I have had a high volume of messages lately from people whose sourdough bread is not working out. Some are old hands who seem to have lost their touch. Others are newbies who cannot seem to make it work. I think what is going on is that they are using a starter that is not refreshed enough to ferment their dough. So, how do you know when your sourdough starter is ready?
Sourdough baking is more about developing an understanding than developing knowledge. All the knowledge in the world sometimes does not help you. It takes time, effort, patience (and a lot of toast) to get to where you want to get to with sourdough bread. The main event is the starter because that is where the yeast is. It has to be bubbly and lively in order for it to be able to ferment dough for you to bake into bread. However, how bubby is bubbly? When do I know whether it's bubbly enough? Thankfully, you don't have to rely on a bubble count!
It's always easy to tell when your rye starter is refreshed. It looks frothy like this:
However, it is not always easy to tell if your wheat starter is ready. When you first stir the starter (which I keep in the fridge) together with the flour and water a few bubbles may appear simply because there is air in the mix.
After 12-24 hours (it depends when it was last refreshed) it may look bubblier:
It is never frothy, like the rye, but it should be bubbly. However, the bubbles do not necessarily indicate that the sourdough starter ready to use. In order to determine that with total accuracy, that your refreshed starter is ready to use, do the water test: Put a spoonful of your refreshed starter in a glass of water. If your refreshed starter floats, it is ready to use.
If it sinks it is not ready OR you have left it too long and it's gone past its peak. Either way, it will not ferment your dough and the result will be a rather flat, worthy loaf. Never forget, even if it's ugly it's good toasted.
You know your starter is sinking because it has gone past its peak (as opposed to simply not being ready) if the bowl of starter from which you have taken to spoonful to use in the float test has split or has completely separated so that there is a lake of water floating on the top.
If your starter is not ready after 24 hours simply take some out and make ordinary bread (adding yeast to the mix) using the goo as a biga or poolish. Then, refresh the remainder again by weighing it and adding the same amount of flour and the same amount of water and covering it and leaving it for 12-24 hours. Do the float test again to check. If your starter is not ready again, do the same thing. Keep doing this (removing some, baking some normal bread, refreshing the rest) until your starter passes the float test. What you are doing is effectively making a new starter because, for whatever reason, your current one does not work very well. Always remember to make slightly more than you need so that you have some to put back in the fridge for the next time you want to bake.
Baking sourdough bread is not inherently complicated although admittedly it is more complicated at first than baking with commercial yeast. It is simply that there are some sensitivities in making and using a starter that you need to learn and get used to and this takes some time. Remember that natural yeast is less powerful than commercial yeast and it is more sensitive to changes in temperature. Remember too that the refreshed starter is simply yeast trapped in a paste. That paste contributes the yeast (enabling the dough to rise) as well as the acidic flavour and chewy texture that comes with sourdough bread. It does not contribute flour as we understand it. That is to say, it does not contribute gluten that is strong enough to make dough stand up. The gluten in the flour that is in the refreshed starter is more or less all eaten up while the starter refreshes. What this means is that there is no strength in the paste to hold up the dough as it rises. Only the new flour will do that. To that end, there is a maximum ratio of refreshed starter to flour that you can use if you want your dough to stand up and bake into something that looks and tastes like bread, rather than collapse and look like solidified custard inside a crust.
More on that tomorrow!
To learn more, take a one day sourdough course with us. You will learn a ton and have ample time in a small and cosy setting to ask all your questions, get your hands extremely sticky, and have plenty of delicious bread to take home.