Sourdough Starters; From Start to Finish and all the Fun in Between!

by Michelle on January 18, 2010

Sourdough Starter; A culture of wild yeast and lactobacilli grown in a medium of flour and liquid such as water, milk or beer.

I began using a Sourdough Starter in my breads about five years ago and I’ve used a Sourdough Starter ever since. I love the flavor the Starter adds to my breads and there really is nothing that duplicates a good sourdough flavor.

Sourdough Starter has many favorable effects on breads:

1. Adds flavor
2. Improves and tenderizes the crumb
3. Adds elasticity to bread dough
4. Extends the shelf life

There are literally hundreds of recipes to begin a Sourdough Starter and I’ve probably tried at least fifteen. But I always return to my flour and water mix because this is what works best for me, but it might not work for you. Since a Starter relies on wild yeast that is freely floating around in the air, each starter is unique and will perform differently depending on your geographical location. So if one recipe does not work for you try another recipe. I have several recipes listed in this post for your convenience. Or you can wait a month or two and try again. In a month the wild yeast available in your home will be different and may be more suitable to begin a Starter.

I had a terrible time getting a Starter going and I was using step-by-step directions and following them implicitly. Some of the Starters never did any thing, some started bubbling a little bit but then died. It was a total fail, until I relaxed and just used flour and water..yep just Unbleached White Flour and Water.

Materials Needed:

1. Unbleached White Flour – Any brand is fine
2. Water – Tap water is fine. We have a water softener so I use bottled water, any brand is fine
3. Small bowl – Soup bowl, small mixing bowl, whatever you have on hand
4. Whisk
5. Something to cover your container. Plastic wrap, 2-part canning lid, clean dish cloth or anything to keep the dust out and to prevent the surface of the Starter from drying out.
6. Clean, clear glass or plastic container – The container must be clear so you can see what happening inside. I always wash my container by hand and then rinse it with boiling water several times to make sure it is very clean and there is no soap residue.

Easy Sourdough Starter
Recipe adapted from an old friend

1 c. white unbleached flour
1 c. water **See Note

**NOTE: If you have a water softener use any brand of bottled water. I’ve heard that chlorinated water can cause problems but I have no experience to verify it.

In a small bowl, mix the flour and water. Taking a small whisk, whisk the heck out of your Starter for at least 5 minutes. Sourdough starter loves air and the more air you can get into your Starter the better.

Pour your Starter into a jar or clear plastic container. I use a 1-qt Mason Jar with the 2-part lid but use whatever you have available as long as it’s clear. Cover the clear container opening with plastic wrap, a clean dishcloth, shower cap or 2-part lid. If you’re using a 2-part canning lid, lightly screw the lid on so that gases created by the yeast can escape. DO NOT screw the lid on tight!

Set the jar on the counter in a highly visible spot so you can keep an eye on it. I usually set my jar right by the sink.

Probably within 12 hours you will see some bubbles start forming on the top of the Starter which is what you want. But if you don’t see any bubbles within 24 hrs don’t worry about it.

Day Two: Pour out half your starter and discard. Add 1/2 c. flour and 1/2 c. water. Whisk well. Sit the container in a visible spot in your kitchen.

Day Three: By Day 3 you should be seeing some bubbly activity in your Starter and it should smell like yeast. Pour out half your starter and discard. Add 1/2 c. flour and 1/2 c. water. Whisk well. Sit the container in a visible spot in your kitchen.

Day Four: Your starter should be at least doubling within the first 6-10 hours now. Pour out half your starter and discard. Add 1/2 c. flour and 1/2 c. water. Whisk well. Sit the container in a visible spot in your kitchen.

If you have no activity by Day 4 discard all your Starter and begin again. This time refer to Tips for a Strong Sourdough Starter and add either 2 TBL Pineapple Juice to the Water equaling 1/2 cup or substitute 1/4 c. Rye Flour and start over.

Day Five: Pour out half your starter and discard. Add 1/2 c. flour and 1/2 c. water. Whisk well. Sit the container in a visible spot in your kitchen.

If your Starter is at least doubling by Day 5, you have a good Starter going and you can now use it in a recipe. I usually add 1/2 cup Starter to most of my bread recipes and it does not matter if the recipe has 3 c of flour or 6 c of flour I still use 1/2 c. Starter. Since the Starter is a ratio of 1:1 flour to water there is no need to alter the bread recipe.

If your Starter has some activity but is not doubling by Day 5 refer to Tips for a Strong Sourdough Starter and add either 2 TBL Pineapple Juice to the Water equaling 1/2 cup or substitute 1/4 c. Rye Flour. And repeat Step 2 every 24 hours until the Starter is doubling in size. As soon as it starts doubling in size it is ready to use in a bread recipe.

Maintaining a Sourdough Starter

Maintaining a Sourdough Starter is easy if you bake bread at least once a week. But if you don’t you still have to feed your starter to keep it healthy. Each time you remove a portion of the Starter for a recipe, you must replace an equal amount.

To replenish and feed the existing Starter, either use 1/2 c. starter in a recipe or discard 1/2 c Starter. Then add to the existing Starter, 1/2 c. flour and 1/2 c. water, mix it and then whisk for at least 5 minutes. Pour the Starter into a clean container and place the jar of starter in a visible spot in the kitchen. When the starter rises and then falls which is anywhere from 6-12 hours, then you can return the Starter to the refrigerator.

I do have to admit that I neglect my Starter. During the Spring when I am extremely busy my poor Starter is so ignored. Sometimes I don’t feed it for a month or so! But when I finally find that poor jar of stuff shoved in the back of the frig and refresh it, it just bubbles back to life with no problem. Poor thing!

If you had a good, strong Starter and for some reason it seems to be losing steam, there is absolutely nothing wrong with giving it a little kick the next time it needs to be refreshed. Please refer to Tips for a Strong Sourdough Starter.

If your Starter remains in the refrigerator for a week or so, it may start separating and develop a brownish liquid on top. I’ve found conflicting opinions on what the “liquid” is, so I carefully pour it off and then refresh my Starter. But I’ve read where some people just mix the liquid back into the Starter with no ill effect. So the decision on what to do with the liquid is up to you.

Tips for a Strong Sourdough Starter:

1. Add 2 TBL Pineapple Juice to the Water equaling 1/2 cup, refresh/feed every 24 hours for 3 days or until the Starter is at least doubling in size.
2. Substitute 1/4 c. Rye Flour, refresh/feed every 24 hours for 3 days or until the Starter is at least doubling in size.

When we were in construction for our remodel and renovation, I tossed my sourdough starter because I did not
have an oven for over a year and could not bake at all. I decided to try a little experiment with my plain flour/water starter and Nancy Silverton’s Grape Sourdough Starter.

I made the Grape Sourdough Starter exactly as directed in the below recipe. When I started Step 4 for the Grape Sourdough Starter which is a 3-day feeding schedule, I then mixed up my 1 c. flour and 1 cup water and began a new batch of my starter. I set the Starters side by side in my kitchen for a Comparison Test.

Keep in mind that the Grape Starter is already a fermented Starter and just being refreshed whereas my Starter is brand new mix with no previous fermentation.

Note: I used exactly the same amount of starters in each jar so the comparison would be easily visible.

I missed the photo of the full rise but you can see the marks on the glass jars. The Grape Starter rose a little bit more then my Starter. But both starters are very active which is great!

Ah..oh! Grape Starter is way ahead and it’s gorgeous! But still my Starter is more then doubling and for a new starter this is fabulous for Day 3!

Oops…my Starter went nuts! I did not put the lid on the Grape Starter because I was afraid it was going to be the one to blow the lid off. But my Starter came through in the end and showed ’em just who’s boss in Michelle’s kitchen! :))

In conclusion ALL Sourdough Starters work and one is not better then any other. You just need to find one that works for you!

I made a double batch of Breadsticks using one of my new Starters and below is the gorgeous rise of the dough!

Below are some additional recipes that you might considering trying:

Nancy Silverton’s Grape Sourdough Starter

2 cups bread flour
2 1/2 cups water, bottled water preferred
1/2 lb red grapes, unwashed organic

1. Wrap the grapes in well washed cheesecloth, tying the corners to form a bag; lightly crush them with a rolling pin (to release the sugar to mix with the natural yeast on the skins; just like making wine!) and immerse them in the flour water mix. Cover tightly with a lid or plastic wrap secured with a rubber band. Leave at room temperature for 6 days, stirring once or twice a day for six days.

2. The bag of grapes will eventually appear inflated, and liquid will begin to separate from the flour base. The mixture will begin to taste and smell slightly fruity, and the color will be strange. That is as it should be. By the sixth day the bag of grapes will have deflated, the color will be yellow, and the taste pleasantly sour; the fermentation is complete. The starter is living but weak, and it needs to be fed.

3. Remove the grapes and squeeze their juices back into the starter. Stir it up thoroughly and transfer it to a clean container. (Although you can use it after just one feeding, the starter will be stronger and healthier with the full treatment) You can refrigerate it until you’re ready to proceed.

4. Three days before you plan to use it, stir 1 cup flour and 1 cup water into the
container, blending well. Let stand uncovered at room temperature until it bubbles up — 3 to 4 hours — then cover and refrigerate. Repeat this the second and third day.

5. Store the starter tightly covered in the refrigerator where it will keep perfectly for 4 to 6 months, after which it’s a good idea to pour off all but 2 cups and give it another feeding. Before using the stored starter for bread, however, give it the full 3-day feeding schedule once again to restore it and to tone down excess sourness.

Beer Sourdough Starter

1 c Beer
1 1/4 c Flour

1. Mix beer and flour until completely smooth with no lumps.
2. Let stand at room temperature for 5-10 days, stir 3 times per day.
3. When mixture begins to bubble, remove half and discard and replenlish with 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup flour, again whisking until smooth.
4. Refrigerate.
3. Add about 1 cup of starter to any bread recipe. And then replenlish with 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup water.

Potato Water Sourdough Starter

1/2 TBL Active dry yeast
1 c White flour
1 tsp Sugar
Lg baking potato peeled, cube

1. Boil potato until just tender.
2. Pour off potato water and save 1 cup of the potato water. Set aside to cool.
3. Combine flour, yeast and sugar in a non metalic bowl and add the cooled potato water. Stir well until completely smooth with no lumps.
4. Loosly cover with plastic wrap and pierce with fork to release gases.
5. Place in a warm, draft free location at an even 85F for 2 days; stir several times daily. (do not let sourdough starter rise above 95F because higher temp are favorable to less desirable microorganisms)
6. Refrigerate until ready to use.
7. Replenish with one c flour and 3/4 c water and let stand overnight or 12 hrs in a warm location before refrigerating again. When replenishing, add lukewarm water with flour.

Buttermilk Sourdough Starter
1 c Water; tepid
1/4 c Buttermilk, room temperature
1 1/2 c Flour
1 tbs Sugar

1. Mix all ingredients until smooth and lump free
2. Cover and set on your kitchen counter for 3-5 days.
3. After the Starter becomes active it can be stored in refrigerator.
4. Starter must be used in 1 week or “refreshened”.
4. Recipe makes about 2 cups of starter.

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Comments

  • Barbara Bakes January 18, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    What a great post! I learned so much! I’ve never made a sour dough bread. I’m going to have to give it a try.

  • teresacooks January 18, 2010 at 2:54 pm

    Now I totally feel like making sourdough starters. I made Peter Reinhart’s sourdough starter it was so fun, but it turns out I only like very mild sourdough flavor. . .so I just didn’t use it after the first time. . . still it’s such a fun thing to do. Nice post and pictures by the way.

  • Cindy (Applestone Cottage) January 18, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    Great post, will these work for sourdough pancakes? I have been looking for a recipe. Thanks for sharing the great tutorial. Cindy

  • Claudia January 18, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    I haven’t done a starter in about 5 years. I am inspired. Excuse me while I find my mason jar. The hard part will be the waiting.

  • Michelle January 18, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    Cindy,

    A sourdough starter would be great in pancakes! A starter can be added to any dough or batter.

    Michelle

  • kat January 18, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    We tried to do a sourdough starter when we lived in San Francisco & failed miserably maybe its time to try again

  • Mimi January 18, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    Thanks for so much great information. I haven’t had a starter in years, but now seem like a good time to get one going again.
    Mimi

  • Jenn AKA The Leftover Queen January 18, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    This is totally awesome, Michelle! I am excited to start my starter!!!

  • Elle January 18, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    I love this post–extremely informative! I’ve always wanted to make a starter, but always thought it would be too complicated. I see it isn’t!

  • katrina January 18, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    Great post! You got me so excited I’m going to try again – none, yes, NONE of my sourdough experiments have ever worked.
    Thanks, Michelle!

  • Fresh Local and Best January 18, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    Michelle – I am so intimidated with the idea of making sourdough starter, but your pictures of the starter’s progress and the description really helps. One of these days when I have more space I’d like to accomplish this project. Thanks for sharing, I’m inspired!

  • Maria January 18, 2010 at 11:23 pm

    I’ve never made sourdough. Great post! I will have to try it.

  • Lynda January 19, 2010 at 12:16 am

    Michelle, Great info. I used to make sourdough years ago with Hermann. I’ve never done it, but I understand you can freeze your starter if you aren’t going to be able to use or feed it. Anyway, the grape starter sounds interesting. I’ll put that on my list to try. Thanks.

  • Ju (The Little Teochew) January 19, 2010 at 11:58 am

    Oh Michelle, you’re a wonderful teacher! This is like a science lesson, you know! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. You must put in so much effort to get the photos and content pieced together. I salute you for that. You’re so generous.

  • Kim January 19, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    This is a great post Michelle. This is definitely helpful for those of us who have never made a starter before.

  • Cristie January 19, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    Goodness Gracious Girl! This is quite a post, quite a post. Thank you for the best tutorial ever to be done on sour dough starters. I have used sour dough starters many a time, but it is time to do it again- I’ll let you know which version I use. You are the BEST!

  • Joanne January 19, 2010 at 7:14 pm

    thanks so much for all of these tips Michelle! I have been wanting to get into sourdoughs now that I’ve kind-of sort-of got regular bread under control. This is a perfect how-to guide!

  • lisaschaos January 19, 2010 at 8:01 pm

    Thanx! I haven’t done sourdough in ages!

  • Judy's Bakery & Test Kitchen January 19, 2010 at 10:34 pm

    Thanks, Michelle,

    I have been wanting a step by step guifde to starters! I will be trying this. I am less fearful now.

    Judy

  • Carol Peterman January 20, 2010 at 1:52 am

    Great post! I just completed the 4 day process for some rye flour starter and it was just water and flour and was bubbly after the first day. I also tried a rye starter with buttermilk that called for salt, which I thought was very odd. Unfortunately it had a 1/2 inch of fuzzy white mold on the top by day 2, so I’m glad I had the backup flour/water starter going. I get to mix up dough tonight.

  • M'Dogs Mom January 20, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    I haven’t made sourdough bread in years and have the urge to do it now. I bumped into your blog while searching for a recipe for Sourdough Starter made from grapes. I love it! I’m going to use your recipe and will be back to read more of your blog.

  • Cathy (breadexperience) January 20, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    Very informative post! I love creating starters. I had about 5 going at one time, but now I just have 2. I’ve used the grape starter before. I love it! Thanks for sharing!

  • Urban Breadmachine January 21, 2010 at 2:21 am

    I love your post! A friend of mine keeps telling me he’ll give me some of his starter, but your detailed post makes me think I can easily just start some myself. I see a future loaf in my bread machine. Thanks for the tips!

  • Bonnie January 24, 2010 at 12:30 am

    Hi Michelle,
    When you add your own sourdough starter do you substite straight across for the yeast or do you find you need to reduce some of the liquid?

  • Michelle January 24, 2010 at 12:56 am

    Bonnie,

    The sourdough starter is 1:1 ratio of flour/water. So I just add 1/2 c. starter.

    Michelle

  • Danielle January 24, 2010 at 4:33 am

    how often do you make a new batch of starter? love this info!

  • Michelle January 24, 2010 at 4:58 am

    Danielle,

    Once you get a strong sourdough starter going, you really don’t need to replace it unless you forget to feed it for like 4 months or so.

    To keep a starter strong and healthy, you should either use part of it or refresh/feed it once a week.

    But, I’ve ignored my own starter for 2-3 months, finally feed it and it happily bubbled away.

    Michelle

  • Ezzie January 24, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    I am so glad you put this post up! You know I love the chemistry of beer and wine, so the grape starter and the beer starter are very intriguing! Just wish I’d known about the grape starter last year when I was picking chambourcine grapes for wine! Rest assured this year I will be doing some testing between the types of grapes! And of course the beer will be a great experiment as well. Great job of documenting everything!

  • Maggy April 6, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    Brilliant! I did this for a science project when I was in high school, haha. Would love to try it again.

  • Tracy April 6, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    All of this info is wonderful! So I can really make my own starter from just flour and water??

  • Cookin' Canuck April 6, 2010 at 7:23 pm

    Very informative post! I love the photo of the dough rising over the top of the bowl.

  • […] to try your hand at it too. If you would like to try and catch your own starter, my blogging buddy Michelle over at Big Black Dog has a great post about it! […]

  • Sarah June 28, 2010 at 6:00 pm

    Incredibly informative. Thank you so much for posting that!

  • Ciabatta September 3, 2010 at 12:38 am

    […] and I love using kefir in anything I am baking. I choose to make the biga version and substituted sourdough starter for the yeast and kefir for the milk and I did use EVOO (Extra Virgin Olive […]

  • Pam... January 10, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    Have 2 questions..do you use self rising flour or plain..do you keep it in the refrigerator all the time? Thanks..

    • Michelle January 10, 2011 at 9:35 pm

      I answered Pam via email but I will post my comments below in case anyone else has the same question.

      Pam,

      I use both Ceresota Unbleached Flour and Bob’s Red Mills Unbleached Flour and neither contain baking powder, baking soda or salt and so are not self-rising. I can’t recall ever using self-rising flour.

      When I find my flours on sale I will buy in bulk. I do keep the extra flour in our basement refrigerator but only because we do sometimes get mice. We live in a rural area and although I have 3 kitties, we still have had problems with mice. Although it’s been a few years since I’ve seen any evidence of the little critters in my house, I don’t want any problems with my flour!

      Off my kitchen I have a pantry where I keep a 25 lb flour bin and in my kitchen I have a 10-lb canister for flour. So the only flour that is refrigerated is the flour in the basement and only because of the critter problem.

      Michelle

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