Troubleshooting for gluten free sourdough starters

Many of the breads in my book, River Cottage Gluten Free, use a sourdough starter to make the grain more digestible and bring that wonderful sourdough flavour that so many of us miss when we follow a gluten free diet. Embarking on your first gluten free sourdough starter can be both daunting and exciting. What should it look, smell and taste like? How do you know if you've got the right place for it to live as it changes from unpromising flour and water to a bubbling, living thing that will bring your loaves to life and infuse your pancakes with the umami tang you crave? If you are asking any or all of these questions, read on and I will attempt to help you breathe life into that unpromising mixture.

Rice flour
I generally use brown rice flour for my sourdough starter because it is mild, vigorous and cheap to maintain. You can make a sourdough starter from nearly any wholegrain available to you, but more of that below. You need to use brown rice flour, or at the very least a rice flour with some brown rice in it such as Doves Farm rice flour (a 50/50 mix of brown and white). This is because the yeasts and bacteria that will come to life and flourish when you give them heat and water, live in the brown part (germ) of the grain. Brown rice flour is available from Shipton Mill - who also have a great range of other gluten free flours. Their flours are not certified gluten free, but they are tested to 5 parts per million, which is better than Bobs Red Mill, who only test to 20 parts per million.

Always use filtered or bottled water for starting and maintaining your starter because chlorine is the enemy of yeast and bacteria. If you don't have access to either, leave some water out for 24 hours uncovered to allow the chlorine to evaporate and then use this to feed your starter.

Ratio for a gluten free sourdough starter
I find that you need to use more water to encourage the yeasts to grow. The ratio is 3 parts flour to 4 parts water. For example 150g of flour will need 200g of water. The consistency of the starter if fed like this should look like lightly whipped double cream. If it is very thick and pasty to start with, give it a little more water and return to the correct proportions when things are bubbling and have loosened up.

How much to feed my starter?
You need to double the starter each time you feed it. I keep a reservoir of 700g of starter and each time I feed it I give it 300g of flour and 400g of water. When I am finished baking, I pour off 700g of starter and keep this in the fridge until next time - anything left over can be used to make pancakes and crumpets or give the compost a kick start. If you keep a larger amount of starter, you must feed it more each time. just keep to the ratio of 3 parts flour to 4 parts water.

When you add your flour and water, give the mixture a good whisk. Aerating the mixture helps things to stay fresh and vigorous.

A small bunch of grapes can bring much needed yeast and some sugars to your starter - yeast loves a little bit of sugar, but too much can kill it. When you get your starter going, dunk some unwashed grapes - preferably organic - into the mixture and leave them there for at least 24 hours, up to 72 hours. Take them out when the grapes start to split a little and give them a gentle squeeze to release a little juice. Continue to feed the starter as per instructions during the whole time that you have the grapes in there as the starter still needs flour and water to keep it alive.

Alternatively, if you make your starter in the winter, a pear might be more appropriate. Grate a whole pear, put into a soup bowl and pour over just enough chlorine free water to cover. Cover the bowl and leave for 12 -24 hours. Strain and use the water when you feed your starter

Water kefir
I make a probiotic drink called water kefir (also called tibicos) that is a natural source of yeasts and probiotics. You can obtain the water kefir grains (also called crystals) from a friend who has some, or buy them online. When my starter has been resting in the fridge I will sometimes give it a feed using water kefir as the liquid part and find that this gives it a real lift and makes it very vigorous and yeasty. This will not work with milk kefir, so make sure you buy the correct grains and use the drink that you brew from them to feed your starter, not the grains themselves.

Yogurt and milk kefir
If you would like your starter to be really sour or to have a more complex flavour, then you can give it a spoonful of live yogurt or milk kefir. This won't make your starter more bubbly, or give you any more lift with your breads though.

Other flours
Teff and quinoa flour can be great to give a starter a kick start - both are yeasty and more sour than rice flour. Try feeding the starter with teff or quinoa flour (or either grain put through a clean coffee grinder or high speed food processor) for a couple of days to get things going and then return to rice once the starter is strong. If you like the flavour, you could switch to a mixture of rice and another flour for all feeds.

Where to keep your starter when it is growing?
The ideal temperatures for starters are between 21-24ºC, if your house, or environment is warmer then your starter will work faster and may require feeding more often as a result (see below). If however, your house is colder than this, you may find that you struggle to get your starter going and end up with a very sour, but not bubbly mixture. This is because yeasts like warmth, whereas the lactic bacteria can thrive at slightly lower temperatures.

Too warm?
If your starter bubbles up nicely on days 1 and 2, but seems lifeless afterwards the chances are it burnt itself out because it was nice and warm, but didn't have enough food to keep chomping. If this is the case, just feed your starter twice, or even three times daily and then keep it in the fridge once it is well established. You might also want to give it bigger feeds after day 1: 90g flour/120g water, or even 150g flour/200g water on days 3 and 4. If you feed it more often, you will need to drain off some of the mixture to avoid ending up with a ton of starter (see above - how much to feed my starter) You can use this discarded starter mix in pancakes, crumpets or to soak your porridge overnight.

Too cold?
If nothing seems to be happening at all and you are giving fresh wholegrain flour and water that has no chlorine in it, warm things up a bit. Only a bit mind! If you make things too warm then you will also kill the yeast. Think about a nice summer day in England rather than mid day in the Algarve. Try putting the bowl into some luke warm water and topping up occasionally, or putting the oven on the lowest setting with the door open - this only works if your oven goes to about 30ºC, any higher and you will kill the delicate wild yeasts. Avoid putting the bowl at the back of the Aga, onto a floor with underfloor heating, or over a radiator - these are too warm. An airing cupboard is often good if you have one.

How do you know when its ready?
Your starter is ready when it starts to bubble up within an hour or two of feeding (this may take a little longer if it has been dormant in the fridge). It should rise up in the bowl, take on a bubbly mousse like texture and even bubble and pop as though it is alive! You may find that your new starter is not as vigorous as a well established one and in this case, to avoid disappointment you can add a little fresh or dried yeast to your loaf after you have fermented it as a sponge. Between 4-8g of fresh yeast or 1-3g of dried yeast will give you a lift, without taking over. Then you can add some of the kick starters listed above to try and strengthen the yeast population in your starter.

Can I use it straight away on day 5?
Yes! After you have fed it and it has risen up and looks bubbly and alive, you can go straight on to the sponge stage of your first loaf. If you don't want to bake with it that day, put it into a container and keep it in the fridge. If you use a kilner jar for this, take the rubber seal out first.

After it has been in the fridge?
Remember to warm up your starter after it has been in the fridge. A bowl of luke warm water is ideal for this. Feed the starter, whisk well, put the bowl into luke warm water and cover with cling film for a couple of hours. If your starter isn't coming to life, you may need to give it 24 hours to wake up. Feed it again in 8-12 hours and then again another 8-12 hours later before using.

If you can't find the answer to your starter query here, please email me using the contact form and I'll try to help and can then update the post with new information. Happy baking!

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