Food

How to make a rye sourdough starter from scratch — and get it right on the first try

Holly Davis breaks down the best ways to rest, rise and bake your dough for perfect loaves every time.

Holly Davis breaks down the best ways to rest, rise and bake your dough for perfect loaves every time

(All photography by Ben Dearnley)

While many of us would jump at the chance to have the heavenly scent of freshly baked bread fill our homes every Sunday morning, the thought of making it all on our own can feel intimidating to say the least. That’s why we love this primer from Holly Davis’ cookbook Ferment. Not only does she share a simple recipe for a rye sourdough starter, she breaks down every step in baking process that follows, from resting to rising to storing those finished loaves. See below for Davis’ notes on how to make and nurture your starter, then keep scrolling for the tips that’ll help bring you the best bread every time.

Making Rye Starter from Scratch

By Holly Davis

It takes 2–3 weeks of daily care to nurture flour and water into vibrant activity, but once you have done this, your starter could become a part of your legacy. I made mine in a class with Australia’s master baker John Downes in 1986 and I gift it freely and have introduced it to numerous other bakers’ starters since. If you forget to feed the mix for a day or two, the sourness will greatly increase. This is because you are favoring lactobacilli at the expense of yeasts.

Ingredients

  • 2 ¾ oz (75 g) water
  • 1 ¾ oz (50 g) biodynamic or organic whole-grain rye flour

Preparation

In a spotlessly clean, large nonreactive ceramic or glass bowl, combine the water and flour, and whisk to a smooth batter. Notice how the mix smells.

Cover with a clean dish towel or cheesecloth and let it stand at room temperature, ideally 73–82°F (23–28°C), for 24 hours.

The next day, stir, smell, and re-cover.

Each day for the next 10–14 days, discard all but 1 tablespoon of the mixture (see box on p. 170). Sniff the mixture and taste – it should start to smell and taste slightly sour and eventually quite fruity and effervescent as it becomes alive with yeast activity. Put the reserved tablespoon of starter in a clean bowl and feed the starter by adding 2½ oz (75 g) water and 1¾ oz (50 g) biodynamic or organic rye flour. Mix together well, making sure the flour is well incorporated. Cover and leave for 6–10 hours.

Repeat the process once or twice a day for 5–7 more days, or until the mix has a fruity, “yeasty” smell and it is filled with lots of large gas bubbles. Put in a glass jar (only ever half fill the jar), cover with a clean cloth or piece of cheesecloth, and secure.

After feeding the starter, note the level in the jar. At the next feeding, you should see a “tide mark” showing that the starter rose and then fell. The starter is ready to use when it reliably doubles in volume over a 6- to 10-hour period at room temperature.

When ready, your active starter can be used as it is or to create a larger volume of active leaven.

If you’re not baking regularly, keep your starter in a small, clean glass jar with a lid on in the fridge. A day or two before using your starter, take it out of the fridge and feed it every 6 hours until vibrant and active. A cold, sleepy starter that has not been used in over a week may need three or four feeds to return to a suitable activity level to leaven your recipes.

Yield: Makes 4 ½ oz (125 g), ready in 14-21 days

Sourdough know-how: Making bread

Now that you have an active starter/leaven, you can make your own bread whenever you like. This recipe is also versatile in another way: bakers refer to loaves by the amount of flour to water used – this is called the baker’s percentage. The total amount of flour is 100%, and the water is described as a percentage relative to that. My recipe is 70% hydration, which produces a very sticky dough. If you are new to bread baking, you can reduce the percentage of water to 60% hydration, which you will find easier to handle. To do this, reduce the total amount of water to 11½ oz (330 g). This gives you 10 oz (280 g) to add to the flour and leaven, and 1¾ oz (50 g) to dissolve the salt.

Resting dough

The baker’s term for the initial resting of a dough is “autolyse.” After the leaven has been mixed with flour and water to form a shaggy dough, and before any salt is added or kneading done (which could oxidize the dough), it is left to sit. During this time, the flour absorbs the water and becomes fully hydrated, helping all-important gluten formation during the next steps. Enzymes in the flour also break down the starches into simple sugars, which become food for the yeasts in the leaven during bulk fermentation, helping to make the bread lighter.

The autolyse step is frequently skipped, but it makes a huge difference in the structure, texture, and overall color, flavor, and digestibility of your bread, and it makes it easier to handle and shape.

The warmer the spot, the faster the rise and the more sour the loaf. Slow-rising develops a more complex flavor and a sweeter, more digestible loaf.

Slow-rising

Letting your dough rise very slowly in the fridge is a very handy option for fitting home-baked bread into a busy lifestyle. Simply put the dough in a clean, preferably glass container (with a tight-fitting lid) that is large enough for the dough to expand by about a third. Refrigerate for up to 2 days and bake when time permits. Keeping the dough in the fridge merely slows down fermentation, allowing it to gently proof and transform into a more digestible and delicious form. The dough will be cold when you retrieve it and the microbes will be sleepy. Bring the dough back to room temperature, then shape it as per the recipe, cover it in a clean, damp cloth, and let it rise for 1½–3 hours before baking.

Shaping and slashing dough

Creating structure in dough comes about through the development of the gluten when folding and turning or kneading and in the final shaping.

Proofing baskets give support and shape to loaves during their final rise before baking. You could also use a colander or mixing bowl. Either way, line with a clean linen dish towel and coat it generously with flour. Rub the flour into the towel to prevent the dough from sticking.

When properly leavened dough hits the intense heat of the oven, any remaining active yeasts make their last hurrah and cause the dough to rise further. Slashing the dough just before putting it in the oven directs the expansion and prevents it from bursting randomly.

When you make a cut in a leavened dough, the instrument needs to be razor sharp, otherwise the dough gets dragged and ugly lumps ensue. Use a special baker’s lame (pronounced “lahm”) or grignette, a one-edged razor blade, or a super-sharp tomato knife or pair of scissors. You can decorate dough by slashing it in a random or uniform pattern and, if you are baking several types at once, to tell them apart.

Baking in Dutch ovens

A round or oval cast-iron pot with a lid (Dutch oven) creates the perfect conditions for steam-baked loaves. In lieu of that, a clay pot does the trick. These vessels simulate the effects of a wood-fired oven by steaming the loaf during the first period of baking, which ensures a good rise from the dough and allows it to develop a well-caramelized thin, crisp crust. If you don’t have one, you can use any cast-iron pot with heatproof handles and a lid, which will effectively transfer the heat; at these temperatures a stainless-steel pot will burn your bread.

Storing bread

I find loaves keep best, for up to a week, wrapped in a cotton cloth or bag. To revitalize a loaf, spritz with water and bake at 400°F (200°C) for 10 minutes or slice and toast. Alternatively, make a large batch of bread and slice and freeze what you won’t use within a few days, storing it in freezer-safe plastic bags.

Essential equipment

  • a wide firm or flexible plastic or metal scraper
  • 2–3 tightly woven linen cloths
  • 9 in (23 cm) round or 13¼ in (33 cm) rectangular proofing baskets or deep bowls, each lined with a well-floured linen cloth
  • a razor blade, baker’s lame, or tomato knife, for slashing the dough
  • a spray bottle, for misting the oven

Tips

  • Before you start to make a loaf, gather everything you will need.
  • For ease of access, keep a little extra flour in a bowl to use for dusting.
  • Keep a jug of tepid water on hand in case you need extra.
  • Scrape any dough off your counter and utensils and give them a rinse in hot water before the dough has a chance to dry, making them easier to clean later.

Excerpted from Ferment: A Guide to the Ancient Art of Culturing Foods from Kombucha to Sourdough by Holly Davis. Photographs by Ben Dearnley. Copyright 2017. Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Chronicle Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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