Ahead Baking School or Hobbs House Bakery.
So go on be a Boldie and give sourdough a try, you’ll be amazed at how many people come to visit – especially if you start making your own butter.