Over the years I’ve spent hours trying to make the perfect sour dough loaf and I’ve tried lots of different methods of growing a starter, keeping it alive and then baking with it. I’ve gradually simplified a method that seems to work for me, pretty much everytime.
GROWING A STARTER
There are so many different methods written about, some – Dan Lepard, River Cottage and Moro – favour kicking things off with a few grapes in the mixture (to make the most of the natural yeasts on their waxy skin). Others insist on organic flour, boiled water and tricky mixes – Linda Collister. I’ve found that the simplest way is best and that I can have a starter frothing and ready to bake in around 5 or 6 days.
Rye flour seems to be the best to start things off with – it seems to be high in the natural yeasts and bacteria that get things moving and also high in natural sugars to feed the colony. I use a 50/50 mix of flour and water, straight from the tap and perhaps warmed with a little hot from the kettle if it’s a really cold day. Mix into a gloopy paste, cover and leave to sit for 4-5 days.
You can grow and maintain a different starter for each different flour variety that you like to bake with. Some of my friends have a starter for rye and a starter for white but I’ve found it easier to maintain a single starter and then add whichever flour I’m going to bake with to the pre-dough sponge. Sometimes I gradually change the starter adding white flour to a rye one for a few feeds and vice versa. When you add a different type of flour, it seems to take a few days to return to full vigour: I presume that this is because you’re introducing new and unfamiliar bacteria and yeasts to the starter and an equilibrium needs to be re-established.
When it’s good and frothy, your starter is ready for its first feed. Stir in equal quantities of flour and water and again leave for a day or two. I’m always surprised that a lively looking starter will go very still and quiet after its first feed but don’t worry, the fledgling bacterial and yeast colonies are simply adjusting to new strains that have been introduced in the flour and breaking down the flour into the sugars they feed off.
The starter is actually a colony of several different strains of bacteria and yeasts and it’s the balance of their sour by products that gives each sour dough its unique taste. I notice a difference in smell and taste according to how recently the starter has been fed – longer gap equals stronger taste – or whether it’s been kept in the fridge or work top.
The starter after 4 or 5 days, ready for its first feed.
Again many of the cook books have arcane or complicated rituals for the process of baking with a sour dough starter – especially the Moro cook book. But they all boil down to the same 2 ideas – giving the natural yeasts time to multiply and give off their wonderful flavours in the process, and secondly, standardising your method so you can repeat it, time and again with good results.
I’ve found that it takes 24 or even 36 hours from preparing the starter to taking a loaf out of the oven. Sounds like a long time, and if you’re dying for a slice of crusty, tangy toast, then it is an age. But it just means planning ahead and getting started with your next loaf while you’re still feasting off the first.
A good and frothy, lively starter.
First, feed up your starter – you want a lively, healthy starter and I find that mine is best for baking 8-10 hours after a feed. I give the starter 100g of flour and 100g of water, the night before I want to start baking. In the morning, the starter should be frothy and lively.
Take 250g of starter and add 350g of whichever combination of flours you want to use. I find that a mix of something tasty – rye or wholemeal plus something white and strong works best. Sour dough baking produces a very soft and flexible dough that will spread rather than rise if you don’t use something with a lot of gluten. Add 350g of cold water. Mix and leave to stand until it’s full of bubbles and has risen nicely. In cold weather this can take 4-5 hours – it’s worth it though because all this time lovely flavour is developing.
Sponge on the left and sourdough starter centre. Pizza dough on the right
To the sponge add another 425 of flour – I use something like strong white to give it a real boost of gluten, and 250g of water and 20g of salt (you only add the salt at this stage because it retards the activity of the yeasts in the sponge). Mix and knead well for 10-15 mins. Let it prove until at least doubled in size. Divide in 2, shape and place in proving baskets: I leave mine in the fridge overnight.
Adding flour, salt and water to the sponge.
Fluffy, well proved dough, ready for the oven.
Tip out onto a hot baking tray, slash the tops and bake at around 220c for 40-45 mins.