Trying to make a starter is what nearly killed sourdough baking for me in the beginning. I don’t like the process. It seemed wasteful. It was hard to tell whether or not my starter was “right.” It was like having a pet to take care of, only not so fuzzy or cute or slobbery. I took it to friends’ houses with me to make sure I fed it exactly at the directed 12 hour interval. (Obsessive? Perhaps.)
I think I had to throw out two attempted starters before I got one that I felt good about. Once I had it, I haven’t made another. Hopefully I won’t have to for a long time. This starter has been going for about a year and a half now, and it’s still healthy and bubbles up beautifully when warm.
So, despite my initial frustration, I’m going to tell you that it’s worth it to get a starter going. The worst that can happen is that you end up wasting a bag of flour and a week of your life. (This happened to me.) But my husband’s fascination with building a mud oven and baking sourdough in it drove us to continue trying.
Well, in the end, I’m glad my husband was persistent. I’m SO happy to have sourdough as a part of our life. The maintenance of the starter is now next to nothing, the bread is spectacularly delicious, the starter is versatile, it’s healthier for you than regular yeast bread, and it makes you feel all traditional and stuff. (Except when you realize that people have been doing this better than you for a long time, then you get a little humbler.)
Okay, enough blabbing. Here’s how to get your starter going.
Day 1: Mix 1 cup whole wheat flour with one cup water in a glass (or other non-reactive) container. (Any type of flour will do. I just like the flavor of a whole wheat starter.) Let sit for 24 hours at room temperature.
Day 2: Discard half of the starter (more on discarding later), then add another 1 cup flour and 1 cup water to the remaining batch. (The process of adding flour and water to your starter is called “feeding.”) You do not need to clean the container out- just make sure your hands are clean and you don’t let any bits of other food fall into your starter. Let sit 12 hours at room temperature.
Day 3 & onward: Discard most of the starter, then add another 1 cup flour and 1 cup water to what remains. Repeat twice daily (about every 12 hours) for about 2-4 more days (5-7 days total). It will become spongey, tangy, fruity-smelling, bubbly, and literally active. (It bubbles and “breathes” when it’s warm and well fed. Remember when I said it’s like a pet?)
Starter maintenance: Once your starter becomes bubbly and pleasantly sour, you do not need to continue feeding it daily. How you maintain your starter simply depends on how frequently you plan to use it.
If you are baking with your starter daily, you can keep it on the counter top (covered), so long as you remember to feed it every time you use some for a recipe. So, use the designated amount of starter for your recipe, then add equal parts flour and water to what remains in the jar. You’re done until the next day!
If you are not baking daily, you will need to keep it in the fridge in between uses. Say you bake on Monday. Use the designated amount of starter for your recipe, then add equal parts flour and water to what remains in the jar. Stick it in the fridge. If you want to bake again on Saturday, then make sure you take the starter out of the fridge Friday night, feed it with a little flour and water, give it a stir, then let it sit out on the counter til morning. If it’s somewhat risen and bubbly the next day, you are ready to use it again for baking.
Just for an example, here’s what mine looks like straight out of the fridge (left) and once it’s fed and bubbly (right):
When the starter is quite cold, you can see that there are very few bubbles. After it has been out, fed, and warmed for a only a few hours, there are quite a lot of little bubbles throughout the starter and it’s risen a bit too. The starter on the right is ready for use.
A word on working with starters: Don’t pay too much attention to everyone’s instructions (mine included)! If you ask five different people to tell you how they make and maintain their starters, you’ll likely get five different answers. This is because everyone lives in a different environment- and so their starters will develop and behave differently! The key is to watch your starter and respond to it- not a particular recipe!
When it’s cool in the fall, my starter is very slow and sluggish. When it’s hot and humid in the summer, I can usually pull it from the fridge and have it ready to use within a couple hours- without feeding it! Sometimes my starter is very wet, and sometimes it’s rather dense. As goes the starter, so goes the bread too. Timing of your starter and your recipe will completely depend upon your environment.
So think of using a starter as more of an art form than a science. Get to know when it’s slow, when it’s active, and when you’ve let it go too far and the party dies down before you get to bake. Play with your starter. Take notes if you want to, or just observe and make changes as you go. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You’ll get a few dense loaves, but it’s not the end of the world! The more time and practice you put into working with your starter, the easier it will become. And soon it will be second nature!
Here are a couple of common starter FAQs:
Why does it take time to make a starter?
When you make conventional yeast bread, you use a strain of commercial yeast to raise your bread. When you make a sourdough starter, you are capturing wild yeast to do the same thing. You don’t see them, but wild yeasts are everywhere- and starters are great environments for them to live in. Over time, the yeasts will begin to thrive, your starter ferments, and that typical tangy sourdough flavor develops.
What’s the deal with discarding?
I read a blog post on Cultures for Health that helped me to understand this. Basically, by keeping the starter refreshed, you are keeping your starter at a manageable size and also making it easier to properly feed all the little microorganisms that are living in your starter.
I hated throwing out cups and cups of developing starter the first time I tried to make it. Thankfully, since then, I’ve learned that there are a lot of recipes that use that discarded starter to make perfectly lovely breads! You could try pumpkin discard pancakes, pretzels from from your discard starter, or a partial-sourdough loaf like this one that includes commercial yeast to help the rising process.
How can I tell if a starter is still good?
Generally, most starters- even ones that haven’t been used for a couple of months (speaking from experience!), can be revived. Grey water in the jar? No problem. It can be poured off (for a less sour taste) or stirred back into the starter (for a strong sourdough flavor). Inactive starter? That’s okay- revive it with the same feeding process you used to make it originally.
The warning signs of a starter that needs to be tossed: if it’s pink, green, fuzzy, or otherwise molded or oddly reminiscent of a strange rainbow, it’s gotta go. Also, if it smells “off,” then it’s time to bid it farewell. (You will learn over time to differentiate between a nice fermented smell and a foul foreign odor.) These types of things don’t usually happen because of mere age of a starter, but rather because of an introduction of some unwelcome bacteria or unusual object getting into the jar. Again- wash your hands, make sure you use clean utensils, and you should be fine to keep your starter going for years and years.
While none of these are exclusively focused on sourdough baking, all include incredibly helpful sections on working with sourdough- and have delicious recipes too! (These are affiliate links.) My favorite cookbooks to refer to for sourdough baking are:
- King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking: Delicious Recipes Using Nutritious Whole Grains
- The Bread Winners Cookbook
- Build Your Own Earth Oven
Have any tips, questions, or corrections to add? Leave them in the comments. Thanks for reading!