My trusty, fruity rye sourdough starter culture
A lot has been written about sourdough starter cultures. You can find long and elaborate articles on how to make your own starter while using things like pineapple and grapes. They are almost mythical creatures to be treated with the utmost care and fed every evening at the same time while standing on your head. The truth is much simpler. My rye starter seems almost indestructible. And the only thing I did is mix some whole grain rye flour with water and wait…
What is a starter?
A starter is a piece of dough which contains wild yeast and bacteria which you use to make your bread. The wild yeast produce carbon dioxide (and a bit of alcohol too) to make your bread airy. It is the bacteria that can give your bread the sour taste, this is because the bacteria transform the starch of the flour into lactic acid, acetic acid and alcohol. Both the acid and the alcohol give sourdough bread their unique and interesting taste. You add an amount of your starter to a larger amount of flour and water mixture like you normally use commercial yeast to a poolish or a biga preferment. It works just the same only slower. Commercial yeasts are selected and bred for speed by the big yeast companies but wild yeast works at a slower pace. This is why bread recipes for sourdough bread tend to take much longer and consist of more steps.
Why a rye starter culture?
For my sourdough baking I use a culture which is made with 100% whole rye flour. A sourdough culture based on rye flour is easier to maintain, it does not go into a slurry like a wheat flour starter when you forget about it, it is easier to stir because it has almost no gluten and it smells very very nice, a bit like fruit. It is also very forgiving in the amount you feed it. You feed your culture after baking to replenish your stock. Normally I only feed it once a week, after my weekend baking, I just give it a few table spoons of water and rye flour, stir and ready!
The birth of a new starter
Before starting your own culture
First thing: work clean! Use a clean jar and always use clean spoons to stir and add flour to the mixture. The organisms living on your hands can contaminate your starter and spoil it! Throw away your starter and start over when it develops an awful smell or grows moldy in whichever color, it probably has picked up a bad bacteria in the first feeble stages of the starters life. After some research I found that the most likely truth of the source of the yeast and bacteria is the flour itself. The yeast and bacteria live on the outside of the grain (just like the yeast to make wine lives on the skin of the grapes). This is why you need (preferably organic) whole grain rye flour, because you need the outside bran of the grain as a source of yeast and bacteria. I start with a relative wet starter and when the starter is alive add more flour to maintain a more stiff starter. I start with a small amount of water and flour as not to waste too much flour, because you have to throw halve of the starter away with each refresh. When your starter is alive and kicking you always can scale up the size of your starter simply by adding more water and rye flour.
Be sure to use water which does not contain chlorine. Water companies sometimes add a little chlorine to your tap water to kill all bacteria and probably also the yeast in the water, so it is not a good idea to use this for building a sourdough starter. If in doubt you can use bottled water.
And now on with the easy steps!
Day 1: Take a small clean jar (I use a 400ml jam jar) and add 40ml of water and 40g of whole grain rye flour, stir with a clean spoon for 30 seconds. Draw a line to mark the height of the mixture with a permanent marker on the jar so you can see any activity easily. Loosely close the lit of the jar and store at room temperature (about 20-21 degrees Celcius) out of direct sunlight for 24 hours.
Day 2: If you are lucky you should see some little bubbles of air in the mixture. The smell of the mixture at this stage is not very nice, a bit musty but not totally off putting. Add 20ml of water and 20g of whole grain rye flour. Stir with a clean spoon for 30 seconds. Draw a new mark line if needed. Loosely close the lit of the jar and store at room temperature out of direct sunlight for 24 hours.
Some bubbles are visible after 24 hours – It’s alive, its alive…
Day 3: Your mixture should now be getting active. Mine did more than double in size during the last 24 hours. If your mixture is not very active yet, throw away half of the mixture and repeat the directions of day 2 again. The smell of your mixture should be a little nicer at this stage. When your mixture is active, throw away two third of the mixture and add 30ml of water and 30g of whole grain rye flour, stir with a clean spoon for 30 seconds and store at room temperature.
This is called refreshing or feeding your starter. By throwing out half of your mixture and adding new rye flour you give the starter fresh food (the rye flour) to work on, so all your new yeast and bacteria can get ‘stronger’ and multiple again. You also dilute the alcohol and the acid they produce so the yeast and bacteria do not ‘poison’ themselves.
Day 4: Your starter should now be fully active and strong enough to double or triple in size during a 24 hours time period. We need to refresh it again before we can use this starter because the acid producing bacteria need more time to develop than the yeast. So throw away two third of the mixture and add 30ml of water and 30g of whole grain rye flour, stir with a clean spoon for 30 seconds and store at room temperature.
The starter is now 36 hours old and has tripled over the past 12 hours after feeding
Day 5: If your starter did at least double in size during the last refreshment your starter should now be ready for your first baking project. Also at this stage your starter should be developing a nice fruity smell during next few days. You can now let your starter rest for a few days, mine did develop a nice fruity tone on day 6 which got even nicer on day 7. If it did not double between day 4 and 5 repeat the directions at day 4. Just keep using and maintaining the starter from now, after a while the color of your starter should get a little bit more beige after it has tripled after a feeding (notice the difference in color of my old and new starter). This is a sign of maturation of the starter and the production of acid.
How to maintain your starter
My rye starter (and yours) does not need much maintenance. I store my starter in the fridge. I bake almost every weekend so my starter is being refreshed at least each week. I keep about 120g of starter of which I use about 60g up to 100g each week. I just add water and rye flour and stir so I have about 120g of starter again. I keep my starter quite stiff, almost like a thick paste. The reason for this is that it will develop a lot slower with less water, so it matures during the week and it is ready for baking the next weekend.
After feeding I keep the starter on the kitchen table at room temperature for about 12 hours so it can develop and double or triple in size. When it has developed, I store it in the refrigerator until the next baking session. If I want to bake, I get it out one day in advance and refresh it first so it will be ready and active for baking the following day. That ‘s it!
For a long time I just kept my sourdough starter on the bench in our little bakery for a week in between baking sessions. This has worked for over 4 years but suddenly it stopped working. Even my new fresh starter developed a nail polish remover smell after a few days when stored this way. I still do not know why this happened. So now, after feeding, I wait for the starter to double or triple in size and then I store it in the refrigerator with the lit on. This way the starter keeps its lovely fruity smell.
Small video clip timelaps of rise of rye sourdough starter
We can also give you a head start with our own active WKB rye sourdough culture. You can find it in our Bakery Tools webshop (only shipped within the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany!). But don’t be afraid to give it a try yourself first!