Sourdough starters are the gift that keeps on giving. Bubbly and with a slight tangy-smelling, a “starter” refers to a mixture of whole wheat flour and filtered water that cultivates an active, living colony of bacteria and yeast. These microbes are responsible for the gorgeous, fluffy rise of sourdough bread and can be used to make loaves, pizza crust, pancakes, and more.
The human race has been leavening bread with naturally occurring wild yeast for centuries. Homegrown sourdough starters combine the best of the scientific and culinary worlds, making healthier, more flavorful bread products. This timeless practice not only takes you back to your baking roots; it also completely eradicates the 2020-specific struggle of not being able to find a single packet of yeast in any grocery store anywhere.
Additionally, a sourdough starter’s lifespan can span generations. Sourdough starters can be passed down to family and friends as heirlooms, or you can buy authentic “vintage” starters online on eBay or Etsy. A gifted sourdough starter costs pennies to make and can last the recipient (and their children’s grandchildren) a lifetime of delicious sourdough bread.
The Science of Sourdough Starters
The science of the starter is simple. When water is added to flour, enzymes in the flour convert long starch molecules into simple sugars. Wild yeast and bacteria found in whole wheat flour, the starter’s container, the air, and even on your own skin feast on these simple sugars, eating and reproducing into a thriving colony of bubbly goodness. The honeycombed paste is added to sourdough to give it a pocketed, mouthwatering rise, no pre-packaged yeast necessary.
Sourdough starter is a living thing that requires feeding—lots in the beginning as it’s first developing, and less so as it matures. (The “food” of a sourdough starter is a simple mixture of water and flour.) A tradition held this long is bound to have many methods, but we’ll clear some of the static and provide a simple, easy-to-follow process for making your own sourdough starter from home.
Simple Sourdough Starter
- 1 cup whole wheat or rye flour
- 1/2 cup room temperature water
- One bag whole wheat or baker’s flour
- Large sealable jar or crock
- Measuring cups
In a clean jar or crock, add 1 C flour and ½ C room temperature filtered or distilled water, and mix well with a fork. Make sure there is no dry flour left in the mixture (see-through containers are handy for this reason). Add more water in small amounts if all of the flour isn’t saturated enough. The starter should look like a lumpy paste.
Seal the lid and mark the starter’s height on the outside of the jar. Leave on the counter for 24 hours. The warmer the environment, the better your starter will grow. If your house is normally colder than around 70º F, consider keeping your starter on an appliance or device with ambient heat like on top of the fridge, water heater, or computer tower.
After about 24 hours, you should see a bit of activity in your starter. Activity can look like small bubbles throughout the paste, a noticeable “pff” of air pressure being released as you open the jar, and a slightly sweet-smelling, tangy odor. These signs point to the release of carbon dioxide from yeast and bacteria happily munching on simple sugars. Take a look at the height of your starter compared to the first marking. A rising starter is a sign of a feeding starter!
If your starter is still paste-like, bubbling, and buoyant after 24 hours, sit back and let it keep doing it’s magical, mystical thing. Thick consistency and high rise are signs the microbes are still metabolizing (eating) the flour’s sugars. Once your starter is deflated, thinned, and maybe even a little runny, that means it’s hungry, and you can move to the next step.
Feeding your starter is simple. Scoop out roughly ¾ of your sourdough starter until there’s approximately ½ C remaining. Discard leftover starter. Lots of recipes suggest using a scale for accurate measurements, but we prefer the effective lazybones method of doing things, so we’re using our eyeballs and measuring cups for this one. ??Add a scant cup of whole wheat or baker’s flour and ½ C room temperature filtered or distilled water to the starter; mix well. Reseal and let sit for 12-24 hours or until the starter starts showing signs of hunger. You are now the parent of a delicious, hungry sourdough starter, congrats!
Continue to feed the starter the same “meal” for 4-5 more days. Mark the starter’s height before each feeding to better monitor its rise. Check for signs of hunger every 10-12 hours or so. Everyone’s precious colony of joy has a different microbial make-up and feeding schedule, so the trick is to watch your sourdough starter for clues as to how it’s feeling. Feed when hungry; leave sealed when feeding. ??An overfed sourdough starter is a lethargic sourdough starter (and aren’t we all, honestly). Too much flour and water can dilute the microbes, resulting in unleavened and bland bread. It’s better to slightly starve than overfeed.
After 5-6 days, your starter should roughly double in size after feeding. Once it does, you are in the bread-making business! Sourdough starter can be stored in the fridge and fed once or twice a week. Feed the starter as usual and let it rest for 2-3 hours before transferring to the fridge; repeat the same process when you feed it throughout the week. If you’re an avid baker, you can keep the starter on the counter, but make sure to keep its 1-2x/day feeding schedule.
For the best results, make sure to use an active, fed starter for your dough. If you’re going to use your starter right away on the fifth or sixth day of cultivating, let the starter rest for up to eight hours immediately after feeding before adding to your recipe. If using straight from the fridge, check for signs of activity or hunger. ??A bubbly, slightly runny, slightly thick starter that was fed 2-3 days ago should be good to use without feeding. If your starter is topped with a layer of liquid or looks very thin, feed the starter and wait 6-8 hours or until it looks like the starter has fully metabolized its “meal” before baking.
- Fancy, modern tools are a great asset but not a necessity for this age-old practice. Your eyes and nose are your greatest tools for maintaining a healthy sourdough starter. Once you can distinguish between a feeding, fed, and hungry starter, it’s as simple as following your starter’s cue. Keep an eye out for any discoloration, as that can be a sign of mold from an unclean jar or lack of feeding. Start the process over with a freshly washed container.
- Similarly, pay attention to the starter’s smell. A sourdough starter isn’t particularly pleasant to smell, but it isn’t bad either. Healthy starters smell slightly tangy, a bit fruity, yeasty, and a little bit like feet. Putrid or acrid odors are a sign of bad bacteria and should be tossed.
- A well-fed sourdough starter can be kept unrefrigerated for up to 24 hours, making it easily transportable in a car for homecomings, gifts, and for when you want delicious, fresh sourdough bread on a work trip or vacation. If you’re planning on flying with your starter, check out this handy guide from The Sourdough School.
- Simply place ¼-½ C fed starter in a sealable jar, add a homemade label with instructions or a sweet note if you like, and your lifetime sourdough starter is gift-ready. All the recipient needs to do is pick up the same feeding regimen, either 1-2x/day at room temperature or weekly if refrigerated.
- Fresh from the oven sourdough bread is hard to beat, but that’s not all these handy starters can do! Check out these sourdough recipes (that aren’t bread) from Boston Magazine for some culinary inspiration.
- The King Arthur Baking Blog offers a great troubleshooting guide for starters that are having trouble with, well, getting started. If you’re having some wild yeast woes, don’t be discouraged! With a little finagling and a couple of practice rounds, you’ll be baking your own tasty sourdough in no time.