The Musette: sourdough starter

The secret to great bread 

Many of our favorite foods are the product of carefully controlled ageing: dry-aged beef, sharp cheddar and umami-packed miso paste all owe their complex, pungent flavours to microbial fermentation. Sourdough bread works the same way, but instead of fermenting after baking, it all happens on the front end with something called a sourdough starter.

I love sourdough bread but until now have lacked the patience to create a starter to make some. Thankfully, it’s not difficult, just stir together some flour and water and let it sit. That’s right! No mysterious rituals required – just regular injections of flour, water and a lot of patience. Every time you “feed” the starter with fresh flour, those microorganisms get to work converting complex carbs into flavourful sugars, acids and alcohols.

The key here is the wild yeast. Bread is typically made from commercial yeast (fresh or dried) because it’s easier for mass production, it’s easier to store and use, and it proofs breads and pastries in a fraction of the time of the wild version.

By comparison, wild yeast is a bit like an unruly teenager, it has to be constantly maintained and monitored. Wild yeast prefers cooler temperatures, acidic environments and works much more slowly to proof breads and pastries.

So why bother? Because the flavour and texture of products made with wild yeast is way better. The taste is more complex and interesting, the texture is sturdier and more enjoyable to chew.

Note: Making a sourdough starter takes about 5 days. Each day you “feed” the starter with equal weights of fresh flour and filtered water. As the wild yeast grows stronger, the starter will become more frothy and sour-smelling. On average, this process only takes about 5 days, but it can take longer depending on the conditions in your kitchen. As long as you see bubbles and signs of yeast activity, continue feeding it regularly. If there are zero signs of bubbles after three days, start again!

Method

Day 1: Make the Initial Starter

115g (3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons) flour
115g (1/2 cup) filtered water

Weigh the flour and water, and combine them in the glass bowl. Stir vigorously until combined into a smooth batter. It will look like a sticky, thick dough. Scrape down the sides and loosely cover the container with cling film (plastic wrap).

Put the container somewhere with a consistent room temperature of 20°C to 25°C (70°F to 75°F) and let it sit for 24 hours.

Day 2: Feed the Starter

115g (3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons) flour
115g (1/2 cup) filtered water

Hopefully, your starter will have a few small bubbles here and there. The bubbles mean that wild yeast have started making themselves at home, eating eat the sugars in the flour and releasing carbon dioxide (the bubbles) and alcohol. They will also increase the acidity of the mixture, which helps fend off any bad bacteria. At this point, the starter should smell fresh, mildly sweet and yeasty.

If you don’t see any bubbles yet, don’t panic – depending on the conditions in your kitchen, the average room temperature, and other factors, your starter might just be a bit slow to get going.

Weigh and add the flour and water as per day 1.

Day 3: Feed the Starter

115g (3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons) flour
115g (1/2 cup) filtered water

By now, the surface of your starter should be dotted with bubbles and visibly larger in volume. If you stir the starter, it will still feel thick and batter-like, but you’ll hear bubbles popping. It should also smell sour.

Weigh and add the flour and water as per previous 2 days.

Day 4: Feed the Starter

115g (3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons) flour
115g (1/2 cup) filtered water

The starter should be looking very bubbly with large and small bubbles, and it will have doubled in volume. If you stir the starter, it will feel looser than yesterday and full of bubbles. It should also smell pungent.

Add ingredients as per three previous days.

Day 5: Starter is Ready to Use

The starter should have doubled in bulk since yesterday and look very bubbly, even frothy. If you stir the starter, it will feel looser than yesterday, be completely webbed with bubbles and even more pungent.

If everything is looking, smelling, and tasting good, you can consider your starter ripe and ready to use! If your starter is lagging behind a bit, continue on with the Day 5 and Beyond instructions.

Day 5 and Beyond: Maintaining Your Starter

115g (3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons) flour
115g (1/2 cup) filtered water

Once your starter is ripe (or even if it’s not quite ripe yet), you no longer need to bulk it up. To maintain the starter, discard (or use) about half of the starter and then “feed” it with new flour and water.

If you’re using the starter within the next few days, leave it out on the worktop (counter) and continue discarding half and “feeding” it daily. If it’s going to be longer before you use your starter, cover it tightly and place it in the fridge. Remember to take it out and feed it at least once a week.  I usually let the starter sit out overnight to give the yeast time to recuperate before putting it back in the fridge.

How to Reduce the Amount of Starter:

Maybe you don’t need all the starter we’ve made here on an ongoing basis. That’s fine! Discard half the starter as usual, but feed it with half the amount of flour and water. Continue until you have whatever amount of starter works for your baking habits.

How to Take a Long Break from Your Starter:

If you’re taking a break from baking, but want to keep your starter, you can do two things:

Make a Thicker Starter:  Feed your starter double the amount of flour to make a thicker dough-like starter. This thicker batter will maintain the yeast better over long periods of inactivity in the fridge.

What next? Get baking!