Making your own sourdough starter from scratch is easier than you may think. You just need three ingredients: flour, water and time. Listen up – I, too, used to think that a sourdough starter is advanced stuff. Black magic, almost. Sure there are more advanced techniques and more simple ones when it comes to sourdough starter. But if you stick to a simple one, you can have a fantastic beginner’s sourdough starter at home with very little commitment.
First off, what is sourdough starter?
A sourdough starter is basically a comfy environment where wild yeast thrives. There, simple as that. Wild yeast is found everywhere, and lays dormant most of the time. Until it finds the perfect environment to wake up. The fermentation of flour and water is just what wild yeast loves. Make a batch and within days you’ll see it bubbling lively. That’t the wild yeast passing gas, and that’s a sign it’s feeling great.
Actually, it is believed that accidental fermentation of a mixture of flour and water is what made leavened bread come about. Back in the day when flatbread was the standard – long, long time ago – some guy forgot some flour and water in a hot place. Came back to a bubbly mess, decided to add that to his bread dough and was rewarded with something new. And that’s how bread as we know it was invented. Or so they say.
How to make sourdough starter from scratch
For a long time, all I heard about sourdough starter was that it was a precious thing people were passing on to other people. Like there was an alpha sourdough starter somewhere that was the father (or mother, as that’s what it’s called in Italian) of all sourdough starter batches out there. You either were blessed with the gift of sourdough starter from someone who possessed it, or you were out of the game. Turns out to be untrue.
While it is true that once you have you own you can pass it on to others, sourdough starter can also be made at home from scratch. So if you don’t have a baker friend who is into this kind of thing that can initiate you to the sourdough starter community, no worries. Bear just one little detail in mind: sourdough starter doesn’t happen overnight. It’s going to take about 7-10 days. Time is key in making sourdough bread, and the whole process of making sourdough starter from scratch is already teaching you that. If you can handle such a slow game, you’ll be rewarded with delicious artisan bread at home.
Why bother, though?
Because artisan bread made with sourdough starter is so much better than regular bread. Sourdough starter is used instead of yeast to make bread and pizza. By using sourdough starter it will be the wild yeast it contains to act as leavening agent in your dough. Since we’re adding a prefermented mixture to our dough, we are also adding a whole new flavour profile which is ultimately what makes sourdough bread so unique.
What I personally find fascinating is the fact that we are not using any commercial yeast. We are just combining water and flour with more water and flour and you get a loaf of bread. Okay, we’re adding salt at some point, but that’s pretty much it. Water and flour. And time, as I was saying before, because fermentation and proofing take time. But think about it: just water and flour. Ta-da!
How to make sourdough starter from scratch
Several recipes and methods to make sourdough starter exist, so be not surprised to find out that there might be people out there doing something quite different. This is a beginner sourdough starter recipe and the easiest way to succeed is by making a 100% hydration sourdough starter.
100% hydration means that the flour and water ratio is 1:1, that is to say you are adding 100% of the weight of the flour in water. A 50% hydration recipe would mean that you are adding half the weight of the flour in water. Another common proportion is 166% hydration, which is what you achieve when you feed your sourdough flour and water by the same volume, rather than the same weight.
Being based in Europe, the use of a kitchen scale is my standard, so this is the method I prefer. I weigh my ingredients and add the same weight in flour and water. In this case, 70 grams.
Combine 70 g of flour and 70 g of water in a container and stir well until you get a thick homogeneous paste. The water should be neither icy not hot, something between cold and lukewarm. Avoid using a metal container – choose a glass or plastic jar. I found that Grom gelato tubs are perfect for this scope. Cover the jar but do not screw the lid on, so that fermentation gases can escape. Let sit at room temperature in a room that is fairly warm; I keep mine in the kitchen.
Find a time in your day when you know you can slot in your sourdough starter maintenance for the next week; ideally you want 24 hours in between feedings. On day 2 you will be feeding water and flour to the existing mixture. So place the whole jar on a scale and add 70g flour and 70 g water. Stir to combine, loosely close the lid and let sit. You need to make sure that from this point on your starter is in a jar large enough for the quantity you now have to double in size. If your container is too small, transfer the starter at this point to prevent it from spilling out in the future for lack of space.
Now fermentation should have already kicked in and you should see some bubbles forming in your mixture. It will likely not smell sour yet, but should still have a fresh flour smell. Today we are starting with the discarding and feeding. Place your jar on a kitchen scale and remove 100 g of the mixture it contains. This is not ready yet, so you just need to discard it. The compost bin is the right place for it. Now, add 70 g flour and 70 g water to the remaining mixture and stir to combine. As usual, leave out at room temperature with the lid loosely on.
From day 4 you will most likely see some changes in your sourdough starter. It will get more and more bubbly, it will grow in size, it might grow so much it will erupt from your jar if you have underestimated its size. Most importantly, it will start developing its distinctive sour smell which is the one you will want to have in your sourdough bread, too.
From day 4 on, all you have to do is to follow the instructions from day 3. Discard 100 g and then stir in 70 g flour and 70 g water. Let rest loosely covered for 24 hours, then repeat. Discard 100, feed 70+70, on day 5, 6, 7… Depending on the environment you are raising your starter in, it may take a whole week for it to be ready, or little less. Such factors are temperature, altitude, humidity… Since that is not something you can change so easily, the best thing to do is to have patience and let time do its part. Some will have it ready on day 6, some on day 10. And it’s fine. Just keep the procedure from day 3 every day: discard and feed. And let rest for 24 hours.
How do I know when the sourdough starter is ready?
After aboutone week of feeding and keeping the starter at room temperature, it should have nicely doubled in size, have developed a nice acidic smell and should present a frothy bubbly top. These are all signs that your sourdough starter is alive and well, and when you’ve seen this for two days in a row you can be almost sure you’re ready to use it.
If you want to be 100% sure, there is a way to test your sourdough starter! Drop a small dollop of starter into a glass with some water. If the starter floats, it is a sign that it is active and ready to use. Now you can start baking, or you can choose to move it to the fridge for future use. If the starter sinks, it means that it’s not ready yet. Discard and feed, let sit for another day and check it the next day.
Feeding the sourdough starter
When your sourdough starter is ready, you can either choose to use it, or transfer it to the fridge for future use. If you decide to use it, do not forget to feed the leftover starter, in order to keep it alive. If you want to bake every day, keep your sourdough starter at room temperature and feed it daily. The discarded starter will always be active and ready to use. Remember that you need to keep the lid loosely on, as it will keep fermenting and you want the gas to escape the jar.
If you want to slow the fermentation down because you don’t need to bake that often, at this point you can store your starter in the fridge. Always feed the starter before placing it in the fridge. When in the fridge, you want to keep the starter in an airtight container, so now is the time to screw the lid on and properly close the jar. Remember to feed your starter once a week, otherwise it might go weak and ultimately die. To feed the starter, once again follow the steps from day 3. Discard 100 g and add 70 g flour and 70 g water. It is generally recommended to leave the jar at room temperature for a day after a feeding, in order to let the starter re-activate.
If you wish to use the starter, remember that it needs to be fed and reactivated. If you don’t wish to use it, or don’t have the time to care for it, it is also okay to just take it out of the fridge, feed, and place back in the fridge. This will ensure that the starter will not starve for another week, but it will need reactivating before use.
What flour to use for sourdough starter
All purpose, simple white flour is all you need as a beginner. Wild yeast is found in it, and you don’t need any fancier flour to trigger your first fermentation. If you wish to add some different flour to your sourdough starter batch, you can do that from day 3. Add a different flour as a feeding. Altough what matters in bread-making will be the flour you’ll use in the dough, starters made with different flours may still land you different results with different flavour profiles. This is absolutely not a necessity. Stick with all purpose throughout the process and feed your starter all purpose and you’ll be great. But if you have different flours at home you may as well experiment a little.
I currently have 2 jars of sourdough starter in my fridge. One is made with regular flour and durum flour. The other one is a mixture of regular flour and barley flour. Apart from the difference in colour (the barley mixture is slightly darker), I can see that these two starters have different bubble textures, which I find fascinating. The barley mixture also tends to develop a thin layer of transparent fluid on top after a week in the fridge, while the other batch does not. This is a normal occurrence, you just pour it out before feeding. But you can see that despite being a similar thing, there are some slight differences in the two batches. For the record, I had added barley and durum flour during the first 10-day fermentation process, and have been weekly feeding them all purpose now.
How much do I need to commit?
Weekly feedings of your sourdough starter may sound challenging. Keeping a sourdough starter alive feels like keeping a house plant. You need to remember to feed it or it will die. Before I started my sourdough adventure, I was finding this aspect particularly off-putting. I am terrible with house plants. I really try my best, but sooner or later they just die. And since I had in my mind this idea that a sourdough starter is somewhat precious, I was afraid I’d just let something so exclusive die because of my negligence.
Well, it turns out that weekly feedings are more of a pleasure than a chore. Actually, baking sourdough bread at home is addictive. You just want to keep feeding your starter in order to use it. And even when I have it sitting in the fridge for a week, when I take it out to feed I always end up making some pizza. Because why on earth would you not want to make sourdough pizza, right?
And if you forget about and let it die? Well, as sad as it may be for your batch of sourdough, here’s the good news. Making a new batch of sourdough starter from scratch is easy. Just start over and within a week you’ll have a new sourdough starter that will bring you new fantastic breads. In any case, it will be worth it.
Some useful links
When starting out my sourdough adventure I did some reading that I found useful to learn about this whole amazing process. If you would like to learn more about sourdough starter, here’s some recommended reading:
- What is the difference between starter and levain by TheKitchn
- How to use discarded sourdough starter by Cultures for Health
- Video recipe from one of Italy’s greatest pizza chefs from Giallo Zafferano – even if you don’t understand a word of Italian, please take the time to watch this video. This is as advanced as it can get, and will make you understand how broad the world of sourdough starters can be. He follows a recipe that starts from raisins, has a different level of hydration and takes 31 days to make. Quite a different thing from our beginner’s sourdough starter, but a pleasure to watch.
And finally, the recipe that prompted me to start this amazing adventure. I’ve been following Disgraces on the Menu for quite some time now, and I have marveled at his success at artisan bread baking on instagram. When he finally published his sourdough bread recipe I knew that it was time for me to try! So here it is:
Making your own sourdough starter from scratch is quite an adventure. It sure does take time, but most of it is just passive resting time. Feeding the dough doesn’t take more than 5 minutes, and you choose whether this should happen daily or weekly. Devoting 5 minutes a week of your time to have such a wonderful ingredient at hand is definitely worth it, if you ask me. And remember that even if you fail, you can always start over. The good thing is that you’ll have learned something new in the process. And food-porn-worthy crusty bread fresh from your home oven will be the sweetest reward.
Beginner sourdough starter from scratch
How to make your first sourdough starter at home. Beginner's guide to sourdough starter from scratch.
Daily ingredients to be used
- 70 g flour
- 70 g water
This process requires 7 to 10 days to complete.
Combine 70 g of flour and 70 g of water (lukewarm, neither cold nor hot) in a plastic or glass container. Stir with a spoon until a thick paste is formed. Cover the container with a lid, but do not screw it on to allow gases to escape. Leave at room temperature in a warm room (I leave it in the kitchen).
Add 70 g of flour and 70 g of water to the mixture in the jar and stir in well. Make sure to have a jar that is large enough for this quantity to double in size. Put lid on, unscrewed, and let sit at room temperature.
At this point, some fermentation should have started to take place and the mixture could already show some bubbles. Today we start discarding and feeding. Remove 100 g of the mixture, then add 70 g of flour and 70 g of water. Stir to combine, put lid over and let sit at room temperature.
From day 4 on, you will repeat the step from day 3. About 24 hours after the previous feeding, discard 100 g of mixture and stir in 70 g of flour and 70 g of water. It is important to always leave the lid unscrewed to allow fermentation gas to escape. Now is when proper fermentation will happen: the starter will get very bubbly and the smell will become proper acidic, resembling that of beer.
Depending on the temperature in your room, your sourdough starter may already be good to use on day 7 or it may take a few days more. To check if your starter is ready to use, drop a small dollop of starter into a glass with water. If it floats, it's good to use and you can start baking bread. If it sinks, you will need to keep feeding it a little longer.
Sourdough starter maintenance
When your sourdough starter is done, you can choose to keep it at room temperature and feed it daily, or let it rest in the fridge and feed it weekly. If you keep it at room temperature, you can use the part you discard daily to make bread right away, as a starter kept at room temperature and fed daily is active. When you keep your sourdough starter at room temperature, the lid should always be unscrewed. Unless you plan on making bread every day, it is not necessary to keep your starter at room temperature and you can store it in the fridge.
If you keep it in the fridge, you will need to have your starter in an airtight container, so screw on the lid. Have it as a routine to take it out once a week (it helps to stick with the same day) for a feeding. To feed the starter, follow the steps from day 3. If you're planning to use your starter, allow it to sit at room temperature for one day before you use it, in order to let it re-activate. It is not recommended to use the part you discard on the feeding day, as a starter straight from the fridge is not active. If you're not planning on using it, then you can just proceed with the feeding and then place the starter back in the fridge. Repeat this process weekly.
You can use several types of flour in your starter, but the easiest way to success as a beginner is to use all purpose flour. If you plan on adding a different type of flour - I added barley flour to one batch, and durum to another - do it as a feeding after day 3, in order to have all purpose flour in the early stages and adding a different flour once the fermentation process has kicked in.