Make your own sourdough starter

A practical, step-by-step guide with tips, tricks and timelines to making your own sourdough starter and baking with it. The method is logical and simplified for beginner bakers to follow (and expert bakers to hone).

True confessions of a sourdough tragic
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I confess. I am a sourdough tragic. I am obsessed with creating the ultimate sourdough, and I have devoted years to reading endless articles and books on the subject, collecting tips, exploring different methods, experimenting with different recipes and adapting my own. Oh, and sampling the goods, of course. That’s a very important part of the process.

As with all baking, the magic is in the chemistry – which means, of course, it isn’t really magic at all. But chemistry can sometimes seem daunting.

Fear not, however, because I am going to share the fruits of my years of experience, research and observations in this practical guide to making sourdough starters and breads that follows.

The method I have outlined is logical and simplified, but before you reach fearlessly for the flour, read through the entire process and the extra tips to appreciate the whole picture. You’ll soon realise that while sourdough baking isn’t particularly difficult, a little patience and focus on the details of the task will guarantee amazing results in your home kitchen.

Whatever you do, please don’t feel overwhelmed by the amount of information I’ve given you – it’s here to guide you and cover all bases. The best way to learn how to make good sourdough is by simply doing it. And when you have found your sourdough ‘feet’ and are feeling confident, start pushing the boundaries and making slight adjustments to suit the way you would like to make your bread.

The beauty of sourdough is that every loaf you make will be different. And this uniquely created bread with its own special character, its own complex flavour and its own distinct texture is worthy of every moment of pure adoration and obsession you devote to it. Welcome to my sourdough world, where it’s impossible to bite off more than you’d ever want to chew!

What is a sourdough starter?
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Also known as a sourdough culture, a sourdough starter is a simple mixture of flour and water which acts as a natural leavening agent. Wild yeast is present in all flour and a starter is a way of cultivating it in a form that can be used to bake with. The characteristic sourness in a sourdough comes from the bacteria present that grow alongside the yeast in the starter and can range from very strong to quite subtle. As the sourdough starter matures the wild yeast and bacteria develop making it ‘stronger’ and more complex in flavour.

Only a small amount of sourdough starter is needed to make a batch of bread. Wild yeast works more slowly than commercial yeast so recipes made with a sourdough starter will typically take longer to make.

Making a sourdough starter is a simple process of combining flour and water, which is then subsequently ‘fed’ or refreshed with more flour and water over a period to encourage the yeast to ferment and the bacteria to develop.

Once established, a sourdough starter will go through a predictable cycle of bubbling, growing to about double its size, and then falling, and will take a similar time to complete this cycle if held at a consistent temperature.

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What does ‘hydration’ mean?
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Sourdough starters are often referred to as a percentage ‘hydration’, for example 100% hydration sourdough starter. The percentage indicates the hydration of the flour in the starter.

For example, a 100% hydration starter would be made from and fed with equal quantities (by weight) of both flour and water, or 1 part flour and 1 part water.

The hydration of a starter not only affects its consistency but also how quickly it will ferment. A less hydrated starter will be thicker and slower to ferment, hence requiring less feeding.

This sourdough starter (see sections 5-9) is a 100% hydration sourdough starter. 

Timeline for making a sourdough starter
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While the process of making this starter is a little lengthy (at least 5 days) it isn’t difficult, if you follow the steps and take note of my tips. Refer to the detailed steps in the next sections, but here is a nifty quick reference to keep you on track:

Day 0

125 g flour + 125 g water, stand for 48 hours

↓ ↓

Day 2

1st feeding: 125 g starter + 125 g flour + 125 g water,
stand for 24 hours

↓ ↓

Day 3

2nd feeding: 125 g starter + 125 g flour + 125 g water,
stand for 24 hours

↓ ↓

Day 4

3rd feeding: 125 g starter + 125 g flour + 125 g water,
stand until doubled in size (8 — 24 hours)

↓ ↓ 

Day 5

 If not doubled in size, feed every 12 hours until doubled in 8 hours or less

↓ ↓ 

 Use 'active' starter OR store at room temp or in fridge 

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Sourdough starter method - Day 0
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A young starter is quite sensitive so when establishing your sourdough starter it is important to follow the process (measuring the flour and water accurately, feeding at the suggested times, etc.) But once mature and strong, it will have more flexibility and will be more resilient to changes so don’t worry too much if you occasionally miss a feeding by a day or so or if your quantities are slightly out - just get back on track as soon as you can and your starter will bounce back.

 

Ingredients 

Starter

  • 125 g organic wholemeal flour (see Baker’s tip #1 and Variations)
  • 125 g bottled water, at room temperature (see Baker’s tips #2 and #3)

To feed the starter

  • unbleached organic plain flour (see Baker’s tip #1)
  • bottled water, at room temperature

 

Day 0

1. Place the wholemeal flour and water in a medium bowl and stir until well combined.

2. Weigh a clean, dry jar with a lid that you are going to store your sourdough starter in and note the weight down (see Baker’s tip #4).

3. Transfer the flour mixture to the jar, seal and set aside in a warm draught-free place (see Baker’s tip #5) for 48 hours (see Baker’s tips #6).

After 12 hours (jar 1, from left, above and below), there won’t be much change in your mixture although a few bubbles may start to appear through the side of the jar.   

After 48 hours (jar 2, from left, above and below), the starter may have risen just a little and a dark skin would have formed. There may be a few bubbles on the surface and also noticeable through the side of the jar – but not always. Proceed to the first feeding.

If you don't see these signs, set aside for another 24 hours – if there are no signs of activity by then, just continue with the first feeding. The aroma will be quite unpleasant.

 

Baker's tips

#1. In my experience, I’ve had the best results with starting a sourdough starter with organic wholemeal flour and then switching to unbleached organic plain flour for feeding until it is established. Once mature, you can then just switch to regular plain flour or bread flour for feeding, or even occasionally feed it with wholemeal flour again to add a little ‘nuttiness’ to its flavour.

#2. Use bottled water (or water that is filtered and has been allowed to stand uncovered for at least 4 hours for the chlorine to dissipate) to give your sourdough starter the best possible chance of success.

#3. It’s a good idea to embrace measuring both your flour and water in grams when making and maintaining your sourdough starter. It is the most accurate way of measuring and will give you the best possible chance of success.

#4. A sourdough starter can be mixed and kept in a non-reactive container such as a glass jar. Look for one that has straight sides and a reasonable sized mouth to make mixing easy. This starter recipe will need a jar that has a capacity of at least 1 litre (4 cups) and, before making your starter, ensure that it is very clean and dry. It’s a good idea to note the weight of your jar so that it is easy to calculate how much sourdough starter you need to remove and discard every time you feed it.

#5. The ideal temperature for proving sourdough starter is between 21°C-23.5°C (70ºF-74ºF). Don’t be tempted to keep the starter at higher temperatures to accelerate the process as it won’t necessarily mean you will get a better result. Higher temperatures can encourage more ‘bad’ bacteria to grow than the ‘good’ ones, which will ultimately ruin the starter. If your kitchen is cold, I find placing it under the stove rangehood with the light on or on top of the fridge gives a warm (but not too warm), consistent temperature.

#6. After each feeding, it’s a good idea to mark the side of the jar with tape (or an elastic band) so you can see how much it grows in the specified time.

 

Variations

  • Rye sourdough starter: replace the wholemeal flour with 100 g rye flour (and feed with unbleached organic plain flour).
  • White sourdough starter: replace the wholemeal flour with 125 g unbleached plain flour (and feed with unbleached organic plain flour).
Sourdough starter method - Day 2
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First feeding after 48 hours

1. Remove and discard all but 125 g of the sourdough starter from the jar.

2. Add 125 g plain flour and 125 g water to the jar and stir well to combine.

3. Use a clean spatula to scrape the sides of the jar down to clean (see Baker’s tip #7).

4. Seal the jar and set aside in a warm, draught-free place for 24 hours.

After the first feeding and rise, the starter would have risen slightly (up to 50%) (pictured above, jar 3, from left) and random bubbles will be visible on the surface as well as through the side of the jar indicating the wild yeast is active and starting the multiply. 

 

Baker's tips

#7. Make sure you scrape down the side of the jar after every feed – this will make it easier to see how much the starter has risen each time.

Sourdough starter method - Day 3
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Second feeding after 24 hours

1. Remove and discard all but 125 g of the sourdough starter from the jar.

2. Add 125 g plain flour and 125 g water to the jar and stir well to combine.

3. Use a clean spatula to scrape the sides of the jar down to clean.

4. Seal the jar and set aside in a warm, draught-free place for 24 hours.

After the second feeding and rise there will be more visible bubbles but they will be smaller and more uniform (pictured above, jar 4, from left). The aroma will be less pungent and a little sweeter. 

Sourdough starter method - Day 4
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Third feeding after 24 hours

1. Remove and discard all but 125 g of the sourdough starter from the jar.

2. Add 125 g plain flour and 125 g water to the jar and stir well to combine.

3. Use a clean spatula to scrape the sides of the jar down to clean.

4. Seal the jar and set aside in a warm, draught-free place until doubled in size (8-24 hours, depending on the strength of your sourdough).

After the third feeding and rise, the starter will become more vigorous and may rise by up to 100% in less than 24 hours (pictured above, jar 5, from left). Bubbles will be very evident on the surface as well as through the side of the jar. It will have a  pleasantly sour, tangy, sweet aroma. 

Sourdough starter method - Day 5
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Depending on the strength of your sourdough and how quickly it ferments it may double in size in less than 24 hours. You may also notice that once it doubles it starts to lose volume and falls back on itself indicating that it needs regular feeding from this point.

If your starter has not doubled in 24 hours or less, continue the discarding and feeding process every 12 hours until it has the ability to double in size in 8 hours or less. When it does, it is now "active" and ready to use, or store in the fridge to be used at a later date (see Baker’s tip #8). 

Baker's tips

#8. A young starter is quite sensitive so when establishing your sourdough starter it is important to follow the process (measuring the flour and water accurately, feeding at the suggested times, etc.) But once mature and strong, it will have more flexibility and will be more resilient to changes so don’t worry too much if you occasionally miss a feeding by a day or so or if your quantities are slightly out - just get back on track as soon as you can and your starter will bounce back.

What's that smell? Aroma changes in sourdough starter
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When making and establishing a sourdough starter you will notice that the aromas it gives off change quite considerably from one day to the next. This is because the bacteria present is changing and ‘settling’.

To start, in the first day or so, it can smell quite foul but will mellow with subsequent feedings and over time the smell will become slightly tangy and sweet and then more sour.

You will also notice once the sourdough starter has matured and is more stable, the aroma will become more consistent too.

The aroma will also change depending on where it is in the feeding cycle once established, mature and healthy; it will have a slightly sweet scent when first fed, and will become more sour as it stands and ripens ready for use.

Sourdough starters can be unpredictable
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Remember all sourdough starters are different. There are so many things that can vary while making a sourdough starter (including the type of wild yeast and bacteria present, the temperature the starter is held at, etc.) and ultimately this will affect how long it takes for your starter to become mature.

Sometimes, a starter may seem to be on the right track and then, for whatever reason, it doesn’t progress at all. If yours doesn’t reflect the exact description above, don’t lose heart, be patient and keep repeating the feeding process every 12 hours until your starter reflects the Day 5 description before you move onto maintaining, storing and using it. 

Timeline for feeding your sourdough starter
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Once you've read through the more detailed instructions in section 13, below is a nifty quick reference to getting your sourdough starter strong and 'active' enough to use in baking:

 

125 g starter + 125 g flour + 125 g water

↓ ↓

Stand until doubled in size (4 — 8 hours) → 
If not doubled in 8 hours, feed again every 12 hours
until doubled in 8 hours or less

↓ ↓

Remove starter for recipe → use as directed

↓ ↓

Discard all but 125 g remaining starter and feed with: 125 g flour + 125 g water

↓ ↓

Stand for 2-3 hours, then store in fridge → Feed once a week

OR

Store at room temp → Feed daily at same time

 

How to feed, maintain, store and use your sourdough starter
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Feeding your sourdough starter

Once your sourdough starter is established, healthy and strong (and doubling in at least 8 hours when at room temperature), it will need to be ‘fed’ regularly to be kept active and to maintain its ‘strength’. If not fed regularly with fresh water and flour, the natural yeast within the starter will run out of food and ultimately die.

A mature and strong starter will have more flexibility and will be more resilient to changes than a young starter so don’t worry too much if you occasionally miss a feeding by a day or so or if your quantities are slightly out - just get back on track as soon as you can and your starter will bounce back.

To feed your sourdough starter, firstly use a clean utensil to remove all but 125 g of the sourdough starter from the jar. Then add 125 g plain flour and 125 g water and stir well until evenly combined. Seal the jar and store at room temperature or in the fridge.

Storing your sourdough starter

A sourdough starter can either be kept at room temperature or in the fridge.

If you aren’t intending to use your sourdough starter every day, it is best kept in the fridge. To do this, feed it as instructed above, seal the jar and then stand at room temperature for 2-3 hours (to help reinvigorate the yeast) before placing in the fridge to store.

A starter stored in the fridge will only require feeding once a week to maintain it.

If you use your sourdough starter every day, keep it at room temperature. Follow the feeding instructions above and then leave it at room temperature. You will need to ‘feed’ it every day (at the same time, if possible).

A sourdough starter stored at room temperature and fed everyday will have a milder flavour than one kept in the fridge and fed once a week.

Increasing the volume of your sourdough starter

If you want to increase the amount of sourdough starter you have, especially if you want to share it, you just need to ‘feed’ it with 125 g flour and 125 g water without first discarding any of the sourdough starter until you reach the desired quantity.

Freezing a sourdough starter

Sourdough starter can be frozen, if you would like to store it for a long period without feeding. To do this, double the amount of flour added at feeding so that it is a very thick paste, place in an airtight container and freeze for up to 1 year. Thaw at room temperature and feed as above to regain its strength before using.

Liquid on top?

If a grey-like liquid forms on top of your sourdough starter, this is an indication that an excess of alcohol has been produced as a by-product of the yeast fermentation. It often appears if the sourdough starter is ‘hungry’ because it has been left for longer periods of time without feeding or if it requires more frequent feeding.

If there is only a thin layer, you can either stir this liquid back into the sourdough starter or drain it away before feeding it again. If you stir it through, it will add a more intense flavour to your sourdough starter and, in turn, your sourdough bread.

If there is a thick layer, it is best to discard it before feeding.

Using your sourdough starter

When you want to use your sourdough starter in a recipe (see section 15), feed it and stand at room temperature for 4-8 hours before you intend using it. It should at least double in volume and bubbles will start breaking the surface in this time, which will indicate that it is strong and ‘active’ enough to use. The time will vary depending on whether it has been stored in the fridge and the temperature at which it is standing. If it doesn’t, repeat the feeding and standing process until it does.

Remove the amount you require for the recipe and then repeat the feeding process and either stand at room temperature to use again or transfer to the fridge to store.

Tips for making sourdough bread
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Read my tips and tricks here about the following:

  • What is a levain (pre-ferment)?
  • Kneading
  • Proving
  • Bannetons (dough proving baskets)
  • Dividing dough
  • Slashing
  • Pizza stones
  • Storing your bread

Recipes - get baking!
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1. Basic sourdough bread

This is a classic loaf and a great recipe to find your sourdough 'feet' with. It does take at least 24 hours from start to finish but time is what helps create a great loaf of sourdough. It's made with white flour but you can use spelt instead.

2.  Seeded wholemeal sourdough loaf

This loaf has a more dense, less ‘holey’ texture than the basic sourdough bread due to the seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, sesame, linseeds and poppy seeds) and added bran from the wholemeal flour.

3. Seeded wholemeal sourdough rolls

You can use the same seeded wholemeal dough (above) to make rolls, perfect for lunchboxes and dinnertime.

4. Three-cheese mushroom sourdough pizza

Making pizza bases with sourdough is a complete revelation – chewy, flavoursome and with so much substance.

 

Photography by Alan Benson. Styling by Sarah O'Brien. Food preparation by Anneka Manning. Creative concept by Belinda So.

 

View previous Bakeproof columns and recipes here.

 

Anneka's mission is to connect home cooks with the magic of baking, and through this, with those they love. For hands-on baking classes and baking tips, visit her at BakeClub. Don't miss what's coming out of her oven via Facebook,TwitterInstagram and Pinterest.