How to Make a Sourdough Starter from Scratch

Jun 3

How to make a Sourdough Starter, using only whole ingredients and no special equipment.  In just one week, have a starter that can be used to make sourdough bread, pizza dough, waffles, banana bread, pancakes, tortillas, biscuits and more. 

Have you been thinking about jumping on the sourdough wagon?  Sourdough is more popular than ever, and for good reason!  If you’ve been a part of the traditional foods community, you likely have known about sourdough for years, but for those who are just discovering this kitchen staple, welcome! Here are just a few of the reasons to love sourdough:

  1. It eliminates phytic acid.

Phytic acid is basically an antinutrient found in grains, beans, and nuts that interferes with the absorption of certain nutrients. They exist on grains to keep them from spoiling, but our bodies just aren’t made to handle them. Preparing grains properly will eliminate most, possibly all, of the phytic acid, and make them much easier to digest.  Our ancestors and traditional cultures have always soaked and fermented grains, but sadly that art has disappeared over the years.

  1. It’s SO delicious.

This may be a given, but once you’ve experienced homemade sour dough baked goods, there really is no turning back.  Homemade sourdough bread has a depth of flavor that just can’t be found in something made with instant yeast, and is certainly unmatched by any store-bought breads.  It’s also healthier and easier to digest.  Plus, nothing lifts your spirits like the smell of fresh bread in the oven! 

  1.  It’s so much easier than you think! 

The biggest barrier to getting started with sourdough is overthinking it.  Will it be too hard? Take too much time?  I assure you that it won’t.  The best thing to do is just dive right in and mix up that first bit of starter, and you’ll likely surprise yourself.  If you’re a very frequent baker, you may opt to leave your starter on the counter and feed it every day, but I’d recommend storing in the fridge between uses.  The cold temps slow the fermentation process, allowing you to feed the starter only once per week. Unless you are using your starter on a daily basis, the fridge is the way to go.

WHAT IS SOURDOUGH STARTER? 

Think of sourdough starter as yeast. Instead of buying a packet of yeast from the store, you are making your own living yeast by fermenting flour and water.  Really, nothing but those two ingredients!  Once your starter is alive, it is like a very low-maintenance pet, and can be kept alive for years. You can even share some of it with friends.

You must feed it (stir in a mixture of flour and water) at least once a week to keep it alive.  You’ll know it’s happy when it bubbles. 😉 

WHAT IS FEEDING? 

It’s kind of a strange term to use, but feeding your sour dough starter is just adding a mixture of flour and water to your existing starter, to keep it alive and happy.  Starter is full of wild yeasts that get hungry, and thus need “food” (ie. more flour) to stay healthy and active.

How often you will need to feed it depends largely on the temperature you’re storing at. The starter will metabolize the flour more quickly in warm environments, and more slowly in cold environments (like the fridge).  Even on the counter, you’ll likely see a difference in summer vs. winter.  If you keep your starter in the fridge, you will only need to feed it once a week. If you keep it on the counter you may need to feed it 1-2 times daily. Most people are going to want to store in the fridge, unless you are an avid baker making something with it several times per week.

WHAT YOU’LL NEED

Flour (Whole grain wheat, unbleached all-purpose, you can experiment here. This is the kind I like to use)

Filtered water (We use and can highly recommend a Berkey water filter)

Large Mason Jar with Lid (I like the 32oz size)

THE PROCESS

On day one, mix one cup of flour and 3/4 cup filtered water. I’ve seen others recommend 1 cup water, and some as low as 1/2 cup, but I’ve found between 3/4 – 1 cup to work well. It is important to use filtered water – chlorine and other chemicals found in tap water can interfere with the fermentation process. Stir vigorously, making sure to scrape down the sides and incorporate everything. Cover and allow it to sit for 24 hours.

On day two, discard half of the mixture and repeat the process. Add one cup flour, 3/4 cup water, stir vigorously, and cover.  

Why do you have to remove half?  Because you have to feed your starter proportionately to the amount of starter there is.  If you didn’t remove any, you’d soon be having to feed with 3 or 4 cups of flour and water instead of 1 cup, and you’d have way too much starter on your hands.  You can throw away the discard, or you can use it in certain recipes, like my pancakes or discard banana bread. However, I wouldn’t recommend using your discard until it gets going a little bit. Days 1-3 it is better to just toss it.

Repeat the day two instructions on days three, four, and five.

On days six and seven, do the same steps but feed it every 12 hours, instead of every 24.

At the end of a week, there should be enough beneficial bacteria and yeast present to begin baking yummy sourdough bread and other fermented goods, like pancakes and muffins.

You will know it’s working if it has bubbles a few hours after feeding, and may even double in size.  Some people find it helpful to put a rubber band around the jar at the top of the starter after you feed it, so you can easily determine how much it rises above the band.

MAINTAINING YOUR STARTER

Once your sourdough starter is alive and active, you will need to do some maintenance to keep it going for years to come.  Starters are pretty resilient and can be kept for an endless amount of time.

You will most likely want to store your starter in the refrigerator for occasional use (a couple times per week or less).  The refrigerator slows down the fermentation process, so one feeding per week, or even every other week, is sufficient.

Since the bacteria are active at room temperature, they will require more frequent feedings at lower temps.  If you leave your starter out on the counter, you will need to feed with more flour and water every single day. You would likely need to be baking every day to use up all that starter, so I recommend storing in the fridge.

You’ll know your starter needs to be fed when it starts falling and looking flat.  Keep in mind that you want to feed proportionately to how much starter you have on hand.  If there are 2 cups of starter in the jar, you can’t get away with feeding only ½ cup flour.  It will take that over quickly and be “hungry” again. A good rule of thumb is to feed a 1/2 cup of starter with 1 cup of flour. It is better to underfeed your starter than overfeed, especially during that first week when you are getting it going. Signs that it is hungry include it deflating and sliding back down in the jar, or getting a little watery on top.

HOW EXACTLY DOES IT WORK?

It does seem like magic, doesn’t it?  Creating a live, bubbly environment full of healthy bacteria, using nothing more than flour and water, seems almost too good to be true.  This goes back to the phytic acid that exists on all flour.  Leaving the flour/water mixture at room temperature allows that bacteria to ferment and multiply.  When you add new flour in a feeding, within a few hours the starter will take over that new flour and ferment it into more starter.

TROUBLESHOOTING

  • SMELL: Starter should smell sweet and tangy, and not “bad”.  If the smells is very unpleasant, it’s possible some other bacteria got into your jar and you may want to start over.
  • NOT RISING: If your starter was doing great, then sort of fizzled out, try adding a bit of whole grain flour along with your regular flour at the feedings and be sure you are feeding the 1/2 cup starter a full heaping cup of flour. Consider the temperature of your kitchen, and give it a little extra time to “digest” the flour. It can sometimes take more than 12 hours for starter to need another feeding, especially when it’s cold. You can skip a feeding if it looks like it is still peaking or rising.
  • AVOID OVERFEEDING: Feeding every 12-hours may be too often for your starter. You want to feed after the starter has peaked, then deflated. If you feed the starter before it has had a chance to “digest” all that flour, you’ll end up diluting the good bacteria and thus weaken your starter.  Rising and falling are good signs, but you may not always see that. If the starter just gets liquidy, or runny enough to pour out of the jar, this is also a sign of hunger.  Or if it gets runny enough to pour out of the jar, another sign it is hungry. Just follow the signs of your starter, and don’t worry as much about the time. It is better to underfeed than to overfeed.
  • FLOUR: You can really get away with any flour, but may want to use a whole grain flour initially, then you can switch over to bread flour. The more wild yeast in the flour, the better, so you’ll want to avoid brands that have been overly processed.  You can also mix flours and switch between different types – starter is very flexible. I did use just plain all-purpose flour when I made my starter and it ended up fine, but it was a bit slow to get going and I think whole grain may have given me better results.
  • LIQUID: If there is liquid at the top of your starter, it means it is hungry. You can stir the liquid in or pour it out, then feed it. This is a sign that your starter may need fed more often than your current schedule.

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