There is only one place I've found with decent bread in our home town - and if you don't turn up in the morning it's often sold out of the nice stuff - so a few weeks ago I figured it was finally time to attempt making sourdough bread from scratch again.
I've tried making sourdough starters twice before, and it always turned into a foul, black slime. I guess a basement flat in North London and a cold, damp tenement flat in Edinburgh weren't the best places to be capturing wild yeasts and bacteria! We now live in a much nicer and cleaner part of the world, and I had much greater success.
I used the Serious Eats method of creating a 'mother' this time. The previous methods I've tried have involved adding lots of flour and water to feed the mother, and then because that creates a lot of product you need to throw a lot of it out (some require throwing out half each day), while Serious Eats takes a much more sensible approach of making a very tiny batch which you feed in very small volumes until the colony is established, and then you can build it up to the volume you need for baking. After all, it's not like a tiny yeast needs a giant meal. I've made four loaves from my mother so far and I haven't had to throw any away.
I used white bread flour initially to establish the colony and it quickly settled into a nice, vanilla-like aroma with a hint of sourness. This matured over a week into what is now a very vigorous starter, that only smells of delicious yeasty bread dough. Perfect.
Serious Eats provides some really useful guidance on tailoring the mother too. In particular, the more you stir it the stronger the yeast colony becomes, but the less you stir it the stronger the bacteria colony becomes (and so, the characteristic sour flavour can emerge). On previous attempts I had no idea, but this very basic understanding of the symbiotic relationship between the two colonies in the mother helped get me ensure it established the flavours it needed.
I moved to the River Cottage bread handbook for recipes, once the mother was established, as US bread flour has different protein levels and I just have no interest in imperial measurements. River Cottage also suggest feeding the mother equal volumes of flour and water - while Serious Eats uses equal weights - and I found the lower hydration of the River Cottage method to be both easier and produce a healthier colony.
I also switched to feeding the mother wholemeal rather than white flour, and it was akin to turning a switch. The bottle suddenly became alive.
For my first batch I used a white bread recipe that was very high in hydration and that guarantees those big, spongy holes associated with sourdough. Unfortunately it was horrible to deal with in terms of kneading and shaping, and then so sticky it rose beautifully in the proving basket but then wouldn't leave the basket, so when I turned it out in stretched out like chewing gum. Tasted okay, looked horrific and had a very compacted texture as the bubble network I literally spent ten days creating was destroyed in a single second.
My second batch is a lower hydration wholemeal loaf, that's risen nicely and is proving now ready for baking in the late afternoon.