The basis of baking sourdough bread is having a good sourdough starter. There seems to be a lot of mystery surrounding sourdough starters but it’s actually a pretty straightforward thing. People have been using starters for thousands of years since dried yeast has only been available for about 100 years.
A sourdough starter is just a mixture of flour and water that has attracted wild yeast from the air. As the wild yeast feeds on the starch in the flour and grows, it becomes a starter or culture that can produce amazing bread.
My Simple Method
I wrote about my starter last year but I’ve since simplified my method. There’s no discard, waste, or feeding in advance in the way I bake with my starter. I keep a pint jar of starter in the fridge and use it straight from the fridge when I bake. Pouring out starter or finding a way to use the discard every time it’s fed isn’t something I want to do. Also I don’t want to follow some feeding schedule and worry about when I last fed the starter. Since I bake at least once a week it’s active and strong whenever I feel like mixing up some dough.
Beg, Borrow, or Make Your Sourdough Starter
You can easily make a starter from scratch, especially if you bake often. There will be the right kind of yeast spores in your home. All you need to do is mix flour and water and leave the jar exposed to the air for a few days. You can find plenty of tutorials online for that. I like Elly’s Everyday and her instructions on making your own starter. She’s an Australian baker who has a blog and a YouTube channel.
The quickest way to get going is to ask a baking friend for a jar of their starter. Most people are happy to share part of theirs. My starter came from a bakery in Colorado through the sister-in-law of a friend. I’ve shared jars of starter countless times and love getting someone started baking sourdough bread!
Simple No-waste Sourdough Starter Method
When I’m ready to mix up a batch of sourdough bread, I take my starter out of the fridge and give it a good stir. If it’s been sitting for a while it may have a layer of grey liquid on top. This is unfortunately called hooch. I have no idea where that name came from. Just stir it back into the starter. Below you can see my starter straight from the fridge.
I stir it together until it’s fairly smooth. The consistency of the starter depends on if you prefer a thicker or thinner starter. That determines how much flour and water you add. Traditionally it’s an equal amount of water and flour. I used to measure exactly on a kitchen scale but now I eyeball it and adjust if it’s too thick or thin. Mine is generally the consistency of pancake batter. Here you can see the change as I stir the cold starter.
Feeding the Sourdough Starter
Next I pour nearly all the starter into the container I use to mix and rise my dough. There is about a tablespoon or less left in the jar but that’s plenty to feed and save for the next batch. I use filtered water and all-purpose flour or a mix of whole grain and all-purpose. Filtered water is recommended so there isn’t chlorine in the water. I’ve used tap water before and it works fine. You can always leave a jar of water sitting out on the counter overnight to evaporate the chlorine if you don’t have a water filter. For the amount of starter I keep I use about 1/2 cup of water and flour.
A Clean Jar Every Time!
Next I stir it together until it’s smooth and pour it into a clean jar. I used to keep a quart jar of starter and feed it every time I used it and it was always in that same jar. Every so often I would open the jar and it would smell like nail polish remover instead of yeasty starter. Supposedly it’s fine and you can discard most of it and feed it again but the idea baking bread with something that smelled like that was off-putting. I would end up tossing all of it and starting over.
For a while I stopped making sourdough bread at all. It was discouraging to make a starter and tend to it for a year or more just to pour it out. Now I pour it into a clean jar every time and put a fresh lid on the jar and it’s never had a problem since.
After I have my freshly fed starter in it’s new home, I let it sit out on the countertop for a few hours to get active and bubbly. This can take anywhere from 1 to 4 hours depending on how active your starter was to begin with and how warm your room is. You can also put it straight back in the fridge if you want to. It will still do it’s thing but it will be slower.
I’m going to show you my starter every hour over the span of 6 hours from the time I fed it until I put it in the fridge. Typically I don’t let it sit that long but it doesn’t hurt anything to do that. Sourdough starter is very flexible and forgiving.
After 1 Hour
You can see some bubbles starting to form on the surface. They could be from the stirring and pouring into a new container. Some bubbles may also be from the yeast feeding. It takes around an hour or more for yeast cells to start feeding and dividing, especially if it’s cold. It will be a bit before it’s very active.
After 2 Hours
After 2 hours you can see the process really going. There are lots of bubbles throughout the sourdough starter. The layer of water on top isn’t anything to worry about, it’s just because I keep a thinner starter. If I had about a 60/40% ratio of flour to water it wouldn’t separate.
After 3 Hours
Here you can see the change in the bubbles on top and the layer of water that’s separated. Again, there’s no need to worry or stir it. The yeast is feeding and multiplying. If you open the jar and smell it, you’ll notice a sour acidic but pleasant smell.
After 4 Hours
At the 4 hour mark there’s not too much change but you can see that there are more bubbles across the surface of the starter. There was a stronger smell to the starter but that’s about all. Again, I usually have the starter in the fridge at this point but I wanted to show you all the stages of feeding. It will continue this process even if you put it directly in the fridge after feeding and pouring into the new jar. Like I mentioned, the yeast will work slower but it’s still going to do it’s thing.
After 5 Hours
Above you can see the starter 5 hours after feeding. The water is almost completely absorbed and it’s quite a bit more bubbly. If you make a thicker starter you may notice it rising up higher than the original amount. With the consistency I use it stays the same volume wise.
Sourdough Starter After 6 Hours
Above you can see the changes between hours 5 and 6. The layer of water is completely gone and now there is a bit of separation near the bottom of the jar. On the surface the sourdough starter is almost foamy. When you smell it you’ll notice a strong but pleasant yeasty smell. It’s similar to the yeasty smell of beer or wine but more “bready”. This is just the gas produced by the yeast feeding on the flour.
Final Sourdough Starter Tips
The best way to keep an active strong starter is to use it at least once a week and feed it. It’s perfectly fine to use it straight from the fridge without feeding it the night before. That method works fine but in my experience it’s not necessary. The main goal of the traditional method of feeding the night before you bake is to have a larger amount of starter for your dough. With this simpler method you are keeping enough on hand to make you dough. You don’t need to plan ahead.
Once you get your starter established in your home, it has a unique chemistry. This is because of the water and flour you use and the yeast in your air. I love that no one else has the same starter I do, even the parent starter is not the same now. Hopefully you will feel confident to try sourdough baking and keeping your own starter.
The best advice I ever heard about a starter is to remember that it’s really just water and flour. It’s not a rare and magical thing. If it gets messed up or pushed to the back of your fridge for a year, don’t worry! Ask a friend for a new start from theirs or try pouring most of it out and feeding it. Repeat that for a few days and more than likely it will come back to life. Experiment to see what works best for you and bake!