Learn how to make a sourdough starter! Capture all-natural yeast from the air in seven days, spending only one minute each day adding flour and water. Perfect for making sourdough bread, pancakes, and more!
My adventures in sourdough began a few years ago when my sister gave me a really awesome cookbook for Christmas. It’s filled with make-your-belly happy “home-style” food, but with an underlying healthy, organic-like theme.
Right up my alley, right?
One of the recipes inside was for sourdough starter.
I followed the recipe exactly, but my starter didn’t um, start. I blamed it on the climate. It was a mild 68 degrees nearly year-round while living in central California. Not exactly “warm” and inviting to the yeast that floats around in the air.
I gave up on sourdough. What was the point of adding more flour and more water if there were no bubbles and no confirmed life in my mason jar?
Yet, nagging the back of my mind I still wanted to try sourdough bread. It has probiotic properties similar to yogurt and kefir – which can only be good for the health of my family.
So I tried a starter kit from Cultures for Health. At the same time, I read the recipe in Nourishing Traditions for a sourdough starter from scratch. I started both batches on the same day, thinking if I’m “feeding” one, I might as well feed two.
The starter kit took as long as it said it would – 3 days. Easy, peasy, done. The Nourishing Traditions method, using only rye flour and water, took 7 days.
YES! Both methods worked!
But if you’re looking for more of an adventure, try making your own from scratch. It’s just as rewarding as the starter kit, perhaps more so since you’ve “captured” the wild yeast from the air. I’m telling you, the “creating something from nothing” idea is pretty neat!
How do you make a sourdough starter from scratch?
Be sure to read the entire tutorial and tips through before starting your sourdough.
Ingredients for your sourdough starter
- 4 cups flour, divided (whole wheat is best, but any wheat flour will work)
- 1 cup cold (or room temperature) filtered water (not tap water)
- large bowl (approx gallon-size) with lid
Method: The Initial Sourdough Starter
In a large bowl, combine ½ cup of flour with ½ cup of water. The mixture will be very soupy. Lightly cover the bowl with a lid, leaving it cracked so that air can flow freely. If bugs and insects are an issue, you may cover the bowl with a cheesecloth and secure it with a rubber band.
Place the bowl in a warm spot where it can sit undisturbed. This could be outside on a patio, on a kitchen counter, in a pantry cabinet, or in the oven with the light on.
Every day, for the next seven days, at approximately the same time, feed the starter 1/4 cup of flour and 1/4 cup water. Stir, re-cover and allow to sit. Repeat.
The starter will go through a bubbly and frothy stage and eventually subside. The starter will smell like yeast and/or wine, but the smell should always be pleasant. If the starter ever smells sour or rancid, it has been contaminated and should be thrown away.
What will my sourdough starter look like on each day?
One big bubble and a few smaller ones – both signs that the starter is headed in the right direction. If yours doesn’t have bubbles after the first day, have no fear. Sometimes it takes a few days before you see any sign of life. Keep feeding the starter as directed.
Lots of bubbles! This is officially the “bubbly” stage. Life exists and it’s producing carbon dioxide!
The bubbles have subsided and it’s more “frothy.” It smells distinctly sweet – the smell of natural yeast.
The frothy stage is nearly over and there’s a small layer of liquid gather at the top – another good sign. This is when you’d want to pour it off if before feeding the starter (see tips below). If the liquid isn’t separated enough to easily pour it off, just mix it up into the starter before you feed it.
The frothy stage is over and there’s even more liquid than before. The sweet smell is still there, yet more pungent, similar to the smell of wine.
Lots of liquid and a thin consistent layer of foam on top. Almost there!
Done! Liquid on top, intermittent foam. At this point, the liquid could be poured off and the starter would be suitable to make bread.
Day 7, Side View
A side shot of the liquid that forms at the top of the starter.
How do you feed your sourdough starter?
Once the starter is officially created, it enters maintenance mode. The frequency of feedings is determined by how much starter you need and how often you plan to use it.
- At a minimum, the starter can be kept in the refrigerator and fed once a week merely to sustain life (the yeast). Although, this isn’t recommended until the starter is 4 weeks old.
- You can continue to feed it daily as you have been and use sourdough discard in sourdough pancakes or sourdough biscuits.
- You can also feed it daily with as little as one tablespoon of flour and water – enough to continue daily growth but not produce a large quantity of starter.
However frequent or infrequent you decide to feed your starter, the yeast thrives best when it’s fed regularly and consistently. Choose your time frame and quantity and stick with it as best as you can!
How long can you keep a sourdough starter in the fridge?
Yeast grows incredibly slow at refrigeration temperatures, which is why you can get away with feeding it only once a week. In order for the yeast to successfully leaven a batch of bread, it must be “revived” so to say. The steps are below, along with an example to help you better understand the time frame involved.
- Three and a half days before you plan to bake bread, remove the starter from the fridge and allow to come to room temperature. (Monday night)
- Once the starter is at room temperature, feed with equal parts flour and water. (Tuesday morning)
- Later that day, feed the starter again with equal parts flour and water. (Tuesday afternoon)
- That evening, if you have foam and liquid rising to the top of the starter, you are ready to bake bread. If you do not, continue feeding daily until there is foam and liquid rising to the top.
With the time involved in “reviving” refrigerated sourdough, it’s often easier to keep the starter at room temperature and reduce the feedings to only a tablespoon or two daily. You’ll have to choose what will work better for you and your bread making routine.
How old is the oldest sourdough starter?
I’ve read of families using starters originally from generations ago!
What is the best flour for sourdough starter?
The best flours for sourdough are white, spelt, rye, and whole wheat flour. You can also make einkorn sourdough using my einkorn sourdough tutorial. You can easily switch to a different flour once the starter has gone through the first seven days. To do this:
- Split the starter in half, placing half in the refrigerator. This is your back-up in case your attempt in switching flours fails.
- Feed your starter as desired (per options above) using the new flour.
- Within a few days, the starter should be successfully converted.
- If after a few days you no longer see bubbles and liquid forming at the top, the conversion was not successful. Use what you have in a non-bread recipe and try again with the refrigerated starter.
What can I use the leftover sourdough discard for?
Additional tips for making your own sourdough starter
- If your starter outgrows your jar, you may split it between two jars. Continue the feeding process, dividing the flour and water between the bowls (2 Tbsp of each, for each bowl).
- If you are culturing other items simultaneously, be sure to leave at least 3-5 feet of space between each item so the yeasts do not cross-contaminate. (Sourdough won’t make your kefir “bad,” but over time both cultures can weaken. Best just to keep them apart.)
- When using your starter in a recipe, leave behind approximately 1/2 cup of starter to feed. This ensures you have enough yeast to continue fermenting at the same pace you have been.
- Use water kefir instead of filtered water to produce a ready starter in less time.
- The good, healthy bacteria live in the water that often collects at the surface. It’s the bacteria that gives the bread its sour taste.
- The yeast lives in the dough portion of the starter. The yeast is what must be fed so it can multiply to the point of causing the dough to rise.
- Feeding the starter more often will cause the yeast to multiply faster.
- Pouring off excess starter does not affect the yeast’s ability to multiply in the long run.
- In general, thicker starters yield better baked goods, so use less water when feeding the starter.
- If the starter feels too thick for a recipe, add water.
- Yeast thrives better with more rather than less air circulation.
- Sourdough is forgiving. It thrives when fed regularly, but won’t throw fits if you miss a feeding (or two).
Can I toss leftover dough scraps into my sourdough starter?
That’s the easiest way to not waste food, but it doesn’t come highly recommended. Dough tends to have other ingredients too, like salt, eggs, butter, etc. and that wouldn’t be a good environment for your starter.
Instead, freeze your dough scraps and when you have enough, fry them up and coat them in cinnamon sugar for a homemade version of donuts. Or use them to make my Overnight Pumpkin French Toast Casserole.
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Sourdough Recipes and Tutorials
- Sourdough 101: The Benefits of Sourdough
- How to Make Sourdough Bread
- Toasted Coconut and Banana Sourdough Pancakes
- How to Make a Gluten-Free Sourdough Starter
- Sourdough vs Soaking vs Sprouting: Which is best?
- Sourdough A to Z eCourse (Plus recipe book!)