Sourdough is one of those things that seems almost mystical, as there is such a cult following around it. If you google recipes, you can end up in a never-ending maze of theory, with each recipe suggesting different things.
I got a bit stuck down this wormhole, and when I made my starter couldn’t understand why it didn’t work – I fed it with flour and water regularly, left it in a warm place, and gave it as much love and attention as I would give a living, breathing pet. But it still didn’t bubble, and when it did it was minimal.
Having done a bit of research and now made a successful one, I have put together a bit of a guide on how to make a starter, and how to understand what is actually happening. If you’d like the advice of professional bakers, try Puff The Bakery’s free Sourdough Course as this really helped to get me started.
Put simply, a starter is fermented flour and water. As it ferments, it produces wild yeast which is what helps to make the bread rise. As with any form of fermentation, this takes time, as it depends on a whole range of things from temperature to flour.
To get started, mix 100g flour with 100g warm water. If you have a thermometer, the water should measure at about 26°C, but if not just test with your finger – it should feel neither cold nor hot, just about room temperature.
Once mixed, put into a jar or plastic container. You need it to be big enough to allow room for expansion (or it will escape its container as mine did below!). Cover with a lid or clingfilm – it doesn’t need to be airtight, but it does need to protect it from dust and anything else that might fall in.
Leave this for about two days in a warm place – I say about two days because it could be longer or could be shorter. Essentially, you want to see that the mixture is full of bubbles and has doubled in size. Once it’s reached this stage, you know it’s time to start feeding it.
Day One after mixing flour and water, and Day Three (48 hours later)
Feeding your starter
So, when you ‘feed’ your starter, you are basically removing some of the already-fermented flour and water, and adding new flour and water for it to ferment. As you get to know how active your starter is, you’ll understand when and how it needs feeding. But when beginning, I’d say this is a useful guide:
Empty your starter into a bowl and wash out your jar or container. Weigh out 40g of your starter and dissolve in 100g warm water (this should be anywhere between 26 and 32°C). Then, add 100g flour. Put back in your jar and leave for 12 hours. The remaining starter can be thrown away. Once your starter is stable, you can use this discard in other recipes, but whilst you are building your starter at the beginning its easiest just to discard completely.
After about 12 hours, you should see a repeat of what happened before – plenty of bubbles and doubled in size. Now it’s time to feed again. After about 3 days of feeding, your starter should be ready to bake with – you can test it’s ready by taking a spoonful of starter and dropping into a glass of cold water. If it floats, it means it has enough air in make your bread rise, and it’s ready to use. If it sinks, don’t panic – it just means it’s not quite ready. Keep going with the feeding and you’ll get there!
Some more useful tips…
- Rye flour can help to get a starter going if you are struggling. When you feed it, use half your normal flour, half rye flour.
- Don’t overcomplicate it! As an easy routine, feed your starter once when you get up in the morning, and once before you go to bed.
- If you see a layer of water forming on the top, this is a sign that it needs more food. It’s called hooch and is a by-product of fermentation. You can drain this off, but it’s no big deal if you stir it back into your starter.
- Keep an eye on your starter throughout the day. You’ll be able to see how quickly it’s fermenting the flour and water you add with a feed, and if it looks like it’s happening quickly then you may need to bulk up your feedings to 3 times a day.
- Don’t worry if yours takes longer! Keep feeding it, ensure it’s nice and warm, and eventually it will be ready. Every starter is unique, and you’ll find a natural rhythm.
- One last bit of advice – don’t waste your starter discard! There are tons of recipes for crackers, biscuits, and cakes that use sourdough discard for additional flavour. Every time you discard it, just add it to a tub and put in the fridge – it will sit there happily for about two weeks until you have decided what you’d like to do with it.