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Friday, 3 May 2013

The Diary of a Sourdough Starter

What with work commitments, and a general fear of the whole sourdough process, I have been putting this one off for a while, however, I committed myself to learning all I could from Paul Hollywood's 'Bread' series, and as there is a whole chapter of the book, and a whole episode of the series dedicated to Sourdough, I could avoid it no longer. I have to hold my hands up at the start and say not only have I never made sourdough, I've never tasted it, so I'm not sure yet what I have been missing all this time. I guess I am about to find out! 

As making sourdough is a lengthy process, rather than lots of short disjointed posts, or one that hops and skips over the process, I decided to keep a short diary here day by day, to show you how my starter gets made and grows up to become a real loaf. And if you follow me on twitter, you will know that this has been one heck of a journey! I can promise you that this is a story of hard work, heartache, and some successes and failures... Enjoy! 

The Diary of a Sourdough Starter

Day 1
Day 1: The starter has been made, the first step is very easy, chop grapes, and mix into strong flour and tepid water to form a loose dough. My starter has been split into two as I didn't have a jar big enough to fit it all in with room to grow. I'm already feeling a little attached to it, and looking forward to seeing it grow over the next few days! Maybe this is my way of getting broody??

Day 2: I've named my starter Gizmo... After reading up on the best ways to cultivate a sourdough starter, the basic rules of looking after a Mogwai seem to apply - keep away from direct sunlight, never get it wet, and don't feed it after midnight. OK, so, I don't think anything will go really wrong if I feed it after 12 o'clock, but I figure if I do find myself feeding my sourdough starter in the middle of the night I might have to seriously re-consider my life choices... Anyway, Gizmo has yet to start growing, but he is a little darker in colour, and I can see condensation forming inside the tub, so something is definitely starting to happen.

Day 3
Day 3: We have growth! Gizmo has almost doubled in size, and there are definite bubbles inside the mixture. Paul's instructions say to leave the starter for three days before feeding it, and as I made it the morning of Day 1, I feel I need to wait a little longer before discarding half and feeding it for the first time. I might just re-watch the episode later this afternoon though to check I am on the right path, as the instructions in the book are not quite as detailed as I remember the programme being.

Day 4: Yesterday evening I checked Gizmo whilst I was in the kitchen, and noticed that after the growth during the previous day, the starter was starting to fall back in the jar. I decided that it had had a good two and a half days, and that it would be a good time to feed it for the first time. I opened both jars, and transferred the mixture all back into one bowl, gave it a quick stir, and then discarded half as per the instructions. I then fed the remainder with an equal quantity of fresh flour and water, and returned it this time back into one tub. Today I am concerned that I might have killed Gizmo... There are a few bubbles, but there has been no growth, and a separate layer of liquid has formed on the top of the starter? I don't think this is right. I'm going out later, and I think if there is still no change when I get home tonight, I might try and feed him again to see if I can resuscitate the growth, if not, I may be introducing you to Gizmo II tomorrow...

Day 5
Day 5: Ok, sad news, Gizmo didn't make it through the night. Well, that's maybe a little dramatic, the starter was still there this morning, but since being re-fed last night it has failed to grow at all. Not only that, but the smell emanating from the tub had gone from sour to just plain rancid. I decided to dispose of the whole attempt, and start again. I purchased a large Kilner jar from the supermarket this morning, and I have decided to use apple rather than grapes for my second attempt. After reading up, the liquid that was forming on the surface was a sign of the starter being over-active. I am hoping that the larger jar, which means I don't need to separate the initial starter, and the fact that it is more airtight than the tupperware I was using will be the key to success here. So without further ado, here is Gizmo II...

Gizmo II

Day 6: We're back to the beginning of the process, Gizmo II is happy in his new jar, no growth yet, but I'm not expecting any until the end of day two really. There are a few little bubbles, and all is well with the world.

Day 7
Day 7: We are starting to see some growth again, larger bubbles are forming, and the starter is beginning to creep up the side of the jar. Gizmo II hasn't really changed in colour much, compared to Gizmo I who went quite a lot darker. I think that this is a good sign that Gizmo II isn't being as over-active this time around. I reckon it'll be ready to be fed later tonight before bedtime, and I'm hoping that I can start to then make my first loaf by Monday...

Day 8: Disaster, Gizmo II has split as well! I can't for the life of me figure out what I'm doing wrong, but it must be me as it's happened to both attempts. This one doesn't smell anywhere near as funky as the first however, so I'm going to stick with it, feed it, and hope it starts to move again.

Day 9: Had a little moan about sourdough starters on Twitter, and received an absolute barrage of replies. There are some amazing people out there, and they gave me some fabulous advice. Big shout out in particular to Joanna at Zeb Bakes who asked me a ton of questions, worked out what I was doing wrong, and emailed me the most amazing tips and advice. Here are a few bullet points of things I have learned today, I hope that they maybe will help someone else one day too...

  • by creating a sourdough starter, we are aiming to create an environment for both yeast and lactobacilli to grow, which are the little bacterias that will eventually bring us bread. 
  • there is an additional bacteria that grows in the early days, which emits a large amount of gases that usually causes big bubbles and a lot of growth. The lactic acid that then forms in the lactobacilli however will then kill this off. After that, we are relying on the yeast to have formed and take the growth from there. 
  • using rye flour is a much better option for the starter than white flour, as the yeasts exist on the outside of the grain.
  • when you 'feed' the starter with flour and water, you are literally feeding it. The yeast and lactobacilli 'eat' sugars from the fresh flour. As they do so, they also reproduce and so run out of food quicker. They produce gas and acid, and a pure form of alcohol, which is in the colourless watery layer when your starter splits. Basically, the split happens when it runs out of food. 
  • to avoid this, the starter should be fed at least every day, and in some cases up to every 4 hours. The warmer the temperature, the more active the yeasts are, and therefore the more often it will need to be fed. 

    Here lies my problem, my kitchen is warm, and the Hollywood method only states to feed the starter every 2-3 days. Basically, I have been starving the Gizmos of food! I've been told to discard all by 30g, re-feed it a couple of times a day, and it should come back to life...

Day 10
Day 10: Yesterday evening I discarded most of Gizmo II, keeping back just 50g, and fed him 100g of rye flour (Gary went to the supermarket especially for me) and 125ml water. I put clingfilm over his jar rather than the sealed lid, so that a little of the gases could escape, and I put him to bed. Late tonight I noticed that there was finally some proper growth happening... fingers crossed!

Day 11: Success!!! I've been feeding Gizmo II twice a day, and finally I have a starter that seems to be behaving itself. The bubbles are smaller and more even, the starter has doubled in size, and responds well to being fed. And it doesn't smell bad at all, just yeasty, like it's supposed to. Tomorrow, I'm going to make my first ever sourdough loaf, and I couldn't be more relieved that this part of the process is finally over!!!

Day 11

To summarise, the next time I make a sourdough starter, I will be doing the following;

  • Use 150g organic rye flour and 175ml warm water (no fruit)
  • Feed the starter daily, or twice a day if the weather is warmer
  • Discard all but 50g of the starter each time it is fed, and feed with 100g rye flour and 125ml warm water
  • If not using regularly, keep in the fridge and feed weekly. Return to room temperature however before using in a loaf. 
I hope that this blog post has entertained you, and more importantly, I hope that by reading about my trials and traumas I can help you avoid them yourself! Come back soon to find out how the loaf comes out... 

V x


  1. Wow - you've really persisted with this! Well done. I was really lucky when I started making sourdough, as someone gave me some starter. I've managed to keep it going for over a year and if I can, then anyone can. But I suppose what I wanted to say is that it is well worth it - there is nothing like sitting down to your own home made sourdough. It makes it all worthwhile. Looking forward to seeing how your loaf comes along. Good luck! :)

    1. Aww thanks Sue, it's been an emotional journey that's for sure! The funny thing is, I've never even tasted Sourdough before, so I have no idea yet what I've gone through all this pain for! Really appreciate the encouragement, if I can keep Gizmo II for a year I will be over the moon! x

  2. Looking great! I have made my first sourdough loaf with my starter and it looks the part but is a bit flat... Actually think your starter is looking much healthier than mine - thanks for chronicling the trials and tribulations of keeping Gizmo alive! Cant wait to see your first sourdough loaf.

    1. II don't think I expected it to be quite so traumatic, and at one point I nearly deleted the post, but I figured if I was having so much trouble probably other people might, and this might help someone one day! He's bubbling like mad this morning, definitely ready to be baked :-)

  3. It certainly is a real journey. I have kept my starter alive for a few weeks now, I named mine John Dough (as in John Doe) after the unnamed people found sick in the states. He survived though and has give me 5 loaves now, none of which have those big air holes in though. They all taste nice so I am not too worried. I hope your first loaf turns out OK. Well done for sticking it out :-) Looking forward t hearing of the end result!

    1. Thanks Marcus, it's proving nicely at the moment so I'm quite hopeful. John Dough, brilliant choice of name! You get quite attached to them don't you! :-)

  4. Glad to be of help and thanks for the blog love! I would recommend maybe buying some sourdough bread from a good artisan baker if you have never tried it so you have some idea what you are aiming for. It comes in all shapes and sizes and textures, from the very strong and acidic to the very mild. Waitrose do a nice quarter loaf I think it is called rye and wheat, which is pretty good if you haven't got a baker to check out nearby.

    To be a bit geeky, there are two sorts of acids that get formed by the sourdough culture, lactic acid (yoghurty sour sort of) and acetic acid (vinegary). The culture produces more and more of these the longer it is left without refreshing/feeding. The acidic nature of the culture should prevent bad bacteria and moulds from forming but when the starter is young it is a bit unpredicatable so regular feeding and care in the first month or so should help it become stable. Having said that sometimes they do get contaminated with something and then the best thing is to chuck them and start again. Have a go at drying some of your starter and keeping a little packet in the freezer of it dried, that will help you kickstart it again, should something go wrong. All best Joanna

    1. As always brilliant tips Joanna! My first loaf came out great, really tangy and tasty, I used a Rye and White flour mixture and was really pleased, and my starter seems to have stablised now, have put it in the fridge to feed once a week, but will definitely take your advise and dry some as well. Thanks again :-) x

  5. Ah ha, I'm going through the same pains as you did, followed Paul Hollywood's instructions and now on day three have something that smells god awful and has split with a large amount of liquid ontop. Was planning to persevere, but may go and remove a lot of it and refeed it. The pong isn't nice right now, I got some on my hand earlier and have been desperately trying to wash it off.... A bit disappointed as Paul Hollywood is my bible for baking.


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