When I was growing up, my family had a sourdough bread starter that was over 100 years old! If you keep feeding it and taking care of it, a sourdough starter can be something you pass down through your family. How cool is that?
You might think that’s too hard, but it only takes 2 ingredients (that you probably already have), and about a week to make! You can make all kinds of things with sourdough starter: bread, pancakes, crackers… you name it.
If you look on the internet, there are a lot of different ways people like to make their own sourdough starter, some including fruit juices, honey, or even potatoes. But, I prefer to keep it simple and straightforward just using flour and water. Once you mix these two ingredients together, the culture will begin to ferment and naturally create the yeast and natural bacteria needed to make your bread rise. So no commercial yeast is ever necessary when baking sourdough bread!
If you are looking to get wise with your resources right now, or save some money, sourdough starter is an excellent thing to have in your home. The first week or two it takes a little patience while you make your starter, but then after that all you need to do is “feed” it every few days with flour and water. Your starter will double in size every time you feed it and you can use this base for years and years to make sourdough breads and foods.
I’ll go through the process of making it by making one of my own, along with sharing some common questions you may have. If you want to see day by day videos, I have them saved HERE on an Instagram highlight bubble!
*Disclaimer*: As I started writing this tutorial it ended up getting super long! I don’t want you to look at all these steps and feel overwhelmed. I promise, it’s actually really simple! I just wanted to include all possible questions you may have about sourdough starter. So here is my advice, just follow the instructions one day at a time. That’s it! You can come back and read the troubleshooting tips if you run into them, but just focus on one day at a time. It will only take you a few minutes each day!
Day 1 (First 24 hours)
Here’s what you need:
- Room temperature water
Step 1: Pour 60g (¼ cup) of room temperature water in a glass jar. I used a regular mason jar. I prefer filtered water from my Brita over tap water, but either will work.
Step 2: Add 60g (½ cup) of flour. Whole wheat flour works best on day 1 because it jump starts the fermentation process, but all purpose will work as well (unbleached if you have it).
Step 3: Stir with a fork until you get it to a thick and pasty consistency. Using a food scale is the best way to get your measurements accurate, but if you don’t have one that’s okay! If you are using a measuring cup and you think your starter is too thick, add a tiny splash of water to get to thin it out a little bit. If it’s runny, it’s too thin. If it’s like a dough, it’s too thick.
Step 4: Cover your jar loosely with plastic wrap or a small cloth (like a cheese cloth, a hand towel, or a coffee filter), allowing some air into it. Let it rest in a warmer area for 24 hours, 72-78 degrees is ideal.
*Tip: If you keep you home a little cooler (like I do), you can try to set your jar near a heating vent, put it on the windowsill for sun, place it in a thermos of hot water, set inside your oven with the oven off but the oven light on, use a heating pad, or keep it next to your hot water heater.
*Note: I found that when I used a coffee filter, it was letting too much air into my starter and got a little bit of a crusty top. I would recommend using a towel loosely draped over the top of your jar instead so a little bit of air can get it, but not too much air, and I prefer the oven light method described above.
On day 1, your starter will be fairly thick, like a paste. If you have a food scale, that is helpful for weighing the flour and water, but not required.
Day 2 (24 hours later)
24 hours after making your starter, you are just going to check on your starter and let it rest for another 24 hours.
You are checking to see if you have any bubbles on the surface. This may look like little black dots or you may see bubbles throughout the paste. Bubbles indicate fermentation. It’s also okay if you don’t see any bubbles at all yet! They may have appeared and dissolved again before you checked, or your starter may just need a little more time.
If your starter gets too warm, or you have too much air getting to it, it may get a little brown and dry at the top. If that happens, just leave it for now and then at 48 hours scrape it off the top as you do your discard.
Remember, sourdough is a living organism, so everyone’s will look a little different, that’s okay!
If you see a line of brown liquid, that’s also okay! It’s called “hooch” and it’s going to smell bad like stinky gym socks probably, but don’t worry your starter isn’t ruined. That’s actually very common! Hooch is just a sign that your starter needs fed. If you see that you have hooch on top of your starter or in the middle of your starter don’t stress. Leave it there for now, and then when you discard and feed tomorrow you’ll just scoop it out and toss it.
During the first 48 hours you typically won’t need to stir or do anything with your starter. Just watch it. The natural fermentation process is happening. If your starter looks crumbly and dry, or looks more like a dough consistency, you can add a tiny splash of water and stir it in, but otherwise just let it sit and rest.
The hardest part (in my opinion) of sourdough starter is being patient. Every time I make a starter from scratch I always have a moment where I wonder if I’m screwing it up or doing it right. Just give it time, and it will eventually start to look the way you want it!
*Tip: My favorite book for all things sourdough is Artisan Sourdough Made Simple. It taught me so much and really helped to make the process easy and not intimidating!
*Note: Most starters will rest for the first two days. In some cases though, your starter may double in size and have bubbles really quickly in the first 24 hours! If your starter does this, go ahead and move to the instructions for Day 3 instead of waiting the full 48 hours. Every starter is different so as you go through each day, you will begin to learn the temperament of your particular starter.
After 24-48 hours you will start to see little bubbles in your starter like this. If you don’t see any bubbles yet, that’s okay! Every starter is different. Just be patient, make sure your jar is in a warm enough area (I like setting mine in the oven, with the oven off but the oven light turned on, and a kitchen towel loosely draped over it).
Day 3 (48 hours later)
It’s time to feed your starter for the first time! Even if you don’t see bubbles yet, you want to move forward with your first feeding.
Step 1: Discard half of your starter and throw away (later you can use your discard for recipes, but right now it’s not ready yet so you can just toss it). If using a food scale, zero out your scale to start (I placed an empty mason jar on the scale so I was starting at 0g). Weigh your jar with starter so you know how many grams of starter you have and discard half. For example, if I had 120g of starter I would discard 60g. If you don’t have a food scale, you can mark on your jar where the top of the starter line is and visually eyeball it so that you remove half of what is in the jar.
Step 2: Add 60g (¼ cup) of water and a 60g (½ cup) of all purpose flour. The very first feeding is the only time you need to use whole wheat flour, and then after that I recommend all purpose, unbleached, flour. Mix with a fork until smooth.
This is all you need to do to feed your starter! It should be the consistency of a thick batter or a Stonyfield plain yogurt. If it doesn’t have that consistency, you can add a tiny splash of water or a tiny bit of flour until it gets to the right consistency.
Step 3: Now, loosely cover your jar back up with a cloth or towel and let it rest for another 24 hours in a warm spot (again, I like the oven method. Just don’t forget you have your starter in there! If you turn your oven on to bake something else and your starter is in there, you will need to start over from day one). Each day from here on out, your starter should double in size in between each feeding.
*Note: If you have a crusty layer on the top from too much air, this is when you will discard that. Just take that top layer off as you take out half your starter and toss it with the rest of the discard.
*Note: If your starter smells a little funky, like gym socks or acetone, that’s quite common. That’s the smell of fermentation. Scraping out any hooch will help and as we feed the starter each day that stinky smell will go away. Some people like to mix their hooch into the batter for a more sour flavor, but I personally don’t like doing that.
*Tip: If you don’t have a kitchen scale, use a rubber band on your jar to mark where it was before feeding it to see when it’s doubling in size. Doubling in size is a sign that it’s established!
Days 4, 5 & 6
For the next three days, you will feed your starter using the same method described on day 3. Remove half your starter, toss it, and re-feed with 60g water (¼ c) and 60g (½ c) all purpose flour. Cover loosely with a towel and let rest for 24 hours until your next feeding.
2-8 hours after you feed your starter, you will notice your starter rising in size until it eventually doubles in size. This is also known as “peaking”, and you will see a lot of bubbles in the starter. Eventually the starter will peak and start to fall back down in size, or deflate in size. Once your starter falls, that’s the sign that it’s time to feed it again. Warmer temperatures in your house will make a starter peak faster, and colder temperatures will slow it down.
It’s important not to rush this process. The first 7 days we are getting the fermentation process going so that your starter is strong and healthy and has the sour flavor everyone loves about sourdough bread.
Picture of my sourdough starter resting in the 4-6 day period. I found mine does best when I loosely drape a towel over the jar so it allows some air in, but not too much air where it forms a crusty top.
By now, your starter should have a lot of bubbles and the consistency will be kind of spongy and puffy (it reminds me of toasted marshmallows). It should smell pleasant, not like gym socks. It also should have doubled in size. If these conditions are met, your starter is now active and ready to use for baking!
If your starter isn’t ready yet, that’s okay and quite common! You may need to continue the steps from days 3-6 for another week or even two. Every starter is different and some just take a little more time.
Another way to tell if your starter is ready is to do the “float test”: while your starter is peaked (when you see a lot of bubbles in it and it is doubled in size) add a tsp of your starter to a glass of water. If it floats, you’re good to go! If it sinks straight to the bottom it’s not ready yet.
Float test: if your starter sinks like this, it’s not ready yet.
If it’s not ready by day 7, that’s very common and you aren’t doing anything wrong. Just keep repeating the day 3-6 process until it’s ready.
When your starter is active and ready to use, it should have a lot of bubbles in it like this photo here and your starter should smell pleasant.
Once you think your starter is ready, put it in a new clean jar and give it a name! Every time you want to use your starter, just feed it so that it becomes active again and is ready to use. Your starter can take anywhere from 2-8 hours to become active and you will know when it’s bubbly and growing in size. I like to feed mine the night before so that it gets active again while I’m sleeping and use it in the morning for baking. Your starter will last forever (years and years and years) as long as you feed it every now and then to keep it active (or every day if you bake every day).
Remember, sourdough is a living creature and you need to keep it alive and healthy with regular feeds to keep it strong. If you aren’t feeding your starter it won’t become active and won’t rise well when you bake with it. But don’t worry, it just takes about 60 seconds to feed it every few days!
My Sourdough Starter Is Ready… Now What?
Within your sourdough starter are healthy colonies of yeast and lactic acid bacteria. As those microbes consume their “food” (flour you add to it) they ferment and turn the starches into CO2. This is why you don’t need to use yeast when you bake with sourdough starter. But if you don’t feed your starter, those microbes get hungry and become inactive, and your starter won’t be effective in rising during bake.
So you need to feed your starter every now and then to keep the microbes active and strong. The process of feeding usually involves discarding some of the starter for two reasons. 1) you remove some and add a new food source for the microbes to keep things balanced 2) if you don’t discard regularly you will end up with way more starter than your jar can hold.
Most sourdough recipes start with only 50g – 250g of starter. So keep that in mind, along with how often you want to bake, when you’re trying to determine how much starter you want to regularly keep in your jar.
If you feed your starter on a consistent schedule, your starter will start to adjust to that schedule and grow accordingly. So, if you feed it at the same time each day or each week the yeast and lactic acid will get used to that routine and start to know how much time and food they have to live on before the next feeding.
Isn’t sourdough cool?!
Every time you feed your starter, you will follow the same steps from days 4-7. Bring your starter to room temperature and then I like to use a 1:1:1 ratio. However much starter you have, discard half, then add equal parts water and flour, and mix with a fork. Then let it rest. So if you have 120g of starter in your jar, discard half (60g) and then you will add 60g water and 60g flour. Mix together with a fork.
When first starting, I would recommend measuring and weighing every time you feed. But with time, you should be able to just eyeball this process.
After 2-8 hours you will start to see bubbles again in your starter, and it’s growing in size, that means your starter is active and ready to use for baking. If I know I want to bake something with my starter, I will feed it the night before and it is typically ready to use the next morning. Remember, if your starter isn’t bubbly your bread won’t rise very well. You can still use it, and you will have the good sourdough flavor, but you will have a very dense bread. In my opinion, it’s best to use starter in recipes when you have fed it the night before so that the starter is active and peaking the next morning/afternoon when you use it to bake.
If you don’t use your starter, eventually it will fall back down in size and the bubbles will disappear. That’s how you know it’s time to feed your starter again.
Here’s an example of what your starter might look like when it’s ready to feed. It has gone back down in size, and has very few bubbles left in it (compare that to the day 7 image above where I showed you what it looks like when it’s bubbly).
When this happens, simply remove half, discard (or look on Pinterest for “discarded sourdough starter recipes”!), and feed again!
*Tip: You can also add your discard to your compost pile. Or if you have backyard chickens you can feed it to them too!
Your starter will double in size every time you feed it, so the reason you want to remove half each time is that if you don’t, you will have more sourdough starter than you know what to do with like in the picture below!
How to Store Your Sourdough Starter
Option 1: Room Temperature: That’s really a personal preference! Some people say you need air in your starter, some don’t. Personally, I just keep mine in a mason jar with a white kitchen towel over it and store it in my pantry at room temperature. If you store yours at room temperature you will need to feed it every day. Some serious bakers feed theirs twice per day!
Option 2: Refrigerated: If you are only going to bake once a week, say on the weekends, you’ll want to keep your starter in the fridge. I like using a jar like THIS ONE with a flip top lid if you are going to store yours in the fridge. I like it because it keeps any dust or random food things out of it, but the seal is not air tight even when closed. If you keep your starter in the fridge, you will want to bring it out of the fridge a day or two before you plan to use it for baking so that it gets to room temperature and feed it once or twice during that time to get it nice and active and ready for baking.
Option 3: Frozen: If you are going to go on vacation or just don’t want to bake for a few weeks, you can freeze your starter and it will stay dormant while frozen.
Here is a sample baking schedule if you are keeping your starter in the fridge and want to bake one loaf per week:
If you are going to bake a loaf on Saturday morning:
-Take starter out of fridge Thursday evening and let it sit on the counter overnight to warm up to room temperature
-Friday morning discard and feed your starter using a 1:1:1 ratio, and do it again Friday afternoon.
-Ideally it should get it’s last feeding 3-4 hours before you start making your dough.
-Make your dough Friday evening and let it proof overnight to bake Saturday morning.
Can you keep the parts you discard to start a new one in days 1-6?
Later on, once your starter is active you can. But in these first few days it’s not ready, so it won’t be useful yet! I hate wasting anything, but unfortunately you’ll want to just discard the half for the first few days. You could also compost it or feed it to animals
Mine is super crusty on top, did I ruin it?
Not necessarily! It might be that it got too warm, or too much air, or too little air! You can try using a different method to cover it, or change it’s temperature. Each starter is different, so it might need you to experiment a little.
What if mine smells really bad?
Normal! It shouldn’t smell too vinegary, like gym socks, or like nail polish remover. If it does, it’s just a sign that your starter needs to be fed! Once it’s established it will smell better.
When is it established?
It’ll take 7-12 days (sometimes up to 20 even), so be patient! I know it’s hard! You’ll know it’s ready when the aroma is pleasant, you have a lot of bubbles, and it passes the float test.
Mine has mold. Is it ruined?
Unfortunately, yes. Time to start over!
How do I use my starter?
Store your starter at room temperature if you bake often, and in the fridge with a lid if you don’t bake as often. As it doubles, take some out to bake and feed it like you’ve been doing to keep it going (more detailed instructions above).
Why is my starter taking a long time to double in size after I feed it?
This is super common and every starter is different! Try putting it in a warm spot to help it thrive using the warming tips above. Or you can try using warm water instead of room temperature water. It may also be a flour issue, try using unbleached flour if you can.
Can I use commercial yeast to make it rise faster?
Commercial yeast will make your starter and bread dough rise faster. However, this is not a true sourdough. It’s technically a hybrid.
Why do I have to remove half of the starter?
First, the exact amount you remove is not set in stone. Some days it might be more or less, depending on the condition of the starter and what it looks like and smells like. I recommend removing at least half, which is fairly easy to judge just with your eye. Doing so will rebalance the acidity levels within the culture, which produces a mild sour flavor. Second, if you didn’t remove some of the starter, you’d end up with so much starter you wouldn’t know what to do with it all (think… I Love Lucy episode when she uses too much yeast ????).
Once it doubles in size, what’s my window of time for using it?
It all depends on the nature of your starter. Some days it will rise and fall so quickly it will leave you baffled. Other days it will stay peaked for hours. You want to bake with your starter while it is peaked. If you feed your starter using the 1:1:1 ratio, you will get to know its temperament. Then your window of time will be easier to judge. In most cases, your starter should peak between 2-4 hours after you feed it.
How do I know if I have enough starter to use in a recipe?
Most recipes call for 50g to 250g of starter. You can half the other ingredients in your recipe if you don’t have enough, or just feed your starter so that it doubles in size and use it then.
How can I increase the total amount of my starter?
First, transfer your starter into a bigger jar if necessary. Give it a feed, and wait for it to become bubbly and active. Before it falls, give it another feed without removing half of it first. Repeat until you’ve reached the amount you want.
If I leave on vacation, will my starter die?
Nope, just pop it in the fridge! It will continue to rise and you might even see some bubbles. Eventually it’ll go dormant. When you get back you’ll bring it back to room temperature and then feed it. It may take a few days to revive it, but it’ll still work. You can also freeze your starter.
If I forget to feed my starter for a while will it die? Can I revive it?
In most cases, yes. If you don’t feed your starter for a few months and it’s been in the fridge, it may look funky and may smell bad. You can try to discard most of it and put what you can salvage in a new jar. Feed it for several days at room temperature in a warm spot. Be patient, it may take 1-2 weeks to revive. If it doesn’t work, you’ll want to throw it out and start a new one. If you see mold, toss it and start new.
What is leaven?
It’s an offshoot from your starter. Leavens are typically fed with different types of flour to build specific flavor profiles without changing the structure of the original starter. For example, if you pour some of your starter into a bowl and feed it with rye flour, you’ve just created a leaven. You use part of your original starter, but then adapt it to give it the flavor you want.
Can you use gluten free flour?
You can! I’ve never personally done it, but Here’s a tutorial for you from one of my favorite bloggers “deannacat3” on Instagram! She also has a really awesome Herb Sourdough Cracker recipe that you can make with your discard.
Baking Your First Loaf
This recipe was adapted from one I got in Emilie Raffa’s book “Artisan Sourdough Made Easy”. It’s my favorite sourdough book and is only $15 on Amazon. I would definitely recommend it, you can also find a ton of great recipes in Pinterest.
- ¼ cup starter (50g)
- 1 ½ cup (375g) warm water
- 4 cups (500g) bread flour
- 1.5 tsp sea salt (9g)
Kitchen Items Needed:
- Large bowl to mix in
- Kitchen towel large enough to cover bowl
- 8” bowl or proofing basket (I have and love THIS one (not pictured below though). It’s only $10 and leaves pretty rings on your bread once it’s baked).
- Parchment paper
- Baking Pot (I have THIS one). Note: baking this loaf in a pot allows for steam while cooking. Without steam, your dough might form a crust too quickly, leading to dense and heavy loaves. Any pot that is oven safe up to 500 degrees will work (dutch oven, deep casserole dish, pizza stone with an inverted bowl, enamel roaster). Here are amazon links for my favorites:
- 6qt Dutch Oven (the bigger the better to allow more air circulation when baking)
- 6qt Deep Casserole Dish with Lid
- Pizza Stone (set an oven-proof bowl upside down on top when baking)
- Optional: food scale (I have THIS one)
- Optional: bench/bowl scraper (I have THIS one. This is helpful when moving and shaping your dough. A bench scraper is to bakers as a spatula is to pancakes!)
- In the evening, mix 50g active starter with 1 ½ cup (375g) warm water in a large bowl and stir well with a fork (your starter should be active 2-8 hours after it’s last feeding. You know it’s active when it’s bubbly and growing in size.
- Add 4 cups (500g) bread flour and 1.5 tsp (9g) sea salt
- Start by using a fork, then use your hands as you mix. The dough will feel dense and sticky as you go, and probably will stick to your fingers. Here’s what mine looks like after this step:
- Cover the bowl with a damp towel and let it rest for 60 minutes (I put mine in the oven with the oven off, but with the oven light on). While you wait, re-feed your starter using the 1:1:1 ratio (remaining starter: water: all purpose flour).
- After resting 60 minutes, you will work your dough into a fairly smooth ball (while it’s still in the bowl). Grab a section of the dough, fold it into the middle, and press your fingertips down into the center. Repeat this process until your dough tightens for about 15-30 seconds. If your dough is super sticky you may want to sprinkle some extra bread flour on as you do this.
- Next, cover the bowl with a damp towel and let rise overnight at room temperature (I actually prefer using the oven method described above). This will take 8-10 hours at 70 degrees, it will take longer if your house is colder. Your dough is ready when it has doubled in size.
- In the morning, once your bread has doubled in size, you are ready to shape it. Lightly flour your counter and place the dough from your bowl on the floured counter.
Your goal is to shape the loaf into a round. I usually need to add a little more bread flour at this point (no more than ¼ cup) to get it to hold it’s shape and not stick to my hands. To shape it, start at the top and fold a section of the dough over toward the middle. Rotate dough slightly and repeat. Do this 5-6 times until you have come full circle. Flip the dough over and let rest for 5-10 minutes.
While that is resting, you can preparing an 8” bowl or proofing basket one of two ways. Traditional bakers line them with towels and dust the towel with flour. Personally, I think clean up is easier if you just spray your bowl/basket with non-stick cooking spray.
After the dough has rested 5-10 minutes, use a bench scraper (or spatula if you don’t have a bench scraper) to scoop up the dough and flip it over so that the smooth side is facing down towards the counter. Shape it again (just like before), and then flip it back over so the smooth side is on top. Using your hands to lift the dough off the counter and tighten its shape a bit then place into your lined/sprayed bowl, seam side up.
- Cover the bowl and refrigerate for 1 hour to set its structure. You can also leave the dough in the fridge for 6 hours or more, just let the dough sit out for 20 minutes or so when you’re ready to bake.
- Preheat your oven to 500 degrees. Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit the size of your baking pot. Place your parchment paper over the bowl with dough on it, and flip it upside down so that the dough is sitting on the parchment paper on your counter. Dust the dough and your hands with flour. Using the tip of a small knife or a razor blade, score the dough with any pattern you’d like (I did a simple 4-cut). Here is a tutorial from King Arthur’s Bread with some fun ideas. Use the parchment paper to transfer the dough into your baking pot and put the lid on.
- Reduce oven temperature to 450 degrees and place your baking pot on the center rack. Bake for 20 minutes, covered. Remove the lid, and continue to bake for 25 minutes.
Carefully lift the loaf out of the pot, and bake with the parchment paper directly on your oven rack for the last 5 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for 20-30 minutes before slicing.
- Enjoy the whole loaf right out of the oven! Or store at room temperature in a plastic bag.
Baking can be such a comforting and cozy process for many people, and it’s definitely something that helps my mindset. The smell, the process, the end result all leaves me feeling safe and happy. Hopefully your sourdough starter and the things you bake with it leave you feeling the same way!
If you’ve made your own starter or baked something with it, I want to see! Tag me on social media!
So much love,