Fans of sourdough will be acutely aware of its unique flavour. This is all thanks to a starter or which is used to leaven the bread and make it rise. A sourdough starter is a living culture made from a simple recipe of flour and water that is allowed to ferment. They can last forever if they’re looked after and fed regularly.
If you’re just starting out with sourdough baking, here’s some tips to keep your starter strong and ready to literally get that bread.
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Can I buy a starter?
Thanks to the internet you can buy starters if you’re not overly keen on making your own. You can even get ones that are decades old, which is what I did. Be sure to opt for a reputable looking site with reviews if possible.
The advantage of buying a starter is the established presence of bacteria. Even if you make a few blunders at first, it’s probably going to be strong enough to survive.
I was guilty of over feeding and using too much water at first, but thanks to the starter being 27 years old, it was hearty enough to take it. Now it’s thriving.
If you do buy a starter online, feed it regularly for a few days and keep it at room temperature until it has regained its strength. This basically means loads of bubbles.
How do I feed it?
Much like rising dough, a starter will grow in size every time you feed it. Unless you’re trying to grow your starter (eg – to give some away or if you’re baking regularly enough to need more on hand) you need to discard some every time you feed it.
Most bakers will recommend removing half to 2/3 of the starter to achieve this. How much you feed it will depend on your jar size, but I tend to opt for either 1/2 a cup of flour and 1/4 cup of water. I’ll up this to 1 cup of flour to 1/2 cup of water if I have used a large portion of the starter to bake that day.
While I use bread flour now, I did start off with regular confectioner flour at first and it did just fine. Once you get more experienced you can experiment by making other kinds of starters, such as rye.
The next step is to seal the jar or container and leave it in a warm place to rise outside of direct sunlight. I stash mine in the alcohol cupboard.
After a few hours you should notice that the starter has risen and developed small to medium sized bubbles. I recommend marking where the liquid was at when you fed it so you can see how much it has risen by.
Some bakers recommend using equal parts flour and water to feed starters, but I found that this method didn’t result in much rise or bubbles for me. There can be a lot of factors that contribute to this – the most common being temperature. Experiment with your quantities and see what works best for you. If you’re nervous about this, split your starter and have two going at once and experiment with the quantities.
Bonus tip: If you have a cold kitchen or storage space, feed the starter with warm water and wrap a tea towel around it after feeding. Yeah, it really is like looking after a pet.
Some brown liquid has appeared in the jar
Often referred to as ‘hooch’, brown smelly liquid appearing in your starter means that it needs to be fed. Don’t panic, you don’t need to throw your starter out. Simply pour off the liquid, feed your starter and give it a good stir.
If you find that hooch is appearing frequently, you may need to feed more regularly or move the starter to a slightly cooler area.
If you’re mostly keeping your starter in the fridge you probably won’t have this problem.
How often should I feed my starter?
If you are going to bake with it a lot (a few times a week) you should feed it daily so it’s always ready to be used. You can store it at room temperature in this case.
If you only plan on baking with it sporadically, it can be kept in the fridge and you only need to feed it once a week. Once you’re ready to bake with it, take it out of the fridge at least 24-hours beforehand to bring it out of hibernation. Feed it and store at room temperature. Once you’ve used the starter, feed it again and pop it back in the fridge.
How do I know the starter is ready to use?
Variables such as temperature means there isn’t a universal time that a starter will be ready after feeding. However, if it’s bubbly and active it is most likely good to go.
You can also use the float test to be sure. Simply drop a small amount of starter in a cup of water – if it floats, it’s ready.
How do I use it for bread?
Once the starter is ready, you simply have to measure out how much you need as per your recipe.
Can I use discarded starter?
My biggest pet peeve with feeding is how much starter gets discarded – what a waste.
Fortunately, there are heaps of recipes out there that utilise discarded starter to make things like banana bread, pancakes, muffins and donuts.
I’m going away for awhile, will my starter die?
If you’re going on holiday or know you won’t have the time to maintain your starter for awhile, you can freeze your starter.
Make sure it’s in a freezer safe container and pop it on in there without feeding it.
Once you want to use it again, thaw it out and feed it.
Can I make my own starter
You absolutely can! All it requires is a jar, flour, water and time.
You’re looking at about 1 – 2 weeks for the ingredients to go from a gloopy mess into a live culture with regular feedings.
I haven’t done this myself, so I refer to The Clever Carrot for its excellent step-by-step guide.