Adventures in Sourdough: The Starter

Culture Food and Drink

A renaissance is afoot. Social media is inundated with pictures of crusty loaves boasting burnished crackly tops, with cross-sections flaunting that well-sought-after ‘open crumb’. The millennial vice that is avocado toast has been given a makeover—avocados now sit on top of homemade, salt-of-the-earth-type fermented bread. In case you’ve been living under a rock, here is the TLDR: sourdough is the new black.

With seemingly nothing worthwhile to occupy our time with, humanity has turned to old-school bread making as the antidote to our collective boredom. Now that supermarket shelves are devoid of any form of active dry yeast, what better time to try your hand at making bread with the wild sort?

Sourdough might sound intimidating, slightly archaic even. If social media has not already won you over, I am here to make a case for it. There is a certain kind of magic that is found in building a rustic loaf out of nothing but flour, water, and time. Since we appear to have ample amounts of time on our hands (less true for flour, I’ll give you that), invest a fraction of it in some wild fermentation. You’re in for a wild time.

Over the next few weeks, we are going to get into the nitty-gritty of all things sourdough. But with all great adventures, we must begin with a disclaimer: you will develop an emotional attachment to your starter; other members of your household might resent you for keeping a jar of twangy, bubbly dough on the kitchen countertop; and it is going to take time. Sourdough involves saint-like volumes of patience, but I’ll make you a promise: it will be worth it. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Sourdough is a living thing. If you have ever made bread, you might have watched in rapturous wonder as your solid lump of dough balloons out into a pillowy mound. Modern-day bread-making often relies on those sachets of dried yeast (RIP) to inoculate your dough with the living organism that gives your bread that rise. But before yeast was domesticated, bakers relied on capturing wild yeast to bring life into the loaf.

In order to harness the power of wild yeast and begin your sourdough journey, you will need to make a starter. This is simply a mixture of flour and water, left to languish somewhere warm, to let the wild yeast in the flour do its thing. The starter requires daily feeding, but it is an otherwise agreeable pet. It will take about five to seven days to get a truly bubbly, vibrant starter. And while that might seem like forever in our age of instant gratification, a starter is a gift that keeps on giving. Keep your starter happy and it might even outlive you. You could be cultivating your next family heirloom, and I will take the makings of a good loaf of bread over an old rusty bit of jewellery, any day.


Building blocks of a starter

The formula to a starter couldn’t be simpler: an equal weight of both flour and water. You can use any type of flour you have on hand, I tend to stick with the plain sort. Wild yeast, ever the hippies of the bread scene, prefer whole wheat. So, if you are looking to kick-start your fermentation, try a 50-50 mix of plain and whole wheat.

But yeast can be pickier when it comes to water. The chlorine in tap water can stunt its growth, or even kill it. Just use bottled or filtered water, and you’re golden. It is time to whip out that Brita filter.

You will need to find a good home for your starter: a clean jar that allows enough room for growth, and somewhere warm. I am writing this in the suffocating humidity of Singapore, so finding somewhere warm was a doddle for me. But if you are reading this from somewhere cooler (lucky you), I have always found that storing my starter on top of my fridge, where the surface of it feels the warmest, is enough for my starter to get going. But if you are partial to getting snuggly under a blanket in front of Netflix, I am sure the starter will welcome a cuddle.


Beginning a starter

Weigh out 50g of flour (25g each of plain and whole-wheat is great for getting a starter going) and 50g of filtered water at room temperature. Pour them out into your clean jar, and give it a stir until all the lumps disappear and a thick, shaggy paste forms. Loosely cover it with the lid. Do not screw it on, or the lid might ping off rather dramatically as your yeast lets out air. Leave it in a warm place for 24 hours.

After a day, you might notice little bubbles studded across the starter. The paste itself will have loosened, and might have even developed a thin striation of clear liquid. This liquid is the hooch that the yeast has produced, and yes, it is slightly alcoholic. But I trust that the alcohol-supply situation has not gotten so dire as to necessitate you drinking this. You can pour this off since hooch is ‘wasted energy’, but I like to keep it in when I stir to add an extra boost to flavour. For those who don’t drink, don’t worry, the final bread you make will not be alcoholic.

So, give it a stir, and pour out half of it. You could just chuck it down the bin, but in this time of making the most of what we’ve got, I recommend you find something to do with it. The internet is saturated with weird and wonderful ideas on how you can employ this excess starter, and we will discuss some of my favourite uses for this bit of spare dough in a later instalment.

Feed the starter again with 50g each of water and flour, stir, and let it rest. On the third day, you will likely see a lot more bubbles, and a whiff of it might invoke memories of yogurt or some twangy pickle. You’re on the way to flavour city. All the same, stir well, discard half, and refuel it with 50g of flour and water.

Feed, sleep, repeat. Keep this going every day and by the fifth to seventh day, your starter will be pockmarked with huge bubbles, nearly doubling in size with each feed. It is flourishing! It is thriving! It might take you slightly longer to get to this stage if your kitchen runs a little cooler, but with regular feeds and a warm enough environment, your starter will slowly come to life.

When your starter is regularly doubling in size about 12 hours after each feed, and is frothy and funky, it is ready for bread-making. Watch this space for part two, where we will discuss how to transform your starter into a truly magnificent sourdough.


Kick-starting a starter

For the slapdash cook, you have not been forgotten. If you feel you do not possess the diligence or patience required of a starter, there is a fast-track. I am not all too sure what sourdough purist will think so if you are a traditionalist: avert your eyes!

Wild yeast can also be found on the surface of fruit, fresh or dried. I have recently been made my starter out of about a quarter cup of raisins, left to steep in 50g of water. Give it a swirl, and you will notice the water turning cloudy. This, my friends, is the yeast. Scoop out the raisins (and chuck them into your morning porridge), and add in the 50g of flour. Continue feeding the starter as instructed, but you will find that the starter comes alive much sooner.

I haven’t tried this with other fruit, but I trust that it will yield similar results.


Name your starter

An unspoken rule of sourdough club is to name your starter. An unnamed starter feels neglected, and might not reward you as generously. This is a scientific fact.

You can go for the literal (‘Yeasty’, or ‘Sour Mama’), the endearing (‘Shirley’ or ‘Bartholomew’), or the plain ol’ weird and whacky. For me, it was a toss-up between Avril Levain and Clint Yeastwood. My affection for a good pun knows no bounds.


Go forth and have a go at rearing your very own sourdough starter. If you’re feeling terrifically lonely in social isolation, there is hope! A DMC with Avril Levain has always left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling. Check back in a week for the low down on how to work more sourdough alchemy.


Image Credit: The Pizza Bike, Flickr Creative Commons


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