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How to Make a Sourdough Starter 

 December 27, 2020

By  Gareth

Making a sourdough starter for the first time is an enjoyably simple experience. The only things you’ll need are flour, water, time and a bit of warmth. There are no “super recipes” or “professional tweaks”, the process is the same to make every sourdough starter.

The natural fermentation process does the work so it won’t require much effort to get started either. I’m biased but I can’t see a reason why anyone shouldn’t make their first starter?! 

I’m going to show you how to make a sourdough starter, get it nice and active and once it’s vibrant, how to maintain it for your baking needs.

It takes up to 14 days for the starter to be powerful enough for making bread, so let's get started!

How to start a sourdough starter

You will need some flour, water, a set of scales, a small bowl (or tub) with some plastic wrap or lid to cover it.

1) Make the sponge

Place the bowl on a set of scales, zero it and add 50 grams of water followed by 50 grams of white bread flour. Mix with a spoon (fingers work fine too) until a thick paste is formed that doesn’t contain lumps.

To thicken or thin the starter, add extra water or flour. You’ll want to adjust future feedings by the same ratio so take note of how much extra is added. Cover with plastic wrap or lid (the pressure inside will increase so the lid shouldn’t be fastened tightly) and leave for 24 hours.

Try to keep your starter above 20C (68F) to increase the activity of the wild yeasts, if you need any advice see how to warm a sourdough starter.

2) For the first refreshment

The following day hopefully you will see a few tiny bubbles in the starter. Don’t worry if this isn’t the case, sometimes it’ll take a few more days to see any signs of life.

Remove half of the starter, this is the discard and you will be left with 50 grams of starter in the bowl. Using the scales, measure 50 grams of water, then 50 grams of flour and stir until no lumps remain. Cover and leave for 24 hours like before. 

3) The middle stage refreshment

The starter will be attracting yeast bacteria and developing organic acids. For the next 4-5 days, we will keep the feeds small to keep the discard wastage as low as possible. We’re going to use the same 1:1:1 ratio of starter, water and flour as we did in the first refreshment. 

If your scale allows you to go into the minus numbers, zero the scales with the bowl, otherwise zero the scales and then pop the bowl on top. Remove 100 grams of the starter from the bowl to discard, leaving us with roughly 50 grams (some weight will evaporate). Add 50 grams of water and then flour. Mix, cover and leave for 24 hours. Repeat this every day for the next 4-5 days.

The starter should start to show signs of activity. Some bubbles running through it and hopefully a slight rise in between feeds. If you have little to no activity try warming it up a little and giving it a couple more days before moving on to the next step.

4) Final stage refreshment

Now we are going to give the starter some bigger feeds whilst transitioning to bi-daily feeds. This will engage the bacteria to feast rapidly and after a few days, it’ll act as rocket fuel in your sourdough bread.

Discard most of the starter, leaving a dessertspoon or 10 grams in the bowl. Add 100 grams of water, 80 grams of white flour and 20 grams of dark rye flour. Mix and like before, a thick paste is ideal so adjust the amount of water or flour if you feel you need to.

Cover and repeat this refreshment every 12 hours. It should have enough activity to be able to use in 5-10 days.

Using your sourdough starter

Once you've followed the recipe you need to know when it has developed enough activity so that you can use it. Next, we're going to cover when and how to use your new sourdough starter.

How to tell when my sourdough starter is ready to use?

A ripe sourdough starter will have large bubbles running through it breaking the surface. It should smell deep, sour and alcoholic. It will have a pleasant smell, definitely not rancid! The starter will also triple in size 6-8 hours after it’s refreshed.

All of these factors are important and if it is not ready just continue feeding. Starters often take longer to activate than 2 weeks. Some bakers wait 3-4 weeks till they use theirs. If it takes any longer than this take a look at some of the methods in the why my starter is not rising article

Ripe sourdough starter

Can I use the float test?

This is an important topic that I love to talk about. A float test is when a teaspoon of starter is dropped into a glass of water. If it floats then according to the method, it is ready.

The test is not accurate and not needed. Flour has different densities and sourdoughs can be wet or stiff, so the float test can give misleading results. 

How long after feeding my starter do I wait to make bread?

The longer you wait after feeding will encourage the concentration of wild yeasts and lactic acid bacteria to increase. Though it is not necessary for the starter to be at the peak of its rise.

After feeding I usually wait 4 hours before using it but 2-3 hours in warmer climates will be perfect. If there is not much activity, the bread will be slower to rise.

Feeding methods for established starters

A sourdough starter at room temperature needs frequent refreshments to keep active and from turning bad. Feeding twice daily sounds like (and is) a lot of effort for the majority of home bakers.

But don’t worry, I have a selection of methods that solve this! Before we get into them though, I need to explain something used frequently in sourdough baking, the “Mother dough”.

A mother dough explained:

Your main sourdough starter is called the “Mother dough”. Once a mother dough is established it can be kept in the fridge and refreshed weekly.

Yeast and bacteria multiplication slows down when stored at cool temperatures. Putting a starter in the fridge almost halts activity making this a common practice to reduce the regularity of feedings. 

Here’s a list of methods to you can use to maintain your starter whilst matching your baking (and feeding) aspirations:

- The removing a piece from the mother dough method

Here the mother dough is left in the fridge and fed weekly. For each batch of bread, the desired amount of starter is removed and refreshed with exact measurements of flour and water.

The result is the exact amount of starter needed for the recipe and it removes the need for daily feeding large amounts of mother dough. The mother dough can remain fairly small to further reduce discard waste.

This method is preferred where large amounts of starter are required regularly and is one of the most popular methods.

- The refresh the mother dough feeding method

This is the same method as the final stage refreshment. The mother dough is refreshed twice a day. In cool temperatures (15C (59F)) you only need to do this once a day.

If the starter rises quickly and collapses before the following feed the frequency of the feeds needs to be increased.

This way will work great if you bake bread every day and want to keep things simple. It can lead to high amounts of wasted discard if you don’t use it though, the following method expands on this method to reduce waste.

- A once a day feeding method that uses the fridge

You can get around twice-daily feedings by refreshing the sourdough, placing in the fridge overnight and removing it the next day to bake with. A routine like this works well for me:

08:00 - Remove starter from the fridge
20:00 - Feed starter and place in fridge

These timings may take a bit of adjustment due to how cold your fridge is and how warm the kitchen is. I often leave mine out for an hour before placing in the fridge if I’m around to help get things going.

The fridge slows down the activity so effectively that it will need 2-3 hours to wake up after it’s been in the fridge.

Getting partners and children to remove the starter from the fridge is a great way to get them involved in the family bread, without being too challenging!

Here are three ways you could follow to get your starter ready for making bread when it’s been stored in the fridge:

Preparing a cold starter so it's ready for baking

Feed in the evening and start the following afternoon

Day 1

20:00 Feed starter and place in fridge

Day 2

15:00 Remove starter from fridge

17:00 Prepare the dough and refresh

Day 3

10:00 Bake

Feed in the morning and start the same evening

Day 1

07:30 Feed and place in the fridge

15:00 Remove starter from fridge

17:00 Prepare the dough and refresh

Day 2

10:00 Bake

Feed in the evening and start the following morning

Day 1

20:00 Feed starter and leave in the kitchen

22:00 Place in fridge

Day 2

08:00 Remove starter from fridge

09:30 Prepare the dough and refresh

18:30 Bake

Feed in the evening and start the following afternoon

Day 1

20:00 Feed starter and place in fridge

Day 2

15:00 Remove starter from fridge

17:00 Prepare the dough and refresh

Day 3

10:00 Bake

Feed in the morning and start the same evening

Day 1

07:30 Feed and place in the fridge

15:00 Remove starter from fridge

17:00 Prepare the dough and refresh

Day 2

10:00 Bake

Feed in the evening and start the following morning

Day 1

20:00 Feed starter and leave in the kitchen

22:00 Place in fridge

Day 2

08:00 Remove starter from fridge

09:30 Prepare the dough and refresh

18:30 Bake

- The zero waste method of refreshments

If you make sourdough bread once a week, this works really well and creates zero waste.

Make a loaf with your active starter and leave the remnants from the edges of the bowl untouched and put it in the fridge without refreshing. The remnants (or scrapings) can be left for 4-5 days fine, often longer without a problem.

The day before you make bread, remove it from the fridge and start building the starter up with two feedings 12 hours apart. Instead of discarding when refreshing, keep it all in the bowl.

1st refreshment

10 grams starter (remnants)

20 grams water

20 grams flour

= 50 grams starter

2nd refreshment

50 grams starter

100 grams water

100 grams flour

= 250 grams active starter

You will lose a little due to evaporation so you’ll get around 210 - 220 grams to use. Retaining another 10 grams in your container to put back in the fridge and use in the next bake.

Alternatively, if you want to make bread the following day, refresh the starter as normal.

This is how home bakers in Europe have baked for years. They use a wooden trough to knead the dough. After use, they don’t clean it and a week later they add water to it and all of the yeast is brought back to life to be used in another dough.

Altering and troubleshooting the starter

That’s the end of the recipe, you now know how to start, build and maintain and brand new sourdough starter. I do hope you give it a go and that you keep it for years! 

If you are a sourdough beginner I recommend following this sourdough bread recipe for beginners.

If you have any problems with your starter hop over to the sourdough troubleshooting guide which covers many of the issues that you are likely to face. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a few FAQ’s and tweaks to change how your starter works.

What if my starter doesn’t triple in size, can I still use it?

Providing there are some bubbles and a rise, the starter can be used to make bread. If the starter doesn’t triple in size the bread will just take longer.

What is the best feeding ratio used in a sourdough starter?

The common recipe for a sourdough starter uses equal portions of flour, water and starter. This ration is commonly used to build and maintain sourdough starters.

I prefer to use less starter as I’ve found this helps to boost the activity of the wild yeasts and flora. Reducing the water to thicken it helps the starter develop a more rounded flavour.

Do I want my sourdough starter to be runny or thick?

Thinner starters are faster to activate, some bakeries have a viscous liquid sourdough as their mother levain. They are quicker to raise the bread but will need refreshing regularly. A thicker starter develops more bacteria and is preferred by many home and artisan bakers.

How often should I feed my starter?

Left at room temperature, sourdough should be fed twice a day. To reduce the number of feeds, use one of the feeding methods that use the fridge.

What if I’m not home to feed my starter?

If you are going to miss a feed or two, put it in the fridge after refreshing it. If it’s only been in the fridge for a couple of days it will need refreshing before baking with it.

Can I go on vacation without killing my starter?

Give the starter a good feed and put it in the fridge. A ratio of 1:8:10 starter, water and flour is what I follow. The sourdough will be fine for a couple of weeks and often even longer.

When you return it’ll need a few regular refreshments to return to its previous levels of activity.

Can I use different flours to feed/refresh my starter?

Yes, you can but there is a but. Sourdough prefers the same ingredients to allow the same bacteria inside it to multiply. Using different flours upsets the balance and weakens dough.

A sourdough starter is best to feed with the same flour each day but it’s better to feed with something instead of letting it starve. After switching flour it will be weaker for a few days as new bacteria and enzymes are introduced and existing ones are lost. Providing regular feedings are made with the same flour it will return to full strength after a few days.

Can I change my starter to a different flour permanently?

Yes, if you want to change the flour of your sourdough starter just change the flour and after a couple of days of regular feedings, the bacteria will adjust and develop back into a strong sourdough again.

Alternatively, you may prefer to remove a piece of the mother dough and build a separate starter using another flour. This gives you two starters to choose from.

Can I use wholemeal or rye flour for a sourdough starter?

You can use any type of flour to make a sourdough starter, each variety brings different flavours to the bread made from it. Wholemeal and rye flour are often used in conjunction with white flour but 100% hearty grain starter is popular.

Why is rye flour added to the starter recipe?

The minerals found in the ash of wholemeal and rye flours will slow down the rate of lactic acid activity which allows them to strengthen. This makes the starter more powerful than a 100% white flour sourdough,

Sourdoughs containing whole grains are less inclined to lose activity if the dough isn’t refreshed for long periods. This makes them a perfect choice when following the zero waste feeding method.

Should I use bread flour or all-purpose to make a starter?

Whilst you can use all-purpose flour to make sourdough bread, for the starter bread flour should be used. The higher amounts of gluten increase the minerals and bacteria found it the starter. These boost and develop wild yeasts and lactic acid to create a more powerful levain.

All-purpose flour can be used and adding some wholegrain flour will help, however, using bread flour is best.

Can I use other flours for sourdough starters?

Yes, they can. It is common to trade a portion of white flour with wholemeal or rye. It provides a slightly nutty, deeper aroma. You can separate the sourdough and have multiple mother doughs if you like.

Do I have to discard my starter every time I refresh it?

The reason a portion of the sourdough starter is discarded before refreshment is to reduce the amount of flour and water needed to feed it. A no discard method would result in too much sourdough if used refreshed regularly.

How tight do I have the lid on my starter jar?

Yeast production is anaerobic therefore does not require oxygen to function. There are usually plenty of airborne yeasts and bacteria around that the sourdough can use to ferment. For this reason, the lid of your jar can be sealed but as it produces gas you shouldn’t tighten it too much - it could explode!

Where do I keep my starter when I’m not using it?

Unless you are using it every day, it’s best left in the fridge and fed weekly. The day before you make bread, take a portion out to refresh.

Can I make wholemeal bread with this sourdough starter?

Yes, but making a 100% wholemeal starter is preferred as it contains the same bacteria.

It’s been 3 weeks, why is my sourdough starter not ready yet?

Never start again! This is a common occurrence, to fix, fist boosting it by switching the brand of flour, warming it up or looking at my sourdough starter is not rising post.

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