As many people seemed to agree, 2020 was the time to get a sourdough starter going and master the art of baking artisan sourdough bread! I will humbly say that to my surprise, after a year of research, testing, and experimentation, I succeeded in getting consistent artisanal results at home. Now, I’m ready to share this sourdough starter recipe so that friends and family—and you!—can replicate it.
I’ve made flatbreads, English muffins, pizza dough, and even laffa bread with this sourdough starter recipe. The flavor of just about any bread that uses a natural leavener is just superior to commercial yeast. And with a little practice, it’s just as easy.
There are lots of articles out there, but I hope you find my experience of creating and maintaining a natural wild yeast starter useful! I’m documenting it here for my own family to refer to, so they too can continue baking the fresh bread we’ve all been enjoying.
After you complete this Sourdough Starter recipe, head straight to our Sourdough Bread recipe to see how you can make delicious loaves with it!
What Is a Sourdough Bread Starter?
A sourdough starter recipe basically consists of water and flour. In the flour (and to an extent, the air in your kitchen), there is wild yeast that will become active in your starter.
Both natural and commercial yeast produce carbon dioxide, which helps dough rise. The key difference is the extra flavor produced from the fermentation in a natural sourdough starter.
The speed at which your starter becomes fully active will vary, depending upon the type and amount of wild yeast present, as well as other factors like ambient temperature.
With the popularity of baking sourdough breads at home over the past year, this all may be obvious, but for those completely new to bread-baking, I figured I’d explain!
What Are the Hydration Levels?
Hydration is an important term you’ll learn more about when making sourdough bread. It basically comes down to the percentage of water versus flour (water, divided by flour).
The starter in this recipe is a 100% hydration starter that uses equal amounts of flour and water. Sourdough starter recipes vary, but this formula is what works for me.
Can I Use Any Water for My Sourdough Starter?
This question may not have immediately come to mind, but it is important. I used well water from our house, which goes through a reverse osmosis filter (which basically filters out everything), and our starter is healthy and happy.
An important caveat is that if your drinking water is heavily chlorinated, you may have some difficulty and may want to consider using filtered or bottled water.
What Type of Flour Do I Use for Sourdough Starter?
There’s lots of variation across sourdough starter recipes in terms of which flour(s) to use. From what I have read and experimented with, unbleached all-purpose flour, bread flour, or whole wheat flour work just fine.
If you use organic or rye flour, the results and time it takes to create your starter may improve!
But don’t feel limited by this recipe. You can experiment with different flours and ratios to see what combination yields your preferred bread texture and flavor.
As you use your starter, its characteristics will change depending what flour you continue to use and how often you feed it.
How Long Does It Take to Make a Sourdough Starter?
Making a sourdough starter that’s ready for bread baking takes anywhere from 5 to 10 days. The more optimal the conditions, the faster it will be.
The first time I created a starter, I left it on the counter, and the ambient temperature was 70°F during the day and a few degrees cooler overnight. The entire process took 10 days, so keep the faith and be patient.
Why Do I Have to Discard My Sourdough Starter?
Some might disagree with me, but my answer is that you don’t! That is, if you’re going to bake with it regularly.
Routine baking offers built-in upkeep, ensuring your starter is naturally robust and that you never end up with “too much” to maintain.
So why so much discarding? The core principle is to get rid of old, weaker starter to keep the yeast and bacteria robust for superior leavening and flavor.
Fresh flour and water provides food for the yeast/bacteria, keeping it active and healthy. The problem is, if you keep feeding it without discarding any, you may end up with more starter than you can use!
After your starter has been fed, you will know it is at its most potent when it rises to maximum level.
You’ll know what the maximum level is by looking out for when it just begins to deflate. (Most often, this will be after it reaches 2x the original volume of the starter, about 3-4 hours after a feeding.)
This is the optimal time to use it. If you leave it longer, it becomes less active. Even then, you can still use it for bread baking, but it may have weaker leavening power and could throw off your recipe or proofing times.
This is why there are so many discard recipes for other bakes like pancakes, biscuits, and English muffins, which don’t need as much aggressive leavening as artisan bread.
Ideally, though, you go through this process on a weekly basis, feeding/refreshing and then immediately using your starter to keep it at a manageable size. We rarely buy bread nowadays, and I bake a new loaf every week for toast, sandwiches, and snacking.
The only time I discard starter is if I have not used it for a very long time, and if it does not double in size after a feeding.
If this happens, I discard half of it and feed it again with equal parts water and flour, so it gets replenished to the level it needs to be for a good sourdough bread.
If you plan your feedings and make them small when not baking, I find that discarding excess starter is quite rare in my kitchen.
How Do I Substitute Starter for Commercial Yeast?
To do this, you will have to replicate the right hydration levels from the original recipe in question, but using your homemade starter.
A good rule of thumb is to remember the original ratio of flour and water in your starter, and to subtract whatever you add in starter volume from the total amount of liquid and flour. You will also need to let any resulting dough rise much longer (commercial yeast speeds up the process).
This process is best attempted by more experienced bakers. It takes some experimenting to adapt recipes that call for commercial yeast—especially ones that don’t use water, but milk, butter, or oil, for example.
We haven’t yet had a chance to test conversions of our starter to commercial extensively, but we may update our post in the future.
Do I Need a Digital Scale?
If you don’t have a digital kitchen scale, I highly recommend you purchase one.
Measuring flour can vary greatly depending on how you do it. Do you sift it first? Do you scoop it into the cup, or spoon it in? Are you tapping it to release air pockets?
A digital scale, on the other hand, is always accurate and really easy to use. When I bake bread, I simply put the bowl on the scale and keep adding flour until I’ve reached the desired weight.
No losing count of how many cups I put in, no variations in measuring methods, and I get the exact same amount of flour and water every time.
Long story short: using a digital scale greatly increases your chances of success!
If you don’t have a scale or can’t get one, here are two conversions for this recipe:
- 35g water is approximately 2 tablespoons, plus 1 ½ teaspoons
- 35g all-purpose flour is approximately 4 ½ to 5 tablespoons
How to Make Sourdough Starter: Recipe Instructions
- EQUIPMENT NEEDED: 1 quart jar (disinfected; this gives you adequate room for expansion and growth)
- 105g unbleached all-purpose flour, divided into 3 portions of 35g
- 35g whole wheat flour
- Lukewarm water (avoid using heavily chlorinated tap water)
Let’s get started with this simple process. It’ll be fun, and you’ll learn more as you do it!
Day 1: Make Your Starter
Place a clean glass jar on your digital scale and zero it out. (Anything you add now will be the weight of whatever you add, without the weight of the glass jar.)
Use a spoon to add all-purpose unbleached flour until the scale reads 35g.
Now add 35g of lukewarm water. (You can choose to zero the scale again so the water weight reads 35g.)
Mix thoroughly until you achieve a thick, sticky consistency. Cover with a damp kitchen towel or cheesecloth. Now you let the wild yeast do the work!
Tip: The warmer the room, the faster the yeast will develop. You can put the starter into the oven with a cup of boiling water next to it and the oven light on to generate constant heat. This slightly humid and warm (75°-80°F/24°-26°C) environment makes excellent conditions for wild yeast to develop.
Day 2: Feed and Mix
After 24 hours, it’s doubtful whether you will see any activity at all, but if you see a bubble or two, that means your starter is getting off to a good start. At this point, it likely won’t smell different, but this is normal.
Repeat adding 35g of unbleached all-purpose flour and 35g lukewarm water. Stir thoroughly. Incorporating air helps develop the yeast and bacteria so remember to stir thoroughly each feeding and even a few times during the day to help the yeast culture grow more quickly. Return it to a warm humid place to let the wild yeast do its work.
Day 3: Feed and Mix
You should start to see bubbles forming now, and you may be able to detect a vinegary sour smell. If not, don’t despair. Just proceed, and be sure that you are putting the starter in a warm humid place.
If there are lots of bubbles and the starter becomes a bit thinner, you can go ahead and discard half of the mixture. If there is little activity, skip the discard.
Now, repeat the feed by adding 35g of unbleached all-purpose flour and 35g of lukewarm water. Thoroughly mix. You should see more bubbles forming after you stir.
If your starter is really lacking in activity, you may want to skip a feeding and just let the starter sit for another day to develop.
Day 4: Feed and Mix
You really should start to see bubbles forming now. Your starter will take on a more sour or vinegary fragrance, and it may even smell a little like beer. This is all good and means your sourdough starter is developing nicely. If not, wait another day and be sure that you are putting it in a warm place.
Repeat the same process from Day 3, using 35g whole wheat flour instead of all-purpose flour.
While I’ve found that unbleached all-purpose or bread flours are the most reliable to start with, whole wheat flour has the bran (the outer husk of the wheat berry) ground into it. This gives the starter more nutrients to work with.
While whole wheat flour can inhibit gluten development and lead to slightly less rise, it also helps develop flavor. That’s why I like to include it in my starter as well as in my Sourdough Bread recipe.
Day 5: Feed and Mix
Your starter should be ready to use. It should have a natural yeasty but still sour smell. Like every step/day in this process, if you think it’s not developing or bubbling enough, then wait 1-2 more days, since you want lots of activity the day you use it. Be patient!
You can either bake consistently, feeding your starter just before pouring off a bunch of it to make our sourdough bread, or continue this discard and feeding process using the flour of your choice for a few more days to strengthen your starter.
Read the next steps to see what to do in either event…
How to Maintain and Storing Your Starter
If you are ready to bake…
The morning of the day before you plan to bake bread, add equal parts water and flour to your starter, so you have enough for the total amount of starter you will need for your recipe.
For example, if you need 120g of starter in your recipe, add 60g flour and 60g water.
You should have about 100g of starter to maintain after you are done with a round of bread baking.
Once the starter doubles in size and then begins to deflate, pour off what you need for your recipe and return the rest of the starter to the refrigerator for next time.
If you’re not ready to bake…
If you’re not ready to bake, and you have, say 100g of existing starter, you can discard half of it and add another 25g of flour and 25g of water (this returns you to 100 g of starter to maintain).
Keep it stored in the refrigerator, covered loosely with the jar lid or with a layer of plastic wrap with a hole poked into the top.
I usually keep no more than 100g of starter in the refrigerator, where it will keep for 7-10 days. 10 days or less is a good interval for Judy and I to go through a new loaf of fresh bread before needing another one.
After about 10 days, you may notice a grey or light brown liquid floating on top. This is called “hooch,” which is the alcohol produced as a result of fermentation. This is an indicator that your sourdough starter needs to be fed.
Deciding to pour off the hooch or stir it back in (for a sharper tasting sourdough) is a personal choice, but I recommend that you pour it off before feeding. Hooch can sometimes make your bread taste bitter.
What you should do regardless:
- Store in the refrigerator, loosely covered with the lid of the jar, when you’re not using it.
- Try to feed your starter at least once a week.
- When handling your starter, use clean utensils, or you risk contaminating it with unwanted bacteria. Don’t overcompensate though. I just use a clean chopstick or rubber spatula. If your starter goes bad (smells foul or turns fuzzy, black, pink, orange, or red), you’ll have to start everything over again from step one.
- Don’t worry about a clear, dark liquid that may have a gray/brown skin on top—this is the hooch. Just skim it off and discard.
- Change your storage jar every couple of times you use it, or when it gets too crusty. This keeps the starter clean, reducing the possibility of spoilage.
- Remember, these are guidelines, especially when it comes to maintaining the starter volume over time. Judge the amounts of flour and water you need to feed the starter relative to what you want to bake. Just remember the 1:1 ratio!
How to Prep Starter Each Time You Bake
Going forward, when you decide to make bread, add equal amounts of whole wheat or unbleached all-purpose flour and water in a 1:1 ratio to get the amount your recipe calls for. For example, if your recipe calls for 120g of starter, then add 60g of flour and 60g of water.
The starter should take 3 to 4 hours to ferment, grow, and come to room temperature, so take this time into account when planning your bakes.
Monitor the growth of your starter, noting the level it rises in your jar. When it reaches a point where it doesn’t rise anymore and just starts to sink, it’s ready for use.
Now it’s time to head over to our other recipe to make a loaf using Bill’s artisan Sourdough Bread Recipe!
Sourdough Starter Recipe
- 105 g unbleached all-purpose flour or bread flour (divided into 3 portions of 35g)
- 35 g whole wheat flour
- 140 g lukewarm water (divided into 4 portions of 35g; avoid using heavily chlorinated tap water)
Day 1: Make Your Starter
- Place a clean glass jar on your digital scale and zero it out. (To remove the weight of the glass jar; anything you add now will be the weight of whatever you add.) Use a spoon to add all-purpose unbleached flour until the scale reads 35g. Now add 35g of lukewarm water. (You can choose to zero the scale again so the water weight reads 35g.)
- Mix thoroughly until you achieve a thick, sticky consistency. Cover with a damp kitchen towel or cheesecloth. Now you let the wild yeast do the work!
Day 2: Feed and Mix
- After 24 hours, it’s doubtful whether you will see any activity at all, but if you see a bubble or two, that means your starter is getting off to a good start. At this point, it likely won’t smell different, but this is normal.
- Repeat adding 35g of unbleached all-purpose flour and 35g lukewarm water. Stir thoroughly. Incorporating air helps develop the yeast and bacteria. Return it to a warm humid place to let the wild yeast do its work.
Day 3: Feed and Mix
- You should start to see bubbles forming now, and you may be able to detect a vinegary sour smell. If not, don’t despair. Just proceed, and be sure that you are putting the starter in a warm humid place.
- If there are lots of bubbles and the starter becomes a bit thinner, you can go ahead and discard half of the mixture. If there is little activity, skip the discard.
- Now, repeat the feed by adding 35g of unbleached all-purpose flour and 35g of lukewarm water. Thoroughly mix. You should see more bubbles forming after you stir.
- If your starter is really lacking in activity, you may want to skip a feeding and just let the starter sit for another day to develop.
Day 4: Feed and Mix (Whole Wheat)
- You really should start to see bubbles forming now. Your starter will take on a more sour or vinegary fragrance, and it may even smell a little like beer. This is all good and means your sourdough starter is developing nicely. If not, wait another day and be sure that you are putting it in a warm place. Repeat the same process from Day 3, using 35g whole wheat flour.
Day 5 (or longer): Check Your Starter
- Your starter should be ready to use. It should have a nice natural yeasty but still sour smell. Like every step/day in this process, if you think it’s not developing or bubbling enough, then wait 1-2 more days, since you want lots of activity the day you use it. Be patient! When your starter is active, you can begin baking with it and maintaining it (see post).