Saturday, 21 March 2015

Simple Four Day Sourdough Starter... that might just change your life!

Sourdough is nothing to be scared of, and it might just change your life a little bit!

Personally speaking, I've suffered most of the time when I've eaten bread over the last decade (and a little bit more), and discovering sourdough has been a revelation of almost biblical proportions for me. Not only can I eat, nay enjoy, nay... consume in ecstatic rapture (is that OTT?) bread - it's become the tastiest, most delicious, full-of-flavour bread I've eaten.

I now have an understanding of why some artisan sourdough bread is soooo expensive in the shops. Out of my price range, to be fair - and yet, now I can make it myself. Last night, I ate the most delicious bread I've ever eaten in my life - and I made it (and that's really saying something for me)!

A selection of breads made from my sourdough starter, and I'm quite new to this!
What's so special about sourdough? It's the long, slow ferment. This allows the natural wild yeasts that you capture in your starter to slowly work their magic in your dough over a long period of time. There's a lot written about the health benefits of sourdough, and the fact that it's better for diabetics, and for those who suffer eating wheat and gluten because of the way the gluten is broken down over the long ferment (unlike commercially made breads, and even home made bread made with commercial yeast), and the healthy bacteria in the bread, and all sorts of things. There's a really interesting article here which will give you a great insight into what is so good about it. And I'm buying into it, not least because from my own personal experience, I can actually eat this delicious bread without any ill digestive effects. And it's not just bread - you can make pancakes, muffins, crumpets, croissants, hot cross buns (more later!) and all kinds of things - it's amazing!

Even better, it's been really easy. After my starter got going ('Rita' - you have to name your starter, you know, it's a sourdough thing!), it's just sat happily in the fridge - and every time I've taken some out (75g, as it happens), I've just mixed together another 75 of rye flour and water, and replaced it like for like, and put it back into the fridge. How can it possibly be this easy?? I don't know, but it makes me very happy!!! For the simple instructions, scroll right down until you hit the 'Ingredients' and 'Method' etc., but I've given you a bit of an introduction first, and some 'Notes' afterwards as well.

So, to get your starter going, you essentially need only two things.

1. Flour (organic rye flour is best for wild yeasts and easiest to maintain)

2. Water (non-chlorinated)

Plus a container to keep it in (I'd recommend something around 500ml, glass or plastic - I use a Kilner jar with the rubber seal removed so that it's not airtight) and a warmish place out of direct sunlight for it to live for the first few days of its life. An airing cupboard is perfect. No special equipment required, just this and the magic of the wild yeasts that are all around us which will inhabit your starter and ferment it.

I was inspired to start this by a lovely lady called Buff, who was very helpful and recommended a fantastic book called Do Sourdough: Slow Bread for Busy Lives* by Andrew Whitley who is also the author of "Bread Matters" and the co-founder of the UK's Real Bread Campaign. You can find out more about this here, as well as some sourdough FAQs, breadmaking courses, an online shop with breadmaking equipment and even sourdough starter if you want to buy it! I'd recommend the sourdough book as a resource for anyone starting out making sourdough as it has a lot of helpful information in there, some suggestions of how to fit sourdough into your life, and of course some recipes which are great staples and can be a springboard for then adapting and creating your own recipes.

So, you've bought yourself some flour - organic is best, as the grains wouldn't have been sprayed with things to inhibit mold (which would also inhibit wild yeasts), and stoneground (or dark) rye is a good choice as it is the whole grain and has a greater amount of wild yeasts within the flour. I've used Dove's Farm organic rye flour for my starter and it has thrived.

If your tap water is chlorinated you can filter it, or boil it then leave it out the previous day to get rid of the chlorine, or you can buy bottled water, e.g. spring water. I used spring water for the first few days to give my starter the best chance, and use a combination now depending on what I'm doing.

Another good tip, is to mix your starter with clean hands, as you will potentially add more wild yeasts to it and aid fermentation that way too. Just make sure you don't wash/clean them with overly harsh chemicals beforehand.

There's no need to throw away starter every day, you just need a vessel large enough to keep it in, and this is a reasonably small and manageable quantity to make, which you just replace as and when you use some. You don't want a container that is too big, but your starter does need room to double in size when you feed it, plus a little bit more, so 500ml or a bit bigger is good.

That's hopefully enough tips to get going - if you're keeping it in the airing cupboard to start with, maybe keep it in a bowl or dish just in case it becomes very active, so save your towels and sheets from potential spillage!

This is what will become a 100% rye sourdough starter (after you've used it a few times - it starts out with more water as it's easier for the bacteria to multiply in a wetter mix). 100% hydration refers to the fact that the water added to the flour which you will feed it with once it is established will be 100% of the weight of the flour. So if you take out 100g of starter to make some bread, then you will replace it with 50g flour mixed with 50g water to feed / replenish the starter. (Some American recipes refer to 166% starter, as they may have a starter which is 1 cup flour to 1 cup water, and water is heavier than flour by volume).

OK, here we go, make sure everything is clean, including your hands, and here's how to get your starter up and running, based on Andrew Whitley's rye starter method, in his 'Do Sourdough' book.

When adding the water, you want it to be warm, but not hot. I use digital scales to get accurate weights (and I actually tend to warm up 100g water for 2 minutes at 37C each time [Thermomix, speed 2! Or just heat for a few second in a pan on the hob - I did use a thermometer to check the temperature too], and weigh out the 60g I need into a bowl). My airing cupboard is around 20C at the moment, which is a little on the cool side, so I confess to turning on the hot water for a few days while my starter 'took'!

  • 150g organic (stoneground / rye) flour
  • 240g non-chlorinated water
  •  Container, not airtight, to keep your starter in - around 500ml, e.g. Kilner jar (minus rubber seal) or plastic tub with loose lid
  • DAY ONE - mix together 30g rye flour with 60g warm water (30-37 degrees celcius - Thermomix heat 100g water for 2 minutes / 37C / Speed 2, then weigh out with digital scales) with your clean fingers. Gently scrape off as much as you can from your fingers back into the starter once mixed, and store in your starter container (not air-tight) in a warm-ish place, out of direct sunlight (and not in direct contact with anything hot - an airing cupboard is great, near a hot water tank, or near a radiator etc.).

  • DAY TWO - mix together a further 30g rye flour with 60g warm water (30-37 degrees celcius) with your clean fingers in a small bowl. Scrape off  the mixture from your fingers and then add this new mixture to your original starter in its starter container, mix in thoroughly and return to its place.

  • DAY THREE - again, mix together 30g rye flour with 60g warm water (30-37 degrees celcius) with your clean fingers in a small bowl. Scrape off  the mixture from your fingers and then add this new mixture to your original starter, mix in thoroughly and return to its place.

  • DAY FOUR - finally, mix together 60g rye flour with 60g warm water (30-37 degrees celcius) with your clean fingers in a small bowl. Add this to your original starter, mix in thoroughly and return to its warm-ish place for a couple of hours or so - more is fine. If you check your starter after this time, you may notice that there is a fair amount of bubbling and it has increased in volume significantly - at which point, happy days, you have a successful starter, and can now transfer it to the fridge to live until you need some to bake with!
  • USING YOUR STARTER - stir thoroughly and then take out the weight you need for your recipe (most of mine require 75g). Then mix together half and half rye flour and non-chlorinated water to the same weight, then stir into your starter until it is evenly incorporated. When I take out 75g, I just mix together 37g each of flour and water, as you always leave a bit of residue in the bowl, but really, it wouldn't matter if you used 35g, 40g, or whatever, depending on how much baking you have planned in the next few days! If you're going to do a lot of baking on a regular basis, then obviously you can upgrade to a larger container and keep more starter in it - I just find this is a good amount for my family and our baking habits. You can pop it straight back into the fridge, or leave out for an hour or two first if you're likely to use it again within a short space of time.
You may notice a slightly fruity / vinegary, but pleasant smell developing after the first two or three days - this is good, the wild yeasts are doing their magic and fermentation is taking place.

When your starter gets going, you will notice bubbles on the surface, and it will increase in volume - up to double at its peak. You may not see this stage if you just leave it in a cupboard and check on it 24 hours later - but you might see residue on the sides of the jar, showing where it has risen to, before going back down again.

If you notice a layer of watery liquid on the top, maybe a grey-ish colour, don't worry, this just means your starter is hungry. It will probably already have bubbled up and doubled in volume, and then sunk down again, and the water has gathered on the top. Just stir it in and feed again.

Once it's established, your starter should become pretty resilient. Some people dry out some starter to preserve it, some people forget about it and leave it at the back of the fridge for months, but in most cases you should be able to revive it with a feed - if it has been a very long time, it might need more than one feed, but there are lots of places on the internet with information about how to revive starters.

The only time you might have to get rid, is if it gets moldy. Hopefully, this won't happen, as the good bacteria which thrive in your starter keep the bad bacteria at bay, and it's all quite an amazing natural process. But if you see mold growing on top of your starter, and you're not sure, 'if in doubt, chuck it out'. 

Once you've got into baking with your sourdough starter (and beware, it becomes quite addictive!), you'll become used to how it tastes, and how tangy it is, and how quickly things rise, double etc. in the environment you prove them in, and adjust your timings according to your tastes. It's a really fun journey, and there are a lot of groups and communities you can join for hints and tips and recipes, and inspiration. On Facebook, I quite like 'Sourdough Bakers' and 'Perfect Sourdough' - there are some amazing breads people make in there!

Another great resource is YouTube. I've found a whole new world of bread, and how to knead it (particularly the 'sloppy' stuff! Thank you Bertinet!), fold it, how to shape it (batards, baguettes), how to tell when it's under/over-proved, how to slash it (oh, now you'll be buying things!), and how to bake it. I've found some videos posted by 'Northwest Sourdough' incredibly useful, and will link to them where relevant in sourdough recipes I post.

What I have found, is that it seems to mostly be very forgiving. You can make your 'sponge' (the first, sloppier bit where your starter gets a good feed and sits around for a few hours AKA 'production sourdough', 'refreshment' etc.), then add it to your 'soaker' (the other bit of dough you make up, and set aside to soak for half an hour, before mixing with your sponge) to make your 'final dough' and then choose whether you stick it in the fridge overnight, or for a couple of days - or whether you then shape and prove from there. It's a bit of a learning process, and for the first few days of a new starter you might find that your loaves are of the flatter variety, and you may end up over-proving them a little while waiting for them to rise - but they still taste delicious, keep for far longer than conventional bread, and are absolutely delicious toasted, so keep at it, and in a week or two you'll be amazed at what you're producing! A dutch oven is a good investment too, if you don't have one - and if you don't want to run to Le Creuset, then just go to the supermarket for their version, and buy one on sale in an unpopular colour for just a few pounds!

So, there you are - hopefully this will start you on an amazing new journey of breadmaking - and if you've found bread products troublesome to your digestive system in the past (like I did), I hope you now find that you have a whole new world of bread open to you, on an 'artisan' level that you can make in your own home.

Now... go think up a name to christen that starter with!

This is 'Rita' a couple of hours after a 'feed', bubbling up!

*Amazon affiliate link.


  1. I started on my bread making journey at the same time as Andrea, having been part of the same conversation thread on Andrea's Facebook Group (5:2 Intermittent fasting recipes from around the world). I too bought the Andrew Whitely's book and proceeded to make my starter (Flossie) and bake my first ever sourdough bread. I came unstuck a few times to be honest, as some of the instructions in the book weren't particularly clear....well to me anyway. This blog of Andreas is crystal clear and gives you all the advice, hints and tips that you need to make the perfect starter and bread. Andreas writing is always clear and concise and full of useful information as well as being interesting and humorous. Her recipes are pretty good too! Check them won't be disappointed. I wasn't. Thanks Andrea for your inspiration. Keep those recipes coming :)

  2. Right, "Winston" has been fed for the forth time just now.... I do not see it bubble very much I have to say.... Anyway, I have to find a first recipe to make with it tomorrow... :-D I watched a Youtube video where people were keeping it on top of their fridge... not inside it.
    Thank you for your post, I found it very clear, informative and inspiring!

  3. Ooooooh, so going to try this! Hubby had a disaster trying to create a 'starter' so he'd be super happy if we can get this to work! Thankyou Andrea

  4. Thank you all - it's been amazing seeing how peoples' starters are coming along on the Book of Face - there are a few threads in my 5:2 recipe group (for '5' days, of course!!) where people have posted photos of their very healthy looking starters and loaves (and good to see how enormous and healthy yours is now, Marianne!!), and it's inspiring seeing the loaves which have been baked too! I am in the midst of a post about baking loaves which has taken me longer to write than I hoped, but will be posting it soon in the hope that it's helpful to other people :)

  5. Thank you for this article. I need to make new starter, I started growing one but it had mould on it. I don't recommend using light rye for creating a new starter, because that is what I used. I like the idea of combining the water and flour together in the thermo and heating it.

  6. how come other starter recipes call for half of starter to be removed after couple of days and new feeding? Trying to start my own starter, I'm afraid I'm reading too much. Please help.

  7. Don't worry - you really don't need to throw any away if you use sensible quantities that cater to your needs and you bake regularly - and a well established starter will also usually survive for quite a while in the fridge without being fed, and be easily revived. Some people say that back in the day, this practice was encouraged by those who wanted to sell flour... ;)

  8. Gonna start this. If into works as well as Andrea's other recipes it'll be amazing!

    1. Thanks Bobby - good luck with your starter, don't forget to give it a name! :D

  9. Well I have made my starter and it looks OK, although like Marianne and her 'Winston', mine hasn't bubbled a lot. However I didn't put it in the airing cupboard and mine is never that warm, because the hot water tank is super-insulated. I've had it on the go for about a week now, so will try some bread this weekend.

    1. Exciting! Good luck with your bread making this weekend, have you made sourdough before, or is this the first time? If it's the first time, don't worry if your first couple of loaves come out a little flatter than you hope, it will get stronger and stronger, and they still taste good toasted!

    2. Ha, well it's turned out quite well. I just made a tin loaf to start with as although I have made sourdough before, it was a while ago and I always failed to look after my starters. I have been good with this one and am determined to take care of it. Thank you for the recipe - probably the easiest and most effective started I've made :D

    3. That's fantastic to hear - I like this one as I find it's pretty low maintenance and doesn't generally require any to be thrown away if you use it every few days and just top it back up.


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