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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sourdough in 12 days in hot,humid Singapore

If you have baked bread using yeast, then this article will make more sense. Here's a novice baker probing for ways to infuse character into my experiments, so the work mentioned is in constant process of evaluation and improvement. 

First and foremost, sourdough does not use yeast. I captured my seed yeast living on the white stuff of raisins and used it as a catalyst. Secondly, for your entire career from now on making sourdough, you just need one week of your life to cultivate this non-stop supply of yeast and move on from there.

What's the fuss about sourdough anyway? It is an acquired taste, to take to the sour , signature tang of fermented bread with large irregular holes. It is no pop culture, but a cultivated sourdough has snob appeal to artisan bread fanatics. Imagine boutique style open faced sourdough sandwiches with arugula and red wine. You get the picture.

Much has been written about the science and procedure of making dough. A couple of things worried me especially where fermenting in this region is concerned. How do I ensure my sourdough starter is sanitized , safe and clean for use? How many days do I grow my sourdough starter and how do I tweak the duration and temperature  of fermentation in hot and sticky Singapore ? How much starter do I discard each time I feed it ?

There is an information overload, with everyone calling for varying proportions and different kinds of flour. I am no baker  but being a retired engineer and enthusiastic sourdough newbie, I sniffed out the technicalities and Math of sourdough, after months of reading.  In a climate like ours in Singapore, certain things have to be taken care of which are non issues in temperate regions. One, the duration of growing a home grown starter has to be reduced, especially when the yeast farm is your kitchen. The threat of mold is another.

How clean is clean ?
Imagine the sourdough starter, the seeds of your loaf of bread as a premature baby that needs an incubator and lots of loving care.
Sanitize containers with hot water or microwave glass jars with a little water to steam scrub the interiors of the jar. Although metal implements are best avoided to manage the starter, it was not a big issue. Simply ensure all items in contact with the starter is very clean.

Is there a ratio for the ingredients ? Do I go by weight or by volume ?
In the end, there came a time I noticed a workable ratio. I did it with equal parts of starter:water:flour ( by volume for simplicity sake ) though it is more accurate to do it by weight for flour and water. But no matter ! Bread making is an art and who blames artisans who never come out with 2 exact copies of masterworks.

What to expect, see and smell ?
Nothing happens until day 3, when the thingy in the glass jar froths up.  It starts to smell like bananas, which is a sign that the yeast is growing.  On day 5, it will be even a whiff of beer, due to alcohol formation.

To discard or not and how much ?
To simplify things, discard a  portion of starter when you foresee that there may not be enough space for frothing activity in the container. I start doing this after day 3. Imagine the starter as a hamster about to start its little family. If there may be no space for baby additions, give away. If it is manageable, keep it. I lost sleep over to discard or not until I figured it did not have earth shattering consequences.

Enough of rambling. Here is what I did and hope to do many times over

Making the starter :
Use very clean glass jar, non metal stirring implements, saran wrap pierced with holes. From here, I tend to the yeast cultivation at around 9 pm every day.

Day 1 :
Soak a handful of raisins in warm water. Discard raisins.
Mix 2 T rye flour, 2 T raisin water . Cover jar with wrap. Pierce a couple of breathing holes.

Day 2 :
Add 2 T whole grain flour, 2 T boiled tepid water into day 1's solution.

Day 3 :
I use a ratio of 1:1:1 starter:water:flour by volume. This is a watery version, but it worked for me.
Retain 1/4 cup of bubbly starter. Add 1/4 cup rye or whole grain, 1/4 cup tepid water.

Day 4:
Repeat day 3's procedure. It smells beery and looks sticky by now. No worries !
Shake up the bubbly. Retain only 1/4 cup bubbly starter, feed 1/4 cup flour, 1/4 cup water.

All these while, I grew the starter in  a very clean glass jar on the kitchen countertop, covered ( so as not to dry out the starter ) but pierced with breathing holes ( to let yeast breathe )

Sunday :
Sponge day !  Check that the starter is bubbly before using. This is the peak of yeast activity that helps leaven your dough.
Pour 1 cup of starter in a very clean bowl, add 1 cup warm water, 1 cup flour. Mix. Proof overnight. If it shows a mighty bubbling activity, place it in the chiller to slow down the fermenting or risk a flow over.
As usual, cover bowl loosely.

Mon :
Sponge may smell sour ( which is good ) or yeasty  or wheaty, which means it is ready to be used for baking bread.  If it is not bubbly enough, take it out from the chiller and leave it on the counter for a couple of hours. Frothy activity should pick up.

Bread time !
Mix 2 cups sponge, 2 1/2 cups bread flour, 2 T canola oil, 4 t sugar, 1/2 t salt - set to dough cycle on bread machine. Retrieve 1.5 hour later. If doing manually, knead for 15 minutes and let it rest for 1.5 hours in a well oiled glass container, covered loosely. Sniff  the familiar banana smell and know you are getting there.

Ensure dough has risen to double. Remove from bowl. Stretch and fold the dough into  3rds. Make a little ball out of it. Score through the mid section of the dough. You may wish to throw in some corn meal or flour on the tray to prevent  dough from sticking to the tray, impeding removal after it is baked. Re-transfer to ferment dough in an oiled baking bowl or tray, covered.

When dough bulk is doubled again, anytime from 3 - 6 hours depending on the environment, do the poke test. If the indentation from the finger does not spring back, it is ready for baking. Mine grew to the desired size in 6 hours.

Preheat oven to the highest temperature possible, with a flat tray of water under the baking rack. Bake dough in the tray at 350 F for 30 - 45 min.

Fresh bread made into sandwich. The crackly crust was the highlight of the meal !

Leftover sponge :
Do not discard this sponge. In a clean glass jar, place it back in the chiller, and manage it just as you do to the starter.  Since it is chilled with yeast growth  slowing down ,  feed it with equal parts of flour, water and starter just once a week. It will be good for making the next loaf of sourdough.

Cool , slice. Then congratulate yourself when you see the big irregular holes on a airy slice of sourdough, complete with the aroma of mild tangy artisan bread !

Verdict : the sour in the dough is not very distinct, most likely because I could not hurry the fermentation fast enough. It would have more character if I had left the bread to ferment a couple more hours.

Hubby has given me a surprise present in the form of 'Artisan Breads At Home' by Eric W Kastel, a book so expensive I will never get for myself.  Well written, meticulous and precise, I hope to hone my skills and come out with something 'artisan' soon.


  1. You have done a great job in making your sourdough bread! I shy away from making it as I worry I'll poison my family ;)

  2. Haha.. I had the same worry. My very brave family ate everything in one dinner, without any incidents. I waited for any possible reactions before documenting it in the blog :D

  3. Hi..great blog!! I'm fr Singapore too & very interested to make my own sourdough bread...question on the rye & wholewheat flour you used for the it fresh rye flour as I read from other websites to use freshly ground flour? Where did you purchase it from?

    Thanks in advance!!

  4. I get my rye and almost everything from Phoon Huat. No biggie on the freshness - just check the expiry date and you are on.
    Singapore has only one flour mill - Prima Flour which mills all the grains that is labeled 'Made in Singapore'. I would personally get one of these than those milled overseas ( USA, Malaysia etc ) because shipment etc may compromise the freshness of the flour.
    Hope this helps.

  5. Hi! Awesome post! I write at and was wondering if you would be prepared to share some of your starter? i'd love to give sourdough bread a whirl. Leave me a message or email


  6. I was thinking of giving some of my starter a couple of days ago... It is a waste to discard. If you wish to have some starter, let me know when. I will feed it before passing them to you :-)

  7. Hi! Total excitement when I came across your post! Am a newbie to the wonderful world of homemade breads... Had similar concerns about moulds and other nasties in hot humid Singapore. Tried to capture the 'wild ones' twice( using the grapes + grape juice method ) but threw them out after 5 days each time cos they didnt smell beery or sweet. Will try to give it another spin using your 'formula' :)

  8. Hi! Do u still have your starter? I was wondering if you will be willing to pass some to me as I am thinking of making too!(: thanks(:

    1. I am so sorry. I let the starters die a natural death because I was lazy to maintain it ... sorree!

  9. Hi there

    May I know what is T? Like 2T canola oil... 2T rye flour? Tablespoon?

    1. Hi! Thank you for visiting my blog and sorry for the late reply. 1 T is 1 tablespoon. Hope it helps!

  10. Thank you for your reply. Which is easier? The method using the raisins or just flour and water. I intend to start cultivating my starter but at the same time, very anxious about it.

    1. Raisins is faster but flour and water smells more authentic. You can try both and see which aroma you like better.

  11. Thank you for your reply. I am into day 2 of the flour starter. It is beginning to smell bad. I read that it will smell like yoghurt but the smell is definately past the sourish smell of yoghurt. I noticed the bubbles are much smaller and a slight separation of water and the starter. I am not sure if I am doing the correct thing, I discard most of it and add fresh flour and water. Crossing my fingers now : )

    1. Kudos for trying again! Sterilise all your containers with boiling water and dry them out before growing the starter. Do let me know how it goes - all the best !

  12. Hi there, how do you get rye flour in singapore? I am unable to find it and I have tried making the starter using other types of flour but it never seems to work. :(

    1. You can get rye flour from Phoon Huat, Cold Storage or NTUC Finest. Some boutique grocer will have it such as Huber's. Hope this helps.

  13. Thank-you. Now I have another way of making sourdough starter. By the way have you tried making croissant dough in hot and humid Singapore. I tried a few times without success.:(

  14. Hi. This is an old post but here's hoping you read and answer! Im in Singapore, trying sourdough starter. Using a simple plain flour-water mixture. I got the bubbly frothy look in under 24 hours! And a distinct smell..but Im not sure if its a good one or a bad one! Since I dont drink,I do not know what a boozy smell is. But its a distinct,strong smell. The starter looks fine. Its bubby,frothy, consistent color with a small amount of liquid accumulating on top before I feed it again (I have read that this is called hooch). In your experience, can a starter on my countertop, covered in plastic wrap (no breathing holes but loosely wrapped) become active in under 1 day with such a strong smell?

  15. It's too early for such a yeast reaction, unless perhaps if you live in a very warm place. Ideally, it should smell like bananas in the initial stage.
    For safety precaution, try doing it again and grow the starter in a cooler place. Good luck!

  16. Hi, I was following some instruction using wholemeal flour and water to begin my starter. It's 31 C here in Singapore. On day 2 it already double in volume. Smells a bit like vomit. I took one cup of the starter and mixed with one cup of All Purpose Flour and water. And this time is took 4 hours to double in volume. This is only end on day 2 and I am wondering if something is wrong? Should I restart?

    1. The fermented starter should smell like fresh beer or the smell of ripe bananas. Smelling like vomit doesn't sound right. Make sure all your utensils are sanitised before preparing the starter.