Flour, water, salt. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. If you had told me many years ago that I could make enticingly crunchy, tender, healthy bread at home with only these elemental ingredients, I would not have believed you. I would have claimed that baking bread requires a professional mixer, a big oven, and a list of ingredients so long your eyes start to glaze over. And yet, I’m performing this alchemy day after day in my home kitchen: transforming three basic ingredients into wholesome sourdough bread. How does one begin the journey of making naturally leavened bread? It starts with, well, making an incredible sourdough starter from scratch.
Despite all the mysticism and lore about creating the concoction, when broken down, it’s simply a naturally fermenting mixture of flour and water. Add water to dry flour and let it sit on the counter for a few days, and you’ll see nature weave life into a once lifeless lump: bubbles will appear, and the mixture will rise. This natural fermentation can be harnessed, and, once stable, controlled to produce a bread so flavorful and healthy that it’s hard to go back to anything else.
A healthy sourdough starter means great bread.
I created my sourdough starter (aptly named Brutus after the trouble it gave me in the beginning) over five years ago, and it’s the same one I use to this day. It’s a spoiled brat now, to be sure, but in exchange for my attention and fresh flour, it stays on schedule and, when baking, it does most of the heavy lifting (bread-nerd joke, sorry). Back in the early days, it was the quintessential rebellious child: sometimes it wouldn’t show any fermentation activity, and at other times it was utterly unruly. In the beginning, I didn’t realize what it needed to thrive; I didn’t see how important timely refreshments (also called a feeding, where we mix in fresh flour and water) were, or how much temperature impacts fermentation. The key to raising a well-adjusted starter is to be observant of its needs, give it space to grow, and adjust refreshments to encourage maximum fermentation activity. A healthy starter means great bread.
A Few Tips Before We Begin
Water that’s high in chlorine can impede fermentation. Before starting this process, fill a large jug with tap water and let it sit out uncovered overnight to let any chlorine dissipate. Alternatively, distilled water could be used in lieu of tap water.
After you put your starter mixture in the jar, you will keep it covered, but not sealed, during the rest of the process. Either a porous cloth or a lid resting on top of the jar will work well. Use containers with enough headspace for the mixture to rise. Additionally, place your jar in a bowl while it’s resting in case the mixture spills over.
There’s often a surge in fermentation activity during the first couple days of the process, probably caused by other yeast and bacteria that will eventually die off. When this happens, many attempting to create a sourdough starter think it has “died,” and they start over. Don’t be fooled by this lapse in activity; continue with the schedule and eventually the desired yeast and bacteria will move in and stabilize.
The entire process is extremely temperature-dependent. By keeping the contents of the jar around 80°F, you’ll ensure a favorable environment and speed things up dramatically. If you have a home dough proofer (which I highly recommend) or yogurt maker, this would be the time to turn it on. If not, a home oven, turned off, with the light on inside (and a thermometer to monitor the temperature) will work well.
For even more tips on this whole process, and many things related to sourdough starters, check out my Sourdough Starter Frequently Asked Questions page.
You can see a rundown of all the tools I use for baking sourdough, vetted after years of trials and many, many bakes, over at my favorite sourdough baking tools page. I’ll go over a few of the necessary tools below, just to get your first starter up and running and a few loaves out of that oven:
Weck glass jar
The reason I like these Weck jars (#743, 3/4 liter jars) is they taper out towards the top, making it easy to stir with no reaching your spatula down around hard to manage lips or edges. Also, using the glass lid without the provided rubber seal & clips provides just enough of a seal to keep moisture and heat trapped inside. Glass is handy because it’s nice to visually assess fermentation as it’s happening. Visible bubbles and the smell of your starter are the two cues we will rely on throughout this process.
One other important reason I like these jars: they’re high quality and very economical. You can also use these jars for many things around the kitchen (pesto, jam, dried fruit, and so on).
A kitchen scale is indispensable and guarantees accuracy when measuring the amount of flour needed for each starter refreshment. Measuring flour by volume is inherently imprecise as the amount of flour packed into a measuring cup can vary. Further, it’s a good idea to get used to using a scale for weighing ingredients as this will improve future baking consistency.
Using whole grain (“dark”) rye flour really, really helps expedite this process. Rye flour is teeming with extra nutrients and microorganisms that help kickstart the whole process. If you don’t have rye flour, a good quality organic whole wheat will also work well.
Unbleached, all-purpose, white flour (organic if possible)
I mix 50% all-purpose with 50% rye flour for my feedings. You could also feed with 100% rye flour with no problem.
Oxo silicone spatula
I use a small, firm spatula to do my feedings. This thing is sturdy and easy to clean with a sponge, but if things get really dirty you can easily pop it into the dishwasher.
An instant-read thermometer will help monitor the temperature of your starter and ensure it’s in the optimal range for increasing fermentation activity.
In the beginning your starter feedings will occur just once a day. As your culture becomes more and more active you’ll increase this to twice, and eventually three times a day. Knowing this, one of my goals is to help you set things up so it’s easy and quick to do your feedings and move on with the rest of your day. Once you get the hang of it, and your starter has become reliable and predictable, it really only takes 3 minutes to feed and cleanup. So about 5-10 minutes per day on average is all it takes to keep your little guy living. No biggie.
The following schedule will provide you with a reliable and strong sourdough starter in just 7 days. Once you have the culture stable it will last indefinitely as long as you feed it regularly. If you don’t plan to bake frequently you can toss the starter in the fridge and feed it only once a week, or even once every two weeks. I’ll discuss this in more detail later in this entry.
Your schedule will basically follow the natural rise and fall of your starter. As soon as you feed it the yeast in your starter will begin to consume the sugars found in the flour, creating carbon dioxide as a byproduct. This gas is what causes your dough to rise when baked and causes your starter to rise through the day and eventually fall as the food becomes depleted. I took a picture every hour for a single day to show you just how this rising and falling occurs.
The process is essentially this, each day at the same time:
- Stir your starter a little bit with your spatula
- Discard part of your starter into a small dish, just enough to get your jar and starter weight back to jar weight + 40g starter (e.g. if your jar is 311g like mine, at the next feeding you will discard everything in there until you reach 351g; 40g starter + 311g jar).
- Scoop in 40g of your fresh rye/apw flour mixture
- Pour in 40g room temperature water
- Mix vigorously until all bits of dry flour are incorporated
- Cover and set in a shaded, slightly warm, area in your kitchen. Note that the jar does not need a lid that seals. It’s best to keep the jar covered so nothing falls in, but you can use a cloth cover, sealed lid, or just a loosely fitting lid (like I show here) — all of these options work fine
That’s it! Once you get your process down it should take no more than a few minutes each day.
Let’s get started with Day 1.
In a medium sized container, mix 400g of rye flour, and 400g of all purpose white flour. The total amount here doesn’t matter, this is going to be your flour mixture you’ll use for feedings. I pre-mix this into a small container to make feedings through the week much quicker.Next, weigh your glass jar (keep note of whether you weighed it with or without the lid) and using a Sharpie, write the weight on some tape and put that on the lid of your jar. You’ll use this to reference how much starter to discard each day.
1. Add 40g of your rye/apw flour mixture to the bottom of your jar
That’s all there is to it for day 1. In the morning we’ll check on our starter’s progress and proceed with the first feeding.
At the same time as yesterday, get ready to do your first feeding. Check for little bubbles and signs of life around the sides and bottom.Take the lid off and take a tiny smell. It might be pungent but more likely it’s just slightly tangy, or vinegary. You might have a thin dark crust on top, mine did, this is normal.
Now for the first feeding:
1. Using a small container discard enough of your starter so all that remains is your jar weight + 40g. In my case 311g (jar) + 40g (culture) = 351g.
Tip: If it’s cold in your kitchen, heat a kitchen towel for about 10 seconds in the microwave and put under your jar when out on counter. This little bit of heat can help move things along in the beginning. Make sure it’s not too hot!
As you can see, mine shows some signs of life with little bubbles throughout and some larger ones on the bottom. It’s totally normal if you don’t see anything, though. Be patient, we still have a few more days to go.
As with day 2, check again for little bubbles throughout. You should see some here and there, but perhaps not many.Mine started showing some pretty great activity, but again, this may vary for you. Since I bake often in my kitchen it might be a bit easier for me to get this going. When you bake often the same bacteria we are trying to cultivate in our starter will be present in the air, counters, etc., making it easier to create a new starter. Don’t worry, yours will pick up if it hasn’t already.Notice on the sides of my jar there is some residue higher than the current level of the starter. This indicates fermentation has caused the level to rise for some time and then drop after all the sugars have been consumed by the yeast. This rising, or leavening, is what we are looking for with our starter. A strong starter will leaven your dough when baking just the same way this starter is rising after a number of hours.
Same feeding as usual:
- Discard enough of the culture so 40g remains in your jar.
- Add 40g rye/apw flour.
- Add 40g filtered water (remember to keep filling your water bottle with filtered water after you feed so it sets out until the next morning).
- Stir until all the dry bits of flour are gone.
Continue with a feeding per usual.
At this point, mine started to take on an almost soup-like consistency, if this starts to happen add a few more grams of flour to this mix. We want the starter to remain firm, not soup-like. When firm it’s easier to see the air pockets due to fermentation, and there will be other benefits discussed previously in my other post on managing fermentation.
Using rye flour you should start seeing activity by day 4, but if you don’t see much yet, remain patient, it will happen!
In the picture above you can see a picture of the new starter the evening of day 4. I took this picture early to show you how it’s starting to look just 12 hours after feeding. You can see the small bubbles and some rising happening. We’re getting close to feeding more than a single time per day.
In the morning do your usual feeding. If things are progressing well this will be the last day you’ll do a single feeding and starting on day 6 we’ll do two feedings per day.Look at all the little bubbles now! Take the lid off and do another nose test. Mine smelled of serious vinegar with hints of alcohol. These are all signs that your starter is starting to consume every bit of sugar present in the flour you feed it, and by the time you get to feeding it again it’s gone a bit too far. This is a good sign, it’s getting much stronger.
At around 6:00p in the evening take note of how the starter is doing. Does it have small bubbles throughout? Any signs of rising and falling? If you notice these signs do a second feeding at this time just like you would in the morning.At 6:00p mine no longer smelled like vinegar as in the morning on Day 5. At this point it still had a slightly sweet smell to it and in the long run this is just about the time when you’ll always want to feed it, when it’s “young”. The longer you let it go before feeding, the more acid load will be present when you build a leaven before your first bake. This acid load translates directly to the flavor of your bread, making it more sour.
When you wake in the morning do your normal first feeding. Take note of the smell again, it should still smell a bit on the sweet side. Notice with mine I started to get some serious fermentation! It’s now starting to look almost as strong as my old 2 year starter. Pretty impressive.
You can see here when I pull back the top of the starter there are many little air pockets formed during the several hours in-between feedings. This is where the glass jar really helps: you can simply look to the side and see these pockets to instantly gauge how active your starter has become.
At the end of your day, about 12 hours from when you did your first feeding, you can do a third feeding or you can use this starter to prepare a leaven for baking on Day 8.You might not have this much activity just yet. If you want to ensure your starter is strong enough you could always keep up this 3 times-a-day feeding for a few more days. Since I noticed things looked really good (I was actually a bit surprised), I decided to prep for a bake on day 8 and prepare my leaven.
Baking With Your New Starter (Day 8)
If you decided you were able to do a bake, check on your leaven in the morning.Mine definitely looks like it’s strong enough to do a good bake. You can always perform the “float test” here to ensure you have enough yeast activity in your leaven, but I can usually tell at this point just by sight (and smell).Wow, look at that oven spring. I was pleasantly surprised and just how strong the starter had become. This is always such an exciting sight (except, well, those times when you take off the lid and nothing happens. Trust me, it happens to all of us).
Crust: Some nice little crispy bubbles throughout the exterior. Nice coloring and some great “ears” sticking up — all great signs! When I cut into this loaf the crust was nice and shattery, just how I like it.
Crumb: The crumb wasn’t quite as open as I’d like. You can definitely see some great activity in there, but a little more openness would be welcome. This might have been due to a shaping error on my part, but I think the starter might need a few more days to get just a bit stronger.
Taste: The taste was superb. Since I fed this starter often enough to keep the acid load low, there was only a hint of sourness in this loaf. This is how I like it, just a little bit in the background to remind you it’s a hand crafted loaf of sourdough. A crust with that coloring is just artwork to me.
Next Steps with a Sourdough Starter
If you’re looking for an approachable recipe to break in your new starter, and a good place to really dig into the whole process, check out my Beginner’s Sourdough Bread recipe. In this post you’ll not only bake a delicious loaf of bread but you’ll also find definitions and explanations on many of the terms and steps lightly covered here.
After your starter is rising and falling predictably, review my sourdough starter maintenance routine for all the steps I do to keep my starter strong and healthy.
Depending on how often you plan to bake you can either feed your starter once a day or use the refrigerator to store it until you find time to bake. If you want to bake bread only on the weekends, or want to learn how to use the fridge to reduce your starter feedings, check out my Weekend Baking Schedule.
These days, refreshing my sourdough starter has become a liturgical part of my day. It takes mere minutes to provide it with fresh flour and water, and in return it produces incredibly flavorful and healthy sourdough bread for my family. I like to think it’s me making the bread—I’m controlling fermentation, my hands are mixing, and my hands shaping the dough—but the reality is that I’m just a small cog in nature’s machinery. All I really need to do is lend a helping hand and stay out of the way.
Happy baking and buon appetito!