Sourdough Starter

The Starter is a non-negotiable requirement to sourdough baking. It’s also the first, and quite possibly the most important, stage of the whole process. Simpy put, this is the natural raising agent for your bread, also known as leaven, or levain.

Some people are lucky enough to be gifted some starter, but most will need to create their own starter from scratch before they can begin to bake. 

So you will need to:-

1. Make your Starter – this process takes about 5-21 days. Each day you “feed” the starter with equal amounts of fresh flour and water.

2. Maintain your Starter – Once you’ve made a starter, you need to keep it healthy and feed it.  If you do that, you will never need to go through this process again. 

3. Store your Starter – Once you’ve created a strong, healthy Starter, it’s a good idea to dry some to keep as a back up. 

 If you do these things you will never need to go through this process again. 

Why it's so important to have a strong Starter

The Starter is what makes sourdough, sourdough!  

Sourdough bread is created through the fermentation of dough using naturally occurring lactobacilli and yeast. Sourdough bread can have a sour taste, but not always, and sourdough loaves can be stored longer than bread made with baker’s yeast, due to the lactic acid produced by the lactobacilli. All this is possible because of the Starter with biological leavening.

This is the only rising agent that we will use on tis site – no commercial yeast required. 

It’s worth noting that not all Starters are created equally … Some people measure very precisely and others work more intuitively.

You can get started by following the instructions below. Or if you already have a starter move on to the next step.

Google ‘sourdough starter’ and you will find many ways to make a starter.  Some involve other sources of wild yeast, such as fruit, some involve changing the ph level by using something other than water as the medium, such as pineapple juice.  You’ll even find discussions about optimal temperature, best feeding schedules, etc. 

This is all perfectly valid and theoretically useful advice, but frankly, it is not that hard. It will take flour, water, consistency, and most of all some patience.  Just follow the directions below, keep feeding and mixing, and wait for the starter to develop. My starter was made in my kitchen in northern Florida, USA, with all-purpose flour I bought at my local grocery store. Your kitchen in your town with your flour will create a different environment and, consequently, it may take longer or maybe even less time to make a starter. Again, be patient.

– Tom Ford

How to make a Sourdough Starter

Ingredients

The amounts don’t matter, the proportions do.

 –  40g (or 1/3 cup) Rye, Whole wheat or White flour.

 –  40g (or 3 tablespoons) non-chlorinated water (such as bottled or tap water left out for 24hrs)

 

Baker’s Tips: 

  • A good helping of patience is crucial, it takes around 5 days in ideal conditions to get a strong starter going. It actually won't make really good bread for a few weeks, and should just get stronger and better.

EQUIPMENT

– Wide mouth, see-through container, preferably with straight sides which makes it easier to clean.
– Scales, spoons and a spatula are helpful to help keep your containers clean.

NOTES

We have created strong vigorous starters using a variety of flours including:
All Purpose flour, White Bread flour, Spelt, Wholewheat and Rye. 

Be aware different flours produce different levels of viscosity. A rye starter will be thicker than one made with white flour at the same ratio..

We have also used yeast waters and a range of flours to create starters.

Method

Day 1

  1. Put the flour and water together in a wide-mouthed, see-through container. Stir vigorously, the handle of a wooden spoon works well for this if you are using a jar. Some people prefer to use a bowl with a cover.
  2. Cover to keep out any creepy crawlies, but allow for some air flow.  Once the wild yeast in your Starter gets going, carbon dioxide is released as part of the process. A paper towel with a rubberband, or a loose lidded jar works well. Place in a warm place, it’s worth noting the tempertaure ranges which may bring the most success, see the table below. You can see a temperature of 26ºC / 79ºF will achieve the optimum multiplication of yeast. 
TemperatureYeast Activity
-20ºC (-4ºF)Loss of Fermentation Capacity
Less than 20ºC (68ºF) to over 40ºC (104ºF)Growth Rate Significantly Reduced
Between 20ºC (68ºF) and 27ºC (81ºF)Favorable Range for Starter Yeast to Multiply
26ºC (79ºF) - The sweet spot!Optimum Range of Yeast Multiplication
Between 27ºC (81ºF) and 38ºC (100ºF)Optimum Range for Fermentation
35ºC (95ºF)Optimum for Fermentation
Over 60ºC (140ºFYeast Cells Die!

Days 2- 5

  1. Stir twice a day, for 5 days.
  2. During this time there will be many changes in the smell. Be prepared to smell flour, wheat grass, nail polish remover, beer and even manure. Eventually it will have a mellow, sweet, fruity smell.

All will be well, have patience and just keep going.

Day 6

  1. On the 6th day, discard half of the mixture, and replace with fresh 40g (or 3 tablespoons) of water and 40g (or 1/3 cup of flour, stir vigorously.  Basically you will be feeding the starter at a 1:1:1 ratio (aka 100% hydration) – so if the weight of your starter is now 40g, you will feed it 40g of flour, and 40g of water.  Don’t worry about lumps but give it a good stir to aerate. 
  2. Cover and let it stand in a warm place, ideally 26ºC / 79ºF to ferment until you get bubbles on top and eventually throughout the mixture. 

This time scale varies for everyone and can be 21+- days. 

 
NOTES
  • When your starter consistently doubles in size after feeding, you know it’s active and ready-to-use. Mark the height of the starter when you feed it so you can see the amount of rise and how long it takes to reach its peak.  A rubber band at the feed line works great for this.
  • Sometimes you may notice a layer of liquid start to appear on top of your starter, this is called Hooch, it usually means your starter is very hungry, if you often don’t have time to regularly feed your Starter, you may want to consider increasing your feeding ratio on the next feed to perhaps 1:2:2 (so feed it twice its own weight). You can stir in the Hooch or pour it off before you feed.

 

Hopefully you now have a happy, healthy starter, hoorah – you can start to bake! .. read on to find out how to maintain and keep your starter strong and healthy, or move to the first step of baking.

Baker’s Tips: 

  • Don't forget to give your new Starter a name, after all he/she will be part of the family!
  • Troubleshooting

If you are having problems visit the Facebook Sourdough Group for help there. 

Some people have do problems creating a starter for one reason or another.  This could be down to the quality or batch of flour, using tap water in some areas, environmental factors, etc. 

Some people find adding a touch of pineapple juice once in the first mix helps to give it a boost. Also Rye flour can give the process a better chance. 

The consistency of the starter varies dependent on the flour.  For instance, rye flour will be a much thicker starter at 100% hydration than white flour, which is more like a thick pancake batter. 

As a home baker, I personally don’t worry too much about hydration %, and once I got my starter going I stopped weighing anything, I just keep it to a consistency I like to work with, around the consistency it was when it was created.

Maintaining and Feeding your Starter

Once created, your starter needs to be maintained. 

  • Like a family pet, and probably why so many people give them a name, your Starter will need feeding once or even twice a day leading up to baking
  • After it is well established, usually a few weeks in, you can store it in the fridge, which means you don’t have to feed it everyday, you can feed it once a week or less.
  • If you don’t feed your starter enough, ‘hooch’ is produced. Hooch is a yellow/grayish liquid that sits on top. You can pour it off, or mix in well and feed as usual. 
  • If you see mould growing on top that is probably not a good thing. Retrieve what you can or start again. If it has a red or pink hue to it, dump everything.
  • A wide mouth glass jar makes it easier to feed, stir, and keep clean.

Some people are very careful about keeping their starters at this 1:1:1 ratio, which  referred to as 100% hydration and it is often required if you are following an actual recipe. Others are far more relaxed, don’t even measure and keep their starter at a consistency they are comfortable working with. The choice is yours.

Using Your Starter ... finally, it's time to bake!

Two or three days before you want to use your starter for baking you will need to take it out of the fridge and feed it once, or even twice a day. This will ensure it is active and strong. You do not need to wait for it to get to room temperature, but if you have a thicker consistency one, it may be easier to stir if you wait.

  • When your starter doubles in size after feeding, you know the starter is active and ready to use. It helps if you mark the height of the starter when you feed it so you can see the amount of rise and how long it takes.  A rubber bands at the feed line works great for this.

Baker’s Tips: 

  • Not all starters pass the 'float' test. If they are doubling in size over around 3 or 4 hours you should be good to bake.
  • Professionals generally feed their starters by weight so they can easily scale recipes up and down using Baker's Percentages. To make this manageable they keep their Starters at what is referred to as " 100% hydration" - this means they feed their starter at a 1:1:1 ratio - i.e., the weight the Starter = the weight of the flour added. = the weight of the water added. You can feed your starter at whatever ratio you want i.e.,1:2:2 or you can eyeball it if you aren't bothered about being imprecise. Once you have done it a few times you get an idea of what the consistency is for different flours.

    Feeding can get expensive, so in order to cut down what you need to feed, people often 'discard' half of it before feeding. This 'discard' is simply water and flour so it can be stored in the fridge and used to make cakes, pancakes, crackers, etc.

Drying and Storing Your Starter

Drying your starter is a great way to store it long term if you don’t plan to bake for a while, or if you want to have a back up of it after all of your efforts. 

  • To do this, simply spread it very thinly on a clean, flat surface using a pallete knife. A non-stick baking mat works really well.
  • Leave it to completely dry, it will lighten in colour and start to lift up.
  • When dry, break up into smaller bits and store in well-sealed plastic bag, or airtight container.
  • To rehydrate, weigh the dry starter and add the same weight in water, or a little more if necessary to cover it. It usually takes about 24 hours to fully rehydrate.

Disclaimer: Whilst we hope the information provided is helpful and informative, we cannot guarantee that all details will be 100% accurate.  There are many schools of thought and conflicting ideas on many of the sourdough processes and methods.  This site is simply meant as a broad guide to baking sourdough, and is not a scientific reference.

Also, please forgive the mixed US and UK spellings throughout. We have a team from various countries working on this site.This site may contain affiliate links. 

Contribute to the site.

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Made with Sourdough ❤

Lame

noun

A special sharp knife, or tool which holds a razor blade, in a curved or straight manner. You use it to score the dough before baking.

Dutch Oven

A Dutch Oven is generally understood to be a covered earthenware or cast-iron container for cooking casseroles. They are ideal for bread as they can accommodate bread dough and be covered to help generate the steamy environment requiredto encourage the dough to rise. Enamel roasters with a lid, covered pyrex dishes, or even a flat tray with a bowl over the top of the dough, are equally effective.

Bakers’ Percentages

Sometimes called baker’s math, this is a method to express the different ingredients as a percentage of the total amount of flour. It makes scaling a recipe or building a recipe very easy once you know the total weight of the flour, and also allows you to know the ‘hydration’ of your dough.

Example: If you build your dough with 1000 gram flour, 670-grams water, 20-gram salt, and 8-gram yeast. According to bakers percentages, that will be 100% flour (the amount of flour is always 100%), 67% water, 2% salt, and 0.8% yeast.
You divide the amount of the different ingredients with the amount of flour.

Banneton / Brotform / Proofing Basket

A type of basket or container used to provide structure for shaped loaves of bread during proofing. Banneton baskets are also known as ‘Brotform’ or ‘proofing baskets’. It is normally used for doughs that are too soft or wet to maintain their shape while rising. They come in a range of sizes and shapes. Look for ones that fit the size of loaves you want to bake.

They are often made of natural rattan, or wood fiber. You can also use any container lined with a well-floured tea towel.

Oven Spring

The final burst of expansion of dough upon being introduced to a hot oven and where the yeast activity is increased during the first few minutes. At approximately 60C/140ºF degrees the yeast is killed off, but up until that point, dough can expand in the oven in the first phase of baking if it’s not over-fermented and still has dough strength. Many factors can impact oven spring including the length of fermentation, gluten development, and the hydration of the dough.

Stretch-and-Folds

An alternative to traditional kneading used to develop gluten. The process is performed periodically in the bowl throughout the bulk fermentation. Take a side of the dough and gently stretch it up and over, to fold it upon itself, rotate the dough 90º, and repeat, then turn the bowl 45º and the same stretch and fold. Once all four corners of the dough have been stretched and folded, gluten development and a smooth, elastic dough are underway. Also, see ‘Folding’ and ‘Coil Folds’.

Bulk Ferment

Most loaves have two fermenting cycles. One before and one after the loaves are formed. Bulk fermentation is the first cycle, with a long fermentation period of the dough after the initial mixing of flour, water, starter, and salt and often comes during and after a period of kneading or ‘stretch and folds’.During this stage we are aiming to create dough strength, structure and flavor. The dough should feel alive, strong, airy, spongy and the surface shouldn’t feel sticky.

The bulk fermentation generally takes place at room temperature, unless otherwise noted in the recipe and is a longer period of time (4 -12 hours) than the final proofing period. This step may be referred to as the first prove or first rising. Acetic acid, an organic acid is produced by bacteria in the sourdough culture during the fermentation process. The presence of acetic acid helps to gives sourdough its characteristic acidic tang. The warmer the environment, the faster the development of the dough will be

Window Pane

The window pane test is one of the best ways to tell if you’ve sufficiently stretched and folded your bread dough. Pull a small piece of the dough and using both hands and your fingers stretch the dough very thin if it holds its shape without tearing the gluten is well-developed and your dough is ready to be pre-shaped, shaped and rest for it’s final prove.

Starter / Starter Culture / Sourdough Starter

A mixture of flour and water used to leaven bread that contains bacteria, yeast, and organic acids. Made either by inoculating with an established colony of bacteria or by capturing wild bacteria and yeasts over a longer period. Sometimes also called Leaven / Levain.

Autolyse

verb

Autolyse (pronounced auto-lees) is a process in which a portion of (or total) water and flour in a bread recipe are gently pre-blended and set to rest for a period of time.

This resting period gives the dough special processing characteristics and improves the overall quality of the baked goods.

During autolyse process, several events can occur in the pre-mixed water/flour mixture:

  1. Continued flour hydration. Water molecules work their way into damaged starch, intact starch granules and proteins.
  2. Protein bonds continue to develop as a consequence of adding water, creating more gluten strands without mechanical work. This leads to better gluten structure and gas retention.
  3. Flour enzymes (mainly proteases) acquire time to adapt and work on the gluten by breaking down protein bonds.Protease activity is higher at low pH (acidic conditions). This is why autolysed doughs that contain yeast or pre-ferments (e.g. poolish) often experience greater protease activity. Such doughs are more extensible, weaker, softer and show less resistance to deformation than autolyzed non-fermented doughs.2
  4. Finally, as a result, the dough feels less sticky and very smooth after the autolyse.

As a general rule, the longer the autolyse time:

  • The shorter the dough mixing time (less mechanical development of gluten-forming proteins in needed). This means less energy consumption during mixing.
  • The shorter the dough stability duration
  • The less tolerance to overmixing. Breakdown is more pronounced once peak (maximum strength) is attained.
  • The smaller the P value in the alveograph test
  • The more extensible and less elastic the dough becomes at the end of autolysis
  • The better the sheetability and machining of dough during lamination of croissants
  • The easier and faster the dough expands during oven spring (better volume)
  • The lower the need for dough conditioners
  • The better the flavor and aroma of the finished product
Leaven/Levain/Sourdough Starter
noun
  1. A substance, in this case a wild yeast starter, that is used in sourdough baking to make dough rise.
  2. Some methods of baking, such as ‘Tartine Method’ require a sourdough leavening agent be made from a sourdough ‘mother culture’ (aka your Starter). This technique is often employed to boost the yeast activity of the sourdough starter by feeding a small amount of starter a larger quantity of flour and water. For instance, if a recipe calls for 1 cup of sourdough starter, a leaven can be prepared 8-12 hours before the dough will be mixed by combining 1 Tablespoon of sourdough starter with ½ cup flour and a scant ½ cup of water. This leaven can then be used as the sourdough starter and will be quite active come baking time.
verb
  1. cause (dough or bread) to rise by adding leaven.