Whether it conjures up a crusty, flavorful loaf of bread or a bubbling crock of flour/water starter, sourdough is a treasured part of many bakers’ kitchens.
But where does the path to sourdough bread begin? And how do you start?
Start in your own home kitchen. And begin by creating your own sourdough starter.
First, a word of advice. Sourdough baking is as much art as science. This method for making sourdough starter isn’t an exact match for the one you read on another site, or in a cookbook, or in your great-grandma’s diary.
If you have a process you’ve successfully followed before, then hey, stick with it. Or try this one and compare. All good.
OK, ready? Let’s go.
The following timeline assumes you can find a relatively warm place (68°F to 70°F) to grow your starter. More on that below.
Day 1: Combine 4 ounces (1 cup) whole rye flour (pumpernickel) or whole wheat flour with 4 ounces (1/2 cup) non-chlorinated cool water in a non-reactive container. Glass, crockery, stainless steel, or food-grade plastic all work fine for this. Here, I’m using a 4-cup glass measure.
Note that whole grain flour (whole wheat or rye) is used at the beginning of the process. This is because whole grains contain more nutrients and sourdough-friendly microorganisms than all-purpose flour.
It’s also important to feed your starter with non-chlorinated cool water; from now on, we’ll refer to this simply as “water.”
Stir everything together thoroughly; make sure there’s no dry flour anywhere. Cover the container loosely and let the mixture sit at warm room temperature (about 70°F) for 24 hours.
A note about room temperature: the colder the environment, the more slowly your starter will grow. If the normal temperature in your home is below 68°F, we suggest finding a smaller, warmer spot to develop your starter.
For instance, try setting the starter atop your water heater, refrigerator, or another appliance that might generate ambient heat. Or, set it near a heat source (baseboard heater, etc.).
Another option: set the container of starter on a folded dish towel laid atop a heating pad on its lowest setting – as I’ve done in the photo above.
A temperature-controlled bread proofer is the absolute ideal solution; if you bake lots of yeast bread, you might consider investing in one of these tools.
Day 2: You may see no activity at all in the first 24 hours, or you may see a bit of growth or bubbling.
Either way, discard half the starter (4 ounces), and add to the remainder 4 ounces (a scant 1 cup) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour, and 4 ounces (1/2 cup) cool water (if your house is warm); or lukewarm water (if it’s cold).
Mix well, cover, and let the mixture rest at room temperature for 24 hours.
Note: Why do you need to discard half the starter? It seems so wasteful…
Well, it’s necessary for three reasons. First, unless you discard, eventually you’ll end up with The Sourdough That Ate Milwaukee – too much starter. Second, keeping the starter volume the same helps balance the pH. And third, keeping the volume down offers the yeast more food to eat each time you feed it; it’s not fighting with quite so many other little yeast cells to get enough to eat.
Also, you don’t have to discard it if you don’t want to; you can give it to a friend, or use it to bake. There are quite a few recipes on our site using “discard” starter, including sourdough pizza crust, sourdough pretzels, and my all-time favorite waffles.
Days 3, 4, & 5: By the third day (pictured top left), you’ll likely see some activity – bubbling; a fresh, fruity aroma, and some evidence of expansion. It’s now time to begin two feedings daily, as evenly spaced as your schedule allows.
For each feeding, weigh out 4 ounces starter; this will be a generous ½ cup, once it’s thoroughly stirred down. Discard any remaining starter.
Add 4 ounces (a scant 1 cup) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour, and 4 ounces (1/2 cup) water to the 4 ounces starter.
Mix the starter, flour, and water, cover, and let the mixture rest at room temperature for approximately 12 hours before repeating.
Repeat two-a-day feedings on days 4, 5, and as many days as it takes for your starter to become very active.
The photo at bottom left shows the starter 12 hours after it’s been fed on day 3. Pictured at bottom right is that same starter, 12 hours after feeding, on day 6 – see how vigorous it’s become?
After about a week of consistent feeding, your starter should be ready to use in a sourdough bread recipe.
How do you know when your starter is ready to use?
After 12 hours, the starter will have risen nicely. You’ll see lots of bubbles; there may be some little “rivulets” on the surface, full of finer bubbles.
Also, the starter should have a tangy aroma – pleasingly acidic, but not overpowering.
The starter should at least double in volume 12 hours after it’s been fed; in the pictures above, it’s taken about 4 hours to double; so this starter is ready.
Here’s our starter, 1 week after we began the process: I’d say that’s good to go.
Once the starter is ready, give it one last feeding. Pour off all but 4 ounces. Feed as usual. Let the starter rest at room temperature for 6 to 8 hours; it should be active, with bubbles breaking the surface.
Remove however much starter you need for your recipe (no more than 8 ounces, about 1 cup); and transfer the remaining 4 ounces of starter to its permanent home: a crock, jar, or whatever you’d like to store it in long-term.
But wait – what if things haven’t gone exactly according to schedule?
No worries. If, after a week, your starter isn’t ready, don’t lose heart; keep feeding it regularly, and it will gain strength – really!
Be patient. The conditions in your kitchen may be more or less conducive to building a starter, depending on room temperature, the season, humidity, or how much you’ve been baking.
Remember, the keys to developing a successful starter are using good (unbleached) flour; having a consistent feeding schedule, and ripening (growing) the starter in an environment that’s adequately warm (at least 68°F, and preferably in the 70s).
When your starter is strong enough, it’s time to go ahead and make your favorite sourdough bread.
Once your starter has been fed, and you’re ready to mix up your bread dough, you’ll want to reserve and maintain a small portion of the ripe (fed) starter (about 4 ounces; about 1/2 cup, stirred down) for future baking. Unless you plan on continuing to feed the starter twice a day, refrigerate it for future use.
Good luck! And enjoy.