Creating a starter from scratch is simple, and ultimately marks the beginning of an ongoing relationship. It’s also the most intimidating part of the sourdough baking process, because it’s often misunderstood. Here, you’ll get step-by-step instructions for making a starter, as well as a couple of recipes in which to use it.
Start Your Starter
Sourdough starters can be made a few different ways, with methods that include fruit juices, grapes, honey, and even potatoes to boost natural fermentation. In my experience, all you need are two simple ingredients: flour and water. Once combined, the culture will begin to ferment, developing the wild yeasts and bacteria needed to make your bread rise.
When creating a sourdough starter, it’s vital to begin with whole-grain flour to jump-start the fermentation process. Whole-wheat, rye, and spelt flour are great choices. Temperature and location also play important roles, so for best results, find a warm spot for your starter to thrive. My starter lives in a cozy cabinet next to the fridge.
The overall process will take about seven days from start to finish. My best advice is to be flexible with timing, because developing yeast can be unpredictable. Your starter is ready when it has doubled in size and has produced plenty of bubbles on the surface and throughout the culture.
DAY 1: Add 1/2 cup (60 grams) of whole-wheat flour and 1/4 cup (60 grams) of water to a large jar. Mix with a fork to combine; the consistency will be thick and pasty. If measuring by volume (cups), not by weight (grams), add more water to thin out the texture. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a small cloth, and let rest in a warm spot for 24 hours.
DAY 2: Check to see whether any bubbles, which may look like small black dots, have appeared on the surface. Bubbles indicate fermentation. It’s OK if you don’t see anything, as the bubbles might have appeared and dissolved overnight. Rest the starter for another 24 hours.
DAY 3: Whether bubbles are visible or not, it’s time to start the feeding process. To begin, remove and discard approximately half of your starter from the jar. The texture will be very stretchy. Add 1/2 cup (60 grams) of all-purpose flour and 1/4 cup (60 grams) of water. Mix with a fork until smooth. The texture should resemble thick batter or plain yogurt at this point, so add more water as needed. Cover loosely, and let rest for another 24 hours.
DAYs 4, 5, and 6: Repeat the feeding process outlined on Day 3. As the yeast begins to develop, your starter will rise, and bubbles will form on the surface and throughout the culture. When the starter falls, it’s time to feed it again.
Tip: Place a rubber band or a piece of masking tape around the jar to measure the starter’s growth as it rises.
DAY 7: By now, you should see plenty of bubbles, both large and small. The texture will be spongy and puffy, similar to roasted marshmallows. Take in the aroma. It should smell pleasant, not astringent. If these conditions are met, your starter is now active and ready to use.
Tip: If your starter isn’t ready at this point, which is quite common, continue the feeding process for another week or two, or until it smells pleasant.
The last step is to transfer your starter to a nice, clean jar. In keeping with tradition, you can also name it, if desired. My starter is called Dillon, after my oldest boy.
During the creation process, and even after your starter has been established, you may notice a dark residual liquid on the surface or throughout the culture. It has a very distinctive smell, similar to rubbing alcohol or gym socks. This liquid is called “hooch,” and it’s an indication that your starter needs to be fed. Whenever I see this liquid, I remove it, if possible, along with any discolored starter present. Some bakers choose to stir it back into their starter, which can add a more sour flavor to the dough. However, in my opinion, hooch is wasted energy and isn’t always ideal to use.
Article and recipes reprinted with permission from Artisan Sourdough Made Simple by Emilie Raffa (Page Street Publishing Co., 2017).