Sourdough refers to dough or batter which is fermented by naturally occurring wild yeast. Our ancestors have made bread this way since ancient times and the simple technologies and bacteria have not changed much. I made my first sourdough starter out of necessity rather than desire. I was stuck up a mountain in a little hut surrounded by snow, with a wood fired oven, lots of wheat but no yeast. The “alchemical” process was recounted to me by a roguish friend and his method is now my method. People who make sourdough bread will generally be able to send a little starter your way to get you up and baking, but if you want to do things from scratch, it is simple to get a “mother” sourdough going and with a little care and attention very easy to keep her alive and productive.
Getting your “Mother” started
This process takes 4 – 5 days and will result in a sprightly “mother” starter or leaven. You can make this starter with wheat or rye flour. My preference is rye as it tends to be more resilient and versatile than wheat.
Day 1: Mix 2 heaped tbsp of strong wholemeal wheat or dark rye flour with 3 tbsp of warm (40’c) spring water in bowl, to make a sloppy batter. (Tap water is chlorinated and hence does not encourage the growth of microorganisms) Cover with muslin and keep in a warm space (25 – 30’) like an airing cupboard for 24 hours.
Day 2: Mix day ones’ batter with 2 tbsp more of your chosen flour and 3 tbsp warm spring water. Mix well, cover with the muslin and return to the warm place.
Day 3: You should start to see a little action in your batter now, some bubbles starting to form and a slightly sour smell developing. If using wheat, add 2 tbsp of white strong flour and 3 tbsp of warm water. For rye, continue as per day 2. Mix well, cover and return to the warmth.
Day 4: Things should really be happening now, more bubbles and a distinct sour smell. This is what I would call the sourdough “Mother” and with her by your side, you are ready to start the process of making naturally leavened bread.
The first thing you will need to do before making your dough is to refresh your “Mother” and make what is known as a production batter or leaven. This means adding extra water and flour which both provides extra fermentable sugar for the culture to feed on and also introduces new wild yeasts to the starter. You will need to make this production batter each time you want to bake.
For rye production: Take 50g of the “Mother” starter and add 150g of rye flour and 300g of water. Mix this and allow it to ferment for at least 12 hours.
For a wheat production, add 50g of “Mother” starter to 100g of wholemeal flour and 65g of water. Mix well and allow it to ferment for 4 – 6 hours before use.
I keep my mother in a 500ml jar with a tight fitting lid and I store this in the fridge. So long as I refresh her every few weeks, she always comes back to full sprightliness. If you have too much starter, encourage others to go wild and give some away.