In this two-part series, Love Wholesome’s resident recipe tester Jo-ann Huang walks you through making a yeast starter for a delicious sourdough loaf.
Sourdough bread is probably the ultimate form of bread making. First of all, it uses wild yeast, which takes at least a week to make. And then there is its trademark chewy, golden-brown-to-dark-brown crust, as well as its soft, open crumb.
Anyone who tries real sourdough is likely to swear off the store-bought stuff for good. With its complex, tangy taste, it can be eaten on its own with some butter and jam, or you can glam it up with some pâté. It goes well with deli meats, or with poached eggs and smoked salmon. It’s great in a tuna sandwich, too. You’re really only limited by your imagination.
The lack of preservatives that make it much healthier also mean it gets mouldy very easily in a humid environment. Of course, it’s so delicious you’ll probably get through it quickly anyway.
The real kicker is that a loaf of sourdough bread costs about SG$6 to SG$8 at an artisan bakery. This can add up if you’re eating it every day.
The solution, of course, is to make your own. For novice bakers, it isn’t the easiest assignment, but I’ve taken some of the hard work out of it by testing and refining the recipe below. With time and practice, you can work out a routine and recipe that suits your tastes and skills.
Getting started on a starter
All sourdough breads are made from sourdough starter. The starter is essentially a combination of wild yeast, flour and water. The yeast strains are all around us – that is, in the air – and the flour and water mix captures the yeast and feeds it, jumpstarting the fermentation process.
Some warnings. You need to be patient – it takes at least a week to prepare the starter. It requires lots of flour. And you will encounter some strange smells throughout the process.
These smells can be described as apples as well as nail varnish. While I was preparing the starter, there was also a period when it gave out a rotten, deathly smell. This is completely normal – the smells are signs that the fermentation is working.
Your starter is like a pet – it will be kept alive as long as you feed it. However, if you need to take a break from feeding it – say, if you’re going out of town – you can cheat a little by putting it in the warmest part of the fridge. Just don’t leave it in for too long, as it can be difficult to activate again. In my experience, anything more than two weeks is too long and you are better off making a fresh starter.
Tools and ingredients
- A tall glass jar with a lid
- A spatula
- Rye flour
- Unbleached all-purpose flour
- Room temperature tap or filtered water
- Rubber bands to mark the rise and fall of the starter
- A digital scale – this is important. Don’t try to eyeball the flour and water measurements. Baking is a science.
Some recipes don’t use rye flour at all. After speaking to some sourdough experts, though, I decided to add a bit of rye flour to get the fermentation process going much quicker.
It also makes your dough more sour. At first I used a mix of 50 percent rye and 50 percent all-purpose flour, but I soon realised it made my dough too sour. I found a better proportion of rye was 30 percent.
If fermentation is taking too long or your starter isn’t bubbling, you may want to increase the rye flour ratio slightly.
How does this help? Well, rye flour contains more proteins for the natural yeasts in the air to work with. It also tends to regulate the process by ensuring there is always enough protein for the yeast to feed on. You can feed just once a day with this recipe, and I highly recommend it given our humid and hot weather.
Recipes that use all-purpose flour only can produce a lot of liquid. Just discard it and continue feeding.
They also produce a pungent, almost rotten, scent. This leads people to think that there is something wrong; sourdough experts tell me this is when many people give up on their starter. It’s not a sign that there’s anything wrong though – it just means the starter needs to be fed. If once a day is not enough, try twice a day.
Finally, it helps to take notes each day during the process so you can improve your next attempt.
The feeding schedule
Here is a basic recipe for sourdough starter, with extra notes so you know if you are on the right track. Repeat the process at the same time each day so the starter remains well-fed throughout.
Day 1 – Weigh the jar on a digital scale and note the jar weight. Tare the weight of the jar off. Add 70 grams of all-purpose flour and 30 grams of rye flour. Add 100 grams of water. Mix well with a spatula. Put a lid on the jar but do not secure it – this is important for letting the starter breathe. Use a rubber band to mark the level of the starter on the jar.
Day 2 – The starter should have doubled in size and have tiny bubbles. It should smell like apples. Weigh the jar and starter and deduct the weight of the jar to get the net weight of the starter. Empty out 50 grams of starter. Add the same proportion of flour and water as on Day 1. Stir and scrape the sides down so you can check on the rise and fall of the starter. Mark the level of starter with a rubber band.
Day 3 – The starter should have doubled in size and it should smell like nail varnish. Repeat the process from Day 2.
Day 4 – The starter should have again doubled in size. There should be a faint nail varnish smell, with the apple smell returning. Repeat the process from Day 2.
Day 5 – The starter should not rise. There will be a strong apple smell. Repeat the process from Day 2.
Day 6 – The starter should rise a lot. Empty out most of starter, leaving 30 grams. Add the same flour and water proportions as Day 1.
Day 7 – Your starter is ready! It should have risen almost to the brim of the jar, have a yeasty smell, a thick, runny consistency, and plenty of tiny bubbles. The tiny bubbles and the sharp rise are signs of an active starter.
To test if your starter is ready, place a spoonful of it into a glass of water. If it floats, it is ready. If it doesn’t, feed it again and leave it for another two to three hours.
To continue feeding the starter, leave at least 30 grams of starter, and continue the same feeding schedule as above.
As mentioned earlier, if you are getting tired of feeding your starter everyday, you can store the starter in the fridge. Activate it again by giving the same proportions of flour and water a day before you make the bread. Makes sure it rises before using it for baking.
If you are feeling lazy, you can get sourdough starter from home bakers on Carousell or from sourdough groups on Facebook. These home bakers are a passionate lot, so don’t hesitate to ask them for advice.
In my next post, I’ll run you through how to take an active starter and turn it into a sourdough loaf.