Making your own sourdough starter might sound like something only expert, artisan bakers do. Or hippies. Clearly, an average momma couldn’t do such a remarkable task, could she?
Yes, she could. 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.
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 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. It makes a really excellent starter that’s bubbly and potent. 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.
To begin, just 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.
If your starter is in a very warm place, you might need to feed it more than once a day. Warmer temperatures mean more active microbes, and more active microbes need more food. See? Just like a little pet!
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 to be 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.
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 are then ready to bake with it or store it to bake later!
How to Store a Sourdough Starter
Sourdough starters can be stored either in 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.
Storing your starter at room temperature on the counter can work well if you plan to bake daily. The starter will need fed once or twice a day, depending on how warm it is (remember that warmer temperatures mean more active, hungrier microbes), but it’ll always be active and ready to use.
Storing your starter in the refrigerator works well if you don’t want to feed it daily and won’t bake daily.
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 so that it can perk back up and become more active.
How to Care For a Sourdough Starter
Caring for your starter mostly 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. Once you make your starter, you never run out and start all over.
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.
Depending on what type of flour you use for your starter, you might see a greyish liquid float to the top of it. That’s completely normal, not harmful, and called hooch. Funny name, I know. You can just stir it into your starter again. Interestingly, rye starters don’t tend to develop hooch, but wheat starters do.
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. Chlorinated water supplies may also kill or weaken the needed microbes.
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! If you suspect your water supply is at fault, you can try using distilled water instead of tap.
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.
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!