Sourdough for starters (or grow your own pet yeast)

Colin2.0.jpg

I recently began a new wild yeast starter as I lost my long-lived one. I have been making sourdough bread since my children started weaning onto solid food, right back in 2001. This post details how to ‘grow’ and look after a wild yeast starter yourself with some tips to keeping it going.

My last batch of wild yeast had been cultivated for several years and my children have helped me to nurture various starters, including that batch. They had learnt about micro organisms, baking and some food science in the process of looking after the yeast, even from a very young age (kitchen science is a great thing to get your kids involved in).

They had also decided to name that last batch ‘Colin’ for some reason, though starters are often labelled as ‘mothers’ and thought of as female (despite not really needing to be assigned a gender!). However, about two months ago I knocked over the lovely glass Kilner jar that Colin had been residing in. It teetered and toppled and then tessellated into little pieces all across the floor.

Damn.

I couldn’t resuscitate Colin – he was covered in shards of glass. He was good too – what lovely bread Colin had helped me create over the past few years. I shed a tear over his passing. I even contemplated making a little chalk line all around where he’d lain to mark where I’d accidentally finished him off.

But life goes on – and so to the rebirth of Colin mark two. Or is that Colin 2.0?

This time I’ve taken precautions. Colin 2.0 is housed in a modern apartment: a nice tall plastic, bounce-able tub. I’ve also stashed a bit of him in the freezer, as this will mean resurrection is possible if I unwittingly inflict a fatal blow to Colin 2.0 as well. Yeast will sit nicely in stasis in a freezer.

Cultivating your own wild yeast is easy peasy. All it takes is some decent flour, a bit of water, a tall container and a couple of days of patience. Then it just needs a bit of attention every few days and it’ll keep indefinitely. I’ve seen “recipes” for starters that include live yoghurt or milk and any number of other additions. You do not need anything other than strong flour, water and something with a lid to keep it in to begin with.

What also puzzles me is that I’ve seen pre-packed starter for sale at alarming prices: if you can’t be arsed to take a couple of days to wait for a starter to begin to ferment, then you’re not going to look after one you’ve paid for. What a chronic waste of money – I worry many people who pay £14 or so for the starter will only make one or two loaves, possibly binning them if they haven’t worked. Another reason to cultivate your own starter, as it’s virtually free – if you go on to love making sourdough bread, fantastic, and if you don’t, you’ve wasted far less money.

I’ve written a previous blog post about the science of yeast, which is of course not written with any scientific expertise, but from what I’ve learnt through breadmaking for years and quite a lot of library researching (to improve my understanding of breadmaking and therefore my bread; the write-up was a happy additional extra). You can take a gander at my science of yeast post: it covers what is yeast exactly, how yeast ‘does what it does’ and looks at what affects yeast during the baking process.

Make your own starter – the ingredient list

You need a tall jar with a lid –  at least 1 1/2 litres. A Kilner jar does the job nicely, but as you’ve just read, this will smash if you’re as clumsy as me. I now use a tall plastic pot with a screw top lid I found in a pound store (result!)

A large ladle full of decent flour. Many sources will tell you to use rye or good wholemeal, but actually a good quality stoneground (organic if possible) strong white bread flour will start you off nicely. Cheaper and easier to get hold of too. This is because it is choc full of complex carbohydrates which yeast loves to eat. Those specialist flours contain less, although they do impart a much nicer flavour. My advice when starting your starter is to begin with good white flour, then as the yeast matures and becomes more vigorous then continue to feed it with rye, emmer, spelt, whatever you prefer to build up that nutty rich flavour.

Water, use the same amount of water as flour every time you ‘feed’ your starter and you can’t go much wrong. There are a lot or arguments about the quality of water – I’d say in the UK as long as you’re using fresh drawn water from the tap (transferred or measured out in a clean container) you should be OK. Elsewhere where tap water is not drinkable or unreliable, then bottled spring water is your best bet.

What to do

In a large bowl, put a ladle (or a half cup full) of flour and the same of tepid water. Whisk it up with a massive balloon whisk or a hand mixer. Don’t worry – it loves it! As yeast is present all around us, in the flour, in the air, you’re practically beating more yeast in.

After a few minutes of vigorous whisking, tip it all into the container and pop on the lid.

The container needs to go somewhere a bit warm (but not hot) and that has a fairly constant temperature. For the last few times I’ve begun a new starter I’ve stuck mine in the airing cupboard.

You now need to wait for the yeast to start its anaerobic activity and begin kicking out bubbles of gas. This will take anything from a day to three or four days. Keep checking your starter every twelve hours.

slashedLeafSourdough
Sourdough loaf: made with sponge method. Wholemeal flour at 55% hydration
Once it’s started to bubble, now is the time for your pet’s first feed!

Your first few feeds will be pretty much the same as all subsequent feeds, although you may want to vary the type of flour you use later and once established the starter needs feeding much less frequently.

Tip in a ladle full of each of flour and tepid water. Mix it vigorously with either a fork or a slim whisk. Put the lid back on and stick back in its warm spot.

You should feed it in the same way for another two days – a ladle full of flour and one of water and a good mix.

After three to four of these feeds your jar will be getting quite full and hopefully very bubbly (like the photo of Colin 2.0 above). Now you can use your starter to make bread!

I’m not going to give you a recipe in this post. I’d actually suggest you try a normal bread recipe first and just add a ladle full of your starter to it, to test the yeast’s vigorousness and flavour. However, you can just dive straight in and make a sourdough loaf with your new pet if you prefer.

Tips on keeping your pet alive

Please note, I look after my starter(s) as someone who only makes a sourdough loaf about once a week (twice at most). This means I am feeding my starter and keeping it’s size in check as I don’t use it that often. For other home and professional bakers who make sourdough very regularly – even daily – they don’t need to temper it’s size or withdraw and discard any starter, as they will be using it up as quickly as they can cultivate it. They’re also unlikely to leave a starter for any length of time (ie when going on holiday) or need to find a way of storing it for future revival. There are plenty of online resources which give fuller instructions for more frequent wild yeast use.

Don’t forget, when making bread with your starter NEVER use it all up or you’ll have to begin from the beginning all over again. Keep a bit in the bottom of the jar and carrying on feeding it.

Feeding your starter should now be about three times a fortnight (when you have it in the fridge – see below) – that is more than once a week, sometimes twice. Use equal amounts of flour and water, about a ladle full of each and whisk it in lightly with a fork.

When you have the wild yeast established and get into a routine of feeding it, you may need to scoop out a little of the starter before a feed if you have not depleted it by making a lot of bread (you don’t have to do this at every feed, just when your jar is getting towards being full). The reasons are twofold: firstly you’ll quickly get much more starter than you need and it’ll fill up your jar if you’re not a very regular sourdough baker. Secondly, it seems to invigorate the yeast a little more if there is a more even ratio between the amount of existing starter and the water and flour you’re putting in – this is just my own cursory observation (I’ve no hard proof) but it seems to me to be more active if it has to work harder.

Slow your wild yeast’s activity down by keeping it in the fridge once it’s got past its first few days, unless you intend to make sourdough every couple of days. The cold inhibits yeast (though doesn’t kill it) so will slow it’s biological process down. It’s now best to not have the lid completely tight on the jar too.

When you want to make a loaf, you need a little prior planning. Bring your pet wild yeast out of the fridge to let it warm, give it a small feed (about half what you would normally – just enough to encourage a bit of vigour) and leave it to get a bit of a wriggle on before you bake with it. Ideally get the starter out and feed it the night before you want to bake, but at least 4 hours before.

If you’re going on holiday you can help your pet survive by feeding it a bit more flour than usual and a bit less water – this drier environment slows the yeast as there is more carbohydrate to eat through but it’s a bit more difficult. This, combined with sticking in a fridge will allow it to last much longer between feeds.

Don’t panic if you’ve not fed it for a few days and it’s all ‘gone a bit watery’. That’s the yeast excreting alcohol as it respires, because it’s run out of carbohydrate (flour) to eat. Just pour this liquid (called hooch) off and then immediately feed the yeast – all should be well. I have (ahem) done this many times to my yeast and it’s always come back well.

I’ve read that if your yeast forms a crust (from lack of feeding) that this can be prised off and the yeast revived easily – I have never seen this so I can’t comment.

Also dozens of sources on sourdough say that if your starter starts to really smell, then all is lost and you should start again as unwanted bacteria has got in. This hasn’t happened to me either, but I would say approach this with caution as if you are new to this sourdough does always smell – however it is pungent but NOT acrid. When your starter has got going and is bubbling take a good long sniff and get used to the smell – you will get this smell often as you bake bread with your starter and get used to it. This familiarity will enable you to detect when it is past all redemption and needs to go down the sink. If it does smell bad then it will be irretrievable and you will have to cultivarte a new starter (and if this is the case I’d suggest a very thorough clean of the jar afterwards, even sterilisation).

Survival techniques

You can save some of your wild yeast as a back up, reviving it in case you lose your starter. To do this your starter should be in a fairly lively stage (ie don’t use it just at the point it needs feeding as it is most weak then). Freezing is my preferred method. It’s also useful to prepare a back up of a starter that is a particularly great batch.

  • Freezing
  • Put a piece of baking paper on a baking tray that is small enough to go in your freezer drawer or compartment. Drop tablespoon-sized amounts of your starter on the baking sheet and flatten them out a little. It doesn’t matter how many you do. Pop in the freezer and once frozen (leave about 4-6 hours or overnight) you can peel these disks of frozen starter off and pop in a freezer bag or container. You can keep this almost indefinitely, but I’d replace with a new batch after 6 months.
  • To revive, place three or four of the disks in a clean, lidded jar and allow it to thaw. Then, once thawed, start to feed it as from the instructions for the ‘first feed’ above. It will only take a couple of days to get your starter back up and bubbly.
  • Drying
  • You can also dry out your starter in a low oven or dehydrator. Again, use a piece of baking baking on a baking tray. This time, spread out a layer of starter across the baking paper. Either pop in a dehydrator (you may need to cut up the baking paper and place smaller pieces in) and follow your equipment’s instructions. If you’re using an oven, put it on its lowest setting, place the baking tray in the bottom of the oven (the coolest part) and leave for an hour. If the yeast isn’t fully dry, turn off the oven and close the door back up. Leave for a couple of hours or overnight. Once dried, crunch up the yeast into pieces and store in a clean jar or container. This again lasts pretty indefinitely but do replace after six months to be sure.
  • To revive, place half a cupful or so of the dried yeast in a clean, lidded jar and add in roughly half the amount of tepid water. Leave to dissolve a little and then go on to the first feeding stage.
  • One benefit of drying yeast, is you can grind it up and use it as an umami powder within some recipes, and it’s a great way with a little water, to create crackle coating for bread.

Enjoy your new pet!

August 2019 – I’ve created a new carb lovers’ area on my Facebook site, if you have any questions you can leave them here in the comments or in this Facebook group area:

Inksugarspice on Facebook – Carb lovers’ group

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