Sourdough starter



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I wanted to begin this introduction with - ‘A sourdough starter is for life, not just for Christmas’ - borrowing of course from that well known and important slogan for buying and keeping pets. Yet there is slight problem, in that presenting a viscous pot of bubbling matter to say your children, nieces or nephews, is a far cry from opening a bow-tied box and watching soft ball of fur enthusiastically jump out. Coupled with a set of instructions that this ‘pet’ requires constant feeding and burping and a reminder that expenditure on flour (organic) may send your bills through the roof, will suddenly make the whole proposition unattractive at best.

But I really can’t start off with the adage from Battersea Dogs Home because, reader, I have neglected and killed many a sourdough starter off in the past. And there, I’ve said it.

God, I feel awful.

Actually, I haven’t really killed anything. The species of microbes or lactobacilli that exist as yeast, the wild fungus that float around us and magically transform flour, salt and water into tasty sourdough bread are extremely resilient. Veronica, for that is my sourdough starter’s name, has gone through many transitions and life-cycles. After a forgetful period in the fridge, she will often look quite sorry for herself; sat in the jar, with water separating and looking slightly grey. Or dead. But all it takes is a quick pouring off and good teaspoon of gloop, scooped from the bottom into another jar, some water and flour to feed and boom, we are soon off again.

Setting up your own ‘mother’ culture is quite straightforward. There are lots of methods, ranging from using grapes, crushed apples and leftover dough to kickstart things. But truly speaking, you just need a bit of time and patience and a quiet corner of the kitchen. Like I said, they are plenty of natural spores wandering around in the air and it is nice to know that what exists in your own environment, may differ from elsewhere. What I mean to say is that sourdough starters can vary from location to location. The flavour of your bread will be, quite subtly, unique to you.

As an idea for a gift, you may obviously want to give a jar to the food lover in your family or someone who has more than a passing interest in baking. Aunt Edith might be miffed that you haven’t given her the usual box of shortbread. But in giving a jar to the right person, you might just send them on a journey that will last a lifetime.

If you hear down the line, in say a month or so, that the son or daughter of Veronica (you can choose your own name by the way) has passed away, just tell them to revive with that teaspoon trick. And in future, tell them to keep the starter in the freezer in cryogenic suspension. After de-frosting, it will come back to life just as quick.

  • Sourdough starter

  • unbleached white flour
  • water, tepid
Begin by pouring 300g of flour into a bowl and mix with 300ml of tepid water. Cover loosely with a tea-towel and leave in warm spot in the kitchen
Keep an eye on things and stir every now and then, especially if the water and flour starts to separate. After a few days, hopefully, you will begin to see bubbling on the surface and the mix will begin to have a slightly sour smell. This may take up to a week though
Once you begin to see bubbles, pour roughly half of the mixture away and replace with more flour and water, approximately 150g/ml of each
Continue this on a daily basis, pouring half away down the sink and replacing with fresh flour and water. This is known as the ‘feeding’ stage, where you want to get the starter up to full strength. Again, time is also the key and factors may vary depending on the environment in your kitchen. Stick with it though
After a week of feeding, I would say that it is now safe to decant into a jar. The starter itself should be quite lively and after tasting, should be slightly fizzy and sour
At this stage, you can also begin to divide off the waste element into other jars for presents. Start off with small amounts, say adding 50g of the mother culture and feed with the same 150g/ml of both flour and water
Once you get going, be aware of the size of the jars you are using. Ordinary-sized Kilner jars can hold 500g, so you want to keep at around the 300g mark. Any more and your starters will very likely rise up and seep out of the jars. The carbon dioxide they belch will also make the lids pop when you open them, so beware
To give as gifts, ensure that each jar comes with a set of instructions to feed prior to using for baking, using the same method of pouring half away and adding the flour and water back
To use for baking a sourdough loaf, begin the day before by making your ‘sponge’, which helps to enhance the yeast in the starter further (feel free to print these instructions and give alongside your starter!)
Place 225g of unbleached strong white bread flour in a bowl and add 350ml water and 125g of sourdough starter. Roughly mix it altogether and leave overnight
In the morning, mix in another 225g of flour and add 2–3 tsp of salt to the sponge. Remove from the bowl and knead by hand. The mix will feel quite wet, so it is useful to lightly oil the surface you’re working on to prevent too much sticking. Resist adding more flour though
Knead for a good 5–10 minutes, so that the dough becomes smooth, then leave to rest for 10 minutes
Knead again for another 5 minutes or so and form into a tight ball by pulling out the dough and pushing it down into the centre with the palm of your hand. Place on a floured tray, dust with some flour and cover with a damp tea-towel
Now is the time to leave it to prove and rise in a warm place, which can take 3–4 hours, as the wild yeast will work slower. The ball may flatten out a touch too but don’t worry as it should spring up in the oven
Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 250°C/gas mark 9.5
After proving, when the dough has doubled in size, slash the top of the dough with a sharp knife and place in the oven on the middle shelf. Bake for 10 minutes and then reduce to 220°C and continue to bake for another 30 minutes. A good tip to help the crust is to quickly spray some water into the oven to create some steam before putting the loaf in
Once cooked, it should have a firm dark crust and make a hollow sound when tapped on the bottom. Leave to cool completely before getting stuck in. The bread should be quite moist and chewy, with various-sized holes in the crumb
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