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Guide to Sourdough Making

These notes provide additional background with hints and tips for successful sourdough bread making. You may also find our Sourdough Starter Table helpful.

In the beginning

  • A starter is a paste made from flour and water that harnesses wild yeasts and is the first stage of sourdough bread making. Whole grain flours are best for making and feeding a starter.
  • Once a starter is active it can be used to make a ferment for the second stage of sourdough bread making.
  • Signs of activity could include: small or large bubbles, a lumpy appearance, a honeycomb texture beneath the surface and a pleasing sour or slightly alcoholic aroma.
  • Keep your bowl loosely covered with some cling film or a clean, wet tea towel rather than tightly sealed.
  • The ideal temperature for all of your sourdough stages is a warm place at 22-24°C/70-75°.
  • In cooler room temperatures the starter will take longer to become active so allow for more time between feeds.
  • At warmer room temperatures the starter will become active more quickly and will need feeding more often.
  • If your tap water smells of chlorine it may be difficult to establish an active starter, try using bottled water instead.

 Feeding your starter

  • A starter needs to be fed with the regular addition of flour and water which will stimulate activity.
  • To help you to remember the time of your last and next flour and water feed you could print out and complete our Sourdough Starter Table, use a kitchen timer or set your phone alarm.
  • Depending on the time since the last feed and the room temperature, an active starter might have small or large bubbles, look like frogspawn or have a honeycomb texture below a flat surface.
  • After feeding with flour and water the starter should have the consistency of thick custard or porridge and amounts can be adjusted to achieve this. If necessary, slightly increase the flour or water to maintain this.
  • A larger quantity of starter will need a bigger flour and water feed than a smaller quantity.
  • A dry, flat, sweaty or watery looking starter usually means a feed of flour and water is urgently needed.
  • If a dark, alcoholic smelling liquid forms on the surface of the starter it means your starter has been active but is getting tired so pour off the liquid and feed with flour and water.
  • Remove and discard any mouldy looking crust at the edge of the bowl.
  • Feeding a starter when it looks active (i.e bubbly) will encourage increased activity.
  • Either, dispose of any unused starter, or keep and feed it regularly until your next baking session. If you want to keep the starter after 4 days - please revert to the quantities for 1st feed.

Keeping it all going – the ferment

  • A small quantity of active starter is mixed with larger quantities of flour and water to make the ferment in the second stage of sourdough bread making.
  • Avoid using more starter than required by your recipe.
  • An active ferment which looks bubbly, possibly like frogspawn with a sweet yet sour aroma, is ready for the third stage of sourdough bread making.
  • The most active ferments will develop the most open texture in sourdough bread.
  • Sourdough breads can be raised in a 1kg/2lb banneton and turned out on to a baking tray or risen and cooked in a traditional 1kg/2lb loaf tin.
  • The banneton should not be used for baking your sourdough bread.
  • The amount of time needed for each stage can vary depending on a combination of several factors, including the temperature of the starter or ferment, when it was last fed and watered, the vigour of the wild yeast activity and the room temperature.
  • To use up any left-over starter, why not make some sourdough flatbreads or sourdough pancakes.
  • Either, dispose of any unused starter after making your ferment or keep and feed it regularly until your next baking session.

Reviving Old Timers

If you are not going to use your starter regularly, put it into a lidded container at the back of your refrigerator.  It should go into a dormant state and can last for many months without attention.  When you are ready to revive the starter, follow this procedure below:

  • Pour off any dark liquid which may have been accumulated at the top.
  • Remove the dark and discoloured top layer.
  • Spoon out the starter into a clean bowl.
  • Feed with flour and water to make a paste.
  • Cover and leave at room temperature.
  • Feed with flour and water every 12 hours.
  • When small bubbles start to appear it is ready to make a ferment. 

For another day

  • Don’t be disappointed if your first sourdough bread isn’t perfect. Do persevere because much like making pancakes, the first attempt isn’t always perfect but with a little practice things improve.
  • With regular sourdough baking you will become familiar with the effects of temperature and time at each of the stages and learn how to control these to make the best bread.
  • An active starter can be kept in a refrigerator and will need feeding every 7–10 days.
  • An active starter can be frozen but needs a warm place and flour and water feeds to re-establish its activity.
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