“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.”
For some reason I am always reminded of these words (from the opening of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) at this stage in the sourdough process. It is at this point that all your hard work (well all of 5 scoops and 2 minutes of stirring spread over 3 days…) is rewarded when you realise that IT’S ALIVE!
This is the great thing about sourdough and is the reason that people have been baking like this for thousands of years. Yes you can buy manufactured yeast in handy 7/9/12g sachets where is the fun in that when you could have a magical pot of living, breathing yeasty gloopy goodness living in your kitchen? Yes it may have a distinctive smell that is not to everyone’s taste but so do my sons and I wouldn’t want to put them on the compost heap!
Well not permanently…
So I guess the obvious question to ask is what on earth is going on in there?
Essentially what we are doing is creating an environment where the natural yeasts which are present in flour are able to thrive. These yeasts are also known as wild yeasts (as opposed to the domesticated kind found in sachets!) and the things they need to multiply are warmth, moisture and a supply of food, all three of which can be found in our pot of flour and water. So we have our yeasts which are happily multiplying away, feeding on the starch and breathing out carbon dioxide (those lovely bubbles).
“But wait!” I hear you cry, “surely those same conditions are also perfect for other, less friendly beasties like bad bacteria and mould! why don’t they grow in there as well?”
Well fear not my friends, for our intrepid yeasts do not live alone! They share their home with their faithful companion the lactobacilli. These produce, amongst other things, antibiotic compounds which protect the starter from the effects of other, more dangerous bacteria. The lactobacilli also produce lactic acid which gives the sourdough its distinctive smell (and indeed its name!)
So our pot contains these two organisms working together. Obviously each scoop of flour has a limited amount of food for them and this is why we have to ‘refresh’ the starter regularly. Each time we add more flour to the mix we are adding not only more food but also a fresh batch of yeasts. Over time therefore the starter will mature and the smell and flavour of it will become more complex.
Once the starter has got into full swing it will probably not need feeding every day. You can leave it out if you are going to use it imminently or you can keep it in the fridge if you know you won’t need it for a few days. We are not at that point yet though!
Today we can just add a single scoop of flour again. Tomorrow we will add some more water but for now we are simply trying to thicken up the starter ready for when we start baking! Once you have got the starter going you can use your instinct (aka guesswork!) to look after it! These things are pretty resilient and the more you use it the better you’ll get to know it. If the worst comes to the worst and you think it’s completely dead just mix a small amount of it with a little flour and water and start again – easy peasy 🙂