Make your own: the sourdough starter

The ultimate slow food project is to make your own sourdough bread. Beware, once you start, you may just get obsessed

A sourdough loaf doesn’t use yeast but a fermented flour and water mix known as a “starter”, sometimes called leaven.
A sourdough loaf doesn’t use yeast but a fermented flour and water mix known as a “starter”, sometimes called leaven.

We’re living through incredibly dismal times over here. Since we last met, the UK has a new prime minister, the people who got us into this Brexit mess have fled, and the Labour Party has imploded. Also, the weather is terrible. I, needless to say, continue to seek solace in the kitchen and recently embarked on an absorbing new baking project, one that requires much time and patience but has proved to be a great distraction from the Westminster shenanigans.

To give some idea of the timescale of this venture, I started the long, slow journey towards baking my own sourdough bread on the day of the Brexit referendum over three weeks ago and have only in the last few days baked my first loaves.

A sourdough loaf is bread in its purest form. Unlike most commercially made breads (including some so-called “artisanal”, “hand-baked” varieties that pose as sourdough bread), which are loaded with chemical preservatives, E numbers and colouring, a sourdough loaf is made only from flour, water and salt. A true sourdough requires many hours to rise; commercial bread can be made (with the help of fast-acting yeast and unhealthy flour improvers) in a matter of minutes. But the greatest difference is in the taste—most shop-bought bread is just bland, empty carbs, sourdough is wonderfully satisfying and flavourful. It has a mildly sour taste, a chewy feel and is much more nutritious and easily digestible.

A sourdough loaf doesn’t use yeast but a fermented flour and water mix known as a “starter”, sometimes called leaven. It is this fermentation which, after many days, will become the natural raising agent for the bread. Today’s recipe is a step-by-step way of creating a starter. Next time we’ll make the bread. The very definition of slow food.

I’ve now made two loaves with my starter and I’m exploring different ways of using the portion of the starter that is discarded every day. I’ll also share some of those findings next time. Be warned, bakers can become wildly obsessed with their starters, some even give them names and treat them like pets, “feeding” them and taking them on holiday so they don’t “die”.

I hope you’ll join me on my sourdough journey, even if you’re not seeking refuge from political upheaval. If you follow today’s recipe, you won’t have anything to eat immediately but you will create something that new governments can’t—the certainty of great bread forever. It can’t do much about the weather though.

Sourdough starter

100g wholemeal flour (atta), preferably organic, for the initial mix 1kg wholemeal flour, for “feeding”A large bowl and a very clean large jar

Starting your starter

Put 100g wholemeal flour into a large bowl and add enough room temperature, filtered water to make a thick paste. Give the mixture a good stir to remove any lumps, then cover the bowl and leave it in a draught-free place. If you have a very hot, humid Indian kitchen, put it in the least hot place you can find and keep an eye on it—perhaps start your cycle in the evening. Check the mixture every few hours until there are bubbles on the surface and it’s starting to give off a sour fermented smell.

In a cold kitchen like my Edinburgh one, the bowl needs to be placed in the warmest place you can find.

Depending on how warm your kitchen is, this stage could take a few hours or a few days. If there are no bubbles after 24 hours, give it a good stir, cover it again and leave for another 24 hours. Mine definitely took a good few days.

If there’s no sign of life after five days, you may have to start again.

Feeding your starter

When the bubbles begin to appear, the starter is a living being, ready for regular feeding. It’s best to decide on a time to tend to your starter, perhaps before or after work, and stick to the same time every day.

Add 100g wholemeal flour to the bubbling starter and enough room temperature, filtered water to make a thick batter. Mix it well, pour it into the clean jar, cover with a lid and leave for 24 hours at room temperature (less if your room is very hot).

The next day, remove half the mixture and discard it. Put 100g flour into the remaining starter in the jar and mix well, then add enough water to make a thick batter again. Continue this discard-refresh with flour and water routine every day for about a week (in very hot conditions, you might need to refresh the starter two-three times a day). If you can’t bear the idea of throwing away all this starter, add some flour and eggs to it and make pancakes. But the starter won’t be ready to make your first sourdough loaf for at least a week.

Maintaining your starter

If you’re planning to make bread regularly—at least every other day—continue to feed your starter by discarding half and adding more flour and water every day (more if it’s bubbling madly after a few hours)—it’s this process that keeps your starter in tip-top health.

If you want to bake less frequently, put more flour into the starter to make a very stiff dough—and it shouldn’t need to be fed for about four days. Putting more flour into the mixture slows down the bubbling.

Or you could keep your starter jar in the fridge for a week without feeding.

If you leave a stiff dough in the fridge, it should be good for two weeks. When you take it out of the fridge, bring it back to room temperature and refresh with flour and water before using it.

The Way We Eat Now is a fortnightly column on new ways of cooking seasonal fruits, vegetables and grains. Pamela Timms tweets at @eatanddust and posts on Instagram as Eatanddust.

Also Read: Pamela’s previous Lounge columns

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