While it takes a little bit of patience and about a week of your time, making a sourdough starter from scratch is one of the easiest (and most fulfilling) kitchen projects you can tackle. With about a week of diligent feedings, you'll be able to transform plain water and flour into a bubbly leavening that you can use to make bread, pancakes and other recipes.
What is a sourdough starter?
A sourdough starter is a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) like kombucha, water kefir, and milk kefir. It's this combination of bacteria and yeast that helps flavor and make sourdough breads rise. The lactobacillus bacteria found in sourdough gives it a slightly sour flavor, while the wild yeasts in the starter help to make your bread rise.
Traditionally, bakers made all loaves of bread with either a sourdough starter or with barm - yeast from breweries. In the middle of the 19th century, commercial bakers yeast was isolated and began to come into use; however, it wasn't until much later that it became a household staple for home bakers.
How to make a sourdough starter
Making a sourdough starter is an exercise of patience, and it involves patience and daily diligence for about a week. After that, your starter will be ready to use and you'll only need to feed it about once a week to keep it lively and active.
- Starting. You'll need to whisk a little bit of flour and water together in a jar. Seal the jar tightly, and then let it rest for a day.
- Daily feedings. On days 2 and 3, you'll need to feed your starter once a day. That means discarding half of the starter and then mixing in equal amounts of flour and water to replace what you discarded.
- Twice daily feedings. On days 4 and 5, you'll notice that your starter becomes active and starting to expand. You'll also need to feed the starter twice daily with about 12 hours between feedings.
- Knowing when your starter is ready. When your starter doubles in volume between feedings, it's ready for baking. It usually begins to double by day 6. Feed it once more, and then transfer it to the fridge. If your starter isn't doubling in volume by day 6, continue feeding it two times a day until it does double within 12 hours of a feeding.
You just need flour, water, and a little luck.
Sourdough starters are marvelously simple. You only need flour, water and a little patience. But, with so few ingredients, you need to also pay attention to quality, too. Because a little deviation can make a big difference.
The easiest approach for beginning sourdough bakers is to use white bread flour, warm filtered water and a bit of an established starter like this one. You can use a starter made from bread flour to leaven loaves of bread made with other flours like whole grains, spelt, emmer, einkorn, and rye.
- Starters made with bread flour rise with greater consistency and predictability than whole-grain flour starters.
- Filtered water without chlorine will help the good bugs establish themselves in your starter more easily.
- An heirloom starter gives a good boost to your new starter. While not strictly necessary, they're helpful for beginners.
Flour for your starter
Technically, any grain-based flour works for making a sourdough starter. Flours made from rice, rye, spelt, einkorn and wheat all work. However, bread flour works the best and yields the most reliable starter. Even if you raise your starter on bread flour, you can still make bread with other flours.
- Whole-grain flours make tricky starters. They're high in vitamins minerals and food enzymes. While high nutritional content is generally a good thing, when it comes to sourdough starters, it means that they behave less predictably than white bread flour.
Starters made from whole-grain flours typically need to be fed more often and are more difficult to maintain. They're also prone to false starts, where they bubble quickly, but lose all activity later.
- White bread flour works particularly well because, once it's established, it rises and falls predictably with little fuss or extra maintenance. That's why it's an excellent choice for beginning sourdough bakers.
Water for Sourdough Starter
Choose filtered water when establishing and feeding a sourdough starter. In most areas, water is chemically treated with chlorine to keep it safe and free from pathogens. But it can also damage the bacterial and yeast cultures in your starter, so if you're new to sourdough choose filtered water.
If you don't have a water filter, you can purchase one here, or let your tap water sit on the counter overnight to allow the chlorine to dissipate.
- Choose filtered or dechlorinated water for the best results. You can still make a starter with tap water, but it may take longer for the beneficial bacteria and wild yeasts to get established.
- Use warm water, about 100 F, when feeding your starter. Warm water can give the starter a little boost, but if the water is too hot it can damage the cultures.
Sourdough starter tips
- Use an heirloom starter, especially if it's your first time. A few tablespoons of heirloom starter from a friend or a packet of starter like this one can give your sourdough a boost. That means a lot less frustration for you.
- Mind your temperature. Cool room temperatures favor the production of yeast which gives your bread its rise. Warm room temperatures favor the production of lactobacillus which gives your bread its flavor. Find the middle ground (about 68 - 72 F) gives your bread excellent rise and great flavor.
- Your starter might develop a thin liquid called hooch. If you see a thin liquid appear on top of your starter, that's hooch. Simply pour it off when you go to feed your starter again. Hooch develops when you haven't fed your sourdough frequently enough.
- Use a digital scale. The sourdough (and most recipes that call for starter) relies on 100% hydration. That means you feed it equal parts water and flour. To make sure you're doing just that, use a digital scale for precision and consistency.
- Use a tightly-sealed jar. While you can make a sourdough starter in a jar with a loose lid or a cloth cover, a tight seal usually results in better yeast production - which means a better rise for your loaves of bread.
- Yes, you do need to discard the starter when you feed it. It might feel like a terrible waste to toss a little bit of starter out with each feed, but this practice is what keeps your starter healthy. You can use it to make pancakes, sourdough noodles, panettone, and other foods, too.
Sourdough Starter Recipe
- Measure 100 grams flour and 100 grams water into a jar with a tight-fitting lid, and then whisk them together using a fork. If using an established sourdough starter, whisk it into the flour and water now. Set the jar on the countertop away from direct light and heat.
- Set a bowl on your kitchen scale, and then tare the scale. Measure 100 grams sourdough starter into the bowl, and then discard it.
- Set the jar containing your starter onto the scale, tare it again, and then measure in 50 grams water. Whisk the water into the starter in your jar, and then whisk in 50 grams flour. Clamp the jar tightly, and then set it on your countertop away from direct light and heat.
- You should begin seeing bubbles appear on the surface of your starter, or the surface may appear slightly foamy. These are signs of microbial activity.
- Measure 100 grams sourdough starter into the bowl, and then discard it.
- After discarding the starter, whisk in 50 grams warm water and 50 grams flour. Seal the jar and store it away from direct light and heat.
- The surface of your starter should appear slightly bubbly, and you may see evidence that your starter is beginning to expand in the jar. You should start feeding your starter twice a day today.
- In the morning, measure 100 grams sourdough starter and discard it.
- After discarding the starter, whisk in 50 grams water and 50 grams flour. Seal the jar and store it away from direct light and heat.
- In the evening about 12 hours after your first feeding, discard 100 grams starter, and then whisk in 50 grams water and 50 grams flour. Seal the jar tightly, and store it away from light and heat.
- The surface of your starter should be very bubbly, and it may expel gas when you open the jar. You should also see evidence that your starter is expanding in its jar.
- In the morning, measure 100 grams sourdough starter and discard it. Whisk in 50 grams water and 50 grams flour, and store the jar away from direct light and heat.
- In the evening about 12 hours after your first feeding, feed the starter again by discarding 100 grams starter and replacing it with 50 grams water and 50 grams flour.
- Your starter should be bubbly, and it should smell of yeast and bread with faint sour notes. It should also double within 12 hours of each feeding.
- Discard 100 grams of starter, and then whisk in 50 grams water and 50 grams flour.
- If you're planning to bake with the starter today, wait until it doubles in volume and then follow your recipe's instructions. If you're planning to bake with the starter later, transfer it to the fridge.
- To maintain the starter, remove it from the fridge at least once per week. Discard 100 grams starter, and then whisk in 50 grams water and 50 grams flour. Let it rise at room temperature up to 12 hours if you're planning to bake that day. If you're planning to bake later, transfer it to the fridge.
Proofing the Starter on Baking Day
- Remove the starter from the fridge approximately 8 to 12 hours before you plan to begin your recipe.
- Feed the starter by discarding 100 grams spent starter, and replacing it by whisking 50 grams flour and 50 grams into the jar. Seal the jar, and let it sit on the countertop until it doubles in volume.
- Remove the amount of starter that your recipe calls for, and then replace it with equal amounts of flour and water. Transfer the jar of starter to the fridge.