Sourdough Bread: A Starter Guide to Starters

Much as I enjoy impressing people with homemade bread, here’s the secret: it’s easy. It’s not like tempering chocolate or even like folding flour into egg whites (urgh, stressful). It’s a bunch of very simple techniques that have been used for over 4000 years – long before we had an understanding of the science behind it.

Still, there is a lot of complicated advice about sourdough out there. Will some of these tips and tricks make your bread better, your starter start faster, your crust crustier? Sure. But for now let’s get to the essentials.

If you haven’t baked bread before, one thing that’s an adjustment from cake baking or even most savoury cooking is that recipes often can’t give precise timescales. Dough develops at different speeds under different temperature and humidity conditions, especially sourdough, so it’s better to pay attention to what it’s doing than the clock. Prod it, poke it, peer at it, pretend you’re living in a prehistoric era and don’t have a clock.

First off, why should I bother making sourdough bread? Isn’t it a bit of a faff?

Because there’s nothing like turning white powder into food to make you feel like a hyper-competent earth mother/father/parent. But, yes, it’s a bit of a faff. If faff-free deliciousness is what you’re after, then head over to, say, Dusty Knuckle or any other sourdough bakery you can get to. Dense, chewy, crusty, and with a hint of a tang, if you can stomach the price tag, you’ll end up with a loaf very different from a Hovis medium sliced white.


How so?

It’s a matter of chemistry. Almost all supermarket bread in Britain is made using the Chorleywood bread process, or its equivalent. The process is a technological marvel of sorts. Invented in the 60s, it uses high-speed mixers and additives to radically cut down the time it takes to make a loaf. At the time, it also saved the UK from the necessity of importing much of its wheat flour because it allows lower protein flours to be used. Since then, however, it’s been fingered for all sorts of accusations, mostly of being bland and fluffy and not the best thing since anything really. Plenty of people also say it gives them digestion problems.

Okay, so how do you make sourdough? How’s it different from using a packet of yeast?

Well, any bread you make at home will knock the socks off what you can buy in the supermarket, and the advantage of dried yeast is that you can have a loaf on the table in a couple of hours. There are recipes all over the internet – here’s one example from BBC GoodFood.

Sourdough or otherwise, all yeasted breads work in the same way. Yeast is a fungus that breaks down some carbohydrates in the dough and releases carbon dioxide in the process, causing the dough to rise. Dried yeast contains a single variety of the fungus that activates when it hits the dough, and acts at a fast and predictable speed.

Sourdough works in exactly the same way except that instead of adding the yeast in powder form, you add a piece of ‘starter’ dough that has naturally-occurring yeasts living inside it. These yeasts will multiply through your dough, gobbling carbohydrates as they go. As you can imagine, this process takes longer than the efficient fungus-on-steroids you get in a packet – six hours at least as opposed to two or three. The slower fermentation gives sourdough bread the chance to develop its distinctive and delicious flavour. Despite the name, it’s not necessarily sour, but you can give it a sour tang by really stretching out the process over a day or so.


At room temperature, yeast is a hungry beast and the starter will need you to feed it its own weight in flour and water every 12 hours (as with everything sourdough-related, this depends on temperature; it may be more like every 24 hours in winter). But pop it in the fridge and it’ll sit there quite happily until you’re ready to bake with it again. The usual advice is then that you need to take the starter out once a week or so, discard half of it and feed the rest of it up with fresh flour and water. This may be true if you want to keep it in tiptop condition. However, I’ve let mine sit in the fridge untouched for up to a year and it’s survived fine – a bit manky and weird-looking at first, but right as rain after a couple of days’ feeding at room temperature.

There’s a recipe at the bottom of this post for baking a white sourdough loaf, so you can see how it works in practice. It’s based off the quantities given here.

Right, so just like a normal bread recipe except it takes longer. Where do I get this starter from?

The simplest way is to get some off a friend, or order it online. But cultivating your own is more fun. Wild yeast is already present in the flour, and all you need to do is create the right conditions for it to thrive in.

Cultivate a Sourdough Starter

These instructions are based on Bake with Mike‘s post, so check his site out for more detail.

1. Mix together 50g wholemeal flour and 50ml water. Leave the mix in a container and cover it loosely – your aim is to keep stray bugs out but not completely seal it (Mike suggests using a shower cap). Wait until bubbles appear. This will take 12-24 hours. If the mix shows no sign of life after 36 hours, throw it out and start again.

2. Add another 50g of flour and 50ml water. Wait another 12-24 hours until the starter gets bubbly again. The activity you’re seeing here is mostly bacteria rather than yeast, so it may be a bit stinky at this point. Discard half of the mixture this time, and add 50g flour and 50 ml water.

3. Repeat the step above every 12 hours. After 3-5 days, you should be getting a starter that bubbles up nicely during the 12-hour period. At this point, you might want to switch to plain flour rather than wholemeal, as wholemeal flour will keep introducing funky new microorganisms and you’ve already got the ones you want. It’s normal for the emerging starter to go through a bad-smelling phase or a lifeless phase, so keep feeding it every 12 hours and persist with this for a couple of days before giving up. The flour at the start contained a whole menagerie of different bacteria and fungi and what you’re seeing is them all fighting it out for supremacy.

4. Keep the feedings up for at least a week. Your starter is ready to bake with only after seven days, and by now it should reliably double in volume between feedings. There’s a good example of what a lively starter looks like below. Don’t use it sooner than this as it’ll be unstable and may contain dodgy bacteria.

5. Bake your first loaf, and don’t forget to pull off a little of the dough to save in the fridge for next time. This first loaf may not have the finest rise you’ve ever seen; your starter is still new and a little wobbly, and it’ll keep getting better as you use it.

sourdough starter - cc James BoxPhoto: James Box

Wait, why do I throw out all that starter? Isn’t that wasteful?

Yes, you are throwing out some flour-and-water mix, but… it’s not starter yet. Instead it’s a mixture of flour and water that has ever-increasing amounts of yeast in it, but isn’t yet strong enough to raise a loaf of bread. It’s still got too many random not-useful bacteria. And because yeast is so hungry, you need to add its own weight in fresh flour every 12 hours. If you don’t keep binning half, you’ll double the mixture every 12 hours and pretty soon it will be insanely huge and take over your entire house. The least wasteful thing to do is keep the emerging starter mix as small as you can.

This is all very well, but sourdough bread takes over seven hours from start to end, and I’m out at work all day.

The great thing about sourdough is that the dough is pretty tolerant of being left in the fridge for a while, so you can use that to fit it around your schedule, or as a back-up if your bread’s taking longer than expected and you need to head out. Here’s what I do during the working week:

Day 1

8am: Pull the starter out of the fridge, and add fresh flour and water to activate it. (This is assuming the starter has been used fairly recently and hasn’t been sitting there for a year.)

7pm: Make the dough. Leave it on the counter for the first rise.

10pm-ish: Shape the dough and pop it in a proving basket, aka tea towel-lined colander. Put the dough in the fridge, where the second rise will take place slowly overnight.

Day 2

8am: Take the bread out and bake it.

And, yes, this has technically taken 2 days, but it’s only about 15 minutes of actual time.

A Sourdough Bread Recipe

200g active starter
700g plain flour or bread flour
525ml water
1tbsp salt

1. 12 hours before you want to bake, take 100g starter out of the fridge, and feed it with 100g flour and 100ml water.

2. Save 100g of starter for next time, then mix the other 200g in with the rest of the ingredients to form a dough. Knead until the dough is smooth and elastic. This takes around 10 minutes by hand. If you have a Kenwood mixer, use setting 2 with the kneading hook.

3. Pop the dough back in the bowl, cover it and leave it at room temperature for 2-3 hours or until it has risen and feels pillowy, like a waterbed (no squishing or snoozing allowed). If it still feels dense when you prod it, check it again in half an hour.

4. Prepare a colander by lining it with a tea towel sprinkled with plenty of flour. Something like rye flour or rice flour works best to stop the bread sticking, otherwise whatever you have to hand.

5. Scrape the dough out onto a floured or oiled surface and fold all the corners into the middle a couple of times until the skin of the dough is feeling tight around the bottom. Pop it into the colander, seams facing upwards. Flour the top thoroughly, then loosely cover it with a wrap.

6. Leave the dough for another 2-3 hours at room temperature. You can tell when the dough is ready to bake by poking it gently with a finger. If the dough springs straight back, give it a bit longer. If the dough doesn’t spring back at all, it’s over-proved. You’re looking for the point where your finger leaves an indentation that springs back slowly.

7. Preheat your oven to 250°C or as hot as it goes. Pop an old baking tray that you don’t mind getting rusty in the bottom of the oven, below the rack that the bread will bake on. When you’re ready to bake, flip the dough upside down onto a parchment-lined baking tray, and gently peel off the tea towel. Then, using a sharp knife, score the top about half an inch deep. You can make pretty patterns if that floats your boat.

8. Pour a little boiling water into the old baking tray, standing well back and using baking gloves in case of spattering. This is to create steam. Then put the bread in the oven for half an hour or so. Wait until the crust is a deep brown before taking it out. A slightly blackened crust won’t do it any harm either. Cool the loaf on a wire rack, and resist the temptation to cut into the bread before it’s fully cooled.


None of these photos are of my bread. Sadly.

Breads 35 and 36: Egyptian Flatbread and Neapolitan Pizza

Flour, water, yeast, an oven. That’s all you need to make bread. Okay, you will also find a colander and a tea towel handy for proving it, but that’s really everything, I promise.

I’m back at this long-dormant blog. And the experience has inevitably landed me back in 2013 in spirit. Oh, 2013. The year in which I was so broke that despite baking over 50 loaves, I bought zero equipment and about three recipe books. 100 Loaves of Solitude is a record of the sunny high points of that year: eating smoked mackerel and Frisian rye on the beach, carting still-warm loaves off to picnics, and welcoming in 2014 in a tiny seaside cabin in the middle of nowhere.

All I’m saying is that being skint or making questionable life choices is no barrier to baking excellent bread. Impatience or inattentiveness, on the other hand? Those will sink the loaf.

And that is what happened with Bread 35, Egyptian Aish Merahrah. This one intrigued me, because it’s a sourdough flatbread made from maize flour and fenugreek eaten in rural Egypt. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations has the following recipe:

1kg maize flour
50g ground fenugreek seeds
dough from previous batch

Aish merahra (aish merahrah), a maize and fenugreek bread widely consumed in Egypt, is usually prepared locally in village homes. It is similar to markouk, a Lebanese bread. The loaves are flat and wide, about 50cm in diameter.

A soft dough is prepared from maize flour, fenugreek seeds, salt and water. The dough rises overnight using some of the dough from a previous batch. The dough is shaped into loaves of about 25cm in diameter by 5mm thick. It is then spun to full size by an intricate motion of both arms.

The loaves are baked in a clay oven heated by wood fire. This bread does not stale easily and can be stored 1 to 2 weeks in covered metal containers.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find the UN recipe before making this. Instead, I winged it by trying to adapt this recipe into a sourdough.

aish merahrah (1) s

Looks okay, doesn’t it? Well, it tasted horrible: dry, dense, overly thick and with a gluey texture that summed up all the worst ways working with maize flour can go wrong.

I have questions now, though. 50g is a lot of fenugreek, for a start. How many flatbreads does that recipe make? Exactly how tricky is this “intricate motion of both arms”? If I get hold of some maize flour, I’d love to give this one another try, although it won’t be the 50cm flying saucer specified.

Onwards! To the much more successful Bread 36, Neapolitan pizza. I used The Perfect Loaf’s recipe for this. I didn’t have any 00 flour and my diastatic malt was best before 2015 and resembled a block of cement, so I decided to give it a miss. I also ignored the folds during bulk fermentation that The Perfect Loaf specified and did all the kneading up front. Yes, this is a lot of amendments; I’d rather bake something I’ll actually get around to than faff around for weeks trying to find 00 flour (as it happened I stumbled on some the very next day in The Grocery on Kingsland Road).

Besides, I ended up with something delicious: chewy, a little charred, with a nice crumb. It lacked the blackened base and unexpected bubbles you’ll get from an actual pizza oven but it was a good step above Asda Extra Special, whose swathes of film and polystrene I’m trying to avoid.

Neapolitan pizza - fresh (1) s

Speaking of which, I also had a go at fully making up a pizza then shoving it into the freezer raw between sheets of baking paper. (Because I know what I’m like when I’m tired and doing toppings is not on the agenda.) Five days later, it achieved about half of the rise of fresh version but was still a perfectly respectable pizza. I don’t know what the results would have been if I’d left it for longer – perhaps the rise would have suffered further.

Neapolitan pizza - frozen (3) s

I baked this gluten-free pizza base on the same evening for my husband and he said it was the best pizza he’d ever had. Which probably says more about the quality of Pizza Express’s offering than anything else. But it’s very satisfying to bake knowing that your homemade version will top literally anything money can buy. More gluten-free recipes coming soon!

Bread 34: Socca from Nice

Nice seems like a strange place to come across a chickpea pancake, but it’s thought (according to, ahem, Wiki) to have originated with Italy’s farinata, which then spread across the coast of the Ligurian Sea. This variety of the chickpea-and-olive oil combination is local to Provence.

My reasons for tackling chickpea pancake was, of course, that it sounded fascinating and that this thin pancake-like version of farinata seemed more my cup of tea than the Italian wedge-like variety that I’ve tried before. But I have also had the terrible baker’s misfortune of falling for a celiac.

Gluten has magical powers that I will be unable to relinquish, but I’m also relishing the challenge of baking without it. So far, it appears that there are a lot of cakes with vegetables in them and lots of cunning blends of rice flour, potato and tapioca. Book-wise, I’ve been heartily recommended Red Velvet Chocolate Heartache and am eager for more recommendations, so please share any secrets below.

On first try (pictured here), these were delicious and easy. I used this recipe, and they had that delicious crispiness that you usually only get from deep-frying something. It’s essentially just a batter of chickpea flour and water grilled in oil on a high heat. My second attempt, though, was disappointingly flabby and leads me to believe that getting the flour-water ratio just right is pretty crucial.

NB: I used gram flour, because that’s what I had in the house. This is a blend of yellow split peas and lentils, rather than chickpeas. So I’m not sure how easy or otherwise getting hold of actual chickpea flour would be.


Christmas Dinner 2014

I can’t resist taking on Christmas dinner, even though last year I ended up with my foot in a bucket.

Christmas is fun to cook because it comes with sufficient scale and budget to make it An Event rather than A Meal, yet it’s a uniquely low-pressure one. Everyone else is relieved that they get to spend the morning eating Quality Street instead, and that makes them an easy audience. You just need to serve up within 3 hours of the predicted time – although I’m proud to say I was less than an hour late this time.

Ah, and the other fun thing about Christmas is the chance to play with tradition. This year, I decided to go Swedish-inspired. (Swedish readers are encouraged to look away now and return for the next blog post, because it was not especially authentic. Especially not the gravadlax, as you will see.) I did throw in pigs in blankets and Brussels sprouts too, as nods to British Christmas. Here’s the menu:

Gravadlax with coriander mustard sauce

Swedish spare ribs
Jansson’s Temptation, a gratin with anchovies
Red cabbage
Pigs in blankets
Brussels sprouts with chestnuts, sage and shallots

Butter saffron cake
Granny Bennett’s Christmas pud

Here’s what the main looked like:

main course

(Pics are by Des. Thanks, Des.)

Jansson’s Temptation was a highlight. Apart from its fabulous name, the dish is very easy, and the kick of anchovies adds interest to a creamy gratin. The ribs were tender, but even after I cut the all-spice by 25% it was still a little too strongly flavoured for our taste. Cabbage, by my sister Susanna, was the crunchy style of red cabbage not the slow-cooked sort and pretty delicious.

dinner table

The starter tasted good, so I don’t count it a failure (hard to fail at raw salmon), but it certainly wasn’t gravadlax. I only read through the recipe properly on Christmas Eve, and found that I was, in fact, meant to cure the raw salmon for about 48 hours and clearly that ship had sailed. I also didn’t have a sharp knife to cut it into the ultra-thin slices required.


The cake was a solid sweet bread-with-marzipan-and-fruit number – other than the middle, which didn’t quite cook through. I’ve found this with large sweet breads before: they need longer than the recipe suggests and are difficult to tell if done or not.

cake 2

I had a panicky half an hour or so about 3 hours before serving time, in which I pondered my pathological desire to place myself in stressful situations. However, this feeling passed and I was reminded of how satisfying I find it to orchestrate a complicated meal. Here’s to more cooking in 2015!

Chopped rye and cranberry loaf

I’ve been doing okay on my sensible New Year’s resolutions this year, but appallingly on my fun one, which was to finish off the 100 Loaves project by the end of this year. But hope is in sight, because I made up a recipe that I rather like. I use the word recipe loosely as there are no measurements involved at present.

rye chops bread 2

This loaf came about because I’ve got far too much chopped rye lying around that has well over-shot its Best Before date. Chopped rye is quite difficult to get hold of in the UK, and I got myself into this situation by buying up far too much of it when I had the chance. Now the thought of binning all that painstakingly-acquired rye when it starts to taste bad has got too painful to ignore.

This loaf has about 150g chopped rye in it, which means it will only take me, oh, 20 of these loaves to finish the lot. I soaked that in some hot water with a sprinkle of cranberries and a tsp of caraway. A tsp of caraway gives quite a strong flavour. The rest of it is an ordinary white wheat dough made with dried yeast and a squirt of honey. The texture is rather like a dense granary, and I like the flavours together.

ETA: any ideas on how else I can finished my chopped rye? There is always pumpernickel, which is why I bought it, but I’m not a huge fan as an everyday bread.

rye chops bread

Starting again

It happened to me, the mistake you think only other people would be careless enough to make: I baked all my starter.

Fortunately, I still had some dried starter from about a year ago tucked away in the freezer. We’ll see if this has some life in it yet.


My house is warmed

I had a belated housewarming for my new place last night. My North London friends came down to distant south-east St Johns, which was really touching. Here’s what I cooked:

Chorizo in red wine, with the wine switched for cider
Halloumi with chilli
Farinata, an Italian dish made of baked gram flour
Saffron rice
Chickpea and cashew tagine from The Food For Thought Cookbook 1987 (similar… suspiciously so, in fact)
Ratatouille, also from Food For Thought

The star was the chickpea tagine, which was an intriguing mix of sweet and sour and spicy. The chorizo was good too, but it’s quite hard for chorizo not to be. The farinata was interesting – oddly creamy for something that only contains one ingredient – but quite strange for my palate and I probably wouldn’t make it again.

On a geeky note, I discovered my new favourite system for managing many-dish meals: a white board. It’s a simple solution, but writing up a list of the dishes and the cookbook page numbers made a huge difference.

I took a disposable camera for a walk around my new surroundings the other week, and this is what I saw:

Lewisham Market is its own street-ful of stalls.  Three bunches of coriander for a pound = a bargain. Lewisham has a bad rep for crime, but there’s a sense of community here that the stats don’t tell you about.


My way home goes through Tesco’s car park and I couldn’t resist a shot of this car.


The alley that leads to my house.


In the other direction from Lewisham, you end up in Blackheath


and eventually out by the river at Greenwich.


I wonder if anyone knows what this is… There’s a patch of water that’s full of brick tiles, worn smooth by the waves of the Thames. Could there have been a tile factory on the site?


It seems appropriate to end on my favourite adopted cooking pot. It’s. So. Big.


Bread 33: Bulgarian tutmanik

I don’t have any nice pictures of the bread itself, because this was for dinner and I was in a hurry. However, we were on holiday in the Lake District, and here is the view out of the window: Lake District Gorgeous, and gloomy. We were staying in the Langdale Valley, which is right in the middle. It’s not as popular with tourists as many parts of the Lake District as there in no lake in the valley, but beautiful. While we were there, I made tutmanik using this recipe. It’s a Bulgarian cheese bread where crumbly cheese is (usually) wrapped tightly in swirls and baked in the oven. A number of other recipes I checked all contain yoghurt, which mine did not. So I wonder if yoghurt is a must, generally? Does anyone know? Other recipes say that it must be leavened with baking powder, which is certainly not universal. Tutmanek With this one, the dough is divided into balls, which are placed in a bath of olive oil. You must then pick the slimy balls out of the bath, flatten each one like a pizza base , then add feta and roll and twist and coil it up. The finished bread is moist and cheesy. It retains a strong flavour of the olive oil, and a hint of being fried. I found that I needed around 180ml less water than the recipe specified.

As an ignorant Western European, I had always thought Bulgaria sounded much in a similar place to Hungary and Slovakia. No, it is as far south as Italy! How had I never noticed that? Accordingly, the cuisine is Mediterranean in flavour, and famous for its yogurt and cheese. I am regretting more and more not adding yoghurt to this recipe.

Loaf 32: Romanian pasca

I’ve moved house! You can see three train lines from my window. Here they are:

57c view 2

The first is obvious, the second is the dark railway bridge just below the tree-line, and the third is directly beneath that and invisible until a train goes by. I am very happy here, sandwiched just between Greenwich and Lewisham. Not everything is perfect (there are mice, taps gush, the oven is bad), but everything feels right.

Ah, yes, the oven. Turns out, the temperature gauge doesn’t tell you how hot it is, and it leaks heat at the top. It’s a sad come-down from the powerful oven I was used to before that went very nice and hot. I have bought a ceramic tile to use as a bread stone and will see how that does. It didn’t matter for this loaf, because it likes things rather moderate.

Romanian Easter bread

This is a Romanian Easter bread, recipe here. It’s a sweet bread plaited around the outside, and then baked cheesecake filling in the middle. Delicious. I’ve had it on my list for a while, but I always supposed it would be fiddly. In fact, it felt rather easy. You make a sweet dough. While it’s rising, mix up the filling (just cream cheese, egg, sugar and vanilla extract). Plait, dollop the filling in the middle, bake.

Oven temperature is the tricky thing because the cheesecake likes it cool, and the sweet bread likes it moderately hot. I baked it at the bread-friendly temperature, because I have no idea what temperature my oven is anyway and tend to err on the side of high. The subtle approach is to bake at 5 mins high, then turn it right down. That way you avoid the cracked cheesecake top mine so elegantly demonstrates.