Your starter culture: a care guide

The starter culture is the crucial ingredient to sourdough. It’s also one of the biggest hurdles to getting started, but once you get the hang of it you’ll be well on your way on your baking journey.

I’ve written the below care guide to show anyone and everyone how to keep their starter culture alive, active and ready to produce amazing loaves at home. This includes feeding (yes, you read that correctly!), right the way through to preparing your starter culture to bake.

I haven’t included information on how to create one from scratch. If you’re curious I’m happy to answer any questions in the comments section!

When to feed your culture

As your starter culture is a literal ‘culture’ of lactobacilli it needs feeding to ensure it keeps living an producing delicious loaves. The flour and water effectively provides the right envovironment to keep it all going.

The activity of the starter culture is dependent on when it was last fed. These tend to be the phases in my experience:

  1. 0 hours since feeding: no bubbles.
  2. 3 hours in and a few bubbles will be appearing increasing in volume very slightly.
  3. 24 hours and the culture will have increased in size. When it appears to be at it’s peak (you’ll know after a few times of feeding), this will be the best point to use it to create a leaven, as this is when it’s at it’s most active).
  4. After that the starter will start to breakdown as there is a build up of acid and the bacteria starts to die. If it gets to this stage don’t worry, you can just pour off the liquid and feed again.

If you store your culture in the fridge, this timeline will be extended over a few days to a week due to the lower activity at lower temperatures.

Even if you forget for a couple of weeks you should be fine refreshing the starter culture. It will take a few feeds to recover, as they tend to be quite resilient!

Feeding your culture

Ingredients

100g Water

50g Wholemeal flour

50g Strong white bread flour

Steps

  1.  Make sure there is enough room in the jar/container. If you don’t either throw some away or, if the timing is right, create a leaven for your next bake(see next section).
  2. Add the ingredients and mix in.
  3. That’s it, you’re done!

Of course if you have some spare starter or leaven you can always make sourdough pancakes with just a bit more flour, eggs, milk, sugar, a pinch of salt and vanilla extract.

Preparing to bake (creating a leaven).

Now you may be wondering what the devil this leaven is – and rightly so. Leaven is effectively the rising agent for sourdough. It’s a bulk  quantity of starter culture that you mix the night before when you’re about to bake. It is often made separate from the original starter culture as it’s just for your next bake and you want to ensure you have some of the original starter culture spare for the future.

As an example, if your recipe requires 75g of leaven, you would just add 50g of water, 25g of wholemeal and 25g of strong white bread flour with a few large spoonfuls of your starter culture – so then you have enough left over for future bakes. If you then leave this to ferment over 24 hours at room temperature you’ll have your leaven (I tend to create the leaven the night before)!

Leaven is derived from the Latin, levamen, which translates as means of raising. You may also hear it referred to as leaving. It’s all the same really.

Storing your starter

At room temperature: depending on the time of year and the temperature your starter culture will need to be fed every 24-36 hours.

In the fridge: for more infrequent baking this is the way to go. Storing your starter at the back of the fridge slows the activity of the starter culture  and means you can leave it about a week or two between feeds (although I recommend daily checks).

If you’re going away, just use/throw away all but a spoonful of your starter culture, add 100g of the flour and water mix and store in the fridge. This will give buy you some time until you come back.

Reviving your culture

If you’ve been away for a while then chances are your culture hasn’t had much attention. Not to worry, all it takes is a bit of tender love and care and a few regular feeds.

Types of flour

Wholemeal flour: wholemeal is that bit more active and really exentuates The sourness of the sourdough.

Strong white bread flour: by mixing this less active flour 50:50 with wholemeal it hits the sweet spot of sourdough.

Rye flour: I haven’t experimented a lot with rye flour in my starter. As rye flour is lower in gluten it tends to be easier to maintain and you can go longer periods between feeds.  It also has that slightly darker and nuttier rye flavour that’s so time-tested and popular.

Bonus

Gluten-free culture: rice flour makes an excellent gluten-free substitute. With the same method and flour water proportions you can keep your gluten-free starter alive and bake some seriously good GF loaves.

For further reading The Perfect Loaf has an excellent article on maintaining your starter culture: https://www.theperfectloaf.com/sourdough-starter-maintenance-routine/

For bread and pastry geeks only: croissant experiments

While most people were thinking about what drink they would order to celebrate the end of another work week, I have been running some tests on a new croissant recipe. I did this as I’d ordered some new organic flour (strong bread flour and a separate bag of pastry flour from Shipton Mill). In a bid to master the flours and see what results I came out with I ran myself a little experiment.

This also seemed as good a time as any to make a non-sourdough croissant (with just yeast), just to see if sourdough really is better. I judged them on taste, texture, how the dough handled and the appearance of the finished products.

A basic version of the recipe and lessons learned are at the end of the post!

The verdict

Yeasted

More pronounced layers, shinier finish with the egg wash but harder to get an even finish. I also found that while the dough came together more easily it was tougher to handle and stretch out before rolling.

Good flavour, but is a bit too sweet for me and also lacks the character that sourdough brings to the table.

You can see in the photo above that the crumb opened up a lot more (from left to right: Yeasted, Sourdough 1, Sourdough 2) – but beauty does not beat flavour in my book!

Sourdough 1 (the winner!)

Maybe it’s just because I know how the dough develops so well and I have a bias but this is my winner for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it doesn’t fight back too much when you’re rolling it out and it makes it much easier to create the final shape you’re after.

Secondly, the layers are still pronounced and the flour is high enough in protein to give the pastry some decent structure.

Finally, it’s also such a pleasure to know just how much sourdough trumps in the flavour department. That’s why it’s a winner.

Sourdough 2

Unfortunately pastry flour just isn’t strong enough. The layers were there on the outside, but just not strong enough on the inside and the flakiness and the size suffered a bit as a result.

The flavour was absolutely there and I’m pleased that by leaving the dough for longer periods to relax and giving it a hearty knead, the gluten was able to develop; something I wasn’t able to achieve before this method.

Ingredients

Yeasted

Fresh Yeast 23g (14g if dried)
Water 164g
Milk 164g
Bread Flour 585g
Sugar 65g
Salt 12g
Cold Butter 250g

Sourdough 1

Poolish 100g
Leaven 75g
Yeast 2.5g
Salt 7g
Brown sugar 22g
Milk 112.5g
Flour 500g
Butter 250g

Sourdough 2

Poolish 100g
Leaven 75g
Yeast 2.5g
Salt 7g
Brown sugar 22g
Milk 112.5g
Flour 500g (450g strong bread flour / 50g spelt flour)
Butter 250g

Spelt flour is to increase extensibility of the dough when folding

The method

  1. Mix altogether
  2. Leave in the fridge overnight
  3. Roll out the dough
  4. Bash out the butter until it is two thirds the size of the rolled out dough
  5. Letter fold and leave to rest for thirty minutes
  6. Repeat letter fold and refrigerated rest
  7. Repeat letter fold for a third time. Leave it to rest in the fridge for one hour.
  8. Roll out and cut rectangles that are 8 inches by 4 inches and cut diagonals.
  9. Stretch triangle lengthways and roll that sucker
  10. Proof for two/three hours
  11. Egg wash before you bake (50:50 egg and double cream)
  12. Bake for 15 mins at 190 degrees centigrade
  13. Stand back and admire your work.

Lessons learned

  • Leaving the dough to rest for longer at the beginning is essential for gluten development.
  • For more defined layers, choose a stronger flour that’s higher in protein.
  • I find caster sugar way too overwhelming a sweetness. Brown sugar is my recommendation every time.

A big thank you

It’s been quite a journey to get playerbakes where it is today: learning the art, going to market, getting the website online, amongst other things. And beyond all those wonderful people who bought loaves early on and all you lovely customers today (the real heroes), these are those who helped get sourdough off the ground and into your hands.

Without further ado, here’s the who’s who of playerbakes and what I’m thankful for.

Ana Hidalgo de la Vega, Creative Director

Ana Hidalgo de la Vega, Creative Director

Ana designed my logo and developed my branding. As well as being a talented artist, she also is an expert when it comes to branding. If it wasn’t for her, the site would look very grey indeed. We live together in Warwick Avenue and are partners in crime (and life). Lucky me.

@anahdelavega

Antigua Artisan Bread

A talented baker based out in LA County. Despite being a busy man he took the time to answer any questions I had and offer some invaluable advice. Thanks to him I tried making the chocolate sourdough (and what would life be without that?), taking my baking to a whole new level.

antiguaartisancottagebakery.com

@antiguaartisan

Jeremy Player and Illyahna Johnson, nutritionists extraordinaire

My brother and his charming fiancée. They are both very qualified nutritionists and have been great in advising me with certain directions to take with recipes and getting to the bottom of sourdough’s benefits on a microbiological level.

Jeremy also took the photos for the site.

@jplayersp

@illyahna

Lewis and Jools O’Sullivan

Lewis and Jools O'Sullivan

Consistently on hand for advice and feedback: Lewis is a good friend who’s ever generous with advice and feedback and with Jools helped put me in the right direction with commercial kitchens.

Nick Lazarides, Cyprus Kitchen

Octopus salad

I used to work with Nick back when he was selling dreams to companies in the form of retail awards. A charming man, a talented entrepreneur and good friend. Without Nick I would not have experience under a marquee tent and I would still be wishing and not doing. He also is one of the organisers for E17 village market based in Walthamstow – if you ever need something delicious to do on a Saturday afternoon.

www.cypruskitchen.co

@cypruskitchensc

@E17villagemarket

Roman, Flour and Spoon

Roman, Flour and Spoon

I’ve been shadowing Roman in early 2017 in E17 village market. A fantastic source of advice and an ambitious baker, he’s planning to open his own café/bakery soon.

www.flourandspoon.uk/

@flour_and_spoon

My parents

Mark and Nicola Player

Where would a thank you post be without mentioning this dynamic duo? You may recognise my mum from a picture on the homepage, they have both been wonderfully supportive with my dad even taking up sourdough as well. Mad props.

@nickp2015

@markp6118

Worthy mentions

Tartine (the cookbook that got it all started), Eni Gjondedaj (my first customer), Nicola Goulsbra (my second customer and gluten-free guinea pig) and everyone at Infopro Digital who have been buying bread from me since the beginning.

Creating and feeding your starter culture

In human years, my starter culture has pushed steadily through its formative years, having enjoyed its first steps, words and growth spurts and battled through a volatile character-building adolescence. Here are just a few simple steps on how to create your very own one and start baking with it yourself.

Ingredients

Wholemeal flour

White bread flour

Water

(Jar of starter culture)

Steps to get started

  1. Find a medium sized jar (mason jars work excellently)
  2. Add 50g warm water & 50g flour (flour is 50% white, wholemeal)
  3. Leave on the side and cover with a cloth
  4. Check at 12 hour intervals to see if there are some bubbles forming and the volume’s risen, when there are you can give it your first feed. Mine took four days to rise sufficiently so you’ll need to be patient.

It’s better that you watch and react to how the culture is developing rather than paying attention to specific timeframes as you would with a normal recipe. The reason for this is that you could be in a much warmer and more humid atmosphere than I get in the meek and mild weather systems of the UK. You would then be working with a much more accelerated schedule.

Steps to feed

  1. Pour away any excess liquid that’s formed on top
  2. Add 1:1 water:flour (flour is 50% white, wholemeal)
  3. Mix until consistent throughout

And that’s it.

In terms of the required intervals for feeding it just depends whether you’re baking the next day or later in the month in the year. If I’m baking anything longer than at a three day interval then I’d whack it in the fridge.

The magic of the refrigerated starter culture is that the bacteria (lactobacillus) cultivates a slightly different type of acid at lower temperatures. This has a slightly different flavour and due to the longer fermentation period creates a more intense sourdough experience; the very same one that I pride the playerbakes brand on.

Flours

Personally, I’ve found wholemeal and white bread flour give me all the results that I need for my loaves. You can and could experiment with other flowers, but personally if I want it sourer, I simply increase the ratio of wholemeal flour to white bread flour.

Death and coming back from it

Your starter culture will wait for no one. If after a good long time off, whether on holiday or you’ve just had enough of baking anymore (something I could never understand), it looks like the bacteria you once relied on for beautiful, delicious loaves is done for and has done for the past six months. The beauty of having a living culture is that they are actually very resilient and can still be revived after some time. Try feeding it, be patient and you might just be able to bring it back.

Business time: bread at work

This was the first week of deliveries at work

As I only have one baking day a week, some of you may have been wondering what I do with the rest of my week (I know, what an ego). In the off-chance you have, I currently work full time as a Campaign Manager for a financial media company.

Every Thursday morning I bring in the latest batch of bread and croissants to the office for my soon to be well satiated colleagues. At the time of writing I’ve been doing this for nearing two months and now get to experiment with even more flavours and it’s really helped me work in what each and every customer is looking for from their loaves and pastries. It’s really quite rewarding.

If you and some colleagues want loaves a regular bread delivery to your work, let me know and we can sort something out chris@playerbakes.com

Bagel time

Bagel time
The first collaboration with The London Bagel Company happened last weekend (May 5th to be exact).
I’ve been experimenting with sourdough bagels and it seems we’ve created something marvellous. A strong sign for what the future holds.
The home of the bagel burger, based in Spitalfields market.

How old is the playerbakes starter culture?

Starter culture

The playerbakes starter culture was first mixed together in early 2016. It took four days before it started showing signs of fermentation (just a few bubbles). It then took a good month and a half before it was producing loaves that rose even a little.

It’s made of flour (50% wholemeal, 50% strong white bread flour) and water and is the home to lacto bacilli, a probiotic bacteria. It’s this that gives the bread that sourdough flavour. It’s this that makes the bread rise.

Before we lived in the low cost, high production world that we are now sourdough was the only way to make bread. With the rise of fortified breads, dried yeast and the need to feed nations that had suffered the scourge of rationing after WWII, this noble form of baking took a back seat.

The first records of baking bread are back in Ancient Egypt [1], with the first culture to have been thought to have been a result of flour and water left on the side on a warm day. Since then not much has changed as bakers around the world and through the ages have followed a relatively similar method.

It’s this great history that really makes sourdough so special: we’re tapping into past civilisations and remembering the roots of early human cooking. The fact it’s so much better for us is just an added benefit.

[1] https://h2g2.com/edited_entry/A2791820