Here’s How to Make a Strong Sourdough Starter

At some point during the last three years, you probably decided to try your hand at sourdough. It’s trending, and for good reason. Being able to make your own, nutritious bread free of preservatives is a great skill to have! But if you’re new at it, you’ve also probably run into some snags. Bread not rising, forgetting to feed your starter, etc. So here’s how to make (and maintain) a strong sourdough starter.

What is Sourdough Starter?

Simply put, sourdough starter is flour and water that you have let ferment, until wild yeast begin to form a culture. A strong sourdough starter is a living, breathing organism of bacteria that you can feed, and literally watch grow!

Benefits of Sourdough

Sourdough is a fermented food, which means there are bacteria in it. This is actually a good thing! Fermented foods help our gut microbiome, and promote healthy bacteria in our bodies. Also, the fermentation makes sourdough easier to digest, which can make bread more accessible for people with some mild gluten intolerances (*please consult your doctor before trying sourdough if you have issues with gluten).

What Flour to Use

You can use any flour! While there are some schools of thought that swear by whole wheat flour or rye flour (these flours have more nutrients and therefore more food for the yeast to feed on), all purpose flour works just fine. You can also use freshly milled flour, although I don’t have experience working with that and I know freshly milled flours can absorb moisture differently which could change the ratio of flour to water.

My go-to flour is organic unbleached all purpose. It’s readily available (I get mine in fifty pound bags from Azure Standard but I know Costco also sells large quantities), relatively affordable, and is flexible for all kinds of baking.

How Long it Takes

From start to finish, a mature sourdough starter takes about seven to ten days. This gives the starter time to capture a good amount of wild yeast in the air and multiply. It also gives you ample opportunities to burp it and feed it new flour, therefore allowing it to grow and become more stable.

How to Make Sourdough Starter

One Part Flour + One Part Warm Water = Sourdough Starter

This formula is all you need to remember to create sourdough starter! This creates a 100% hydration starter, which is what most sourdough recipes use. While this is an easy formula to remember, there is a schedule of sorts you need to follow during that first seven to ten days. I’ll walk you through it here.

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Day 1:

Mix one part flour with one part warm water in a quart mason jar. Cover with cheesecloth and set on the counter at room temperature for 24 hours. (I normally use 1/4 cup of flour and 1/4 cup of water, so I don’t have a crazy amount of starter).

Day 2:

Add another 1/4 cup of flour and 1/4 cup of water. Mix, cover with cheesecloth, and set on the counter for another 24 hours.

Day 3:

Discard half of the starter in your jar. Then add 1/4 cup flour and a 1/4 cup water. Mix, cover, and set on the counter for 24 hours.

Days 4-7:

Repeat Day 3, watching for bubbles. Your starter might get some bubbles, then stop, then start again. Don’t worry, this is all normal.

Days 7-10:

Your starter is mature! When you feed your starter during these days, check on it about 6 hours after you fed it. It should be growing, and double in size before deflating back down again. That’s a sign of a mature starter. It’s ready for baking!

Potential Problems

Starting a sourdough starter is super simple. But there are a few problems you could run into.

  1. Not enough food. – If you check on your starter and you’re seeing a lot of liquid on top of the starter (called hooch), that means your starter needs more food. You always want to aim for a consistency like pancake batter. This means there is enough flour for the yeast to munch on, and grow!
  2. Not rising. – This could be two things. For one, if the temperature in your house is cooler, then it will take things longer to rise. The heat and humidity play a big factor in yeast production as well. So if you do see some growth but it’s really slow, maybe try putting your starter in your oven (OFF) with the light on. But, if nothing is happening at all, that could mean there is too much or not enough food for the yeast. Again, make sure to find pancake batter consistency, and using warm water can help to give your yeast a boost if your kitchen is chilly.

Maintaining Your Starter

Once you’ve got a mature starter, you can feed it regularly once every couple of days if you want to keep it on the counter, or you can keep it in the fridge and only feed it once a week! I prefer this method because it saves on flour and counter space. The fridge is a great place to store a sourdough starter because it’s cool and prevents mold from growing quickly, and also slows the yeast down so they don’t eat through the flour as quickly. (*Also, if you’re long-fermenting some bread dough and you want to keep if from over proofing, putting it in the fridge is a great way to do that!).

Always feed your starter before baking with it, and always use your starter when it’s at its peak rising level. So if you are making a sourdough loaf, you’ll want to feed your starter a few hours prior to making the dough so it’s nice and bubbly when you need it.

What to Make with Discard

So there you have it. A quick and easy formula for starting your sourdough journey! But until you reach day ten and beyond, here are a few ideas for things you can make with your discard!

  1. Waffles
  2. Pancakes
  3. Crepes
  4. Tortillas
  5. Discard bread
  6. Biscuits
  7. Scones
  8. Crackers

I hope these get your creative spark going, and give you lots of fun new recipes to try!

Happy Baking!

Please let me know in the comments how your sourdough starter is doing! What’s your favorite thing to bake? What questions do you have? I find the whole process of baking bread from scratch empowering and exciting, and I would love to chat all things sourdough with you!