Are you ready to start baking delicious sourdough bread at home? The first step is to make your own sourdough starter. With just flour, water, and a little bit of patience, you’ll be able to create a living, bubbly, and delicious sourdough starter from scratch!
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Let me start this off by saying that I’m no expert. Not even a little. I may not even qualify as a beginner quite yet. But I dipped my toes into the wide world of sourdough recently (as in 3 weeks ago) and, dare I say, I may never go back. I had no idea such a world existed. It’s an entire community of brilliant bakers and cooks and healthy livers (?) … what? That doesn’t even make sense. But the keyboard is floowwwwing, so let’s go with it … people living healthy lives – there, that makes more sense!
I just saw a reel on Instagram and thought “Hey, that looks cool. Maybe I could make that.” And Joseph loves the sourdough taste. So, that was that – I figured I’d just go ahead and do it! I posted a little blip about it on my Instagram stories, and, HOLY SMOKES, everyone welcomed me into the world of sourdough with the widest of arms. I received so many messages of encouragement and helpful advice. It was. so. cool. I had no idea there were so many people, from all around the world, learning the old traditional art of making bread. And not only bread – TONS of other baked goods that you can make with sourdough.
Did It Work?
In short – yes! But let me preface this “recipe” with total transparency – this is the first time I’ve ever made a sourdough starter. But I wanted to share my experience as a complete beginner. I had great success on my first starter and was able to make a decent loaf of bread after about 2 weeks!
Maybe it’s a bit dense.
Maybe the bottom is a little crusty burnt.
Maybe it’s Maybelline.
But it didn’t fall completely flat, or burn, or do anything too crazy, which is a success in my book!
The Basics – What is a Sourdough Starter?
A sourdough starter is a live fermented culture of wild yeasts and good bacteria. When you combine fresh flour and water, the culture begins to ferment and cultivates wild yeasts and good bacteria that acts as a natural leavening agent, rather than commercial yeast. Over time, the yeast and bacteria in the starter develop into a unique, live culture. Continue to feed it with flour and water to cultivate the yeasts and good bacteria, and you’ll have a healthy, strong starter that can be used time and time again.
You Got This
Now, if you’re intimidated at the thought of trying to make your very own starter, DON’T BE! I had a few people reach out and say they’ve always wanted to make sourdough from scratch but don’t know where to start or if they’d be able to do it. Well I’m here to tell you that apparently you can go into it completely blind, not realizing everything it entails, having absolutely no idea what you’re doing, or what to make with it once it’s started, and STILL get’r done.
Don’t do too much research. I know that sounds counterintuitive. But there’s a lot of science and mumbo-jumbo to get bogged down in, which I’m sure I will once I get more into it, but I almost think it was best to start into it without much research or any idea what I was doing! I didn’t even know I should have been stressed before starting. 😅 One of the blogs I read (The Clever Carrot) said it’s much more about UNDERSTANDING than getting the recipe exact. I found that to be 100% true.
Also, let’s think about this. People have been leavening bread naturally for thousands of years! This is how ALL bread and baked goods used to be made. Nothing fancy – just flour, water, time, and knowing what it should look like.
And another bit of encouragement: one of my friends sent me a message and said her husband started his sourdough starter way back in college, kept it alive in a bro house, and he still has it to this day.
Sooo, yeah. You can do this. Don’t overthink it!
Beginner Sourdough Starter Recipe & My Experience with the Process
I started by following the beginner sourdough starter recipe from The Clever Carrot. But, as sourdough goes, I had to alter a few things and figure it out as I went. This is the recipe I ended up with and what my experience was. I would highly recommend checking out The Clever Carrot for tons of sourdough recipes and advice from someone who has a lot of experience!
Supplies & Ingredients
- Quart Mason Jars
- Reusable Storage Lids
- Wood Mixing Spoon
- Measuring Cups
- Rubber Bands (or you can use tape)
- Kitchen Scale (kind of optional, more details below)
- Wheat Flour (Bob’s Red Mill Whole Wheat Flour or King Arthur Whole Wheat Flour)
- All Purpose Flour (Wheat Montana All-Purpose Flour or King Arthur All-Purpose Flour)
- Dutch Oven (for baking once the starter is ready to go)
Throughout this process, I used two 32oz mason jars so I could switch the starter to a new jar a few times. I had a large pack of them on-hand from summer canning [HERE], but you can also buy them as singles [HERE]. I do recommend the wide mouth jars so it’s a little easier to mix, though I’m sure the regular mouth would work just fine. We use the Ball reusable storage lids [HERE] for our opened canned food and they worked great for my sourdough starter as well. I just set the lid lightly on top of the jar so the starter still got some oxygen (you don’t want it airtight).
Most recipes say that creating a sourdough starter from scratch will take about 7 days, but it can be longer or shorter, depending on your environment. It took mine 16 days before it was active enough to bake with (probably because I was unknowingly harming it … see below paragraph…). Patience is key. Just continue the feedings and it will get there!
Day 1: Mix the Starter
In a clean, glass container, mix together 1/2 cup (60 g) of whole wheat flour and 1/4 cup (60g) of water. You can use either filtered water or tap water. Using a wood spoon or silicon spatula, stir until the mixture is smooth and there are no lumps. It will be very thick and pasty. Cover the container with a lid or cloth and let it sit in a warm spot (70°-75°) for 24 hours.
Whole wheat flour is minimally processed so it’s packed with nutrients and microorganisms to jumpstart fermentation. If you don’t have whole wheat flour, all-purpose is fine, but it may take a bit longer to get going. I used Bob’s Red Mill Whole Wheat Flour but have heard good recommendations for King Arthur Whole Wheat Flour as well. A lot of recipes call for Rye flour. Everyone’s sourdough starter is different, which is part of what makes it so cool!
** (Non) Pro Tips & Lessons Learned – PART 1 **
At first, I set mine on the counter next to the oven, but that wasn’t quite warm enough. So I ended up moving it to the top of the oven with the overhead lights on. Temperature is a big factor in fermentation. I noticed a significant increase in activity when I moved the starter to the stove versus on the counter. It will ferment both ways, but cooler temperatures ferments slower. A few people suggested putting it inside the oven with the light on (oven off). But I was 110% confident that I’d forget about it and completely cook it to death the next time I preheated the oven. On top of the stove was much safer. I just moved it off the stove any time I was cooking so it wouldn’t get too hot.
I had started out mixing my starter with a stainless steel fork or spoon, but a few of my Instagram friends reached out to let me know that the metal can react with the mixture and kill off some of the good yeast. It was around day 10 and the starter just didn’t seem as active as it should have been. I switched to wood spoons and noticed a big difference right away. Turns out, I was killing some of the yeast I was trying to cultivate. Just another reinforcement that you can do this! You don’t have to get it perfect right away.
Day 2: Check It Out!
On day two, you should notice some bubbles on the surface of your starter. Bubbles mean fermentation!
Some recipes advise you begin feedings on day 2, but I let mine sit for another 24 hours.
Honestly, it seems like a lot of sourdough is both personal preference and depends on your own environment, water, flour, etc. It’s going to be different for everyone.
During the next 24 hours (day 2), a dark liquid may also appear on the top of the starter. This is called hooch and indicates that your starter is fermenting and is hungry! It’s best to pour it off, but for now, just leave it. You can discard it when you start the feedings on day 3. If you prefer, you can mix the hooch in when you feed it, but it will make the bread a bit more sour (I chose to dump it off).
Day 3: Start Feeding
By day 3, the starter will be very stretchy and hungry. Pour off any hooch, and, using a spoon, discard half of the mixture. You should have about 60g left.
Add 1/2 cup (60g) of all-purpose flour and 1/4 cup (60g) of water to the remaining mixture. Stir until the mixture is smooth and there are no lumps. It should be about the consistency of thick pancake batter. Add a bit more water if necessary to get the consistency right. I added about 1 TBS of extra water on day 3 to thin the starter just a bit. Cover the container again and let it sit in your warm spot for another 24 hours.
Day 4 – 7: Discard & Feed
Repeat the process for the next few days. Discard half of the mixture and add 1/2 cup (60g) of all-purpose flour and 1/4 cup (60g) of water every 24 hours.
You can add more flour if you want to grow a bigger starter, but I just kept with the 1/2 cup flour + 1/4 cup water. I figure I can increase to bigger portions if I’m baking with it a lot and need more.
As the yeast develops, you’ll start to see bubbles forming in the starter and it will have a sour, yeasty aroma. With each feeding, use a rubber band (or tape) to measure the growth of the starter. Place the rubber band to mark the height after the feeding and watch it expand over the next 24 hours. Once it falls, it’s time to feed again.
There are recipes that call for different portions of flour versus water. Feeding the starter with equal parts starter, water, and flour (60g in this recipe) gives you a starter at 100% hydration. Altering the measurements will give you a different hydration level, which affects the final crust and crumb structure. Since this is my first time dabbling in sourdough, I stuck with consistent measurements and approximately 100% hydration. I’ll probably play with it more at some point to see what happens. But for now, keeping it simple!
It may take more than 7 days for your starter to become active enough to bake. Again, it took mine about 16 days. I just continued discarding, feeding, and keeping it in the warm spot. Which brings me to …
These are a few things I ran into as I was getting my sourdough starter going.
** (Non) Pro Tips & Lessons Learned – PART 2 **
My Starter Stinks
At some point in the process, you starter may (will) start to smell pretty bad – either very sour, stinky socks, vinegar, or (the worst of all) vomit. By day 7, mine smelled like straight vomit.
Joseph was a bit skeptical at this point that I’d ever get to the baking point.
I was a bit skeptical at this point that I’d ever get to the baking point.
It was so bad.
After some research, I found that it’s a very normal part of the process. There are a lot of different smells as the starter develops. The stink means the good bacteria has eaten through all the flour and your starter is hungry. Once the good bacteria and yeast find a balance, your starter should smell fresh and yeasty – not stinky at all.
Now, if there is any discoloring (pink or orange) or mold growing, that’s a different situation. It can happen if bad bacteria makes its way into the starter (which can happen in a kitchen). Get rid of the starter and start fresh.
My starter still had great color, no signs of mold, and bubbles were forming. So I followed all the advice and just kept at it with the feedings. I did switch it over to a new jar at this point (just in case), then continued to switch it to a new jar with every-other feeding. Not necessarily necessary, but it seemed to help with growth and made it easier to track the growth since the sides of the jar were clean. Things finally turned around on day 12, and it started to smell fruity and yeasty again!
My Starter Doesn’t Seem as Active As It Should Be
Once I made it through the stinky stage, I ran into another small quandary. The starter just didn’t seem quite as active as it should be after 2 weeks of regular feeding and care. It wasn’t yet doubling within 4-6 hours after a feeding (the benchmark my Instagram buddies said to look for before baking) and it didn’t look like there were enough bubbles to leaven bread.
I posed the situation to my Instagram stories, and a few friends reached out with tips & tricks. They all advised moving it to a fresh jar and giving it a little boost with a whole wheat flour feeding. Boy, was that a game changer. I had to feed it twice that same day, and then it was definitely ready to bake some bread!
Measuring Cups vs Kitchen Scale
For the first few days, I used measuring cups for the discard and feedings. But for that boost feeding with whole wheat flour, I tried out the kitchen scale. Based on the scale, I think I had been discarding a little bit too much for each feeding, causing the starter to lose more of the active yeasts and bacteria than it should. Using the kitchen scale helped get that back on track.
But, honestly, I only used it a few times – just enough to get a good idea of what each measurement should look like. Now that I know how my measuring cups measure, I quit using the scale simply for ease of feedings. My takeaway: it’s up to you. I think you can get away with or without the scale. With a little experimenting, you can figure out what works with your measuring cups. But a scale can be helpful if you want to get really particular, which is good for some recipes.
So, all in all, if you hit day 7 and beyond and your starter doesn’t seem quite as active as it should be, try a feeding with whole wheat flour. The whole wheat will give it a little boost and get the yeast going. Also, make sure it’s in a warm enough spot. Try for 75° ish. Use the same measurements – 1/2 cup flour + 1/4 cup water.
Is Your Sourdough Starter Ready to Bake?
The sourdough starter is ready to use when it doubles in size within 4-6 hours after feeding, has lots of bubbles on top and throughout the culture (like a sponge), and smells fresh and yeasty. You can also do a float test to double check: scoop a bit of the starter out and drop it into a cup of water. If it floats to the top, it’s ready to bake.
Storing Your Sourdough Starter
Once your sourdough starter is active, there are several options for storing it.
One popular method is to store the starter in the refrigerator. Remember how important temperature is in the fermentation process? Keeping it cold slooooowwwws things down. Lightly cover it with a lid and feed it about once a week or so to keep it active, then put it back in the fridge. When you’re ready to bake with it, take it out of the fridge, feed it like a normal feeding (discard half, feed with 1/2 cup flour + 1/4 cup water), and let it rest at room temperature. Continue feedings every 12 hours until it meets the above requirements and doubles in size within 4-6 hours.
If you’ve been feeding the starter regularly in the fridge, you can keep the discard to use for other baked goods that require less leavening (pancakes, biscuits, crackers, tortillas, etc). Follow your nose. If it smells good and is in good shape, go ahead and use the discard. If it’s super hungry, has a bunch of hooch on top, and/or smells weird – probably just discard that discard. I’m going to try out my first discard recipe this week. We’ll see how it goes!
Another option is to keep the starter at room temperature, which can be more convenient for those who bake regularly (a few times per week). However, this method requires more frequent feedings to keep the starter active – about once or twice per day, depending on how quickly it rises and falls. Same as I said above – when it rises and then falls, that means the yeast ate through all the flour and is hungry again. When you keep a starter at room temperature, most of the discard should be good to keep since you’re feeding regularly and the starter is very active! If there’s too much discard to keep up with, you can store it in it’s own airtight jar in the fridge and use later for those recipes that require less leavening.
A third option is to freeze the starter, which can extend its shelf life for several months. However, your starter may take several days to become fully active after being thawed. I’d reserve the freezer for any time you need to take a break from sourdough baking for an extended period of time.
How Am I Storing Our Sourdough Starter?
I’m keeping mine in the fridge for now and feeding it about once a week. As of now, I’m not baking multiple times per week, so that’s a good balance. I do plan to save the discard since I’m still feeding it regularly to try out some other sourdough recipes!
What is All This Stuff About Discard?
Discarding part of the sourdough starter with each feeding is a common practice in sourdough baking to control the growth of the starter and prevent it from becoming too large. Your sourdough starter can also accumulate wild yeast and bacteria that can alter the flavor and texture of the bread. Discarding part of the starter helps to maintain that balance of yeast and bacteria.
I did not save any of the discard during the first two weeks of starting the sourdough starter. It was all pretty stinky. I’d recommend waiting until your starter is established and active to start saving and using the discard. Again, follow your nose. If it smells and looks good, give it a try!
Ready to Bake!
Whew. That was a lot. But I think I went over all the issues and weird questions I ran into.
On day 16, after the whole wheat feeding (plus a couple extra because the whole wheat made it go crazy and was eating through flour like crazy 😅), I attempted my first loaf of sourdough bread. I borrowed a dutch oven – a great option if you want to try out a loaf but aren’t quite ready to purchase one. But I’ve enjoyed the process so much that I think I’m going to invest in one of my own now. There are, of course, a wide range of prices available. I’ll keep you posted on what I end up with!
I followed the recipe and videos from An Oregon Cottage. She has such a wealth of knowledge on her blog for all things sourdough. It turned out way better than I was expecting for a first attempt! I definitely recommend the recipe for your first try. It was a bit dense and little burnt on the bottom but delicious for sandwiches!
Again – I’m still just barely getting into this whole sourdough thing. I may have messed up here or there. I’m soaking up all the advice, tips, and tricks, so leave all your knowledge in the comments! Or, if you’re new to it as well, leave any questions you might have and I’ll do my best to answer!
Now just to refine the recipes and figure out what works best with my starter. I see how people get so into this! It’s an art and different for everyone – definitely a journey.
- Whole Wheat Flour
- All-Purpose Flour
- Day 1: In a clean, glass container, mix together 1/2 cup (60g) of whole wheat flour and 1/4 cup (60g) of water. Stir until the mixture is smooth and there are no lumps. It will be thick. Cover the container with a lid or cloth and let it sit in a warm spot (70°-75°) for 24 hours.
- Day 2: Let it continue to ferment. No need to do anything.
- Day 3: Discard half of the mixture and add 1/2 cup (60g) of all-purpose flour and 1/4 cup (60g) of water to the remaining mixture. Stir until the mixture is smooth and there are no lumps. It should be stretchy and a consistency similar to thick pancake batter. Add a little extra water if necessary. Cover the container again and let it sit in a warm spot (70°-75°) for 24 hours.
- Days 4-(?): Repeat the process of discarding half of the mixture and adding 1/2 cup (60g) of all-purpose flour and 1/4 cup (60g) of water every 24 hours. You should start to see bubbles forming in the mixture and a sweet, yeasty aroma developing. When the starter rises and then falls, it's time to feed again.
Many sourdough recipes say that the starter will be ready around day 7, but it can go quicker or take longer, depending on your environment. Mine took a little over 2 weeks before it was ready to bake with. This can be due to temperature, timing of the feedings, etc. I did an extra feeding with whole wheat flour to give my stater a boost on day 13. Continue with the feedings and you'll get there!
I found it helpful to transfer the starter to a clean jar every other (or every few) feedings. Though it's not necessary for success, it was easier to see the growth when the jar was clean.
See post above for more info.
| Tylynn |