Step by Step: How to Make a Sourdough Starter

July 30, 2020

Okay all you cool cats and kittens: let’s talk about how to make a sourdough starter, step by step.

That’s right – I just hit you with a sentence that combines all of your favorite pandemic indulgences – well, aside from TikTok.

Let me ask you: is it the TikTok? A TikTok? Just TikTok, like just Wal-mart? Or a TikTok video? As a former English teacher, I desperately need the answer to this.

I’m also an old millennial, so I mostly just watch and laugh — but so help me. One of these days, the Holleys will make it to TikTok fame-dom. Confession: my account consists of two Scout videos (adorable) and one of Mr. Holley doing something ridiculous — go find me!

Anyway, we’re here to talk about wild yeast.

When this pandemic began back in March, bread started to quickly disappear. This was likely the case for the whole country, but I live in the South, and when the sweet smell of panic hits the air, we go ape@#$% for some bread and milk. I can barely find a loaf when it “snows” down here, so imagine a full-on global pandemic.

I’ve always been a pretty big fan of carbs, especially fresh bread, so I thought, hmmm… I have this bread cookbook, so maybe I should try my hand at making sandwich bread. No big deal.

EXCEPT.

IT WAS. A HUGE DEAL.

Because everyone else obviously had the same friggin’ idea. Therefore, my attempts to find yeast were fruitless. Publix? Nope. Wal-mart? Definitely not. My secret Latin grocery store across town? Nada.

I was pretty peeved. And disappointed.

Like I said, I’m a long-time carb groupie, so I was determined to find a way to make some bread (literal)… but I was also pretty intimidated by the idea of a sourdough starter.

You Need SOME Kind of Yeast to Make Bread Rise

If you’ve ever made a loaf of bread at home – or even used a bread machine to make those delicious wee baby dinner rolls (shout out to my stepmom’s), you’ve used rapid rise yeast or active dry yeast.

Rapid rise is super convenient: most recipes call for you to just toss it in with the dry ingredients, and it works its own magic.

Active dry yeast has to “bloom” in a mixture of warm-ish water and sugar for about 10 minutes, and then you can add it to your other wet ingredients.

Both, in my experience, work really well if fresh. Keep packaged yeast in a dry, room-temp place and make sure to check the expiration date before you use it to bake. If yeast is expired, you can try using about 50% more than your recipe calls for, but even then it might not work to make your bread rise. At that point, it’s probably inactive… get it? Active.. inactive..

I don’t think that’s a technical term.

Can Someone Please Explain WTF a Sourdough Starter Is

Thousands of years ago, people were a lot smarter and didn’t have the Internet, so they had to conduct experiments with their food and beverages. Some of these people died of dysentery, but others gave us glorious food inventions like beer, yogurt, and cornflakes. There’s nothing like the taste of resourcefulness.

They figured out (although, I’m not sure who they are – probably the Greeks; they figured out everything) that because flour is made from wheat that’s grown out in nature, it’s a flora- and fauna-rich environment that contains wild yeast.

Basically, sourdough starter is your little living yeast. When you mix flour and water and let that baby ferment, you then have your own living wild yeast! And instead of buying a packet at the store, you fatten her up (aka feed her) and use this levain* to make your bread rise.

Different recipes call for different amounts of starter/levain. I’ve found that this is something you can really play around with, and more starter isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if you want a little extra sour in your sourdough.

Ok, Cool, Cool: How Do I Make Some?

Let me start by saying: sourdough starter is not something you can just “whip up.” It’s not terribly difficult, but it’s also not a 30-minute recipe.

It’s more like a… 7-to-10-day recipe.

Remember, this is slow food and fermentation — all that healthy hipster shit we all love.

Almost any kind of flour can be used to make a sourdough starter–even gluten-free flours! (More on that later) Some bakers swear by whole-wheat or rye flour, but Paul Hollywood says any “strong” flour will work.

Paul Hollywood: Girlfriend, wife, children, age and net worth ...

And we always do what Paul Hollywood tells us to do. At least… when it comes to baking bread.

I use whatever bread flour* Costco has to both start and feed Gertie.

And yes, be sure to name your starter once he/she shows signs of life. It’s kind of like talking to your plants — I’m convinced it helps them thrive.

Day 1:

1.In a weck jar, a mason jar, a food-grade plastic container, or any other glass container, use a chop stick or fork to mix up:

  • 100 grams (or 1 cup) of flour
  • 50 grams (or 1/2 cup) of cool water (not cold or ice-cold, but not warm, either)

I prefer to measure using a little kitchen scale because I can slowly add ingredients, tare, and repeat, instead of getting a million different measuring cups and spoons out and dirty.

2. Make sure to break up any clumps of flour and try to clear off the sides; they don’t have to be spotless, but well enough to see your starter’s activity from the outside.

3. Loosely cover the jar and set it somewhere kind of warm for about 24 hours. By kind of warm, I mean around 70-80 degrees.

Honestly: I put mine in the guest bathroom with the space heater on low. We keep our house super cold all of the time because I’m married to a large space heater, and she did fabulously.

Day 2:

After 24 hours, you may or may not start to see a few teeny tiny bubbles on the surface. Kind of like when you fart in the bath and the gas comes to the surface–but in super slow motion.

Fart Bath GIF - Fart Bath Bubble - Discover & Share GIFs

If not, don’t panic. It might just take another day or two.

4. Bubbles or no bubbles, discard half of your mixture* (don’t worry, I have some ideas so that you don’t feel super wasteful like I did).

I beg you not to keep it and just feed double because you will then be trying to manage and feed something out of a Goosebumps novel.

5. Using any kind of strong flour, add another 100g of starter and 100g of warm-ish water (100g = about a cup). Don’t go full-on hot water here, but warm from the tap is perfectly fine. Mix it all up using your fork or chop stick, getting out any clumps, and loosely cover again.

6. Put your container in the same place you had it the night before, for another 24 hours.

Day 3

Again, you’re looking for tiny baby fart bubbles – but no fear if you don’t see any. Consider storing your starter somewhere a little warmer–just don’t give up hope!

7. On day 3, you’ll want to start feeding your starter twice a day. I recommend feeding in the morning and then at night, with about 12 hours in between. Use the same measurements and ratio of flour and water as days 1 & 2. Discard half before feeding each time.

8. Warning: This is when you will really feel bad about discarding, but trust me. Don’t be a starter hoarder–it’s not a happy ending.

Day 4

9. On day 4 — repeat Day 3.

Day 5

10. On day 5, feed your starter again (twice) after discarding half. You should be noticing a more tangy smell by now, and you’ll start to see more bubbles and an increase in the volume of your starter throughout the day.

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If not, don’t worry — just repeat day 3 for 2-3 more days until you do.

I will tell you this: with rich bread flour and a warm bathroom to sleep in, Gertie got to this point in about 5-6 days, but this can take even 10 days or so. Don’t give up or throw out your starter unless you see mold growing.

11. Once your starter is doubling in volume, discard all but about 100 grams (or half a cup).

12. Feed this 100 grams with the same amount and ratio of flour and water, and after about 6-8 hours, you should see some major growth. As in — if you have more than 100 grams, your starter will likely overflow.

Note: Step 12 is dependent upon how much total starter or levain you need for your sourdough recipe. My recipe calls for about 150-200 grams (as do most recipes), so feel free to keep a little more than 100 grams if you’re not yet confident in your starter’s growing ability.

That’s it!

You now have your very own live and in living color sourdough starter.

I keep mine on the kitchen counter or windowsill and feed her every other day, but that’s because I’m a helicopter parent and want to watch her activity.

Most people keep their starters in the fridge, loosely covered, and discard/feed about once a week. Others are freaks like me.

Some Important Things to Remember

When you’ve reached the “that’s it!” point, there are different ways to tell if your starter is ready for bread-making.

If you stick a spoon into your starter (don’t stir!), you should notice a porous texture:

When I first started growing Gertie and making sourdough bread, I felt SO intimidated by the glam pictures of perfect whole wheat and rye starters online.

This stunning picture from The Perfect Loaf, in particular:

Making an Incredible Sourdough Starter from Scratch in 7 Easy Steps

Umm, gulp, ex-squeeze me. That beautiful bubble footage and perfect fermentation.

They were working with whole-grain rye flour. Mine was made with good ole’ Costco bread flower:

I post this to reassure you that your humble starter can still be good enough, and can make some bomb-ass bread:

Starters, just like all of God’s living creatures, are unique little snowflakes. Don’t dismiss yours if he/she doesn’t look exactly like the pictures online!

Another way to tell if your starter is ready for baking is by conducting a float test. Bear with me, as I know this is the least appetizing and not super professional photo in the world:

As you can see, I did not stir my starter, but I scooped out what I needed for my recipe and plopped them right in the (salted) water. I plop them in and they all floated! That lets me know they are ready for bread-making.

Feeding Too Much or Too Little

Just like with people, you can feed your starter too much or too little. Feeding your starter too much can make it lethargic. Think about the last time you had waaaayy too much pizza and how you felt–that’s the same for your sourdough starter!

Feeding too much won’t kill your starter, but it might take a few days for him/her to metabolize that meal, meaning you may not see bubbles or rise-age right away. You’ll know if your starter has not fully metabolized her meal if it is too thick, like a paste.

On the other hand, you’ll know if your starter is hungry if she’s runny or liquid-y, almost like a milkshake that had too much milk and not enough ice cream when blended.

This is what my Gertie girl looks like when she’s hungry:

Notice her slightly watery bubbles at the top. If I don’t feed her at this point, she may develop a layer of liquid. This liquid is known as “hooch,” since it’s a liquid that comes from fermentation.

Gluten-Free Sourdough Starter

I’ve posted on my Instagram page about making sourdough a few times, and I am often asked if you can make sourdough starter and sourdough bread with gluten-free ingredients, and of course, the answer is YES!

For a GF sourdough starter, you can use King Arthur’s Measure for Measure GF Flour or your favorite buckwheat or brown rice flower.

The process is almost the exact same, with a few changes in quantity. Here are my GF-friends’ go-to sources for making a gluten-free sourdough starter:

Notes & Tips:

*When I first started making sourdough, I got very confused. What the eff is levain? I thought this was a sourdough recipe. Where do I add the starter? WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?!

*The greatest and most comprehensive list of sourdough discard recipes

*Levain is a french term (obviously), and it refers to the portion of starter that has recently been fed and will be used in your recipe. I don’t necessarily separate out a portion to feed, so technically, all of mine is a levain. Whatever you leave behind in the jar (and then immediately feed!) is still only the starter. Bakers and their fancy magic lingo.

*I’ve read that your starter’s acidity level can impact its development, and some folks have had success when substituting pineapple juice for the water during one feeding–let me know if this works for you!

*If you’re troubleshooting your starter, please shoot me an email or DM on Instagram.

Happy Fermenting, y’all!


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