Sourdough Starter – Day 3, plus a Quick Primer on Natural Leaven

A confession: I recognise that a day by day update on a mixture of flour and water probably doesn’t qualify as a ripping yarn to most people. I am finding it a fascinating process, and I realise that there are people out there who agree. I also hope that some of those for whom this is proving a free treatment for insomnia may, in the fullness of time, see why a niche corner of the interwebs, and the populace thus represented, seems to enjoy peering at small jars of a smelly substance.

It is for the baffled, confused, and those peculiar few interested enough in what I’m writing who don’t share my fascination, that I will include in today’s post a wee primer on what it is that I’m doing. For those of you who are already on board, and just hang out here to get your fix of fermentation, skip to the end.

A Word About Natural Leaven

What I’m making is a form of natural leaven. A leaven is, simply put, something which provides gas bubbles, normally Carbon Dioxide, which increases the lightness of a dough or batter. If you look at a slice of (real) bread, you can see where bubbles of gas have stretched the dough before the dough sets. The wikipedia entry (linked above) will explain it better, and in more detail, than I.

The majority of modern bread is made with bakers yeast, which is fast acting and highly predictable. However, natural leaven is what lends sourdough its unique flavour and texture, which I love. It is a more traditional technique, pre-dating the developments in micro-biology that facilitated the development of bakers yeast, and can be used to make a wide range of recipes, both savoury and sweet. It also provides gastro-geeks like me a pet we can get behind, that will provide us with foodie kudos and cookery-capital aplenty. Oh, and some baked goods. But really, it’s all about keeping up with the Joneses bakery.

So the starter, the creation of which I am writing about here, will be used as the leaven in a potentially infinite number of loaves of bread. When I wish to make a naturally leavened loaf, I will take some of the starter, and incorporate it into the recipe, leaving some behind, which I will continue to feed, and will live on to leaven another day.

Today, in Leavening News

And so to the update. The starter is beginning to show sign of life: very small pinhole bubbles have appeared on the surface, which I assume are formed by carbon dioxide from the natural yeast’s respiration. The smell is shifting, though more because of a change in the ratio of flour to yoghurt (which is only added at the beginning, in this method, to provide a boost to natural bacteria); no signs of much acidity yet. Yeast are more active in a lower pH, i.e. an acid environment. No, I don’t mean yeast like to be surrounded by blacklight posters, Indian throws, with a wide-eyed hippy playing free-form bongos to the Grateful Dead sitting on a bean-bag in the corner. Those are all strictly optional. Though I find them helpful.

Adding stuff increases volume. Just so's you know.

Today I added twice as much of everything; i.e. 100g/ml of water (followed by a stir) and 4 teaspoons each of rye and strong white flour (followed by stir, the sequel).

Tomorrow – raisin removal, and the making travel plans. I was under the (incorrect) impression that after five or so days my starter would be fridge-ready. Dan Lepard (who’s recipe I am following) advised me that it will need feeding for longer than that before it is safe to refrigerate (twitter is a wonderful thing, and not just for revolutionaries). So tomorrow I will make plans for taking starter on “holiday” with me, as I’m off to Newcastle (chasing that elusive winter cold… Wait, hang on…) this weekend.

I wonder if he needs a passport…

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