How To Make Your Own Sourdough Starter (and why you should)

Pictured:  Stockholm Sourdough 2.0

I think I will start today’s post with the why before the how.  Now that I think of it, it is how I usually structure my posts anyway, but in today’s case there are actually two ‘why’-s:  they why of why you should make your own sourdough starter, and the why I am writing this post at all.  After all, there are so many instructions on the internet about how to do this – right?

Right.  There are actually many instructions about how to make a sourdough starter.  In fact, I have read at least two good ones which have helped me immensely in creating my own starter… but!  But, in the year since I’ve made it (the starter has no name, in case you wondered – I don’t name what I eat), I’ve learned a whole lot about sourdough starters which I had not known back then, most of which has to do with making the whole business more foolproof and less problematic and labor-intensive.  And when you think about it, our foremothers and -fathers baked bread in their busy schedules for thousands of years without the use of sterilized this, special that, or having time to feed the starter every eight or however many hours, the way many internet ‘sourdough gurus’ would declaim you simply must!  The truth is, it’s far simpler than that, and a lot less messy, and this is why I decided to write my own guideline for making and caring for a sourdough starter.

And then, perhaps a few insights into microbiology offered in the previous post don’t hurt one’s understanding of how to take care of this, either.

The why of why should you make your own sourdough starter is far simpler.  Do you want to bake your own delicious and healthier-for-you sourdough bread?  Do you want to save money on it?  Do you want to have guests greedily reach for more bread at a table regardless of what else is on it?  Then you want to bake sourdough bread.  And for that you need a starter.  So, you should make it.

As an aside, if you have someone who can give you a starter culture, or can buy it in a shop to perpetuate for yourself, or would prefer to get a mail-order dehydrated culture, by all means, do so.  I did not opt for those (except for a piece of Polish starter which I managed to kill – Sylwia, if you are reading this, I will come to beg another bit from you at some point!), but decided to cultivate my own starter because I find microbiology fascinating, and I wanted something authentically mine.  And what can be more authentic than making your own local starter with locally sourced flour, local wild yeasts, and the resident population of microbes?  By now you probably suspect I don’t get out much (I do, actually), but if not, and you want the fun of your own starter, then read on!

The ‘how’ of making and perpetuating a starter is, like I’ve said, a lot easier than many people would have you believe.  Why they make it sound more difficult and complicated and labor-intensive than it has to be, I don’t know.  Perhaps it is to work on their own ‘blogger’ or ‘food writer’ cred.  Don’t get me wrong, some of their advice is very good, and the two places I’ve read for advice on sourdough baking (here and here) give no bad advice – if you follow their instructions to the letter, you will have a good sourdough starter.  It is just that I have found that a lot of the more labor-intensive bits which are ‘common knowledge’ about sourdough starter are either just not true (yes you can use stainless steel bowls and utensils!), or unnecessary.

So, let’s get to it!  What do you need to start and perpetuate a sourdough starter:

  • Patience.  About two weeks’ worth (no, I don’t know where to buy any, either)
  • Tap water (cold)  Addendum:  use tap water if it is drinkable.  If you filter your tap water to drink it yourself, filter it for the starter as well.
  • Whole wheat flour (50g) – preferably local and reasonably fresh
  • White wheat flour and rye flour (latter is optional)
  • Bowl (glass, ceramic, plastic or steel – food-safe), spoon, glass jar with lid (washed out pickle or honey jar at least 1L in volume is good), volume measuring spoons or cup, kitchen scale or a measuring cup which approximates grams for flour, maybe a whisk if you want to be fancy

For cheating/troubleshooting/prevention of issues:

  • 1 teaspoon of liquid accumulated in a bucket of live natural yogurt (ready source of food-grade lactobacillus)
  • 100ml of supermarket-bought pineapple juice from a carton

What you need to do:

This section will be broken down into Day 1, Day 2, Days 3-? (usually 7-14), Troubleshooting (or in case you want to start things off with the cheats that aren’t for purists but work), and Maintaining Your Starter, for the obvious reasons.

Day 1:

  • Mix 50g of whole wheat flour and 50ml cold tap water in a small bowl until fully combined.  Scrape mixture into the glass jar (it should fill your chosen jar no more than 1/4 of volume to allow for rise later on).
  • Cover the jar with its lid, screwed on part-way (to allow a small amount of air flow but no direct contact with dust falling into the jar from above).  Leave until the next day.

Day 2:

  • Remove about half of the mixture and throw it away.
    • Here is why:  until your starter is ready, you do not want to use the discarded portions of your starter for anything food-related – simple reason is that until you have an established symbiosis of acid-manufacturing microbes (a ready starter), which will make sure no spoilage organisms such as molds or pathogens can grow in it, spoilage organisms can be present in your starter.
  • Add 25ml water and 25g of whole wheat flour to the remaining starter.  Add water first, mix the starter into it, then add flour.  Cover with the lid and leave be till next day.

Days 3-? (Usually 7-10 or so):

  • Throw away half the mixture.  Transfer the remaining half to a small bowl.  Wash out the jar with dish soap and water, rinse well, and dry.
  • Add 25ml of water and 25g of all-purpose or white bread flour to the bowl of starter.  I recommend mixing a teaspoon of rye flour as part of the flour as well (sourdough starters love rye.  I am not actually sure why, but they do).  Mix, return to clean jar, cover and leave be until next day.
  • Repeat daily until starter is ready* or at least until Day 7.

At this point you will begin to notice bubbles which form overnight in the starter.  It might, in fact, even rise and fall in-between your visits, leaving some streaks on the glass of the jar (this is why you should clean it – so you can see what your starter has been doing while you aren’t looking!).  These are good signs.  Repeat the routine daily, stirring the starter so it collapses before throwing away half.

During this stage of development, the starter may well smell spoiled, and sometimes may have a film forming over the surface.  These are not a problem – they should go away by the time the starter is ready.

* Starter is ready to bake with (and to store for future use) when it is at least seven days old and it rises on a daily basis to at least twice its height (volume) in the jar, filling it with bubbles 6-12 hours after it’s been fed.  Please note the ‘and’ there – it should be at least a week old, and it should rise.  Not one or the other.

The third and very important thing is that any off-smells which may have been present during the initial week or two should be gone, replaced by a fresh and yeasty scent.  A small hint of acetone (nail polish) scent may also be present – it is not acetone but ethyl acetate, and it is an indication that acetobacteria are taking up residence in your starter, which is a good thing.  The starter at this point can be tasted cautiously – it should be quite sour to the taste.

Once the starter is at least a week old, rises regularly a few hours after feeding, and smells yeasty, you are ready for the next stage – keeping and storing the starter.

Maintenance:

A lot of sites tell you that you must keep your starter at room temperature and you must feed it every 8 or 12 hours.  I disagree.  This is unnecessarily labor-intensive, and would discourage even me from keeping this up and having sourdough starter around.

What I do instead, is keep my starter in the fridge.  The only thing you should know about this, is that it keeps better if you feed it and put it directly into the fridge (lid on but not very tightly to allow air flow), rather than stick it into the fridge after it rises and falls (is ‘ripe’).  So, after a feeding, you can put the starter into the fridge and forget about it for 2-4 weeks, no problem.

When you want to bake, get the jar out, and feed the starter.  If it has been less than 2 weeks, you can simply take a tablespoon of it and feed that and use it to bake, retaining the jar in the fridge – if it’s been longer, I figure the starter is getting hungry, and so I tend to take entire jar out, mix twice what I need, return half of it to a (cleaned) jar to the fridge, and use the other half for baking.  You can also freeze a ‘retaining’ sample in a small plastic tub in case you manage to kill the starter somehow – or bake up all of your starter.  I haven’t done that, but I’ve heard it’s traumatic if and when it happens, so you can have a bit of ‘insurance’ in the freezer.

If you want to keep more than just the 100g of starter around, feel free to feed it more for a larger total amount.  Once the starter is ready, I tend to keep approximately 150g of it in the refrigerator.  I prefer my starter to be 100% hydration – meaning that I advocate using equal amounts (by weight) of flour and water at every feeding, and all my sourdough recipes are geared and tested with this type of starter.  If you want yours thicker or thinner, feel free to experiment once you feel you have the hang of it – just keep in mind that the more water in starter, the faster it will both, rise and fall.

Troubleshooting and ‘Cheating’:

There are two additional pieces of advice I would like to offer here, one which I have used myself (not being a huge purist after all), and one that I have read about, but which appears to me to be both, microbiologically sound and easy to use (and won’t hurt anything in any case).

The first advice is using the teaspoon of yogurt water (the liquid that collects in a bucket of any good live natural yogurt) in your initial starter culture – mixing that into the water quantity on Day 1 of your starter.  This will ensure that you have lactobacilli present in the starter from the get-go.  I have done this and it has worked really well, so I do recommend it, although by all accounts it will work fine without introducing the lactobacilli there – theoretically there are enough present on our skin and in our kitchens to inoculate the culture.

The second piece of advice is for those whose starter ‘misbehaves’ and either rises well for a while and then stops, or smells off.  This advice is to use shop-bought pineapple juice instead of water on Day 1 and Day 2 of the cycle, and then swap to the water per routine instructions above.  What this is meant to accomplish (and does according to the source), is ensuring an acidic environment for the starter to begin with, which will stop development of the wrong (non-acid-tolerant) strains of yeast and pathogens, and allow only acid-loving organisms to survive (which is what you want).  I have not tested this yet, but I am curious and might do so just to see how well it works.  According to all I’ve heard of this method, it works, and does so really well.

I realize this got wordy, so this is all there is to it, folks – once the starter is ready, you can use it in any sourdough recipe.  If the recipe calls for more starter than you have, making more is very easy – just add equal amounts of water and flour (by weight) to some of what you have, mix and leave overnight.  Oh and obviously you can first impress all your foodie friends with home-baked sourdough bread, and then magnanimously bestow pieces of the mystical bread-making grey gloop on them if they want to experiment themselves.  So, have fun!

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11 thoughts on “How To Make Your Own Sourdough Starter (and why you should)

      • Greetings. I have been making bread for ages with the help of my trusty Thermomix, but am ready for a new culinary adventure and making my own sourdough has always on my “to do”list. and now is the time. i am one of those souls who always has to do everything from scratch. Today I start. Wacko!

  1. Thank goodness for that bit at the end about the grey gloop. I may otherwise think that it’s worth throwing out looking that way. This sounds do-able, even by my limitations. I may be bombarding you with questions (emergency or otherwise) before during and after the process.
    Time to go get some rye flour.
    PS: I’ve read so many sourdough starter posts and not one of them appealed to me like this one … think I’m biased? :)
    Now all I need to do is get off my butt and get started…. once I’ve stopped sniffling, sneezing and coughing that is.
    Heard you were coming down with something as well. Hope it isn’t bad and you get over that quickly.

    • Hi and yay!

      Don’t know if you’re biased, but I did try to put in all the shortcuts and sense that I use when maintaining my gloop (it really does look like that, so worry not – rye flour addition gives dough a particularly awful grey cast!), so maybe it just seemed a lot less involved than most of the dauntingly strict instructions I’ve seen floating about?

      Feel free to prod me with any questions – you can probably start it up without any rye and add a teaspoon here and there later on in the process. The thing with starter is – the sooner you start it up, the sooner timer starts running, so if you have a bit of whole wheat flour that’s not too aged, mix it up and then go look for other frills!

      And thank you – we’ve had a touch of cold-ey or flu-ey sort of virus – not bad enough to be a full-blown flu, but it was sort of unpleasant. I think (hope!) we are both on the mend now though!

    • Hi and thank you for the reciprocal visit! We do indeed share that, as well as being from elsewhere and living in Sweden. I’ve already followed your blog as well, and despite having 4 cans of dulce de leche secreted away in the skafferi, I am sorely tempted to try the can-in-boiling-water method just to see what happens!

  2. Hi, I enjoyed your post. I keep my starter in the refrigerator and when I’m ready to refresh I mix it up, leave it at room temperature usually about 72 degrees F. overnight. Next morning I lightly punch it down and throw it back in the refrigerator until ready to use. This works perfectly for me. i usually make enough to bake 2 loaves of bread with enough left over to refresh all over again.

    • Hey and thank you again!

      Your method sounds very much like mine – I, too, keep my starter in the fridge and mix it up/refresh it when I need it (and refresh the culture in the fridge every 4 weeks or so if I don’t bake more often). That, and keeping the levain in the refrigerator is the most sensible way to deal with a real life, a small modern kitchen and sourdough baking!

  3. I left my starter in the fridge for at least two months with no feedings, and it smelled pretty bad but recovered after a couple of feedings.

    Also I don’t keep the jar of starter continuously; I put it all in the dough and take out and feed a tiny bit right before baking. I have a backup with a friend but I’ve never needed it yet.

    When I made my starter, it bubbled vigorously for the second and third days or so, then stopped for a few days, then started again. I’ve read that this “false start” is often caused by Leuconostoc species (also responsible for making pickles sour and fizzy) and cannot be used to raise bread (not sure why that’s the case, maybe just because it’s not a stable culture? I’ve read about making “salt rising” bread with Clostridium perfringens, a different bacterium, and kind of want to try it…). So very early bubbling is neither a good nor a bad sign, maybe yeast but likely just a phase before the ecosystem stabilizes.

    • Hey there and thank you for stopping by and the detailed comment!

      The reason you do not want to use the ‘false start’ to raise bread is simple, and health-related, for the most part. What I mean is that until you have a Lactobacillus and a symbiotic yeast population that drives out all the other microflora, you risk food poisoning because in the early stages of sourdough starter stabilization, pathogens can be present (since the symbiotic balance with high acidity is not yet reached). One could argue that heat would destroy them anyway, but why risk it? The other side of this is that the wrong species of yeast and/or bacteria may consume the protein in the bread dough instead of starch and lead you to collapsed bread (very often the case with immature starters), which you don’t want.

      I have heard about salt bread, but being a biologist, anything in the genus Clostridium makes me shudder, and I’ve also heard that the smell of the dough as it rises is godawful and erm, I just won’t repeat what was said, so I have never tried – I have a sensitive nose and couldn’t handle a stinky (small!) kitchen. However, I have heard that it is an ok bread once you’re through all that.

      And I agree that early bubbling is neither good nor bad – but that is why I give the pineapple juice tip, since that acidifies the medium from the start and eliminates that problem by making environment friendlier for the right types of organisms.

      Great to hear from a fellow sourdough baker and I hope you stop by again!

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