You can make your own sourdough starter at home. All it takes is flour, water, warmth, and time. Once you make it, the starter needs to be fed and cared for. But its requirements are simple; with a minimum of effort, you can keep starter on your counter, or in the fridge, to use whenever the impulse strikes.
There are lots of other ways to make a starter; as well as many types of starters. We’ll concentrate here on a typical American sourdough starter, which begins with whole-grain flour, and is subsequently fed with all-purpose flour. This is the easiest type of starter to successfully maintain, and it will create delicious sourdough breads, pancakes, pizza crust, and other tasty treats.
It takes about a week to develop a starter that’s strong enough to use for bread baking. Variables like the temperature and humidity of your kitchen, and the flours and feeding schedule you use, will affect the amount of time it takes to make a starter that’s ready to use in bread.
The following timeline assumes you can find a relatively warm place (68 degrees F to 70 degrees F) to grow your starter. More on that below.
Day 1: Combine 4 ounces (1 cup) whole rye flour (pumpernickel) or whole wheat flour with 4 ounces (1/2 cup) non-chlorinated cool water in a non-reactive container. Glass, crockery, stainless steel, or food-grade plastic all work fine for this.
Note that whole grain flour (whole wheat or rye) is used at the beginning of the process. This is because whole grains contain more nutrients and sourdough-friendly microorganisms than all-purpose flour.
It’s also important to feed your starter with non-chlorinated cool water; from now on, we’ll refer to this simply as “water.”
Stir everything together thoroughly; make sure there’s no dry flour anywhere. Cover the container loosely and let the mixture sit at warm room temperature (about 70 degrees F) for 24 hours.
A note about room temperature: the colder the environment, the more slowly your starter will grow. If the normal temperature in your home is below 68 degrees F, we suggest finding a smaller, warmer spot to develop your starter.
For instance, try setting the starter atop your water heater, refrigerator, or another appliance that might generate ambient heat. Or, set it near a heat source (baseboard heater, etc.).
Another option: set the container of starter on a folded dish towel laid atop a heating pad on its lowest setting.
Day 2: You may see no activity at all in the first 24 hours, or you may see a bit of growth or bubbling.
Either way, discard half the starter (4 ounces), and add to the remainder 4 ounces (a scant 1 cup) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour, and 4 ounces (1/2 cup) cool water (if your house is warm); or lukewarm water (if it’s cold).
Mix well, cover, and let the mixture rest at room temperature for 24 hours.
Note: Why do you need to discard half the starter? It seems so wasteful…
Well, it’s necessary for three reasons.
First, unless you discard, eventually you’ll end up with The Sourdough That Ate Milwaukee – too much starter.
Second, keeping the starter volume the same helps balance the pH.
And third, keeping the volume down offers the yeast more food to eat each time you feed it; it’s not fighting with quite so many other little yeast cells to get enough to eat.
Also, you don’t have to discard it if you don’t want to; you can give it to a friend, or use it to bake. There are quite a few recipes on our site using “discard” starter, including sourdough pizza crust, sourdough pretzels, and my all-time favorite waffles.
Days 3, 4, & 5: By the third day (pictured top left), you’ll likely see some activity – bubbling; a fresh, fruity aroma, and some evidence of expansion. It’s now time to begin two feedings daily, as evenly spaced as your schedule allows.
For each feeding, weigh out 4 ounces starter; this will be a generous 1/2 cup, once it’s thoroughly stirred down. Discard any remaining starter.
Add 4 ounces (a scant 1 cup) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour, and 4 ounces (1/2 cup) water to the 4 ounces starter.
Mix the starter, flour, and water, cover, and let the mixture rest at room temperature for approximately 12 hours before repeating.
Repeat two-a-day feedings on days 4, 5, and as many days as it takes for your starter to become very active.
After about a week of consistent feeding, your starter should be ready to use in a sourdough bread recipe.
How do you know when your starter is ready to use?
After 12 hours, the starter will have risen nicely. You’ll see lots of bubbles; there may be some little “rivulets” on the surface, full of finer bubbles.
Also, the starter should have a tangy aroma – pleasingly acidic, but not overpowering.
The starter should at least double in volume 12 hours after it’s been fed.
Once the starter is ready, give it one last feeding. Pour off all but 4 ounces. 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 (no more than 8 ounces, about 1 cup); and transfer the remaining 4 ounces of starter to its permanent home: a crock, jar, or whatever you’d like to store it in long-term.
But wait – what if things haven’t gone exactly according to schedule?
No worries. If, after a week, your starter isn’t ready, don’t lose heart; keep feeding it regularly, and it will gain strength – really!
Be patient. The conditions in your kitchen may be more or less conducive to building a starter, depending on room temperature, the season, humidity, or how much you’ve been baking.
Remember, the keys to developing a successful starter are using good (unbleached) flour; having a consistent feeding schedule, and ripening (growing) the starter in an environment that’s adequately warm (at least 68 degrees F, and preferably in the 70s).
When your starter is strong enough, it’s time to go ahead and make your favorite sourdough bread.
Once your starter has been fed, and you’re ready to mix up your bread dough, you’ll want to reserve and maintain a small portion of the ripe (fed) starter (about 4 ounces; about 1/2 cup, stirred down) for future baking. Unless you plan on continuing to feed the starter twice a day, refrigerate it for future use.
Used with permission from King Arthur Flour.