Lockdown cliché maybe but I’ve really enjoyed learning to bake sourdough over the past couple of weeks. There’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of having your own freshly baked bread with your eggs for breakfast, especially when it’s not only edible but actually tastes good! Sourdough baking is a science, and I’ve had definitely some hits and some misses along the way, but as the last few loaves have been pretty successful and I’ve had a few Qs on Insta, I thought I’d jump on here and share some of my learnings so far, in case they might help you on your path to freshly baked bread.
I’ll stress again here that I’m absolutely no pro when it comes to baking, and very much at the start of this fruitful new hobby, so this definitely isn’t a comprehensive guide to making sourdough. For that, you want to go to Edd Kimber, aka, The Boy Who Bakes, who’s instructions and videos I’ve followed closely and would highly recommend. Start with his ‘how to make sourdough starter’ post, then he has a ‘step-by-step sourdough guide’ too. This here is a more basic list of pointers for the novices among us, and something to hopefully reassure you that honestly, baking sourdough is not that complicated and you really don’t need a load of complicated expensive tools or new purchases. Course you can buy all sorts of fancy scrapers and baskets and such, but I haven’t and we’ve still got tasty bread on the table! I sometimes find the World Wide Web a little complicated and overwhelming for getting into new things so I’m hoping that this breaks it down a little bit!
ALL YOU NEED IS BREAD FLOUR AND WATER. THAT’S IT!
So I’ve had quite a few messages asking where I’ve got my starter from and the thing is, you actually make the starter (and therefore the whole sourdough loaf) from scratch, using just bread flour and water. That’s the beauty of it! I followed The Boy Who Bakes’ sourdough starter guide, which is really helpful, and when you’ve got an active starter, the rest of the process is just more flour and water, and a little salt. Easy! You just need to remember to look after your starter. It needs feeding (with flour) every day, and getting the conditions right is key.
PATIENCE IS KEY
I’m a very impatient person so making sourdough has been a good learning experience for me! Your starter will take a few days until it becomes active, then there’s a few more days of feeding it, and even once you’ve started making the dough, there’s still an overnight wait ‘til you actually have bread on the table. So be patient, enjoy the process, and maybe get in a shop-bought loaf to tide you over ‘til yours is ready to roll? The reason I learnt to MAKE THESE FLATBREADS is because my sourdough wasn’t ready in time for brunch one time!
PRACTICE HELPS! (IT’S A LOT OF TRIAL AND ERROR!)
So along with patience, practice is key when it comes to sourdough and starter making. My first couple of loaves weren’t that great (I still made my boyfriend, Ed eat them all of course) but they’ve quickly improved. My advice would be double-read whatever recipe you’re following and try and stick to it as closely as possible! You can often sub flours for ones you have or can get hold of, but it’s important to keep quantities and ratios the same as whatever recipe you’re following suggests.
A WARM ATMOSPHERE MAKES A LOT OF DIFFERENCE
So when you’ve been feeding your starter and you’re ready to start making your actual bread, you make what’s called a levain, which is ultimately just a measured out bit of your starter that you’re going to feed and later turn into dough. For this to do its thing, a warm environment is recommended, and I just wanted to stress that does make a big difference. I left mine out on the counter the first few times but it was a lot more successful when I helped it along with a warmer environment. Lots of people pop it in the oven with just the oven light on which creates a perfect climate. An airing cupboard also works well, to keep it warm and cosy, and thus ready to bake with.
…BUT NOT TOO WARM!
My only warning there would be don’t let it get too hot. I know, I know, it’s a bit like Goldilocks this starter, not too hot, not too cold, and whilst the starter is pretty difficult to kill, if it gets too hot, the yeast will die. So look after it! I put mine a little too close to our immersion heater once and it got very sad and was hard to claw back!
ALWAYS HOLD A LITTLE STARTER BACK IN CASE OF PLAN B
On that note, if you’re getting to grips with it all and have a lovely active starter that gets all bubbly and excited when you feed it, decant a little bit and save it in a jar in the fridge or even the freezer. Here it’s going to last for yonks (it doesn’t need feeding in the fridge and you can easily bring it back to life), but it’s always good to have a back-up in case you do manage to kill it or mess up your dough. Otherwise you’ve got to start all over again making the starter from scratch which is long.
YOU CREATE A LOT OF SURPLUS
Another thing to note is that you do create a lot of surplus. Your starter needs feeding regularly, up to twice a day if you’re baking bread often, and with each feed, you discard ¾ of your starter each time. This can seem wasteful and I questioned whether I was misunderstanding something at first, but it’s just the way it goes. But, don’t worry about the waste because…
YOU CAN ‘UPCYCLE’ YOUR STARTER DISCARD IN LOTS OF CLEVER WAYS
Yep. Whilst some people will just throw ¾ of their precious sourdough starter in the bin each time they feed it, more resourceful types will hold it back, save it all in a Tupperware and use it to make cool stuff, like brownies, sourdough pancakes, and the easiest of all, CRUMPETS. Not only that but the things you can make from the discard are often quicker and easier than making the bread itself so it’s a win-win situ really.