Yesterday’s guest post was a primer on yeasts and how they work.

I found my good friend’s guidance useful in learning how my sourdough culture was working.

In the beginning — around mid-October 2015, before his help in November — things were less clear-cut. What follows is my experience from the beginning to the present.

Starting the culture

One of the reasons I hadn’t used sourdough was that it seemed to require a lot of space and huge quantities of flour. We only eat bread once a week.

I happened to read Weekend Bakery, a Dutch couple’s site, wherein they discuss all things sourdough.

That was quite helpful, especially in discovering that one only needs a jam jar for the culture.

I was soon on my way with a spotless 400g mayonnaise jar.

Ed and Marieke recommend using a strong flour for the starter. They use rye. I, too, had rye flour so used that for the first two months. More on that later.

Our kitchen was still warm in the early autumn. Of course, two or three days into my new culture, we had chillier temperatures which soon made our late Victorian kitchen much cooler.

SpouseMouse and I decided to put the mayonnaise jar in the airing cupboard overnight. Big mistake. It went mouldy and had to be thrown out.

I started all over again and decided to let the new culture live in the kitchen. It would simply take longer to develop but would still live.

What to do:

1/ Use a clean jar with a lid.

2/ Keep the lid loose.levain né de farine de seigle additionnée de boisson au kombucha

3/ Cover the jar with a small oven mitt or keep it in a cupboard out of the light.

4/ Keep it out at room temperature until it has fully developed — this might take one to three weeks. You can begin using it after five days, but the final results won’t be as good until the starter matures. I should have fed mine daily for 7 to 10 days; instead I took a break on days 5 and 6. When looks like the starter on the right, photo courtesy of cfaitmaison.com (‘It’s homemade’), it is robust enough to withstand refrigeration.

5/ Use filtered water. All the online sites say that tap water has enough chlorine in it to prevent the starter from growing properly. However, now and then one runs across readers’ comments to the contrary.

6/ During the first two (possibly even three) weeks, feed your starter at nearly the same time every 24 hours. Start with 50g of flour and 50ml of water. Put both in the jar and stir well. Ed and Marieke say stir for 30 seconds each time. For a top up feeding, I put in 30g of flour with enough water to mix easily.

7/ Leave the jar lid loose, because after feeding, the starter will rise and may expand out of the jar. Thelevainouvert photo from a Frenchwoman at Ni cru ni cuit (‘Neither raw nor cooked’) shows what can happen. Also notice how hers is more of a paste than a liquid. I am striving for that consistency.

8/ Keep the starter level halfway up the jar so that it has room to rise and expand without making a mess.

9/ The starter will sink several hours after feeding. This is normal.

10/ I did not follow the rule to discard half the starter before refeeding. My chemist friend is not sure why that is specified, nor do some sites’ readers.

11/ Avoid too warm a temperature which can make the starter mouldy. If you notice any mould, throw the starter out and start again with a new jar.

12/ Using a digital kitchen scale helps a lot in getting accurate measurements. Mums who do not have one would certainly appreciate receiving one for Mother’s Day.

Acetone smell

As I said yesterday, the acetone smell was mildly disconcerting until my friend explained that it is normal and necessary.

The acetone smell indicates one of two things: it is time to feed your starter or you need to leave the lid off the jar and keep it in the open air for five or ten minutes.

If you have fed your starter recently, try leaving the lid off for a short while. The smell will quickly go away in most cases. If it does not, then feed your starter.

Watery surface: time to feed

Another indicator of feeding time is a layer of water on top of the starter.

This normally appears in one that hasn’t reached full strength or one that hasn’t been fed in a few days.

Give it a top-up of 30g flour and stir for 30 seconds. It might not need extra water.

Current feeding patterns

My starter sits on the countertop and is now in a small 220g Grey Poupon (mustard) jar.

I feed it three times a week: 24 hours before baking, then with 30g of the pre-bake starter described in the next section and once in between.

I also stopped using rye flour two months after I began as my results were too much pain de campagne and not enough white loaf. I now use T55 flour, with which I bake.

Before baking

Most people using a starter feed it 12-24 hours before using it for a loaf of bread.

The night before baking, take 30g of the starter and combine it with 100g flour and enough filtered water to mix into a semi-solid mass.

I use a measuring jug and digital kitchen scale.

When you are finished, cover the measuring jug with cling film and make a mental note of the level. By the time you are ready to bake the next day, the volume should have doubled. The mix should also be uniformly bubbly.

On baking day

Using a digital scale, put 20 – 30g of the measuring jug starter back into your sourdough jar, stir well and cover.

Put the remainder of the starter into a bowl or food processor receptacle and add another 150g of flour mixed with 4g of salt and a scant tablespoon of yeast. Make sure the salt is well dispersed, otherwise the yeast will not work. There may come a time when I do not need yeast, but for now, I do.

Start mixing — or blitzing — this together and gradually add warm water as appropriate. I found that I did not need as much water using sourdough starter as I did before. I also use a food processor and do not knead my bread.

The sourdough starter also helps the dough rise much quicker. It takes two hours versus four.

For the second rise — after two hours — I sprinkle 1-2 tsps of flour on my bread board, flour my hands, portion the dough and gently de-gas it by pressing it lightly then forming into a ball or small squares which I then roll up and shape into baguettes.

Normally, I make three small baguettes which I put on lightly greased aluminium foil. My round loaf goes into a round plastic-lined basket.

Drape the dough with lightly floured cling film and let rise for another 45-60 minutes.

Baking

Every baker and pastry chef will tell you how important it is to know the true temperature of your oven. It is well worth shelling out for a cheap and cheerful oven thermometer for this purpose.

When you are ready to preheat your oven, place the oven thermometer in it and an empty baking tray into the oven. Set the temperature at 210° C (410°F; experiment with 400° F and 425° F).

Bread bakers say it is important for the base on which the bread rests to be very hot before putting the bread on it — hence the empty tray.

While you are waiting for the oven to heat, you can decorate your loaves using a lame (blade). Be careful not to slice too deeply. I once fully de-gassed two beautiful loaves.

Believe me, the lame makes all the difference. For my birthday, SpouseMouse gave me a little Mallard Ferrière Lame Grignette P/10, which is brilliant. I notice they also make a similar model with a rotating blade for curved slits. These come with a box of razor blades.

Check the oven thermometer after five minutes. Mine takes eight minutes to reach optimum temperature, so do not be surprised if yours takes longer than anticipated. Kitchen temperature will also make a difference to the speed at which your oven heats.

Once your oven is at the right temperature, you can take the baking tray out, put your bread on it and bake. I just transfer my aluminium foil with the baguettes onto the tray.

As I use the no-knead method, I cover my loaves with a large roasting tray (not preheated) that sits flat over the loaves and rests on the hot baking tray. This allows a bit of steam and creates extra rise. I remove it halfway through baking time.

Put the loaves into the oven and bake for 40 minutes.

They should be golden brown and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.

After baking

Put the loaves onto a rack to cool. Smaller loaves take about 45 minutes to cool sufficiently.

Besides the professional appearance of the sourdough loaf, another big improvement for the home baker is the oven spring, the increase in volume during the first 10 to 12 minutes of baking thanks to fermentation and expansion of gases. You will also notice the ability of a slice of bread to revert back to its original shape after squeezing it by the top and bottom crusts.

Yet another improvement is a near-professional crust and lighter crumb.

Of course, you will want to eat your bread on the day you make it. However, if you do wish to reheat a loaf the next day, you can do so by putting it in a 150° C (300° F) oven for five to eight minutes, depending on the size. Let it cool for five to ten minutes before slicing.

Homemade bread will keep for 24 hours.

Even though I am still learning about it — as well as bakers’ vocabulary — I’m delighted I have my own sourdough starter. If you are undecided as to whether it is worth the effort, it definitely is. You don’t need to be an expert to make your own starter!

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