Sourdough: a beginner's guide

Our simple step by step guide to making your own sourdough starter and using it to bake everyone's favourite loaf. Once you’ve made your starter mixture you’ll be able to use it to bake with whenever you like; just follow our tips for maintaining it and you’ll never look back.


How to make sourdough

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The popularity of sourdough has been on the rise in recent years, as more people choose to shun commercial sliced bread in favour of these flavoursome artisan loaves. But there’s nothing new about sourdough; in fact it’s one of the oldest forms of leavened bread. What makes sourdough different from many other breads is that it isn’t made using conventional yeast, but with a fermented starter made from flour and water over the course of several days. It’s this that gives sourdough its soft and chewy open crumb and distinctive sour tang.

The long fermentation means that sourdough is easier to digest than bread made with baker’s yeast, and has much less gluten. The fermentation process is also thought to make sourdough a more nutritious choice than other conventional breads, because it breaks down the naturally occurring phytic acid in the grains and makes the fibre and minerals in the bread easier for us to absorb.

But let’s face it, the real reason we all love sourdough so much is simply because it tastes so good. This step by step guide will show you how to make your own sourdough starter, and then use it to bake your own sourdough loaf. We’ll also share tips and tricks for feeding and maintaining your starter, and how to score your loaf for that truly professional finish.

What is a sourdough starter?

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A sourdough starter is simply a mix of flour and water, which, with a bit of time and patience, will begin to naturally ferment as the wild yeast found in the flour starts to activate and multiply. Over the course of about five days and with regular ‘feeds’ of fresh flour and water, the starter becomes a homemade raising agent. As it begins to ferment it will  form bubbles at the surface, increase in size and give off a slightly tangy,  almost acidic  smell. Once it’s ready it can then be used to make a sourdough loaf, rolls or pizza dough.

Essentially your starter does the job of conventional packet yeast. Yes, it takes time to make and needs a bit of attention, but once it’s done you can use it again and again, as long as you keep feeding it. And we promise the delicious results make all the effort worth it- good things really do come to those that wait. 

Making your starter

Here’s an easy to follow guide for making, and maintaining, your sourdough starter. If you’re new to making sourdough we recommend using organic strong white bread flour, which due to its fine texture and high protein levels will help encourage a strong gluten development and give your bake a good rise. But you can experiment using rye, wholemeal, spelt or a 50/50 blend of two different flours; just remember that different flours will work differently and yield different results, and your starter may develop at a different rate depending on which you use. You will also need a clear jar or plastic container that is large enough to allow your mixture to double in size.
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Day 1:
Mix 50g flour and 50g tepid water in your transparent container, ensuring there are no dry lumps of flour left. Mark the level of the mixture on the outside of the container so you can keep an eye on whether it is rising. Leave semi-covered (using a lid or clean cloth) at room temperature for 24 hours.

Day 2:
Mix 50g flour with 50g tepid water and add to the mixture, stirring well to ensure it is all combined. As before, cover loosely and leave for 24 hours at room temperature.
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Day 3:
You should now start to see signs of fermentation. Look for small bubbles forming on the surface of the mixture, or down the sides of the container.  Your mixture may have risen and should now be giving off a stronger smell. Stir a mixture of 50g flour and 50g tepid water into the original starter mix, ensuring all the flour is incorporated. Leave semi-covered at room temperature for another 24 hrs
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Day 4:
Your starter should continue to show signs of activity. As before, feed your starter with a mix of 50g flour and 50g tepid water, making sure it is all combined. Leave semi-uncovered in a warm, sheltered spot for another 24 hrs.
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Day 5:
By now your starter should be producing an acidic tangy smell, almost like natural yoghurt, and have plenty of bubbles on the surface. It should also  have doubled in size. If it has consistently been showing signs of fermentation 24 hours after being fed, it is now ready to use.

If your starter is not yet showing signs of activity, continue to feed it every day, as described in the previous steps.

Day 6:
Keep your starter in the fridge until you want to use it. Take it out of the fridge 24 hours before you plan to bake with it. Discard half of it and feed it with a mix of 100g flour and 100g tepid water. Leave it out for 24 hours so it can reactivate. You should see bubbles forming again. To check if your starter is ready to use, drop a teaspoon of the mixture in warm water- it should float.

Sourdough bread

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Once your starter is made, it’s ready to use in sourdough recipes. To make a delicious sourdough loaf all you need to do is mix some of it with water, flour and salt. This recipe shows you how, with the help of your stand mixer. 

When making sourdough the kneading stage is really important, as it's this process which encourages the gluten to develop and hold the dough together. As the mixture is being kneaded the dough’s consistency will begin to change, becoming smoother and more elastic. Using your stand mixer’s dough tool will take all the elbow grease out of this process, making it pretty much effortless- not to mention a lot quicker than if you were to do it by hand.  

Scoring your loaf

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Scoring your bread is the process of making a shallow cut, or cuts, on the top of the unbaked loaf before you put it in the oven. It helps gas produced by the yeast during baking to escape from the dough in a controlled way without rupturing the loaf, allowing the bread to rise evenly. It also gives your loaf that professional finish, and you the chance to add your own personal artistic flourish.
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When scoring your loaf you can opt for a single straight slash across the top, or experiment with some more intricate patterns and scoring techniques- such as a cross, double slash, criss cross, leaf or wheat design. You can find lots of inspiration online. Whatever design you choose you will need to include a big slash to help the gas escape without creating an unplanned rupture in the loaf. So if your design involves lots of smaller cuts, you will need to make a big score somewhere- maybe along one side.
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Use a sharp knife to score, or a lame (a special baker’s knife) if you’re creating more complex designs. Dust your loaf with flour first using a small sieve to highlight your designs. And then get creative!

Top tips

Be patient
Making your sourdough starter is a waiting game, and the temperature of your room can massively affect the rate at which it grows. Choose a spot that is warm (around 20℃) and draught-free. Don’t worry if the temperature is much cooler, your starter will still grow but it will just take longer.

Water wisely
Many bakers choose to use bottled or filtered water to grow their starter, believing  the chlorine and other chemicals found in tap water don’t create the optimum breeding environment. However, many a successful loaf has been produced using tap water; the key thing is that the water should be lukewarm rather than cold, as it’s this warmth that will help kick start the fermentation process. If you live in an area where the tap water is heavily treated but would rather not buy bottled water, try leaving a jug of tap water out overnight before you use it.

Maintaining your starter
Continue to refresh your starter once or twice a week in between bakes- the bacteria within are live and need feeding. If you are baking with it regularly (a couple of times a week) you can keep it out at room temperature, which will mean it's ready to use faster. Otherwise keep it covered in the fridge and take it out 24 hours before you next want to use it. You will need to activate it each time you want to use it,  bringing it back to room temperature and feeding it. Wait for it to bubble and double in size.

Don’t give up
If your starter doesn’t double in size or pass the float test, don’t be too discouraged. The wild yeast and bacteria that bring your starter to life are natural organisms and therefore a bit fickle and hard to predict. Sometimes all you need is a bit more time. Continue to feed for a few more days until you see consistent signs of fermentation and the mixture rising.