Sourdough Starter or Leaven/ Levain
OR how to start and manage a relationship.
A friend once called sourdough bread “The philosophers stone”. Well he is as obsessed as am I, but there is truth in this. Well-made, sourdough bread is only pleasantly sour and is quite easy, very digestible and a treasure of nutrition. The real secret is in the growth and maintenance of the starter.
Be prepared, it may overtake your life, your partner/family/pets will all desert you as you become more obsessed, however they will eventually return just to eat your delicious bread!
THE ROLE OF THE STARTER
To make a sourdough bread, the sourdough starter is mixed with more flour, water and salt to make the dough which will then ferment, rise, and can be baked similarly to yeast bread. The starter simply replaces the addition of yeast; the sourdough will rise more slowly, but the process is essentially the same.
ABOUT THIS STARTER
This process aims to produce a 500g sourdough starter for use in home baking. You may wish to adjust the quantities to suit you own needs, but if you stick to the relative proportions used here, you shouldn’t have a problem.
125g organic wholemeal wheat flour (preferably stoneground)
190g slightly warm water
Use a bowl for the mixing and a glass jar for the permanent home
Mix the ingredients well, cover with a cotton tea-towel and place in a draught-free, “not cold” spot in your kitchen. Leave undisturbed until the next morning.
In the morning, give the mix a good stir and replace the tea-towel.
Tip - Choose a time which is convenient for you and try attend to your starter at the same time each morning.
Day 3 - 6
Each morning check you starter. When you see a little bubbly activity, things are moving.
If you have bubbles, a slightly sour or acid smell and a pleasant yeasty even “grassy” aroma, your starter is “on the way” and you are ready to move on to the next stage, Growth. This is an important stage and as soon as activity is observed as bubbling or slight froth, move to the growth stage.
If your starter is not “on the way”, stir and walk away until the next day.
Tip - These leavens can vary and if you aren’t having success, but get to the first stage of bubbling/frothiness, as an alternative method, add plenty of water(200-250gm/a cup) to the just-active starter and whisk it briskly so that it is well frothy. Pour off most of this mix and add the 125gm of flour or a little more, to make the same thick batter consistency. This should then take 12 hours/overnight to be fully active again. Then proceed as in the directions for growth.
Tip - Activity is more likely to be evident in summer, but in cold climates be patient. If no activity has happened by day 5, it’s a concern; persevere for another day, but you may have to start again.
Photos - if you'd like to see some photos of starters in various stages, click here.
Celebrate the arrival of your new life partner!
Add the original Ingredients (125g organic wholemeal wheat flour and 190g slightly warm water) to your starter and stir them in.
Next morning, pour off half of your starter. You do not need this half.
Take the remaining half, and refresh it. To refresh your starter add the original ingredients and stir them in.
Tip - if you can’t bear the waste, thicken the throw-out with some fresh flour and make a pancake as you would a regular pancake, and enjoy your first taste. Alternatively, compost it.
Day 3 - 9
Every day for a week, pour off half of you starter and refresh it.
By this time, which may be as long as 2 weeks after you began, your starter will be nicely active and ready to make the first loaf.
USING A SOURDOUGH STARTER
To make sourdough bread, the starter is used to make the dough. It is the source of the fermentation process that is powered by yeast in modern methods.
Your recipe will tell you how much starter to add to you mix, but always ensure you have at least 2 tablespoons of the original starter left. If you do not keep enough of this “seed”, you risk killing your starter and going back to square one.
Each time you use your starter, you will need to replenish it so that it is ready for your next baking session.
Tip - You should use your starter when it is active. This is usually in the middle of the refresh cycle, when it is good and bubbly. So if you are on a 24 hour refresh and want to bake in the morning, refresh is the evening.
KEEPING A SOURDOUGH STARTER
When you use your starter, it is essential that there will be a small amount left, never less than 2 tablespoons. This is the seed.
Each time you bake, you will need to replenish your starter by refreshing your seed. Simply add the initial ingredients (125g organic wholemeal wheat flour and 190g slightly warm water), mix and set aside. Your refreshed starter should be ready for baking 12 hours later.
STORAGE A SOURDOUGH STARTER
An active starter can be refrigerated for a week, in the jar with a loosely fitting lid. After a week, it should be taken out of the refrigerator, brought back to room temperature and then refreshed to reinvigorate overnight, or for 12 hours. Then it can be used for bread making and the refreshment schedule repeated.
If you aren’t making bread, simply return it to the refrigerator once it’s refreshed.
Tip - As a commercial baker and fanatic, I never refrigerate the leaven. This ensures it is quick to respond and always highly active. If you bake regularly I recommend not refrigerating it, but refreshing it daily always discarding half, which can be composted or used for pancakes or crumpets. Otherwise, refrigerate…it will work well, but is always slightly sleepy and a little slower.
Tips, comments & trouble shooting
The starter should always have the consistency of a very thick batter when you refresh it. This will thin down as it ferments, and will be more liquid when you use it, but make sure it is a thick batter when you refresh, which these quantities should ensure.
It is ideal to use spring water, but costly. It is true that a bad ferment can be caused by unsuitable water, or simply killed. However, this process works even with tap water, and I use tap water always, but do filter it if I’m baking commercially. Troubleshooting must include trying different water if it's not working.
Similarly, if you aren’t having success, try a different flour. In my experience, stoneground flour makes the best starter. But this doesn’t mean you can’t do it with other flour. Sometimes using Rye flour will initiate the starter more easily and well worth trying if you aren’t having success. Simply follow the directions above, using 100%wholemeal Rye flour. This can then be used for initiating a wheat starter or for direct use.
THE EFFECTS OF TEMPERATURE
Ambient “room” temperature varies of course with the climate. In Australia at 40 degrees, the starter will go “off” in 12 hours, so the refreshment schedule needs to be adjusted. A friend in Spain told me he does this 2-3 times daily in 40+weather. During an English winter, a warmish spot is needed for a 24hour cycle. The temperature ideally should be about 25 degrees. It's useful to be vigilant and observe the cycle of your starter, and act accordingly. This attention is what initiates good bread.
If you have tried and have a really unpleasant smell after a few days, throw it away and start again. Believe me it’s not worth persevering with a putrid smelling starter. Next time, perhaps pour boiling water into the receptacle and wash very well before starting again and make sure all the implements are very clean. If the leaven place is too hot, it will cause a bad fermentation, so perhaps move to a cooler spot for the starter.
WHAT DO YOU CALL IT?
What you have made is variously called “the starter”, “the culture”, “the leaven”, “the levain”. It is not “a mother” please read my blog on why. You are of course free to call it “the mother”, but it’s more an American term of abuse or suited to vinegar production.