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 flour it stays on schedule. Besides, when I’m 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 the jar 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 (26°C), 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.
Before we begin, let’s round up a few necessary materials.
You can see a rundown of all the tools I use for baking sourdough, vetted over years of baking, over at my favorite sourdough baking tools page. I’ll go over a few of the necessary tools to get started below:
Weck glass jar
Have at least two, clean jars on hand. 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.
Two more reasons I like these jars: they’re high quality and very economical. They are essentially canning jars so you can use them for many things around the kitchen (jam, homemade pesto, dried fruit, cereals, 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; it’s sturdy and easy to clean with a sponge, but if things get really messy you can run it through 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 a day and eventually stop using rye flour altogether. Because of the frequency of these feedings, one of my goals is to help you set things up so it’s quick & easy 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 only requires a few minutes to do a feeding and cleanup. So about 5-10 minutes per day on average is all it takes to keep your little guy going — no biggie.
The following schedule will provide you with a reliable and strong sourdough starter in about 6-9 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. I’ll discuss this in more detail later in this entry.
Your schedule will follow the natural rise and fall of your starter (see right). As soon as you feed it the yeast and bacteria in your culture will begin to metabolize the sugars found in the flour, creating gasses as a byproduct. These gasses cause the starter to rise through the day and your dough to rise when baked. I took a picture every hour for a single day to show you just how this rising and falling occurs.
Daily Feeding Process
At each feeding we will perform the following quick steps:
- Stir down your starter a little bit with your spatula
- Place a clean jar on your scale and scoop in some portion (outlined below) from the jar you just stirred down
- Add fresh flour and water, mix well to completely incorporate
- Cover the jar loosely and let rest until the next feeding
That’s it! Once you get your process down it should take no more than a few minutes each day.
Making an Incredible Sourdough Starter from Scratch
In the morning, place an empty jar on the scale and tare1. To that jar add 100 grams whole grain rye flour and 150 grams water into one of the clean jars and mix together. Stir vigorously until all dry bits are incorporated. Keep this mixture somewhere warm in your kitchen, 80°F to 85°F (26°C to 29°C) is ideal. If it’s cool in your kitchen, warm the water to 80°F (26°C) before mixing. Let the mixture rest out of direct sunlight for 24 hours.
You may or may not already see some fermentation activity. As mentioned above, this potential initial surge of activity is normal and should subside around day three. You can see below my initial mixture expanded significantly (in fact it bubbled out of the jar, this is why a bowl below is a good idea). At this point our starter is not yet ready to bake with, this initial surge, while encouraging, will typically disappear by the third or fourth day. Stick to the schedule and it will come back!
Place your second, empty jar on the scale and tare so that it reads 0 grams. Scoop in 75 grams of the mixture that has been resting for 24 hours, discarding the rest. Next, add 50 grams rye flour, 50 grams all-purpose flour, and 125 grams water — again, if it’s cold, warm the water to 80°F(26°C).
Mix well until all dry bits are incorporated, cover, and place in the same warm spot for 24 hours, until day three. Discard the rest of the mixture in the first jar and clean it in preparation for the next day.
In the morning, you may start to see more activity, or you may see none. You can see below the initial surge of activity I had in day two disappeared. However, my mixture started to show the beginning signs of beneficial yeast and bacteria taking hold.
Regardless of what signs your mixture is presenting, don’t fret, stick to the schedule and activity will pick up soon enough. Remember, if it’s cold in your kitchen warm your water to 80°F (26°C) to help speed things along.
Place your clean jar on the scale and tare. Scoop in 75 grams of the mixture that rested overnight and add 50 grams rye flour, 50 grams all-purpose flour, and 125 grams water. Stir until well incorporated. Cover the jar and let rest 24 hours until day four.
Discard the rest of the mixture in the first jar and clean it in preparation for the next day.
This is the first day of the process with two refreshments in a single day: one in the morning, and one approximately 12 hours later.
In the morning, you should start to see (more) signs of fermentation activity if you haven’t already. There will be bubbles scattered on the sides and top, and the level of the mixture might have risen and fallen a little (evidenced by streaks on the sides of the jar). Refresh in the same way as on day three. Place a clean jar on the scale and tare. Scoop in 75 grams of the mixture from the jar that fermented overnight; add 50 grams rye flour, 50 grams all-purpose flour, and 125 grams water. Mix thoroughly, cover, and let rest for 12 hours. After this 12-hour rest, discard down and refresh again with the same ratio of ingredients, and let rest overnight.
Discard the rest of the mixture in the first jar and clean it in preparation for the next day.
Day Five and Six
For days five and six, continue refreshing with the same ratio of ingredients as day four, twice a day, as fermentation activity increases more and more.
Day Seven and Onward
In the morning on day seven, place a clean jar on the scale and tare. Scoop in 50 grams of the mixture from the jar that fermented overnight. To this, add 100 grams all-purpose flour and 100 grams water (no rye flour is needed). Mix thoroughly, cover, and let rest for 12 hours. In the evening (after about 12 hours), refresh again with the same ratio of ingredients and let rest until the next day.
At this point you should start to see the height of your starter rise and fall in the jar predictably each day. This periodic behavior is a good indicator that it is strong enough to use for your first loaf of bread. If your starter is still struggling to show vigorous activity, keep refreshing with the same ratio of ingredients for another day, or several more, until things pick up. This process can sometimes take longer, depending on the flour used and the environment (especially if it’s cool in your kitchen). Be patient and stick to the schedule, and eventually a stable starter will take hold.
The starter will continue to develop flavor and strength over the next week and into the future. With a strong starter, you can now use a portion of it when “mature” (when it’s risen to maximal height) to make a leaven (or levain) for any bread recipe here at The Perfect Loaf.
Next Steps with a Healthy Sourdough Starter
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. 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. This results in a delicious loaf of bread and you’ll also find explanations for many of the terms covered here.
Based on your baking frequency, you can feed your starter once a day or use the refrigerator slow it down. 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.
If you’re looking for something to make with the discarded sourdough starter we’re generating every day, have a look at my sourdough starter waffles, pancakes, and banana bread.
What Flour Should I Feed My Starter?
There is no right or wrong flour to use when feeding a starter.
Once your starter is rising and falling predictably it’s also fine to switch your feeding flour to suit your preference. You can continue with a 100% all-purpose white flour starter, feed with a mixture of rye and all-purpose, or even switch over to using 100% whole wheat.
Each flour choice imparts a different set of qualities to your starter and the more whole grain the flour the shorter the timespan between feedings. There is no right or wrong flour to use when maintaining your starter, it’s up to you and your starter!
These days, refreshing my sourdough starter has become a liturgical part of my day. It takes minutes to provide my starter with fresh flour and water. In return, my starter produces flavorful and healthy bread for my family and I. I like to think it’s me making the bread. It’s me controlling fermentation, it’s my hands mixing and shaping the dough. But the reality is, 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!
I’d love to see what you’re baking with your new sourdough starter! Tag me (@maurizio on Instagram) or hashtag your photo #theperfectloaf so I can take a look!
The “tare” button on your scale will zero it out after you place your jar on top. This will allow you to measure the flour and water your place in your jar (and exclude the jar’s weight).↩