Sourdough bread has always been a magical kind of loaf for us. It seems almost alchemical, harnessing the natural yeasts from the air to turn grain and water into a fragrant wholesome bubbled bread. We decided it had to be a ritual of some baker’s secret society only open to the righteous, with each sourdough starter recipe jealously guarded behind mystery and reverence. Many of the great artisan bakers have had the same starter in the family for hundreds of years, fed lovingly and religiously every day, like an immortal pet or a small flatulent god. We believed their knowledge and starter-offspring were only passed on to the worthy to carry on the ancient tradition. We thought the process of making and maintaining a starter was the realm of a master-baker or maslin-magician, no place for the inexperienced or faint of heart.
This, we discovered, could not be further from the truth. Most bakers are more than happy to share their starters and sourdough tips with the uninitiated, as both an incentive for the new baker and as insurance for the old – should a great disaster befall the original parent it can be easily cloned from its children. And there are no closely guarded recipes. Flour and water it seems is all you need. And a bit of fruit or yoghurt if you’re so inclined, or not, if you’re not. And patience. And a little commitment (but not too much).
Originally, we had a lofty ambition to try our hand at sourdough by the end of this year, not being confident that we could ever truly master the process. But many of the other participants in the 52 loaves project were plunging into sourdough with abandon, and surprisingly good results. Some had acquired starters from other bakers, some had started their own. Spurred on by their successes, we stepped off the baking cliff with a resolution to begin our own family tradition of sourdough. So in April 2014 we made our own starter. It’s still alive and we’d like to think it’ll still be here in 200 years time.
There are hundreds of recipes and methods of how to make a sourdough starter on the net and in baking books. We followed Justin Piers Gellatly’s method, mainly as it’s pretty straightfoward, and also because he makes damned good bread. It’s working for us so far. It will take a week before the starter will be ready to use.
50g organic strong white flour
50g organic rye flour
100g tepid water
30g rhubarb (we used apple, no rhubarb in fridge)
clean bowl or clean jar
We mixed the flour, water and fruit in a large kilner jar until it became a thick gooey paste. We covered it and left it somewhere warmish (warm kitchen worktop) for 24 hours.
At roughly the same time of day we mixed 50g water, 25g strong white and 25g rye into the paste. Covered and left until the next day.
Same as Day 2.
Same as Day 3. There should be a bit of bubbling and thinning of the paste at this stage.
Our starter was now tangy with lots of little bubbles. We mixed it all up and discarded all but 30g. You need to get rid of the leftover starter as this will only feed off the new flour and ferment too quickly. Alternatively, you can give it to someone else to start their own sourdough mix or use it to flavour pancakes or other bready goods.There were still some pieces of fruit remaining which we threw away. We added 30g rye, 30g strong wholemeal and 80g strong white four with 125g water, whisked it all up and left it.
Same as Day 5.
We made our first sourdough loaf! It’s a learning curve…
Keeping it alive.
Once we made our first loaf, we replenished our starter with the same quantity of flour and water that we removed for the recipe (half flour/half water). If you intend to make a lot of sourdough bread, you’ll need to feed the starter every 1 or two days. If not, feed it after making a loaf then place it in the fridge for a week, taking it out 24 hours before you need to use it. Tom Herbert recommends weighing your container before you start so that you always know what quantity of starter is in the jar, and always leave about a quarter of the original in there to keep its depth of flavour and vitality.
We keep ours in the fridge. We feed it half the replenishing amount before we put it in, then the other half when we take it out after it has come back to room temperature. This way, it’s bubbling nicely by the time we start to bake. Ruby treats it like a pet. She hasn’t got bored of it yet. It’s called Gordon, by the way.