Now is the perfect time to make your own sourdough starter. Not only is it difficult to get hold of yeast in the shops at the moment but also there is something immensely satisfying about taking the time to nurture your very own starter into life and then having it on hand to make delicious sourdough bread for years to come. There are endless sourdough blogs and recipes online and it can sometimes be a bit overwhelming trying to pick your way through the reams of available information when you are only just starting out. Even if you were able to read every single blog, it is likely you would still be wondering how much starter you should use, how much flour, which flour, how long you should prove your bread, whether you should use a proving basket, whether you should use a Dutch oven, how long and what temperature you should bake your bread etc.
Hopefully, I can do all the hard work for you in this respect because I have been honing my sourdough recipe for many years now and have settled on a method that works perfectly every time! Having said that, I love that sourdough is such an unruly and forgiving beast! You never quite know exactly what you’re going to get. Some loaves turn out huge and holey while others are more compact and moist. There are so many variables – the vigour of your starter, the wetness of the dough, the warmth of the weather etc. – and you’ll never be able to perfectly control every one but sourdough is an absolutely delicious bread and once you get the sourdough bug, you will be completely hooked and will want to make it all the time!
Making a wild yeast starter means that you will be using natural, unprocessed yeast in your bread. Once you have established a successful starter, with regular feeding it can literally last for years – in San Francicso, the world capital of sourdough, there are starters that are over 150 years old.
HOW TO MAKE A SOURDOUGH STARTER
- Put a few tablespoons of strong white bread flour in a large jar.
- Stir in enough warm water to make a thickish paste, cover with kitchen paper towel and keep it at room temperature somewhere away from radiators and other heat sources. (Some bakers recommend adding an ‘accelerator’ such as some grated apple or some raisins but this is not really necessary.)
- Leave the mixture for 24 hours then add a few more tablespoons of flour and enough water to maintain its consistency.
- Leave for a further 24-72 hours until you notice tiny bubbles forming throughout and the starter beginning to increase in volume. If a boozy-smelling liquid forms on top, stir it back in. If no bubbles have formed after a few days, it means that your flour paste has not yet been colonised by wild yeast so you’ll need to throw this batch away and start again but don’t be disheartened! It will happen soon enough so keep going!
- Once the flour paste has started to activate, throw away half the starter and add fresh flour and water to bring it back up to the same volume as before.
- Now that your flour and water mixture has been successfully colonised by yeast, you can transfer your starter to the fridge as this will slow it down and make it easier to manage. It will now need feeding once every few days. (You can keep it at room temperature if you wish but it will be much more active and will need feeding at least once a day.)
- After a few feeding cycles, your starter will be nice and strong and you will now be able to use it to make bread.
USING YOUR STARTER TO MAKE SOURDOUGH BREAD
- Make sure your starter is well fed and active the day before you want to make bread with it.
- Take it out of the fridge a couple of hours before you start baking.
- Place 250g of the starter in a large bowl with 500g strong white bread flour*, 320ml warm water and a heaped teaspoon of salt.
- Mix the ingredients together to form a wet dough, cover and leave to autolyse for 30 minutes. (This is when the flour, yeast and water is left to rest, allowing gluten development to begin before kneading, which results in a smoother dough and a better texture of bread.)
- Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 5-10 minutes until a smooth dough is formed.
- Place back in the bowl, cover with a tea towel or reusable plastic cover and leave to rise until it has doubled in volume. Sourdough takes much longer to rise than normal bread because it doesn’t contain commercial yeast. On a lovely warm day, it might be ready within 4 hours. On a cold winter day, it could take up to 12 hours. I normally prepare my dough in the morning and then cook it in the afternoon or evening depending on when it’s ready.
- Heat the oven to 230C.
- Turn the risen dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gently stretch it into an oblong shape. Loosely fold it into three (like folding up a piece of A4 to go into a long thin envelope) then tuck the ends underneath to form a neat, smooth dome of dough with the seams underneath.
- Place the dough on a piece of baking parchment on a baking tray and leave for a further 20 minutes.
- Cut 4 or 5 parallel slashes across the top with a sharp knife or razor blade, spray or drizzle the dough with water, cover with a large upturned casserole or saucepan and cook in the oven for 35 minutes. I have always preferred cooking sourdough under a casserole (Dutch oven method) as I find it gives a better rise and a more consistent crust. Some bakers cook their sourdough loaf inside the casserole with the lid on to start with then lid off for the last bit but I prefer a more freeform method. (You don’t have to cover the bread at all if you don’t want to. The result will be a much crustier bread.)
- Remove the casserole, reduce the oven temperature to 200C and carry on cooking the uncovered bread for a further 10 minutes until it is a deep golden brown colour. Transfer to a cooling rack and cool completely before slicing.
- Store in an airtight container. Freezes well.
*I normally make three different loaves of sourdough: white, Khorasan and malthouse. For the white loaf, I use 500g strong white flour. For the Khorasan, I use 350g Khorasan and 150g strong white. For the malthouse, I use 300g malthouse and 200g strong white.
Let me know how you get on and please don’t hesitate to get in touch if I can help further. Happy baking!