Making your own sourdough starter might sound like something only expert, artisan bakers do. Or hippies. Clearly, an average person couldn’t do such a remarkable task, right?
Wrong. The average person could. In fact, you could. Making a homemade sourdough starter only takes flour, water, and a little patience. It’s much easier than you think and doesn’t require any special skills.
And once you take your first bite of a freshly baked sourdough loaf, all crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, homemade by you with your very own sourdough starter, you’ll be hooked.
What is a Sourdough Starter?
Homemade sourdough starters are also known as wild-caught starters because they harness the fermenting power of natural yeasts and bacteria present in the air of your own home. This might seem like an intimidating science experiment at first, but it’s really a straightforward process.
A sourdough starter is just a thick liquid mixture of flour and water that’s been fermented with natural yeasts and bacteria. When a little is mixed into bread dough, the starter slowly ferments the whole dough, producing delightfully fluffy loaves that are downright irresistible and superior to other breads.
The best news about homemade sourdough starters is that yeasts and bacteria are pretty resilient critters. This is a problem with stubborn bacterial and fungal infections, but it works to your advantage with a sourdough starter.
Because microbes are so resilient, sourdough starters are very easy to care for and maintain. They’re kind of like low maintenance pets. Give them a little food, water, and attention, and they’ll reward you with an active starter that makes the most amazing bread, muffins, and more.
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How to Make a Homemade Sourdough Starter
To make a sourdough starter, you’ll need two basic ingredients: flour and water. Filtered water works best since high amounts of chlorine can hinder microbe growth.
Though you can make a starter with really any type of grain flour, I prefer to use whole grain rye for a bubbly, potent starter. Using a grain other than wheat adds an additional nutrition profile to my breads, too. But if you don’t have rye, use whole wheat or even unbleached, unbromated white flour.
To begin, take 1 cup of flour and combine it with 1 cup of water in a medium-sized glass or ceramic mixing bowl. You want it to be the consistency of pancake batter, so add a little more water if necessary. For my rye starter, I use about 1 1/4 cup of water to 1 cup of flour.
Then cover it with a lint-free kitchen towel or layers of cheesecloth. You want air to circulate around the mixture, but you don’t want bugs in.
If you can set it by an open window, that’s perfect. If not, choose a place that stays at decent room temperature with good air flow.
Every day, add an additional 1/4 to 1/2 cup flour and equal amounts (or a pinch more) of water. This feeds the good bacteria and yeasts and prevents mold from taking over and spoiling the starter.
In fact, we call this process of adding fresh flour and water “feeding” the starter.
If your starter is in a very warm place or you’re getting it going during the hot summer, you’ll likely have better results by feeding it in the morning and in the evening. Warmer temperatures mean more active microbes, and more active microbes need more food.
See? Just like a little pet!
What a Healthy Sourdough Starter Looks and Smells Like
If you forget to feed your new starter while you’re trying to get it going, you may very well end up with something like this that will need discarded:
That’s a neglected starter gone bad and overrun with mold. Because I didn’t feed it for a couple of days while it was out in our warm kitchen, the beneficial yeast and bacteria couldn’t keep the bad mold at bay.
A neglected starter will not only look gross, but it’ll also smell awful. Like, sour milk meets moldy produce awful. You won’t want to use it.
However, so long as you keep your mixture fed and in good air circulation, after about 5-7 days, you’ll get a bubbly, nicely fermented mixture that looks like this:
It will smell pleasantly sour and show no signs of mold or spoilage. You’ll likely notice a beer-like scent and should see bubbles all the way through the mixture.
Once your starter is fully fermented, you are then ready to bake with it or store it.
Do You Need to Discard Half of Your Sourdough Starter?
Many sourdough starter recipes instruct you to discard half of the sourdough starter batter every day during the fermenting process before adding more flour and water for the day.
This isn’t bad advice; I just don’t find it necessary most of the time.
Discarding half of the sourdough starter does two things:
- It makes sure the growing microbes have plenty of food to eat since more of the starter batter will be made up of fresh flour and water.
- It also reduces the amount of starter you end up with. Because no home baker needs a whole gallon of sourdough starter.
Most of the time, following my instructions and not discarding will give you a happy, bubbly starter. But if your starter doesn’t seem enthusiastically bubbly, you can try the discarding method and see if it helps perk things up.
How to Store a Sourdough Starter
You can store your sourdough starter in either the refrigerator or on the kitchen counter. Wherever you plan to store it, it’s best to first transfer it to a jar with a lid. I keep my starter in a half-gallon mason jar.
If you plan to bake daily, you might like storing your starter on the counter. You’ll need to feed the starter once (in cool weather) or twice (in warm weather) a day to keep the microbes happy and healthy. Your starter will always be active and ready to use.
If you don’t plan to bake daily, storing your starter in the refrigerator will probably work best for you. You’ll need to plan ahead just a bit when you want to bake, but you won’t have to feed it daily and end up drowning in starter.
I keep mine in the refrigerator for that reason. After I use it for mixing up doughs and batters, I feed it a little and then place it in the refrigerator to snooze. When I need it, I pull it out, feed it again, and let it warm up at room temperative for a few hours before mixing.
I know a starter is ready to use again when it’s been at room temperature for a few hours and very bubbly after feeding.
How to Care For a Sourdough Starter
How you care for your starter depends on how you store it. As mentioned above, starters stored at room temperature will need fed daily, or even twice a day if it’s warm. Starters stored in the refrigerator should be fed about once a week, but this will probably happen naturally if you bake regularly.
When you feed your starter, you simply give it fresh flour and water just like you did when you were making it in the beginning. This keeps the microbes fed, happy, and in balance, which in turn keeps your starter going indefinitely.
You don’t need to use the same flour every time you feed it. I usually use rye for my starter, but I’ve used whole wheat, oat, and unbleached, unbromated white flours when I haven’t had rye flour handy.
Once you make your starter, you never run out and start all over. You’ll always leave at least 1/2 cup starter in the jar when baking. Then, when you add more flour and water, that remaining starter will ferment the new flour and water mixture, replenishing the starter you used in your recipe.
After baking, if you don’t have much starter left, simply stir in some flour and water so the remaining microbes have a boost of food. Before baking, give it some more flour and water to get it really active and bubbly. This will happen quickly with countertop starters but might take a few hours for refrigerated ones.
How to Use Your Sourdough Starter in Recipes
Once you have a finished sourdough starter, it’s time to use it!
Almost every bread and pastry recipe out there can be made with sourdough starter. You’ll start these recipes further in advance since sourdough needs more time to work, but the results are worth it!
You’ll use different amounts of starter for different recipes. To get a feel for how sourdough recipes work, try some of my favorites:
- Everyday Sourdough Sandwich Bread
- Morning Glory Sourdough Muffins
- Easy Sourdough Drop Biscuits
- Sourdough Hamburger and Hot Dog Buns
If you want to dive deep with sourdough baking, check out Traditional Cooking School’s sourdough resources. They offer a Sourdough A-Z eBook & Video Series, but I really recommend going with a full membership to take advantage of their amazing full Sourdough eCourse. With 26 lessons, it’ll turn you into a sourdough pro! Plus, you’ll get access to other amazing healthy cooking courses and resources, too.
What’s That Gray Water on Top of My Starter?
Depending on what type of flour you use for your starter, you might see a greyish liquid float to the top when it’s stored in the fridge. You might worry that your starter has gone bad, but it hasn’t.
That gray water is completely normal, not harmful, and called hooch. Funny name, I know. You can just stir it into your starter again.
Some people will instruct you to pour the hooch off and add in extra water when you feed the starter to make up for the lost liquid. You can do that if you want, but it’s unnecessary. I actually prefer to stir it back in since it will contain microbes that fresh water won’t.
Interestingly, my rye starters rarely develop any hooch. If I feed my starter with more wheat, though, I see more hooch. I don’t know why this is and I’m not sure it matters, but there you have it.
Troubleshooting Your Sourdough Starter
Occasionally, certain locations just seem to not produce wild-caught starters easily. The local yeasts and bacteria might be too weak to sufficiently raise bread dough, or they might produce an unpleasantly strong flavor.
In those instances, you can simply buy a sourdough starter culture. The neat thing about buying a starter culture is that you can choose it according to your taste preferences and goals for baking, and you care for it like any other starter. You can even order an authentic San Fransisco sourdough culture or one from Italy!
Chlorinated water can hinder a sourdough starter because it kills or weakens the needed microbes. If you suspect your tap water supply is making for a wimpy starter, you can try using distilled water instead.
And sometimes, even the best of home bakers neglect their sourdough starter. #guilty. When that happens, it might get a little sickly or even develop a film of mold. Don’t panic, though. You can revive a neglected starter.
Finally, if you’re really struggling with sourdough and you want some one-on-one help, let’s schedule a time to chat.
So grab a bowl, some flour, and some water. You can do this, and I’m pretty sure the microbes in your home are just begging you to turn them into a sourdough starter!