Sourdough starter made simple – 3 Key principles, and establishing your own starter!

The starter will bubble away as the yeast release Carbon Dioxide.

Since meeting John I have got really into sourdough. He introduced me to the concept, and I dipped into my housemate’s copy of Andrew Whitley’s ‘Bread Matters’ to establish my own starter and learn a basic sourdough loaf recipe. The idea is to allow wild yeast to colonise some flour/water mix, which, once well-established, can be used as a raising agent in cooking. It also has the benefit of adding a distinctive (and delicious) sour flavour to your food.

It’s been more successful (and tasty) than I could have imagined! The sourness (caused lactic bacteria that co-exist with the yeast in your starter), gives things a really unique flavour, that I just can’t get enough of!

Sourdough is really versatile, and now, in just a couple of years, I find I’m dependent on it, even taking it on holiday with me recently so that I didn’t have to miss out on my favourite dishes! Loads of my best recipes use it, for example our yummy vegan pizza, cheeky spiced garlic bread, and ethiopian sour injera pancakes.

As you can expect to keep seeing posts from me that use it, I thought I’d better tell you how to make your own! It’s really much simpler than I was expecting, and after daily attention for a few days at the beginning to get it started, it has been really low maintenance – I keep it in the fridge and only bother to feed it when I’ve used some. I’m really slap-dash with my techniques and quantities, but the yeast seem to be quite happy with this semi-neglectful arrangement and continue to thrive (I suspect it may even make them tougher).

If you’ve been put off by overly-complicated sounding processes in the past please read my method and consider trying again. Wild yeast are fairly simple little microbes and with a few very basic principles you can easily start your own colony! Don’t be intimidated, give it a go.

Three main principles of yeast-keeping are explained here, to enable you to keep your starter going indefinitely with minimal effort, as well as a simple technique to get your starter established.

First off, ignore anything you’ve heard about needing to use really specific quantities of flour and water, needing to feed constantly on an ongoing basis, or having to produce gallons of starter that you “discard” most of. This may have worked great for them, but it’s not necessary and the main thing is that you understand what yeast like so that you can make an inviting home for them and then keep them happy. So absorb these principles first before looking at my technique…

Carbs / feeding

Yeast eat carbs. They love them and get excited when they eat them. When they eat carbs they produce the CO2 gas that makes your starter so useful for baking with. However, once your yeast culture is established it can go quite a long time without any carbs, so long as you keep it in the fridge. So don’t worry that you’ll be tied to any sort of ‘feeding’ regime, after the initial few days! Since establishing my starter nearly 2 years ago, I only feed it to top it up when I have used some, as I keep it in the fridge nearly all of the time. Which brings me to…

Temperature

Yeast like it to be about body temperature, just like we do!  This means that if your starter is at a snugly-warm temperature then the yeast will be lovely and active. Great if you want them to produce lots of gas ready for baking. However, not so great if they use up all of their carbs too fast. If this happens they will eventually die, leaving a ‘niche’ that will readily be occupied by something much less appetising, like mould!

The solution is to keep your starter in the fridge or other cold place in between uses, as it slows right down and becomes dormant, meaning that it can survive for a long time without any more carbs being added. So unless your fridge breaks down, there’s really no panic about ‘feeding’ the starter, this is a concept from the times before fridges! Apparently they can survive freezing too, though I haven’t tried this myself. I’ve never needed to, as they seem so happy in the fridge, but I might consider putting some in the freezer if I was going away for a month or more, just in case.

The opposite is true for too much heat, and they can die really quickly at high temperatures. Therefore you may add warm water to your starter to encourage it to be more active, but be really careful that it’s not hot enough to damage it (it should feel comfortable when you stick your finger in). Similarly, if you leave your starter (or recipe using starter) in a warm place to liven up, be careful not to leave it anywhere too hot for too long.

The key point is that you can ‘speed up’ or ‘slow down’ the activity of your yeast (and the speed at which they ‘eat’!), by adjusting the temperature they’re kept at. As long as you don’t get them so hot that you kill them, and put them somewhere cold in between usages, you can’t really go wrong.

Moisture

Yeast also love moisture! Your starter will need to be nice and runny all the time to allow the yeast to thrive. It should never get so thick or doughy that you could roll it into a ball. Your starter is a liquid, with more of a thick batter consistency than anything else. Keep it sloppy and the yeast will thank you by staying happy.

The main thing you’re trying to achieve is to create and sustain an environment that is hospitable for the yeast and the lactic bacteria that co-exist peacefully with them, so that they occupy the niche in the starter more successfully than any other microbes that might be about, whilst giving you lovely CO2 bubbles and tasty sourness!

So, those are your three principles!  Yeast like it warm and wet, like in a human body, and they feed on carbs. Speed them up and slow them down using temperature, and reinvigorate them by adding carbs. Now that you know these principles, you’re ready to get going on producing your own starter….

Establishing your starter

You will need:

  • Flour (wholemeal wheat flour is probably easiest) – as required
  • Water – as required
  • A suitable medium-sized container with a lid
  • A bit of time each day for a few days

1. Choose a few days when you’re not going to be too busy to start off the process, as you’ll need a bit of time once a day for 4-5 days to get your yeast culture established. I found it easier to stick to morning or evening so that I didn’t forget.

2. Make sure you’ve got plenty of flour at the ready (a couple of bags is probably the minimum at first), and find a container that your starter can live in. I use a rectangular container that was previously used for catering-size dairy-free ice cream. It seems to be just the right size and it has a good lid.

3. Find a spot for your container that is fairly warm, but also convenient as you’ll be adding flour and water every day for a few days. I chose next to the kitchen sink as this had some warmth from the cooker, and made it really easy to add water and wipe up any spillages.

4. You’re now ready to make your mixture of flour and water to encourage the wild yeast, that are already living dormant in the flour, to really start to thrive. The main thing is not the exact quantities that you use, but to get a good consistency for the yeast to live in, i.e. nice and moist. You definitely want it to be a liquid not a solid (John’s early experiments were doughy balls, none of which lived very long before they went off). I used about 2 cups of flour to about 1.5 cups of luke-warm water on day one, gave them a good mix, and then put the lid on loosely, but you can vary these amounts to whatever seems about right.

That’s it! Your starter is on its way! I just used water straight out of the tap (with a smidgen of boiled kettle water to make it luke-warm and therefore more hospitable – but remember not to use anything too hot that will kill the yeast!). There seems to be a bit of a myth that chlorine in tap water will adversely affect yeast. I’ve never had any problem with this. I use tap water all the time and my starter seems really healthy, active and robust. If you really want to, you can let your water stand briefly and the chlorine will dissipate before you use it.

5. On day two, open your container, give it a good stir, add another cup of flour, and enough water to get the wet consistency the yeast like. Repeat daily, don’t worry too much about the quantities, focus on getting the right consistency. Think about adding enough though, that the yeast get a good supply of carbs. The warmer the spot the more ‘hungry’ they will be.

6. By day three, you may start to smell a sour, yeasty, boozy and/or vinegary smell. This is the good stuff, and a sign that your wild yeast (and lactic bacteria) like the home you are creating for them!  Well done! Add more flour and water as before, and look forward to seeing how they’re getting on tomorrow!

You will notice at this stage that your starter is growing, and you may soon run out of space in your container to keep adding to it. This is where many techniques suggest that you ‘discard’ some of your starter. I say “nay”, this is an ideal moment to use some of your starter for a recipe, for example sourdough crumpets (which also include bicarb as the raising agent, but use the sourdough for the yumptious flavour!).

Tip: if you have problems with this stage, such as the starter going off/mouldy before it gets established, then try starting again and either keeping it somewhere cooler, or feeding it more often (e.g. twice a day), or both.

7. By day four or five of repeating this process, your starter should be pretty well established. Try baking something with it, and if you like the results then you can start keeping your starter in the fridge until the next time you need it. At that point it won’t need any more flour adding for at least a few days.

Tip: try to find a recipe you like as soon as possible, and make it often so that you get into the habit of using your starter. Forgetting about it for months because you don’t know what to use it for isn’t going to help.

8. At first, while it is still a relatively young colony, it is probably a good idea to use some of your starter once to twice per week to make sure it is getting a regular top up of carbs when you top it up with more flour and water. However, once it is well established (i.e. a few weeks in), you can leave it much longer periods without needing to add flour, as long as it is in the fridge (I’ve left it 2-3 weeks without adverse results). On average at the moment I am using my starter once or twice a week anyway, but only because it is so yummy and so many of my favourite recipes use it!

Tip: Sometimes your starter will look lovely and frothy when you get it out of the fridge to use, especially if you’ve used it recently. Great, this is all fine, just give it a stir and you’re ready to go. Other times however, it may have separated into a pale sludge and a dark grey liquid that looks completely unappealing. DON’T WORRY! This is normal. Just give it a good stir and when you add more flour and water it will spring back to life. Give it a sniff, there should be a goodly sour smell from it. When it’s like this the bacteria will have given you plenty of sour goodness, and your recipes will be yummier than ever!

The only thing you really need to worry about is if it gets mouldy. When the yeast are happy this doesn’t happen, but it can occur if they aren’t thriving. This did happen with my rye starter and my spelt starter, because both were left for months without being topped up. However I’ve never had any of this sort of trouble with my wheat starter as I use it every few weeks because it’s so tasty and versatile!

If your starter does get mouldy or otherwise go wrong, DON’T WORRY! You can start again and may get a more robust strain next time. Make sure you haven’t kept it too dry or left it too warm without ‘feeding’, and keep trying until you get a good culture.

Using your starter

The starter is just how it sounds. You can take a bit of it and add it to dough or batter, and when you leave it for a while the yeast will populate the rest of the mixture, increasing in number as they feed on it. Some recipes, like bread that you want to rise, will need several hours to get the best effect. Others allow for more immediate results, such as pizza base or garlic bread.

You have the option to get your starter out the night before to let it ‘warm up’, or achieve the same effect more swiftly by adding some luke-warm water. In either case add more flour when you take it out of the fridge so that it doesn’t run out of food now that it’s waking up.

For quick fizz results, such as in my injera pancake recipe, you can add a little sugar instead and the yeast will respond immediately creating lots of tiny CO2 bubbbles as it eats the sugar! Ironically, a variation on this recipe is to leave your batter somewhere warm for 3 days without any feeding, to get a really strong distinctive sour flavour!

Have fun, experiment and please please let me know your best recipes, I’d love to try some new ones!

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5 thoughts on “Sourdough starter made simple – 3 Key principles, and establishing your own starter!

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  5. Pingback: Quickie sourdough crumpets | Chilli Garlic Sauce

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