3 October, 2012 – updated March 2020
I find the art of making bread very grounding and nurturing for the soul. Especially the slow and gentle process of sourdough. This traditional technique of making bread is as old as the cultivation of grains itself. The modern version of bread using baker’s yeast to make a loaf in several hours does not allow for the long fermentation grains require to make them more digestible.
Making a Sourdough Starter
Several notes before you start:
- The natural wild yeast to kickstart a sourdough starter is found predominantly in the flour used with higher amounts in wholemeal flours. I make a ‘starter flour’ mix of half organic wholemeal flour and half white flour (any type of white flour). Or for a gluten-free starter use brown rice flour. If you don’t have access to organic flour then any flour can be used, however, it is imperative to use warm water and keep the developing starter in a warm position to give it all the help you can.
- Use tepid water, about 35-40°C (this will feel lukewarm to touch) to support yeast growth. Using non-chlorinated water (filtered water; boiled and cooled water; rainwater; or bottled water) is also important as the antibacterial quality of chlorinated water can create an imbalance in the microbes that we are working hard to cultivate in the new starter.
- If you have digital scales I recommend weighing ingredients as this is far more accurate than using volume measures.
- Don’t be tempted to add extra water, the starter will start out thick (especially when using brown rice flour for a gluten-free starter) and will become more liquid as the flour is hydrated by the water.
- Find my ‘Sourdough How To’ Instagram stories highlights HERE where I make a new starter from scratch and discuss the process.
In a scrupulously clean 400-500ml glass jar combine 30g (2 rounded tablespoons) flour (see notes about flour choice above) with 30g (2 tablespoons) warm water. Stir well to aerate – this incorporates oxygen into the mixture to assist with the fermentation.
Cover loosely with the lid – don’t screw on tightly – to allow the starter to breathe while not forming a crust on the surface. Leave in a warm place – ideally between 18 – 24°C. During summer the kitchen bench will be fine; in winter position the jar somewhere warm such as a sunny table, on top of the fridge or beside the heater/fire (note: a hot water cupboard can be too hot so check the temperature first).
Day 2 – 5:
For the next 3-4 days feed the starter once every 24 hours (ideally around the same time each day) with 30g flour (2 rounded tablespoons) and 30g (2 tablespoons) water. Mix well with each addition and continue to sit the jar in a warm position. During this time you will notice the starter will begin to ‘breathe’ – rise and fall in the jar, with small bubbles throughout and smell sweetly sour and yeasty (not at all offensive). In cooler months, the starter may take 1 – 2 days longer to establish. The starter is ready to use once it noticeably rises in the jar, doubling in height after 5-6 hours with small bubbles visible throughout the mix – it can be helpful to make a mark on the jar after feeding for a visual comparison (or use a rubber band).
Using and maintaining the starter
Once the starter has obvious bubbles and doubles in size after each feed it is ready to use. Although it is important to note at this stage the starter is young and the first 2-3 uses won’t have a lot of yeast strength. I recommend refreshing the starter at this stage to give it a boost. The best way to do this is to scoop 1 heaped tablespoon of the new starter into a new jar (see below for what to do with the rest) and feed with 40g starter flour (1/4 cup) and 40g water (3 tablespoons).
For many of my sourdough recipes, you need around 150g total starter so two feeds of 40g flour and 40g water spaced about 6-8 hours apart will build up the starter ready for use again for bread baking or other sourdough cooking. Or it can be stored in the fridge (my prefered option) after the first feed and then removed 6-8 hours before preparing dough and feed again. When storing the starter in the fridge it needs to be used once a week otherwise it will need to be refreshed before each use as discussed above.
To use up the leftover starter after refreshing, often referred to as the ‘discard’ (although I find this misleading because it can be and should be used) add it to a batter or dough such as pancakes or hotcakes, or even a cake or muffin batter. Find the following recipes on Homegrown Kitchen to use up extra starter:
Sourdough Trouble Shooting
- If you are using all white flour the starter can still work but it will be slower and need a little help (it will be faster if using half organic wholemeal flour as this is where the natural yeasts are concentrated on the outside of the grain). If after the day three feed there is no obvious rise in your jar refresh the starter as I suggest above to give it a boost. This will give the small amount of yeast in the jar more food. Continue with 30g feedings for 3 days and then refresh again. If you can get some organic wholemeal flour this will make all the difference and save time and flour.
- Another scenario I am receiving queries about is that the starter shows bubbles for the first 2-3 days then after the next feed it flattens and possibly separates with a layer of water on top. This is often related to either not enough yeast activity (again using wholemeal here will make a difference) or a change in temperature. Go ahead and follow the refreshing instructions detailed in the point above.
- And worst-case scenario, the starter grows mould or starts to smell very sour. This is often related to the starter getting too warm and bacterial growth dominating the yeast growth (read my notes about optimal temperature above), or too much humidity if you live in a humid climate. Unfortunately, the starter is not usable and will need to be started again. If you live in a warm climate 12-hour feedings can help slow down the bacterial growth.
- And lastly, sometimes a starter for whatever reason just won’t get going. Most often this is due to flour and water quality, and inconsistent temperature. If this is the case, take a break and try again when it is warmer – or cooler, in summer it can be too hot. The new starter I made recently took me 5 days from start to finish to be able to bake a well-risen bread, but keep in mind I have been baking bread for over 10 years and made numerous starters from scratch. I know what signs to look for and I use the best quality flour (because this is the real key), I nurture it and move it around during the day. Sourdough doesn’t happen overnight it is a long process and takes many months of getting to know your starter and dough. In fact, I am still learning!
Give it try, it is a wonderful thing to make with children – tending and watching the starter change daily. Make sure to tag me @nicolagallowafood on Instagram if you are making a sourdough starter at home. And find my ‘Sourdough How To’ Instagram stories highlights HERE where I make a new starter from scratch and discuss the process.
*Find more detailed instructions on making and keeping a healthy sourdough starter in my latest cookbook Homegrown Kitchen – Available HERE. Including a sub-section on sourdough bread making with starter maintenance and troubleshooting, and three bread recipes – Super Seeded Everyday Bread, Overnight Rustic Sourdough and Gluten-free Bread, and many more everyday ways to use a starter in home cooking.