The secret to any great loaf of bread is a pre-ferment, or starter. A starter provides a depth of flavour to the bread, but, arguably more important, it gives it a fantastic texture. This is due to the fact that a mature sourdough has had plenty of time to develop a complex gluten network over a period of several weeks (or months, or years!), which is simply unattainable with a standard loaf that's only proved for a few hours.
This sourdough starter will take at least five days to make, but from that point it'll last indefinitely, provided you look after it. After five days, you'll be able to make a decent loaf of bread with it, but if you leave it for longer; two or three weeks, say, you'll get an even better flavour and texture.
This is a true wild yeast; an actual living organism. I think there's something amazing about being able to extract this stuff from thin air, literally. I've talked about my love for sourdough in a previous blog post, and I thought it would be worth sharing a recipe for the starter here. The recipe here is copied almost verbatim from James Morton's Super Sourdough, which in my opinion is the best sourdough book money can buy.
- 100 g wholemeal rye flour
- 100 g fruit juice (pineapple, grapefruit, apple or orange)
This whole process will probably take about 5 days. Mix the flour and fruit juice in a bowl, jam jar or kilner jar, cover and leave, mixing daily until it becomes very aerated. Don't add more flour during this time. Ignore any bubbles that appear in the first couple of days – these are caused by an early bacterial fermentation that is no good for making bread with. Just stir away the bubbles then leave it. On roughly the fifth or sixth day (but it might be anything from the fourth to the seventh) you'll notice a distinct rise in the number of bubbles and a big jump in the volume of your starter. Now we can start on the next phase. If you don't notice this increase after a full week has passed, or it turns black or pink or blue or notice a strong unpleasant smell, dump it and begin again.
You can now keep your starter alive in perpetuity by feeding it with flour and water. Don't use juice again – tap water is fine. If you keep it at room temperature you will need to feed it every day; if you keep it in the fridge you should feed it once per week to keep it active, but it can survive for several weeks between feeds. Once your starter has made its big jump in volume, don't feed it straight away. Let it get used to this new environment; let the bugs grow. When you notice the walls of the bubbles begin to collapse or the volume start to diminish, that's when you can be confident that you've got as much yeast as you're going to get and you can feed it. Add equal weights of rye flour and water to your starter, and mix. Wait for 12 hours. Your starter is now ready. As a rule, it should be fed in proportions similar to those aforementioned (100g each of flour and water), – the new total weight of starter should be at least double to that prior to feeding.