A couple of months ago I posted a recipe for Schwarzbrot, the traditional German mixed-grain bread, which I had made following a recipe from an old cookery book. Although it turned our wonderfully, I was left with a nagging feeling that the taste wasn’t quite as sour as I had expected it to be. Rejoicing at the opportunity to put my OCD to good use, I began researching the history and science behind sourdough bread.
There were only so many variables: the flour, the water – and the sourdough starter. I suddenly dawned on me that I had been using a ‘French’ starter, a levain, which uses white wheat flour, water and yeast, unlike the rye-based traditional German starter. Historically, German sourdough breads are made with a starter culture that contains ‘wild’ yeast: yeast that occurs naturally in grains such as rye, spelt or wholewheat, as well as in the air around us. In order to ‘catch’ these, a mix of water and flour is regularly mixed and left to develop its ‘sour’ taste by attracting the right bacteria from its environments. Incidentally, San Francisco air is said to have a particular type of yeast, which results in their breads’ unique taste. But that shouldn’t stop you putting your own stamp on your breads by developing your own starter, just to see what your area really tastes like …
The process of setting up your own starter takes more or less a week, depending on climate and air quality: the warmer the better, and, apparently, if you live in the countryside the air is naturally richer in the right bacteria. Incidentally it’s more or less the same type you’d find in those yoghurts you can buy specifically to boost the ‘friendly’ bacteria in your guts … But no worries if you don’t live in the mediterranean countryside! In fact, all you need to do is watch your starter, check how it is developing, and go with the flow. Mine took a week, using the often vilified London air and resting it in the cold oven. I might have been able to speed it up by parking a cow outside the window or by putting the starter on a plate on top of a warm radiator, but then our heating hasn’t been needed yet and the windows are old and draughty – and nothing is worse for yeast than a draughty kitchen!
The following instructions are clear in the sense that the process is broken down into 3 easy steps that are triggered by the way your starter is behaving: once it gets to a certain point, you can move on. In the meantime, all it requires is mixing it every 12 hours and resting it in a warm, draught-free spot in between. Do give it a try: you’ll be presented with a wonderfully rich and nutty flavour to your breads! But, in hindsight, I should have used my biggest bowl from the start, to give you a clearer idea of how the starter is actually gaining in volume: instead, I started with my smallest bowl, moving to the next size with every feed:
Sourdough Starter with Wild Yeast
Step 1: mix 100g flour (rye, spelt or wholewheat) with 150-200 ml lukewarm water: mix it quite vigorously and add water if necessary to make a rather runny batter, a bit like porridge. Cover with clingfilm or a damp towel and leave to rest in a warm and draft-free space, such as a cold oven or on a radiator. Repeat the stirring every 12 hours, then cover and rest.
Step 2: the next day or so, you’ll notice a bubble or two on the surface and the consistency has changed, ever so slightly, making it just that little bit lighter and fluffier. Add another 100g of flour and 100-150ml water and stir again. You want to make big bubbles as you do so as you are trying to incorporate as much air as possible, with it the necessary air-borne bacteria. Cover and rest, mix again after every 12 hours.
Step 3: after two or three days, the mix should have started rising and it will have developed its unique smell: a bit like wheat beer, and very pleasant. You will notice how light and fluffy it feels when you’re mixing it. This means your starter has really caught on and needs a feed: add 200g of flour and around 250ml of water and mix it in. Cover and rest, mixing it every 12 hours for a few minutes.
Your starter will be ready to use after about 5-7 days in total: bubbly and sweet-smelling, a light cream colour – if it smells unpleasant, like vinegar, or has dramatically changed colour, bin it. It’s attracted the wrong bacteria. Use a very clean bowl and start again…
If you’ve lost interest or you have little time, simply pop the whole lot into the fridge until you want to bake your bread. As it took me longer than the 5 days I had estimated, the weekend had passed and with it the opportunity to make the bread. Not to worry, I’ll be posting the results later 🙂
Obviously, you won’t want to be repeating this adventure every time you want to make a bread! Simply take away what you need for your recipe but keep back aroung 150gr and store them in a closed jam jar in your fridge. Next time you want to bake, repeat step 3 and after 24 hours you should have enough starter for your next loaf.
The starter will be fine for up to a month, even if you find it has separated, with a darker liquid on top: if it smells nice and sweet, it might need a bit of TLC in form of Step 3. Don’t believe any of that nonsense about having to pay someone to babysit your sourdough if you’re going on a holiday! A well-neglected starter can be used for decades, if not centuries. Seriously! If you’re looking for something to do with it, check out my Pumpernickel recipe: 100% rye, sweet and malty – it deserves a starter like this.
But now to the big questions: Is it worth it? Will Richard win the Great British Bake-off? And what difference will this starter make to the final bread? The jury’s out …