So you want to bake sourdough bread? To get started, you will be creating a sourdough starter and learning how to keep it active or alive.
A sourdough starter is a living culture. Essentially, it’s a mix of flour and water that’s been allowed to ferment naturally. The mixture becomes a breeding ground for wild yeast and lactic acid bacteria, found naturally in the grains of the flour itself and the air around us.
The fermentation process that occurs is quite remarkable. The fermentation process not only causes the dough to rise but also delivers a distinctive sour flavour in your baking.
As the starter is fed regularly with more flour and water, it becomes stronger and more vigorous. It is this robust ecosystem that acts as a natural leavening agent, eliminating the need for commercial yeast. The lactic acid bacteria also play a critical role in helping preserve the bread naturally.
To create your sourdough starter, a simple process awaits. Begin by selecting a container that will allow your starter to grow — ideally something with a wide opening and capable of holding at least a quart. Glass is an excellent choice as it will not react with the acidic culture. Start by mixing the water and flour to get the process rolling. It’s important to use room-temperature or slightly warm water to create an inviting environment for the yeast and bacteria.
Stir your mixture until smooth, and loosely cover it with a cloth or a lid that is not airtight — the culture needs to breathe. Place the container in a spot with a stable temperature, ideally around 21 degrees Celsius, and away from direct sunlight.
Feeding your starter is crucial. Daily, you will discard about half of your starter and replenish it with the same ratio of water and flour as your initial mixture. This process of feeding provides fresh food for the yeast and bacteria, ensuring their growth and activity. Observing your starter, you will notice bubbles forming and an increase in volume, signs that your starter is becoming active and healthy.
The scent of your starter should also evolve; a fruity, fermenting, slightly sour smell is a good indicator that your starter is developing as expected. After about 5 to 7 days of regular feeding, your sourdough starter should have enough potency to leaven bread.
Making Your Sourdough Starter
1 Cup Whole Wheat Flour (or unbleached all-purpose flour)
½ cup water (lukewarm)
About the ingredients for creating a sourdough starter
Flour: Using whole wheat or rye flour for day 1, helps develop your starter quicker. If you start with unbleached all-purpose flour, it may take longer to be ready to make bread. You will use unbleached flour for your feedings after day 1.
Water: Using filtered water is best, but if your tap water is well water or lightly treated water, it will work. Chlorinated water can be stored in a bottle on the counter to evaporate the chlorine. I keep a few jars ready in my cupboard. Simply refill as you use it.
Do not use distilled water, it will not work.
Day 1: To make your starter, combine the whole wheat flour or rye flour with lukewarm water in a glass container large enough to hold it as it grows. We recommend at least 500ml.
Stir flour and water together thoroughly to incorporate all of the flour. Cover the container loosely and let the mixture sit at a warm room temperature for 24 hours. If your home is cool, simply turn on the oven light and place the starter in your oven. Be sure to put a sticky note on your oven to remind yourself and others that it is in the oven!
Day 2: You may see a bit of growth or bubbling, or you may see no activity at all in the first 24 hours. This is normal and fine, either way. Discard half the starter (about 1/2 cup), and add feed the remainder of the mixture with 1 cup of unbleached all-purpose flour, and 1/2 cup of lukewarm water.
Mix well, cover, and let the mixture rest again for 24 hours.
Day 3: By the third day, you will likely see some activity in the form of bubbling and a fresh or fruity aroma.
You can now begin two feedings daily, spaced approximately 12 hours apart (depending on your schedule) to speed up the process. After discarding half the starter (about 1/2 cup), add 1 cup of unbleached flour and 1/2 cup of lukewarm water to the remaining starter mixture.
Mix well, cover, and rest for 12 hours before feeding again.
Day 4: Discard half the starter (about 1/2 cup), and feed the remainder of the mixture with 1 cup of unbleached all-purpose flour, and 1/2 cup of lukewarm water.
Mix well, cover, and repeat feeding every 12 hours.
Day 5: Measure ½ cup of your starter, and discard any remaining starter. Feed your starter 1 cup of unbleached all-purpose flour, and 1/2 cup of lukewarm water.
The starter should have doubled in volume by day 5. Large bubbles may appear, along with finer bubbles. At this stage, the starter should have a tangy aroma that is slightly acidic, but not overwhelming.
Keep feeding as long as it takes to create a consistent, rising, and bubbling starter if the starter hasn’t risen much and isn’t showing a lot of bubbles.
Once the starter is ready, give it one last feeding. Discard all but 1/2 cup. Feed as usual. Let the starter rest at room temperature for 6 to 8 hours; it should be active, with bubbles breaking the surface.
Remove however much starter you need for your recipe. Most recipes call for about 1 cup. If your recipe requires more than 1 cup of starter, give it a couple of feedings without discarding it until you’ve made enough for your recipe plus a ½ cup to keep and feed again.
Transfer the remaining ½ cup of starter to its fresh, clean jar, or whatever you’d like to store it in long-term. Feed this reserved starter with 1 cup of flour and 1/2 cup water, and let it rest at room temperature for 24 hours. Continue to feed daily.
Maintaining your sourdough starter involves continued feeding, but once it’s established, you can switch to a schedule that suits your baking routine. Some individuals will find that storing it in the refrigerator with weekly feedings is convenient, taking it out and warming it up a day or two before they plan to bake.
Why do we discard so much of the sourdough starter?
In the long run, if you do not discard the starter, you will end up with a large quantity of starter. Additionally, it requires a larger amount of flour and water to be added each day. It doesn’t have to be thrown away, either; you can give it to a friend or use it for baking instead.
You can find a lot of recipes on Pinterest that use “discard” starters, including pizza crust, cookies, muffins, and more.