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If you want to make sourdough but don't know where to begin, then look no further! We have enlisted Sourdough Sensei, Chef Kelly Syms, to guide you through this pungent process. Welcome to our Essential Sourdough Series and let the baking begin!
Wondering where to begin with sourdough starters? You might already have a starter culture brewing, but after looking at a few recipes or books you’re asking, “Is my starter the right kind?”. There are a myriad of styles and methods out there, but it largely comes down to personal preference. Some starters may be more sour, others milder in flavour. Some may require more feeding or be relatively low in maintenance. The good news is that whatever starter you have can be converted to another type within only a few days. Or why not go wild and have two or three starters?! The sky's the limit.
Quite literally a starter that is stiff in texture. That means more flour, less water (bakers refer to this as ‘hydration’). Stiff starters will sometimes form a ball when mixed and may require some kneading to fully incorporate the flour. Generally speaking, stiff starters have a milder sourness than a Liquid or Rye starter.
The advantage to using a stiff starter is that the window of ‘ripeness’ tends to be longer. Ripeness refers to the maturity and usability of the starter. If a starter is over-ripe the bread may be more aggressively sour and may lose some of it’s leavening power.
When a stiff starter is ripe large bubbles will appear below the surface; the top of the starter will form a dome, and then it will collapse in the center. Stiff starters are perfect for the home bakers that prefer a predictable, easy-care experience.
Click here to see our guide on how to make your own stiff sourdough starter.
The most popular form of starter is the liquid starter. Much like the stiff starter, the key is in the name. This usually means an equal amount of flour and water are mixed together to form a very wet paste, which is left to ferment and ripen. Liquid starters tend to have a slightly more acidic flavour profile and their window of ripeness is smaller.
Ripeness of a liquid starter is determined by a doubling in volume, with a multitude of small bubbles through the body of the starter. It should not be collapsed but may sag a bit, much like the stiff starter. The starter will be frothy on top but should not have split causing excess water to pool on the top around the edges of the jar.
The advantage to using a liquid starter is that you use less flour, making them more economical. They can also become ripe faster than a stiff starter, although this means that liquid starters should be monitored more closely. Liquid starters also require less mixing when feeding and incorporating into a levain or dough.
Desem (pronounced “DAY-zum”) is Dutch for “leaven”. The origins of the Desem-style starter begin in Belgium, but are most likely influenced by starters from France where milder sourdoughs are preferred. Desem has a unique methodology whereby a ball of dough made from freshly ground wholemeal or wholegrain flour and water is formed, then gets buried in a container full of the same flour. The ‘bed’ of flour must be kept cool (10-18C) during the initial cultivation period. A Desem starter can be fed once or twice per week with little loss of potency, making it an economical choice.
Desem starters produce a very soft, mild sourness, that is often undetectable to the average palate. Although the initial cultivation of the starter can be difficult (especially in Australia where average temperatures are higher than in northern Europe), Desem-users are generally rewarded with lovely flavours and a low maintenance starter.
Rye starters have long been a tradition in German and Eastern European baking. Initially it was because Rye is a cold-tolerant grain, but now the unique flavour profile of Rye is preferred despite wheat flour being readily available. Most Rye starters straddle the line between stiff and liquid - they tend to be a firm paste-like texture. This is due to the distinct lack of gluten in Rye flour (although some does remain). Rye starters are usually used in conjunction with rye-based breads but they can also add extra dimension to wheaten loaves.
Due to the active microbial nature of rye flour, this particular type of sourdough starter will ferment more quickly than one made of wheat flour. A Rye starter will noticeably expand and produce bubbles, then it will form into a dome. Cracks will appear on the surface of the starter then it will sink back down onto itself. A Rye starter is ripe and ready to use once it has 'domed' before it collapses. As with a liquid starter, the window of ripeness tends to be smaller so extra care must be taken. However, you’ll be rewarded with that unique, tangy rye flavour and aroma.
As with all starters, care must be taken to keep equipment and containers clean. Consistency in time, temperature and feeding rates will lead you to the most successful version of your starter and the highest quality sourdough.