How To Make, Maintain and Use Your Own Sourdough Starter

UPDATED 2015.05.19 - Refined Method and Clearer Instructions

After watching the Netflix 4-part series "Cooked", based on the book by Michael Pollan of the same name, I got the itch to try making long-fermented sourdough bread to provide my girls with a healthier option for their school sandwiches (here's a good article that lays out the basics of why long-fermented sourdough is healthier, and here's another talking a bit about artisan breads, bakeries and sourdough benefits as well).  The only ingredients in the bread I make now are water, flour, and salt.

Anyway, long story short, after playing around with a couple of different sets of instructions on how to get your own starter going, I settled on this method for starting and maintaining the starter (also known as "levain"), and have successfully done this for a couple of months now.

One key point - make sure your flour is fresh/new!  If it's been sitting in your cupboard for any length of time, go buy a fresh bag of unbleached white flour.  The first batch of starter I tried to make didn't seem to work (the bread didn't rise).  After I "fixed" it with fresh flour, it worked no problem only a day and a half later. :)

While you can go with just unbleached white flour, you're better off with both whole wheat flour and unbleached white flour, and using a 25% whole wheat / 75% white blend to maintain the starter.  The whole wheat flour seems to give the starter a microbe boost vs. just white flour, and has definitely made my breads rise better.  I don't recommend using much more whole wheat flour than that, however, because the resulting breads tend to be too dense, moist and gummy.  In my bread recipes, aside from what's in the starter, I only use unbleached white flour.

Also, get a scale, and go by weight with your flour.  Water is 1g per ml, so it translates straight across (though how accurate your measuring cup and eye may be can vary), but the volume of flour vs. the weight can vary wildly.  I will only give weight measures for flour below, and strongly recommend using weight measures for the water as well.

The method below produces what's know as a 100% Hydration Starter, I.E. equal parts flour and water.  I find working with this half and half mix simpler, both in the mixing/feeding stage, and when using it in recipes.


Building Your Starter

NOTE: Makes 500 g of Sourdough Starter, and takes a week to 10 days!

Equipment:

  • A 4-cup / 1 litre glass liquid measuring cup for building the starter, and then for mixing up the starter portion of your bread recipes down the road.  I just cover this with a clean tea towel when the starter is growing.
  • A glass or ceramic container that can hold at least 1 litre volume, with a very wide mouth for easy mixing, and a tight-fitting lid for storage later.  You can go even bigger if you like, and may have to if you're going to be baking in larger quantities.
  • A digital scale that measures in grams
  • Optional:  A 250 ml liquid measuring cup
  • A dinner fork, or if you want to get fancy, a Danish dough whisk
  • A rubber or silicone spatula

To start your starter:

50 ml / 50 g water (same thing if your volume measure is accurate)
50 g of whole wheat flour

Mix the water and flour together in your 1-liter measuring cup with a fork, trying to incorporate as much air as possible, and let sit, loosely covered with a tea towel, at room temperature for 12 hours.

First, Second and Third Feedings, 12 hours apart:

50 ml / 50 g water
50 g of unbleached white flour

Mix the water into your starter first, again, trying to incorporate as much air as possible.  Make it frothy!  Afterwards, add the flour and mix well.  Scrape down the sides of the container with a spatula.  Let sit, loosely covered, for 12 hours between feedings.  After your third feeding, you should have about 500 g of starter - but you're not ready to make bread with it yet!

Note that the starter may not be super active at this point - that's OK.

Subsequent Feedings, Every 12 Hours for days 3-7 (or more):

125 ml / 125 g water
35 g whole wheat flour
90 g of unbleached white flour

Before feeding your starter from this point forward, discard half of it (I.E. take it down to 250 g).  Until day 5 or so, it's not active or sour enough yet to be useful - after that, you can use it in sourdough biscuits or flatbreads where you just want the sour flavour, not a "rise" from the sourdough.  It's not ready for bread-making until at least 7-8 days or more.

As before, add the water to your starter first and whip it to a froth, then add the flour and mix well.  Scrape down the sides of your container, then let it sit for 12 hours between feedings.

By about day 4 or 5, the starter should be getting pretty active, and should start to smell sour and/or yeasty.  Try making biscuits - they're yummy, and super easy (recipe link to follow).

By day 7 (or maybe slightly longer - mine took 9 or 10 days to be really active), the starter should be getting VERY active and bubbly.  It should rise to double its volume 6-9 hours after a feeding, then collapse back down.  Once you get a good rise out of your starter by itself, it's ready to make bread.

 The loaf on the left was made before my starter was really ready.  The one on the right, only a day and a half later.  The ONLY differences were giving the starter more time to develop, and using some fresh flour to feed it.  What a difference!  While it tasted quite good, the loaf on the left could have been used as a weight plate in the gym, it was so dense...

The loaf on the left was made before my starter was really ready.  The one on the right, only a day and a half later.  The ONLY differences were giving the starter more time to develop, and using some fresh flour to feed it.  What a difference!

While it tasted quite good, the loaf on the left could have been used as a weight plate in the gym, it was so dense...

Maintaining Your Starter - Until Day 30

At this point, you can build your starter up to a bigger volume, which may be necessary if the recipe(s) you use call for more than 400 g of starter at a time, or if you plan to bake more than one recipe at a time.  To do that, take it down to 200 g before feeding, and double the feeding.  Once it's established, as little as 50 g of starter can be used as a base to maintain your starter, but I don't really like to go below 100 g.

For the first 30 days, you should keep your starter on the counter at room temperature, covered with a tea towel, and keep up the twice-daily feeding schedule.  This will seem like a LOT of wasted water & flour (unless you are baking bread daily), but is a necessary step to ensure your starter is really robust and can stand up to refrigeration.

Less frequent feedings (I tried once per day) will result in a very sour, vinegary-smelling starter, and it didn't work as well for my breads when I let it get to that point.

If your starter is out at room temperature, it needs to be fed twice-daily!

Subsequent Feedings, Every 12 Hours:

125 ml / 125 g water
35 g whole wheat flour
90 g of unbleached white flour

Before feeding your starter from this point forward, as before, discard or use half of it.  You can take it down to as little as 100 g (E.G. if you want to use 400 g for a recipe of bread dough), but in that case, feed it 200 g water / 50 g whole wheat / 150 g white flour to bring it back up to the 500 g size afterward.


Maintaining Your Starter - After 30 Days

Keeping Your Starter On The Countertop

If you're going to bake every day, or at least every 2-3 days, and you're willing to keep maintaining your starter by feeding it every 12 hours, then you can keep it out on the counter and maintain it using the method in the previous section, using up to 400g of it for your daily baking.  Just always try to bring it back up to the 500g total - I.E. if you use 400g, then feed it 200g water / 200g flour.

Even if you're baking every other day, you may still want to consider keeping your starter in the fridge - I find mine works better with fridge storage, and I could still bake 4 times per week without having to build my starter back up, but your mileage may vary.

Keeping Your Starter In The Fridge

If you're only going to bake once per week, or want to save time, water and flour by only maintaining your starter once per week, you can keep it in the fridge.  As mentioned above, my starter seems to work even better keeping it refrigerated.

After your starter has matured for at least 30 days, it can safely be refrigerated for up to a week to ten days without feeding.

To prepare it for refrigeration, and once per week thereafter to maintain it, give your stored starter a good mix, then either use or discard all but 100g of it.  Feed it with 200g water, 50g whole wheat flour and 150g unbleached white flour.  Allow it to ferment at room temperature, covered with a tea towel for 6-9 hours or until it doubles in volume, then cover it tightly, and immediately refrigerate it again.


Using Your Refrigerated Starter

To use your refrigerated starter, 6-9 hours before you want to make your dough, scoop 100g of your storage starter into your 1 litre measuring cup, feed it with 200g water, 50g whole wheat flour and 150g unbleached white flour.  Cover it with a tea towel and leave it out at room temperature for 6-9 hours to ferment, until it doubles in volume, then use however much you need for your recipe.  If there's any of your revived starter leftover, you can just discard it.

With 500g of starter stored, you can do this up to four times per week.


Resources

On The Web

I read a LOT of different websites / pages / articles on how to build a starter and work with sourdough in general.  The two most useful for me were:

Sourdough Home - an excellent resource for all things sourdough!  Here's a very good recipe for San Francisco-Style Sourdough that I've used to make sandwich loaves and buns.  I'm still working on getting a nice golden crust (mine's still a bit pale), but great overall.

My Sister's Kitchen - another good resource for sourdough, including the basis for my favourite, no-knead sourdough bread recipe.  The original recipe itself is posted on Instructables - here's the link.  The recipe does use some yeast, though, while my "pure" sourdough version doesn't (link to follow once I get the page up :) )

Books

Both of these books are by Ken Forkish of Ken's Artisan Bakery in Portland, Oregon, and they really elevated my knowledge of the dough-making process.  I own and highly-recommend both books.  Note that most of his recipes are hybrids, using some small amounts of commercial yeast in addition to the levain / starter, but he does have some pure levain recipes in both.