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
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)
– 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
|-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 (140ºF||Yeast Cells Die!|
Days 2- 5
- Stir twice a day, for 5 days.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.