The first time I heard about making sourdough bread at home, the idea of culturing wild yeast in a jar seemed like such a daunting multi-day task. However, when dry yeast flew off the shelves in recent weeks, I was left with no choice. I learned how to make sourdough starter from scratch and cultivate natural wild yeast at home, using a few simple ingredients. I was so pleased with my decision to start this journey and it really opened my eyes to the thriving sourdough baking community.
What is a Sourdough Starter?
Sourdough starter is made with a combination of flour and water to yield a fermented dough filled with natural wild yeast. You use a portion of your starter in sourdough bread to make it rise and give it that iconic sourdough flavour. This concept of using sourdough starter to make bread has existed for thousands of years.
Let's talk a bit about the science behind sourdough. As we all know, yeast is the essential element in making bread dough rise and creating its delicious flavour. Commercial baking yeasts (such as active dry yeast and instant yeast) are very fast acting because they digest starch in flour more rapidly. The by-product carbon dioxide, trapped in dough, creates quick rise in bread.
On the other hand, sourdough starter contains a good blend of naturally-derived bacteria and yeast mainly from the surface of the grains of flour and in the air. Yes, it evens comes from the air! Which means that your starter is super unique like no other. For example, sourdough bread originating in San Francisco likely tastes very different from sourdough from New York using the exact same recipe since the yeast which develops its taste originated in a completely different place. Quite amazing, huh?
What You Need to Make a Sourdough Starter
- all-purpose flour - choose unbleached and preferably organic flour to feed your starter. Bleached flour is chemically treated to speed up aging, which could destroy wild yeast in flour.
- whole wheat flour - I found that the yeast fed on whole wheat flour is much more active, developing more bubbles and rising faster than the one fed solely on all-purpose flour.
- water - make sure the water that you use is free of chlorine that kills yeast and bacteria. Use distilled bottled water if the tap water in your area is treated with chlorine. Do not use hot water as this will kill the yeast.
- digital scale - use a simple digital scale to exactly measure out the flour and water each time. Water to flour ratio (known as hydration %) is a crucial factor in making sourdough bread later on. Wild yeast also is more active when dough is more wet, so you want to make sure your measurements are accurate.
- clear glass jar - for storing the starter. A clear glass jar such as Pyrex liquid measuring cup is preferred so that you can easily monitor the growth of your yeast culture by tracking the rise and fall. Choose a jar that the initial starter mixture on day 1 covers no more than ⅕ of its capacity.
- plastic cling wrap - for covering the starter.
- rubber bands - for marking and monitoring rise.
How to Make Sourdough Starter
It takes about one week's time to create a mature sourdough starter. There are many different techniques that can be used, with different types of flour and combinations of water-to-flour ratio. You can even use a specialized incubator to control the ambient temperature to speed up the process.
I experimented with a small batch mixture of all-purpose flour and whole wheat flour for my starter. Unlike other recipes, I only introduced 50 grams flour and 50 grams water at each feeding and still created a lively and fully mature sourdough starter within 7 days. Using my method, the sourdough discard (the waste or leftover starter) was very minimal.
In a medium-sized clear glass jar or Pyrex liquid measuring cup, mix together 25 grams all-purpose flour, 25 grams whole wheat flour and 50 grams water using a small wooden spoon (or wooden chopstick). Mix well to fully combine so that there are no dry flour particles visible. Cover with a lid or plastic cling wrap, and leave it at room temperature (70-80 F). Using a clear, glass container helps monitor the starter's progress (so you can see whether it is bubbling and rising). An ideal size jar to choose is one where the initial mixture on Day 1 covers no more than ⅕ of its volume capacity.
After the first 24 hours, you will most likely see no activity. Any sign of tiny bubbling is good because it shows the mixture is alive, but it could take up to 3 full days to see any bubbling.
Discard HALF of the starter and add the same ratio of flour and water (25 grams all-purpose flour, 25 grams whole wheat flour and 50 grams water). Stir well to combine and mark the starting level of the mixture with an elastic band. Cover with a lid or plastic cling wrap and allow the mixture to sit at room temperature (70-80 F) for another 24 hours.
Discard all but 100 grams (about ½ cup) of starter and then add 25 grams all-purpose flour, 25 grams whole wheat flour and 50 grams water. Feed the starter this way, TWICE a day, roughly 12 hours apart (feed once in the morning and once in the evening). You might start to see a more predictable rising and falling with lots of bubbles.
Repeat the steps taken on Day 4 (discard all but 100 grams of starter, and feed the starter twice a day, roughly 12 hours apart, with 25 grams all-purpose flour, 25 grams whole wheat flour, and 50 grams of water each time). At this point, the starter should definitely look lively with bubbling, and rise almost double in size.
Feed one last time following the same method (discard all but 100 grams of starter and add 25 grams all-purpose flour, 25 grams whole wheat flour, and 50 grams of water). Place a rubber band around the jar to mark the starting level so you can monitor the rate of rise to see whether it doubles in size. The starter should hopefully double in volume within 4-6 hours of feeding with lots of bubbles throughout and on the surface.
How to Check if Your Starter is Ready
To check if the starter is ready, it must pass the float test. Here's what you do:
- Place a teaspoon of starter in a glass full of water.
- If it floats, then it’s ready to be used to make sourdough bread.
- If it does not float, then continue to feed your starter for one or two more days on the same feeding schedule (twice a day, roughly 12 hours apart) and do the float test whenever you feel that it is ready.
How to Maintain and Use your Starter
- To keep your starter healthy and lively, store it in the refrigerator with a cover and feed it regularly.
- Feed your starter at least once a week by discarding HALF of your old starter and adding 25 grams all-purpose flour, 25 grams whole wheat flour and 50 grams water each week. Remember to save at least 30 grams (about 3 tablespoons) for next use.
- To use the starter to bake sourdough bread, take it out of the refrigerator 6 to 12 hours in advance and discard HALF of the old starter and feed it the same way (25 grams all-purpose flour, 25 grams whole wheat flour, and 50 grams water). Let it rise for 6 hours or until doubled in size. The best time to start your sourdough preparation is when your starter doubles in size at its peak after feeding. This could take 6 to 12 hours depending on room conditions and the type of flour used.
Frequently Asked Questions and Tips for Making a Sourdough Starter from Scratch
- Use only clean utensils and cups. Contamination could occur when you do your daily feedings by accidentally introducing other bacteria into your starter culture. Make sure to use only clean utensils and cups for mixing and measuring.
- Where should I store my starter? Temperature determines the rate of yeast growth in the starter. Generally speaking, the warmer the temperature, the faster the starter matures. It’s recommended to place the starter in a slighter warmer area of your house. I stored mine inside the oven chamber (oven turned off) which has a temperature of 22 C (72 F) throughout. Once matured after 7 days, I moved my starter to the refrigerator.
- Can I make two starters at once? Yes! In fact, I would recommend dividing the starter in half into two starters on Day 3 once it starts showing signs of bubbling. Then continue with the same feeding schedules for both starters. That way, if one of the starters goes bad for some reason, you have another one ready.
- How do I know if my starter is turning bad? If the starters shows signs of mold growth, strange colouring, or a foul and stinky smell at any time during the 7 day feeding schedule, then it has gone bad. Throw it out immediately.
- How do I know if my starter is a good starter? A good starter should smell fruity and yeasty with lots of bubbles developing throughout the entire process. It should have a thick consistency in the beginning that gradually turn runnier and then turns a bit thicker again near the end.
- How do I know if my starter is ready? To check if the starter is ready, you must do the float test. Place a teaspoon of starter in a glass full of water. If it floats, then it’s ready to be used to make sourdough bread. If it does not float, then continue to feed your starter for one or two more days on the same feeding schedule (twice a day, roughly 12 hours apart) and do the float test whenever you feel that it is ready.
- Do I just throw away the sourdough discard? You can save and store all of your discard (starter leftover) in an empty container in the refrigerator during each feeding. These leftovers are just as good as your sourdough starter and you can easily use them to make delicious pancakes, pizzas, crackers and biscuits. I will be sharing lots of discard recipes in the coming days.
How to Use Your Sourdough Starter
- Small Batch Sourdough Bread
- Savoury Chive Pancakes with Sourdough Starter
- Sourdough Cinnamon Roll Twist Bread
- Sourdough Discard Crackers with Sesame Seeds
- Artisan Green Olive Sourdough Bread
- Seeded Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread
Did you make this recipe? I would greatly appreciate a comment and rating below, letting me know what you thought of the recipe. You can also snap a picture and tag me on Instagram @aheadofthyme or share it on the Pinterest pin so that I can follow along.