Recently I was overcome by a desire to accelerate my bread baking to the next level. Ok, I say ‘my bread baking’ like I’ve been honing my doughy designs for ages, whereas if  I’m honest, I’d had a go at baking one simple white loaf and a few hot crossed buns at Easter. But I’d done an alright job of those and now wanted to set my sights a little higher. In my eyes, there was only one thing for it, I had to make the Gandhi of bread loaves, the highly revered sourdough loaf.

Sourdough is a method of making bread that has been kicking around since the time of the ancient Egyptians and is basically a flour and water fermentation. To bake sourdough, you need to first create a sourdough starter, which is ‘a culture of micro-organism able to generate fermentation’ (thanks Or, how I tell myself in very simple terms, you’re creating your own yeast and unique flavour base for your future loaves.

Reassured that making a sourdough starter can be well easy – by master baker extraordinaire Tom Herbert of ‘The Fabulous Baker Brothers’ fame – I set about cultivating my own yeasty, fermenting little jar of joy.

Starting a sourdough culture/sourdough starter is pretty easy. You need:

  • A jar (with a lid, preferably air tight, like a Kilner jar)
  • Flour (organic wholemeal, dark rye or wholemeal spelt flour is recommended but I used Sainsbury’s wholemeal bread flour as I had it in the larder)
  • Water
  • Commitment and love (don’t start a sourdough culture just before you go away for the weekend)

Now, at this point I’ll point out that there are about a million different recipes/guides on how to make a sourdough starter – indeed, I YouTubed ‘sourdough starter’ and was baffled by the range of different techniques out there. Some use pineapple juice, some say you should leave the lid of your receptacle ajar, some choose to juxtapose their clinical video of a timelapse rise of sourdough starter with gentle foot-tapping acoustic guitar melodies to conjure up images of sitting on the back porch of a Kansas ranch house in the dying embers of the sun, surveying your 1,000 acre property whilst breaking open a fresh loaf of bread.  But, for the sake of consistency, I stuck with Mr. Herbert’s method throughout, my rationale being that he is a baker and his family have been baking bread for decades, so I trust him a bit more than an anonymous Midwestern housewife from Wisconsin.

You can find the full method here (or in the Fabulous Baker Boys recipe book), but to kick off proceedings:

  1. Weigh your jar (saves you having to empty it out to know how much you have later). My jar was 777g
  2. Pour in 75g flour
  3. Add 75g warm water
  4. Mix well, and leave in a warm place

Then, every day for a week, repeat steps 2 – 4. Sourdough starters are big fans of routine, so it’s best to try and ‘feed’ (flour and water) your jar at roughly the same time each day. After a few days, (Tom says five, mine was about one), bubbles will start to appear on the surface of your dough – this is a good thing as it means your sourdough is ALIVE, is starting to ferment and the flour and water are reacting to create wonderful yeasty delight.

Day three – bubbling merrily

Now, I’m not an expert – in fact I’m a sourdough novice – so I’m not an authority on how your sourdough should look/smell after each day. But mine was bubbling away and smelling pretty gross and tangy by day 2, chilled out a bit in days 3 – 5 (and also mellowed in smell) and then went Kaboom on day 7. By day 8, it was smelling a bit like off beer, which I think is about right.

Also, don’t be worried if the mixture separates and grey water appears at the top. Just mix it all together again.

Also, depending on the size of your jar, it might not fit seven days worth of 150g combined flour and water (7 x150 = 1,050 = 1 KILO of sourdough culture). My jar wasn’t big enough, so on days 7 and 8 I just chucked a bit out when it got too full/exploded (see below) and topped it up with a bit less of each flour and water (but still equal amounts).

There he blows!

As my trusty guide Tom Herbert once told me (from the pages of my recipe book), “”It’s quite laughable just how simple it can be to keep your sourdough in peak condition”. Hmm, well let me assure you there were no ‘LOLs’ emanating  from my throat when I came home on day eight to find that my sourdough starter had exploded all over the window sill and out of the jar. To be fair, I had put it in direct sunlight, which is probably the root of the problem. Anyway, the little monster had actually dried to the paintwork and, in my efforts to clean it off, I ended up stripping away the paint. I’m hoping my landlord will overlook this when I’m plying him with freshly baked loaves of sourdough bread…

Day 8 – post explosion


But, a sourdough culture is like a child, and I couldn’t stay mad at Herman (my loose christening of my sourdough starter) for long. As he lay burping and bubbling away happily, I cleaned him off, fed him a little bit, left him for the day (out of direct sunlight) and then, as the warm evening sun dipped below the Brixton horizon, popped my sourdough starter in the fridge. This is where it can stay until you need to use it to actually make bread. You just need to take it out of the fridge a couple of days before you want to use it and feed it so it starts bubbling away again.

I’m going to leave him there for a couple of weeks to help him ‘mature’ (and think about what he’s done to the paintwork) and then I’ll give some actual bread baking a go! Watch this space for part 2!


Tom Herbert – my sourdough sage