Several years ago a friend who knew how to pique my interest in baking showed me an article about sour dough starters. He knew not just that I would be compelled to try and succeed at this seeming mysterious natural bread making but also that he would gain from my constant gift for over baking. I have always adored bread in every form. When I arrive anywhere overseas my first stop is always a bakery. I believe that bread tells you so much about the people of a place. When I first moved to South Kensington to start my studies at the Royal College of Music I was so overexcited that I would be a short walk from the German Food Store, where fresh dense wholesome loaves were flown in from Germany. Within two weeks of my arrival the shop had closed and become a steakhouse. The tragedy. I do love a Vollkornbrot too.
So by exploring this sour dough starter I might one day be able to make my own delicious loaves of not just German bread but also any loaf or bagel or roll I could imagine. In my naivety I had rationed that before the advent of modern aggressive yeasts that all bread must have been made this way so the world would be my oyster. I was dumb to the fact that yeasts had many different varieties and had developed over the centuries. But this didn’t matter. It allowed me to learn a valuable lesson in how to experiment daily to create my own methods to get the best results from my baking.
Many loaves failed as I continued to adapt the recipes and I learned that this was the only true way to create knowledge. With a friend Val who joined my cause we set about playing with the cheapest flours so our crap loaves weren’t too costly. Our motto seemed to be “It just flour, water, salt and time. That’s just nuts!” With my arduously gained knowledge I used to misadvise Val on the best techniques to get a good loaf out of so little for which I must again say sorry Val. But I felt like a great 17th century home economics scientist making breakthroughs with endless observations and assumptions. It was blissful.
The strangest part was that while I was eating endless bread and cakes during my experiments I was shedding weight and for the first time in my life I wasn’t continually hungry. This was the good bacteria found in the starters that passed into the bread. We began to joke that we ought to write a book called the Bread & Cake diet. Who wouldn’t want to follow that fad!
I joke about this but I certainly couldn’t advocate a book on eating to lose weight as I do not have the nutritional knowledge or the medical understanding to dare to make millions off the back of a crazy lie. I did however lose several stone but I suspect this is because ever greater medical research is discovering that good gut bacteria is essential to good health. There have been many advances in the understanding of gut bacteria on many illnesses so I will just say give sour dough a go and see how you feel.
Sour dough starters can be made with any flour and the key to its magic is that its yeasts are natural and found all around us in the world. The long fermentations allow the difficult to digest parts of flours to be pre-digested making them far more gentle on the gut. I am talking about no more bloating and that is surely a good thing. My starters are now 7 years old and still going strong but some starters are many decades old. Wow nature. Its a living colony and as long as it’s fed it will live forever.
A large glass storage jar with a rubber seal
Firstly you will need to sterilise the jar so that it is clean from random bacterias. Dismantle the jar by removing the rubber and wire frames. Pour boiling water on the rubber seal, leaving it to soak and either pop the glass jar and lid in the dishwasher or wash thoroughly in warm water and then pop into the oven for 15 minutes on 140C 280F or gas mark 2. Allow to cool with the glass lid on top until cool enough to handle and reassemble the wire frame and rubber seal.
Add 75g of flour and the same weight in water. Then stir together with a spoon. Do not use a wooden spoon as this may harbour bacterias that will ruin your starter. I now use a plastic spoon as with my vigorous stirring with a metal spoon, I once cracked the glass jar. Try not to allow any lumps to remain, this is far easier with rye flour which blends together very easily. Seal the jar and leave on a shelf in the kitchen and wait 24 hours before repeating the process. Do not leave in sunlight or a warm cupboard as this will upset the balance of the developing colony.
Day two, add 75g of flour and the same weight in water and stir. this must be repeated for 10 days. By day four the battle of the bacterias will be underway and the liquid will honk badly. Really badly. As the battle continues day by day the the good bacteria will win out and the smell will take on the aroma of a gentle yogurt. If you find this is not the case and the smell is more like acetone then continue to feed it but add less water. If the starter is too watery and thin it will begin to smell sharp and nasty. White flour especially seems to like less water. Rye flour enjoys a little extra water or it become too viscous. Rye can be used to make wonderful German breads with wheat or rye berries.
You will need to just keep sniffing and adapting the amount of water. Once you have a fully active starter you can begin to make bread. You need you need to feed your starter everyday unless you pop it in the fridge. In the fridge it will need feeding every 4 days to a week. If you plan to use it to make a loaf then get it out of the fridge and feed it 24 hours before use.
Don’t worry if your starter goes a tad acrid when you forget to feed it. Just pour off most of the starter leaving a few centimetres in the bottom and begin feeding it again for 10 days to a week the battle will begin again and good bacteria will prevail once more. You will soon love your jars of magic ferments. Many bakers name theirs but I don’t. They are my white starter and my rye starter. But that’s just me.
There are so many endless ways to use your starters and the advantage with this starter in a jar over the divided dough version is that you don’t have to cut free a lump of dough to keep for the next batch of bread. This way you can pause and chill your starter until you are ready again to bake bread. Just remember to feed it. It takes just a few minutes and the benefits are vast.