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How to Make Sourdough Starter

As I mentioned in our article about Bill’s sourdough pizza dough article, he learned how to make a sourdough starter while taking a class. I’ve never tried my hand at making one, not even during the pandemic when everyone and their brother was trying their hand at these starters.

So I set out to educate myself on this very topic. Thankfully, my friend Sarita Harbour, who writes An Off Grid Life blog, shared her tips. Here’s what I learned.

sourdough starter in fridge
Photo credit: Leah Ingram.

Why make your own sourdough starter

Starting sourdough is the simple process of making wild yeast by fermenting flour and water. When you make your own starter, you know the exact ingredients. 

You won’t need to worry about unwanted chemicals or preservatives. Sourdough starter lets you make home baked bread without depending on commercial yeast for every loaf.

Now, maybe you’ve already experimented with fermenting vegetables or other foods. Or perhaps you’ve stocked your pantry shelves with long-shelf-life foods because you want to become more self-reliant.

If so, making a homemade sourdough starter without yeast is a great project. This homemade recipe gives you wonderful satisfaction.

“My sourdough starter was doing really poorly for a while. It wasn’t bubbly; it formed a layer of hooch on top within hours and made flatbread,” said Susannah Brinkley Henry, Feast + West. “I’d accidentally bought a different brand of flour than usual and thought nothing of it, but as soon as I started using it, my starter instantly became healthy again. Pay attention to the protein content of your flour.”

Sourdough starter supplies

Here’s what you’ll need to make your sourdough starter from scratch. It’s a very short list. 

  • Unbleached all-purpose flour.
  • Water and preferably non-chlorinated fresh water.
  • A large mason jar or clean glass container with a lid.

Pretty simple. Remember, you don’t need any expensive sourdough baking equipment or supplies you may see online.

“When you work with a sourdough starter and feed it, weigh the water and flour rather than using measuring cups,” Michelle Price, Honest and Truly suggested. “The humidity in your house and how much you pack it into your measuring cup really affects the results, and weighing both makes it far more accurate.”

Old-fashioned sourdough starter 

Making a sourdough starter is easy, even for beginner bakers. After all, this is what the pioneers made and carried across the country 200 years ago.

However, monitoring and feeding the starter takes a little more skill. Above all, it takes time.

Day 1

Combine half a cup of water and a quarter cup of unbleached all-purpose flour in your glass jar on the first day. Take note — the mixture will be thick. Mix the flour and water using a wooden spoon or rubber spatula. 

Day 2

Don’t do anything. Just admire your handiwork.

Day 3

On day three, you should notice some dark liquid floating on top. This is known as the hooch. 

Hooch smells like stinky socks, and that’s perfectly fine. This is the mixture telling you it is ready to be fed.

To feed your starter, first scoop out half of the mixture. Either throw it away or use it in your favorite sourdough discard recipes. Then stir in another half a cup of flour and a quarter cup of water.

Sourdough discard gives baked goods an exceptionally unique and tangy flavor. Discard gets added as-is without waiting for it to rise. Use it for waffles, pancakes, scones or sourdough discard muffins.

Days 4 through 7

Every day from day four to seven, repeat that feeding process. Scoop out half the mixture and add another half cup of flour and a quarter cup of water.

You may have to do this for up to 14 days, depending on when the starter is ready. And this depends on various conditions, including the wild yeast spores in your region and your home’s temperature.

Day 7 or 8

Your homemade starter should be ready by day seven or eight. It will be full of bubbles and double in size, and it should look fluffy.

If your homemade sourdough starter is NOT ready, don’t panic. Sometimes, it just takes a little longer. Once the starter has reached the ready stage, it’s time to transfer it to a fresh jar.

How to store your sourdough starter

Leave it on the counter if you plan to use your starter in recipes twice a week or more. And remember to continue to discard half the starter and feed it daily.

On the other hand, if you plan to do a little Saturday baking, keep your sourdough in the fridge and feed it weekly. When ready to use it, remove it from the fridge the night before baking your favorite sourdough bread recipes.

Remember to feed it while it’s at room temperature. You could also learn how to make dehydrated sourdough starter. That way, you can save it for the long term.

A good homemade starter can last years when stored correctly and fed regularly. Or decades. Literally. My cousin in Indiana sent me a sourdough starter years ago. It had been passed around in her side of the family for years before that. Unfortunately, I killed it because I didn’t know how to work with sourdough starters. Ooops.

Make sourdough starter with whole wheat flour

For a change, substitute whole wheat or rye flour for all-purpose flour. You can also combine kinds of wheat.

Start your sourdough with whole wheat flour at the very beginning. Then, alternate feeding it with all-purpose flour every other day for a rich, pleasant flavor. Try this Dutch oven artisan sourdough bread recipe for a rustic loaf.

When the starter won’t bubble

The most common reason sourdough starter doesn’t bubble is a cold temperature. Move the glass jar to a warmer location, like a cold oven or beside a wood stove. Here’s a hack that Bill has tried many times.

When your sourdough starter isn’t rising as you expect, add a quarter teaspoon of yeast and a quarter teaspoon of sugar to jump-start it. While this might offend purists, he told me, it has helped our dough rise like we wanted it to. Plus, it never affected the taste when we used it in our sourdough pizza dough recipe.

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