14 . 03 . 17
Sourdough 101 (How to make a yeast starter)
Yeast close up. Writing and image by Julia Georgallis. To find out more about yeasts, book a spot on our Yeast in the East bread making workshop!
Sourdough bread is bread made with a natural yeast (also called a sourdough starter) that has been created and fermented by the baker, rather than fresh or dried yeast which comes from a packet. Like many people, I found making my own starter scary at first – What if I killed my yeast? Or what if I poisoned someone by making the wrong yeast? What if my starter took on a life of its own and totally took over the kitchen? Over the last few years I’ve tried to pull all the information that I’ve learned about creating, keeping and maintaining a sourdough yeast culture for you to glean from me – It is very much a beginner’s guide, but I hope it helps…
Directions for how to make a yeast starter:
USE IF: You don’t have a starter and want to make one from scratch
Day 1 – In a clean, sterilised tupperware mix equal parts water and flour. You can use whichever kind of wheat or bean flour you like (don’t use nut flours or tapioca) but my advice would be to start with a mix of wholemeal flour and strong white bread flour. Whole grains like wholemeal and spelt tend to speed things up a little bit. I suggest, for your first step, use 200 g flour and 200 g water. Yeast already lives on the flour – the water then acts to kick-start the organisms into life and then once they are alive, these feed on the sugar in the flour. Mix the flour and water together so that it is well combined, cover the tupperware and leave it out of the fridge in a dry, warm and dark place.
Day 2 – Keep an eye on your yeast, it should have started to form bubbles. Today it might just smell floury but the smell of your starter will change over the next few days from floury, to cheesy to alcoholy or fruity. Smells depend on many variables, so different flours, different temperatures of water and different room temperature alters the smell.
Day 3 – Your yeast should have started to form lots of bubbles (don’t worry if it hasn’t yet, it may be that the flour you have used doesn’t have very active yeast in it). You are now going to give it a second feeding. Tip out half the flour and water. Add in another 100 g of flour and a 100 g of water and mix well. Leave it out of the fridge once more, again keeping an eye out for smells and bubbles.
Day 5 – Give your starter another feeding, again by tipping out half of the mixture and adding in another 100 g flour and 100 g water.
Day 7 – Happy Birthday, your starter is a week old. Give it its fourth feeding in the same way by tipping out half of the mixture and refeeding with flour and water but this time, find it a home in the fridge.
Day 9 – Day 14
You will have started to notice changes, smells, bubbles and the fact you’re your yeast is growing in size with every feeding. Keep feeding it every other day with 50/50 flour and water and keep it in the fridge. After 2 weeks, you will have a lovely bubbly starter that is ready to use for sourdough. At this point, you don’t always have to tip out half of the starter mixture when feeding your yeast – a third or slightly less is fine. Now follow recipe ‘Directions for how to feed your yeast starter…’
Directions for how to feed your yeast starter:
USE IF – If you’ve been given someone else’s yeast starter, are feeding the one you’ve made yourself, your starter looks dead, you haven’t fed your starter in a while.
1. Tip your yeast into a clean, sterilised tupperware. Add in equal parts water and flour and mix so that it is combined. Cover the tupperware, leave it in a dry, warm and dark place for 2 days.
2. At the end of the 2nd day, tip out a third of your flour and water mixture. You can use this tipped out mixture for making bread, give it to someone so that they can grow their own starter or just throw it down the sink. Add more flour and water, in equal parts, and mix well.
3. Put the starter back in the fridge. Depending on how often you make bread, feed it by tipping out a third and adding more flour and water to feed. For tips on how often to feed your starter, see below…
How often do I feed my starter?
Your starter needs to be kept active for you to make a nice loaf of bread. The rule that I generally go by is that, if I want to make bread on Wednesday, I will feed it on the Monday before and leave it at room temperature for a few hours before using it so that the yeast has time to reactivate. However, this is only applicable for a starter that is being regularly fed at least once a week. If you haven’t fed your starter in a while (say more than 2 weeks), go back to the guide about ‘directions for how to feed your yeast starter’ and spend a week feeding it up before you use it for bread.
What if I don’t feed it?
Remember – water wakes up the yeast that lives on the flour, the flour provides it with food in the form of sugar. If you don’t add in water and flour, it will starve then go to sleep. (But it won’t necessarily die…)
Is it dead?
Probably not. Yeast starters are very resilient. If it looks dead (if it is really mouldy, smells bad and is a bit grey etc. etc.), get rid of the nasty looking bits then try going back to the ‘how to feed your yeast starter’ recipe and feed it up for 2 weeks or so until it is bubbling and smells better.
Seriously though, I really don’t want to feed it.
If you aren’t going to make bread for ages or are going on holiday or really can’t be bothered to spend your life caring for mini organisms in your fridge, don’t worry. If we go by the principle that water wakes up the yeast and flour feeds it, then don’t add so much water into your mixture, so that it is less active, but still has something to eat. Therefore, rather than creating a mixture made from equal parts flour and equal parts water, make a mixture that is at least two thirds flour and maximum one third water – you will end up with quite a stiff, floury mixture instead of a gloopy one. The stiffer, more floury it is, the less you need to feed it.
What should it smell like?
Starter is a ferment, so it should smell similar to other fermented things like cheese, beer, wine, champagne. It can also smell quite floury at times or like fruit. If it smells like feet or death, don’t bake with it. Instead, feed it until it smells acceptable again.
What’s this brown goo?
Very often, you will end up with a thin layer of brown, black or grey liquid sitting on top of your starter. It looks terrifying but, essentially, it’s hooch, or pure alcohol that the yeast excretes. Yeast wee, basically. Don’t drink it, don’t panic, just tip it out and throw it away.
How much yeast starter do I need for a loaf of bread?
Each bread recipe varies but I generally use between 100 – 200 g yeast starter for every 1000 g of flour.
How long will my starter last for?
Sourdough starters can live for decades, some even say centuries. They are living things that change all the time. If you feed them and look after then properly, they will go on giving you bread for years to come, they might even end up becoming heirlooms!
A final piece of advice…
As with all bread making, my attitude is, don’t panic, be patient and try, try again. It might not work the first time round, but keep going and you will reap the yeasty rewards!