Let me share some of the important points you need to know before you start with sourdough baking. Sourdough / Levain/ Starter is also known as wild yeast. While commercial yeast is easier to use in bread baking, sourdough gives you an amazing flavour to breads without any additives. Sourdough is basically a combination of flour and water fermented long enough to make it strong enough to leaven bread dough. The lactic bacteria and yeast naturally present in the environment and flour works together to create the starter. When they digest the sugars present in the flour mixture, carbon di oxide is released which in turn rises the starter and in turn rises the bread dough. Sourdough starter has been there for centuries even before the baking powder/ baking soda/ commercial yeast. If you think about the Indians fermenting batter for dosas, it is also a type of sourdough.
Starters can be made with any type of flour. Before you start baking breads, you need to make your sourdough starter. The procedure may take up to two weeks depending upon the climatic conditions. Nowadays, cultures are easily available in the market too. So if you don’t want to make your starter, you can buy it in form of flakes or liquid starters. But trust me, it is really easy to make starter at home. You need only flour and water and lots of patience. The hands on time are really low when it comes to sourdough.
There are different types of starter based on the proportion of flour and water. When you add equal parts of water and flour by weight, the starter is a 100% hydration starter and if you add 2 parts of flour and one part of water by weight, it is called as 50% hydration starter. I am not trying to complicate things, but it is good to know some basic things before you start baking with sourdough.
Sourdough breads have a typical flavour and sour taste which can be controlled by proving time and amount of starter used. If you start reading about sourdough online, things will definitely get complicated. Every baker has a specific recipe and various reasons why that recipe works. But I would like to share my view on sourdough. There are no rules when it comes to baking. Every baker has their own way of doing things and we can never say there is only one way of doing things. If you read all the recipes in this course, you will find that it doesn’t compile with any of the rules you see online, but still all the breads turn out amazing.
If you are interested in learning Sourdough Baking, I have an online class for that. It is a beginner’s class and is available as recorded class in FB. The course costs you Rs 750 and you get lifetime access to the group. I will also be there to constantly guide you through the journey. All the breads shown below will be taught. If interested, you can mail me to firstname.lastname@example.org or WhatsApp message to 9597354611.
Making your own starter is pretty easy. You will be mixing equal amounts of flour and water by weight and let the environment do the job. As we live in hotter climatic conditions, it is really necessary to keep a close watch on the starter. The top of the starter should not change in colour. If it develops pinkish, yellowish or grayish layer on top, it is better to discard and start new. But if there is a clear liquid on top, there is nothing to worry about. It is called as hooch, which is an alcohol, a by-product of the reaction. You can mix it in, or pour it out and feed the starter. This happens when the starter has exhausted its sugar reserves and is hungry.
You need to treat your starter as a pet or as your kid. It is finicky and it takes a while to understand. Every kid is different and only his/her mother would understand them better, the same thing goes with starter too. Even though we can give you general guidelines, it is you who need to understand it. The starter behaves depending on the type of flour and water and mainly the climate. So every starter is unique and only the baker who maintains it will understand about it.
Now let us move on to the recipe. The whole process will take five to ten days depending on the climate. I know I am repeating climate a lot because it is a really important factor when it comes to sourdough. We first start mixing flour and water every 20-24 hours. Then the starter would become active in one or two days and the frequency of feeding the starter must be increased. Once it reaches the stage where it doubles in volume in four hours, your starter would be ready for bread baking. There is also a test to see if the starter is ready. It is called as the float test. When you drop an active starter into a bowl of water, it should float. If it sinks, then it needs more feeding. But if it floats, then your starter is ready. You can use it to bake breads.
Start the process by evening 5 pm. It will be easier to track the yeast development.
Day 1: Mix together 25 gm of flour and 25 gm of water in a clean glass or plastic jar. The dough will be a sticky mass. Cover with a cloth and use a band to secure. The first day, you will see bubbles develop and the dough becomes a thin batter. It may take 20-24 hours. Once you see bubbles on top of the starter, it is time for next feed. If you let it sit more, it will start developing pinkish, yellowish or greyish matters on top.
Day 2: Once it is nice and bubbly, add 50 gm of flour and 50 gm of water to the same jar and mix everything with a fork until it is a lump free mass. Again cover it with cloth and secure. Let it sit for another 12 – 20 hours. If your starter is bubbly at the end of 12 hours, then you need to feed it the second time on the second day itself. Take only 50 gm of starter and mix 50 gm flour and 50 gm water and cover and set aside. Check in 12 hours.
Day 3: The starter would develop smaller bubbles and would be lighter. Again when the bubbles start breaking on the top, it is time to feed. Now take only 50 gm of the starter, transfer remaining to a bowl and refrigerate. Discard can be used in many recipes. I will talk about it later. Now add 50 gm of flour and 50 gm of water to the 50 gm of starter and mix well. Cover the container with a tight lid. The time taken to get bubbly will reduce, so keep a close watch. You might need to add a second feeding on the day itself. Whenever you want to feed the starter, remove only 50 gm of it, transfer the remaining to discard bowl and then feed with 50 gm of flour and 50 gm of water.
Day 4: The starter might need two feeds every 12 hours. Keep removing discard, and feeding with flour and water.
Day 5: If the starter is quite active, then it would need three feeds every 8 hours. Keep close watch.
Day 6: If the starter doubles in volume in less than 4 hours and has larger bubbles, then it is ready. If not, keep feeding it twice or thrice a day.
If your starter hasn’t reached the above mentioned stage, then keep feeding it regularly until it reaches there. Once it doubles up within 4 hours, you need to perform a float test. Take a tablespoon of starter and drop it in a bowl of room temperature water. It should float. If it sinks, you need to keep feeding. If it floats, then your starter is ready. The float test needs to be performed when the starter has doubled in volume. If it falls down after the peak period, it won’t be the correct time to do the test.
The discard we have stored in fridge can be used in a number of recipes. The easiest is the crackers but you can also add it to any dough preparation to give it a mild sourdough flavour. If you enter sourdough in my blog’s search box, you will find all the breads I have baked with sourdough till now.
Maintaining Your Starter
Once the starter is ready, you can immediately move on to make the bread or just refrigerate the container. And you can keep feeding it once a week to keep it in hibernation.
Whenever you want to bake bread, you can take it out of fridge, feed it and use once active. The starter can go without feeding for even a month in fridge, but make it a habit of feeding it once a week. It gives a good strong and flavourful starter for you.
You can maintain a starter for years, the more the time you maintain it, the more flavourful your starter will be. So it pays to maintain the starter. Also make it a habit to bake breads regularly. This will help you understand the sourdough baking better. The more you bake you can easily master the art.
You can also share your discard with friends, who can use them to make their own starter.
If you are leaving town for a long time, freeze your starter. You can revive it once you come back.
You can also dehydrate the starter into flakes and store them in jars in fridge. You can rehydrate the flakes and your starter will be ready in no time.