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DIY Sourdough Starter + Zero Waste Crackers

Making a sourdough starter from scratch is one of the easiest things you can do, and it doesn’t need any special ingredients. Literally all that is required is flour, water, a bowl, a spoon, and a little bit of patience. Even if you’re not sure you want to start baking sourdough every week (although I assure you, once you start, you won’t want to stop!) the sourdough starter can be used to make sourdough crackers.

Crackers are far quicker and simpler to make than sourdough bread, but equally delicious… plus crackers are one of those things that are impossible to find zero waste or plastic-free in my experience. Homemade, simple, delicious, waste-free… what’s not to love?!

To make a sourdough starter from scratch, we utilize the natural yeasts and lactic acid bacteria present on the flour. Another term for it is wild fermentation – how cool does that sound?! That’s how people made bread and other fermented products for thousands of years, before commercial yeasts were available. They harnessed the power of nature.

If we’re going to use the natural yeasts and bacteria present on the flour, then I recommend buying the best flour that you can find. Once your sourdough culture is established you can relax a little, although I’d always recommend buying the best ingredients that you can afford. If your tap water is chlorinated, fill a bottle and leave at room temperature or in a sunny place for a few hours to let the chlorine gas dissipate – you don’t want to kill the starter before it’s started!

How to Start your Sourdough Starter

Mix together 50g flour with 50g water in a bowl (1 gram of water is the same as 1 ml water). You can use more but don’t use too much less as it will be much harder to work with. However much you use, you want the flour:water ratio to be 1:1.

At this point it will look like a dough, and it will smell like wet flour. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and leave on the side at room temperature (if you’re home is cold or it is winter, a warmer place will help get it going faster). Stir every few hours. If a skin forms on top, simply stir it in.

It may not seem like much is happening at the start, but if you pay attention to the smell you will notice that it starts to smell less like flour and has developed a sour smell. This is a sign that it is working. Hurrah! Look out for bubbles forming in the dough. In the beginning there will only be a couple, but it’s another sign that your starter is beginning to do its thing.

After a couple of days of stirring, you will need to feed your starter. Even if you’re only noticing a couple of bubbles, the starter will dry out over time, and as it sticks to the side of the bowl and hardens the volume tends to decrease, so feeding helps refresh it. Take another bowl, add 10g of your starter to it, and then add 50g flour and 50g water to this (you can use other volumes, but the ratio should be 1:5:5 starter:flour:water). Stir thoroughly, and cover with the tea towel.

Leave the remaining leftover starter in the original bowl, cover with a plate and store in the fridge. This will be used for making the sourdough crackers later.

Keep stirring the new starter every few hours (this doesn’t need to be exact, just whenever you remember). You should notice that the bubbles are becoming more frequent (you may not see a lot, but more than you saw at the start). Depending on how active your starter is getting, you can either feed again in 24 hours, or leave for a couple of days.

To feed, repeat as before. Take 10g of your active starter and add to a new bowl with 50g flour and 50g water, and stir well. Any leftover starter can be poured into that bowl sitting in the fridge with the original starter.

Each time you feed, you should notice your starter getting a little more active. You’ll want to feed it at least 5 times, once a day (timing is not that important) before it’s ready – and by ready, I mean active.

Sourdough Starter from Scratch Treading My Own Path

The four stages of starting your own sourdough starter from scratch. Stage 1: mix flour with water. Stage 2: cover with a tea towel or gauze – you want air to get in, but nothing nasty! You will need to stir every few hours. Stage 3: you will notice bubbles begin to appear. Your starter will begin to dry out a little. Stir the drier parts in, but as it gets drier you’ll need to feed it. That means taking a small part of this and mixing with fresh water and fresh flour (save the discard to make crackers). Step 4: after a week and a few feeds, your starter should be bubbling away quite happily.

Maintaining Your Sourdough Starter

Once your sourdough starter is ready, you can either store on the kitchen counter, or in the fridge. Store in a jar with a loose-fitting lid, or with a fabric circle secured with an elastic band. You want air to get in, but no creepy-crawlies. If you keep it on the kitchen counter you’ll need to feed it every day. If you keep it in the fridge you can feed every 1-3 weeks (once a week is best, but it will be fine if you feed it every three or so). I keep mine in the fridge.

When you want to feed your starter,  allow to return to room temperature if it has been in the fridge. Keep the ratio the same 1:5:5. Keep the discard in the fridge until you are ready to make crackers.

Zero Waste Sourdough Crackers

Sourdough Crackers Treading My Own Path

Homemade sourdough crackers – simple to make, zero waste, plastic-free and no nasty additives. What’s not to love?!

Once you’ve made your sourdough starter you should have a bowl of discarded starter sitting in your fridge, waiting to be made into crackers. I have to thank the Zero Waste Chef for this idea, as previously when I had excess sourdough starter I’d throw it away. It felt so wrong, but that’s what all the recipes tell you to do. Turns out, they are all wrong! Throw nothing away, and make crackers instead. Thanks Anne-Marie!

This recipe is a combination of the one by the Zero Waste Chef, and also some notes I have from a Plastic Free July workshop back in 2012 which has no references except a comment that the writer was called Katie.

Ingredients:

215g discarded sourdough starter
3 tbsp olive oil (30g)
100g plain flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp bicarb soda

Extra olive oil and salt to top.

I found that when I made a starter from scratch, feeding every day for 5 days left me with 215g starter. But you change change the quantities of flour to starter, they don’t need to be exact – just remember it’s approximately twice the starter to flour. You want to make a dough, so if it is too sticky add more flour.

The moisture in the starter also varies depending on how fresh it is. If you need to add more flour, do so!

Method:

Mix the olive oil with the starter and stir until combined. Add the dry ingredients to the starter / oil mix and combine first with a spoon, and then with your hands. If it is still sticky, add flour in small quantities until you have a dough. Knead to ensure it is smooth.

Place in a glass bowl, cover with a tea towel or a plate (or both!) and leave to rest at room temperature for 8 hours (or overnight). This allows the dough to sour and develop flavour.

After 8 hours, divide the dough into 4. One at a time, roll the ball out onto a baking sheet lined with baking paper using a rolling pin (yes, my zero waste kitchen contains baking paper. I re-use each piece several times. You can read more here). The reason for the paper? After waiting 8 hours, I don’t want to take the risk that my crackers will stick to the metal tray and burn.

Roll the dough out to between 3 – 5mm thickness, trying to ensure it is even. Trim the edges, and cut into rectangles with  sharp knife.

Brush with olive oil, and then sprinkle salt on the top.

Bake in an oven at 150°C (350°F) for 8 minutes, then turn over and bake for another 8 minutes. You will find that the crackers on the edge cook a lot faster than those in the middle, so if you want to remove those sooner you’ll avoid them over-cooking. You want them to look golden but not too brown.

Cool on a wire rack and store in an airtight container.

TIPS:

  • 8 hours in the ideal, but this recipe is really flexible. You can make the crackers after only leaving the dough for 30 minutes (but longer is better). If you forget and leave them longer, you will still have good crackers.
  • The dough can be frozen or refrigerated if you want to make a big batch of dough and keep some for later.
  • I would guess they would last a week, but I’ve never been able to find out as they all get eaten long before! They don’t lose their crunch after storing so they are definitely something that can be made ahead.
Sourdough Zero Waste Crackers FINAL

Zero Waste Sourdough Crackers

As always, I’d love to hear from you! Do you make your own sourdough, and have I tempted you to give it a go? Do you already make your own crackers? Do you have any recipes and tips you’d like to share? What toppings and flavours do you think would work best? Please tell me your thought in the comments below!

Baking Sourdough Bread.

I love real food, and I especially love fresh real bread. Not the ‘bake-from-frozen’ or ‘filled with additives’ bread that the supermarkets sell as fresh bread, but proper, slow-risin’, crusty, still-warm-from-the-oven bread that is sold in bakeries where the bakers have been up since 4am. The kind of bread with just four basic ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast.

I particularly love sourdough bread. Sourdough is slightly different to other bread because it requires a sourdough starter which, in addition to yeast, contains lactobacilli bacteria. These ferment the dough giving a distinctive and slightly sour taste. Compared to bread made with commercial yeast only, sourdough is easier to digest because fermentation helps break down gluten, and has a lower glycemic index (GI). Additionally, because sourdough is acidic it discourages mould from growing, and so the sourdough will keep for much longer.

The downside is that buying this kind of bread isn’t cheap. We used to spend over $11 a week buying two loaves from the bakery at the weekend markets. We also had to make sure we made time every weekend to go to the market in order to buy the bread, which was annoying if we wanted to make other plans. The dilemma: have fun…or have bread? Tricky.

So these factors (cost and freedom), combined with the appeal of learning a new skill, led me to decide I was going to teach myself how to make my own bread. That was six months ago, and we haven’t been back to the bread shop since.

There is a shedload of information about sourdough on the internet, and it can get a little overwhelming. I don’t claim to be an expert, but the sourdough I make consistently works, tastes amazing and keeps extremely well. If you think that bread from the shops that is still warm is delicious, wait until you make your own and eat it straight out of the oven!

How to bake a Sourdough loaf

Making sourdough can be thought of in four stages: looking after the starter culture, making the sponge (fermentation), making/proving the dough, and baking the loaf. The whole process takes about 36 hours from start to finish, although the physical time actually doing anything is far less. However it’s quite difficult to pause the stages because you’ve suddenly found something better to do, so it takes a bit of forward planning. That said, the fridge is your friend, and can give you a bit of extra time if something unexpected comes up.

The quantities described below are for making one large and small loaf. If you want to make one medium loaf, simply halve everything.

Total ingredients required: 175-200g sourdough starter culture, 1.010kg bread flour, 600ml water, 22g salt.

Sourdough Starter

To make sourdough you will need a starter culture, which contains yeast and lactobacilli bacteria. I got mine from a friend but if you don’t know anyone who makes their own bread, you could try eBay, Gumtree or Freecycle, or a local bakery.

This culture needs feeding and watering to keep it alive. I keep my culture in the fridge in a glass jar and feed it every time I make bread, which is usually every 10 days or so. It will keep fine in the fridge in-between bakes.

When you’re ready to bake, take the starter culture out of the fridge. It may have gone hard on top and not look very pleasant. Don’t worry! Stir in any lumps and they will be broken down. Leave the culture at room temperature for several hours to allow it to become active and ferment (or ripen). Leaving overnight is fine. What should happen is the culture should bubble and become frothy, and appear to double in size, before deflating back to its original size. This is when it’s ripe and ready to use. If you’re not sure whether it’s risen and deflated (if you left it overnight for example) look at the sides of the jar; if it has risen it will probably have left a residue.

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Starter taken from the fridge. It will have started to ferment in the fridge but will not be fully developed.

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The starter after a couple of hours. The bubbles show that fermentation is taking place.

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Fermentation in full swing. The starter will appear to have doubled in volume.

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Fermentation is complete and the starter is ready to use. You can see on the sides of the jar where the culture rose and then sank. Looking for this helps know when your starter is ready.

Before using the starter in your loaf you will need to retain some for the next time you bake. You will need to feed this with flour and water; the ratio starter:flour:water needs to be 1:5:5. So, for 20g of starter you need to add 100g flour and 100g water. This is called a ‘100% hydration starter’. Mix together in a bowl, pour into a clean glass jar, cover with a piece of cloth or a loosened jar lid and return to the fridge.

Making a Sourdough ‘Sponge’

Now you’ve fed your starter you’re ready to start making the loaf. The first part is making what is called the ‘sponge’. The sponge is made of flour, water and starter culture which is allowed to ferment for several hours.

Ingredients:
160-175g starter culture (remember to save 20g for the new starter culture)
460g strong white unbleached bread flour
580-600g filtered water

Method:

Weigh the ingredients into a large bowl (remember that whilst fermenting the mixture will rise). Cover with a tea towel and leave at room temperature for at least 8 hours (or overnight) until the mixture has risen and then deflated.

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The sponge mixture starts with a glossy appearance.

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As it ferments bubbles appear on the surface and the sponge rises.

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When the sponge is ready (ripe) there will be bubbles on the surface but it will have reduced in volume. You can see marks on the side of the bowl where the sponge rose and then sank. Look for this to know when your sponge is ready to use.

Preparing the Sourdough ‘Dough’

This is the stage where timing is more critical. If you don’t have enough time to make the dough, leave it to rise and then bake into bread, the sponge can be left longer until you are ready. I have left the sponge for a day in the fridge when something unexpected came up – just remember to bring it back to room temperature before using to make the dough.

Ingredients:
Fermented sponge (see previous step)
550g strong white unbleached bread flour
22g salt

(Don’t be tempted to leave the salt out. In addition to adding flavour it slows the fermentation rate of yeast, and also strengthens the gluten, which is what allows the dough to rise.)

Method:

Grease a loaf tin (or two) with butter or oil. Add the flour and salt to the bowl containing the fermented sponge mixture. Mix together with a wooden spoon until the mixture becomes stiff.

Turn the mixture out onto an un-floured surface. It will look impossibly sticky and nothing like bread dough, but don’t be disheartened. Once you start working it, it will start to look like dough very quickly.

Don't panic if your mix looks like this! With ten minutes kneading, it will look like a proper ball of dough.

Don’t panic if your mix looks like this! With ten minutes kneading, it will look like a proper ball of dough.

Stretch and fold the dough for at least 10 minutes using your hands. (If it is really sticky a large silicon spatula is helpful to begin with.) Working it like this allows the gluten to develop which is needed for the bread to rise.

After 10 minutes the dough should be smooth and elastic (if it isn’t, keep on working it and you’ll get there). Shape into an oblong that will fit into the loaf tin. Cover with a tea towel and leave in a warm place until doubled in size. The time this takes will vary according to the temperature of your kitchen – in Australia I find that in summer it takes around 4 hours, and in winter nearer 6 hours.

You will know your loaf is ready when it has doubled in size. If you leave it too long it will start to sink.

Baking the Sourdough Loaf

Total time required: 30 minutes

Preheat your oven to 250°C.

Pour an inch of water into a roasting tin and place in the oven once it reaches the correct temperature. Once the water in the tray is bubbling, the oven is ready for your loaf. (You can speed this up by using boiling water to pour into the roasting tin.) The steam created will give your loaf a better crust.

Using a sharp knife, score the top of the loaf just before you put into the oven. This will stop the loaf bursting open as it cooks.

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Use the sharpest knife you have and try to cut the bread quickly to avoid dragging the skin.

Place the loaf in the oven. After 10 minutes reduce the heat to 200°C, and bake for another 5 minutes. If one end appears to have cooked more than the other, it is fine to turn the loaf around at this point.

Now turn the oven off and leave for 5 minutes, then open the oven door slightly and leave for another 10 minutes.

Take out of the oven and remove the loaf from the tin and onto a cooling rack as soon as possible – use a clean tea-towel to handle the loaf if it is too hot. If you leave the loaf in the tin the steam will make the crust soggy.

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Your loaf should keep for several days (and up to two weeks), and the flavours will continue to develop.

Baking Sourdough: Timings

It’s worth giving a bit of thought to when it will be convenient for you to actually put the loaf in the oven, and work back from that so that all the other steps happen at the right time. I have misjudged how long the loaf would take to rise and had to stay up past midnight in order to actually bake it so it wasn’t flat by morning!

This is what generally works for me:
Day 1: 6pm Remove starter culture from fridge and (leave at room temperature for 12 hours)
Day 2: 6pm Make new starter culture (10 minutes)
Day 2: 6.10pm Make sourdough sponge (leave at room temperature for 12-18 hours)
Day 3: 8am Make dough (10 mins)
Day 3: 8.10am Work dough (10-15 mins)
Day 3: 8.25am Grease loaf tin and put loaf into tin (leave at room temperature for 4-8 hours)
Day 3: 2pm Bake loaf (30 mins)

If you want to bake bread on a Saturday it’s quite easy to do the other stages on Thursday and Friday evening, and once the bread is rising in the tin you can leave it for several hours. I find it all starts to go wrong when I try to make the sponge and the dough on the same day, because the fermenting of the sponge can’t be rushed or speeded up, and it means I am still baking bread after midnight. If you start out with good intentions but come Saturday morning you can’t face getting up, let alone baking, the sponge can be left on the side for a few hours or put in the fridge for 24 hours without any adverse effects, and you can make the dough and bake the loaf the following day.

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