Your mission, if you choose to accept, is to capture your own yeast from the air! We’re going to make our own sourdough starters. Don’t get scared yet. Believe me, if I can do this, you can too.
I was so intimidated by sourdough that I waited over six months to try it. I was convinced I would never post on it and pessimistically assumed I’d fail, so I didn’t even take one picture when I made a homemade starter last fall.
But I have to tell you: capturing your own yeast is a monumental feeling when you see those little bubbles! Imagine me in my li’l ol’ kitchen, pulling a Tom Hanks/Castaway triumphant roar: “Look what I have created! I have CAPTURED YEAST! I have made BUBBLES!”
I want you to experience that, too.
Creating a Sourdough Starter: The Basics
The true bare bones method for convincing yeast to settle in your sourdough starter is:
- Mix whole wheat flour and water.
- Feed starter flour and water daily.
- Wait for yeast to get hungry and eat your flour, creating bubbles.
A sourdough starter is simply a mixture of flour and water wherein natural yeast or natural leavening from your air consumes the starch and creates gas, giving your bread an opportunity to rise. What is natural leavening? A fancy way of saying bacteria; the good guys that keep our systems going. Sourdough is a fermented food, which makes it easier to digest because the grains are partially pre-digested by the bacteria.
In all my research so far on soaking grains and phytates and phytic acid…everyone agrees on one fact: Sourdough preparation absolutely has an impact on reducing phytates and is the healthiest way to prepare grains. Study after study demonstrates the health benefits of sourdough.
For now, just know that sourdough is so incredibly healthy, and has the added bonus of being FREE yeast. Particularly if you don’t find yeast in bulk, those little packets can make bread baking almost expensive!
Psst! If you’re a visual learner or just want more…more info, more examples, demonstrations, recipes, and materials about sourdough, I’m a guest lecturer in an online eCourse about JUST sourdough. Please check out the sourdough eCourse – enrollment is always open!
I’ll hold your hand. Here are some of the “crutches” I used to ensure a successful final product:
- You can start with potato or pasta cooking water. The added starch is a feast for the little beasties and attracts yeast faster.
- UPDATE: Some say that starchy water is inviting the wrong kind of bacteria. Apparently you can start with some pineapple juice instead and that will keep it more sanitary. ??? See the comments for great suggestions as well.
- You can toss in a few unwashed organic grapes. You know the white film on the surface of grapes? That’s “bloom” or natural yeast. Be sure to choose organic if you’re going to add the grapes to your sourdough starter, but they’re not necessary if you can’t find them (or they’re way too expensive to bother) this time of year.
How to Make a Sourdough Starter
- clean glass jar (some say switch your jars every day; I use the same jar until it’s too caked with dried starter at the top to pour anymore.)
- flour (whole wheat preferred in my opinion, but the method works with white, rye, etc.)
- water (cooking water optional) – non-chlorinated. If you have city water, you should leave water out in a jar with the lid off so the chlorine will evaporate.
- spoon (some say don’t use a metal spoon; I’ve read that that’s outdated advice from when spoons were made of metal that would leach into the batter because of the acidity. I use whatever’s handy!)
- napkin, cloth or coffee filter and rubber band to cover
- Pour some water into the jar. I used about a half cup and saved another half cup of potato water for the next sourdough feeding.
- Add an equal amount of flour and stir well.
- Cover your sourdough starter with cloth or napkin or coffee filter, secure with rubber band or Ball canning ring. The starter needs to be open to the air to catch the yeast but safe from bugs and falling objects.
- Store your starter in a warm place, away from any other ferments you have going.
- One option is the oven with the light turned on. If you set the jar right by the bulb, it will feel warm to the touch in a few hours. I didn’t believe that would work, I really didn’t! Just try it overnight and feel your jar for warmth. (Test the temperature of your oven – some get a lot hotter than mine, apparently!)
- About every 12 hours or so, add more flour and water in equal parts. I only used 1/4 cup at a time, because I didn’t want my starter to get too big.
- Pour off the bit of liquid that separates and turns dark before “feeding” your sourdough that meal.
- Once you consistently see bubbles in your sourdough starter, congratulations! You have captured yeast! Now you can get even lazier with your feedings.
- Feed your starter once daily, either equal parts flour and water or any grain you have – oatmeal, any flour, etc. Just a few Tbs will keep your starter happy until tomorrow. Some methods tell you to toss half your sourdough starter every time you feed. No way – no need to waste the flour! (You can also see the recipes at the bottom of this post for “discarded sourdough starter” recipes.)
- I usually feed with water and flour at the beginning, then switch to just flour (as if I’m feeding a fish!) for a few days. Once the starter is really thick, I add water with my flour. I use rye flour from time to time too, and I think it makes more bubbles. Rye is higher in phytase, so regardless of rising air, it makes the healthiest sourdough to be had.
I wanted you to be able to print the method easily, so here are the photos to tell the story and give you an idea of what you’re looking for:
Plan to make my Homemade Cream of Potato Soup the night you start the sourdough, and save some of the cooking water. The initial mix was on Saturday at 1 p.m.
Eight hours later, there’s already some separation and action. No smell yet. I fed it again that evening.
Blech. There’s the example of the dark liquid that you can just pour off your sourdough starter. I don’t think it hurts anything to leave it in, but I’ve read that it makes your starter more sour, and Sarah hypothesizes that it’s the “waste” of the bacteria. Yuckier! These two photos are from Sunday morning.
By Sunday at 2:47 p.m., the sourdough starter was already bubbling away! I can’t guarantee that yours will take yeast this fast, because I probably cross-contaminated it with my other active starter. By midnight the starter was separated again; it’s more dense on top and bottom with liquid in the middle:
By the afternoon on Monday, the starter has calmed down again and formed a thicker “crust” on top. I fed it more, but not quite two times per day, and imagine my surprise when I found this Wednesday:
I’ve never, ever found mold on my sourdough starter until today. (This would be the part where you read the disclaimer, realize I’m not a doctor, and do nothing that I tell you…) I scooped it out! I just baked bread this weekend (seven days after starting the process, if you’re counting) and it was delicious.
Tips for Success
Warm spot? For a good warm spot, you can turn the oven on for just a minute or less, then put the starter inside with the light on. I wanted to make it easy on myself, so I waited until summer to start mine so that it wasn’t 64 degrees in my house.
Smell? The starter starts out smelling like flour and water, and as it progresses, there’s more of a sourdough tang to it scent. You can definitely tell something is happening!
Time to grow? You betcha. A new starter takes time to “mature” before it’s ready for bread. I would recommend starting with pancakes, crackers, or a flatbread that won’t count on much rise the first few times you bake. That way you’re not setting yourself up for failure and doorstop-worthy loaves! 🙂
What to do with it? I started with some recipes that didn’t need much rise because I was nervous about my sourdough starter’s performance last fall. Sarah’s sourdough recipes include everything I’ve tried. Sarah also has A Definitive Guide to Sourdough…According to Me that is a must read as you get closer to baking bread.
***If you’re not going to bake at least once a week, store the starter in your fridge. Just remember to feed it some flour once a week, with water when it is too thick.
Maybe you’re really, really intimidated by starting your own sourdough (like I was). Feel free to check out some other options for Sourdough Starters:
NOTE: If you really want to master sourdough (or at least get up the guts to try it for real), consider checking out the GNOWFGLINS “Learn to Cook with Sourdough Online” multimedia eCourse. I contributed a few demonstrations and notes, but the real masters teach over 20 different recipes using a sourdough starter. Click here for more details.
Other Sourdough posts and recipes here:
- Sourdough Crackers
- Sourdough Pancakes
- Sourdough Pizza
- Sourdough Muffins
- Honey Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread
- Growing Sourdough Craziness
- Health Benefits of Sourdough