You open the fridge door after a longer-than-average absence and that smell hits you on the head. Oh no, my starters are dead. There are big patches of mold and a morbid layer of hooch smothering the starter. A beginner might wrinkle their nose and toss the lot. I’m here to tell you that it is actually quite hard to kill a starter outright, and relatively easy to bring it back to life.

Two jars of very dirty starter seen from above

Two very dirty jars of starter

The key is to start from a small amount and feed a couple of times in quite rapid succession. That gives the good micro-organisms a head start so that they can get going and recreate the conditions that keep nasty invaders out. But it is important to make the first few feeds quite small, so that you do not dilute the remaining acidity, because it is the acidity produced by the bacteria that favours the good and keeps bad bacteria at bay.

Close up of dirty starter with hooch removed

Hooch poured and scraped away to reveal cleanish starter

First, pour or scrape off as much of the hooch as you can, exposing the relatively clean starter below. Take a small amount of that starter, digging deep to get it from as far down as you can, and transfer it to a clean jar. Then feed with 1.5 times the weight of flour in the bit you rescued and the appropriate amount of water. A decent digital scale is essential.

This was my 100% hydration starter, equal weights of flour and water. I removed 8 gm of starter and fed with 6 gm of white flour and 6 gm of water. I also needed to bake some rye bread, so I did another rescue with about the same amount of starter, fed with whole rye flour.

Rye and white starters at the beginning of the rescue

Rye and white starters at the beginning of the rescue

Then into the oven with the lamp on, because the house was freezing when we got back. About six hours later there were definite signs of life so I gave another feed, this time of double the flour, so about 20 gm. Back into the illuminated oven overnight. Next morning they were both properly alive and kicking.

Both starters have filled their jars at the end of the second build

End of the second build, and both starters have filled their jars

From there, it is business as usual, building the amount of leaven I needed to bake the loaves on order. After two more feeds I had about 2.5 kg of starter, almost overflowing the bowl.

Fifth build of the white leaven filling a large bowl

Fives builds later, 2.5 kg of leaven

And that went to raise a large batch of loaves, only half of them seen here.

Two rye and four buckwheat loaves

Two rye, four buckwheat

The important part is not to lose faith. Start small, don’t overfeed, and keep the leaven nice and warm, and you’re almost guaranteed to bring your sourdough starter back to life.

And if it truly is dead, well, commiserations. Time to break out the safety stored in the freezer. You do have a safety stored in the freezer, don’t you?

I know I use the words sourdough, starter and leaven sloppily. I know which I mean when, but that doesn’t help people who are just beginning. So, I thought I would clarify with an example.

This week’s big bake will amount to 3 kg of dough, and my formula calls for 33% of that to be pre-fermented leaven. So, I need to build about 950 gm of leaven. For this particular bread, I always use the white flour starter that I keep at 100% hydration. I know that I’ve got about 100 gm of starter in the fridge, because I refreshed it just last week.

first build of sourdough leaven resting on notebook

Here’s the freshly mixed first build, resting on my notebook.

So, I remove 75 gm of the starter and mix it with 150 gm of flour and 150 gm of water. 1:2:2 in ratio terms. That keeps the hydration at 100% and does not give the starter too much to chew on as it becomes the first build of leaven.

At the same time, I now have only 25 gm of starter left. I could leave it at that and stick it back in the fridge, but I refresh that too. That means adding 50 gm of flour and 50 gm of water, exactly the same ratios as the first build.

Starter with fresh flour on a digital scale

The starter, refreshed with 50gm of water and 50 gm of flour.

Both of them will stay out now for about 12 hours; it is getting cold here. Then this evening, the starter will go back in the fridge. The first build, which currently weighs 375gm, will get 290 gm of flour and 290 gm of water, takings the amount of the second build up to 955 gm, which gives me a slight excess to work with.

starter and leaven set aside for the bacteria and yeasts to multiply

The refreshed starter and the first build of the leaven will now rest for about 12 hours.

Tomorrow, I’ll use all the leaven to raise the sourdough, which won’t be at all sour.

three happy bakers with their bread and sourdough starters

Three newly minted bakers, with their loaves and the starter that they will make their own

Excellent day all around. Latteria Studio really is an excellent space in which to cook, to talk and to relax. I got in early this morning to set everything up and get my thoughts in order. It’s a calm time, not quite on auto-pilot but going through a routine I’ve gone through before and which I can do with confidence. So that’s what I did, laying out each person’s space, the communal stuff, checking that we had everything we needed. As start time approached, I turned to get the coffee going and that was the only brief moment of panic. No gas. A quick call later and all was good, with the coffee pot singing its burpalicious little song just as the guests arrived.

All ready for the class, with everything neatly laid out.

We had a quick coffee, went briefly through the outline of the day and got down to work. For the one-day course, I have to make the leaven the day before. There just isn’t time otherwise. I also weigh out the flour to speed things along. Still, there’s enough practice using electonic scales to measure the water and salt, and then its on to mixing and kneading, and getting people used to the idea of using their body weight, not their arms or, worse yet, their fingers. These were accomplished kneaders though, and we soon had three lovely, plump, smooth balls of dough ready to rest and rise.

I then did a quick batch of my focaccia dough, which is very liquid and benefits from 10% wholewheat flour and only 10 gm of olive oil in the mix. I also like to stir some rosemary into the dough because it infuses the whole piece with its aroma.

And then the talk; on leavens, wheat and flour, salt and water and, of course, the magic that turns those into bread. I’m not super good at expressing the motivations of creation and transformation and self-sufficiency, even though I feel them deeply, but I think it comes across. By then it was time for the focaccia to go into the oven, the risen dough to be shaped, and the delicious lunch Alice had prepared. The foccacia did not disappoint.

Proved bread into the oven and more talk touching on the history of the industrial processes that underpin inexpensive supermarket bread, and what we exchange for low cost and convenience.

The pleasure of seeing people take their first loaf out of the oven never leaves me and, I hope, will spur them to continue. Finally, they recite The Pledge as they receive their portion of my starter, just as I recited it when I received my portion a decade or so ago.

I bake two of my smaller loaves at a time, on a baking stone, and with boiling water in a pan at the bottom of the oven to provide steam for the first half of the bake. In the past, I’ve noticed that sometimes one of the loaves has a fine ear while the other doesn’t. I’ve assumed that this is some quirk of shaping, which I am still not that good at, because other than that the two loaves are treated more or less identically. Then yesterday, as I took these two loaves out of the oven, a thought occurred to me.

Two loaves, the one on the right with undeveloped ear
The one that didn’t get an ear, the score was facing the oven wall. The one that did, the score was facing the middle of the oven.

The oven is gas fired, but still, most of the heat, I understand, is radiating from the walls. So, could being closer to the hot wall set the score before oven bloom could lift up that flap?

Next batch, I made sure that both scores were facing the centre. A little tricky, that, as I score after I place the loaf on the peel, so I had to do one left-handed. And lo, both loaves developed a fine ear.

Two loaves both with good ears, the one on the right badly scored because left-handed

This is just a single observation, of course, to be repeated in weeks to come, which will help with the left-handed blade use. Still, I can’t help but think I’m onto something.

Searching around, I found one discussion that early steaming gives better ears. I’ve always believed that to be true, because steaming helps keep the skin pliable longer. For that reason, I have always pre-steamed the oven for a minute or two before putting in the loaves, and I also give the loaves a quick spray of water just before they go in. Seems to me, though, that with this kind of improvised steam system, the position of the loaf in the oven also makes a difference. But is that the only factor?

Save the Date: 17 November 2019

four students with their bread

After offering courses in private homes, this summer saw the first one-day course here in Rome. Latteria Studio provides a beautiful space in which a maximum of six people can share in the joy of homemade sourdough bread. This is first and foremost a practical, hands-on day. However, we use the time while the starter is working its magic to explore the history of wheat and bread and the details of how to care for and use a starter culture.

Reserve your place now. Discount on tickets for two.

The day

hand resting on ball of doughThe first order of business is to make your dough. Step by step, I will guide you through the process, along the way explaining why we do what we do. If you have never made a loaf before you will be amazed at how a little effort transforms four simple ingredients into a living dough. And even if you are an experienced baker, there are bound to be new insights.

The secret of great bread

bread in a banneton There is no secret to great bread, apart from time.

We’ll talk about that, and while your bread quietly does its thing we’ll also talk about wheat, and flour and sourdough leavens. I’ll demonstrate some other techniques and make the bread we will eat for lunch.

About me

jeremy with "amusing" bread sign I’ve been baking bread on and off for the past 50 years. Some time before 1989 I made my first sourdough starter, and it has been with me ever since, travelling from Somerset in England to Italy. I’m also a biologist and so I have a good understanding of what is going on in the starter and in the bread.

In summer 2018 I made a series of 31 brief podcasts dealing with Our Daily Bread, from prehistoric breadcrumbs to tomorrow’s new wheats. I write about bread and baking on one of my websites.

Takeaway

You will leave with your own delicious loaf of handmade bread, plus:

  • a “Tuscan” sourdough starter that may or may not be more than 110 years old;
  • instructions on how to feed and care for your starter and how to use it to bake more bread;
  • an understanding of why I put “Tuscan” in scare quotes;
  • a few other recipes;
  • maybe some other treats.

And you will have a great day, with good food, in good company.

Small print

The day costs 120€, which includes lunch. All you need to do is turn up. Tickets are 60 € in advance, balance to be paid on the day. Cancel up to 72 hours before for a full refund. There will be gluten.