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A Guide to Making your own Sourdough Starter

Making sourdough bread shouldn’t be daunting, people have been doing it for thousands of years after all.  And making your own sourdough starter from scratch isn’t difficult either; but you will need a little patience, nothing about sourdough can be hurried.

You are bout embark on the first steps to becoming a yeast farmer, here’s how to do it:

First  Catch some Yeast:

There are literally millions of yeast spores surrounding us in the air of our kitchens and adhering to the crushed wheat grains in the flour in the bowl in front of you. Harnessing one to start a colony that will raise your sourdough bread is not a difficult task. If it is nurtured properly you can build up this culture until it has the vigour to ferment your household sour bread on a regular basis.

Begin by making a paste of roughly equal amounts of flour and water in a small mixing bowl or jar. It will be a little more lively if you use a portion of wholemeal flour because the wholemeal, being 100% of the grain, will launch more enzymes into the chemical process when compared with emasculated white flour which has had so much of the wheat sieved away.

If you live in an area where the tap water is heavily chlorinated use filtered or spring water; or use the tap water after it has sat in a jug overnight, by which time the chlorine gas will have dissipated.

sourdough starter

Starter – 100 ml. of water mixed with 100 gm. of flour, with about one-third of the flour being wholemeal.  Allow this wet paste to sit at room temperature. Do not put it in a cool place like a cellar or a larder. Loosely cover the bowl or put it inside a large plastic bag so that nothing drops into it.  After only two or three days your wild yeast should be showing itself with clusters of fine bubbles of gas visible in the paste. It is now called the leaven. For definition purposes a leaven is any yeast culture that is used to ferment bread – i.e. the raising agent.

Feed you colony of yeast:

In order to build up your culture when it is an infant and then keep it lively as a mature worker you must feed it regularly – every second or third day. The feeding is called a refreshment and the fresh flour is its food.

At the start the quantities at the time of refreshment can be viewed as thirds: one-third leaven, one-third fresh flour, one-third spring water. Having the water content as high as a third will mean that it stays as a wet paste. The 200g of starter will now become a wet paste of 600g.

A couple of days later this 600 will be increased to 1.8kg. To avoid building up a vast ever growing quantity, each refreshment may be proceeded by throwing (or giving) away at least half or two-thirds of the leaven.

After several of these wet refreshments, provided you are noticing the bubbling activity, it will be time to turn the wet paste into a firmer, more dough-like leaven. You could even dare to try it out at raising a loaf of bread. Its smell will be either vinegary or perhaps cheesy, but it will be fairer to judge it by the taste of the bread rather than the smell of the leaven.

Assuming that your regular system is to throw away half of it before a refreshment, then the 600g reduces to 300g, and the refreshment of that becomes 900g (3 x 300). Two days later if you threw away two-thirds of it, the 900 would be reduced to 300 to refresh and its volume would be kept stable. But this time the leaven is going to cease being a wet paste and is going to be turned into something with a more dough-like consistency. At this point it will assume the characteristics of a properly textured leaven, suitable for maturing the bread for the rest of its life.

Almost ready to make Bread:

Take the amount of leaven you wish to refresh and match its weight with the fresh flour. Then add the same weight of water.  e.g.

  • 100g leaven
  • 100g flour ( say 60 strong white, 40wholemeal)
  • 100ml water

If you prefer a bread with a more sour flavour, the ratio could be:

  • 100g leaven
  • 100ml flour
  • 50g water

Remember that these figures can only be approximate guidelines. You will have to make your own adjustments because different flours have different rates of water absorption and wholemeal needs more water than white; or the amount of water you need will be less if your leaven is damp, etc.

Now you have the guidelines for the management of your leaven. This is how you refresh it for the rest of its life. To keep it lively during the periods when you do not wish to make bread it must still have regular refreshment every few days – every second or third to keep it in good shape. If you know that there will be a prolonged break from bread making it can live in the refrigerator. Every week or two, take it out, leave it for a day to achieve room temperature, refresh it, then it can go back to the fridge.

Having turned the wet paste into a dough-like leaven you will be keen to try it out at leavening bread. In these early days the only difference between a bread batch and leaven is whether or not it has salt.

Make some Bread:

Use your leaven to make bread approx 8 – 12 hours after refreshment.  The leaven will be active and robust.  Take enough of it to make bread, but be sure to keep some back for  refreshment as your on-going leaven.

I usually use 100g of leaven per large loaf adding 450g of fresh flour.  I increase this if I am in a hurry to 200g of leaven added to 400g of fresh flour. This system works well for me but remember that every sourdough leaven is unique so experiment until your find the right balance for yours

Be Adventurous:

You can create 100% white leavens, 100% whole meal leavens or any combinations to suit your purposes.  Simply adjust the flour in the instructions above.  However, you may find that white flour does not ‘start’ very well on its own so initially a mix may be used.  Then use just white flour for refreshment, the proportion of wholemeal will diminish as you refresh.