How To Make a Sourdough Starter

How To Make a Sourdough Starter

I have been dying to write a ‘how to’ make a sourdough starter post/guide while simultaneously avoiding it!! It’s been in my queue of things to do for well over a year and so here we finally are! The desire to make bread from scratch is REAL right now. The process is so soothing + satisfy…and NOT having to run to the store to buy bread is a definite perk. So today, I’ll share how I grow + keep a healthy starter and I will also share some of my favorite sourdough websites, books and Instagram accounts. If you’d like any included or have your own recommendations, please put them in the comments below — I’d love to see!

Some quick notes before we get started:

  • I’m going to give you flour options (because it’s not always easy to find specific flours right now), so don’t panic if you see the rye flour and you can’t find rye flour — you’ll be fine with all-purpose flour or bread flour if that’s what you have.
  • I will share lots of tips to get it going as fast as possible — so you can start baking bagels and bread and pizza and English muffins asap!
  • Once your starter is healthy and active, I’m going to share how to store it so that it’s ready when you need it and you use minimal flour for feedings AND dramatically cut down on discard (the amount of starter you throw away before each feeding). Flour is too precious right now not to conserve it.
  • A sourdough start let’s you bake beautiful bread, rolls, buns, pizza, you name it, without using manufactured yeast. I prefer it for the taste and I SWEAR it is better for your gut. There are other people that agree with me — look it up! 
  • Below you will find links to other websites for more information so you can play around and figure out what works for you.
  • Lastly, please reach out with any questions (in the comments, ideally, so that they’ll help others) — I want to help you get this thing going!!

I created my very first sourdough starter when we were living in Beijing about 12ish years ago. I really missed the taste of bread from home; it was a lifesaver. Over the past decade I’ve refined my technique, I think (HOPE!) yielding better results. So without more fluffing, let’s get after it.

And coming very soon (this week?!), I will be sharing a sourdough bagel recipe (from my friend and author Emilie Raffa’s book Artisan Sourdough Made Simple, a cookbook that I can’t recommend enough!!). I will also be sharing my own sourdough loaf and sourdough pizza recipes in the coming weeks — you will love all of them!!

WHAT YOU NEED

These are the tools that I use (and recommend). However, remember that I made a successful starter in Beijing with none of this. Just flour, water and a jar. The other items are extras that will help ensure your success. 

  • SCALE. This is the one I use. I’ve found when I weigh my flour + water my starter is the happiest and most robust.
  • FLOUR. I use Unbleached All-Purpose Flour (King Arthur Flour) and Bob’s Red Mill Rye Flour when I’m building a starter. You can also use whole wheat flour and/or bread flour. Rye flour is great in building your starter; if you can get your hands on some, do it. If all you have is all-purpose flour, just use all-purpose flour. Don’t stress about it. That said, really strive for using unbleached flour.
  • WATER. I use tap water and haven’t had a problem with it. If your starter is sluggish, you could try bottle water or let your tap water sit out in a bowl overnight so that any chlorine can evaporate before using.
  • GLASS JAR. I use mason jars for my starters. They’re easy to clean, inexpensive, are clear so I can see bubble development and growth and they have a lid that I can set over the top (without screwing on). I can’t recommend them enough. But, you could just as easily use a clear drinking glass if that’s all you have.
  • HEATING PAD. If you live in Hawaii, this is something you’ll never need. But my kitchen gets quite cool, down into the 50s and 60s (10-16C) in the winter time. Placing my starter on a heating pad (set to the lowest setting) is a game changer in terms of getting it happy and active. 
  • SHARPIE. I like to mark the top of my starter on the side of the jar after I’ve fed it. This allows me to see how much it’s growing in between feeds. Some people put a rubber band in that spot for reference. Use whichever you prefer. Note, the Sharpie mark can be rubbed off when cleaning your jar.
  • THERMOMETER. I use this instant read thermometer to check the water when I’m feeding my starter. I want the water to be warm in the desired range I note below, but I don’t want it hot as that could/would damage the starter.

Let’s get our How To Make a Sourdough Starter on, shall we?

How To Make a Sourdough Starter

STARTER GAMEPLAN

The most important things when it comes to building and maintaining a healthy starter are: regular on-time feedings and hospitable ambient temperature. Remember these two things if you need to troubleshoot why your starter isn’t working. 

Let’s get after it…

Day One

In a bowl, add:

  • 25 g all-purpose flour
  • 25 g rye flour
  • 50 g water (around 80F/26C)

Use a fork or whisk to completely blend into a thick paste, making sure there are no flour clumps. Cover loosely with a lid, plastic wrap or a towel. If your kitchen is cool, you can place it on top of a heating pad set to the lowest setting. You want the temperature of your starter to stay cozy between 75F-85F (24C-29C). Use a Sharpie pen to mark the top of your starter so you can see if it rises above that. Some people put a rubber band in that spot. Take note of the time that you created your starter and set a reminder to feed it at the same time tomorrow.

Day Two 

Discard half of your starter into the trash (never put it in your sink as it will clog your drain). Add the remaining starter to a bowl and then add:

  • 25 g all-purpose flour
  • 25 g rye flour
  • 50 g water (around 80F/26C)

Use a fork or whisk to completely blend into a thick paste, making sure there are no flour clumps. While your fed starter sits in the bowl, clean out your glass starter jar. I do this every time for several reasons:

  1. A dirty jar is more likely to grow mold (I’ve had this happen!);
  2. If smears of starter are on the side of your jar they are hella hard to clean, it basically turns into cement:
  3. It makes it very clear to see how high your starter has risen and fallen;
  4. It’s an opportunity to warm up your jar so that your fresh starter is happy and cozy.

Dry out the inside of your starter jar and add your freshly fed starter. Cover loosely with a lid, plastic wrap or a towel. If your kitchen is cool, you can place it on top of a heating pad set to the lowest setting. You want the temperature of your starter to stay cozy between 75F-85F (24C-29C).

Use a Sharpie pen or rubber band to mark the top of your starter so you can see if it rises above that. 

Day Three

On this day you may start to see some bubbles. Yay! We’re going to start evaluating the health of our starter based on look and smell:

  • Ideally, you want your healthy, mature starter to have lots of bubbles, big and small.
  • You want it to at least double in size between feedings (use that Sharpie mark on the side of your jar to gauge growth).
  • Lastly, you want it to smell fresh, with frankly, a sourdough bread-like smell. I’ve found that when my starter gets a sour, vinegar-like smell, it tends to be because I haven’t been feeding it regularly or just generally neglecting it.

Keep an eye on these characteristics when you evaluate your starter daily. It will not be there yet, but you will start to see these elements more and more every day, with each feeding.

Today we’re going to do two feeds…I call this cluster feeding and it really helps increase the vitality of your starter. You’ll feed it once in the morning and then again at night, before bedtime. Try to space your feeds so that they are 12 hours apart. 

In both the AM and the PM, do the following:

Discard half of your starter into the trash (never put it in your sink as it will clog your drain). Add the remaining starter to a bowl and then add:

  • 25 g all-purpose flour
  • 25 g rye flour
  • 50 g water (around 80F/26C)

Use a fork or whisk to completely blend into a thick paste, making sure there are no flour clumps. While your fed starter sits in the bowl, clean out your glass starter jar. Dry out the inside of your starter jar and add your freshly fed starter. Cover loosely with a lid, plastic wrap or a towel. If your kitchen is cool, you can set it on top of a heating pad set to the lowest setting. You want the temperature of your starter to stay cozy between 75F-85F (24C-29C).

Use a Sharpie pen or rubber band to mark the top of your starter so you can see if it rises above that. 

Days Four + Five 

How does your starter look today? More bubbles? More growth? Can you see that it grew overnight and then fell? On these two days  we’re going to continue with two feeds. You’ll feed it once in the morning and then again at night, before bedtime. Try to space your feeds so that they are 12 hours apart. 

In both the AM and the PM, do the following:

Discard half of your starter into the trash (never put it in your sink as it will clog your drain). Add the remaining starter to a bowl and then add:

  • 25 g all-purpose flour
  • 25 g rye flour
  • 50 g water (around 80F/26C)

Use a fork or whisk to completely blend into a thick paste, making sure there are no flour clumps. While your fed starter sits in the bowl, clean out your glass starter jar. Dry out the inside of your starter jar and add your freshly fed starter. Cover loosely with a lid, plastic wrap or a towel. If your kitchen is cool, you can set it on top of a heating pad set to the lowest setting. You want the temperature of your starter to stay cozy between 75F-85F (24C-29C).

Use a Sharpie pen or rubber band to mark the top of your starter so you can see if it rises above that. 

Days Six + Seven

If your starter is active and bubbly, has a delicious aroma and is predictably rising and falling at this point, you can go to once-daily feeding (see below). Monitor how it behaves once you do this. Is it still happy? If it becomes sluggish, return back to the AM/PM feedings for several more days before going back to once-a-day feedings again. If your starter is not full of bubbles on Day Six, then continue with twice daily feedings for several more days. A robust mature starter can take up to ten days…so don’t fret if it’s taking a bit longer to get going.

At this point, you need to name your starter. Because it’s fun. Mine is Edith from Tutka. 

BEYOND THE FIRST WEEK

Feedings + Storage

Once you have a robust sourdough starter going, you can start doing once-daily feedings, as noted above. Pick what works for you, day or night, and stick with it and feed your starter at roughly the same time every day.

STANDARD FEEDING

This is how I feed my healthy starter… I discard half of the starter into the trash and then I add the remaining starter to a bowl and add:

  • 50 g all-purpose flour or bread flour 
  • 50 g water (around 80F/26C)

Use a fork or whisk to completely blend into a thick paste, making sure there are no flour clumps. While the fed starter sits in the bowl, clean out the glass starter jar. Dry the inside of the starter jar and add the freshly fed starter. Cover loosely with a lid, plastic wrap or a towel. Mark the top of the starter with a Sharpie pen on the side of the jar or place a rubber band there to track the rise and fall of the starter.

If using the starter within 12-24 hours, leave it on the counter top. If it’s going to be several days before it will be used for baking, then place it in the fridge. See below for more tips on how to conserve flour with your starter.

Another note on flour…you can use any combination of flour (or single flour) that you’d like to feed your starter. You should try to use the flour(s) that you’re going to bake with the most, but you can also sub in another type of flour in a pinch, if you run out of the one you’re feeding your starter with. 

To conserve flour, I store my starter in the fridge.

Here is a sample schedule:

Evening — I like to feed my starter in the evening. If I just used it for baking, I will then feed it and shove it in the fridge. Sometimes I let it sit on the counter for an hour to get going and then I put it in the fridge. Because it’s fun to watch. Seriously.

Next Day — I take the starter out of my fridge several hours before I plan on using it and set it on top of the heating pad (if my kitchen is cool; set to the lowest setting). It will start to get active and grow. Once it’s at its peak, it’s ready to use.

*IF* it has been in the fridge for days, I will often take it out and feed it, wait another 12 hours and feed it again (discarding half) and then once it has risen and peaked then it’s ready to use. 

Long-Term Storage — Let’s say you’re maxed out on making bread — I’ve been there! Shove that baby to the back of the fridge. You are supposed to take it out once a week, discard half, feed it and then put it back in the fridge. That said, I have put a starter in the back of the fridge and forgotten about it and several months later brought it back out, fed it and it was back in the game. I think it takes a lot to hurt your starter and little tweaks (regular timed feedings, temperature) can make it bubbly and frothing and always up to party.

TESTING FOR READINESS

So you’ve labored over this baby, fed it on time, coddled it…when is it ready to bake with? First, we look for the cues I mentioned above: Is there lots of bubble development? Is it predictably rising and falling? If yes, then I use it once it has been fed and then at least double in size. I’ll use it anywhere between that peak and when it starts to fall back down a bit (it’s still viable for a bit after the peak). 

Additionally, you can do the float test. Take a small piece of starter and place it in a bowl of water. The starter should float if it’s ready for action. I’ve found this to consistently be reliable. 

This was probably my favorite section to write on this post because I find all of the
following people and their work so inspiring — enjoy! xo

SOURDOUGH FAVORITES

The following are great resources for troubleshooting your starter, seeing different methods + techniques in starting one as well as lots of recipes to get you going once your starter is vibrant and ready for action. I will add to this…this isn’t all-inclusive, just a starter list!

WEBSITES

The Perfect Loaf

Starter Guide

Frequently Asked Questions Sourdough Starter Questions

The Clever Carrot

Sourdough Starter Guide

Lions Bread

Starter Guide

Bread in 5

Easy Sourdough Starter

Cook Til Delicious

Sourdough FAQ

BOOKS

Artisan Bread Made Simple: A Beginner’s Guide to Delicious Handcrafted Bread With Minimal Kneading by Emilie Raffa

The Sourdough School by Vanessa Kimbell

Instagram Accounts

@maurizio

@theclevercarrot

@gluten.morgen

@litchfieldkitchen

@smallstate

@fullproofbaking

@rushyama

@_bizkitboi_

@richardhartbaker

@lions.bread

@richardbertinet

@the_sourdough_librarian

@thesourdoughpodcast

@jimchall

@ogi_the_yogi

I hope you enjoy this How To Make a Sourdough Starter guide! I am by no means an expert, just a broad that likes to bake sourdough bread at home!  Use this + all of the amazing bread wizards linked above as your inspiration to make some magic happen in the kitchen.  xoxo

 

 

13 Comments

  • Jean 2020/03/30 at 3:33 AM

    I’m on day 3, twice a day feeding. The second feeding it didn’t grow very much in size & it wasn’t bubbly, but I followed through with the instructions. My kitchen is a little cooler, but I put it in the microwave with the nightlight on & it’s much happier in there because it’s cozy & warmer than my counter top. I’m excited to see if this helps & can’t wait to see how it looks in the morning!

    Reply
    • Rebecca Firth 2020/03/30 at 1:58 PM

      Hi Jean! The microwave is much cozier, that’s a great tip for people — I’m so glad it’s doing well! Keep me posted — I can’t wait to hear!! xoxo

      Reply
  • Alexandra Lenga 2020/03/29 at 10:41 PM

    Hi Rebecca! I am on day three and cannot wait for your recipes! Just one question though..the fact that we have to discard half of the starter for every feeding, is it because it will get huge? Or is it a matter of keeping the right proportions?

    Reply
    • Rebecca Firth 2020/03/30 at 12:02 AM

      Hi Alexandra! It’s a combo of both. It would get quite unwieldy if you just kept feeding and not discarding (or using). That’s a good thing to keep in mind when you might want to scale up in the future so that you can make bread and bagel dough on the same day. …Some sourdough starter guides will tell you to weigh your starter and feed accordingly…I don’t think it needs to be that fussy. For now, just discard half and feed as outlined above. Once your starter is healthy you can start storing it in the fridge to conserve flour. ALSO, there are lots of recipes online that utilized starter discard (once it’s mature and full of good flavor)…such as in cookies, pancakes, waffles…google it and see what you can find. Let me know if this was unclear! Good luck with your starter baby!! xox

      Reply
  • Emily Rogers 2020/03/29 at 8:59 AM

    Hello Rebecca, loving this write up for Sourdough! So simple to understand :) I started a sourdough starter yesterday and used just plain flour. Just wondering if this is okay? Will it still work or should I have added some rye as in your recipe above? Finding it hard to get my hands on rye flour during this time! Thanks so much, Emily

    Reply
    • Rebecca Firth 2020/03/29 at 3:40 PM

      Hi Emily!! You should be fine with all-purpose flour…my first starter was created with it! Let me know how you’re doing on day 4/5 and make sure to keep it cozy and well fed in the interim. Have fun with it!! ♥️♥️♥️

      Reply
  • Mariska Espinet 2020/03/29 at 1:14 AM

    After day one my starter had a darker film on top, do I mix that in or peel it off?

    Reply
    • Rebecca Firth 2020/03/29 at 2:14 AM

      Hi! If it’s thick and scab-like, just peel off and discard in the trash! If it’s the same consistency as the rest of the starter you can just stir it in with the rest. Let me know if this helps! xo

      Reply
  • Lisa 2020/03/27 at 6:26 PM

    I’m gluten free. I know there’s gluten free sourdough bread and have heard true sourdough is gluten free. What flour (s) would I use? This looks like a challenge I’d enjoy especially since I’m missing really good bread.

    Reply
  • Justine Mosavian 2020/03/27 at 3:03 AM

    Thank yooouuu! I’m so excited to start tomorrow! Thank you for the detailed directions, I’m looking forward to the delicious end results

    Reply
    • Rebecca Firth 2020/03/27 at 3:32 AM

      Of course!! I’m so excited you’re going to start tomorrow!! I’ll be checking back often for any questions you might have. Have fun!! xox

      Reply
  • Michael S Good 2020/03/26 at 6:16 PM

    Well done Beck!!!!
    I’m going back to my jars to get started.
    Nice tip on the Rye flour.
    xoxox
    Uncle Mike

    Reply
    • Rebecca Firth 2020/03/26 at 6:21 PM

      Thanks Uncle Mike!!! Let me know if you have any questions and have fun!! xoxo

      Reply

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