It takes a while to make a sourdough starter and it can be very frustrating: don’t give up and you will be rewarded, probably right at the point where you think it’s never, ever going to work. I still find it hard to believe that you can take some flour and some water and produce something that will actually make bread rise. There are a lot of recipes for creating a sourdough starter out there and they include all sorts of things, from fruit such as grapes or apples, to milk or yoghurt. I didn’t want to use a starter with anything in it that I wouldn’t normally put in my bread so went for the simplest approach: flour and water.
I found a really great article online by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for the The Guardian that takes you from making your starter all the way through to making your first loaf. In its first few days my starter had a horrible consistency and really smelt terrible: to the point where it was hard work discarding half and refreshing it with more flour and water. I thought it would never improve but it did and it actually smells quite pleasant now. Don’t be tempted to use your starter too soon: I did and it took two days for the dough to rise and although it was edible it was very sour. I was losing heart until a few days later when I refreshed my starter and left the jar two thirds full on the kitchen top. When I came back a while later it had bubbled out of the jar and I knew I had a properly active starter at last!
Hugh’s article will give you more detail but this is my experience of following his recipe and instructions.
100g strong bread flour, then up to 1kg bread flour to feed the starter
Put your flour into a large bowl and mix in enough lukewarm water to get the consistency of thick paint. Cover with clingfilm and leave it somewhere warmish. Check it every few hours until it has obviously started fermenting.
Once it has obviously started fermenting it needs regular feeding. Add around 100g strong bread flour and enough water to maintain the thick paint consistency. Cover with clingfilm and leave until the next day. It now needs feeding every day: each day discard about half the starter and mix in another 100g flour and enough water to keep it at the same consistency. It may not smell very good at this point but it will improve. Give it at least a week and wait until it smells ok and you might be lucky with your first loaf.
My first loaf was not a huge success. It took forever to rise during each stage and I had almost given up when it seemed to be working. However I think it had been in the proving basket for so long it had settled in for the duration and didn’t want to turn out. It eventually came out in two pieces and collapsed:
At that point I thought it was worth putting into the oven and it was actually edible, if quite strong tasting:
If this happens to you, don’t lose heart: it was a few days later that my starter took on a life of its own and when it did I immediately made up a “sponge” for my next loaf. I left the sponge overnight and made the dough in the morning. It rose so quickly this time the loaf was baked by mid afternoon.
For the Sponge
About 150ml active sourdough starter
250g strong bread flour
275ml warm water
For the Loaf
300g strong bread flour
1 tablespoon olive oil
Make the sponge: put the starter, flour and water into a large bowl and mix to a smooth batter. Cover with clingfilm and leave, ideally overnight, until the mixture is thick and bubbling:
When your sponge is ready, mix it with the flour, oil and salt and knead for five to ten minutes, until it is smooth and silky. Put it into an oiled bowl and cover with a tea towel or oiled clingfilm:
Leave to prove until it has roughly doubled in size:
When it has risen, turn it out and knead it briefly. If you have a proving basket, flour it really well and put your dough into it to rise again. If you don’t have a proving basket you could use a shallow bowl: line it with a clean tea towel and flour it well. Cover with oiled clingfilm or a tea towel.
When it has roughly doubled in size it will be ready to bake. I went out and was surprised to find how much mine had risen by the time I got back:
Heat your oven to 250ºC and put a baking sheet into the oven to heat up. I have a pizza stone so used that.
When the oven is hot carefully turn the bread onto the baking sheet – it might need some help with a palette knife but be very gentle with it.
Put your bread into the oven and turn the temperature down to 200ºC. It will need about 30 minutes and when it is done it will be well browned and sound hollow when you tap the base.
Allow to cool on a wire cooling rack.
My third attempt was equally succesful – long may it last!
Once you have your starter properly established you can keep it in the fridge and do not need to refresh it as often: just make sure you feed it at least once a week and/or before you want to use it.