An important key to mastering sourdough starter baking is understanding sourdough starters. What is a sourdough starter, you may be asking.
Learning to make your very own sourdough starter doesn’t have to be confusing or intimidating. Armed with a good understanding of sourdough starters will go a long way towards making your baking experience with sourdough an enjoyable one!
Understanding Sourdough Starters
One of the things that I think contributes towards all the confusion and uncertainty about where to even start with making a sourdough starter is that everyone seems to have a different recipe or technique for making sourdough starter.
However, this difference isn’t really a matter of who’s right or who’s wrong. It’s really a matter of what technique the baker is most comfortable with and what technique YOU are most comfortable with. For example, are you more comfortable weighing your ingredients or do you prefer to measure them?
The most important thing about starting a sourdough starter is to keep in mind that the ratios are important. So, whether you weigh your ingredients or you measure them out or you just eyeball it, the end result will be the same – wonderful, aromatic sourdough.
What is a Sourdough Starter?
So, let’s back up a moment and take a look at what exactly is meant by “sourdough starter.”
A sourdough starter is a natural culture composed of wild yeasts and bacteria that is used to leaven bread. In other words, it’s made naturally and you do not need to add yeast to the starter or the baked goods you make with the starter. Although there are different methods for creating sourdough starters, they all generally consist of two ingredients: flour and water.
The wild yeasts and bacteria are found naturally in the flour as well as in the air. These yeast and bacteria need two things to thrive: water and food. The food, of course, is the flour. What happens is that when you add water to the flour, it activates the yeast and bacteria and they start feeding on the starches in the flour. This feeding creates and/or causes carbon gases, acids and alcohol to be released – a process known as fermentation.
To keep your sourdough starter alive, you will “feed” it specific amounts of flour and water. The more you feed your starter, the stronger and more active it will become. In fact, after the initial 7-14 days of daily feeding, your starter will become strong enough to leaven bread.
What about Yeast?
Yeast, my friend is a fungus, and it is all around us. It is floating in the air; it lives in and on our bodies. Yeast also lives in the soil, on plants and even on a lot of the foods we eat.
When you buy a loaf of bread in the store or from your favorite bakery, it is made in one of two ways: with commercially produced yeast or a sourdough starter.
Most breads you buy off the shelf of your favorite grocery store are made with commercially produced yeast. This commercially produced yeast was actually made in a lab and designed to quickly leaven bread.
Commercially produced yeast itself can be found on the shelves of your grocery store. It’s usually in a dried form and sold in packets, jars or bags. You can also find it in the refrigerated part of the grocery store. A couple of brands that you may be familiar with are: Fleischmann’s Active Dry Yeast and Red Star Active Dry Yeast. It comes it packets, jars and bags or pouches.
So, yeast is a type of leaven or substance that causes fermentation and expansion of dough. Just as commercially produced yeast ferments and makes dough rise (expand), so does a naturally grown sourdough starter.
Of course, this means that sourdough starter is also a type of leaven. It’s a type of leaven that we create in our very own homes using two simple ingredients: flour and water. As the microbes eat the sugars in the flour, they exhale carbon dioxide, producing the bubbles that turn a flat, dense loaf into something light and fluffy.
Why don’t we simply use store bought yeast? Good question!
Do you remember that at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 (and months to come) how yeast (along with toilet paper) was just flying off the shelves? The pandemic was just a little wake-up call to remind us of how reliant we have become on other people to provide the things we need. We simply run to the store any time we want to get the supplies we need. But, what happens when that supply chain breaks down?
People bake with sourdough starters for different reasons. Homesteaders have been using sourdough starters for centuries as it provides an endless supply of levain for bread baking. Others bake with sourdough starters simply because they love the rich unique flavor. And some bake with sourdough starters because of the health benefits and the fact that it is easier to digest and can possible be eaten without the spike in blood sugar that happens when you eat regular bread. And yet some bake with sourdough starters because it is so fun to nurture, grow and make something that is uniquely yours.
But, isn’t making your own sourdough starter difficult and time consuming?
There is a minor daily (initially) and weekly time commitment to making and maintaining your own sourdough starter. When you are just starting to make your sourdough starter from scratch (you can also obtain a starter from someone or purchase them online), it does take about 5-10 minutes a day to feed and care for your starter.
Once you have a healthy, thriving starter, you can refrigerate the starter and only feed it weekly to keep it growing. Going on vacation? Don’t worry about it. Going out of town for the weekend? Don’t worry about it. Sourdough starters are actually very forgiving.
Understanding Sourdough Starters
Baking bread with a sourdough starter does take more time. But once you understand the process and are equipped with a little knowledge, it is a true joy. It is also downright fun to watch your starter grow and bubble and thrive right before your eyes.
So, start with the basics. Sourdough starter baking doesn’t have to be complicated or scary. In fact, it can be extremely easy and rewarding. Of course, there are more complicated recipes and techniques. But start with the basics. Have a few successes and then move on to more complicated recipes, if you want.
By starting with the basics, you’ll not only set yourself up for success, but slowly gain knowledge and techniques so that you can be a confident sourdough starter baker.
Sourdough Starter Process
People who bake with a sourdough starter either obtained a starter from someone else, purchased one or have made their own starter.
The process for making your own sourdough starter is really quite simple. Like I said, there are different methods but all those methods come down to essentially two ingredients: flour and water. When the flour and water are combined, they begin a process called fermentation.
Remember the naturally occurring yeast and bacteria I told you about earlier in this article? They are found naturally in the air and in the flour. Well, when you add water to the starter, these very yeast and bacteria start feeding on the starches in the flour. Which is exactly what we want.
In fact, we encourage this fermentation process by adding fresh flour and water to the starter every day until it becomes so active that it can be used to leaven bread.
Tip #1: Make Time
Like I said, you will need to set aside 5-10 minutes every day for the first 10-14 days to care for and feed your starter. (When you add flour and water to your starter, this is called “feeding your starter”.) As much as possible, you’ll want this to be at the same time every day.
As your starter becomes active and ready to be used to make sourdough bread, you won’t have to tend to it and feed it everyday, unless that’s the schedule you want.
To maintain an active starter that isn’t used daily, you will simply store it in the refrigerator and feed it once a week. (More on that later.)
Tip #2: Choose the Right Equipment
There are a few pieces of equipment that you will need to be the most successful at starting and maintaining your sourdough starter.
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Sourdough Starter Equipment
- digital scale – I prefer to weigh my flour and water. This is a tried and true method that takes all the guessing out of making your sourdough starter.
- 3 – 32 oz glass jars – You’ll want to have one for your starter, one for your discard and one clean one that you can switch your starter into. Keep in mind that you do NO want an airtight lid.
- jar spatula – I find using a small rubber spatula makes mixing the starter in the jars so much easier. You can, of course, use a wooden spoon, but the spatula really does make it easier.
Sourdough Bread Baking Equipment
There are other pieces of equipment that you will or may want to have on hand as you begin making sourdough breads. I’ll talk more about that later, but here are some basics to consider:
- dutch oven – You will want a dutch oven or an oven safe pan with a lid that can be heated to 450 F (230 C).
- banneton basket – A wicker basket that is used to proof bread in. The basket helps the bread hold its shape as it proofs.
- round glass bowl – If you don’t use a banneton basket, you’ll need a round glass bowl for proofing your dough.
- bread lame – A bread lame is a tool that has a razor blade attached to it that is specifically used to score bread. You can simply use a sharp kitchen knife, too.
- bowl scraper and bench scraper – Although not completely necessary. The scrapers do make it easier to handle the dough and a lot less messy.
Tip #3: Choose the Right Ingredients
To get started making your sourdough starter, you’ll need only two ingredients: whole wheat flour and filtered water. Then as you begin baking basic sourdough bread, you’ll also need unbleached white flour, uniodized salt (sea salt) and maybe rice flour.
- whole wheat flour – Whole wheat or whole grain flour has more natural yeast, bacteria and nutrients. Use whole wheat flour to help get your starter off to a healthy start.
- unbleached all-purpose or bread flour – When you start making your bread, you’ll incorporate unbleached flour into your recipe. You do not want to use bleached flour. You can use all-purpose or bread flour – just make sure it’s unbleached.
- filtered water – Because tap water contains chemicals, you will want to use filtered water for best results. You can filter tap water by boiling it and then letting it cool to room temperature or by leaving it sit out overnight uncovered.
- uniodized salt – Use either sea salt or kosher salt in your bread dough. The iodized salt can negatively impact the fermentation process. I prefer to use fine sea salt, but any uniodized or kosher salt will work.
- rice flour – You’ll find that some recipes and sourdough bread bakers use rice flour for dusting the banneton basket. This is a very fine flour and does an excellent job of helping to prevent your bread from sticking. I highly recommend the rice flour if you’re planning to use a banneton basket.
- 50 grams whole-wheat flour
- 50 grams water, filterd or bottled
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.)
Day 1 - Starting Your Starter
In a 32-48 oz glass or plastic container, combine 50 grams whole-wheat flour and 50 grams pure filtered or bottled water. Stir until the flour is completely combined.
Loosely cover the jar. Place the container in a warm, draft-free place (like on top of the refrigerator).
Day 2 - Feed Your Starter
You may not notice any changes or bubbles in your starter today, but you'll need to feed it anyway.
Feed the starter with 4 oz unbleached all-purpose flour and 4 oz lukewarm filtered water. Stir to fully incorporate the flour and water.
(NOTE: I like to add the water first, fully incorporate it into the starter and then add the flour, fully incorporating it as well.)
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.
Feed the starter just like you did on day 2 by stirring in another 4 oz of unbleached flour and 4 oz of lukewarm filtered water. 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
By today, you're likely to see a large increase in volume (by about 50%) and notice a sour/fruity aroma.
Feed the starter again today just like you did on days 2 and 3. Feed with 4 oz unbleached all-purpose flour and 4 oz filtered water. Stir to completely incorporate, re-cover and store in warm, draft-free place.
Days 5-7 - Feed Your Starter
By day 5 your starter may be ready to use. If not, repeat the feeding (4 oz flour and 4 oz water) 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%.
Feed your starter one more time: 4 oz unbleached all-purpose flour and 4 oz lukewarm filtered water; stirring to thoroughly combine. Re-cover and let rest for at least 6-12 hours.
After the starter has rested, remove 9-1/2 oz for use in a recipe (approximately 1 cup). Remove another 9-1/2 oz to another 4-quart container. This will be your starter. You can now give it a name and either place the sealed container in the refrigerator (to be fed weekly) or back in its warm place.
You'll discard any extra starter or use it in a "discard" recipe, such as pancakes.
If you store your starter in the refrigerator, you will need to feed it once a week.
Remove half the starter to a clean 4-quart container. Feed the starter in its new container with 4 oz unbleached all-purpose flour and 4 oz lukewarm water. Loosely cover the container and leave it out for a couple of hours, then return it to the refrigerator, tightly covered.
Baking with Refrigerated Starter
You'll want to remove the starter from the refrigerator at least 24 hours before using it. You'll also need to feed the starter before using it, using 4 oz unbleached all-purpose flour (or whatever flour your recipe calls for) and 4 oz lukewarm filtered water.
The starter is ready for baking 6-12 hours after being fed. Once you remove the needed starter for your bread recipe, simply cover the remaining starter and place it back in the refrigerator.
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Sourdough Starter Basics Series
This is the second post in my sourdough starter basics series. You’ll find my sourdough starter recipe here, which is the first in my sourdough starter basics series. And my garlic parmesan sourdough bread recipe here, if you want to try something a little more challenging.
Some of my favorite sourdough resources that I have actually used and learned from are listed below.
- Flour Water Salt Yeast by Ken Forkish
- Gluten Free Artisan Bread in 5 minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg, M.D.
- Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson
- Starter Sourdough by Carroll Pellegrinelli
- The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum
- The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg, M.D. and Zoe Francois
I also have a Sourdough Bread Playlist on my YouTube Channel.
I hope this sourdough starter basics lesson on understanding sourdough starters has proven helpful to you. Be sure to check out my sourdough starter recipe, garlic parmesan sourdough starter recipe and check back often as this is just the second blog post in my sourdough basics series.
Til next time…