In Pursuit of a Sourdough Starter

Why Sourdough Bread?

Couple of years ago, I had that craving for a traditional rye sourdough bread that I used to devour still warm, smeared with a slash of butter. That bread came from our local bakery and the baker was known for making bread in a traditional way with own sourdough starter. In that bakery, you could buy a borsch starter as well. That was back in the day in my childhood, in Poland.

Nowadays, getting a quality bread is a task. Here in the UK, breads are different, made with bleached, fortified flour, soft, quite light and without a substantial crust. I stopped eating mass produced breads long time ago and I feel better for it.

First Attempt

However, craving for childhood treats did not go away. I went on to source some rye flour, scoured the internet for a sourdough rye bread recipe and I began with making a starter. I nursed it for a few days and fussed over preparing bread dough. The end result was a disappointment to say the least. The bread rose, then it sunk while remaining raw inside. I was gutted and discouraged from sourdough bread baking for a while. I went back to baking quick breads with yeast in a bread machine every now and then.

Nowadays, artisan breads and bakeries are cropping up everywhere and I thought of a sourdough rye bread again. I still needed a fire proof starter recipe, so I asked around and few people knew roughly how to do it, but it was quite superficial knowledge with each person giving me sometimes contradictory tips. Online, there is such an abundance of recipes that it could be dizzyingly confusing. I went through a few recipes and decided to follow two, one with wholemeal rye flour and another with all purpose flour.

Giving Starter Another Go

I found organic wholemeal rye flour in a local Polish shop. The wholemeal rye flour is known in Poland as “razowa”, meaning it was milled only once and it contains whole grains providing all minerals and vitamins from a grain. It is the best source of yeasts for your starter, as wild yeasts live freely on grains.

Both recipes were following a similar method, you need to mix roughly same amount of flour and filtered water with a wooden spoon, leave it to stand for 24 hours in a stable room temperature, covered with a kitchen towel. Temperature is important, because when it is too cold the process slows down and when it gets too hot wild yeasts most likely will ferment fast and produce more alcohol, making the starter unsuitable for a bread making.

 

It is wise to start with a small amount of a starter, if anything goes wrong, you simply discard a batch and start over again. Once the starter is well established, you can keep it in a fridge and feed it accordingly before a planned bread baking. Do remember to retain a small batch of starter after each baking for future use. Simply store it in a fridge and feed it once a week. In case it fermented too much, discard most of it and feed the starter and that should fix the issue.

Why I Kept on Pursuing 

The idea sounds simple, so why most people cannot be bothered or if they are bothered, why do things go wrong? Starter is a living animal, reacting to humidity and temperature. It needs wholemeal flour, rye is the best as rye grains are populated with natural wild yeasts and that promotes a good growth. Besides, breads made with such a starter have a taste and quality that baker’s yeasts breads are unable to provide. Baker’s yeasts speed up the process while bread made with a starter needs time to rise. It rewards your patience and perseverance with that unique flavour – I love to open the cupboard and smell that sourish yeasty aroma from a bread. Additionally, sourdough breads keep fresh for longer.

Few Things to Remember

The wholemeal rye flour is the best source of yeast and bacteria to make your starter do the job. The rye flour makes it easy to maintain a starter in between baking – it requires feeding every couple of days and extra feeding ahead of baking. Yeasts live on the outside of a grain so white rye flour might not do as good job as the whole grain.

It is important to keep your station clean, use clean utensils and glass jars, wooden spoons preferably and handle things with clean hands. In case you introduced unfriendly bacterias into your starter, you will notice a strong, rancid smell or change in a colour. In such case, you will have to discard all the starter and start all over again.

 

What Happened Next

Returning to my starter palaver, on the second day I noticed few air bubbles in one of jars, though it did not double. Still, I fed both of them. You feed it equal amount of water and rye flour, stir with wooden spoon and leave it it to rest on your counter, away from direct sun. I give it about 40 grams of water and flour respectively. In case, the starter goes berserk, you will not lose too much ingredients and at the beginning you are throwing away some of it before feeding it anyway. Besides it is easy to make extra more starter if you plan on baking more breads.

The following day, I saw more action, but starters were still kind of slow, so I discarded about half of each starter and fed them again and I repeated the process the next day. I think a reason behind them being slow, was unusually cold days. You just need to be patient with your “baby” at times.

After six days, it was time for starters to be well established, but the starter which looked the most promising, started to produce too much alcohol, I had to discard about 3/4 of it and fed it again. Unfortunately, the next day there was no improvement. However, the other starter matured and became quite lovely with musky smell and plenty of air bubbles. I still tried to save the ailing one, but the next day I had to discard it. The starter which was slow to begin with, proved to be a winner.

Happy Ending

My starter seems to be doing better and better with each baking. I guess I have learnt a lot from the whole process too: you cannot follow every recipe to the letter and panic too early. The climate and environment you live in are very important also. The whole sourdough business is a slow process that requires planning ahead, perseverance and patience, but it does not take away much of your time because all the work happens in the background.
Whole rye flour is highly recommended, as it keeps starter well out of trouble even if you forget to feed it for a couple of days: just discard most of it and feed it to give it a boost. Other vital ingredients is filtered water, no tap water as it could contain chlorine.

 

 

 

How to Keep Starter Alive and Kicking

When you are setting up a new starter, feeding or refreshing, is an important step to establish healthy starter colony. You will need to throw away a half or 3/4 of a starter before each feeding. This way yeasts will get extra boost to multiply and it also dilutes any alcohol and acid which is a byproduct of fermentation process so the yeasts will not get killed off by it.

 

Afterwards, you can store the starter in a fridge, just feed it each week, leave it on a counter for few hours or overnight before returning to a fridge. If you keep a starter on a counter, feed it more often. Keep it more thick-paste like, as it slows the process, more water speeds it up.

Last but not least, have fun baking and sampling breads. Do not shy away from experimenting with different flours and recipes. It is very homely to smell a fresh sourdough bread. The flavours it gives away are the ultimate reward for the effort and patience it requires.

Easy steps to make a starter

  • 40g wholemeal rye flour
  • 40ml filtered or bottled water
  • Clean glass jar and kitchen towel to cover
  • Combine water and flour together with a wooden spoon. Leave jar on the counter away from the sun, in a place with a stable temperature.
  • On a second day, discard a half of mixture and feed the starter again with 40 g of flour and 40 ml of water.
  • Repeat these steps on the 3rd day. You should notice air bubbles in the starter already. You will need to repeat these steps for next 3 to 4 days until you will see your starter alive and well with plenty of air bubbles and smelling musky. It should be ready by then to use in baking.

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