Sourdough Bread: Making a Rye Starter Dough
[Edit: Added the end of the story on Sep 13]
This summer when I visited Sweden I noticed that sourdough bread baking is immensely popular over there. Everybody is doing it. My Mom and Aunt served up some pretty amazing loaves, which were so tasty I wanted to eat bread all the time.
If you, like me, associate sourdough bread with brown, compact, heavy bread (typical German and Finnish traditional breads), forget that. Sourdough breads can also be light and fluffy. Baguette can be made from sourdough! Essentially what sourdough bread baking involves is to base the bread on a sourdough that contains Lactic acid bacteria. Bacterial fermentation in the sourdough leavens the bread. You can keep a sourdough in the fridge, continuously, by feeding it some flour every now and then, and use part of it whenever you want to bake a bread. A sourdough bread can be light or dark, have any ingredients. The point is that the final product can be a very fluffy, juicy bread, not at all dry and compact, as my homemade loaves, based on yeast from the grocery store, always used to be.
So, on returning to Canada I decided to try this kind of baking. You can make several types of basic sourdoughs. I decided to make one based on rye flour and one based on wheat flour. My Mom had recommended Martin Johansson’s blog (in Swedish), which tells you all you need to know. It is really quite good. Be sure to check it out, it’s an inspiration, if not only for the wonderful pictures. The discussions in the comments are also very useful (but in Swedish).
In this post I’ll scribble down my progress with my rye sourdough starter. I’m following Martin Johansson’s recipe. It looks something like this:
100 g (1 dl) lukewarm water
30 g (1/2 dl) rye flour
Mix water and flour in a glass or plastic jar with a lid (leave lid slightly open or unscrewed). Note, 2.5 dl (or 250 ml) is equal to 1 cup.
Shake gently every morning and evening.
100 g (1 dl) lukewarm water
90 g (1 1/2 dl) rye flour
Add new flour and water and stir.
100 g (1 dl) lukewarm water
60 g (1 dl) rye flour
Remove all but about 50 grams (1/2 dl) of the sourdough. Add new flour and water. Then stir.
Repeat the step above (day 4.5).
If after 10-12 hours the sourdough has risen to almost double the size, and its texture is similar to chocolate mousse, your sourdough is ready. Otherwise repeat the step for day 4.5.
Apparently using organic stone ground flour is preferable because it contains more yeast spores than regular flour. And the flour should to be as freshly ground as possible. I went out and bought myself some Grassroots Organics Organic Rye Flour at Multiple Organics.
I followed Martin Johansson’s recipe above pretty much to every point, but instead of lukewarm water I simply used filtered tap water at room temperature. I left the sourdough to do its thing on a shelf in the kitchen, where I think temperatures are roughly 22 degrees C. The mixture started to show signs of fermentation after only one day (day 2), showing little bubbles at the surface and giving off a slight odor. By day three the surface was covered in bubbles, forming a light foam. By then it smelled quite yeasty (with a hint of rye flavor), but not in a foul way by any sense.
By day 4 my sourdough was ready to get fed (see photo below). After having fed the sourdough I noticed that it was still surprisingly thin, at the consistency of a cream.
Twelve hours later (Day 4.5) the sourdough had not increased in size at all, as I was expecting. I proceeded to feed the sourdough again (according to the recipe), and the texture was after this a little thicker, like a mousse. By day 5, before I fed the sourdough again, I noted that the fermentation seemed to have decelerated quite considerably (see photo below). There were much fewer bubbles at the surface. The smell was now more intense, very sour, and less pleasant.
At this point I suspected that because of the low ambient temperature, just above 20 degrees C, the bacterial growth was so slow that the sourdough had not had time to recover from the dilution of the sourdough solution taking place when feeding. So, I fed it again, this time keeping a little more of the original sourdough (about 1 dl) in the mix.
However, by day 5.5 the fermentation had stopped completely, at least visibly (there were no bubbles). I was puzzled to say the least–I had also started up a wheat-based sourdough and it was running fine, although wheat sourdoughs are notorious for being more difficult to start than rye sourdoughs (see discussion here ).
At this point I considered two options: To keep feeding once per day and hope that the sourdough would recover, or to start over from scratch with a new batch. Martin Johansson recommends feeding the sourdough with fresh new flour as the one-for-all solutions to recover problematic sourdoughs. However, I had already been feeding it for a couple of days now, so I felt I had to at least change something else in the procedure.
What could have gone wrong I wondered. I had been pedantically clean handling jars, utensils and ingredients, so I’d be surprised if hygiene was lacking somehow. I suppose it is not inconceivable that the sourdough had been affected by some bacterial infection, or perhaps it was developing the wrong type of bacterial culture, due to low temperature. Apparently fermenting at low temperatures grows preferentially bacteria producing acetic acid, which would explain the sour smell.
How about the quality of the flour I wondered. It was organic, stone-ground, so it should have contained plenty of yeast spores. The package didn’t have a date stamp, so could the flour possibly have been old? No, I ruled that out since the sourdough had indeed showed very active fermentation earlier on.
It also occurred to me at this point that the fermentation was at its peak already by day 2-3, so perhaps I should have adjusted the recipe to start feeding earlier? By day 4 it is plausible that the food (the flour) had been since long depleted, and the solution gone much too sour.
Another thing that occurred to me when re-reading Martin Johansson’s blog searching for answers is that while he recommends using the proportions 60 g flour to 100 g water for feeding, in his post “How I feed my sourdough” he says “I usually take 150 grams of water and 90 grams of flour to those 50 grams [of sourdough] I have in the jar” (my translation). So generally he uses more “food” in proportion to sourdough than he wrote down in his recommended starter recipe (see above).
This would explain why my sourdough was so thin! I hadn’t been feeding it enough, plus I was keeping too much of the original (sour and usually rather thin) sourdough when feeding. Yes, admittedly I had been sloppy in following the recipe when feeding the sourdough, keeping way too much of the sourdough in the mix. I had been keeping roughly 1 dl of the sourdough almost every time. So, it seem clear to me now that the sourdough might have gone too sour, because of those two errors on my part. Also, every time when I fed the sourdough it seemed to show some activity after half a day or so, but after a full day the activity had stopped again. This behavior seems consistent with keeping too much of the sourdough when feeding too lightly.
Another thing I read about when troubleshooting was water quality. I had simply used filtered tap water, but had not considered that chlorine could be harmful to the bacteria in the sourdough. So, just to play safe, from this point on, I decided to keep a pitcher of filtered and de-chlorinated water in the fridge. I read somewhere that it can take up to 48 hours for a pitcher of water to evaporate out all the chlorine in the water. That depends on where you live I am sure.
So, instead of starting a new batch of sourdough I decided to try to save the one I had by proceeding to feed it daily, with the following changes changes to my procedure:
- Ferment at a higher temperature (26 degrees C)
- Keep a maximum of 50 g of sourdough when feeding
- Feed with 150 grams of water and 90 grams of flour instead of the values quoted in the original recipe
And lo and behold, after a couple of days, the sourdough started to come to live again, with more bubbles and less of a sour smell, replaced by a pleasant rye flavor instead (see photo below). Those three changes certainly had a positive effect.
It took longer that I had expected, but now, at Day 10, I consider the rye sourdough to be ready. Let’s find a rye sourdough bread recipe!