Lets get it Started

As I’ve recently started giving away my starter (free to a good home), I thought I’d do a non-baking post, but one about the actual starter – how to care for and love it.
When I first started, gosh, it must be about four years ago now, I remember being very confused about what to do with it, how to feed it, how much to use, etc.
So, here is a dump of everything I can think of, things you might want to know when you first get into sourdough baking.

Acquiring a starter
Beg, steal or borrow starter from someone you know or your local bakery or friends. There are lots of places online you can buy starters from too, and they come with full instructions on how to activate it. I say “activate”, as normally you would receive starter in a form of powder, and you would need to convert it into a proper liquid starter. Failing all that, you can start your own starter, again lots of links on google that will tell you how to do that – it will take about a week or so to do it from scratch, but you’ll get a real sense of achievement from doing it (or is it just me? :)
One thing I would say, choose a simple flour and water starter instructions, there are lots of juice / milk / fruit / even yeast (!!) starter instructions out there – I’ve always stuck to water and flour ones and they work really well for me. I had one orange juice starter disaster right at the beginning of my bread obsession – never again, but, hey, it might work for you.

Whats your Animal?
So, lets say you have a jar of precious little animal that you call our own – your very own starter. My “animal” is called Marjorie – don’t ask. Again, when I first started, I used to keep three starters – “Marjorie the Whitty” (100% white, my own starter made from scratch), “Brenda Brown” (100% rye, daughter of Steve – converted from white into rye) and “Boris the Russian” (125% white, bought Russian starter).
“Brenda” died quite early on, and as I later learnt, there isn’t really a point in keeping rye starter, it isn’t very stable and doesn’t keep well for long periods. I tried creating “Brenda II”, taking a bit of white starter and feeding it wholemeal flour – that worked much better, the starter was much more stable and keeps well in the fridge.
“Boris the Russian” turned into “Boris the Stinker” – somehow I got an infection in my starter, it went all funny green-goo colour and got a really REALLY bad smell. Unfortunately that was the end of it, I had to throw it all out and get rid of the jar - it was that bad!!
So, “Marjorie” is still alive and kicking and so is “Brenda II”. Actually I completely forgot, up till now, that I used to name them, I guess its just one of those things that you do when you are a new baker (or is it just me again?)

Getting to know you
If you got given some starter, here are a couple of things you might want to ask about it:
– what hydration is it at
– what flour does it take
– what water does it take
– how does it behave
– does it like flowers or chocolates
okay, I’ve made the last one up, but the rest of them are actually valid questions.

Hydration : what water : flour ration is it being fed? Is it by weight or volume? Most common hydrations are :
100% - starter being fed equal parts of water and flour, by weight, say 30g of water + 30g of flour
125% - starter being fed equal parts of water and flour, by volume, say 37.5g of water + 30g of flour
50% - starter being fed one part of water and two parts of flour, by weight, say 30g of water + 60g of flour

I keep all my starters at 100%, just cause its easier for me that way, and when I see a recipe with a different hydration, I just adjust water / flour volumes accordingly.

Flour : use bread flour, strong bread flour, specialised flour, whatever, DO NOT use self-raising flour or cake flour. Extra additives in self-raising flour and bleached cake flour will interfere with the natural yeast in your sourdough starter and won’t work as well as bread flour. I use Italian flour for most of my breads – I buy it in bulk from Shipton Mill, in 25kg bags, but they do 1kg and 2.5 kg bags too. Again, when I first started, I used to buy all sorts of different flours from them, whether now I stick to Italian for my day to day loaves, French for baguettes, Canadian for bagels, rye (white and dark) for any rye breads and wholemeal for brown breads. Try baking with a few different flours, see which one you like the best.
Another thing to note, that different flours will have different absorption levels, such as wholemeal is more “thirsty” than white flour, but not anywhere near as much as rye flour. A 100% starter made from white flour look quite different to a 100% starter made from wholemeal flour – wholemeal would be much darker in colour (naturally) and much thicker than the white one.

Water : this is hardly worth mentioning, as most of people use regular tap water, however, in some countries / places water from the tap is quite hard or high in chlorine, and you might want to use bottled water.

Behaviour : its all about how quickly it reaches its peak after its been fed, it can vary anywhere from 2 to 6 hours, depending on the type of starter, the type of flour, temperature in your house, etc, etc…. The first time you are working with a starter, it’s worth marking / recording how quickly rises every hour or so just to give you an idea of what you are dealing with. You can use the starter any time within 24 hours past it’s peaked, it will have a small impact on the proofing time, but nothing too major – anyway, play with it to see what suits you best.

Feed me
Any starter that hasn’t been fed / refreshed for 3 days is considered to be “storage” starter, and I normally keep my storage starter in the fridge, only take it out when I am planning to bake.

Okay, so say you have your starter, either active and bubbling after you’ve created your own or bought one or it is quiet and sleeping, if you got if from someone else. What do you do with it? Take a tablespoon worth of starter, place it into a ceramic or glass bowl (not metal). The rest of the starter can go into the fridge – this will become your storage starter.

Add 30g of flour and 30g of water to the bowl with your tablespoon of starter.

Mix everything well, to make sure that flour and water well mixed up with the starter.

Cover loosely with plastic (I use shower caps for it) and leave for anywhere from 8 to 12 hours. Repeat “refresh” or “feeding” again – add another 30g of flour and 30g of water to the mixture, mix well and cover loosely with plastic again. Do this 2 to 3 days in the row, “feeding” starter with equal parts of flour and water every 8 to 12 hours.

In the first day (or even two) you probably won’t see much activity, all you going to see is a bowl full of goo, with not many bubbles and not much smell.
However, by day three you should definitely see some action – expect the mixture to be quite light and bubble and it should start smelling quite sweet and fruity – I know it sounds weird, but just trust me on this one.

Carry on feeding it until the starter looks very active and very healthy

Here is a suggested feeding schedule – I normally go with twice a day schedule, cause it suits me better.

Schedule 1
Day 1
Storage non-active starter = 10g
8am feed 1 = 30g flour + 30g water
4pm feed 2 = 30g flour + 30g water
12pm feed 3 = 30g flour + 30g water
Weight by end of Day 1 = 190g
Day 2
8am feed 4 = 30g flour + 30g water
4pm feed 5 = 30g flour + 30g water
12pm feed 6 = 30g flour + 30g water
Weight by end of Day 2 = 370g

Schedule 2
Day 1
Storage non-active starter = 10g
8am feed 1 = 30g flour + 30g water
8pm feed 2 = 30g flour + 30g water
Weight by end of Day 1 = 130g
Day 2
8am feed 3 = 30g flour + 30g water
8pm feed 4 = 30g flour + 30g water
Weight by end of Day 2 = 250g
Day 3
8am feed 5 = 30g flour + 30g water
8pm feed 6 = 30g flour + 30g water
Weight by end of Day 3 = 370g

370g of starter is plenty to do one or even two loaves of bread, but you don’t have to use all of it. If you have any left, you can either add it to your storage starter in the fridge or take whatever is left and carry on feeding it for the next few days to bake again in a few days, depends how quickly you go through your bread.

During the activation process, feedings and in-between, keep your starter at room temperature, loosely covered.
Now what
Righto, you have your starter, it’s alive and kicking, what can you do with it now? If you follow a recipe from a book or online, you will have all the instructions you need as to when start your bread and when it is likely to be ready.

If you are looking for generic guidance on how long the whole process takes, you can use my schedule as an example :
1 day bread
Mix all ingredients – ½ hour to an hour, including autolise (rest time between mixing all the ingredients and adding salt)
Fold and stretch – 1 ½ hours, 3 stretches, every half an hour
Bulk fermentation – 4 to 6 hours, depending on the type of dough, weather, etc.
Shape – 10 minutes
Second fermentation – 3 to 5 hours, again, depending on a number of factors
Bake – 40 minutes
Cool – overnight
Next morning
Ready to eat

2 days bread
Late afternoon / Early evening of Day 1
Mix all ingredients – ½ hour to an hour, including autolise (rest time between mixing all the ingredients and adding salt)
Fold and stretch – 1 ½ hours, 3 stretches, every half an hour
Evening of Day 1
Bulk fermentation – 3 to 4 hours, as long as you can really
Before you go to bed of Day 1
Shape – 10 minutes
Place the dough in the fridge overnight (6 to 12 hours)
Morning of Day 2
Take the dough out of the fridge and leave to warm up to room temperature – 1 to 2 hours
Afternoon of Day 2
Bake – 40 minutes
Cool – 4 to 8 hours
Evening of Day 2
Ready to eat

Rye breads need to be wrapped in plastic and left to develop for another 24 hours before you can slice them up, otherwise they will be wet and gummy inside.
Never ever be tempted to slice into a still-warm loaf of sourdough bread, the flavour will not be the same. I mean, it will still taste nice and everything, but you won’t get that rich, slightly tangy flavour that a fully developed and cooled sourdough has.

That’s all I can think of right this moment, but that should give you enough to get you going – good luck and happy baking.

Shout if you have any questions.

I've had a couple of requests for a basic sourdough recipe, so here it is:
150g active 100% hydration white starter (as activated above)
280g water
500g white flour
1 ½ tsp salt


150g active 100% hydration white starter (as activated above)
290g water
400g white flour
100g rye flour
1 ½ tsp salt

Mix everything but the salt together on speed 1 in a free standing mixer for 6 minutes, leave to rest covered (autolise) for 20 minutes, add salt and mix for further 2 minutes on speed 2 this time. Place in an oiled bowl and leave to prove at room temperature for 4 to 6 hours, until it doubles in volume. Knock the dough back, shape, cover again and leave to prove again for another 3 to 4 hours, until it nearly doubles again.
Slash the loaf and bake for 40 minutes in a hot oven, at 200C, rotating the loaf once, half way through the baking.
Thats about it


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