A sourdough starter is a stable culture of natural yeasts and lactic bacteria working in symbiosis. The natural yeast in a culture produces carbon dioxide (C02) when it eats the sugars made from the broken down starch. The C02 then fills the dough with gas, making it light and sometimes holey, while the lactic bacteria contributes to the characteristic sour flavor.
I use the words starter and leaven to refer to a sourdough culture at different stages. I use a proportion of very mature culture, which I call the ‘starter’, to make the leaven. A mature starter smells heavily fermented, almost alcoholic, tastes citric and looks almost fizzy.
To make the leaven (the more mild culture) from this, I add flour and water. The leaven is used to make the dough, and is used at a much ‘younger’ stage, when it smells mild and tastes mildly lactic, like yogurt.
You may consider it weird to be tasting this swamp-like porridge, but it’s the best way to get to know your culture. You’ll remember the taste when it is happy and when it is a little under the weather.
Making a sourdough starter
To begin with it is quite a lengthy procedure (6 or 7 days), but once you have a stable starter, you can make bread every day. The key to success is patience and belief. Don’t give up. If it takes 3 days to show signs of fermentation, that’s OK.
To make a sourdough starter that can successfully leaven dough, you need to promote the growth of natural yeast. Natural yeast is abundant all around us, and is especially abundant in flour.
Our starter at The Snapery was initially mixed with Ukrainian hop flowers that had been rolled in a rye paste and dried. My good friend Olia Hercules brought these back from the Ukraine. The purpose of adding these was to kick-start fermentation. Many people believe that adding raisins or fruit peel can also speed up the process and add character.
After years of baking, I now know that the only catalyst you need is time. And flour and water are all you need to encourage the growth of natural yeast and lactic bacteria.
In a jar, mix 100g (3- 1/2 oz) warm water with 50g (1- 3/4 oz) quality strong white flour and 50g (1- 3/4 oz) whole meal flour. Cover with a wet tea towel and leave in a warm place for 48 hours.
After 48 hours, look for signs of fermentation. There should be a few bubbles on the surface. It might not have any smell at this point, but if it smells vaguely alcoholic then you’re on to a winner. It will probably look quite grey, but will be fresh underneath. If there is no sign of any activation, do not worry. Put the jar in a slightly warmer place and leave for a further 24 hours and then continue from ‘day 3’.
If you have the beginning of fermentation, great news! You’re only a few days away from some exceptional bread. Discard half of the starter and add another 100g (3 1/2 oz) warm water with 50g (1-3/4 oz) white flour and 50g (1- 3/4 oz) whole meal flour. Cover and leave in a warm place for another 24 hours.
Repeat the process in ‘day 3’. At this point, there should be more obvious signs of fermentation: small bubbles, visual growth in size and a slight tang on the nose.
Repeat the discarding and replenishing as in ‘day 3’.
You should have something that’s almost ready to use in a bread recipe. The colour should be similar to the colour it was when you mixed it. There should be a lot of bubbles, quite an alcoholic smell and it should have grown to almost twice the size. Repeat the discarding and feeding in ‘day 3’ one more time. After this, it should be ready to use in your bread recipe.
Looking After Your Starter:
The most important thing to remember when maintaining a starter is routine and temperature. This is not an inert object, this is not something you can store in a cupboard and forget about until next you need it. This is a living thing, and like all living things it needs to be treated as such. It needs regular feeding to survive, it needs warmth when required, and if it’s feeling lazy, it needs encouragement to give it some get up and go.
Ideally, you feed your starter every day. Maybe twice a day during the summer. Every starter has a slightly different routine and you’ll get to know what suits yours over time. It’s hard to give specific advice as everyone’s house has a different ambient temperature. Just look, smell and taste, and learn what is best. Try to mix the starter so it is 22°C (72ºF) and feed at regular intervals.
If you decide that every day is too much commitment, you can choose to store your starter in the fridge for up to a week before feeding. Before you want to make bread I would recommend feeding for 2 days at room temp before adding to a dough to get it back on track as it’s likely to be sluggish after sleeping for so long.
To feed the sourdough starter
Measure out 1 tablespoon of your sourdough starter and discard the rest. To the tablespoon of starter, add equal parts water and flour. Use 40g (1-1/2 z) water and 20g (3/4 oz) strong white flour and 20g (3/4oz) whole meal flour.
The longer you leave the starter to ferment, the more acidic it will become. We use ours after 3–4 hours. Using it at this stage will produce a mildly sour loaf. It’s really down to taste. If you like it more sour, 5 or 6 hours (and using slightly colder water) would work better.
After you have used your starter to make the leaven for your dough, you will have roughly 1 tablespoon left. If you used the starter at an acidic stage (6–10 hours), you can feed it again immediately to keep it going for future loaves. If it was used at a mild stage, cover the starter and leave for a couple of hours before feeding.
As mentioned above, if kept in the fridge, the starter can keep for a week and then be revived at room temperature (feed before using), but I’d be cautious about leaving it for longer than that. Regular feeding is the key to a healthy starter
Know your bread
You may have noticed that the bread recipes are pretty lengthy – the techniques can take practice to get right, so I wanted to put a few notes here to and give some pointers on what to look out for when making bread.
What we do at The Snapery Bakery is not to be taken as the only way, but it’s the way that works for us. Other bakers might explain the methods slightly differently – or completely differently! But that’s what is so fun about being a baker. The way we do it, goes as follows…
Making the leaven and dough
After making the leaven (which can be done in advance), it’s simply a case of mixing in the flour and water to create a dough. Well, sort of.
Since yeast is reactive to temperature you will always have to adjust what you do over the seasons. In summer the temperature of the water you’ll use will be dramatically different than in winter. In the hottest summer months at The Snapery we use ice-cold water, and in the winter we can use water up to 28°C (82ºC). It’s important to think about the temperature of your kitchen before you mix your dough.
Generally the flour will be the same temperature as the air. A good way of calculating the temperature of water you need is to note the desired temperature of your dough, then multiply this by 3, then subtract the air and the flour temperature. The figure you’re left with is what your water temperature should be. It’s not 100% accurate, but it’ll get you to within 1 or 2 degrees.
Bulk rise / Stretch and fold
It’s important to leave the dough to rise in a mass before dividing. This is called the ‘bulk rise’. During this bulk rise, we turn the dough several times in what is called ‘stretch and fold’.
This process is a brilliant double act: when you’re not stretching and folding the dough, it will be proving. And there’s a beautiful relationship between building structure in the dough and the rate at which the dough is proving.
It’s easy think that because you’ve done the amount of folds in the recipe that you’re ready to move on to the pre-shape. But learn to read the dough: it’s like a ball slowly being filled with gas as the gluten develops and the dough leavens. If you move on to pre-shape before the dough is taut enough, it won’t hold its shape. Equally, over-prove it and the ball will burst.
The technique of stretch and fold is an alternative to kneading for wet dough (which is obviously quite difficult to knead). It’s really about using time rather than force. The stretch and fold builds gluten (the same as kneading), as well as creating a stronger, more flavorful dough. Recipes that use less water than our recipes will still require kneading, as the gluten cannot build without heavier manipulation. Very wet doughs enhance gluten development as it is easier for the gluten molecules to align and develop a strong gluten network.
Temperature and time is key here. Generally, for us at the bakery, the dough would have almost doubled after 2.5 –3 hours at 27°C (81ºF) after receiving 3–4 ‘turns’. We use a high power mixer at the bakery, which develops the dough over a short period of time. This means that we don’t have to use so many turns.
By hand I would use a dough temperature of 23–24°C (73–75ºF) performing 5 or 6 folds every 30 minutes over a 3–4 hour period.
A good indication it is ready is when it has almost doubled, it has a slightly domed surface, if you press the dough with a wet finger it should spring back slowly but feel bouncy, aerated and taut. If it needs longer, the dough will be flat, fairly slack and lifeless. This could indicate that the dough temperature isn’t high enough, in which case I would recommend trying a warmer place in your kitchen.
If I need the dough to be warmer at home, I use my oven as a proving chamber. With the oven switched off I place a bowl of hot water on the floor and put my dough on the shelf above and close the door. The temperature in the oven will then be roughly about 40°C (104ºF), so you can use this chamber until you have achieved the desired dough temperature.
Pre-shaping / Building structure
Stretch and fold is a bit like brickwork, you layer and layer the dough and it becomes stronger and stronger as the gluten develops. The ball becomes almost buoyant. You then need to pre-shape it to build the dough up further. Pre-shaping is essentially forming the dough into a tight ball to give it a regular shape.
One of the reasons for this is so you get a good rise when you bake. If you have a loose flat dough that starts to fill with carbon dioxide, the dough will spread out like a puddly pancake. Whereas if the dough is nice and tight, when it fills with gas, the only way is up. It is like a stretched elastic band... it has power. The elastic band is at its most powerful when stretched out to its absolute limit before breaking. That’s what I try and do with dough.
To get maximum lift in the oven it needs to be like that elastic band waiting to ping and fire off. As tight as it can be before it tears.
With the technique in this book, the final shape is fairly unimportant in relation to the previous steps. If all has gone well you would have built a dough with a lot of structure. All that needs to happen at this point it to make it into the shape you want.
Slash and bake
This is the most fun part. Slashing your loaf and baking. Before you turn your dough out into your pot (Dutch oven) think about how you want to cut it. For me it should be your own, do whatever you like. But classic cuts are a cross, a box, diamond cross hatch and a single cut down the middle.
When cutting, after the dough is turned out into the Dutch oven, make sure the blade is at an acute angle as if almost flat to the surface of the dough. This will dictate which direction the dough will burst open and give you what is known as an ‘ear’.
Generally, a loaf of 800g (1lb 12oz) or more should be in the oven for 40–50 minutes in order for it to be fully baked, but if you want a darker crust a few more minutes won’t dry out your crumb.
Never cut into a loaf directly from the oven! Warm bread is amazing, but hot bread is nowhere near as pleasurable. Wait until almost fully cooled before slicing. The crust will be crisp, the crumb very slightly warm so the lashings of butter very slightly melts, then enjoy. Pure joy!
Excerpted with permission from Bread and Butter by Richard Snapes, Grant Harrington and Eve Hemingway, published by Quadrille October 2018, RRP $29.99 hardcover.