Making a Sourdough Starter is really simple: Mix flour and water together in a jar and watch the wonders of nature unfold before your eyes.
The process is straightforward and repetitive, but it takes a long time. Creating a mature, active starter takes at least two weeks, maybe more depending on the exact conditions in which it is created.
I’ve found that more than anything else, a lack of patience is what makes people give up on their Sourdough Starter. At first it may seem like nothing is happening, you’ll question why your starter isn’t rising or why you’re not seeing any changes at all but persevere and you’ll be rewarded with an active starter, one that if cared for will feed you for a lifetime.
What is a Sourdough Starter?
Sourdough Starter is a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. The simple act of mixing water into flour activates yeast and bacteria that when cultivated will eventually be able to leaven bread.
Sourdough Starters harvest wild yeast from the flour and water and the air around you. This is why your starter will be unique to you, different from the one I made for this recipe, and one made in someone’s kitchen in Italy.
And because it’s a living thing, it will have its own distinctive needs. Don’t let this scare you off though. In the two-week process of creating it, you’ll get to know your starter, understand the intricacies of the process and be able to respond to its specific needs.
There’s a fair amount of science that happens within the ecosystem of your Sourdough Starter, all you really need to know is that within this little universe microbes produce carbon dioxide which makes bread rise and other byproducts that impart a unique flavor and texture to sourdough bread.
Once your starter is mature, it will rise predictably in the span of 4 to 6 hours, and you can always depend on it to leaven and produce great quality bread.
What Ingredients Do I Need to Make a Sourdough Starter?
You probably already have everything you need to create a sourdough starter in your kitchen. You really just need flour and water, but quality counts and can change how your starter reacts.
Best Flour for Starter
Flour makes up a good portion of your starter, so quality is important. You’ll want to give your culture a great foundation. I prefer to use unbleached, organic all-purpose flour for my starter because most bread recipes call for a starter that uses white flour and it’s usually less expensive than bread flour.
If possible, it’s best to buy flour that’s been grown in ways that nurture the land without any added pesticides or chemicals. What’s good for the earth is also good for your starter. When you can, buy local to support the farmers and producers in your area.
Although local, organic flour is best, it’s not wholly necessary and you can still create a strong starter using basic unbleached flour. Remember, that you’re harvesting wild yeasts from the ingredients you put into your starter and bleached flour tends to be overly processed, devoid of life and nutrients that your starter needs to thrive.
If you want to experiment with different types of flours you can and as your confidence grows working with sourdough you should. However, your starter may look and react differently than one that is made with white flour.
Rye flour and whole flour are packed with nutrients and can make very vigorous starters. In fact, many bakers add a little bit of rye flour to their starter whenever it becomes weak. Just keep in mind that this will end up adding a small amount of these flours to your final recipe. You can even make starters out of non-gluten flours, but I won’t be covering that topic here.
Can You Feed Your Starter Different Flours?
You can also transition your starter to feeding on a different type of flour, it will metabolize other types just fine, but you may need to get accustomed to changes in activity and appearance of your culture.
To do this, you just need to feed your starter with the different type of flour you want to transition to, whole wheat for example, for a few days until it begins to rise and fall at a predictable rate, between 4 to 6 hours after feeding. You won’t need to make adjustments to the amount of water you add to your starter.
If you accidentally (or intentionally) feed your starter a different type of flour and want to return it to the original have no fear—simply go back to the original flour and after a few feedings your starter should be back to normal.
A Word About Water
In addition to flour, water is the other major ingredient in your starter, and although accessible, it’s best not to use tap water. Local tap water is heavily treated with chlorine and other chemicals that could inhibit the activity of yeast, use bottled or filtered water instead. You can use well water if that is what you have access to, but it should not have any chlorine in it.
What Tools Do I Need to Make a Sourdough Starter?
The container you choose for your starter is really up to you. I prefer to use a 16 ounce, mason jar with a wide mouth. The clear sides allow me to easily see the appearance and changes in my starter and the wide mouth makes stirring my starter easier. A glass bowl or a plastic container will work just fine, the important thing is to choose a vessel that allows you to see how your starter looks and whether it has doubled in size.
A spatula with a long handle and narrow scraper makes quick work of getting into the crevices of any container so you can make sure you adequately stir all the flour and water into your starter during feedings.
As you maintain your starter, you’ll know immediately whether it has doubled or tripled in size, but in the beginning it’s handy to have a rubber band or dry erase marker that you can use to indicate the level of your starter after feeding and allow you to see how much it has increased in volume overtime.
If you’re an avid baker you probably already own a kitchen scale, if not, I highly recommend purchasing one. Volume measurements can be very inaccurate. For example, depending on how you pack your cup you could potentially double the flour in a recipe. For the best, most consistent results, it’s best to weigh your ingredients. Find a scale that fits your needs in our guide to the best kitchen scales.
How Do I “Feed” My Sourdough Starter?
To feed your starter, keep a portion of it then mix it with water and flour in equal amounts, in the case of this recipe, take 15 grams of your starter (discard the rest), then add in 30 grams of flour and 30 grams of water into your starter jar.
Stir your starter well to make sure all of the flour has been incorporated, then cover the jar and set it aside until you’re ready to bake or for your next feeding.
You’ll want to make sure all the flour is hydrated so that it can be metabolized by the yeast in your culture. The rest of your starter can be thrown away, composted, or if your starter is mature kept in a separate container in the refrigerator to be used as an ingredient in bakes that creatively utilize sourdough discard.
How Frequently Should You Feed Sourdough Starter?
How often you feed your starter will be entirely up to you. To keep an active, strong and vigorous starter that does not have an overly sour flavor, I’ve found that feeding twice or three times a day is best. But in most cases, feeding your starter once a day is enough.
You don’t have to be incredibly strict with your feeding schedule. Just remember to feed your starter at least once a day at around the same time. For example, every morning as soon as you wake up or right before you go to bed. Once established, you’ll find that starters really are unfussy and quite low maintenance.
If you forget to feed your mature starter for a day, don’t worry, just feed it again when you remember. Missing a day of feeding is generally not a big deal, however, if you are creating a new starter, it’s best to set a reminder for yourself. Because your new starter hasn’t developed an ecosystem of healthy yeasts and bacteria it may be too weak to ward off harmful bacteria or fungus and could grow mold if unfed for long periods of time.
When Can I Use My Starter?
Your starter should reach maturity after about two weeks and typically 4 to 6 hours after being fed. Using your starter to bake bread before it has reached this stage will end in failure, disappointment, and wasted time and ingredients—in other words just don’t do it. There are no shortcuts here, making a starter is really simple, but you’ll need time and patience to succeed.
Here are some tips for checking the maturity and knowing when your starter is ready for baking.
- The best way to test the readiness of a starter is by observing its activity (the rate at which it rises) and its appearance (it should look bubbly, thick, and full of air).
- You’ll know your starter is ready to bake with when it begins to rise and fall predictably. This means that after it has been fed, you can expect it to rise or double in volume in a given amount of time, usually within 4 to 6 hours.
- Try the float test. Drop a portion of your starter, about a tablespoon or so (you don’t have to be exact), into a glass or bowl of water, if your starter floats it means it is capable of producing enough carbon dioxide to leaven bread.
A word of caution though, the float test can be unreliable and is prone to user error. If you’re not gentle you could knock all the air out of your starter in the process of scooping it out of the jar and placing it into the water, this would cause your starter to sink and fail the test. My mature two year old starter regularly fails the float test.
Unless you accidentally cook your starter, or it grows mold it’s not dead.
Watery Starter: In the beginning, there will be a period of time (this can vary wildly depending on your starter and the conditions that you are nurturing it in, anytime between a few days to a week) when you won’t see any activity and your starter will appear watery and won’t rise at all. This is usually when many people give up on their starter, but don’t worry, this is completely normal. Continue feeding it every day and eventually, you’ll notice a change in consistency, it will appear thicker with an even distribution of bubbles throughout, and soon it will begin doubling in volume predictably.
Sluggish Starter: Your starter may take longer than two weeks to be ready. Cold temperatures make yeast sluggish, which can slow down the development of your sourdough starter. If this happens, try keeping your starter in a warmer spot in your kitchen. The microwave or your oven with the light on, are both great places to store your starter, just remember not to turn either on!
Fuzzy, Pink or Beige Starter: If you neglect your starter for a long period of time it may become too weak to fight off mold. Watch for any fuzzy growth, or shades of pink and beige on the surface of your starter—these are usually signs of mold. If your starter does grow mold, throw it away and start over. Flour is cheap and it’s not worth trying to save a culture that could be growing harmful organisms in your kitchen.
Hooch: Sometimes, if you wait too long to feed your starter it could produce a dark liquid called hooch. Hooch is a natural byproduct of yeast and is an indication that your starter is hungry and needs to be fed. It is completely harmless, you can either stir it in or throw it out before feeding your starter again. Stirring hooch in will add acidity to your starter, this is a good way to make your sourdough bread taste more sour if you find that the flavor of your bakes are too mild for your liking.
How Should I Store My Starter?
Weekly Baker: If you bake often keep your starter at room temperature and feed it every day.
Monthly Baker: If you only bake a few loaves each month, store your starter in the refrigerator. Feed it right before putting it in your refrigerator and take it out for a feeding at least once a week. Cold temperatures can make yeast sluggish and slow down fermentation. If you plan on baking with a refrigerated starter, I recommend taking it out of the refrigerator a few days before and feeding it two to three times each day before using it in a recipe.
Traveling Baker: If you’re going away, feel free to store your starter in the refrigerator and try to feed it at least once a week. If this isn’t possible, feed it immediately when you return. Remember, if your starter has not become moldy it’s alive and viable. If you notice some off, worrisome colors (beige or pink) or any fuzziness growing on top of your starter, toss it and start over.
How Do I Use My Starter to Bake Bread?
You’ll have to feed your starter with enough water and flour to accommodate the amount of starter each recipe requires.
If a recipe calls for 113 grams (1/2 cup) of starter, combine 26 grams of starter, 52 grams of water, and 52 grams of flour. This will give you 126 grams of sourdough starter, enough for your recipe and another 13 grams that you can feed and store for future use.
Once you’ve fed your starter, wait until it’s reached peak activity, normally 4 to 6 hours after being fed, has doubled or tripled in volume and looks very bubbly.
What is Sourdough Discard?
Sourdough discard is any portion of your sourdough starter that you won’t be feeding as part of your “mother” starter or won’t be used for breadmaking.
Throwing away a large portion of your starter can be hard to understand for beginners but discarding keeps your sourdough starter manageable.
Remember, your starter is a living thing, it feeds, and it reproduces. As these microbes multiply they will continue to need sustenance in the form of water and flour. If you never threw any of it away, you would have so much you wouldn’t be able to store it or even be able to afford to feed it.
While this practice may seem wasteful, you don’t necessarily need to throw your discard in the garbage. As the number of avid sourdough bakers have grown, so has the enthusiasm for creative recipes that use sourdough discard. It’s a great ingredient that can be used to make pancakes, cakes, cookies and even pasta!
How to Store Sourdough Discard
Store sourdough discard in a separate container in the refrigerator. It should keep well without feeding for at least 6 months. It’s acidic enough to ward off any mold or any harmful bacteria, but feel free to throw it away once it develops any off odors or flavors.
To avoid food waste, this recipe uses a very small amount of flour and water to start with and adds more each day, enough for you to be able to observe the changes in your starter but won’t make you feel like you are simply throwing money in the garbage.
Now that you know all the things there are to know about making a Sourdough Starter, let’s get started.
Recipes to Make with Starter
You won’t need all of the flour and water to begin your starter. The recipe starts off with 15 grams of flour and water and you add additional flour and water at different stages in the process.
It takes two weeks of caring for the sourdough starter before it's ready for use.
- 5 1/3 cups (645g) all-purpose flour, divided
- 2 3/4 cups (645g) bottled or filtered water, divided
- Special Equipment
- 16 oz wide mouthed jar
- Rubber band
- Weighing scale
Start your starter Day 1:
In a clean jar, combine 15 grams (about 2 tablespoons) of flour and 15 grams (about 1 tablespoon) water. Stir until you no longer see any dry streaks of flour. Cover the jar with a lid and set it in a warm place undisturbed.
Stir your starter day 2:
Your sourdough starter should begin to show signs of activity. You may start to see lots of bubbles, and it may smell sour or rancid (this is completely normal). Stir your starter, cover it loosely and set it aside.
Feed your starter day 3:
You may notice a small layer of liquid has formed on the surface of your sourdough starter. This is hooch and is an indication that your starter has exhausted its food source. You’ll need to feed your starter for the first time.
To feed your starter: In a small bowl, place 15 grams (about 1 tablespoon) of starter. Anything that remains in the jar is considered discard and can be thrown away or stored in a separate container in the fridge to use in sourdough discard recipes.
Into the small bowl with the starter, add 30 grams (1/4 cup) of flour and 30 grams (about 2 tablespoons) of water. Stir until no dry streaks of flour remain and the starter is incorporated. Place your fed starter back in the jar, cover the jar with a metal or plastic lid and set it in a warm place.
If your kitchen is warm, your counter will work fine, but if your kitchen is cold you can place your starter in the oven while it’s turned off with the light on.
Feed your starter again day:
Look for signs of activity in your starter, here I can tell that my starter increased in volume and then fell overnight by the markings on my jar. Don’t let this fool you, this burst in activity does not mean your starter is ready.
Feed your starter once more by combining into a small bowl 15 grams of starter (discard the rest), 30 grams of water and 30 grams of flour. Place your fed starter back into the jar, cover it loosely and set it in a warm place.
Continue feeding your starter daily on days 5 through 8:
After a burst of activity and the excitement of day 4, your starter will most likely experience a lull in activity. During this time, it will appear watery and flat. You’ll see few if any bubbles on the surface or throughout the starter. Don’t lose hope, continue feeding your starter and it will soon show signs of life. The aroma of your starter will also evolve during this process, at this point it may smell like cheese or yogurt.
Feed your starter once per day, during days 5 through 8 by combining 15 grams of starter (discard the rest), 30 grams of water, and 30 grams of flour. Place your fed starter in the jar, cover it loosely and set it in a warm place.
Feed your starter day 9:
Days after appearing lifeless, your starter should finally begin to show signs of life. Tiny bubbles evenly distributed throughout my starter may begin to appear and it should begin to thicken. It may also start smelling like beer.
Feed your starter once more by combining 15 grams of starter (discard the rest), 30 grams of water, and 30 grams of flour. Place your fed starter in the jar, cover it loosely and set it in a warm place.
Feed your starter twice per day starting on day 10 and 11:
Another huge burst of activity, large translucent bubbles could appear on the surface of your starter. This is a sign that it has exhausted all its food and is more active than ever. To increase the strength of your starter and get it ready for baking, you can begin to feed it twice per day.
Feed your starter by combining 15 grams of starter (discard the rest), 30 grams of water, and 30 grams of flour. Place your fed starter in the jar, cover it loosely and set it in a warm place. Do this once in the morning and again at night. You can start storing any discard in the refrigerator to use for sourdough discard bakes.
Starter days 12 through 14—check readiness of starter:
At this point, your starter should start to appear very active, with lots of tiny bubbles throughout, it should also be much thicker and begin to smell sweeter and much more like bread. This is a good indication that it’s time to test the readiness of your starter.
Feed your starter the same way you have been: 15g starter, 30g flour, 30g water once in the morning. Mark the level of your starter with a rubber band or dry erase marker. Set a timer for 4 hours, if it doubles or triples in volume consistently after this time period, you’ll know it’s ready.
If the starter meets the readiness standards identified above at anytime between days 12-14 you can prepare the starter to bake bread.
Feed starter to bake bread:
If you plan on using your starter to bake immediately, begin feeding your starter 3 times per day to ensure that it’s strong and vigorous enough to leaven bread. Combine 15 grams of starter, 30 grams of water, and 30 grams of flour. Place your fed starter in the jar, cover it loosely and set it in a warm place. Do this 3 times each day, once in the morning, afternoon, and evening.
To prepare your starter for baking, feed it the amount you need to accommodate a specific recipe, allow it to rise undisturbed for 4 hours. Once it has doubled or tripled in volume it’s ready to be mixed into your dough!