Your daily bread: Sourdough from starter

sourdough loavesAfter our Doodle Bread adventures last weekend, I went on a bit of a bread making buzz. Normally we make our bread in the machine – it’s quick, efficient, makes decent bread and, secondhand, it only cost me €10 – but I had forgotten how much I enjoyed the kneading side of things so it was time to dig out my Ballymaloe sourdough starter.

This has to have been the most forgiving bread starter ever. Although it’s been sitting in my fridge since 2007 with not so regular outings – although it did get a trip out of the house to Urru when I gave a talk on making sourdough bread – and I don’t feed it that often, it still manages to bounce back. I was doing a few maintenance flour/water feeds last week and, inspired by my Doodle kneading, I set the whole three-day event that is a sourdough bread baking session in motion.

While kneading this bread took a lot more effort than the Doodle dough – my recipe makes two loaves at once so that’s 2kg of dough to punch and pummel around on the worktop – I thoroughly enjoyed the workout! I have to say, though, that I didn’t have high hopes for the end result but the bread was better than ever. A gloriously crunchy crust, with an open crumb, the flavour was sour enough to keep the most ardent sourdough fan happy. No yeast has ever come near this starter, it’s just been flour and water all the way.

Click on the link below to see the notes that I wrote up for my sourdough talk. These are adapted from the recipe that I started working with more than three years ago in Ballymaloe. Have you ever tried making sourdough yourself? If you do decide to try this out – it truly is worth it! – please do let me know how you get on.

Sourdough for Starters

Sourdough, quite simply, is the process of leavening or rising bread by capturing the wild, natural yeasts in your environment, rather than using commercially available yeast. The bread has a distinctive and delicious tangy or sour taste, hence the name. It’s not difficult – anyone who has made a loaf of bread can easily make sourdough bread – and all you need are the basic ingredients of flour, water and salt.First, you make a starter, which is a live, bubbling batter that you keep in your fridge. This is then made into a dough, causing it to rise.

Step 1: Making your Sourdough Starter

What you need:

* Container – a large, wide-mouth container that will hold at least 3½ pints. I use a large kilner jar. Wash well in warm, soapy water before use.
* Flour – use strong white bread flour. Organic is great but not essential.
* Water – use filtered or spring water if at all possible. Avoid chlorinated tap water – this will kill your starter. If you only have access to chlorinated tap water, fill up a jug and leave it to stand overnight before use. Always use water at room temperature.
* Baskets x 2 – because sourdough takes AGES to rise, it is notorious for spreading out rather than up. In Ballymaloe I used, and you can buy online, beautifully shaped cane baskets for bread rising. Here at the cottage I just use a couple of regular wicker ones that I picked up in my local pound shop for not more than a couple of euros. Make sure you line them with a well floured flat weave cotton tea towel. Why two? Because every time you make sourdough bread, you put in so much effort that you will only make two loaves. No point in doing all this for just one.
* A little patience…

Day 1
Put 2fl oz water and 2oz bread flour into the jar. Mix well, cover and leave at room temperature overnight.

Day 2
Add 2fl oz water and 2oz bread flour to the jar. Mix well, cover and leave at room temperature overnight.

Day 3
Add 2fl oz water and 2oz bread flour to the jar. Mix well, cover and leave at room temperature overnight.

Day 4
Add 2fl oz water and 2oz bread flour to the jar. Mix well, cover and leave at room temperature overnight.

Day 5
Add 2fl oz water and 2oz bread flour to the jar. Mix well, cover and leave at room temperature overnight.

Day 6
You will now have approximately 20fl oz of lively, bubbling, slightly beery-smelling sourdough starter to make your bread. It is most active now so can be used straight away or can also be stored in the fridge until you want to make bread.

Do not allow your starter to get too warm. If it is too stiff, add a little more water and mix well. It should always smell pleasant and the flavour will become more complex each time you use it.

Step 2: Making Sourdough Bread – a three-day event!

Day 1: Morning

Begin with your sourdough starter at room temperature, taking it out of the fridge the night before if necessary. Stir in 8fl oz room temperature water (again, avoid chlorinated water) then add 8oz strong white bread flour. Mix well, cover and leave at room temperature.

Day 1: Evening
Your mixture should look bubbly and alive. Add another 8fl oz room temperature water and 8oz strong white bread flour. Mix well, cover and leave at room temperature overnight.

Day 2: Morning
The starter will have expanded in volume and have a frothy layer on top. Transfer 30fl oz into a large mixing bowl. Put the remainder back into the jar and keep in the fridge for the next batch of bread.

To your mixing bowl, add:

Room temperature water – 3-6fl oz
Strong white flour – 1½lbs
Wheatgerm – 1 tablespoon
Rye flour – 1 tablespoon

Mix well and cover the bowl with either clingfilm or a damp tea towel for 20 minutes.

Sprinkle 2½ teaspoons of salt (I have forgotten this in the past and it is ESSENTIAL) over the mixture and knead by hand for 15-20 minutes or by machine for approximately 6 minutes. The dough should be smooth and slightly sticky. Place back into the large bowl, cover again and allow to rise at room temperature until light, which takes about 6 – 8 hours.

Day 2: Evening
Gently knock back the risen dough. Divide in 2 x 2lb loaves and shape. Dust with flour and put into the baskets that have been lined with a well-floured tea towel. Put the baskets into large plastic bags and refridgerate overnight. If it’s cold, you will get away with doing this in the spare room. At the cottage, there’s no room in the fridge so this is how I do it although the Husband does complain about me leaving the spare room window open as a result.

Day 3: Morning – almost there!
Remove the dough from the fridge and allow to come back to room temperature, which will take between 1 and 1½ hours.

Preheat your oven to 230°C/210°C fanbake/450°F/Gas Mark 8 and fix the shelves so the bread has room to expand. Sprinkle the base of a large baking tray with a little flour or polenta. Leaving room for expansion, very gently turn the loaves onto the tray. Quickly slash the tops with a very sharp knife, sprinkle or mist with water and put into the oven straight away.

Check the bread after 35-40 minutes, knocking the base to see if it sounds hollow. It may need a few more minutes back in the oven, turned upside down.



Food writer. Broadcaster. Blogger. Author. Married to Eight Degrees Brewing. Member of the Irish Food Writers' Guild, founder of Irish Food Bloggers Association and co-author of Sláinte: The Complete Guide to Irish Craft Beer & Cider (New Island)

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15 Responses

  1. Kristin says:

    I love sourdough bread and wish it was as widely available as it is back home in the US. I’ve always been intimidated by all the long-winded recipes for starters, but you’ve inspired me to finally give it a go!

  2. I have a great sourdough starter which has been in existence for about 4 or 5 years now, at least. We made it using the recipe from the Moro cookbook, which involves red grapes & muslin (we did a lot of running around town looking for bloody muslin, in advance of it). Anyway the starter has done the rounds of my whole family & when our personal batch died from over exposure to heat, we took some of what we had given to my mother & fed it back up again. Anyway I have recently altered my sourdough recipe to follow one from a 1973 cookbook called the Whole Earth cookbook, which gets the job done in under 24 hours. You make the sponge up the night before with flour and starter, then the main recipe includes honey, melted butter, more flour, warm water & a very small amount of yeast. It makes the best sourdough I’ve had yet & you get 2 loaves out of the recipe, it is champion!!

  3. Caroline says:

    @Kristin I’m not sure that this is the shortest recipe in the world but I did try to break it down, step by step, and I do know that at least one of my Urru students had success with it. I’m always available for phone assistance too!

    @The Demagogue I remember looking at that recipe when I read the Moro cookbook and as I had neither red grapes nor muslin on hand, it was dismissed. Now, with Little Missy in the house, I have acres of muslin left over from when she was a teeny baby so it wouldn’t be quite as daunting.I like the idea of your Whole Earth cookbook recipe, sounds perfect if my own starter dies a death. I’m very much in favour of sourdough recipes that makes two loaves at a time!

  4. Clare says:

    I adore sourdough bread but am very initimidated with baking in general. But your step-by-step directions are making me think it’s possible! I want a sourdough starter mainly for pancakes; there is a restaurant in LA that serves silver-dollar sourdough pancakes and I dream of them. WIll have to attempt my own starter now!

  5. Caroline says:

    It was actually the Husband that started making sourdough, way back in 2003 when we first moved in together in Dublin. After making one edible loaf out of eight – I think now that the chlorinated water was a problem – he gave up (still working with yeast, though!) but I’ve been fascinated ever since.Hope you try it, Clare. Once you have your starter bubbling away there are lots of sourdough pancake recipes to try out. Came across this one which looks well worth trying. I’ve been siphoning off bits of my starter to add to various other bread doughs with good results so far.

  6. Geraldine says:

    I had great beginner’s luck a couple of years ago with a starter following the same method you have outlined. It made fantastic bread for a whole summer but I had to ditch it after I found 5 fruitflies partying in the layer of hooch on the top.

    You’ve inspired me to have another go!

    Ger x.

    • Caroline says:

      I can see why you’d have to get rid of that! I started my starter in the autumn when there weren’t too many fruit flies wandering about and always keep the jar lid closed so I haven’t had any problems like that, so far. Just realised, as I fed it up this morning for a new set of loaves later in the week, that it’s older than Little Missy!

      Best of luck with your new starter.

  7. Sammie says:

    I love sourdough bread and I’ve never tried making it at home. Thank you for the guidance on starters- it’s all a little intimidating!

    • Caroline says:

      When we first moved in together, the then Boyfriend randomly decided that he was going to make sourdough bread and it was, more or less, a complete disaster. I watched and learned!

      A lot of the recipes he tried involved throwing out lots of starter but don’t think that’s at all necessary so I went looking for something not so wasteful. Also, using non-chlorinated water is SO important. As I said in the recipe, you can – and I normally do – use regular tap water, poured into a jug and allowed to stand overnight.

      Best of luck with it!

  8. Mark says:

    Hi Caroline, I’ve just embarked on this and am hoping for great things ! One question : after the 5 days of adding little by little, you say to take off about 16 fl ozs of the starter and then add larger quantities. I had assumed that what was left continued its life in your starter jar. Then, after day 2 morning, you say to take off 30 fl ozs and keep the remainder as your starter. What happens to the small amount left over after you take the 16 fl ozs ? Does this get disposed of ?
    (hope you can understand this !!)


  9. Caroline says:

    I’m delighted that you got on so well. Those loaves look fantastic – and I’ll bet that they taste even better. The flavour of the starter only improves with age so I’ll wish you many more loaves in the future!

    • Mark says:

      Progress report – I’m still using this starter and it’s fascinating how the flavour has developed over just two and a half months. A great success so thanks again !

      • Caroline says:

        Glad to get your update! I love the way that the flavour intensifies as the starter gets older. The last time I made sourdough and put up a picture on Facebook, someone left a comment about a starter that’s coming up on its 70th birthday. Not sure my own one will last that long…

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