How to make a Sourdough Starter

I’d tried to get into baking over the last few years. We got a second-hand bread machine from my husband’s uncle and I was excited to start on the journey…but I just never really got into it. I was never really happy with what the bread machine gave me.

After letting that goal rest for a while, I decided to give it another try, but rather than look at the tools I have and figure out what I can do with them (like looking through bread machine recipes till I find an interesting one), I took the opposite approach and decided what I wanted to make and then figured out how to make it happen (in other words, I decided I wanted to make sourdough and I then had to figure out how to do it).

The key to sourdough—and the core element in its unique taste—is an active sourdough starter.

What is a sourdough starter?

A sourdough starter is basically fermented flour.

It’s bubbly and requires some care to keep it healthy and active.

To create it, you mix flour and water and cultivate natural yeasts. These yeasts are all around us—in the air and on surfaces and on us. Thus, each sourdough starter will have its own taste profile and its activity level might vary from other starters.

I used to think that fermented foods—like a sourdough starter—all came down to science. While, yes, there is an element of science to it, fermenting foods is often more of an art. You try something, you experiment, you do a bit of guesswork…but as long as you’re within the general guidelines of fermentation, your experiments are typically safe.

What is sourdough starter used for?

Since sourdough starter is filled with natural yeasts, it takes the place of yeast in breads that require some rise.

In the process of cultivating your sourdough starter, you regularly throw out some of the starter—this is usually called discard and it has its own uses in various things.

What you’ll find on this site so far, and in the very near future, include:

  • Basic sourdough bread (coming soon)
  • Jalapeno cheddar sourdough bread
  • Sourdough bagels (coming soon)
  • Sourdough chocolate chip bagels (coming soon)
  • English muffin bread using discard (coming soon)
  • Sourdough chocolate chip cookies using discard (coming soon)

As this site continues to grow, so too will the list of sourdough recipes. A good tip if you’re searching for more is to check out the Recipe Index page.

How easy or difficult is it to care for my sourdough starter?

It’s extremely easy to create and care for a sourdough starter, all it requires is a little bit of patience.

After you’ve created your starter using the steps below, you’ll want to regularly care for it to maintain it. If you’re storing your starter at room temperature on the kitchen counter, you’ll likely want to feed it and care for it on a daily basis, though I have gone every second day and it’s been fine. If you’re storing your starter in the fridge, you’ll want to feed and care for it on a weekly basis.

Sometimes your starter will get a strange smell. Mine will often smell like acetone (nail polish remover). This can mean your yeast is hungry for fresh flour.

When my starter gets this smell, I make sure to take care of it very well for a couple days to reduce or remove the smell. From what I’ve seen, if this smell is present when using the starter, it does not affect the taste or smell of the final baked bread or cookies.

You may develop mould in your starter jar. If you do, immediately scoop or scrape it out. (I had a tiny bit of mould once and it was on the half-dry starter clinging to the inside of the jar, so I scraped it out.) Fermenting foods, like what you do when making a sourdough starter, creates a thriving colony of beneficial microorganisms that do a good job of keeping out the bad microorganisms. When I got that bit of mould, I kept a close eye on everything to see if the mould would return or spread—it never did. If your mould comes back or if it’s something more serious like black mould, toss it all out and create a new starter. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

How to Make a Sourdough Starter

It’s pretty simple. All you need for equipment and ingredients are:

  • Digital kitchen scale (like this one); you can use measuring cups if you really want to, but going by weight is best
  • A large glass jar; I used a one-litre mason jar
  • All-purpose flour
  • Water

This process takes several days.

Day one

In a clean jar, mix 60 grams of flour and 60 grams of warm water. (If you prefer using measuring cups, it’s 1/2 cup of loosely-packed flour and 1/4 cup of warm water.) Cover with plastic wrap or a lid and let it sit on the counter at room temperature for 24 hours.

Day two

Look at the starter to search for any signs of bubbles. You may or may not have them forming yet. Either way, leave the jar on the counter another 24 hours.

Day three

Remove and discard about half of the jar’s contents. Add in 60 grams of all-purpose flour and 60 grams of warm water. Stir until smooth, cover, and let sit on the counter.

Days four, five, and six

Each day, remove and discard about half the jar’s contents. Add in 60 grams of all-purpose flour and 60 grams of warm water. Stir until smooth, cover, and let sit on the counter.

By now you should be seeing bubbles in your starter. You should also see that the starter rises in the hours after you feed it and by 24 hours later it’s collapsed back down. You can wrap a rubber band around the jar at the low level to keep an eye on the rise and fall.

Day seven and onward

Your starter should be active now. The level of activeness will depend on the yeast in your starter, the temperature of the room, your local climate (such as humidity), and several other factors, most of which are beyond your control.

Now you can go about feeding and maintaining your starter on a regular schedule. Each time you feed it, first discard half of the jar’s contents, then add 60 grams flour and 60 grams warm water.

If you’re keeping your starter on your kitchen counter, you should feed it every day. However, that requires a lot of investment of flour and your time, which is fine if you’re baking regularly. If you’re not baking quite that frequently, you can store the starter in the fridge and feed it weekly.

A Few Tips and Troubleshooting

  • If you got absolutely no bubbles and the starter was a total flop, I’d suggest looking at what might have prevented the starter from growing. Is it perhaps too cold in your kitchen? Did you store it in a warm place like the oven and accidentally turn the oven on one time (and thus killed the yeast)? If you can figure out the cause, discard your starter and try again. If you can’t figure out the cause, discard your starter and try again—but perhaps try with a new bag of flour in case that was somehow the cause of your issue.
  • Don’t be disappointed if your starter is a little underwhelming. As long as it’s forming bubbles, you have a healthy and active starter. When I got started on this project, I got very little rise. Everything I read online said that when you feed the starter it will double in size, but at best I was getting a 25% rise. The yeast culture in your starter will get stronger over time as you continue to feed and maintain it. Nowadays, just a few months later, my starter will triple in size rather than just double.
  • If you’re continuing to have underwhelming results, you could try mixing in some whole wheat flour. I don’t know the explanation, but a baker friend told me it has something to do with how the flour absorbs moisture. In my research I’ve also found Canadian all-purpose flour is different from all-purpose flour in the rest of the world, which might be why I was having less-than-expected success. I now use about 12 grams of whole wheat flour and 48 grams of all purpose flour, for a total of 60 grams. (It’s a 1:4 ratio of the two flours.) This may be partly why my starter now triples in size rather than doubling.
  • You might get weird smells! Mine smells like acetone (nail polish remover) when it’s left too long. You might also get a murky liquid forming on top that smells like old gym socks—this is called “hooch”. Both of these are normal and have no ill effects on your starter, and the solution to both is being rigorous with your feeding until it goes away. I store my starter in the fridge since I bake about once a week and when I take it out, it reeks of acetone. I leave it on the counter for a few days, feeding it daily, and it’s soon smelling fresh again and is ready to be used. However, if you don’t have the few days of planning like I do, it should still be fine. I’ve baked a loaf with starter that had a strong acetone smell and the bread was completely fine.
  • After scooping out starter to make some baked goods, I usually feed it right away and I give it the same weight that I took out. For example, if I do a sourdough bread, my usual recipe calls for 50 grams of starter—so after scooping it out, I’ll put 25 grams of flour and 25 grams of warm water into my jar to bring it back up to the usual weight/volume.
  • You may want to purchase in a jar with a swing-top enclosure. I’ve got one of these, as you can see in the photos on this post. Instead of locking it down to close it, I wrap a rubber band around the locking pieces. This holds it closed but since it’s not airtight, if the starter grows far too much, it can escape and overflow (and so I keep the jar in a bowl to catch the overflow).

Now that you have a healthy and active sourdough starter, you can dive into the oddly-addicting world of sourdough baking!

Sourdough Starter

An active sourdough starter is the key ingredient for sourdough bread and a whole host of other delicious recipes.
Prep Time 7 d
Course Bread

Equipment

  • 1 Digital scale
  • 1 Jar, about a litre in size

Ingredients
  

  • All-purpose flour
  • Water

Instructions
 

  • Day one:
    In a clean jar, mix 60 grams of flour and 60 grams of warm water. (If you prefer using measuring cups, it's 1/2 cup of loosely-packed flour and 1/4 cup of warm water.) Cover with plastic wrap or a lid and let it sit on the counter at room temperature for 24 hours.
  • Day two:
    Look at the starter to search for any signs of bubbles. You may or may not have them forming yet. Either way, leave the jar on the counter another 24 hours.
  • Day three:
    Remove and discard about half of the jar's contents. Add in 60 grams of all-purpose flour and 60 grams of warm water. Stir until smooth, cover, and let sit on the counter.
  • Day four, five, and six:
    Each day, remove and discard about half the jar's contents. Add in 60 grams of all-purpose flour and 60 grams of warm water. Stir until smooth, cover, and let sit on the counter.
    By now you should be seeing bubbles in your starter. You should also see that the starter rises in the hours after you feed it and by 24 hours later it's collapsed back down. You can wrap a rubber band around the jar at the low level to keep an eye on the rise and fall.
  • Day seven and onward:
    Your starter should be active now. The level of activeness will depend on the yeast in your starter, the temperature of the room, your local climate (such as humidity), and several other factors, most of which are beyond your control.
    Now you can go about feeding and maintaining your starter on a regular schedule. Each time you feed it, first discard half of the jar's contents, then add 60 grams flour and 60 grams warm water.
    If you're keeping your starter on your kitchen counter, you should feed it every day. However, that requires a lot of investment of flour and your time, which is fine if you're baking regularly. If you're not baking quite that frequently, you can store the starter in the fridge and feed it weekly.

Notes

Some folks, like myself, have found more success mixing flours. This might be partly due to how the flour is absorbing the water and the dryish climate here in Winnipeg affects it, or perhaps because all-purpose flour in Canada is different than in the rest of the world (so this might lead to different results than an American baking blog might experience), or it could be something else entirely. I use a 1:4 ratio of whole wheat and all-purpose flour. When adding in 60 grams of flour, this means 12 grams of whole wheat and 48 of all-purpose.
You might get weird smells. Mine commonly smells like acetone (nail polish remover) when it’s left too long. You might also get a murky liquid forming on top that smells like old gym socks—this is called “hooch”. Both of these are normal and have no ill effects on your starter, and the solution to both is being rigorous with your feeding until it goes away. I store my starter in the fridge since I bake about once a week and when I take it out, it reeks of acetone. I leave it on the counter for a few days, feeding it daily, and it’s soon smelling fresh again and is ready to be used. However, if you don’t have the few days of planning like I do, it should still be fine. I’ve baked a loaf with starter that had a strong acetone smell and the bread was completely fine.
Keyword sourdough bread, sourdough starter

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