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WHAT IS STARTER?
A starter begins as a mixture of flour and water, mixed to a thick batter consistency. This mixture provides an environment for good bacteria and wild yeasts that are in the air to settle and cultivate, feeding on the carbohydrates in the flour. They form a relationship and colonize, so that the flour and water are filled with the living micro-organisms. The mixture becomes a fermented, sour, live culture. When added to bread, it causes the bread to rise (which is why it’s called a ‘starter’ for bread).
The consistency of the flour-water mixtures can vary from quite thin and runny, to quite firm and dry, according to the proportions of flour to water used. A ‘liquid starter’ is at the runnier end of the scale. A dry-dough or ‘desem’ starter is a firmer, tougher, dryer mixture, with a proportion of about two parts flour to one part water. (‘Desem’ is Dutch for leaven, and a desem starter is a traditional Dutch form of sourdough starter.)
The recipe here is for a reasonably thick liquid starter, with a proportion of one part flour to one part water.
Setting up the liquid starter is a very easy, basic process. Mix together equal parts flour and warm water. Each day, discard half the mixture and ‘feed it’ with some more flour and warm water. Aim to do this feeding at about the same time every day, for about 7 days. By then, the starter should be sufficiently developed for making bread.
A liquid starter is probably the easiest to work with when first creating a starter, and when baking bread. It’s more liquid, so it mixes with the other ingredients easily. Its drawback is that once established, it needs feeding relatively often - about once a week if kept in the fridge.
A dry-dough or desem starter requires considerably less maintenance and keeps better than liquid starters, because the thicker or dryer a starter mixture is, the less often it requires feeding. An established dry starter can go for weeks between feeds. Yet a dry-dough starter is relatively tougher to feed, since it requires kneading rather than mixing with a spoon.
A mature liquid starter can be converted into a dry-dough starter by gradually increasing the proportion of flour in the mixture, over several feeds. Or a dry-dough starter can be made from scratch.
I have read that a dry-dough starter can give bread a better, deeper, more complex flavour than liquid starter, so it’s something to consider doing whether baking often or rarely.
But I haven’t made a dry-dough starter yet ...
HOW MUCH STARTER TO MAKE
My recipe here makes a base of 400g liquid starter. That’s enough for my needs of baking about 1 x 1.2kg loaf a week.
If you bake more often than once a week, or bake more than one loaf, you may want to create a larger base of starter (perhaps 600g, or even more if you bake a lot), so that you have a largish amount that is always mature, while you can still use a fair bit. Just adjust the quantities accordingly.
If you bake less often than once a week, you can create a dry-dough starter, which requires feeding and maintenance less often.
To set up the starter mixture initially, do the following:
• Measure one pyrex dish without the lid. Make a note of the weight.
• In the dish, mix together 200g flour and 200g warm water (200g water = 200 mL)
• Weigh the dish with the mixture in, and take a note of the weight. It should be the original weight of the empty dish, plus 400g.
• Put the lid on the dish, but don't clip it down tight; leave at least one edge open, so air can get in (if the lid has a little hole in, that's fine instead).
• Leave the dish on the kitchen bench for a day. In a hot climate, it will show bubbles probably within a few hours; in a cold climate, it may take or day or so.
For each feeding, do the following:
• Weigh the dish with the mixture, then use a spoon to spoon out 200g of the mixture. Discard this 200g.
• 'Feed' the starter with 100g flour and 100g (100 mL) warm water, adding them into the starter and mixing well. Don't worry about a few lumps.
• Cover and leave as before.
The only bit that's a little tricky is the timing of judging how the starter is progressing, and when it is ready. The progress can vary considerably, depending on the temperature at which the starter is made. The yeasts that develop and grow in the flour and water mixture or more active in a warmer environment. So the starter will progress faster in hotter temperatures, and slower in colder temperatures.
You therefore need to adjust the feeding accordingly. Occasionally, in my hot climate (Darwin, in the Australian tropics), I found the need to feed the starter more than once a day. When the climate is colder, of if you are running air conditioning in a hot climate, the starter can be much less active, and may need a day with no feeding at all.
The way I judged it was more or less by three points: smell, how bubbly it was, and how liquid it was.
The smell progresses as the starter develops. For the first few days or so, the smell is slightly sour but also very much like ripe banana. This, I found, progresses through smells like banana, yoghurt, beer and vinegar.
These smells, in conjunction with an appropriate level of bubbliness, indicate that the starter is active and developing, and probably requires feeding at the usual time. However, if the starter smells predominantly just of flour and water, it is less likely to be particularly active. You may want to move it to somewhere warmer. (Don't actually put it somewhere hot though, like in front of a heater or in the oven - to much heat will kill the yeasts.)
By around Day 7, the starter is ready when it smells maybe of yoghurt, banana and beer in a complex way; it will be that complex sweetish sour mix; but also, crucially, it will now have a scent of a sharp vinegary tang. If you're game to taste it, it will have the same sharp tang.
After feeding, the mixture may well puff up like a big sponge once or twice. It will then likely collapse. But if it is active, it will still show bubbles. There will be bubbles on the surface. Also (here is the advantage of a clear pyrex dish) you will be able to see bubbles under the surface of the mixture through the side of the dish.
The yeasts in the mixture feed on the carbohydrates in the flour. So they are consuming the flour. That means, if they are active, and consuming the flour, the mixture will gradually become more liquid and runny than it began.
The times in the method here are a guide - what worked in my climate - rather than an absolute. The notes are what happened for me, but I live in a hot climate (Darwin, in the Australian tropics). In a colder climate, the process could take longer.
MY 7-DAY STARTER DIARY
As the diary shows, it's a bit hit and miss, a bit of personal judgement, maybe a bit of luck. But at least we can know that the starter really is very hard to kill. Unless it's exposed to too much great heat, it's most unlikley to die; whatever it does, it can probably be salvaged by leaving it alone, or feeding it, as seems appropriate.
Mixed 1c flour and 1c warm water (read this in one recipe before I read 200g flour and 200g water in another recipe). So I had 150g flour and 250g water to make up a total of 400g mixture.
Within a few hours:
Quite bubbly and spongy. I guess that's Darwin's heat getting it to work faster than many recipes indicate it should.
Bubbly and spongy; smelling a bit sour, and of very ripe banana. First feed: discarded enough mixture to leave just 200g, and fed with 100g flour and 100g warm water.
Very bubbly and looking quite liquid. Without discarding any, fed mixture with 100g flour and 100g warm water. Mixture thickened up and settled down. Now had 600g of a more flour-and-water diluted starter.
Did the usual feed of discarding all but 200g, and feeding that with 100g flour and 100g warm water.
Starter showed very little activity; a bit bubbly but not doing much; smelling like slightly sour flour and water batter. This might be because of the odd feeding on Day 3, when I'd done two feeds, resulting in a more 'diluted', perhaps less active starter. But also, today, we had the air conditioner running in the kitchen (it was Sunday so we were both home). Did no feeding, just rested the starter.
A bit more bubbly than Day 4; smelling like a mixture of yoghurt and ripe banana.
Another discard of 200g, and feed with 100g flour and 100g warm water, as on Days 2 and 3.
Evening: well puffed up and bubbly.
Collapsed down again after the night before; but bubbly and smelling of yoghurt, banana and beer.
Afternoon: smelling sweetish, a bit like ripe banana, but also now with a pronounced vinegary tang; tasting vinegary too.
(Running late!) Another discard, of 200g mixture and feed of 100g flour and 100g warm water.
Smells good and ready; nice and bubbly. Plus it's Day 7, when it's supposed to be ready, so I'm baking with it.
WHAT TO DO WITH STARTER AFTER BAKING BREAD WITH SOME OF IT
This isn't always clear in recipes, but here's what I worked out. My recipe uses 150g liquid starter for a loaf of bread with 750g flour and 375 mL water. With only two of us in the house, I only really need to bake bread once a week. I also don't want to have to keep throwing out starter and feeding it every day. But it can be refrigerated, and even frozen.
• When I've taken 150g of liquid starter out of the pyrex dish, I'm left with about 250g of starter. Some of this starter is in the form of a dry crust around the top of the pyrex dish.
• Using a rubber scraper/spatual, scrape the liquid starter into a new, clean pyrex dish, leaving any dry stuff in the old dish behind.
• Weigh the new pyrex dish with the starter. It's likely to be the weight of the dish plus about 200g starter. Feed the starter, as in the instructions above for creating the starter in the first place, with half flour and half warm water, to make up a total of 400g.
• Put the lid partially on the pyrex dish as before, and leave it as before.
• Once it's starting to show signs of activity, probably within a few hours, put it in the fridge.
• After the starter is refrigerated, the cold slows the activity of the yeasts down. It then only needs to be fed maybe once a week. Just keep an eye on it, noting how liquid, bubbly, sour etc. it seems. Feed it when it seems to need feeding.
• When you want to bake your next loaf, take the starter out of the fridge a few hours, even a day (again, depending on climate), in advance. The starter will warm up to room temperature, and kick back into active life. Then it will be ready for baking with.
• A starter can be frozen, even for years. When thawed, brought up to room temperature, and fed, it will come back to life.
FEEDING THE STARTER, AND MAKING BREADS, WITH DIFFERENT FLOURS
It can be best if the starter is made with the kind of flour the bread is going to be made with. But starters can be converted. So basically, if you've been making white bread with white flour in the starter, but want to convert to making wholemeal (wholewheat) bread, or rye bread, just feed the starter the appropriate flour for a while before making the new bread. If you make two (or more) types of bread on a regular basis, you may want to create and keep two (or more) starters.
Wholegrains and wholemeal can work better, because they produce more yeast in a starter; but they can work more slowly, so take that into account in timing making and feeding a starter, and baking bread. They are also likely to soak up more water than white flour.
A lot of recipes say to use filtered water or bottled spring water. This is because unfiltered tap water can have various chemical substances in it, which may affect taste and the activity of the yeasts cultivated in a starter and bread. I have made sourdough starter and bread with unfiltered tap water very successfully, but using it or not may depend on the quality of tap water in different places.
Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall / Channel 4, 'Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recipes: River Cottage sourdough recipe', at Channel 4. Retrieved 27 Oct. 2010 from:
S. John Ross, Sourdough Baking: The Basics. Retrieved 26 Oct. 2010 from:
Warwick Quinton, Sourdough Baker: Bake at Home. Retrieved 27 Oct. 2010 from:
Warwick Quinton, 'White Sandwich Sourdough Bread', at Sourdough Baker: Bake at Home. Retrieved 27 Oct. 2010 from: