How to make, feed, and maintain sourdough starter from scratch

Advertisement
How to make, feed, and maintain sourdough starter from scratch
Sourdough starter is a mixture of flour and water meant to cultivate wild yeast that you can then use to make bread. Photographer, Basak Gurbuz Derman/Getty Images
  • To make a sourdough loaf, you need to begin with sourdough "starter" that contains wild yeast.
  • It takes about seven days to get sourdough starter to the point where you can use it to make bread.
  • If your starter looks dried out or otherwise unusual, you can perk it up with a quick feeding.

Sourdough bread is hearty, flavorful, and versatile. For the baker in charge, it also requires a significant amount of prep time and plenty of patience.

To get that classic sourdough tang and texture, you need to whip up a sourdough starter, or a mixture of flour and water designed to cultivate wild yeast for baking. Fortunately, the seasoned sourdough experts Kyrie Luke, recipe developer and healthy lifestyle blogger of Healthfully Rooted Home, and Sim Cass, dean of techniques of artisan bread baking at the Institute of Culinary Education, have some answers.

What you need

  • Flour: "You can use pretty much any kind of flour you want for your starter and it will capture wild yeast (meaning, it'll get bubbly and ferment) under the right conditions," says Luke. If this is your first sourdough starter, opt for all-purpose flour.
  • Warm water: While many sourdough starter recipes call for room-temperature water, upping the temperature slightly (until it hits between 70-85 degrees Fahrenheit) can expedite the process.
  • Optional flavor boosters: Flour and water are the only must-have ingredients for a sourdough starter. But you can add other ingredients to help move the process along. For example, Cass likes to add unrinsed organic red grapes and raw honey to his starter; the grapes, which he removes on the third day, grow mold "that helps the starter ferment." Meanwhile, the honey adds a slight hint of sweetness that balances well with the other flavors of the sourdough.

Note: When browsing sourdough starter recipes, you've likely noticed an instruction to "feed" your starter. It's important to remember that, when you're making a sourdough starter, you're "constructing a living organism," in Cass's words. And, as with any other living thing, you need to keep your starter "fed." In the simplest terms, "feeding" just requires you to add more flour and water to your starter.

Advertisement

How to make sourdough starter

How to make, feed, and maintain sourdough starter from scratch
It takes about seven days to get your starter to the point you can bake with it. Gajus/Getty Images
  • Day one: Luke says that the best way to start is to "combine 1 cup of flour with 1 cup of water and leave on the counter with a tea towel over the top [at room temperature] for 24 hours." If you want to include flavorings, then the first day is the time to put them in. Cass says that he adds "1/2 teaspoon of raw honey and two to three organic and unwashed red grapes."

  • Day two: Depending on the conditions of your home, like the room temperature, you should begin to notice a few bubbles forming and possibly a slight increase in volume. You'll want to discard half the mixture.

    Luke then says that you should "combine 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water [with the remaining starter] and leave on the counter at room temperature with a tea towel over the top for 24 hours." You should notice more bubbles forming every day as the starter ripens.

  • Day three: On day three, follow the same instructions as day two - discard half the starter, then add 1 cup of water and 1 cup of flour. Cass tells us that he removes the grapes from his sourdough starter on the third day, as they've served their purpose as a fermentation kickstarter. You'll likely detect a sour and yeast-like smell by this point - this is a good sign!

  • Days four and five: Follow the same steps as days two and three.

  • Day six: Discard half the starter and add 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water. Cover with a tea towel and leave on the counter at room temperature for 12 hours (instead of 24 hours). Do another feed cycle at the end of the 12 hours, then allow to sit at room temperature under the towel for 12 more hours.

  • Day seven: Discard half the starter, add 1 cup flour and 1 cup water, and let rest on the counter at room temperature under a tea towel for 12 hours. After that 12-hour span, do one more feed cycle and then the starter is ready to use.

Storing and maintaining your sourdough starter

Because a sourdough starter is a "living organism," it's never a totally "finished" product. It requires maintenance and proper storage to keep it usable. The good news? Once you have a maintenance routine down, you can keep your sourdough starter "alive" indefinitely.

"How often you maintain your sourdough starter depends on how often you [bake with] it," Luke says. "If you use it everyday or every couple of days, you'll just leave it on the counter and feed it daily. If you use your starter only about once or twice a week, you can leave it in the fridge between uses and feed it one or two times a week."

When you "feed" your starter, make sure that you also discard some of your starter before adding to it (since sourdough starters expand in size). Luke uses one cup of flour and one cup of water as her go-to feeding formula, and she'll discard up to half of her existing starter before new feedings, depending on the volume and the overall health and age of the starter.

Advertisement

Glass jars and other lidded glass containers work best for sourdough starter storage, and a transparent jar will allow you to see how your starter is faring at any given time. Because cool temperatures slow the growth process of the starter's yeast, it's advisable to keep your starter in the fridge if you aren't planning to use it in the near future.

If you miss a few feedings and your starter begins to look dry and deflated, Luke says you can easily reactivate it by "feeding it…a lot!" On the subject of reactivation, Cass tells us that, if you're starting off with a refrigerated starter that's gone dormant (i.e. the yeast has slowed down from lack of "feeding"), you might notice a yellowish liquid forming on top (known to sourdough makers as "hooch") or even some black sediment (which are yeast cells that have died). In this case, Cass says you should "leave it at room temperature overnight. On the next day, feed it with equal parts flour and cool water for two days. The starter should be bubbly and smell tasty and sweet."

Sourdough starter tips and tricks

How to make, feed, and maintain sourdough starter from scratch
You can also use your sourdough starter to make pizza crust, muffins, and breading chicken. FilippoBacci/Getty Images
  • Don't panic if you see dark discharge or smell an alcoholic aroma. Luke insists that a bit of crustiness, a boozy fragrance, and even a dark liquid layer aren't anything to worry about. "You might notice a crust on the top - this just means that it needs to be stirred more frequently. Depending on the time of year and how warm you keep your house, you might need to stir your starter every 12 hours," Luke says. "Also, you could keep a damp tea towel over it, and that'll prevent the crust from forming." If you smell alcohol, Luke explains that just means the starter needs to be fed. And that scary-looking black water? According to Luke, "this is also normal. It just means that the starter is hungry."
  • Consider other uses for sourdough starter beyond a loaf of bread. If you find yourself with more starter than you need for bread, there are plenty of other ways to use this powerful stuff. "I would suggest using your starter for things you never thought of, like breading chicken, making muffins, and making pizza crust. The more you use and feed your starter, the healthier it'll be!" Luke says.
  • Don't overthink it. It's easy to assume that starters are a complicated project and that messing the whole thing up is a foregone conclusion. However, Cass says that there's no point in overthinking your starter-making."It's been done for years! Just make sure that you believe in the process," Cass says. Luke agrees that you should "go in with confidence." She also emphasizes the fact that "sourdough starters are super resilient. If you think it's dead, it's probably not. If something seems wrong, it's usually nothing that a few feedings can't fix."

Insider's takeaway

Daunting though they may seem to a baking novice, sourdough starters are an easy albeit time-consuming project, and they can result in big rewards in the form of delicious bread and other culinary treasures. Take your time, have faith in your process, and remember that your "mistakes" are fixable.

Advertisement
How to store bread and never throw away a moldy loaf again How to make homemade pizza from scratch How and when to use active dry yeast in your baking 18 types of bread from around the world that should have a place on your dinner table
{{}}