Updated: May 9, 2021
A well-developed pasta madre (sourdough starter) is a fabulous addition to any kitchen, vegan, gluten-free or not. Once you start and develop one, be prepared for a long and happy relationship with this little jar of ferment. A pasta madre (sourdough starter) is after all a living thing and requires a bit of TLC but the reward is that it will just keep giving.
The longer you keep your pasta madre going, the stronger it will become. Our dear friend Francesca brought her pasta madre to Spain from Italy and then refined a mix until it was gluten-free, before giving us some. Her pasta madre was over a decade old, whereas as mine was only a few months old. After adding hers to mine, it became so much stronger, so if you have a friend with an old madre, try and get them to give you some to add to yours, or better yet, use theirs and just keep feeding her.
Watching your pasta madre, especially in the early days will help you to understand what is happening and how it is reacting to its environment. In winter, a pasta madre will likely need a bit of help to grow. This can be done by storing it above an oven, or in an airing cupboard. It may even need a little bit of a boost by popping it into an oven at about 20°C -30°C. However, in summer, you may find that you need to refresh the pasta madre twice a day as it may be so warm that moulds can begin to grow. Different flours will react differently to the wild yeasts in your home, the temperature, the level of moisture, so be prepared to experiment for a while. A bit of extra feeding in the early days (twice a day) will undoubtedly benefit your new creature.
There are quite a few moulds that may appear on top of the sourdough. Some will be innocuous and can simply be removed from the top of the mixture, whilst others may potentially be quite harmful and may require you to start a new batch. I found that starting a pasta madre soon after having building works done in the kitchen was a disaster as some rather gross moulds appeared, so I left it for a few months before trying again. Later efforts were far more successful.
If you notice an orange or a pink mould, then to be safe, ditch the starter and begin again as both of these moulds can be quite toxic. If there is a light dusting of brown, then scoop it off, remove half the pasta madre and give it a good feed. To strengthen your mix, do this over a period of a three to four days – you can use the removed portions to bake with so it isn’t wasted.
It is not uncommon to notice that your starter has a bit of liquid floating on top of it. Don’t worry, this is fine and you can either mix it back into the rest or strain it off. It simply means that your yeast is a little hungry. Keep a close eye on it for a few days and give it plenty of fresh food, and it will be back to buoyant and bubbly in no time.
Once your starter is nice and strong, you can start storing it in the fridge if you are becoming overwhelmed and don’t want to bake daily or throw the removed half of the mix away. Initially try for a couple of days, then remove, let it settle to room temperature overnight and then feed it for a couple of days. Over time, you will be able to leave it in the fridge for up to two weeks, but will then need a good period of feeding (up to four days).
Francesca leaves her pasta madre for up to three weeks at a time, but hers is a gluten starter and is an old and strong, so is more forgiving. Gluten- free sourdoughs are a little less robust and require just that bit more attention.
I have only ever used filtered water with my sourdough as it is built into the kitchen tap. Most other articles I read when I was a terrified newbie recommended this approach. I saw a couple mentioning bottle water, but I didn’t want to use this approach because of the packaging waste. Our tap water in Spain is potable, but where we live, it is very heavy in lime, so our filter removes this along with other treatment chemicals that make the water taste icky.
The best flours to use, especially when starting out are the protein rich flours which include millet, brown rice, teff, quinoa, buckwheat, maize and oat. Although not affordable for everyone, I use organic flours to reduce the chemical contamination so prevalent in most of the more common flours. I also avoid using a lot of rice flour due to concerns about the arsenic levels in milled, uncooked rice. Once I have split the pasta madre during a feeding session, I decide on what baked products I want to prepare and then use a flour that will suit that bake eg. a maize flour starter is perfect for pizza, whereas millet is great in fruity swirls. By experimenting over time, you will find the flavours and textures that best suit your needs.
For our comprehensive guide to flours, click here.
An important thing to remember is that different flours will have different absorption capacities, so the amount of water you need to add at each feeding will vary slightly depending on the flour you use. The equal parts rule (water to flour ratio) is a general guide. If you are unsure, add about ¾ of the water and mix into the pasta madre. The texture should be quite gloopy but not too stiff, and not runny. If it is too stiff then add a little water at a time until your mixing tool moves easily through the paste but doesn’t slip through.
My recipe calls for ½ a cup of flour and water, but feel free to reduce this when you first get going. If you want just start with a tablespoon of each. Simply keep the proportions the same.