Today I am sharing a complete beginner’s guide to sourdough, including an easy sourdough starter recipe, tips and answers to frequently asked questions.
This is an exhaustive guide, filled with tons of information and answers to all the questions I had as I was learning this. I tried to use headings as much as possible to help y’all skip around to what info you want, and find what you need as easily as possible.
I am new to sourdough, like so many of us are (out of necessity right now). However, I am a seasoned cook with pretty decent intuition and instinct when it comes to learning new kitchen skills. So I pick up new skills pretty fast.
Plus, I love teaching people how to cook delicious food for their families. So that is why I am writing this, even though I am a sourdough newbie myself!
As I was learning how to make sourdough starter myself over the last few weeks, I began to capture the questions I had, as well as what I learned while making my own starter. I hope this is helpful to you!
What is sourdough?
Sourdough is a homemade levening agent, used to make a variety of baked goods. It makes the bread rise, y’all. 😎
It used to be the only way to make bread hundreds of years ago. Modern-day levening agents have since taken over. This includes dry yeast, baking soda and baking powder.
Dry yeast is sourdough’s modern cousin, in which yeast is isolated and added to dough for a quick rise. And right now? Every. Single. Store is out of dry yeast over here. 🙄But I digress.
Baking soda and baking power make use of a chemical reaction, which releases gasses, causing baked goods to rise. It makes a different texture than wheat that is far more tender and crumbly, like a cake, muffin or biscuit.
Sourdough makes use of the natural yeast that is all around us. Did you know that stuff was everywhere? Kind of gross and mind-blowing, but true.🤯 Making starter involves basically building a little home for all this yeast to colonize, in a little bit of flour and water.
Sourdough starters get better over time
Most online literature says that you need about 5 days to get a starter rolling. Mine took a little longer, about 8 days. But more on that in a minute.👌🏻
You can keep a starter going for years, without much hassle at all. Especially with a little refrigeration, which you can use after your new starter becomes well-established. Most sources say you need to take it out and feed it at least once a week. However, I have heard from multiple sources that starters are much more resilient than you think.
You can revive a weeks old starter by taking it out of the fridge and simply feeding it again. It’ll revive faster than making a new one from scratch. Same with an underfed starter. It may stink or get that layer of hooch (brown liquid) on top. You can pour that off, or mix it in and just feed it. It will revive. Kind of like magic.✨😆
Ages ago, families used to keep starters for decades, passing them down like heirlooms. This will make more sense to you after you keep a starter for a bit. I plan to keep mine long-term.
Isn’t sourdough a lot of work tho?
This is why I never started it up until this point, tbh. Too much fuss for me, or so I thought. As of recently, we all became stuck at home with lots of time on our hands. So I decided to try it.
Turns out, this is not the case. Making a starter from scratch is the bulk of the work. Once you have your starter established, it becomes super easy.
The process of baking breads is slower, so it takes a while. But! The bulk of the time is hands off time, especially if you have one of those mixers with a dough hook. Most of that is rise and rest time. If you have a good timer on your iPhone and a weekend (even intermittently) at home, you are good to go.👌🏻
Fortunately, if you are reading this in real time (April 2020), we all have LOTS of time at home in our immediate future.😜 So there is no time like the present to give sourdough a try!
Benefits of sourdough
Of course it cuts down on the need to buy commercial yeast. When commercial yeast is not available (like now, for example), and stores run out of baked staples, sourdough gives you the ability to make your own.
There are certain health benefits to sourdough too. Most of the benefit comes from the wild yeast. They break down the elements of the wheat much better, making sourdough baked goods much easier on the digestive system than commercially baked goods.
You can read more if you want all of the glorious scienc-y details about why sourdough is super nutritious for you. But in summary, it is higher in folate, contains more antioxidants, is better for gut health and helps improve mineral absorption. 💥💪🏻
The flavor is really great too! You can opt for sweet or savory sourdough recipes, hard crust or soft crust. Your starter gives you the ability to make so many things.
In fact, that brings me to another big benefit: the ability to make a variety of baked goods from one single starter. We have made pizza dough, pancakes, English muffins and all different types of loaf bread.
How to make sourdough starter
Making sourdough starter is super easy! All you need is container with a loose lid or cloth, some unbleached flour and filtered (chlorine free) water.
I must admit that a digital food scale is super valuable for this process. Mine broke by day 4. I had that thing for years, but in a moment of absent-mindedness I stuck it under the faucet to rinse it off. I immediately realized what I had done.🤦🏼♀️
So I had to measure after that, which was no biggie. But I ordered a new scale pronto!
Before getting started – what you need
- You need a digital food scale OR measuring cups and spoons
- You will also want to make sure to have some non-metal spoons and containers for your starter. I used wooden spoons and glass or Tupperware type containers.
- A towel/ cloth or loose fitting lid – don’t use tight lids. The fermentation process release gas, so your lid needs to allow room for expansion.
TIP: If you are using a food scale (and I highly recommend one), go ahead and write down the weight of your container in both grams and ounces. It makes life so much easier later. I kept mine in a note on my phone.
TIP 2 : You may want to have a couple extra containers. After a few days the edges may start to look dry and crusty. Also, if you forget to weigh your containers, you can just put the new container on the food scale, zero it out and weigh out your ingredients that way.
What type of flour to use
There are lots of options here. The main thing you want to avoid is bleached flours. You want to use unbleached. Reason being: the bleaching process can make it harder for the good bacteria and yeast to grow. Makes sense, right? Bleach is a disinfectant after all.
After reading and researching (and using what I already had), I decided to start my sourdough starter with some regular whole wheat flour. Any whole grain flour tends to have more natural yeast present, which really helps get your starter well-established.🤓 Some great options:
- Regular whole wheat
- Unbleached all purpose
- Wholemeal rye – a favorite by many artisan bread makers
- Whole wheat pastry
- Gluten free flour (1:1 mixes work best)
What type of water to use
The main thing you want to avoid is chlorine, which is present in most city tap water. This prevents the yeast and good bacteria from growing. You can use bottled water.
Filtered water works great too, especially from a Berkey filter or a reverse osmosis, both of which filter out chlorine. We have reverse osmosis, which is what I am using.
Feeding sourdough starter
So how do you feed a sourdough starter? There are two answers to this: (1) Feeding to establish a new starter and (2) Feeding to maintain an established starter. I will cover both!🤓👌🏻
Feeding to make a new sourdough starter
The first two feedings, I used whole wheat because it was all I had. Be aware that whole wheat starters will be very thick and much drier looking than white flour starters. Don’t worry, it is supposed to look like that!
Once I finally got my hands on some unbleached all purpose, this is what I began feeding my starter with. I just like the texture and consistency better. It was much easier to work with.
Here is the feeding schedule I used from King Arthur, adapted by me (after watching lots of YouTube videos) after day 5 to two-a-day feedings to ramp things up.
- Day 0: Mix 1/2 cup water (113 grams) with just under a cup (3/4 cup + 2 Tablespoons or 113 grams) flour, stir and cover
- Day 1 through 4: Feed once a day by discarding all but 4 ounces of starter and adding that 113 grams each of flour and water, stirring to combine
- Day 5 through 8 (or more *see below section): I began twice a day feedings. The smell was not great when I woke up the morning of day 5, which sent me googling. I read that my starter was simply was “hungry,” so I switched to more frequent feedings, which worked!
- Day 8 I woke to a very bubbly and doubled-in-size starter, which let me know it was time to get baking. 🙌🏻
How long does it take to make well-established sourdough starter?
*This is one of the least talked about topics on the internet. Your starter does not respond to personal preferences or deadlines.😆 It takes as long as it takes.
For some people it is apparently 5 days. For me it was 8 days. Just be aware that it may take 11, 12, 13 days. Just keep feeding it until it get very bubbly and doubles in size. Like I said, starters also get better over time.
I used a clear jar with a rubber band wrapped around it to keep track of where the starter was when I fed it. That made it super simple to see how much it bubbled and rose.
How temperature affects your sourdough starter
So how does air and water temperature affect starter? In short: warmth speeds up the fermentation process, and cool slows it down. This is part of what happened to mine, I think. We had several cool days where the temp got down to 68 degrees in my house.
After I figured this out, I started manipulating my starter, ever so gently. You can do this in 2 ways (1) warmer place to rise and/or (2) gently heating the water to lukewarm (not hot!). I did both.
I would turn on my oven to 350 degrees, and count to 15 slowly, and then turn it completely off. It would simply heat the inside of my oven to just a few degrees warmer than my kitchen. I let my starter sit in there between feedings. Just be sure not to forget about your starter and preheat the oven. That will kill it. Put a sticky note on the outside, if you need to.
On the cooler days I heated my water for about 12 seconds in the microwave first. I always felt it with my finger before pouring it in, though. You want it to feel lukewarm, not hot.
Conversely, if it is summer and hot in your house, your starter may bubble up and get hungry much faster. You can use cool water, or even refrigerate the water for a little bit to slow things down.
After your starter is well-established I recommend transferring it to the refrigerator. This pretty much brings the need to feed it to a screeching halt. That way you can take some out the night before you want to bake and feed it and leave it out on the counter to get things going again.
The exception to this would be if you plan to bake with it daily. Most of us don’t do this, though.
How often to feed established sourdough starter
Most sources say you can leave an established starter in the fridge and feed only once a week. This is very doable, and I see myself at the very least making some sourdough pancakes at least once a week on Saturdays (to feed it and use the discard).
You can always leave it out if you want to make more and/or don’t mind feeding/using it daily.
What if I forget to feed my starter for more than a week?
What about leaving it longer than a week? I have no experience myself with this yet. From all that I am reading, this is still usable. Don’t throw away old starter!
Just take it out, discard all but 4 ounces, and feed it at room temperature until it goes bubbly again and doubles in size. Most people say this can be done in only one feeding. Even if you need two feedings, it is far easier than building that starter from scratch again.
Feeding a well-established sourdough starter
To feed a well-established, refrigerated starter, remove it from the fridge
- Discard all but 4 ounces. You can use for “discard” recipes such as pancakes.
- Add your usual 113 grams of flour and 113 grams of water, and stir to combine.
- Leave it covered on the countertop for 6 to 8 hours to revive it, until it becomes bubbly and doubles in size. You want to be sure and let the starter to bubble up before you put it back into the refrigerator.
- At this point you can use some for a recipe (or not) and return the rest (at least 4 ounces), or all of it to the fridge.
Hate throwing out starter? Discard recipes
Our favorite discard recipe by far were these sourdough pancakes from Farmhouse on Boone. They were great! I think these have become a Saturday tradition already.
We also really loved this sourdough pizza crust. You can use unfed/ unrisen starter, plus a little yeast (about half as much as I use for my dry yeast pizza crust).
There are lots of recipes for homemade crackers using discard. The one we tried didn’t work out so well, so I won’t link that one.
How to make gluten free sourdough starter
You have a couple of options here.
(1) If you are celiac or full on allergic to gluten, you will want to use gluten free grain flour to make your starter. You can use something like Bob’s Red Mill gluten free 1:1 all purpose flour. Or buckwheat flour works too.
(2) If you already have wheat flour starter, you can transition it over to a gluten free starter by simply feeding it with gluten free flour. People with celiac or gluten allergies will not want to use this method, since the starter will have trace amounts of gluten. But for everybody else, this is a great option!
I hope you enjoyed this complete guide to making sourdough starter! If you have any questions, please leave a comment, and I will try to answer as best I can. Happy baking!
Sourdough Starter Recipe
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Sourdough Starter Recipe
This is how to make a new sourdough starter from scratch, using just filtered water and unbleached flour.
Making starter for the first time
- 113 grams unbleached, all purpose flour (3/4 cup + 2 Tablespoons if you are measuring without a scale, see blog post for additional flour options)
- 113 grams water 1/2 cup, chlorine free, filtered or bottled (I am using filtered from my reverse osmosis, which filters out the chlorine that is present in most city tap water)
Feeding your starter
- 4 ounces starter (discard the rest, see also discard recipes)
- 113 grams unbleached, all purpose flour
- 113 grams water
Day 0: Mix 1/2 cup water (113 grams) with just under a cup (3/4 cup + 2 Tablespoons or 113 grams) flour, stir and cover with a loose lid or cloth.
Day 1 through 4: Feed once a day by discarding all but 4 ounces of starter and adding that 113 grams each of flour and water, stirring to combine, cover.
Day 5 through 8 (or more, until bubbly and starter doubles in size): Begin twice a day feedings, keeping the same 4 ounces of starter, adding 113 grams of flour and water and stirring to combine, cover.
Maintenance - transfer a bubbly starter (a few hours after feeding) to your refrigerator, and take out to feed once a week, using the same process as above. Keep 4 ounces of starter, discard the rest, stir together 113 grams each of flour and water.
Of you see a brownish liquid on top, this is called "hooch." This means it is time to feed your starter. You can either pour it off or stir it in, and then feed it.
Your starter may smell a little funky as you are establishing it. Just make sure you are feeding it regularly, and the smell should start to smell nicer. I noticed a weird smell around day 5. When I started two-a-day feeding, it went away.
Alternative flour options (for starting, or feeding existing starter):
- Regular whole wheat
- Unbleached all purpose
- Wholemeal rye - a favorite by many artisan bread makers
- Whole wheat pastry
- Gluten free flour (1:1 mixes work best)