Make a Gluten Free or Rye Sourdough Starter from Scratch

Gluten free or rye sourdough starter
In addition to baking my own gluten free sourdough bread, I use a sourdough starter to ferment pancakes, breakfast muffins, crumpets, pastry and farinata. You can make a gluten free starter using any wholegrain gluten free flour, or use, rye, spelt, emmer or einkorn flour if you can tolerate gluten. For gluten free sourdough bread recipes, check out my book RiverCottage Gluten Free and for a book containing this recipe and a delicious sourdough crumpet recipe see my forthcoming book, Food for a Happy Gut (published April 2017)

Follow the method below to make your starter in 5 days and then you can use it and keep it dormant in the fridge between bakes for years (as long as you feed it regularly!). Read the pointers below before you get started.

Day 1
120g brown rice flour or rye flour
180g luke warm mineral or filtered water (240g for rye)
Small bunch of unwashed grapes (optional) or pear water, see below
*      Mix flour and water in a bowl, nestle the grapes in (if using), cover with a cloth and leave in a warm place.

Day 2
120g brown rice flour or rye flour
160g luke warm mineral or filtered water (240g for rye)
*      Lift out the grapes, add the flour and water ‘feed’, whisk, replace grapes and cover again.

Day 3
240g brown rice flour or rye flour
320g luke warm mineral or filtered water (480g for rye)
*      Lift out the grapes, add the flour and water feed, whisk, replace grapes and cover again.

Day 4 morning
300g brown rice flour or rye flour (alternatively for gluten free: a mixture of rice & teff, buckwheat, sorghum, millet or quinoa flour, or for those who can eat gluten: rye, spelt, emmer or einkorn flour)
400g mineral or filtered water (600g for rye)
*      By now the sourdough starter should have started to bubble and smell a little yeasty. Take out the grapes, squeeze a little to release a small amount of juice and discard the grapes. Whisk the starter well, weigh out 700g (900g for rye), discard the rest or make pancakes or crumpets with it, stir in the feed and cover again.

Day 4 evening
*      Before bed, whisk the starter and measure out 700g (900g for rye) again and feed it as for day 4 morning.

Day 5 morning
*      Whisk and measure out 700g of starter again (900g for rye) and discard the rest as before, feed the starter with 300g of flour and 400g of water (600g for rye) and allow the starter to bubble up. It should be ready to bake with and this is referred to as an ‘active’ starter. If it doesn’t seem powerful enough, weigh out 700g of starter (900g for rye) and feed again every 6-8 hours. Each time you feed it, you must weigh out 700g (900g for rye) and discard the rest, otherwise your kitchen will overflow with starter and you will have to increase the feed amount each time. You can store any discarded starter (discard) in the fridge until you have enough to make some pancakes or a batch of crumpets. If you plan to bake a lot of loaves each time, you might want to keep a larger amount of starter reserve, just remember to increase the amount of feed you give it accordingly.

Which flour to use?
Rice flour works well for a gluten free sourdough starter because it is mild flavoured and cheap to maintain. 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. Teff, sorghum, millet and quinoa flour can be great to give a starter a kick start - all are yeasty and more sour than rice flour. If you like the flavour, you could switch to a mixture of rice and another flour for all feeds. For a gluten starter, rye makes a great start and then you can change the flavour once it is established by adding other ancient grains such as spelt or emmer.

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
The ratio for a gluten free sourdough starter is 3 parts flour to 4 parts water. For example 150g of flour will need 200g of water and this will make 350g of feed. 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. For a rye starter the ratio is 1 part flour to 2 parts water.

How much to feed my starter?
You need to double the starter each time you feed it. I keep a reservoir of 700g of gluten free starter in my fridge at home and each time I feed it I give it 300g of flour and 400g of water (keep 900g for a rye starter and feed it 300g of flour and 600g 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.

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

Pear water
If you make your starter in the winter, a pear might be more appropriate than grapes. 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 for days 1 and 2 of making your starter, or to boost a less than bubbly starter.  If you can't get hold of pears or organic grapes, just soak a handful of organic raisins in cold water overnight and use this to start your starter. This method was the result of some genius improvisation by the Nolan family (rabbit rescuers and small holders in California), you can follow them on Instagram at: @tuesdaylapchicken

Water kefir
When my starter has been resting in the fridge I sometimes use water kefir (page XX) as the liquid part of the feed 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 liquid kefir that you brew from them to feed your starter, not the grains themselves.

Where to keep your starter when it is growing?
Your starter likes it a bit warmer than you do, so between 24-28ºC is ideal. If 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 thrive at slightly lower temperatures.

Too warm?
The back of the Aga or next to a radiator is too warm for a starter. If your starter is in the Goldilocks zone and bubbles up nicely on days 1 and 2, but seems lifeless on day 3 or 4, 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, feed your starter twice daily from day 3 until it is well established on day 5 or 6. Each time you feed it, for gluten free, weigh out 700g of the starter mixture and feed this with 300g of flour and 400g of water, discarding the extra starter, or using it to make pancakes or crumpets. (for rye starter weigh out 900g and feed it with 300g of flour and 600g of water)

How do you know when it’s 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 to give it a bit of extra lift. Between 6-9g of fresh yeast or 2-3g 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 bake your first loaf or make a batch of crumpets, but bear in mind it may still be a little weak. If you don't want to bake with it that day, put it into a Tupperware container and keep it in the fridge. If you want to use a kilner jar, 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 a cloth for a couple of hours, it should then be bubbly and ‘active’. 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.