As the fall winds started to beat against my office window, I decided if I was going to write an entry about how I started and maintain my now 2 year old sourdough starter, now was the time. Once the temperatures drop outside, and subsequently inside, yeast activity does tend to slow but I have some tips to help you get started in making an incredible sourdough starter from scratch, even in the winter. Get ready to create a culture that will require only minimal maintenance and care but will help you to produce the best sourdough bread you’ve ever eaten.
While I usually look forward to the changing seasons, and all fall/winter has to offer, for some reason this year I wanted summer to go for just one more month. I’m the type of person who craves the warm sunshine outside, I shy away from that change to winter with the short dark days and chilly air. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big snowboarding fan (especially since I live 30 minutes from some really incredible mountains) but even that can’t completely make up for a casual jog in the sun with my dog, a couple hours outside hiking with my wife in the mountains, or grilling some steak out in the backyard. With the coming cold I know that I’m going to have to alter my bread baking. Longer bulk fermentation times due to decreased fermentation and a slightly modified starter maintenance schedule are just two things on my mind requiring change.
This journal entry will help you create your own 100% hydration sourdough starter from scratch, even in the colder months of the year. Of course you’ll have to adjust a few things for your location and your temperatures, but I’ll discuss what to look for and a few tips that will ensure success. This 100% hydration starter will not only allow you to bake any bread you find in Tartine Bread, but also give you a reliable starter that you can train to bake any sourdough you desire.
A Quick Note on Starter Consistency: What is “firm”?
I think this was one of the most challenging things I struggled with when creating my first sourdough starter a few years ago. My starter would always turn into this very soupy, vinegary, runny mess by the end of the day. How do we keep your starter firm but not a dry lump of flour in a jar? The key here is to ensure you’re using equal parts water, flour, and inoculation (leftover starter from previous feeding). You might need to adjust your flour amount a few grams up or down from there depending on how dry your climate is, but that is the general rule.
When you do your feeding and start to vigorously mix everything back together to incorporate all the dry bits of flour, it should actually be a bit challenging to get it to mix together but after a minute or so all the dry bits will disappear. The mixture should be firm enough to almost hold a mound shape in the bottom of the jar. I will typically stir the newly fed starter around a few more times after incorporating all the flour to clean the sides and create the mound in the middle.
You can replace any of the items below with your own materials, even stuff just laying around your home, but these are the materials I’ve found to ease starting and maintaing your starter.
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 important here, you want to be able to visually inspect any fermentation happening as you will be able to see little bubbles around the sides and bottom. Visible bubbles and the smell of your starter are the two cues we will rely heavily on throughout this process.
One other important reason: they’re great quality and super cheap online. You can use these jars for a ton of other things around the house (pesto, jam, dried fruit, and so on).
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.
A kitchen scale is indispensable. I highly recommend you buy one if you haven’t already, it will make baking life easier. Almost everything you’ll see here is measured in grams, not imperial volume measurements (different flours, salts, etc. could weigh differently and we want to go by weight not volume).
Stainless steel or plastic water bottle
I filter my water with a standard carbon filter and let it sit on the counter overnight before using it. I’ve noticed over time that my starter performs better with filtered water and I let it sit out to reduce the amount of chlorine present in tap water. You could also use bottled water as well.
If you’re using a filter like me, filter some water now and pour it into a stainless steel water bottle to sit out at least overnight to dissipate any chlorine in your tap water.
Using whole grain rye flour is a must. I’ve now started several sourdough starters over the years and because of the additional nutrients in rye flour it’s the best way to get your culture up and running.
All purpose unbleached white flour
I mix 50% all purpose with 50% rye flour for my feedings. You could also feed with 100% rye flour with no problem.
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 soupy consistency, if this starts to happen add a few more grams of flour to this mix. We want the starter to remain firm, not soupy. When it’s 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.
If you’re looking for a great recipe to break in your new starter, and a good place to really dive deep on the whole process, check out my Beginner’s Sourdough Bread recipe. In this post you’ll not only find a great starting loaf of bread but also definitions and explanations on many of the terms and steps lightly covered here.
With a strong, reliable starter you can bake any recipe you find here at the perfect loaf, just remember to keep feeding based on your desired bake schedule:
A Daily Baker
If you plan to bake every few days or so, feed your starter twice to three times a day.
A Weekend Baker
If you only bake on the weekends you can store your starter in the fridge Sunday after your bake until Thursday. When Thursday comes around, take it out in the morning, let it warm up an hour or so, feed it and then feed it again in the evening. Friday and Saturday you can ramp things up to three feedings per day and prepare your leaven Saturday night for a Sunday bake. For a sample schedule and more information on this please see my Weekend Baking Schedule.
After your starter is up and running, review my sourdough starter maintenance routine for information (and images) on what I do to keep my starter strong and and healthy.
Making an incredible sourdough starter from scratch really is an easy thing. While sourdough starters have been around for a very, very long time, the frequency and materials you feed yours becomes a very personal thing. As you care for your starter it begins to take on a personality and life of its own, a personality that reflects who you are and the taste you enjoy.
Happy baking and buon appetito!