How to make your own sourdough starter

This post is about making and maintaining a sourdough starter. Mainly aiming for newbies (like myself 4 years ago) and anyone who is interested in natural levain. But if you are a pro, please feel free to read and help me improve the contents. All ideas, suggestions and proposals are welcome.

A lot of baking enthusiasts have been asking me questions about the process. Even though, I reply to every single message the best way possible, I feel like I need to write a good comprehensive post explaining everything I know and I do. So it will be helpful to anyone looking for answers.

starter
Active starter



I will try to include more pictures with time and also let this post grow based on replies and any follow up questions. I want this to be a conversation rather than a article, for it to continue to grow. Please feel free to add your thoughts in comments section and/or reply to any question, if you think you know the answer. We can all try to help each other.

Bubbly starter
Bubbly starter

Lets get some basic things straightened up:

What is a starter:
A starter also referred to as a culture, is a micro-organism. In the context of sourdough, this organism is yeast.

what is yeast:
A microscopic single-cell fungus. While there are many species, the bakers yeast is identified by the scientific name Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

How do yeast help make bread:
Yeast, when provided with flour, water and air, start to reproduce. They consume the sugars and release CO2 (carbon dioxide) and ethyl alcohol as by-products. CO2 helps give the bread the rise or the bloom. This in turn, gives the light and airy crumb that we love. Without yeast, the dough will be dense, hard, flat and not enjoyable.

Commercial yeast vs natural leaven:
commercial yeast is nothing but the same single-cell organism that is isolated. They are grown, extracted and then compacted for commercial use. This gives speed and reliability. Natural leaven, however is slow, because the yeast density is low. Hence it takes longer for the process. This gives lactobacilli (another bacteria naturally occurring) ample time,to act on flour. The lactobacilli consumes the protein in flour (gluten) and releases lactic acid as a by product, which gives sour-dough, well, the sour flavor.

This is a very basic simple explanation. But if you are curious, internet is flooded with information. With that in mind lets see the process of making a starter from the scratch. It is easy, you just need patience and consistency.

  • Place 1 cup flour(120g) and 1/2 cup filtered, room temperature water(125g) in a clean container
    • I use either bread flour or all purpose flour
    • white flour is the easiest
    • although, you can use whole wheat, rye, spelt etc.
    • measurements are rough, 1:1 water:flour in weight is what we are looking for
  • Mix with a clean spoon until it resembles porridge(I will call this slurry) pic_1
  • If you like, deposit this mixture in a clear glass jar or a drinking glass.
    • if it is clear, you can watch the activity
    • the container can be anything but it has to be clean and non-reactive (no metal or aluminium)
    • a tall, narrow jar is ideal (eg: jam jar/mason jar) so you can see growth
  • Loosely cover the container, with a lid or a piece of plastic wrap
    • do not make it air tight
    • we want the yeast in the air to reach out to the flour
    • consider your mixture as bait for the yeast
  • Now let the mixture sit in a warm(not cold spot) but dry place for 2 days
    • if it is warmer, make it 1 day
    • The process takes longer if environment is colder (I once let my slurry sit for 4 days)
    • If it is too warm, the mixture might go bad, because other bacteria start to act upon the slurry before the yeast
  • Check if your slurry is catching yeast or going off
    • if it has green, yellow, gray spots then it has caught other bacteria. So discard and start the process again. Don’t get discouraged.
    • if it smells horrible, its gone bad and you will have to start again.
    • The good signs are,
      • seeing nothing dramatic
      • may be seeing a few air pockets
      • getting a faint smell of acidity (this should not be off-putting) like vinegar
      • smell like cheese
  • If your slurry is doing good, then, discard half of it.
  • Make a new slurry using 1 cup flour and 1/2 cup water.
  • Mix well and add to the saved mixture. Mix well to incorporate everything. Let it sit for a day.
  • This is considered a feeding
    • assume now that yeast has started to grow
  • Now we have to repeat this process everyday until you see some activity for up to a week
    • like air bubbles (pic_2)
    • the mixture expand
  • when its active like this, we change the feeding style. We discard everything but a teaspoon full of our active starter
    (culture) and feed it the same amount of food (1 cup flour 1/2 cup water or 1/2 cup flour and 1/4 cup water)
  • Continue to feed everyday, until you see some real activity
    • usually takes about another 4-5 days, sometimes less
    • when your starter doubles in size over night, its a good sigh(pic_3)
    • Its is ready to be used at this stage
  • I personally, think, you can’t really know a starter is ready for sure, until you make a loaf of bread with it
  • Once your starter is active, you can feed it the same way and leave it in the fridge
  • But you have to take it out often(every week ) and freshen it up for best results
  • To freshen up, take it out of fridge, let it come to room temperature and become active
  • Discard most of it, feed it and let grow over night
  • Give a feeding in the morning and place back in fridge
  • Anytime you make bread, freshen it up first
  • Then use some of the fresh starter to make bread
    • when you freshen up, if you see slow activity, feed it for a day or two more before using or storing away in fridge



slurry
pic_1 porridge like slurry
pic_2 visible air bubbles
starter doubles in volume
Pic_3 starter doubles in volume

A good starter is like a sponge. It is airy,light and fluffy. When you very gently fold it with a spoon, you will hear the bubbles pop. Another good indication is, that when you pour the starter into a bowl of water, it will float like a foamy sloppy thing. Pic_4.

starter
starter floating in the water

The best time to use a starter once it is fed is, when it is at it’s peak or better yet, just before it reaches it’s peak. How do we know if it is at its peak. Well this takes a lot of getting to know your starter. You can usually keep an eye once you feed and use it when it doubles.

If you want and have got time you can chart your starter growth, and use the chart to get the exact hour that it reaches it’s peak. But keep in mind, starters have got a mind of their own, so you’ll have to re-do this chart once in a while for maximum accuracy.

how to find the right time to use a starter

FAQ:
Can I save/use the discard?
Yes. You don’t have to throw away the discard. When you feed the starter, you can save a teaspoon (or whatever the amount you are feeding) and store the rest in the refrigerator in a sealed plastic/glass container (non-reactive). You can feed more than a teaspoon to make a bigger starter or make several starters. You can then use the saved discard, in other recipes in place of some of the flour and moisture of that recipe. I use these discard in, pancakes, waffles, flat bread, scones etc. The discard won’t be as active and it would mostly be just death dough (flour+water) so you cannot expect it to work as a levain. But this is a good way to minimize food wastage.

Can I recover a neglected starter?
Probably you can. This depends on the time the starter had been neglected for and the fact that it was left in the refrigerator or not. In the fridge, it may be possible leave a starter for up to two months and still recover it. there are cases like that and personally, I have only left it for a month only. I was able recover of course. But if a starter is left at room temperature, it probably won’t survive as long. This is because, other bacteria in the air is going to get to it and the starter will go bad rapidly.
You can tell if a starter has gone bad it it has a foul smell or green/blue/gray/red spots. In these cases, it’s best to throw it out and start afresh. If only the surface, is gone bad, you can try rescuing a tiny bit from the very bottom and feed this daily (or twice daily) in a fresh container for about a week.
If the starter was in the refrigerator, it will probably be in a dormant state and there might still be some live(active) yeast cells. Your will probably see a layer of liquid on top (light grayish) and it will smell like strong vinegar or acid. What you can do is, rescue (spoon out) a tiny bit from the very bottom and feed it to life.Make sure to leave it at room temperature. keep an eye on the activity level. If this didn’t show any sign of activity on day two of feeding, then probably, it is dead and you might have to get rid of it and start a new one.

How to refresh a chilled starter ?
If you keep your starter in the refrigerator when you don’t use it, then this is how you refresh it;
– get the starter out from the fridge and let it sit at room temperature(or in a warm place) until you see some activity ( I leave it for 2-3 hours)
– then save roughly about a tablespoon of the starter and discard the rest ( do not throw away the discard, use it in another discard recipe)
– feed this tablespoon of starter with flour and water like below
* you don’t have to waste time measuring water and flour, just get roughly about 1/2 cup flour and add water until it start to look like a porridge. Then mix the starter with this porridge and let ripe.
This is how you refresh or feed your starter. Once your starter doubles/ripe, then you can use it in a recipe or use it to make another starter to be used in another recipe. You can measure out flour, water and starter according to the recipe at this stage. But if you are just refreshing the stater, you can be flexible and eyeball flour and water.

It is always a good idea to refresh you starter before using it in a recipe. Depending on how long it has been in the refrigerator(neglected), you may want to consider feeding it once or twice. This way you can make sure the starter is super active and is in it’s best form to be used in a recipe. A fed healthy starter is fast in action and hence you will have a decent bulk and proof in relatively shorter time. Also a healthy, fed starter yield products with less sour flavor.

When to feed the starter for a recipe ?
A common question I get asked. Well if your recipe do have a starter recipe/formula, then follow that. Otherwise, you can be the judge on how to feed or when to feed and the ratio. Keep in mind, temperature affects starter activity. To do this you should have a basic understanding of your starter (know your starter) usually with 20% culture, most starters ripe in about 6 hours at room temperature. Based on this, you can decide when to feed and what ratio to feed.

eg:
If I want to feed my start 10 p.m. and want it ready by 6 a.m. next day I would feed about 1-2% seeds(culture), meaning roughly a ratio of 1:10:10. Since there is very little yeast, it is going to take a long time to ripe ( for them to multiply) I don’t weigh starter as it is not practical to weight 1g or 2g, so I mostly take a teaspoonful and mix it with roughly about 100g flour and water. With practice, I know this will be ready by the morning.

If I want my starter ready in 4-6 hours, then I would feed around 20% culture(seeds) so a ratio of (1:5:5)

If the recipe says to use a 80% hydrated starter, your feed will contain less water. eg:
1:10:8 – starter:flour:water will take 10-12 hours (overnight)
2:10:8 – starter:flour:water will take about 6-8 and so forth…
This timing is all rough and it also depends on room temperature and your starter activity

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36 comments

  1. Why does my starter die on 3rd day?
    My recipe 30gr bread flour, 30gr of room temperature + 1 tsp of sugar.
    On the 2nd day, I do the same w/o discard half of starter..
    On the 3rd day, I discard half of starter and add 30gr bread flour, 30gr of water and 1tsp of sugar.. But after this, no reaction at all.. Is there any mistakes in the process?

    1. It may not be dead. Sometimes it takes several days until you see reaction. Try without adding sugar. Sugar can slows down yeast. Keep feeding until you see a reaction. I had one starter that took a week to show signs of life ☺️ As long as it didn’t go moldy, nothing to worry, keep feeding. Hope this helped.

      1. I have a few questions.

        1) Can I use a mixture of flower? Ex: half whole wheat, half white?

        2) We really don’t have to feed this daily? Any other starter recipe I have seen calls for daily feedings and it’s so tedious! I don’t know how many recipes I have tried and how many of my starters have failed at this point. Lol!

        3) Can I use distilled water?

        4) Could I possibly start my levain off with pineapple juice instead of water?

        Thank you very much. Really looking forward to starting again! Your recipe seems simple enough that even a total beginner like me can succeed!

        1. 1) Yes you can use a mix of flour
          2) No. You don’t have to feed it everyday if you are keeping it in the fridge. If you keep at room temperature, then yes (feed it as necessary)
          3) Yes you can use distilled water
          4) Yes you can use pineapple juice ( it’s basically, sugar + water and vitamins and flavor)

          Hope you’ll get your starter up soon.
          If you need further information, I do workshops, check the website/Instagram
          https://myloveofbaking.com/workshops-classes/
          Cheers!

  2. Hi! I just want to clarify 🙂
    When I’m feeding my starter is it 1 cup flour to 1 cup water each time?

    1. I have stated in the post to make a slurry using 1 cup(125g) flour and 1/2 cup water(125g). That is 1:1 ratio in weight for everyday feeding/just refreshing for maintenance.
      If you are feeding a starter to be used in a recipe, that calls for a 100% hydrated starter, then you feed to get the desired weight. It could be either 1 cup flour: 1 cup water or 1/2 cup flour: 1/2 cup water. The ratio is what we are looking for.
      Hope this helps 🙂

  3. When I get to the point where I discard all but one teaspoon, then add the 2:1 ratio feeding, do I continue to discard all but one teaspoon for the next 4-5 days or does this only happen once?

    1. That should continue to the rest of it’s life.
      Once starter is fully active, we only need a teaspoon or two to make a new starter.
      Active starter, has a high density of live yeast.

    1. Of course you can use the discard to make other starters. May be share with your friends.
      Or you can collect your discard, store in the refrigerator ( may be a weeks worth) and use it in other bakes like pancakes, scones, waffles, pasta, flat bread.
      Thanks for this question, I will update the post with this information.

  4. Hello, I started with 1 cup flour and 3/4 cup water and after 2 days, discarded half and added another cup flour + 3/4 cup water. But do I have to continue with 1 cup flour or could I reduce the amount to 1/2 cup flour and adjust the water accordingly? Just realizing how much flour/discard I have and made me wonder if I could reduce the amount of flour. Thank you!!

    1. Yes. Absolutely, you can reduce everything to half it’s weight.
      And use the discard in other recipes.

  5. Hello. Thanks for the detailed post. I have a query. I made my starter with 50gm bread flour+ 50gm water and repeated on day 2. By day 3 its turned very frothy, has hoonch. I discarded 100gm and fed it. I live in a tropical country. Does this mean my starter will be ready in less than 7 days? What would the visual sign. Thank you.

    1. The visual sign is seeing your starter double in size ( visibly considerably growing) double in 4-6 hours. If in a warmer weather it will double sooner. If you can see this 2, 3 times consecutively, the starter is ready. Also when you spoon a bit on water, the starter should float like a sponge cloud. To your last questions, yes it could be ready in less than 7.

  6. Hey!! I made my starter yesterday. Being from india, the temperature is pretty high here due to which my starter is growing 2-3 times since the first day! Is it a good sign or there is something wrong with it? I am keeping it out in the kitchen. Is there any other way to go about it in high temperatures?

    1. It’s totally fine. Warm temperature means everything will be faster, so you’ll have to keep an eye on it.
      So once you know your starter , schedule your bake around it.
      If you want to slow it down, consider feeding a little amount of starter or use cold water.

  7. Hello! I’m new to all things sourdough. What suggestions would you have to begin a starter with these flours: King Arthur High gluten 14%, & whole grain ivory teff flour? Should I use one more than the other? How about feedings-which should I use more or less of? Thank you!

    1. You can use any flour to make a starter. Even all purpose flour works.
      You can use KA wheat flour(14%) and follow the steps described in the post and you’ll be on your way to making a new starter.

      Once you have a starter then you can feed it with any combination of flour
      Cheers!

  8. I made my starter two days ago, feeding it last night after I dumped half. I woke up this morning and it had grown three times larger; right out of the jar. I cleaned up the mess and split the starter into two jars. Because I used a bit of dark rye to make the starter along with AP flour: the color is a bit gray to begin with but it has tons of bubbles. I am wondering if I will need to wait the whole 7 days?

    1. If your starter is ready, no need to wait 7 days. But we keep feeding it to strengthen it up, so I would give it at least two more feedings before using.
      You can test the activity by feeding a tablespoon of stater with 1/2 cup flour 1/4 water(slurry) and observing the activity.
      If this doubles in 4-6 hours then you are good to go!

  9. wow I am so happy that I have stumbled on your site. I am so looking forward to trying out some of your delicious looking recipes ❤️

  10. “Place 1 cup flour and 1/2 cup filtered, room temperature water in a clean container”

    I think you might mean 1/2 cup flour and 1 cup water. Your proportions gave a mix way too dry according to your photo of the ‘slurry’.

    Chris

    1. Those are rough easement. If mixture is too dry add a little water until it reaches the consistency of porridge(slurry) or the consistency shown in the picture ( this is why I included a picture)
      The ration is 1:1 water and flour in weight (eg: 50g flour, 50 g water), but not everyone has a scale so that’s why the cup measurement are given here.
      Hope this helps!

  11. Currently, my starter is 7 days old now, in its 3rd day, the smell was horrible, however, from the 6th-day smell was gentle, however, there are no grey, red spots. Do you think I have to discard the starter? In the early days, I kept near the stove and rising happened so quickly, once it overflowed, then I moved to a dark, cold place, which made rising pretty slow.

    1. If it hasn’t gone bad, there’s no need to discard. The only way to know if a starter is ready is to make a test loaf with it!
      Or feed it 1:5:5 starter:water:flour and see if doubles in 4-6 hours
      Hope this helps.

  12. Could the process of feeding (the nightly feed over 4-5 days) take a bit longer? I’ve been doing this for about a week but it hasn’t gotten to the stage where it’s doubling overnight so do I keep feeding it until it does?

    I’m based in London so not sure if it’s the colder weather. I initially had it near the heater so the process at the start was pretty quick (within 2 days) but then I moved it to a slightly cooler spot which has slowed the process down.

    1. You can feed it as long as you like to get the desired starter activity.
      If you feed the starter/levain roughly 1:5:5 (starter: flour:water) and place in a tall/narrow container and keep it at room temperature 70 °F (21 °C) you should be able to see it double in 4-6 hours. These are all rough measurements and estimates. Every starter and flour is different, that’s why we specify a range. Also the container you place it in. Because doubling is just a very vague way of measuring starter activity. If you place it in a large/wide container its hard to observe growth, but the starter could be still active and ready.

      If you want to speed things up, place in a slightly warm place like you did.

  13. can you please tell me when the recipe says 150g active starter (80%hydration) what does that mean or can I just use the 150g of starter,then what amount do I put back in my starter thank you

    1. The easiest is to make a starter(levain) with 100g flour 80g water and 20g mature starter. After about 5-6 hours(depending on the room temp.) you will have 200g mature starter(levain) witch is 80% hydrated. Now you can use 150g of that and use the remaining 50g to make more starters or use that in a discard recipe.
      If you don’t want excess, use 80g flour 65g water and about 10g ( or a tablespoon)starter. This will give you roughly +/-150g and you can use all of that in the recipe.
      Its okay to get rough measurements and a little extra or less levain is not going to hurt the recipe.
      Hope this helps!

  14. Why should we discard the starter? Is it necessary or just practical so that it doesn’t grow too big?

    Thank you in advance

    1. Yes to stop it from growing too big. Also you’ll need more flour and water to feed an entire starter.
      I have mentioned how you can save & use that discard in the same post.

  15. Hello,
    there appeared some white spots on my starter and at first I thought that maybe there was too little water, and that it was dry, and that it was flour. So I fed it and mixed it. And only after I’d done that, I read that it would be good to remove the top layer. But now I’m starting to wonder whether it could have been mould. I don’t know if I should throw my starter away and start a new one. Now, it looks quite good and there are a lot of air bubbles in it, but only about 16 hours passed from the last feeding.
    Thank you in advance for your answer!

    1. It could be mold or not..I can’t say for sure.. so when in doubt I always make a new one.
      If a starter is moldy it will smell really bad and look gross (unmistakable)

  16. I have started a sourdough starter, but I just eyeballed measurements and didn’t really do it right. It does rise and form bubbles, but it’s not proper. I still keep adding flour and a little water to it to keep it alive, but I want to turn it into a perfect starter that has proper ratios so that I can make my first loaf. Can I do that? Is it possible? Or do I need to start over? Thanks!
    (also note I don’t have a measuring scale)

    1. You can do it now. feed the existing starter with 1:5:5(starter:water:flour) consecutively (twice/thrice a day for a few days)
      eye balling doesn’t make a bad starter.. when you get used to the feeding portions eye balling is the easiest way to go unless you are making a leavain for a recipe

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