In this 'How To' guide, our very own chef and butcher, Connor Reed, takes us through how to make your very own sourdough starter - the very beginning of your journey to yeasty perfection...
A medium-sized jar with a lid
Sourdough starters require patience and commitment and can be difficult to get your head around. You are keeping a fragile ecosystem of yeast and bacteria alive - a perfect balance of the two working together to ferment the dough and give you an incredibly healthy and tasty loaf of bread.
Any bread flour can be used to create a starter but we find using organic, wholemeal flours works best as they have a much higher amount of natural yeast already in them.
Just like any living creature a sourdough starter needs feeding regularly. The yeast and bacteria feed off the sugar in the fresh dough that is added into the mix. What will happen after a day or two is that they will begin to exhaust their food supply as it slowly ferments. This can take anywhere from twelve hours to 4 days depending on where you’re keeping your starter.
The cooler the environment, the slower it will ferment. So, if you put your freshly fed starter in the fridge, it will take a few days to ferment whereas if you leave it in a warm kitchen it will fully ferment overnight.
The way I like to think of it is - treat your starter like you would yourself. If you keep it at a comfortable temperature and give it a feed every day then all will be well.
It’ll take around seven days to create your starter from scratch, although sometimes it takes a little longer in the colder months. A word of advice from me - don’t rush the process. It’ll eventually get there, just be patient.
Once it's established, you can feed it the day before you want to bake as the culture should be strong and healthy. This also means that when you choose a container for the starter, you need to make sure that it is a suitable size for the amount that you are making. Once it has been fed, the starter wants to be around halfway up the container. If there is too much in the container then it’ll overflow or even explode. If there’s not enough in the container then you’re potentially giving nasties, like mould, too much room to grow.
Now, a mistake that I’ve seen a lot of people make is not throwing away enough of the old, exhausted starter. If you keep adding fresh dough in but don’t throw any away, you’re going to end up with loads of old stuff that is not useful for your starter and will eventually die. When I feed mine, I quite literally turn the container upside down over a bin and get rid of 90% of it. Then, whatever is left stuck to the container is enough.
I would recommend keeping your starter at room temperature and feeding it every day, just to make a routine of it. This is a very simple method to create and establish a starter; you don’t need any tricks - just flour, water and time. The quantities that you make are entirely up to you as long as the water and flour are equal weights.
In your chosen clean container, mix 200g flour with 200g tepid water, cover with a lid and put to one side at room temperature. You’re now going to leave this for 3 days. Don’t touch it, just leave it be at room temperature on the kitchen counter.
On day three, it's going to look like absolutely nothing has happened, but yeast and bacteria and now starting to rapidly multiply. It's now time for its first feed. Remove approximately 200g of the mix (half-ish) and throw it away. This old mix now needs to be replaced with fresh mix. Mix together 100g flour and 100g water then stir into the existing starter. This process now needs to be repeated every day for another 4 days. As the days go by you will notice the dough starting to expand as it ferments.
If all has gone well, the dough itself should have doubled in size with a light, sour aroma but most importantly, if a spoonful is taken from the starter and placed in water, then it should float. This is the best way to see if there is enough air in it and it has fermented enough. If it sinks, then repeat the process for a few more days.
Caring for your starter
If you can’t feed your starter every day, we would recommend putting it into the fridge and then feeding it every few days. When you go to use your starter again, make sure that it comes to room temperature before you want to bake it.
If the starter is left for a long time then a layer of brown liquid might rise at the top of the mix. Stir it all back in and give the starter a good feed. It needs a few days to get back to a good workable state but after this it should be good to go. Most starters can be salvaged so no stress!
Mould isn’t always bad! If there is a small layer of mould on top then just scrape it off and give it a good feed.
If there is too sour an aroma within the first few hour of feeding your starter then it is probably a bit too hot. Place it in the fridge to cool down.
If you want to create a different floured bread, then you can use a different flour to feed your starter i.e. if you created a wholemeal sourdough starter then to change it to being a rye starter you can just add rye flour into your next feed.