Sourdough basics: the starter

Naturally leavened bread, or sourdough, is one of the most satisfying things a baker can wish to pull from their oven. It does take time and a little patience, but the result will undoubtedly be some of the finest bread you have ever tasted.

Sourdough baked at home. Source: DWD.
Sourdough baked at home. Source: DWD.

Sourdough’s name refers to the slight tang in flavor caused by the production of acids during the retarded (cold) final proof, which can last from anything between 10 and 18 hours.

With a good method and an attention to detail, anyone can bake great tasting sourdough at home.

The starter
The starter. Source: DWD.

First, you will need what’s called a starter. This is a small quantity of flour and water that you leave to rest for a short period of time. With the help of natural bacteria (on your hands, in the air, in the flour), a yeast culture will form and it is this that you will use to make your bread rise.

You will use this starter every time you want to bake bread, so look after it: name it, nurture it, and make sure it’s always looking healthy.

The starter:

It’s important to be as accurate as possible when measuring flour and water quantities, and if you can, try to carry out each step at a similar time each day. Working the process of feeding your starter into your daily routine will make sure it is always strong and active.

You will need:

A clear 1ltr container

A set of digital scales, with at least 5g accuracy

350g strong white bread flour

350g water

Day 1:

In your container, mix together 25g of bread flour with 25g of water, using a fork to beat out any dry clumps of flour until you have a thick, smooth batter. Cover, and place in a warm spot (22-26c) to rest for 24hrs.

Day 2:

Scatter a little (5g) of bread flour over the batter and leave to rest for another 24hrs.

Day 3:

Add 50g of bread flour and 50g water to your starter, again mixing with a fork until smooth. Cover, and place in a warm area and leave to rest for another 24hrs.

Day 4:

By now your starter may be showing signs of life! Very small air pockets within the batter, visible from the side of your container, or a slightly acidic smell are both good signs that your starter is building up strength.

If your starter doesn’t exhibit any of these symptoms yet, simply scatter a little (5g) flour on the surface and leave to rest for another 24hrs.

If your starter is looking active, it is time to ‘feed’ it.

Pour away 100g of your starter, and to the remaining 100g in the container, add 50g bread flour and 50g water, beating together as you have done on previous steps. Cover, and leave in a warm place for 24hrs.

Day 5:

By now your mixture should be active. Discard 100g of your starter and add 50g of bread flour and 50g water. Mix together and cover, leaving it in a warm place for 24hrs.

Repeat step 5 for another two days, and by day 7 your starter should be strong enough to bake with.

After each feed you should be able to notice a regular ‘rise and fall’ in the starter. After you have fed it, the starter should appear relatively inactive, as it did at the beginning. It should smell milky and slightly sweet.

The starter immediately after feeding. Source: DWD.
The starter immediately after feeding. Source: DWD.

Two or so hours after the feed you should see an increase in volume, with air pockets in the batter visible from the side of your container and on top of the starter. It should still smell sweet, but with an acidic smell starting to build.

The starter two hours after feeding. Source: DWD.
The starter two hours after feeding. Source: DWD.

Roughly four hours after your feed the starter should be obviously active, often nearly doubling in size. At this stage the starter is referred to as ‘young’ and it should still exhibit a slightly milky aroma. The further into the 24-hour rest the starter goes, the more ‘mature’ it will become.

The starter four hours after feeding. Source: DWD.
The starter four hours after feeding. Source: DWD.

Once your starter rises and falls regularly after feeding, you are ready to bake bread!

Please note:
It is important to always replace the starter that you throw away with equal quantities of flour and water.

If you struggle to find a warm spot in your house, simply increase the temperature of the water you use when you feed the starter. Anything up to around 35c is fine (a little warm to the touch) but try not to go any higher than this as it will inhibit the fermentation process.

If you have any questions, or would like a FREE tub of the sourdough starter I use, please comment below or email me at: hugohharrison@gmail.com and I will reply within 24 hours.

Learning in London [Part one]

Bread Ahead bakery
Bread Ahead bakery. Source: Flickr

My notebook had only ever been occupied by my timetable and scrawls of shorthand practice, but by the end of the summer it was brimming with formulas, figures and dough schedules.

What I needed to learn now didn’t lay on pages or on blogs or forums, only within a bakery, amongst mixers and dough benches. It was only here that I could pick up the priceless nibs of information that experience with the dough can teach. My only problem now lay in what I had experienced already. My time at Pump Street Bakery had left an impression on me for better and for worse. I now knew just how good bread could be, and wherever I went to learn next it was going to be hard to settle for anything less than that.

After a handful of e-mails, phone calls and a short bout of man flu, I had managed to arrange some time in Borough Market’s brand new bakery and bread school: Bread Ahead. I knew that bakers Matthew Jones & Justin Gellatly (inventer of the St John doughnut) were leading the bread side of things and despite the short time I would be there, I knew I was in for a real treat. Excited, nervous, and a little daunted – I packed my bag and boarded the train to London.

Justin scoring loaves. Source: Spitafields Life
Justin scoring loaves. Source: Spitafields Life

My alarm rang at 4am the next morning, notifying me of the time rather than waking me. I had little sleep whilst trying to recount everything I had learnt so far, so as not to appear (as much of) an idiot amongst the bakers I would be working with the next day. I wrapped up and made my way through the dark and empty streets of sleeping London. In the shadow of Southwark Cathedral I found the bakery, a wide glass fronted building oozing warm light and a sensuous smell into the surrounding dark streets.

I was expecting to be shown the sink and broom, but after a brief tour I was put to work on their famously delicious bread pudding, cutting up the (very few) loaves left from the day before. “Nothing is ever wasted here!” Matt exclaimed.

Every time a new loaf was pulled from the oven Justin would bring it over to me and explain the scoring technique, the flour blend used, the hydration and how long it had been rising the night before.”Real bread should only ever be scored with a razor blade, and baked with a crust that makes your gums bleed,” Justin said, knocking the side of a white sourdough he was holding.

Bread Ahead stall
Bread Ahead stall @ Borough Market. Source: Flickr

Gradualy the Shard lit up in front of me as commuters arrived one by one, all peering through the glass front of the bakery weary-eyed. Once the last loaves had been baked we began to pull a tower of proving baskets from the fridge, all waiting to be filled with today’s dough.

Justin had a strange and unique way of teaching, one that has stuck in my mind ever since. Earlier on in the day I had mentioned that I was relatively inexperienced in shaping, and was expecting little or no contact with the loaves that day. But, as the huge tubs of dough made their way to the bench Justin summoned me over and put me to work shaping the boules.

He watched on and would say nothing, which after 3 or 4 loaves began to concern me. Then he would stop and ask why I was shaping it that way and what I wanted the loaf to look like at the end – something I had never particularly considered before. I quickly lost the closed-mindedness I had arrived with, and instead of just following orders I started to think of the effects that my actions were having on the bread.

The day ended as quickly as it had started and before I knew it I was on my way home, back to the pile of textbooks and deadlines that awaited me. Over the course of the next two months between  lectures, seminars and inconvenient library sessions, I would bake when I could.

Days were dedicated to books, and nights were dedicated to bread. One batch at a time I was getting closer to the loaf I was after. This became a regular routine until one day in November I received an email with the title: ‘When can you start?”

How it all started

A little over a year ago, on a weekend home from uni, I had my first taste of real bread. Never before had I considered bread and it’s possibilities, other than a sandwich or toast.

Pump Street Vermont sourdough
Pump Street Vermont sourdough

I cannot claim to be a life-long bread lover, as until I had sampled the dark caramelised crust and nutty open crumb of slow fermented bread, I hadn’t spared it much thought. The bread I am referring to is shaped, scored and baked just shy of 10 miles from my front door, in a village called Orford, in Suffolk.

Pump Street Bakery produce some of the finest naturally leavened bread around, picking up awards on a national and international stage. It is here that my curiosity for dough evolved into a passion, and ultimately an obsession.

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My first loaf

I began baking at home immediately, not such an easy task in student halls of residence, searching books and the web frantically for the perfect recipes. I was amazed that with just three ingredients (flour, water, salt), such varied results could be achieved just by alterations in time and percentages.

I was quickly baking more bread than any one man could eat in a normal diet, so I started to sell my test-bakes to other students living close by, providing me with an opportunity to test more recipes, and giving them an alternative to the Chorleywood processed bread at a large ‘saving you money everyday’ supermarket close by.

Cafe
Pump Street cafe

Four months later and I was still chasing the perfect loaf, a little part of me hoping to never catch it. I realised that in order to find the bread I was after, I needed to return to where my bread mission had began, sat at the communal table of Pump Street Bakery’s cafe.

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Pump Street shop

After half a dozen emails and tweets, and heaps of faith and kindness from co-owner Joanna, I had managed to secure a summer job at the bakery, waitering in the cafe where the bread and pastries are sold daily. As the summer went on and on, I caught a word with the bakers whenever I could, quizzing them with how’s and why’s.

I slowly began to understand Pump Street bread, and the slow fermentation techniques they employed to create their signature sourdough. Something I had not considered, however, only became clear to me at the end of my first shift in the bread section of the bakery. It was a huge piece of the puzzle that I had not even thought of, and that was passion. The bakers expressed it in different ways, but it was evident in every bit of contact they had with the dough. This passion made the bakery an exciting place to work and learn, and became infectious.

After a handful of 13 hour days, starting at the bakery and finishing in the cafe, the fatigue was catching up with me. I was struggling to fit sleep around family life, work, and my time in the bakery, but wasn’t willing to give up any of them. One morning when I arrived at the bakery, everything changed.

I walked through the shutter door to an incredible pattern of sound and light. Orange sunlight leaked through the wide windows of the bakery, catching particles of flour in the air and creating a haze of yellow light. The alarm from the deck oven rang, signalling the end of the doughs journey, and harmonised with the singing of bread on the rack, as the crust cooled and crackled.

It was then I knew I wanted to be a baker, and my journey to do so had begun.