Sourdough bread has become a staple in my home. What I thought would be a pandemic hobby turned into a bit of a lifestyle change. Baking my own sourdough bread lets me control the ingredients, and it’s better for my gut than store-bought bread loaded with fillers and preservatives. And every good sourdough recipe begins with a strong sourdough starter. If learning to bake your own bread is one of your goals this year, this post is here to help you get started!
Until the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, I never baked my own bread. I thought it was too dangerous and I’d just want to eat it all myself. Plus, I spent a lot of time at my office. I didn’t have time to baby a dough or a starter. Then we were sent home and I figured that was as good a time as any to dive into bread baking. Sourdough became popular because of its minimal ingredients, so I decided to give that a go first.
These days I hardly buy bread anymore; if I do, it’s from a local bakery, not the grocery store. I love the routine of baking a fresh loaf of sourdough bread every couple of weeks. It tastes better and is better for me.
What is the sourdough starter?
The starter is a mixture of flour and water that collects beneficial bacteria and yeast from its environment over the course of several days or up to a week. This process forms a wild yeast from the flour and water that acts as the leavening agent in your sourdough bread. So you don’t need any commercial yeast or chemical leaveners like baking powder, just your strong, ripe starter! You can read more about the science of sourdough here.
However, your starter won’t be ready in a day. You have to feed it fresh flour and water each day to help the bacteria and yeast continue to grow. This means it can take up to a week for your starter to be ready to bake with. But trust me, it’s well worth the wait!
Sourdough starters can last a long, long time, when they’re well cared for and maintained. I had a few that lasted more than a year. I’ve eaten at restaurants that have had their starters passed down from generations before. My current starter is about 6 months old, and it’s nice and ripe and sour. Perfect for baking. More on starter maintenance later in this post!
Most everyone has their own process and method for creating and maintaining their sourdough starter. This is the process I’ve been using for the last three years, and it’s worked well for me so far.
Here’s everything you need to know about making your own Sourdough Starter from scratch.
To make your starter, you will need:
- Water (tap is fine)
- Glass, plastic, or ceramic bowl or quart-sized mason jar
- Kitchen scale
- Cheesecloth or kitchen towel to cover bowl
For your flours, try to use unbleached flour if at all possible. I use a mix of King Arthur’s organic all-purpose flour and some other organic flours milled from a local farm. You can use 100% all purpose, but a mix of all-purpose and whole wheat is optimal. This aids in yeast development and gives your final loaf a more complex flavor, in my experience.
Now, to make your starter:
- Place your bowl or jar on your scale. Make sure it’s set to 0 grams.
- Add 100 grams of room temperature water and 100 grams of flour. I do 75 grams of all-purpose flour and 25 grams of whole wheat.
- Mix those together until a thick paste forms. This is the very beginning of your starter!
- Cover the bowl with cheesecloth or a kitchen towel. If you’re using a jar, put the lid on but don’t tighten it completely. Leave it loose so air and bacteria will be allowed in.
Now that it’s started, you have to feed your starter daily to keep it growing. This just means adding more flour and water to keep it growing and creating beneficial bacteria and yeast.
On the day of your first feeding, you will add 60 grams of flour and 60 grams of water, and mix it with the existing starter. Cover and let it rest until the next feeding the following day.
This is where you start to discard. Why do we discard? Because you simply don’t need that much starter and discarding helps keep it manageable. It also keeps your starter from becoming too acidic.
Starting on the second day, you will discard roughly half of your starter, and add 60 grams of flour and 60 grams of water. Mix, cover, rest. You will do this every day for about a week. You can also keep your “discard” and turn it into a second starter with a different flour combination. That’s how I ended up with four starters once. I named them the Bactstreet Boys.
You’ll know your sourdough starter is ready when it smells sour and a little dank, you’ll see bubbles on the side of the bowl or jar, and when you pull your spatula over the top, it looks bubbly and “stringy.” If you’re using a jar, you can wrap a rubber band around the jar level with the top of your starter. If you can see residue above the rubber band, that’s how high the starter rose in its rest. It’s cool to see!
Once you get the smell and the bubbles, it’s time to bake! I love making my weekly sourdough bread loaf, and recently I’ve been experimenting with other bakes, like bagels and English muffins. King Arthur Baking has a whole collection of sourdough recipes. This sourdough bread is perfect for a good grilled cheese sandwich, too.
If you’re not planning to bake with it immediately, put it in a jar, tighten the lid, and keep it in the refrigerator for a week. Feed it weekly to keep it active, but your starter will be fine if you leave it in there for longer. You’ll just need to feed it several times to revive it before baking again.
Like I said in the beginning… there are a thousand ways to build a sourdough starter. This is my process. Yours might be completely different. Experiment, do your own research, and create your own starter. You can read a whole lot more about sourdough starters, the process, flour choice, and more in The Kitchn and Serious Eats.