WHAT’S COOKING?Sourdough 101

Sourdough can seem like such an intimidating thing to get into at first, but once you’ve grasped the basics (and have armed yourself with patience), a whole world of flavourful, satisfying bakes (both sweet and savoury) opens up. Vanessa Kimbell is not only the founder of The Sourdough School in Northamptonshire, but also the author of several books on the subject, including her latest title, The Sourdough School: Sweet Baking, Nourishing The Gut & The Mind. Here she breaks down how to make your own sourdough starter, how to maintain it, and a couple of delicious recipes to try.

How to make a sourdough starter from scratch

One of the things I am asked most often about is how to make a starter. There are various way of getting a starter and you can get your own one going easily for very little outlay other than a good quality organic flour, by capturing the wild yeasts and bacteria already present in both the flour and your house. That said, if you are enthusiastic about getting going with your baking then I usually suggest that you first concentrate on learning how to make great sourdough bread with a reliable healthy starter that is already making beautiful successful sourdough loaves, at least to begin with. If you don’t have a friend with a lively starter then you can purchase an established sourdough starter that already contains reliable yeasts.


Organic wholemeal flour


Basic equipment and conditions

A warm room. Not hot, not cold, just a room that is pleasant to be in.

A non-reactive container (starters are acidic and will react with certain metals) to make and store the starter in. (I prefer glass but plastic is fine too).

A whisk to incorporate air – you can use a Danish dough whisk if you want.

A breathable cover or a lid such as a clean tea towel or coffee filter, or a loose fitting disposable shower cap.

Make sure there are no other cultured foods nearby, or there will be a cross over and you might not get the yeast you need.


1. A simple way to start is to put a 1/2 cup of organic stonegound wholemeal flour and just over a 1/2 cup of warm (28°C) water in a large jar. If it feels too thick, add a little more water. It should be like a thick milkshake.

2. Whisk the mixture vigorously to incorporate air and cover with your breathable lid. Allow your mixture to sit in a warm place for 12 to 24 hours. Between the 12 or 24 hour mark you might be lucky enough to see some bubbles, indicating that organisms are present, but if you don’t then don’t worry. Repeat the feeding twice a day by removing a cup full (approximately half) of the mixture, and replacing with a 1/2 cup of flour and a 1/2 cup of water at 28°C (i.e. replace the amount you took out). Stir vigorously, cover, and wait another 12 to 24 hours.

3. From now on you will need to remove half of the starter before every feeding and discard it so that the starter you do have can multiply in organisms without your jar overflowing. How long it takes to get your starter going depends on many factors but it can take anything from 2-10 days. The sourdough starter should be beautifully bubbly and have enough yeasts and bacteria to be active enough to bake with. It should double in 3-4 hours.

On rare occasions, you may have a good go at making your own starter only to find that it smells or tastes horrid or that the bread or other baked goods it produces are not very pleasant. This means that the bacteria that has occupied your starter is not the right kind, and the lactic acid, which makes the starter inhospitable to other organisms, hasn’t got going. You will need to discard this one and start over, moving your culture to a different room.

How to refresh a sourdough starter

Once you have established your starter, you can then move to a maintenance schedule. Maintenance is when you refresh, proof and then hold in the fridge between bakes. It is absolutely imperative before you start baking that you reactivate your starter.


25g of the starter you wish to refresh

100g water

100g strong white bread flour (preferably organic)


1. Start by simply removing the mother from the fridge. She will smell sour but not unpleasant. Don’t worry if there is a hooch on top, just stir it back in, or if it is very old pour it away. Put 25g of your starter (a tablespoon) into a jug or sterile jar.

2. Add to this 100g of water (generally, I use warmer water at 35°C), stir well and then stir in 100g of white roller-milled flour (strong white bread flour). If you choose to use stoneground, it will ferment slightly faster so it will generally be ready to use after 6-8 hours.

3. Leave the jar in a cool but not cold area until the starter has doubled.

4. At this point, your starter is at her microbial peak and needs to go back into the fridge until the next time. Please always remember not to use every last bit, as you need some to build a new starter back up. Your old starter discard is now redundant – but you can use it in lots of other baking (like Rye bread, or any of the two recipes below). Transfer your starter to a clean, sterile jar and keep it covered, but not airtight, in the fridge at about 5°C/41°F and feed it every week.

Chocolate sourdough kisses recipe

I’m not going go to say much at all about these, other than you are getting 20 ingredients in one kiss, and that chocolate has been shown to improve microbes associated with better mood. These kisses are a delicious wholegrain treat: not just delicious and full of fibre, but also easy to make, crunchy, sweet and sour. It’s absolutely impossible to walk past a bowl of these without eating one.

Sourdough kisses


  • 200g bubbly, lively starter or discard
  • 200g stoneground wholegrain flour (half can be your own botanical blend)
  • 100g water, plus an additional 10–20g if needed
  • oil, for greasing
  • To decorate:
  • 300g dark chocolate, chopped into small chunks (can also use 100% cocoa solids chocolate, or none at all)
  • 4g fleur de sel, to decorate (optional)
  • You will need a food thermometer and a piping bag and nozzle.

1. In a large bowl, mix together all the ingredients (except the chocolate and fleur de sel) to form a dough. Cover and leave to ferment overnight on the work surface.

2. The following morning, test the consistency of the mixture – it should drop off a spoon easily. If needed, add a little water, 10g at a time, to let down to an easily pipeable consistency.

3. Preheat the oven to 150°C/300°F/Gas Mark 2 and line 4 baking sheets with baking parchment. Lightly oil the parchment. Put the mixture in a piping bag and pipe out 4-5cm (1½–2-inch) wide pretzel shapes on to the prepared baking sheets.

4. Put the trays in the oven (you will need to work in batches) and immediately reduce the temperature to 100°C/210°F/Gas Mark ¼. Bake for 25–30 minutes. The baking time will depend on how thickly you have piped the shapes. When ready, they should be snappable/biscuit-like.

5. When the kisses are baked, turn the oven off and open the door. Leave the baking sheet in the oven for about 15 minutes so that the kisses continue to dry out in the warm temperature. When the kisses are completely cool and totally dry, remove them very carefully from the baking sheet.

6. While the kisses are drying out, you can temper the chocolate. Melt 200g of the chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water on the hob. Bring the temperature up to 50°C (122°F), then turn off the heat and stir in the remaining 100g chocolate. As the temperature drops to 31°C (88°F), dip the kisses in the chocolate to coat. Set aside while the chocolate sets, and as it does so sprinkle the kisses with the fleur de sel. The kisses will keep in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.

Top tip

Here’s a suggested schedule:
Day 1, 9pm – refresh starter (first build).
Day 2, 8am – refresh starter (second build); 8pm – mix dough and return the starter to the fridge, then prove dough overnight.
Day 3, 8am – pipe and bake; 9.30am – drizzle with chocolate

Poppy seed & lemon cake recipe

These ancient seeds have been used by many civilisations, including the Egyptians, Minoans and Sumerians. Still popular in Eastern bakeries, the poppy seed is a beautiful addition to many bakes.

Poppy seed & lemon cake


  • For the dough:
  • 400g stoneground wholegrain flour, sifted
  • 200g bubbly, lively starter or discard
  • 125g coconut sugar
  • 100g sunflower oil
  • 2 eggs, beaten, plus 4 extra yolks, at room temperature
  • zest of 2 large lemons
  • 9g salt
  • 12 saffron strands, soaked in 100g water for 6–8 hours before use
  • 30g poppy seeds
  • For the tin:
  • 12g butter
  • 1 heaped tablespoon wholemeal flour
  • For the syrup:
  • juice of 2 lemons
  • 30g butter, softened
  • 2 large tablespoons raw, unpasteurised runny honey

1. Put all the dough ingredients in a large bowl, including the 100g water in which you soaked the saffron. Mix well to combine.

2. Grease and line a 24cm (9½-inch) square cake tin with greased baking parchment. Transfer the dough to the prepared tin, then cover and leave on the kitchen work surface overnight, or until doubled in size.

3. In the morning, preheat your oven to 170°C/340°F/Gas Mark 3½. Mix together the lemon juice, butter and honey to make a syrup. Bake the cake for 25 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 150°C/300°F/Gas Mark 2, cover the top of the cake with foil and bake for a further 15–20 minutes until golden brown and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.

4. Remove from the oven and use a skewer to poke holes in the top of the cake. Drizzle immediately with the syrup whilst still in the tin.

5. After 5 minutes, remove from the tin and transfer the cake to a wire rack to cool completely. The honey syrup keeps the cake from going stale, so it will keep in an airtight container for 2–3 days.

Top tip

Here’s a suggested schedule:
Day 1, 9pm – refresh starter (first build).
Day 2, 8am – refresh starter (second build); 8pm – mix dough and return the starter to the fridge, then prove dough overnight.
Day 3, 8am – bake.

All photography by Nassima Rothacker.