A beautiful loaf of homemade sourdough bread begins with an active, bubbly sourdough starter. Making sourdough starter from scratch isn't difficult. It takes a couple of ingredients, patience, and consistency.
Over a year ago, a friend mentioned a type homemade bread that's made without yeast. Being a person that loves making homemade yeast bread, I was intrigued.
I've been enjoying sourdough for years, and some of my favorite loaves are from farmer's markets or specialty shops. I've never thought about making it myself but wanted to give it a shot.
The more I researched and read about sourdough, the more confused I became. There were so many terms, abbreviations, and types of flours.
It seemed so overwhelming that I almost didn't try. That's why I want to show you an easy way to make a sourdough starter. It's the first step to making sourdough bread, sourdough pizza crusts, and sourdough pancakes.
What is a sourdough starter?
Sourdough starter doesn't use any conventional yeast. It's "wild yeast" used in place of packaged yeast. It takes time to grow the starter and get it to a point where it's active, but maintaining it is incredibly simple.
If you make some of this now, it can be stored it in the fridge for later. That way if there's ever a time when you can't find yeast, this starter will be there.
How to Make Sourdough Starter
I've followed many, many methods for making sourdough starter and ended up wasting a ton of flour and dumping out a bunch of discard. Now, I start with a small amount of starter and work up from there depending on how much is required per recipe.
I use a 1:1:1 method. Meaning equal amounts of water, flour, and starter by weight each time. I don't eyeball or use a measuring cup, although you can but the results will vary. Instead all the ingredients are weighed on a kitchen scale.
On Day 1, start by measuring equal amounts of water and whole wheat flour into a glass jar or ceramic food safe container. My preference is to use 50 grams of water and 50 grams of whole wheat flour.
Feel free to use more if desired as long as it's a 1:1 ratio. Stir to combine into a thick, sticky paste. Cover the jar with a piece of plastic wrap or a coffee filter secured with a rubber band. That's it for Day 1.
On Day 2, there will be little to no change in the starter. It may smell a little pungent but as far as appearance, the starter will look very similar to Day 1. The first two photos above show examples of a sourdough starter on Day 2.
Day 3 is when there may be some visible changes in the starter. It will most likely have a strong, stinky smell, and there should be some puffiness or bubbles present. The third picture above shows a starter on Day 3.
You can see some growth and a row of large bubbles along the top. There may also be a thin liquid that appears in the center or on top of the starter called "hooch." The hooch can either be stirred in or poured off.
At this point, it's time to start feeding the starter twice a day at equal intervals. Usually this is about 12 hours apart or as equally spaced out as your schedule allows (think 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.).
Now is when the 1:1:1 ratio comes into play. Measure out 50 grams of the starter (discard the remaining in the trash), 50 grams of water, and 50 grams of All-purpose or bread flour. Again, the amounts can differ, that's not a big deal as long as it's a 1:1:1 ratio.
From here on out, you'll want to feed the starter the same kind of flour every day. If you start feeding it bread flour on Day 3, then stick with bread flour. If you start with All-purpose, that's fine. Just make sure to continue and feed it All-purpose. Don't switch it up.
At each feeding, stir it well, ensuring that there are no dry flour patches left. The starter will be thick and sticky but not as thick as Day 1. The color will begin to lighten as the feedings continue. After each feeding, cover the container with plastic wrap or a coffee filter secured with a rubber band and begin to watch for growth.
What are the signs of growth in sourdough starter?
Starter can begin to show signs of growth as early as four days. This isn't common, but it does happen. Even if a starter shows growth early on, it doesn't mean that it's ready to use. A healthy, active, bubbly starter normally takes 7 to 14 days to achieve.
Some common signs that a sourdough starter is growing are large and small bubbles throughout and on the surface, a puffy appearance, and a pleasant smell or aroma.
One of the most noticeable signs is a doubling in size. After each feeding, place a rubber band or piece of colored tape on the jar at the starter's highest point. It will begin to slowly rise above the tape and over time will double in size. This is when the starter is at its most active and should be used for baking.
It's important to feed the starter after it rises and begins to fall. That's when the wild yeast has "eaten" all that it can from the flour. Feeding it will replenish the food source and allow it to rise again.
The tell-tale sign that a starter is ready to be used is the float test. Drop a dollop of starter into a glass of water, and if it floats, it's ready to be used. Starter can appear bubbly, double in size, and have a pleasant smell, but if it doesn't float, it may not be ready.
Why isn't the starter doubling in size?
I've been here a few times, and it's frustrating. Not to mention you've spent a lot of time, money, and flour. Here are a few reasons why the starter may not be rising.
- The flour - Make sure it isn't expired. Sounds crazy, but flour can expire and lose its ability to work as a starter. Double check the expiration date.
- Flour (again) - Just my opinion, but I've found that some brands work better than others. I've run out of All-purpose of one brand, switched to All-purpose of another brand and BAM! The starter started growing like crazy. Not all brands are created equal.
- Water - Consider using bottled water when feeding the starter. Some people will say if tap water doesn't contain high amounts of chlorine, there's no harm in using it. Ours doesn't. However, I went through a 10 pound bag of flour before switching to bottled water and that did the trick. I'll never use tap water again.
- Temperature - Starter is pretty resilient, but remember, it is alive. Keep it at room temperature (about 68° to 80°). During the winter I take mine into the bedroom, since it's warmer than the kitchen. If you house is really cold or drafty, consider purchasing a proofing box to keep the starter at a consistent temperature.
- Don't Overfeed - Feeding the starter too often can cause it not to grow properly. Feed it every 12 hours after it's doubled in size and begins to fall.
- Be Patient - I'm the most inpatient person when it comes to starter. Seriously, I want a tasty loaf of sourdough bread yesterday not two weeks from now. However, sometimes it takes two weeks. That's why it's important to hang onto the starter after you get it up and going. Be patient; it takes time.
How to maintain an active starter?
Continue to feed the starter twice a day as long as you plan on using it every few days. If you forget to feed it once or even twice, don't worry too much. It will be fine as long as no mold grows. Get back into the routine and make sure it's active before trying to use it in a recipe.
If you are only going to use it once or twice a month or once every six months, refrigerate it.
The picture above shows a jar of starter that I've had in the refrigerator for months. There's a thick layer of hooch on top of the starter that forms after about a week. I always pour it off, measure out the amount of starter to keep, discard the remaining, add the water and flour, and put it back in the fridge. This is done once a week to keep it fed and active.
To use the starter, bring it out of the refrigerator and begin feeding it in twelve hour intervals. As soon as it begins to double in size and pass the float test, it's ready to go. This may take 2 to 3 days.
Tips and Best Practices:
- Mold & Discoloration: If there's ever any sign of mold or discoloration, throw away the starter. There's no saving it once mold has entered the equation, and it's not safe to consume.
- Gnats & Fruit Flies: During warmer months, gnats and fruit flies love to try and get into sourdough starter. Keep it well covered and try it place it away from fresh food or areas where you normally find gnats and fruit flies.
- Discard: Don't try to save all the discard. Every time you feed the starter, there will be discard and lots of it. Discard can be used in recipes like donuts, waffles, and crackers, but if you try to keep it the discard will literally take over your kitchen. It's best to throw it in the garbage if you aren't going to use it in a recipe.
- Make Two: Speaking of discard, I inevitably end up using discard from one feeding to make an extra starter. You never know when you'll need two. I've "over watered" one, my hubby accidentally baked one, then there's mold, gnats, etc. Having a backup isn't a bad idea.
- Types of Flour - Stick with gluten based flours. That's how the wild yeast is fed. Nut flours are finely ground nuts and don't work the same when making starters.
- Weight vs. Volume - You may notice that I have this "recipe" set up in weight (grams) instead of volume (cups). I've found that the results are more consistent when the ingredients are weighed rather then using cups or eyeballing them. This may be because flour, starter, and water all weigh different amounts even when using cups for measurement. For example, you can use ½ cup of each but they would each weigh a different amount in grams. Therefore, it wouldn't be a 1:1:1 measurement.
- Keep in mind, you can make other baked goods with the discard. Like our Parmesan cheese sourdough crackers, sourdough banana bread, sourdough discard pancakes, sourdough waffles, sourdough naan, or sourdough doughnuts!
How much sourdough starter do I use in a recipe?
The measurements I use to get a starter up and going are small (50 grams of each ingredient). That's so you don't waste a lot of flour, bottled water, and discard in the process of making the wild yeast starter.
Many recipes call for 100 grams or 200 grams of active, bubbly starter. That means, you'll need to weigh out the amount that the recipe calls for when the starter is at its peak (doubled in size).
Every recipe is different and calls for a different amount of starter. My recommendation is to find the recipe you want to make a few days ahead of time. If it calls for 100 grams in starter, measure out 100 grams in starter at the next feeding instead of 50 grams. Then add 100 grams of water and 100 grams of flour.
That way, when the day comes to make the recipe, you have plenty of active starter to make the recipe and extra to feed for later use. You don't want to use all the starter in the recipe or there will be none left for later.
If you're curious about another homemade bread, then check out our new honey wheat bread recipe!
- 1 Large Glass Jar or Crock
- Rubber Band
- 50 gram(s) wheat flour
- 50 gram(s) bottled water
- 50 gram(s) all-purpose flour, or bread flour
- Day 1: Measure 50 grams of whole wheat flour and 50 grams of bottled water into the glass jar. Stir to combine. The mixture will form a thick, sticky glob. Cover the jar with plastic wrap, and place in a room temperature area (68° to 80°).50 gram(s) wheat flour50 gram(s) bottled water
- Day 2: Do nothing. The starter may have small bubbles around the edges or on the surface and a very unpleasant smell. Leave it allow until Day 3.
- Day 3: The starter will smell unpleasant and be very thick and sticky. Measure out 50 grams of the starter and discard the rest into the garbage. Add 50 grams of all-purpose or bread flour and 50 grams of bottled water to the starter. Stir to combine. The starter will be slightly less thick than Day 1 but will still be very sticky. Cover with plastic wrap. Wait about 12 hours and repeat those same steps of measuring out 50 grams of starter, adding 50 grams of flour, and 50 grams of water. Stir to combine. Cover the jar with plastic wrap, and place in a room temperature area (68° to 80°).50 gram(s) all-purpose flour
- Day 4 and Ongoing: Repeat the steps in #3 (Day 3) and feed the starter every 12 hours as your schedule permits. Somewhere between 7 and 14 days, there should be some noticeable growth in the starter. This is a great time to add the rubber band to the outside of the jar to mark the growth between each feeding. Signs of growth include large and small bubbles throughout and on top of the starter, a puffy appearance, a pleasant aroma, and doubling in size. The starter is ready to use when a dollop dropped in a cup of water floats to the surface.