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.
One of the recipes inside was for sourdough starter. You can purchase a starter kit to make the starter, or you can make a homemade starter culture.
The starter kit took as long as it said it would – 3 days. Easy peasy, done. Making it homemade, as in 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 very rewarding since you’ve “captured” the wild yeast from the air. I’m telling you, the “creating something from nothing” idea is pretty neat!
Be sure to read the entire tutorial and tips through before starting your sourdough.
- 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
Notes on Ingredients
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.
Step By Step Instructions
Step 1. 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.
Step 2. 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.
Step 3. 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.
Step 4. 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.
Tips on feeding 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!
- 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).
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.
I’ve read of families using starters originally from generations ago!
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.
Making your own sourdough starter uses the wild yeasts and lactobacilli that surround us all of the time. After feeding your initial culture with flour and water for a period of time, you achieve a symbiotic product that helps your dough rise in baking. This way, you avoid using store-bought cultivated yeast, which many people are sensitive to.