To make naturally leavened sourdough bread, you will first need to create a ‘sourdough starter’. The starter will act as a leavening agent to make the bread rise, but it also plays a key role in developing the flavor and making the bread easier to digest. An active and well-maintained sourdough starter will go a long way in helping you produce some serious bread. It all starts with two ingredients – flour and water.
This is how bread had been made for thousands of years. Flour and water would be mixed together and left for a few days. The magic of nature would bring this mixture to life. Bubbles would start to appear and the size would increase. This was the results of wild yeast feeding on the simple sugars that had been broken down by Lactobacilli eating carbohydrates in the flour. Adding more flour and water to this bubbly mixture would increase the activity as the microorganisms get a new food source. If you start from scratch, it should take between 5 and 7 days to get an active sourdough starter that is ready to be used for baking. Once you get your little baby active, you can keep it in the fridge, take it out 2 days before baking, feed it 2 or 3 times and it should be ready to go again. It requires minimal ingredients and equipment to create as well as maintain a sourdough starter, but other factors have a significant say in determining how your starter behaves. In my experience, the most challenging factor has been temperature. If you leave your starter on the kitchen counter during a hot summers day and feed it in the morning, it could be bubbling like a jacuzzi by lunch time and when you get home in the evening it will be too ripe to bake with. Similarly, if you feed it before bed on a cold winters night, you might wake up the next morning with intentions of baking bread but your starter is showing no signs of life. Temperature can be handled in all sorts of ways, such as adding warmer water to the mixture to spur activity, heating a towel and placing the starter (in a jar) on top of the towel, or even leaving it in the oven with just the light on for a slightly warm environment. There are many sites and resources online to tweak and improve how you manage your starter. It really comes down to practice. It takes no more than 5 minutes to feed your starter every morning and evening. Once it gets used to regular feedings, it will pay you back by playing the lead role in creating great bread.
So, you’re ready to give it a go? Great! First thing is to get equipped with the necessities. Your kitchen essentials for baking sourdough bread are as follows:
Digital scale – Don’t go measuring flour and water with cups. A digital scale is absolutely necessary to get your amounts right.
Glass jar – Glass jars are best for maintaining a starter. You also get to easily see the bubbles and activity as it progresses. Best to use jars with a wide top so you can easily get your spatula in for mixing.
Silicone spatula – Use this for mixing the flour/water and its useful for scraping down the sides of the jar to keep your starter looking neat.
Rye flour – I have messed around with multiple different starters, using a mixture of different flours such as white, whole wheat, rye etc. Either all rye or a mixture of rye and white flour works best and results in an active starter.
White flour – Ideally un-bleached and organic if possible.
Large mixing bowl – This will be used to mix your final dough, more on this in another post.
Steps to create a sourdough starter from scratch
With your glass jar on the scale reading 0 grams, add the following:
30 grams rye flour
30 grams white flour
60 grams water
Stir this mixture together well. If you don’t have a silicone spatula, you can use a wooden chopstick or even a spoon. Improvisation can always play a part in baking. The yeast and bacteria react best to clean water, so if you can use filtered water then that’s only going to help. Leave your jar in the kitchen, ideally in a warm area for about 24 hours.
Open the jar and check the progress. It might have risen slightly but probably won’t show any signs of bubbling activity quite yet. But don’t worry, that will come after a few more feedings.
Give it a mix and throw out half of the mixture. I know this may seem wasteful, but a portion of the starter will always need to be discarded to allow for regular feedings.
After disposing of half the mixture, place your jar back on the scale with a reading of 0 grams and add the same amount:
30 grams rye flour
30 grams white flour
60 grams water
Mix it well and leave it rest for about 24 hours.
Repeat the same as day 2. If your starter is looking a little watery, add slightly less water on the next feeding. If it is looking dry, add a little more water.
Repeat the same by discarding half of the mixture and adding the same proportions of flour and water. It should start to have a slightly alcoholic/vinegary smell at this stage. You should also be seeing some bubbles.
In the morning, repeat the same process (feeding). If the mixture is bubbling when you get home that evening, give it another feeding. If it is not active, leave it until the following morning.
Your starter should be nice and active at this stage. If it is not showing signs of life, give it another feeding in the morning and then again at night. It should hopefully be ready to go by day 7. Below you can see that the starter has doubled in size since its feeding and it is showing bubbly signs of activity.