Sourdough starter – the mystical, magical leavening agent that has stymied many aspiring bakers for far too long. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people fret, “Oh, I’m so nervous about making a sourdough starter.” Seriously, folks, can we take a collective breath and just GET OVER IT?! Because here’s the shocking truth: creating a sourdough starter is about as complicated as making a cup of tea. (Okay, it’s slightly more complex, but not by much.)
Yes, you read that right. But don’t take my word for it; keep reading, and you’ll discover how ludicrously simple it is to conjure up your very own sourdough starter. No need for sorcery or mysterious incantations, and certainly no need to drop money on someone’s great-great-great granny’s “100-year-old” starter. With just a bit of flour, water and patience, you can finally enjoy baking your own tangy, chewy, homemade sourdough bread. No fuss, no frills – just pure, unadulterated sourdough simplicity.
So, grab your flour, lose the apprehension, and let’s get started. It’s about time we put the drama to rest and bring sourdough back to where it belongs – in your kitchen, on your terms.
Understanding Sourdough Starter
At its core, a sourdough starter is a live culture of wild yeast and lactic acid bacteria (a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast – SCOBY) that becomes a living ecosystem capable of leavening bread naturally when combined with flour and water. No more need for store-bought yeast to make your carbo-loaded goodies. Think of it as your own little bread-baking ecosystem – a miniature sourdough universe right there in your kitchen.
How Long Will It Take?
Ah, the burning question: “How long until I can bake my first loaf?” While making a sourdough starter is mind-bogglingly easy, there’s time and patience involved. The waiting game, my friends, is part of the magic. Your sourdough starter won’t bubble up and be ready the moment you drop in your first dollop of flour and water. This isn’t our elementary school science experiment with baking soda and vinegar. It’s a living, growing organism, like a pet – you need to nurture and feed it until it’s mature and ready to perform its sourdough wizardry. Generally, this process can take anywhere from seven days to a couple of weeks. Patience is your best friend here.
Beyond the Loaf
Once your sourdough starter is established, it’s a kitchen powerhouse. Not only can you use it for baking a classic, crusty sourdough loaf that would make any baker proud, but it can also be the secret ingredient in an array of delectable treats. Picture soft, fluffy sourdough cinnamon rolls, tantalizingly twisted sourdough soft pretzels, and a host of other baked delights, all elevated by the tangy, complex flavor that only sourdough can impart. Your culinary imagination is the limit, and your sourdough starter is the key to endless possibilities. So, whether you’re after a simple, rustic loaf or an array of baked wonders, your sourdough starter is your ticket to a world of deliciousness.
Ingredients and Equipment
Now that you’ve stopped loafing around and risen to the occasion in this sourdough journey let’s dig into what you’ll knead to kickstart this microbial dance party. Okay… that was way too many bread puns in a single sentence.
A Clear Glass Container (25-32 oz)
Your starter’s new home. Why clear glass, you ask? Well, you want to keep an eye on the progress and growth of your starter after feedings, and a transparent container makes that a breeze. A container with hash marks on the side to gauge the volume can be helpful. You’ve got choices here, but let me drop a nugget of wisdom: a basic, trusty 32 oz wide-mouth canning jar is a solid pick. It’s simple, practical, and offers room for a growing starter, especially if you’re planning some serious baking. The wide mouth makes stirring during feedings easy, and mason jar lids can be backed off slightly to let gases escape during fermentation.
If you prefer something smaller or more visually appealing, consider these 25 oz wide-mouth hinged-lid jars. However, with containers like these, you’ll want to “burp” your starter when it’s super active to prevent any pressure surprises (like starter spray on your ceiling – trust me, it’s not art).
Now, some companies sell specifically designed starter kits. These kits come with all sorts of cool features, but let’s be clear – they aren’t necessary. However, be my guest if you’re into it and want to splurge a bit. Just remember, your sourdough journey can be wonderfully uncomplicated.
Heads-up: Regardless of the container you choose, ensure it features a metal, glass or plastic lid. Avoid using any cloth covers with your starter. It’s an open invitation for unwanted bacterial fiesta, and we’re not talking about the beneficial kind.
Meet the secret sauce of precision baking – a trusty kitchen scale. For the best results, you’ll want to avoid volume measurements. We’re all about weighing our ingredients in grams and ounces here, as it guarantees the utmost consistency. You don’t need anything fancy; a straightforward kitchen scale that can switch between units and reset to zero is your new best friend. It’s a modest investment that yields massive dividends in not only your sourdough but all your baking endeavors.
While plain, water plays a pivotal role in your sourdough starter. Opt for unchlorinated water, such as well water or filtered water, for the best results. Now, if you’re stuck with chlorinated water, there’s no need to panic – just take a container of water and let it bask in the open air for roughly 24 hours. Like magic, the chlorine will evaporate, leaving you with some high-quality H2O, perfect for your sourdough starter.
Whole Wheat Flour (for the first day)
To kickstart your starter, you’ll need some whole wheat flour. Wheat Montana’s Bronze Chief or Prairie Gold are my personal choices for whole wheat flour, but go with whatever you have available. Whole wheat flour gives your starter the initial kick in the rear to set the stage for your sourdough success.
Unbleached All-Purpose White Flour (For Subsequent Feedings)
White flour – your trusty sidekick for ongoing feedings. Avoid bleached flour, as those chemicals can throw things off. Also, steer clear of organic flour; while it’s not a non-starter, its enzymes can make results less predictable and slower. If you prefer to venture beyond plain white all-purpose flour, options like bread flour, whole wheat, spelt, or rye can be used for feedings. Just be ready to bump up the water ratio if you do.
I prefer plain, unbleached, all-purpose white flour for its simplicity, affordability, and reliability. Wheat Montana’s Natural White All-Purpose flour has served me well (plus it comes in 50lb bags for all you heavy bakers), but for my very first starter, I went with Walmart’s Great Value brand flour. Remember, it doesn’t need to be fancy or pricey – it just needs to work.
(Optional) A Sourdough Home, Proofing Mat, or Proofing Box
Depending on your kitchen’s temperature, you might face challenges maintaining the ideal conditions to supercharge your starter. That’s where tools like a Sourdough Home, Proofing Mat or Proofing Box come into play. They offer precise temperature control, making it easier to get your starter exceptionally active.
These gadgets create a snug, stable environment for your starter to flourish. If your kitchen tends to be cooler, or you want to speed up the fermentation process, these tools can be handy. However, if you live in a warmer climate or, like myself, have a toasty wood stove often blazing nearby, they might not be essential. But some seasoned bakers swear by them.
Steps for your Starter
Day 1: Your Yeasty Adventure Begins
In your chosen container, combine 60g of whole wheat flour and 60g of warm water, then use a fork to mix them to an even consistency. You’re aiming for thick and pasty. If it’s a soupy mess, sprinkle in a bit more flour. Conversely, if it’s a dry lump, add a touch more water. Balance is key, grasshopper.
Seal the lid on your container and find a cozy spot for your starter to rest and grow. Ideal temperatures for this budding sourdough seedling are between 75-80° F. If your home is a chilly icebox and you’ve yet to pick up a Sourdough Home or proofing mat, don’t fret; there are some potential solutions.
- Pop your container in the microwave with the door cracked (so the light stays on).
- Alternatively, you can place your starter on a cookie sheet in the oven with the oven light on. However, a friendly reminder: always attach a Post-It note to your oven controls to avoid unintentional oven-preheating mishaps. Trust me, it happens more often than you’d expect.
Day 2: Tiny Bubbles
The agenda for Day 2 is as light as a loaf of perfectly baked sourdough. Your role today is solely that of a curious observer on the lookout for bubbles. Bubbles are the telltale sign of fermentation, precisely what you’re hoping for at this stage.
However, don’t fret if you don’t see a frenzy yet. Sometimes, those elusive bubbles can be shy and hide from plain sight. They might have even briefly appeared and stepped out while you were catching up on beauty sleep. It’s perfectly normal.
Here’s the good news: You don’t have to do anything else for now. Your starter doesn’t need more flour or water at this point. All it requires is some quality time in its cozy corner, continuing its fermentation.
Hold On, We’ve Got Hooch!
Whoa, there, sourdough adventurer! During the creation process, and even after your starter has found its rhythm in the world, you might spot something rather unappealing: a dark, ominous liquid lurking atop your starter, similar to the picture. Don’t flip the panic switch; it’s only “hooch.”
Hooch is the nickname for that brown liquid that sometimes forms on the surface of your starter. It’s a sign that your starter needs to be fed. While its aroma can be a bit offensive, resembling a curious blend of rubbing alcohol and, well, let’s say, “worn gym socks,” it’s nothing to worry about.
There’s a considerable debate among sourdough enthusiasts about whether to mix the hooch back in or pour it off. I’ve done both and haven’t seen a notable difference one way or the other in the quality of my starter. On Day 2, however, we won’t make any sudden moves regarding hooch. Let it linger for now, and if you so desire, you can address it tomorrow when you begin the feedings.
Day 3: The First Day of the Rest of Your Life
It’s time to kick things up a notch and start feeding the starter.
First things first, you need to downsize. You’ll want to spoon out or pour off approximately half your starter from the jar, leaving you with around 60 g left. If you notice a stretchy-gooey texture as you spoon it out, that’s a great sign.
Now, let’s give the starter some fresh fuel. Add 60g of your all-purpose flour to the mix and 60g of warm water. We call that a 1:1:1 ratio. Equal amounts of starter, flour and water. Mix it all together until it’s the consistency of a thick pancake batter. Add more flour or water as necessary.
Close it up and return it to its warm spot for another 24 hours.
A Discard Warning: While saving discard for recipes is tempting at this stage, wait until your starter matures. Let those friendly bacteria find their groove before you start stashing it away. Instead, make sure you discard wisely and properly. Dispose of excess starter in the trash or compost; never pour it down the sink. Dried starter is, as my grandmother would say, hard as woodpecker lips and will turn to concrete in your pipes. That’s a problem you don’t want. Now, a bit of starter rinsed off your utensils with hot water? Not a problem. Just say no to the sink-pour.
Days 4, 5 & 6: Continue to Feed
Now that you’re in the groove, things are all about consistency. Like on Day 3, you’ll start by removing and discarding half of your starter and introducing 60g of all-purpose flour and 60g of warm water. Don’t forget to mix it up until it’s an even consistency.
Keep an eye on your starter. As the yeast works its magic, your starter will rise, and bubbles will expand in and on the surface. Remember that timing is critical. When your starter falls, it’s time to feed again. To help track growth, use a rubber band or strip of painter’s tape around your container. Alternatively, those containers with handy hash marks or a specialized sourdough starter kit can be a big help.
Day 7: The Pièce de Résistance
By now, your sourdough starter should be doubling in size, a sign that it’s flexing its microbial muscles. But if it’s not, don’t sweat it. Just repeat those feeding steps until it does. With everything that needs to come together, a starter can take up to two weeks to hit its stride.
Your starter should be vigorously bubbling and look full of life. The texture will be spongy and fluffy. And the smell, well, that’s subjective. Some liken it to a brewery; I think it’s more akin to a robust red wine. But whatever it smells like to you, if it’s fragrant and pleasant, your starter is officially active.
Some bakers like to transfer their starter to a fresh, clean container at this stage. However, this step is optional if you’ve maintained a tidy container from the beginning. Personally, I’ve stuck with my trusty mason jar from the get-go. It’s up to you.
Finally, here comes the most crucial step – naming your starter. It’s a time-honored tradition among sourdough aficionados, like a rite of passage. In fact, it’s considered bad luck not to name your starter. After all, your starter is a living (or at least teeming with life) entity. Mine, for instance, is named Al-dough Leopold, and I have a Gluten-Free starter named Dough-ting Thomas.
Now, with your starter ready and named, you’re all set to embark on your sourdough adventures. Watch for my Basic Beginner’s Sourdough Recipe, soon to complete your journey.
Storing Your Starter
Depending on the frequency and scale of your sourdough baking endeavors, you can store your starter in one of two ways.
If you’re whipping up bread a few times a week or more, storing your starter at room temperature is best. This encourages faster fermentation, making the starter bubbly, active, and ready to use much quicker. Starters at room temperature must be fed once to twice daily, depending on how quickly they rise and fall.
The fridge is your best option if you’re not at it daily. Just cover your starter with a lid and pop it in there. You’ll only need to feed it about once a week to keep it strong and active when it’s not in use. You can feed it cold straight from the fridge; no need to warm it up first. When you’re ready to start baking, give your starter a room-temperature feeding to kick it back into gear.
The Ongoing Process
Feeding your sourdough starter remains a consistent process. Keep discarding half, then introduce the flour and water at a 1:1:1 ratio. If you’re baking regularly and using your starter, you might not have to discard much, if any at all. In fact, if I’m in a baking frenzy, I often leave the full amount in the jar, maintaining that 1:1:1 ratio to keep a fully loaded starter jar.
But let’s talk about that discard – it’s not a wild mystery or anything all that special. It’s just inert starter that hangs out in your fridge. If you decide to feed it, it’ll perk right back up after a few days. (Which I know from experience is nice to have in case you ruin your entire starter.) Get yourself another mason jar or even an old, cleaned-out pickle jar. Sourdough discard is a simple way to reduce waste while infusing your life with some pseudo-sourdough flavor, without the extended proofing time demanded by a standard sourdough loaf.
I often find myself using my discard for recipes more than my starter. Sourdough discard pizzas are quick, easy and taste incredible. My sourdough discard sandwich bread is a kitchen favorite that just might have you saying goodbye to store-bought loaves for good.
Bread-y, Set, Go!
You’ve made it! You’ve successfully nurtured your sourdough starter from the first bubbling brew of flour and water to your fully active, bread-rising companion. Remember, sourdough is a living entity, a testament to the magic of fermentation.
With this sourdough starter, you’re not just getting a reliable leavening agent; you’re joining a rich tradition of bakers who have crafted and named their starters over the years. Your kitchen is now a stage for the artistry of sourdough, from hearty loaves to delightful discard recipes.
So, whether creating rustic boules or inventive pastries, remember that your sourdough starter is your partner in dough-mestic bliss. Happy baking!
Learn how to create your very own sourdough starter in just a matter of days with this easy-to-follow guide. With minimal ingredients and a little patience, you’ll soon have a lively sourdough companion ready to elevate your bread and baking adventures.
Combine 60g of whole wheat flour and 60g of warm water (appx. 75-85°) in your container of choice and mix with a fork to an even consistency.Your starter should be thick and pasty. If it's too soupy, sprinkle in more flour. If it's a dry lump, add a bit more water.
Seal the lid and place your starter in a spot with temperatures appx. 75-80°.
A Sourdough Home, Proofing Mat or Proofing Box comes in handy if your house is colder. In a pinch, you can place your starter in the microwave with the door cracked (so the light stays on) or in the oven with the oven light turned on.If storing your starter in the oven, make sure to put a Post-It note on the controls to avoid preheating your oven with the starter inside.
Check to see if any bubbles have appeared in the starter. If not, don’t worry. They may have disappeared overnight.
Place the starter back in its warm location.
You may see an unappealing dark liquid on top of your starter. This is called “hooch.” It may smell like a combination of rubbing alcohol and “worn gym socks,” but it’s nothing to worry about. Hooch is a sign that your starter needs to be fed. Don’t make any sudden moves. When you make subsequent feedings, you can either pour it off or stir it back into your starter based on your personal preference.
Remove and discard half of your starter, leaving yourself with approximately 60g.Wait until your starter is active before saving your discard. Under no circumstances should you pour your discard down the sink as it will harden in your pipes.
Add 60g of your white all-purpose flour and 60g of warm water to your starter. Feeding should always be a 1:1:1 ratio – equal amounts of starter, flour and water. Mix it up with a fork until you have a smooth consistency.At this point, your starter should be the consistency of a thick pancake batter. If it's too thin and watery, add more flour. If it's too thick, add more water.
Days 4, 5 & 6
Continue discarding half and feeding at a 1:1:1 ratio.You should be starting to see your starter rise with bubbles in and on the surface. The ideal time to feed is when you see your starter fall. Add a rubber band or piece of tape around your jar to track how much it rises.
At this point, your starter should be doubling in size with plenty of large and small bubbles and should smell pleasant, like a brewery or robust red wine.If your starter isn't doubling at this point, just give it more time. External factors can cause the process to take up to two weeks or more.
(Optional) Transfer your starter to a new, clean jar.
If you want to avoid baking bad luck, make sure to name your starter… preferably with a bread or yeast pun.
Ongoing Care & Maintenence
Storing your Starter
If you’re baking a few times a week or more, storing your starter at room temperature is best. Starters at room temperature must be fed once to twice daily.
If you’re not baking as regularly, store your starter in the refrigerator. Starters in the fridge only need to be fed approximately once a week. When ready to bake, give your starter a room-temperature feeding.
Feeding & Discarding
Continue discarding (to keep your container from overflowing) and feeding at a 1:1:1 ratio. If you’re baking regularly, you may not have to discard as often.
After your starter is active, make sure to save your starter in another mason jar or clean pickle jar and store in the fridge for some fantastic sourdough discard recipes.