In my last post I mentioned the wonderful power and taste of fermented foods; this week as a follow up I’m sharing some tips on how to create one of my favourite ferments: sourdough.

If you are a fellow IBS sufferer and struggle with bread, you might find you’re okay with sourdough. At one point all wheat was an issue for me, but over the last year or so I’ve gradually reintroduced sourdough into my diet and it’s been such a bread blessing. But as with all foods, it’s important to listen to your body and what works for you, as everyone, and every digestion, is a little different.

So what is it about sourdough that makes it different to your regular loaf?

Well, it’s really to do with the fermentation involved in proper sourdough. The process creates good bacteria and the acidification of sourdough dough helps neutralise phytic acid (phytic acid can be another cause of digestive issues). Buying good sourdough also means you’re buying bread without the additives used in lots of bog standard supermarket loaves.

One small warning – if you want to give sourdough a go make sure you’re going for the real thing, not sour-faux.

Unfortunately a lot of the supermarket sourdough, unless it specifically says otherwise, is made using commercial sourdough additives or flavourings, and has a very quick rise. This is in stark contrast to the traditional way of creating sourdough with long periods of fermenting. The basic sourdough recipe should contain only wheat (or other flour), water and salt; any additional ingredients should only be natural foods, such as herbs, dried fruit and nuts. A real sourdough will also be tangy, chewy and have a good bite to it. Anything soft and fluffy is probably not real sourdough.

Buying good bread does mean paying a bit more, but the result is so much more satisfying and will also last a LOT longer. It also helps keep alive an age-old tradition of baking beautiful bread and that’s definitely worth supporting.

Of course one way to guarantee you’re having the real thing is to learn how to make your own.

Modern Baker, a wonderful organic sourdough-lead bakery in Oxford, has kindly let me share some of their sourdough secrets, including tips on how to make sourdough starter at home. The great news is that it’s really straightforward! And you can even make a sweet version for baking. That said, I’ve used leftover non-sweet starter that remains from the refreshing process (see below) and that’s also worked really well in bakes.

Sourdough requires a little patience and a bit of practice, but don’t let that put you off. Bread making and baking are very therapeutic, so enjoy the slowness of the process.

The recipe below for Olive and Feta Sourdough doesn’t require too much in the way of shaping so is a good one to start with. And if you have more of a sweet tooth, the Apple Sourdough Cake is a great way to use sourdough in a slightly more, and very delicious, unusual way.

Happy baking!



how to make sourdough starter

How to make sourdough starter – from Modern Baker

Equipment: a container with a lid or a clean jam jar

Day 1 – Ingredients

  • 1 tsp strong white flour
  • 1 tsp water, at hand warm temp (32-37°C)

Mix together the flour and the water in a container with a lid. We recommend mixing with your hands rather than a spoon. As disgusting as it might sound, we all have naturally occurring yeasts on our hands, so this can give your starter a real boost.

Leave the mixture overnight at room temperature. Cover it with the lid but do not make it airtight. A screw-top jar with the lid partly done up is perfect. You want the yeasts in the air to get in, but you also want to stop the mixture drying out.

Day 2

  • Wheat starter made on Day 1
  • 1 tsp strong white flour
  • 1 tsp water, at hand warm temp (32-37°C)

Throw away half of the mixture from Day 1. This is because you want to almost overwhelm the bacteria/yeast in the starter with food, by adding more flour than the weight of the original mixture. You could do this by adding more flour and warm water and not throwing any away, but you would very quickly end up with an excessively large amount of starter.

Stir the flour and water into the remaining mix and leave again at room temperature overnight.

Days 3 and 4 – repeat Day 2

Day 5

By now you should notice your starter has bubbles in it. This means it is ready! Don’t worry if it smells acidic or cheesy, this is completely normal and each starter will create its ow unique fragrance. Now you have your own living, bubbling jar of healthy microbes that you’ll be using for years to come.

How to use your starter in baking

Now you have your active starter you’re ready to start sourdough baking. The first thing to remember is that to make sourdough recipes you will need to build up your active starter (using all of it) the day before your bake.

Having built your starter up, you will need to use most of it for the recipe (in the recipe we refer to it as the Recipe starter). What you don’t use, you retain as your ongoing active starter for your next recipe – you don’t want to have start from scratch each time! This all sounds more confusing that it really is.


If the starter isn’t obviously bubbling, keep repeating Day 2 until it starts to.

Quite a few factors can affect how long it takes a starter to activate, temperature being one of the main ones. If you begin your starter in cold conditions it may take longer to get going. Also, the general environment can have an impact. In the bakery, as we are making bread every day, there is so much yeast in the atmosphere that we find starters can take just a few days to get going, whereas if a kitchen is more sterile, it’s likely to take much longer.


Olive Oil and Feta Sourdough


Olive and Feta Sourdough

Makes: 1 loaf

Equipment: 900g loaf tin

This weekend treat is almost a meal in itself and a true ‘statement’ loaf. The flavours conjure up the Mediterranean, and whereas lots of interesting ingredients change appearance during cooking, both the feta and the olives sit beautifully in this loaf, peeping through the crust.

Day 1

  • 35g strong white flour
  • 35g water, at hand warm temp (32–37°C)
  • active wheat starter (see below)

Add the flour and water to the whole quantity of the starter and leave loosely covered overnight at room temperature.

 Day 2

  • 70g recipe starter made on Day 1
  • 250g water, at hand warm temp (32–37°C)
  • 300g strong white flour
  • 35g light rye flour
  • 6g salt
  • 100g olives, whole and pitted
  • 100g feta cheese, crumbled

1. In a large bowl combine the recipe starter with the warm water and mix gently.

2. In another bowl combine the two flours and the salt.

3. Add the flour mix to the first bowl and mix using one hand until a dough forms. This takes only a couple of minutes. It’s a good idea to use only one hand, leaving the other one clean for using utensils, etc. Use a plastic dough scraper around the bowl to make sure all the flour is mixed in. Cover the bowl with a shower cap or damp tea towel and leave it to rest.

4. After 5–10 minutes, give the dough a fold in the bowl. Use slightly wet hands to prevent the dough sticking to them. Pull a section of the dough out to the side and fold it into the middle of the ball. Repeat this going around the ball of dough until you get back to the beginning (four or five folds). Use the scraper to turn the dough upside down, cover the bowl and leave for another 5–10 minutes. Repeat this three times. After the final fold, cover the bowl again and leave to rest for 1 hour.

5. Turn the dough out of the bowl onto a lightly floured surface. Stretch out one side of the dough and fold it into the middle. Repeat this with each of the four ‘sides’ of the dough. Put the dough back in the bowl upside down and leave to rest for another hour.

6. Shaping a tinned loaf: Lightly grease a 900g loaf tin. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface and spread it out into a narrow rectangle. Spread the olives and feta evenly across it. Take the narrow end of the rectangle and roll it into a very tight cylinder.

7. Place the dough in the tin with one open end of the cylinder facing upwards, so you can see a spiral of the olives and feta.

8. In the bakery at this point we put the dough in our cool retarder cabinet for it to prove slowly overnight. This helps it to develop more flavour and become even healthier as it ‘pre-digests’ more of the gluten and ferments even more probiotic qualities. Your version of our retarder is your fridge – and you can leave the proving overnight covered with a tea towel or shower cap. Take it out as you are heating the oven. It’s fine for it to go in cold.

However if you would prefer to speed things up a little, at this stage you can simply leave the dough in a warm place (ideally 24°C) until it has more or less doubled in size. This should take 2-4 hours. To test when the dough has proved enough, press your finger about 2-3cm into it, then remove. If the dough pushes back out slowly it is ready. If it springs back quickly it is under proved; if it doesn’t spring back at all, it is over proved. There isn’t much you can do about that. The bread is edible, but more liable to collapse.

9. Preheat the oven to 250°C/fan 240°C/gas mark 10 or to the highest temperature on your oven. Place a roasting dish in the bottom of the oven to heat up. Fill a cup with water and place to one side ready to use.

10. When the oven is up to temperature, pour a glass of water into the preheated roasting dish at the bottom of the oven. The moisture from this makes the dough lighter, helps to set the crust and gives it a lovely sheen.

11. Turn the temperature down to 240°C/fan 220°C/gas mark 9 and bake for approximately 40 minutes. To check if the bread is baked through, tap the bottom – it should sound hollow. Remove the bread from the tin to check if it is baked through and to cool.

12. Leave the bread to cool for at least an hour before eating. If you eat it when it’s still hot, it will not have settled and so will be more difficult to digest.


Apple Sourdough Cake

Apple Sourdough Cake

Makes 1 x 20cm round cake

Equipment 20cm round, deep, loose-bottom cake tin

The use of the sweet starter transports this cake to another level, giving it a rich, indulgent flavour without being too cloying or sweet. The natural sourness of the sourdough enhances the floral flavours in the apple. If you like a bit of crunch in your cakes, chop the apple chunks slightly thicker, if you prefer them softer, cut them thinner; we like a combination of the two. The flavour of this cake actually improves after a couple of days, but don’t worry if you can’t wait that long as it’s also delicious still warm from the oven, especially with a dollop of fresh cream or coconut yoghurt. As an added bonus, it also freezes well.

Day 1

  • 50g coconut sugar
  • 50g milk
  • 50g spelt flour
  • Active sweet starter (see below)

Add the sugar, milk and flour to the whole quantity of the sweet starter. Mix well and leave loosely covered at room temperature overnight.

Day 2

  • 150g recipe starter made on Day 1
  • 180g coconut oil, melted
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 200g coconut sugar, plus extra for topping
  • 225g spelt flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 apple, unpeeled, cored and chopped into chunks
  • 1 apple, unpeeled, cored and sliced thinly, for decorating the top


1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/fan 180°C/ Gas mark 6 and line a 20cm round, deep, loose-bottom cake tin with baking parchment.

 2. In a large bowl combine the recipe starter, coconut oil, eggs, vanilla and sugar. Mix well.

 3. In another bowl stir together the flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Stir in the apple chunks – by coating them in flour you prevent them from sinking to the bottom of the cake as it bakes.

4. Add the flour and apple mix to the wet mix and combine well.

5. Pour the mixture into the cake tin, top with the apple slices and sprinkle with coconut sugar.

6. Bake for 45 minutes until a skewer comes out clean. Allow to cool in the tin for 10–15 minutes, then turn out onto a cooling rack.


Sourdough Cake Sweet Starter

Master this starter and you really have crossed the healthy baking line, but it isn’t difficult. We use spelt flour and cow’s milk, but for a gluten-free version simply use brown rice flour, and for plant-based use any dairy-free milk of your choice, such as oat, almond or coconut.

Equipment – a container with a lid

Day 1

  • 1 tsp milk
  • 1 tsp spelt flour
  • 1 tsp coconut sugar

1. In a container with a lid, mix the milk, spelt flour and coconut sugar. We recommend mixing with your hands rather than a spoon. As disgusting as it might sound, we all have naturally occurring yeasts on our hands, so this can give your starter a real boost.

2. Leave the mixture overnight at room temperature. Cover it with the lid but do not make it airtight. A screw-top jar with the lid partly done up is perfect. You want the yeasts in the air to get in, but you also want to stop the mixture drying out.

Day 2

  • Sweet starter made on Day 1
  • 1 tsp milk
  • 1 tsp spelt flour
  • 1 tsp coconut sugar

Discard half of your Day 1 mix and to what’s left, add the milk, spelt flour and coconut sugar. Leave at room temperature overnight as before.

Days 3 and 4 – repeat Day 2

Day 5

1. By now your starter should be bubbling away. If it is not, continue to repeat Day 2 until it is. Once bubbling, top it up with the quantities required for your recipe and leave overnight.

2. Just like our bread starter, this keeps well in the fridge, so make sure you never use it all up on a recipe, always keep some behind for next time. And don’t worry if it seems to have split when you take it out of the fridge, just give it a good stir and add your topping up ingredients.


The recipes are kindly shared from ‘Modern Baker: A New Way To Bake’ by Melissa Sharp with Lindsay Stark (out now from Ebury Press, RRP £26). Modern Baker’s range of healthy baked goods are available in Selfridges (London, Birmingham, Manchester Trafford and Manchester Exchange), Planet Organic and their Oxford based cafe-bakery at 214 Banbury Road, OX2 7BY. Photography by Laura Edwards.


References/Further Reading:

F. Leenhardt et al. Moderate decrease of pH by sourdough fermentation is sufficient to reduce phytate content of whole wheat flour through endogenous phytase activity.  2005 Jan 12;53(1):98-102.

Modern Baker: A New Way to Bake. Melissa Sharp with Lindsay Stark

Definitions of real sourdough: The Real Bread Campaign

The Sourdough School: Vanessa Kimbell is a true sourdough expert – as well as running classes, her site shares lots of great tips for making sourdough, as well as information on research into its nutritional and gut benefits