Inspired by the lovely Ali Bailey’s regular Instagram updates on her sourdough starter and subsequent loaves, I decided to have another go at making one of my own. A previous attempt, a few years back, had been pretty hopeless. I’d followed a gluten free recipe which used organic grapes for the yeast cultures and well, it was an all-round flop. I gave up and moved on with my life. Yet I never quite abandoned the dream of being the proud owner of my very own starter. It was also important that it had to be a starter I had created from scratch, rather than one that had been gifted by someone else. Maybe that’s the gardener in me coming out; the need to know something has grown not by luck or chance, but because you’ve tended and cared for it. The time and effort you have put in then rewards you with a product (yeast) you use to create something (sourdough loaves) that others too can enjoy.
The other thing that has always appealed to me about a sourdough starter is, providing you take the time to feed it every day, that initial starter will go on to produce potentially hundreds of loaves of sourdough. I mean, is that not the ultimate gift that keeps on giving? One blogger boasts a starter that is a phenomenal 18 years old.
So I sat down with my trusty friend Google. What on earth did we do before Google?! And started to do some research. If there is one thing I don’t do, it’s read instructions thoroughly. It’s a trait so out of line with the rest of my personality that even I find it alien. And it seems that a lot of people want to make sourdough starters look REALLY difficult. Maybe it’s a secret club that is only open to a select few; those who battled through pages of instructions for weeks on end and then, resembling a mad haired lunatic, proudly hold aloft their living starter and wail “I DID IT!!!”.
No thank you. Whilst we may all have a lot more time on our hands right now, thanks to another lockdown, I really didn’t want to commit every waking hour to what is essentially water and flour. I’m a great one for adapting recipes to make them simpler, cheaper or more accommodating to the supplies of the average kitchen cupboard. Why not try the same with a starter recipe? Having read a few blogs from the pros, I deduced the following:
- A bottle of spring water is a given. Our tap water contains way too many chemicals likely to nuke the average starter bacteria.
- Organic flours are great, but they don’t contain as many strains of bacteria, making non organic the best choice for your starter.
- The starter needs to be kept warm. For this, the greatest tip I came across was leaving the starter in your oven with just the light on for warmth. Not only does this take the chill off, it also provides a constant temperature, which I think is probably just as important as being kept warm.
I decided to use a mix of half strong white bread flour and half wholegrain bread flour. Later, on the advice of a friend, I added some spelt flour to this. My mix now contains one part of each. I purchased a bottle of Buxton and set about starting my starter with ¼ cup of the flour blend and ¼ cup of water. Most starter recipes suggest starting the feeds at 9am. I decided to start mine at 5pm as I know that I will almost certainly be in the kitchen at this time every day and was unlikely to forget or be late with a feed. Again, tweak the programme to make it work for you – this isn’t supposed to be stressful! Each day I returned at 5pm to remove ¼ cup of the starter (which increases the nutrients available to the starter from the fresh feed) and then feed with another ¼cup of the flour blend and ¼ cup of water.
Most starter guidelines say you should expect to have an active, bubbly starter, that doubles in size after a feed from about day 7. Well, day 7 came and went, as did quite a few days after that. If it hadn’t been for one rather lovely sourdough blogger saying it could take up to 2 weeks, I would almost certainly have given up and thrown the whole lot in the bin. The one thing my starter was doing very well was throwing off a lot of stinky fluid which had an orangey hue to it. No matter how much I strained this off, the next day it would be back again. I trundled off to do another search on Google. This fluid is called hooch. And, as the name suggests, it is an alcohol by product of the starter. The good news is, it meant my starter was in some shape or form alive. The even better news was it was quite simple to remedy. Hooch is a sign that your starter is hungry. I increased the amount of flour I was feeding it and kept the fluid the same, basically creating a 60/40 mix of flour to water. After three days of this I decided a clean jar was in order and, bang around day 16 and in his new clean home, my starter sprang to life. Oh the joy! OK, so there’s not much in life to get excited about right now, but I’m sure I would have felt just as excited over this living, breathing thing if life were in anyway ‘normal’.
So I am now the proud owner of a sourdough starter. One that has, so far, produced a beautiful boule loaf. More on that another time. Oh, and in true starter tradition, he has been named. Brian. Brian the starter. Apparently, it’s like having a pet. And it is; Brian needs feeding once a day, cleaning out a couple of times a week and doesn’t like a change in routine. With another two plus months of lockdown ahead of us I can’t see there being much of a change in routine for a while yet.
If there are any other sourdough starter owners out there, I’d love to hear from you. What do you call yours?