I got my starter in the post from the Outer Hebrides, sent by a lovely lady called Fiona Bird who writes books about foraging and seaweed cookery. Fiona adds fresh Hebridean seaweed to her starter and bread for extra flavour. By the time the starter arrived, it had started to expand and bubble out of the packaging! It had got the envelope pretty stinky, smelling a bit like a cross between French cheese and old socks!
However, it was a flipping good active starter and I have been baking bread from Fiona’s “Hotchpoch” starter as he calls it, for over 3 years! It’s also travelled with me to Wales, the Outer Hebrides, Orkney and even France 3 times, including on a plane in my suitcase. It likes going on holiday, especially France, where it grew furiously due to the warm climate.
If you can’t get hold of some live sourdough starter from a friend, you can make your own by just mixing PLAIN flour and water together in a jar. Be aware however, that in some parts of the UK, the high levels of chlorine in the tap water may kill the starter. If in doubt, you can always try bottled water. Scottish tap water from my home has always been fine though.
Add more flour and water every day for about 5 to 7 days and stir daily. The starter should be a consistency half way between double cream and porridge. Stir well to get the lumps out. After a few days bubbles will start to appear and it will smell yeasty, a bit like a home brew aroma. Congratulations, you now have an active starter!
The active ingredients in the starter include natural slow growing yeasts and lactobacillus bacteria which give sourdough bread that beautiful slightly sour flavour.
Although sourdough is not gluten free, it is lower in gluten than other breads due to the very long proving time, allowing more of the gluten to be broken down. Some of my friends who can’t tolerate shop bought bread or feel bloated after eating commercial loaves, have been able to enjoy their own homemade sourdough with little or few side effects. I like to make mine with organic flour so that the final loaf is additive free.
I feed my starter every day but sometimes in warm weather it goes a bit crazy and bubbles out of it’s pot! You can always slow down it’s growth by storing in the fridge. I’ve done this while on holiday for several weeks and it’s been quite safe, left home alone. It might look a bit grumpy when you get home but once you take it out of the fridge, place back in the nice warm kitchen and start feeding it again, it will start happily bubbling away. Occasionally a clear brown liquid appears on the surface if it’s been standing around for a while without a feed. This liquid is called the “hooch”. Just pour off or stir in.
The starter should have a strong yeasty, almost French cheese smell plus a slightly acidic aroma, but if it smells off, just throw out and start again. A live starter will also have lots of bubbles on the surface.
Just a note about flour. Choose a strong bread flour and always plain flour. From experience, white flour gives a lighter texture with bigger air holes in the final loaf, while wholemeal flour gives a denser, heavier loaf. You can always experiment with other flours such as rye, spelt or a combination.
Prove your dough somewhere warm, such as a warm kitchen or airing cupboard. The 2 stage proving period can take up to 24 hours. The longer the better to develop the lovely flavour! This is after all how our ancestors made bread, the natural way without any fast action yeasts.
Sourdough has the most amazing flavour, far superior in my view to commercial shop bread. It’s worth the effort to make your own as the flavour is incredible. You can also use the dough to make flavoured breads, pizza etc
Here is my recipe and method for how I make mine but you will see lots of different recipes on the internet. Also, everyone’s starter will smell and taste slightly different depending on the exact natural culture of yeasts and bacteria.
My Basic Sourdough Recipe
Approx 400g of live sourdough starter
400g of strong plain bread flour (eg white, wholemeal, brown or a mixture)
a sprinke of salt
enough water or milk to bind and create quite a wet sticky dough
Mix all the ingredients in a bowl with a wooden spoon. It should be quite a sticky, wet dough, a bit like a thick Christmas Cake consistency.
Keep some starter behind and feed / stir daily in a kilner type jar ready for your next loaf.
I like to add a few extras to the basic recipe:
a tablespoon of Extra Virgin Olive 0il
a tablespoon of natural plain live yoghurt
a few seeds or nuts eg walnuts
I also prefer to add milk instead of water to give a richer dough.
The dough needs to be quite wet and sticky, more like a focaccia dough.
For various different flavoured breads try adding olives, herbs, sun dried tomatoes, tomato puree, pesto, nuts, seeds or even a little butter, mashed banana and mixed dried fruit to make a sweet loaf.
Mix well in the bowl
Prove overnight (in a covered bowl ) or for 8- 12 hours. The longer the better!
After stage 1 of proving, punch the dough to knock out the air. It will deflate.
Scrape the dough into the covered pot you intend to cook it in. Some bakers like use a “proving basket ” for this stage but it’s up to you.
If your cooking pot is not non stick, oil the inside or line with greaseproof paper. I use a stoneware pot with a lid but a Le Creuset Pot or similar works fine.
Cover with the lid and place in a warm room.
Prove for another 6 to 8 hours until doubled in size.
Bake for 35 to 40 min in your covered pot at 220C/ 200C Fan/ Gas 7. I keep the lid on until the last 10 min of cooking, with a tray of water in the bottom of the oven to help form the crust.
Check it’s cooked by making sure that the underside isn’t still doughy and the bread looks nice and golden brown on top. The loaf should be slightly coming away from the sides.
Turn your loaf out of the pot and upside down to check it’s cooked by giving it a tap. If your loaf doesn’t come out easily it could still be uncooked and doughy underneath, so just pop back into the oven. When cooked it should sound hollow when tapped on the underside.
Allow to cool before slicing (if you can wait that long!) and enjoy.
Enjoy natural additive free bread which is more healthier than shop bought bread and tastes simply awesome.
I love to eat my sourdough bread with added chopped walnuts in the mix, then topped with poached eggs when cooked or dunked into soft boiled eggs for breakfast. Absolutely divine!