In the beginning was the starter

Sourdough bread and its magical starter, a live thing that must be fed. Here’s how to start your starter and bake your bread.   Photo: Tim O’Connor

By Tim O’Connor

Your sourdough starter starts with a name. I chose Penelope because it’s fierce. The kids on my team know not to mess up Penelope, lest Penelope get mad at them.

A sourdough starter is alive, and that intimidates people. Penelope must be fed regularly so she will grow. It’s like growing a seedling with strong roots, even if it’s not so pretty as a plant. Penelope is in a big and ugly jar, like she’s been on the farm for many years. That’s because the jar is full of good bacteria.

At home, you can use a Mason jar – just leave it on your counter and bacteria will grow and create yeast. Flora Hall buys plenty of yeast, as it’s essential to making beer, but all the yeast in the kitchen comes from Penelope. It goes in all our breads – hot dog buns, flatbreads, pizza dough – though some get more, depending on how much funk I want in the flavour.

With your own starter, you choose how you want your bread to taste. Feed her more often to mellow the sourness or less often to boost the funk. Penelope is a funky girl and as time passes, she’ll develop even more distinct characteristics. She could live forever. If fed regularly, she could grow to fill a swimming pool, so don’t be surprised if I give you a bit of Penelope as a birthday gift.

My starter’s start was extravagant. I added grapes at the beginning so their natural sugars and yeasts could help develop the flavour. Normally a starter takes three to five days, but mine took 14 because I let the grapes sit before I removed them and started to feed Penelope.

I feed Penelope twice a day, one part flour to one part water. You can feed more or less often and use more water. I like my starter thick, like the homemade glue you used to make paper maché in grade school, because I find that the thicker the starter, the better the bread. If you don’t want to feed your starter every day, you can store it in the fridge and feed it every week or two. But that’s not for Penelope. Did I mention she’s fierce?

Tim O’Connor was born and raised in the Glebe and is head chef at Flora Hall Brewing.


Tim’s Starter Starter

Wrap a half-pound of rinsed grapes in cheesecloth. Mix 1 1/2 cups flour with 2 cups lukewarm water 78-86 °F. Put in a jar with room for the starter to grow, submerge wrapped grapes into mix until covered.

On day 4 (bubbles may appear), add a mix of 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup lukewarm water.

On day 10, remove grapes and pour half the starter into a new jar with room for it to double in size. Dispose of the other half.

For the next 5 days feed twice daily, morning and night, 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup lukewarm water. Throw out about 1/2 cup of starter before each feeding.

Your starter is ready. Give it a suitable name and feed it between five and 12 hours before use – the shorter the wait, the funkier the taste.


Sourdough Bread

7 cups all-purpose flour

2 1/2 cups water at 85°F

1 1/2 cups starter

Mix to a dough, wrap and rest for 20-40 minutes

Add 1 1/2 tbsp salt, 1/4 cup of olive oil

Mix until dough is smooth and internal temperature of 75°F

Roll into a ball, put in dry container with room for dough to double in size.

Allow 2 to 4 hours for dough to double in size (the longer the better, flavour-wise).

Portion into bread rolls (YouTube can show you how.)

Leave in fridge overnight, then leave on counter for two hours, until internal

temperature is 75°F

Bake at 450°F for 35 minutes on a baking sheet or in cast-iron pan. Remove

when bread is at internal temperature of 180°F. Allow to rest 20 minutes.

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