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How to Make Sourdough Bread

Part One - Making a Starter Culture

Sourdough or wild yeast bread is made using wild yeasts instead of baker's yeast. These yeasts grow naturally on rye and wheat grains, but they must be allowed to multiply in a starter culture to develop sufficient strength to rise bread dough. This culture will also contain naturally occurring lactobacilli which contribute the characteristic sour taste and also improve the bread's keeping qualities.

If you ask ten bakers how to make a sourdough starter culture, you will get at least eleven different answers ... there are many widely varying recipes in books and on the internet for starter cultures and for the bread itself. This is the way I have found successful. You do not need raisins, apple juice, yoghurt, or anything else for the starter except organic rye flour and water.

Day One

Mix one tablespoon of organic rye flour and one tablespoon of filtered or cooled boiled water. Filtering or boiling gets rid of the chlorine (yeast doesn't like chlorine), but also gets rid of the oxygen, which the wild yeast needs, so give it a very thorough mix to incorporate some air. Cover with cling film (plastic wrap) and leave in a plastic, glass, or ceramic bowl for 24 hours at room temperature.

Throughout this process, remember that these yeasts usually eke out a meagre living on a grain, they have not been selectively bred in laboratories to produce copious amounts of gas to raise bread quickly, so be nice to them. They like warmth, air, and moisture, like a lot of living things. You can keep them in the fridge when you want them to go to sleep, but you need to wake them up and give them some attention when you want them to do some work for you.

Sourdough starter day 1

Sourdough starter, day one: brown mush

Day Two

Your brown mush will probably smell musty/yeasty by now - it's not a particularly pleasant smell, but don't worry, that's not what your bread's going to taste like. Add another tablespoon each of rye flour and water, mix well as before, cover and leave for another 24 hours.

Day Three

Your starter should now be starting to smell "interesting", maybe a bit like wine vinegar, pear drops, or even paint thinner. (If a starter ever smells really foul or rotten, it could be contaminated with undesirable bacteria and should be thrown away.) If you look closely, you might see some tiny bubbles.

Sourdough starter starting to bubble

Day 3 - Beginning to bubble

Add two tablespoons each of rye flour and water, mix well, cover and leave for another 12 hours.

Now you are going to double the quantity of starter two or three times a day until it is looking very lively and active. After a while it becomes easier to weigh the ingredients instead of using tablespoons. One tablespoon of rye flour is roughly 10g, and one tablespoon of water is 15g. Our starter so far contains 40g of rye flour and 60g of water and so we are going to add that much again. The starter should definitely be showing signs of bubbling by this stage. Encourage this by incorporating as much oxygen as possible when doubling - add the water to the starter first, and whisk very vigorously (with an electric whisk if possible) for a minute before adding the flour. After a few feedings, you might need to transfer the mixer into a larger container.

Note that your timings do not have to be exact for the process to work - your yeast culture won't suddenly die if it goes without food for thirteen hours. However if you keep your feeding routine very regular, you will find it easier to predict how quickly your bread will rise. Professional bakers need to produce their bread to fit in with a tight commercial schedule. If you're baking at home, you may have a more flexible routine - the first time you make sourdough bread, you will certainly have to wait to see how long the loaves take to rise, as every culture is different and so the process is less predictable than conventional baking with commercial yeast.

So the process so far looks like this:

Add Flour(g) Add Water(g) Total flour(g) Total water(g)
10 (1 tbsp)

15 (1 tbsp)

10 15
(Wait 24 hours)
10 (1 tbsp) 15 (1 tbsp) 20 30
(Wait 12 hours)
20 (2 tbsp) 30 (2 tbsp) 40 60
(Wait 8 - 12 hours)
40 (4 tbsp) 60 (4 tbsp) 80 120
(Wait 8 - 12 hours)
80 120 160 240
(Wait 8 - 12 hours)

You will now have 400g of starter, which is plenty. If you keep doubling, you will spend a fortune on rye flour and run out of room in your kitchen, so for each subsequent feed we are going to remove all but 200g of the culture, and double it by adding 80g of flour and 120g of water. You can use the portion you have removed in your conventional yeasted wheat bread. Weigh the culture you are using to check the quantity - if you have 200g of starter this will consist of roughly 80g of flour and 120g of water (the composition will have changed because of the action of the yeast, but this is close enough). Alternatively, give this 200g of starter to a friend so they can make their own sourdough.

The pet that lives in the fridge ...

After you have removed 200g of starter and given your remaining culture another feed, it should be very lively and bubbly. If it isn't showing any signs of life, throw it away and start again. Assuming it looks and smells OK, this is your mother starter that you will keep in a jar in the fridge; cover it loosely with a lid for the first few days so the pressure doesn't build up and it doesn't erupt when opened, after that it should have calmed down enough to put the lid on properly. After it has settled, you will notice a layer of grey-brown clear liquid, known as "hooch" on the top. Don't be tempted to drink it, despite the name! This helps protect the starter from infections, you don't need to tip it away or stir it in - when you take some starter out for a new batch of bread, scoop it from the thick layer underneath the hooch.

A jar full of starter

A new jar of starter, ready to go into the fridge

Each time you want to make a batch of sourdough, you will use 1 tablespoonful of this starter. When you have used nearly all of it, weigh the remainder into a bowl and feed it a few times as before until it is bubbly and you have a jar full.

An old jar of starter

An old jar of starter, ready to be replenished. Notice the layer of "hooch" on top.

Now you have a supply of active starter, you are ready to go on to the next step: Building the Loaf.

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