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So you’ve got a little bit of time, and you’d like to make some bread. You love sourdough, but everyone talks about these mysterious ‘sourdough starters’ and you don’t have one of those.

Well, fear not! It is actually very simple to make a sourdough starter, and Chris Young, author of Slow Dough: Real Bread is here to talk you through it. All you’ll need is a bit of patience.

A plastic container with a lid is convenient for storage because if your starter gets frisky, the lid
will simply pop off, whereas a glass jar with a screwtop or metal clip seal could crack or shatter. The amount of flour you use isn’t important so we’ve started small, as instructions that tell you to throw portions of your starter away just seem wasteful. Please keep to the 1:1 ratio, though.

Daily: days one to five (ish)

30g/1oz/3½ tbsp rye flour

30g/1oz/2 tbsp water (at about 20°C/68ºF)

On each of the first five days, put equal amounts of flour and water into your container, mix, close and leave at room temperature (about 20°C/68°F) for 24 hours between each addition.

For the first few days, the mixture might seem lifeless and could smell vinegary or even a bit “off”. Don’t worry about this, as it should soon start bubbling and the smell will develop into something yeasty and maybe even floral. 

Day six (ish)

Once your starter is bubbling up nicely, you can use some to bake a loaf of Real Bread. Typically, this might be anything from four to seven days after you started, but could take a little longer. If it’s not bubbling by day six, keep repeating the daily flour and water addition until it is. Don’t worry if you end up with a layer of brownish liquid. This is just gravity working its magic and is normal. Either stir it back into your starter or pour it off. If your starter hasn’t been used for a while, the second option is probably better as the liquid (sometimes known as “hooch”) will have started to become alcoholic, which can slow the starter down and may also lead to less desirable flavours in your bread.

Caring for Your Starter

• Each time you use some of the starter, simply replace with an equivalent quantity of flour and water – this is usually known as feeding or refreshing. You also need to refresh on the day before a baking session.

• When refreshing, feel free to experiment with different ratios and total amounts of flour to water: a looser starter will ferment more quickly than a stiff one; refreshing more often or adding a large refreshment will dilute the taste and acidity.

• It’s a living thing (well, technically billions of living things) so get to know it. The acidity, flavour, aromas and speed at which starters work vary, so learn what’s normal for yours.

• Give it a name. You can’t call yourself a proper sourdough nut if you don’t – though I know some people strongly disagree with me on this one!

• Forget it. Unlike other members of your household, your starter will be forgiving of neglect. Though it will be happy to help you bake bread once a week or even daily, your starter can be left untouched at the back for the refrigerator for weeks or even months. The yeast and bacteria populations will decline over time but enough will live on in a dormant state. The longer you leave it, the longer it’ll take to “wake up” though and it might need a few days of refreshments before it’s up to full vigour.

• Unless you are using your starter every single day, keep it in the fridge, which will slow it down and reduce the frequency at which you need to refresh it. You just need to remember to take it out and refresh it the day before you intend to make a loaf.

 

To Convert Your Starter to Wheat

Although you can use the rye starter for wheat breads, you might prefer to convert it by replacing the rye flour in refreshments with wheat flour (white or wholemeal/wholewheat) until it is all wheat. Alternatively, you can use wheat flour from the word go: again, wholemeal/wholewheat will give you a better chance of success. Whether you keep separate rye, white wheat, wholemeal/wholegrain wheat, and even other starters on the go, or just one, is up to you.

Slow Dough: Real Bread is available now as an ebook or in hardback

baguette-main

This article is adapted from Slow Dough by Chris Young.

Like the word bread itself, the terms ‘artisan’ and ‘craft’ have no legal definition. This means anyone can call themselves an artisan or craft baker and market their loaves as artisan or craft bread. The production methods used may not be obvious and, in the case of loaves that aren’t pre-packed – such as those from a supermarket in-store ‘bakery’ – you’ll have your work cut out to find whether or not artificial additives have been employed.

Though some of the differences between Real Bread and industrial loaves may be obvious, labelling and marketing regulations and the way they are policed in various countries can leave loopholes that deny shoppers the right to know exactly what they’re getting.

Knowing that many of us find a litany of chemical names or E numbers off-putting, some manufacturers are now turning to so-called processing aids. By a quirk of EU law, if an artificial additive is deemed to be a ‘processing aid’, it does not have to appear on the label, as long as any ‘residues do not present any health risk and do not have any technological effect on the finished product.’ As a consequence, suppliers often market these as ‘clean label’ or ‘label friendly’. Companies may defend the use of processing aids with comments along the lines of ‘we always comply with the law’, or ‘they get used up during manufacture’ even though despite the fact that their use may, quite legally, ‘result in the unintentional but technically unavoidable presence of residues of the substance or its derivatives in the final product’.

An allegedly ‘fresh baked’ unwrapped loaf sold by a supermarket, convenience store, petrol station or other retailer may have been manufactured a long time ago in a factory far away, then chilled or frozen. Having then been re-baked in a retailer’s ‘loaf tanning salon’ oven increases the energy consumed in production, and results in a loaf that may well stale faster than a genuinely fresh one. Not that you’d know any of that, so you could be forgiven for making a like-for-like comparison with a loaf of Real Bread from a local independent bakery, which helps to sustain more skilled jobs per loaf for local people making genuinely freshly baked bread without the use of artificial additives. Which part of this is fair on you the shopper or a genuine artisan baker?

Perhaps it’s time to BIY – bake it yourself.

Chris Young is Campaign Co-ordinator for The Real Bread Campaign, a charity project with a mission to promote additive-free bread. In addition to compiling this book, Chris edits the quarterly magazine True Loaf, and wrote Knead to Know, the campaign’s first book. His work has appeared in publications including Spear’s Magazine, The Real Food Cookbook and the London ethical food magazine, The Jellied Eel, which he also edits.

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Chris Young
Slow Dough: Real Bread
£20.00, available from Nourish Books