If you’ve ever wanted to learn how to make your own sourdough starter, just wait until you learn how easy (and delicious) it is!
Like I mentioned when I shared my recipe for Garlic Parmesan Sourdough Bread, I was gifted my first sourdough starter over 30 years ago. It seems like an entire lifetime ago, but that’s another story.
I LOVE the aroma, taste and texture that only comes from making homemade sourdough bread!
I decided last January to make a new sourdough starter. My husband loves bread and I wanted him to have a healthier alternative to store bought bread. I had read that bread made from a sourdough starter has some health benefits that you just don’t get in commercially produced or conventional bread.
Which makes me wonder if you aren’t wondering just why on earth you would want to make your own starter.
Why I Use a Starter
Besides the fact that I love sourdough bread, I choose to use a starter because the bread made from a sourdough starter is more nutritious, easier to digest and research suggests it seems less likely to spike your blood sugar levels, which makes it an option for those monitoring their blood sugar, like my husband.
It’s also a natural levain and the perfect alternative to store bought yeast.
Breads made from a starter also have a longer shelf life. You see, sourdough breads are made from “good” bacteria, which fight off bad bacteria. And that’s what fights off mold.
How to Make Sourdough Starter
It takes just two simple ingredients to make a starter: whole-wheat flour and filtered water.
Quite simply, a starter is created by fermenting a mixture of flour and water. The wild yeast found in the flour, combined with the good bacteria that develops during the fermentation process causes the gases to release. This reaction is what helps to develop the holes inside each loaf of sourdough bread.
I have read numerous books and recipes on sourdough starters. Everything from the science behind sourdough starters to selecting the best flours. There are a ton of recipes out there and it can be quite confusing. It doesn’t need to be.
Like I said, there are really just three simple ingredients in a starter:
- whole-wheat flour – you’ll use whole-wheat flour to get your starter started and then can switch over to unbleached all-purpose flour
- filtered or bottled water
Starter Tools & Supplies
There are just a few essentials you’ll want to have on hand before you begin to make your starter and for maintaining (feeding and using) your starter, besides your ingredients:
- whole wheat flour
- filtered water
- unbleached all-purpose or bread flour
Before you begin, take your empty jar that will contain your starter and weigh it with your kitchen scale. Make note of the weight of the empty jar and keep this information someplace where you can easily refer to it. (I use a marker and simply write the weight on the jar lid.) My jar weighs approximately 462 grams (or a little over 1 lb).
For the first week or so you will want to try to feed your starter at the same time every day. So if you start your starter at 7:00 pm, you'll want to be sure to set aside time every day at approximately the same time to feed your starter. Once you have a healthy, active starter, you will no longer need to feed it every day.
Day 1 - Starting Your Starter with a 1:1 Ratio
- Place your glass jar on your kitchen scale and zero out the scale (tare). Add 50 grams whole-wheat flour and 50 grams pure filtered or bottled water. For best results, your water should be slightly warm (80-90 degrees F). Stir vigorously until the flour is completely combined. Stirring vigorously helps to not only hydrate the flour but adds some air to the mix that will aid in fermentation.
- Loosely cover the jar. You do not want to use an airtight lid as the gases need a way to escape. Place the container in a warm, draft-free, room temperature place (like on top of the refrigerator) until the same time tomorrow.
Day 2 - Feed Your Starter with a 1:2:2 Ratio
- You may not notice any changes or bubbles in your starter today, but you'll need to feed it anyway.
- You are going to remove about half of the starter, leaving only 25 grams of starter in your jar. So, place your starter on the kitchen scale and remove all but 25 grams of starter. Remember how you wrote down the weight of your jar? You'll need that information now. So, for example, if your jar weighed 462 grams and you added 50 grams of flour and 50 grams of water on Day 1, then the total weight of the jar would be 562 grams with the starter. So, I only want 25 grams of starter (462+25=487). I will remove starter from my jar until it reaches 487 grams total weight.
- You will discard the starter that you removed from the jar as it is not strong enough to use yet. Just be sure you don't pour it down the drain.
- To feed the starter, add 50 grams of filtered lukewarm water and 50 grams of whole wheat flour. Stir vigorously, scraping the sides to fully incorporate the flour and water. Here's how: you'll leave the jar with the starter on the kitchen scale and slowly pour in the water until it weights 50 grams more. In my example, the jar with the 25 grams of starter weighed 487 grams. If I add 50 grams of water, that equals 537 grams. So, I'll pour in the water until the jar with the starter and water weighs 537 grams. Stir well. Then do the same with the flour. By adding 50 grams of whole wheat flour, my jar will now weigh 587 grams (487+50+50=587).
- Once fully combined, stir a few more times just to get a bit of air into the starter and loosely cover. Place the container back in a warm, draft-free place (wherever you placed it on day 1).
Day 3 - Feed Your Starter
- You may notice some bubbles and even a slight sour smell to your starter or maybe even some dark liquid. All perfectly normal and it's even normal if you don't.
- Feed the starter just like you did on day 2 by discarding all but 25 grams of the starter, stirring in another 50 grams of lukewarm filtered water and 50 grams of whole wheat flour. Stir together a little more to incorporate air. Re-cover and place the container back in its warm, draft-free place.
Day 4 - Feed Your Starter a 1:3:3 Ratio
- By today, you're likely to see a large increase in volume (by about 50%) and notice a sour/fruity aroma. Or maybe you'll just notice some bubbles. Whatever is going on with your starter today, just trust that it's working and continue on.
- Today will begin your 1:3:3 ratio of feeding and you will continue this feeding ratio everyday until you have a starter that is ready to be used and will then move on to the maintenance phase. A 1:3:3 ratio means 1 part starter, 3 parts flour and 3 parts water.
- Feed the starter again today just like you did on days 2 and 3. Keep 25 grams of starter. Add 75 grams of water and 75 grams of whole wheat flour. Stir to completely incorporate, re-cover and store in warm, draft-free place.
Days 5+++ - Feed Your Starter a 1:3:3 Ratio
- By day 5 your starter may appear to be ready to use. However, it's still not quite strong enough to bake with yet.
- Continue each day to feed your starter by keeping 25 grams of starter and adding 75 grams of lukewarm filtered water and 75 grams of whole wheat flour. Mix together vigorously, scraping the sides of the jar, until it is well combined.
- Cover and let sit in the same room temperature environment until the next day. I like to take a marker or piece of tape and mark the height of my starter in the jar. This will help me to see and know exactly how much my starter is growing and whether it's truly being active.
- Repeat this daily until your starter seems to be at least doubling in size in about 4-6 hours. Your starter doubling is a good indicator that it is getting strong enough to bake bread with.
- If not, repeat the feeding for a few more days until it has a healthy sour smell (not pungent), contains lots of bubbles, looks kind of spongy and has increased in volume by another 25-50%. You want your starter to do this for a few days in a row before you start baking with it and move on to the maintenance phase. Just be patient and know this process can take up to 14 days.
- Once your starter is doubling in size in 4-6 hours after feeding, you can start using your starter and will move on to the maintenance phase of feeding your sourdough starter. Congratulations!!
- You will continue the 1:3:3 ratio of feeding. To keep things simple, you can continue the 25:75:75 feeding of keeping 25 grams of starter and feeding 75 grams of water and 75 grams of flour. Whatever amount of starter you decide to keep, just remember to feed it 3 times its weight of water and 3 times its weight of flour.
- Now that you're in the maintenance phase, you can switch over to all-purpose flour, bread flour or a combination of whole wheat and white flour. Be sure to use unbleached flour. I like to use a mixture of whole wheat and unbleached all-purpose flour. So for my maintenance feeding, I'll keep 25 grams of starter, feed it 75 grams of water and 25 grams of whole wheat flour and 50 grams of all-purpose flour. But, you can totally stick with whole wheat flour to maintain your starter.
- When you are ready to start baking with your starter, you will ALWAYS feed the starter first and preferably about 8 hours or so before you want to use your starter in a recipe.
- Once you feed the sourdough starter you can either use part of it in a recipe, leave it at room temperature until the next feeding or store it in the refrigerator.
HOW TO USE YOUR STARTER IN A RECIPE
Your recipe will tell you how much starter you need to incorporate into the recipe. So, be sure that when you feed your starter that you feed it enough so that you don't use all of the starter. For example, my Garlic Parmesan Sourdough Bread recipe calls for about 70 grams of starter. So, I know I want to keep at least 25 grams of starter. Since I've been using the 1:3:3 ratio and retaining 25 grams of starter, leaving me with 170 grams of starter after feeding, I should have plenty of starter for this recipe.
So, just keep the recipe in mind when feeding your starter on a day that you know you will be incorporating it into a recipe. For example, if you are only maintaining 15 grams of starter and you use a 1:3:3 ratio for feeding, you'll have 105 grams of starter to work with. If your recipe calls for more than 90 grams of starter, you'll want to keep more than 15 grams of starter at that feeding so that you are left with enough starter to continue maintaining a sufficient starter.
The important thing is to remember to feed your starter about 8-10 hours before you want to use it in a recipe. Then you'll leave the starter out (loosely covered) until you're ready to use it. The starter will sort of rise so that it is dome shaped and will eventually flatten out and start falling. You want to use the starter before it starts to fall. Thus the reason for the 8-10 hour window. Depending on the temperature of your kitchen and other factors, your starter may take more or less time to begin to flatten or fall. Just keep an eye on it and you'll learn as you go.
HOW TO REFRIGERATE YOUR STARTER
I refer to the refrigeration of the starter as the "weekly feeding phase". If you do not plan to bake with your starter everyday or every couple of days, it is best kept in the refrigerator.
To store your starter in the refrigerator, you will first feed it your normal feeding (discard, keep a portion, add flour and water) and then leave it sitting out at room temperature until it starts to get bubbly (typically a couple of hours). This will let you know that the starter is feeding, lively and ready to be moved to the refrigerator.
Your refrigerated starter will need to be fed weekly. To feed the refrigerated starter, simply remove it from the refrigerator and proceed with your normal feeding (discard, keep some, add flour and water), allowing it to sit out for a couple of hours and then return to the refrigerator.
HOW TO USE REFRIGERATED STARTER IN A RECIPE
Because refrigeration slows down the activity of the sourdough starter, it works best if you take it out of the refrigerator two days before you plan to use it in a recipe. So, if you want to bake bread on Sunday, take it out of the refrigerator on Friday and feed it on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. After the feeding on Sunday your sourdough starter is ready to be used in a recipe.
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How to Know When Your Sourdough Starter is Ready to Start Using aka Sourdough Starter Float Test
Besides seeing bubbles in your starter and a sweet/sour aroma, you can also perform the “float test”. Simply fill a jar or cup with water and drop a teaspoon of starter into the water. The starter is ready when a teaspoon of starter floats in the glass of water.
More Recipe Ideas
If you liked learning how to start a sourdough starter, you might also like these recipe ideas from The Birch Cottage blog:
And More Sourdough Recipes & Tips
I’ve really only just begun sharing sourdough starter recipes here on The Birch Cottage blog although I’ve been tending to my starter and making breads for years. I thought it an appropriate time to share some of these sourdough recipes and tips with you. Here are a few of my favorite sources:
Til next time…