My Dad has really been getting into his bread baking recently so I gave him some of my year old sourdough starter (leaven) and typed up a bit of information to get him started. I tried to think of all the information I was Googling when I first started and put it all in once place – which is now this blog post! I’m by no means an expert and the information below is a summary of my process and what has worked for me.
How to make sourdough leaven?
The best recipe I’ve found is Dan Lepard’s Easy Sourdough Starter. It takes you through creating leaven from scratch and maintaining it from then on.
The starter I was originally given was very watery. Mine is now thicker, more like melted marshmallows – see the examples show on Azelia’s Kitchen. The consistency will vary depending on ratios of water and flour.
I use Waitrose Essentials strong white bread flour for refreshing. Some suggest using a good quality flour but I find the Waitrose brand works well for me.
Using wholemeal flour will make your leaven smell different.
It’s ready to bake with when:
It has lots of bubbles in it and has been refreshed in the last 8 hours.
Your leaven has gone off if:
It smells like vomit, acid, farts, nail varnish remover, eggs or generally ‘bad’. It should smell sour but not foul. Mine smells a bit like sour banana peel with a creamy undertone.
If you store leaven in the fridge for a while (more on this later), your leaven will develop a liquid floating on top. This is called hooch and is perfectly normal as long as there’s no mould growing in it.
Keep a ‘backup’ batch of leaven
If you want to keep your original leaven alive, you can put a blob of leftover refreshed leaven in the freezer. If you kill your current leaven, you can make more from the bit in freezer. Keeps for up to one year.
It’s quite easy to tell if you’ve killed your starter – it can’t be revived or has mould growing on top or in the hooch.
Keep everything clean
My leaven is one and quarter years old now. I think this is down to regular feeds and keeping the jar and spoons I use really clean. If you are ill, don’t touch your leaven in case you contaminate it with your germs. Instead, put it in the fridge and revive it when you are feeling better.
A good sourdough bread recipe
I use two recipes. One that a friend gave me, which I use when I have lots of time for bread baking as it involves an overnight proof plus 8 hours proofing on the worktop the next day. The other is this recipe on the BBC website which is perfect for when I only have a few hours to bake. The BBC recipe has a video of the process so if you’re new to baking this type of bread, it’s worth watching for some tips.
Troubleshooting: flat bread
From my experiences, I’ve found the causes of this to be:
- Being heavy handed with the dough after second proof. If I haven’t lined my proofing basket with enough flour, the dough sticks to the basket (cue cry of ‘oh no’ from the kitchen!) and I have to use force to get it out. This makes the bread go flat and I usually end up with something resembling a crusty cow pat. I’ve not used a basket for my last two loaves and they’ve still come out well.
- Under proofing. Sourdough bread takes longer to rise than regular bread (made with quick yeast), especially on cooler days. If you aren’t getting as much rise trying proofing it in a warmer place or for longer.
- Over proofing. If you let your proof too long it will rise and then start to collapse and go saggy.
- Old leaven. If I bake too long after refreshing my leaven, the culture isn’t as active and produces a much flatter loaf.
- Slashing/scoring the top of the bread too deeply makes the loaf sink, not scoring it enough doesn’t allow it to rise properly. I use a wet bread knife.
If you make alot of bread you can store the leaven on your worktop. You’ll be baking frequently so the leaven will be refreshed and fed regularly.
Once I’d got my leaven ‘up and running’ I found I didn’t have the time to bake bread several times a week. I was using alot of flour and water to keep my culture alive and not baking much. I decided to put my jar of leaven in the fridge until I needed it.
The cultures are alive but dormant. When I want to bake, I take the jar out of the fridge, tip away the hooch and refresh the leaven 3-4 times before baking to make it sufficiently active. After baking, I put the leftover leaven in the fridge and start the process again when I’m ready to make bread again.
I’ve worked this way for a year and it seems to do the trick. As long as I make sure I’ve refreshed the leaven 3 times and it’s full of bubbles I get a good loaf of bread.
I’d be really interested to hear about your experiences with sourdough baking and if you have any comments on my notes!