Sourdough Special

Over the next three weeks we are embracing Sourdough September with a series of newsletters covering questions and answers all related to sourdough. If you would like to send your sourdough query to us by email, send it to

This weekend we will also be hosting a live session on Twitter for your questions that simply can’t wait, it should be fun. From 6:30pm (GMT+1) on Sunday 18 September for an hour, Vanessa will be waiting for your questions sent to @bakerybits using #SourdoughSuccess. It should be lively so time to start thinking of your question!

Who’s Vanessa? Anyone new to our newsletters may not be familiar with Vanessa although she does pop up all over the place from Radio 4 to her series of books and her Sourdough School for domestic bakers in Northamptonshire. In addition to this she produces our recipes aimed at demonstrating an interesting technique or to show how to make the most of our equipment and ingredients. A busy person and an invaluable resource don’t miss her on Twitter.

What got you into Baking Sourdough?

I spent a lot of time as a child in France and helped in the local bakery after which I trained as a chef and then returned to France to do a bakery apprenticeship. I fell in love with the bread and all that surrounded it.
Sourdough is a particularly organoleptic experience; I love the crust, the crumb, the texture, the amazing flavour, the smell, as well as the physical side of making it.

I want to bake a sourdough, but it’s complicated, takes hours and I don’t know where to start.

Recipes are a very good way to start your sourdough baking. Following the instructions should both lead you to a successful loaf but also start to give you the feel for it, how the dough responds, look and smells when the loaf is right.

There are lots of different processes and techniques favoured by different bakers. My advice would be to start with one while you get the basics and then look for others to broaden your knowledge. I know from comments from Patrick and Adrian that many new bakers like to dive in and buy everything, starting at the most complicated and enticing recipe they can find only to end up disheartened. I know their advice, like mine, is to start at the beginning with a really good and simple sourdough recipe and repeat it until you have consistently good results.

…Once you are confident then branch out. There are so many amazing bakers making amazing sourdough.

Who do you think are the top sourdough bakers in the world at the moment?

Hmm not easy, I’m not sure I can answer that without leaving someone out! I do have some that I really rate, including writer and baker Dan Lepard. Dan is an amazing baker and runs occasional and much in demand courses. Richard Hart, the head baker at Tartine in San Francisco is one of the best sourdough bakers in the world – you can follow him baking here on Instagram. Then, in my unscientific list is also Adam Pagor who runs a small production bakery in London and is really inspiring. I really like Emmanuel Hadjiandreou’s Sourdough. It’s delicious. I’m also constantly inspired by the Instagram feeds of Maurizio Leo in Alberqurque, and Kate Pepper based in Ojai, but there are many more…

Ok so you need a starter to get going. You can either make one, get a sourdough baker to share some of theirs with you or you can buy one of our established ones.

Once you have your starter, it does need too much attention. It can be left in the fridge and then a couple of days before you want to bake it need to be refreshed to replenish any yeast that has died off during this time. Refreshing is easy to do and once the starter is bubbly, it is ready to go.

How often do I refresh my starter?

I keep my starter on a 2-week refreshment program, to keep it active. But you can leave it much longer. The starter goes to sleep, becoming more acidic. If left for a very long time it might need an extra refreshment or too (Patrick often reports that he tried leaving one in his fridge for a year and was baking with it in 4 days – although I would not recommend it!)

What should my starter smell like?

The smell of fresh sourdough is sweet and yogurt like. As it ages over the next 12 hours it starts to smell more vinegary, this is the increase in acetic acid. Some starters smell wonderfully fruity after a few days, as small amounts of alcohol bind with fatty acids to produce esters such as ethyl decanoate. As time goes on, after a month or two in the fridge or a week out on the side in the kitchen, your starter will start to give off much more robust smells. Typically these are smells that you might find in a pair of old trainers, or parmesan. This is butyric and hexenoic acid, and later, when it strips the fine hairs from inside your nostrils when you sniff it (like paint stripper) what you can actually smell is ethyl acetate…It really needs refreshing!

Butyric acid, which is also called butanoic acid belongs to a group of short-chain fatty acids which thought to play several beneficial roles in the gastrointestinal tract including anti-inflammatory properties.

Unfortunately when your starter begins to smell robust its capacity to raise the dough is compromised. There is no need to throw it all away, but you will need to build it back up again, but it does make wonderful flavouring. It has umami, and I often add just a little of what I affectionately refer to as my Grandmere to my mixture to make use of those complex aromas.

What kind of flour should I use?

I recommend using organic bread flour but you can use any good bread flour. If you want to make a spelt sourdough you simply use that flour to refresh with. It is that simple. The one thing to remember though is that wholegrain flours absorb more water, so I recommend using 110g of water per 100g flour.

How much starter should I keep?

Personally I prefer to keep a pot with no less than 125g in the fridge. Ideally I keep about 350g, which I refresh every two weeks.

Do I need to use bottled water?

No, simply leave your water to stand for a couple of hours, which allows the chlorine to evaporate and I do occasionally use water straight form the tap, when I want to knock back the bacteria to give me a slightly less sour loaf as the chlorine attacks the bacteria in the starter. In many areas you will find that tap water is fine but the level of chlorine can vary dramatically from area to area and from day to day so best to start with the stood water until you are sure.

What else can I do with my old starter?

If you have any old, tired starter it is still packed with flavour so does not need to be thrown away. You can use it to flavour pancakes (like this Sourdough Scotch Pancake recipe), scones, cakes and to add back into normal yeasted bread as a flavour boost.

What’s the difference between rye and wheat starters?

Flavour is the main reason for having a rye starter as it produces a fruitier taste. There are some people that prefer to avoid wheat and so a rye starter is a good alternative. You can directly substitute one for the other in your recipe.

Is there an easy recipe to get me going?

Yes! See my overnight sourdough recipe.

Vanessa Kimbell runs the Sourdough School, Northampton



featured products


Fresh Sourdough Starter (Wheat) | £14.00

Fresh sourdough starter made from organic strong white bread flour and delivered in a convenient pot to keep a small quantity in your fridge between use.

Fresh Sourdough Starter (Rye) | £14.00

Fresh sourdough starter made from organic rye flour and delivered in a convenient pot to keep a small quantity in your fridge between use.

Gilchester Organic Strong White Flour | £2.90

Gilchester Organic Strong White Flour is suitable for bread making and all home baking, this flour loves sourdough or overnight bread sponges (long fermentation), rises well and produces a classic rustic colour.

Do you have a sourdough question for Vanessa? Send it to us and the best ones will appear in our next postbag edition and receive a dough whisk.

Suggestion Box

Are we missing something? An usual flour, a particular tin, or a special piece of equipment you’d like to see on our shelves? Let us know and if we decide to stock it, you will receive the very first one of the item you suggest.

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