Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Starting a Starter

Starter Culture
Sourdough starter, for many a mysterious thing. If people hear about sourdough starter they see bubbling jars, smelling clouds of fermentation, flies, overboiling foam, kitchen benches covered in  concrete-like blobs of glue and people who seem to be a bit on the nutty side by cuddling a jar of bubbling fermenting bacterial gunk. And to be honest, all of this is true. But it isn't that bad - most of the time.

Sourdough starter culture usually contains yeast (Saccharomyces exiguus as opposed to S. cerevisiae which is the commercial yeast), Lactobacillus and Acetobacillus (these two guys are responsible for the sourness). All three are floating around in our environment and sit on e.g. grapes, apples and - wheat and rye corn etc. To me there are two different approaches for a starter. You can either buy some culture usually freeze dried and start from there or you can start from scratch. There is culture available online (see below for some links) and you can get starter culture from all over the world. The most famous one is San Francisco sourdough. I tried to find out what actually will happen with these bacteria over time and found inconclusive reports.Some say the bacteria will stay true to the starter, some say over time the bacteria will get replaced by your local ones. I lean towards the latter group since I believe that the fact that you are feeding the starter with local wheat or rye you will add more and more of the local bacteria which will eventually replace the original starter. But my main driving force behind making my starter form scratch is that I have more fun of creating something local.

Ok this is how I did it (inspired by the "By Bread Alone" book):

You will need

  • Three apples, fresh and organic, best from your own tree (or the neighbors)
  • flour, preferably rye but wheat works, too (Rye flour gives a more active starter)
  • water 
  • A jar or container which can at least take 1.5 - 2 liters
  • a piece of (cheese) cloth and a rubber band
Sourdough Lavash
Juice the three apples. I just mashed them with a stick blender and strained them through some muslin cloth. Put the juice into the jar and cover with the cloth and put the rubber band around it. Leave at room temperature (which should be around 20 deg Celsius). Leave it somewhere where you can see it because at this stage the bonding process between you and your starter will form. That's quite important! Don't forget, all these bacteria and yeast cells are living creatures! And they work for you.So better treat them like family! Or better! 
After about 7 to 10 days, your juice turned into wine. Refrain from drinking it or you have to start again! The juice should look bubbly,smell slightly alcoholic but good and might have a bit of foam on the top. If it smells yuck, dump it. Trust your senses! What happened so far: The yeast in the air and on the skin of the apples have gorged on all the sugars from the apple, they had a big party and sorry to say, had a bit of a hanky-panky if you know what I mean. They created baby-yeast cells and the population has grown by quite a bit. And as you can imagine, they are now a bit hungover from all that alcohol they produced and they are - HUUUUNNNGGRYYYYYY! So please feed them!

First feed: Add 200 gm of good organic flour and 200 gm (I generally measure all ingredients by weight) of clean water (avoid water with chlorine or if that's all you have let it sit for some hours to get rid of the chlorine). Mix it all up so that it looks like a batter. By mixing it you also aerate it to add oxygen. That'll keep the guys happy and they go back to work. Eating sugars, peeing alcohol (sorry about that - "Burb!" - Excuse me) and doing hanky-panky. 

Next couple of days:
Each day discard half of the mixture and add another 200 gm of flour and 200gm of water. Repeat until the starter is obviously active.How you know? You will know,trust me. Seriously,if it starts bubbling and rising you have an active starter. Again, it should smell kinda nice (to a sourdough enthusiast, don't ask a person who buys plastic wrapped bread in the supermarket). It is normal if there is some brownish liquid on top. That's called Hooch and you can mix it back in. Keep the starter covered with the cloth so that no flies can get in (flies actually love sourdough which enhanced their reputation I had from them a tiny bit). I found out that the starter behaves better if it is open. If you close the jar, the carbon dioxide produced during fermentation seems to starve the bacteria from oxygen. Same as you sleeping with closed windows, uurrghh!

Sourdough is most active about 12 hours after feeding. That's when it is best to use it. So plan the feeding times in sync with your baking schedule. I often feed in the morning and bake in the evening. 

Now if you like me and are nuts about baking you won't ask this question, but others do: What if I don't want to throw away that much starter but don't want to bake everyday? Again, there are different opinions about this. I believe that a starter kept in the fridge will be different to a starter who never sees the inside of your frigidaire! But I do understand the predicament you're in. So here is the solution, keep the starter in the fridge, feed it every 5 days or more. Before feeding it take it out and let it get up to room temperature. Feed it,leave for an hour at room temperature and then put it back in the fridge. If yo want t use it, take it our of the fridge, let it warm up to room temp, fed it and let it at room temp for 12 hours. That's all I say about this. 

Ok what can go wrong? Anything! The problem as always is if the bullies get involved. Those are the wild guys hanging around all of us. I don't know them by name but I hate the look of them. Many are orange or blue or green or black. They gate crash and home invade your sourdough party, start drinking and smoking and are usually not as clean as your friendly S. exiguus or the lactobacillus and acetobacillus from next door. I even suspect they use drugs! So if your starter takes on any funny color and smells like someone was sniffing paint thinner all night and smoking French cigarettes, dump it! Wave it good bye. Down the toilet. Good bye bullies, have fun down there. I hope you rot in hell (which they probably find quite an attractive idea). One thing to avoid them is to make sure you don't keep your starter too warm. Around the 20 - 25 deg C is fine. Also too cold isn't good or if it is in a draft. Keep it nice and cosy and you should be fine. And it is common sense to not put any crap in there, don't use dirty spoons etc. But as I said - common sense, eh?

Sourdough Pain Au Levain
Once your starter seems to be active (rises up in the jar) use it for a first outing. But keep in mind it will develop over time. It will get stronger, it'll change a bit in flavor and will become overall a bit more stable. There are starters around which are 100 or even150 years old.

Also keep in mind that sourdough starter is somewhat slower than commercial yeast.

Another note: The starter I described above is a 100% hydrated starter. Meaning you feed it with the same amount of water and flour. There are other starters which are fed by volume meaning one cup flour and one cup water. They might have 166% hydration. You might have to adjust the amount of water in your bread recipe.

Ok, have fun and be nice to your starter! Oh and keep your partner and flat mates etc happy by cleaning all the spoons and stuff straight away. Sourdough  starter when dry becomes hard as rock. I always wondered if one could build a house from it.

May your dough always rise!


Sources for sourdough starter in New Zealand:
The Good people from sell starter here:

Koanga Gardens has starter.
And has a whole range of baking goodies and starter culture
Also checkout TradeMe


  1. Hey mate :-)
    Nice... I like your love story :-)

    Regarding the difference between rye and wheat sourdough: as far as I know you *need* rye sourdough if you want to bake rye bread (or bread with a high-ish percentage of rye - can't remember the percentage unfortunately), as only rye sourdough contains enough of the acids that the rye dough requires in order to 'work'... Yes my doughs have to work - no hanky panky in my kitchen... :-) Well, at least not in the dough... :-)


  2. Thanks Joa. I wasn't brave enough yet to do a high percentage rye or even a 100% as you do I believe. I actually started my sourdough in the beginning with wheat. Then someone told me that rye is actually more acidic and more active. Which would support what you say. I should try a 100% rye. Hmm another reason to fire up the oven. Not that I need any.

  3. Hi Peter, this was a huge help! And we have an orchard filled with apples - so if Ferdinand does bit the dust I'll definitely try this one. Thanks again. I love your blog - so much information and breads to try!!

    1. Thank you Laura for your kind words. I liked your blog, too. We need to stick together as the caretakers of all Ferdinands and "Fred Sourdough"s etc. They do a great job for us so the least we can do is feed them, hug them (yes I do!) and keep them warm and safe. Please keep in touch.

      Coquo, ergo sum!

  4. Ferdinand died :( so as soon as this rain goes off (or tomorrow morning!) I'll go out and pick some apples and get started on this recipe. I will not give up! Here's to Ferdinand the 2nd!

    1. I am so sorry for your loss, Laura. I know how hard it is to lose a good friend who was that self-sacrificing and hard working. But sometimes life is like that. It is all about creating and dying. Sad but true.

      I must admit Fred Sourdough was sick as well. I just might have saved him. I feel very bad about it because it was all my fault. I mean how can you lock in one of your best friends without food, in a stale environment with no air flow? But I gave him an extra treat in form of stone ground rye and he seems to have forgiven me. He was on duty yesterday and produced the usual result. So here is to Ferdinand and his mate Fred Sourdough. May they ferment forever, Fred here on earth and Ferdinand in sourdough heaven.