Making a homemade sourdough bread starter couldn’t be easier. With two ingredients, just minutes a day, and a little patience, you’ll be making delicious homemade artisan Multigrain Sourdough Bread, Homemade Sourdough Pizza, healthy Sourdough Oatmeal Pancakes, and so much more!
An Essential Start to Your Sourdough Journey
It’s true. Sourdough is a journey, but it starts with a strong and resilient sourdough bread starter. If you’re here, you may be just starting or perhaps you received a starter from a friend and aren’t sure what to do with it. I hope by sharing my experience, you’ll be able to create your own sourdough starter from scratch, maintain it and soon be making flavorful homemade sourdough bread and all the other good things that can be made with a sourdough starter.
When you create a sourdough starter, you gain an intimate look at the interworkings of wild yeast and friendly bacteria and their interaction with water and flour. Too you’ll get to know how your starter changes over time and appreciate how a vibrant starter will help you produce the most delicious sourdough bread.
It’s not hard to do. Just a little attention and a few minutes a day for about seven to eight days (sometimes it takes longer) is all you need to get a starter going. A little flour, water and time are the ingredients to start your journey. Are you in?
Table of Contents
What is a Sourdough Starter?
Sourdough starter is a cultured mixture of friendly yeast and bacteria, water and flour. We make it with just two ingredients: water and flour. These are the essential ingredients for cultivating a community of microbes into a form we can use to bake with. This fermented mixture of microbes, flour and water becomes the yeast needed to raise bread and gives baked goods their signature sourdough flavor.
The wild yeast needed for a sourdough bread starter is all around, but more specifically, it is found on the flour you’re making the starter with. So, there’s no need to add yeast to your starter. It’s naturally occurring.
At a Glance: How to Make Sourdough Starter
Building a sourdough bread starter generally takes about seven to eight days to complete. It could take longer depending on available yeast and bacteria present in your flour, and environment. Ambient temperature will also be a determining factor in the progression of your starter. A cooler kitchen means a slower starter.
If you’re like me, you’ll probably think about it more than the time it takes to make it: checking on it periodically, looking for bubbles, taking a whiff for a bit of that sweet and sour aroma we’re after. The key is patience and consistency. In summary, here’s how to get started (see recipe card below for specific details):
- DAY 1: In a glass bowl or jar, whisk flour and water together. Lid or cover with a damp tea towel and set aside at room temperature 24 hours.
- DAY 2: Take a portion of the previous days mix (discard the leftover), and in a clean jar or bowl whisk in the previous days mix, water and flour. Lid or cover with a damp tea towel and set aside at room temperature for 24 hours.
- DAY 3 through 6: Repeat day two until the mixture becomes elastic, has a pleasant sweet-sour aroma and bubbles begin to form under the surface. During these days of feeding you’ll notice how the aroma and texture changes from stinky to sour to sweet/sour, pasty to stringy to fluffy. Take note! Your starter is becoming something wonderful!
- DAY 7 or 8 (or beyond): Seven to eight days has been my experience for an established starter to emerge. But it can take longer. Keep repeating day two until you notice the signs of a ripe starter: the starter is elastic (not pasty) has a sweet-sour aroma, is light and fluffy, large and small bubbles are present under the surface and just breaking the surface (see pictures below).
- NOTE: Time mentioned here is a guide rather than a determining factor for when the starter is ready. Use the cues and your senses to determine when it’s ready. It may take longer than eight days.
It’s ready when it’s ready.
How to Feed Sourdough Starter
Now that you have established a starter, you’ll need to feed it to maintain it and to use it in sourdough bread. Refreshing a sourdough starter keeps it healthy and strong.
Feeding your starter is very similar to how you built your starter. The main difference is you don’t have to feed it every day and for this recipe, I use just a bit more flour and water to feed it so that I’ll have enough to use in a recipe and enough discard to collect for making pancakes, biscuits and/or waffles. I feed my refrigerator stored starter every week, usually 8-10 hours before I’m ready to mix sourdough – but this is in my cool kitchen of about 68F.
Keep the starter in a glass jar with a rubber band around the starting level. Doing this shows a visual indication of how much the starter has grown as it grows to double in size. Also, I use a ratio of 1:1:1 when refreshing the starter for a 100% hydrated starter. See recipe card for specific measurements.
How do I Know When My Starter is Ready?
Once the starter has doubled in size, is bubbly throughout, elastic when stretched, has a pleasant sweet-sour aroma, and passes the float test, it’s ready to use in your sourdough recipe.
How to do a Float Test: Test to see if your starter is ripe by giving it a float test. Simply fill a glass with water and drop a small portion of sourdough starter into the glass. If it floats, its ready! If it sinks, it needs more time to double in size or develop.
Gluten Free? Check out my post on making a Gluten Free Sourdough Starter.
How Long will the Starter Stay Doubled in Size?
At some point after doubling in size, your starter will begin to lose its strength and fall. The exact amount of time will vary from starter to starter but I’ve typically observed a few hours window, at room temperature, where the starter will remain doubled in size. On warm days, it’s shorter.
But in the refrigerator, it’ll hold for quite a while. I’ve observed at least three days! Once it starts falling back down after doubling in size, you’ll need to refresh (or feed) it and allow it to double in size again before using it in a sourdough bread recipe.
If your starter is struggling to double in size, you’ll need to go through a few cycles of refreshment to build strength in the starter. You can even refresh twice within a 12 hour period if needed. Doing this builds strength and will help later in the development of your sourdough bread. I do a series of refreshments after a longer period in the refrigerator before using it in a recipe.
How to Maintain a Sourdough Starter
Think of your homemade sourdough starter as a pet that needs regular attention. There’s a community of yeast and friendly bacteria that make up the starter so it needs to be fed (refreshed) on a regular basis, else it can run out of food and weaken. The good news is, a sourdough starter is pretty resilient. So, if neglected for a bit, you can usually revive it through a series of refreshments.
Your starter can be stored at room temperature if you’re baking daily or in the refrigerator if baking at least once a week.
How to Store Sourdough Starter
Room Temperature Storage: If you plan on baking daily or every few days, leaving your starter on the kitchen counter is fine. Keep an eye on it because the warmer the kitchen, the more active your starter will be. It can double in size quickly, in as little as 5 1/2 hours at 70F! You’ll need to feed it more frequently, once or twice a day to keep it active and strong.
Refrigerator Storage: I bake with my starter about once or twice a week, so I store my starter in the refrigerator until I’m ready to prepare for mixing dough. If your starter is sluggish after refrigerating it for a while, you can feed it up to twice a day until it’s bubbly, elastic, and has a pleasant sweet/sour smell.
My Starter is Ready, But I Don’t Have Time to Mix the Dough
I SO get it! Something comes up, but you want to maintain that doubled in size state. To do this, put your starter in the refrigerator. This will slow it down dramatically and allow it to stay in that doubled state for at least a few days. Then you can get back to it later.
What’s That Layer of Liquid?
Occasionally you may notice a layer of liquid that forms on the surface after your starter has gone unfed for a period of time. This liquid is called hooch, a naturally occurring alcohol which indicates that it’s a little past time to feed your starter.
Hooch should have a pleasant sweet-sour aroma. You can pour it off or stir it into your starter then, carry on with refreshment. I typically pour it off because it makes my starter more slack.
- Name Your Starter: some sourdough bakers name their homemade sourdough starter. My starter is Claire, named after my late feline friend. I posted about her remarkable life years ago.
- Time is a guide rather than a determining factor for when the starter is ready. Use the cues and your senses to determine when it’s ready. It may take longer than eight days. It’s ready when it’s ready.
- Healthy Starter: for your starter or saved discard from your established starter, if you see any mold, a layer of pinkish/orange color or it smells off, throw it out and make a new starter. This can be avoided simply keeping your starter well fed and strong, refreshing it weekly in the fridge or daily at room temperature.
- Through testing this recipe, I chose organic unbleached all purpose flour. It’s a flour I always have on hand, it’s easy to find, generally, and it works. If you use something different, please share in the comments!
- Sourdough Discard: for leftover sourdough starter (discard), you can keep it in a jar for use in sourdough discard recipes. It gives baked goods that sourdough flavor without the long slow rise. I keep a jar in my refrigerator and refill it as I discard the leftover starter at refreshment time. I like to use it up within about two weeks. Here are a few fan favorites:
More Recipes for Your Sourdough Bread Starter
- Rustic Sourdough Bread
- Cranberry Orange Sourdough Bread
- Sourdough Pita Bread
- Soft Sourdough Dinner Rolls
Remember: Your starter is ready after refreshment when it doubles in size, is bubbly throughout the culture, elastic when pulled and has a pleasant sweet-sour aroma. It should also pass the float test.
How to Make Sourdough Bread Starter From Scratch Recipe
- Unbleached All Purpose Flour organic *see note on flours
- Water **see notes
To Build Your Starter:
- Day One: In a medium glass bowl or jar, whisk together 2 Tbs (20g) flour, 1 Tbs + 1 tsp (20g) of water. Cover with a damp tea towel or loose fitting lid and rest at room temperature for 24 hours. *When covering with a damp tea towel, be sure to double up else a skin may form. If it does form, and if it's thin, I simply stir it back in to my starter and carry on.
- Day Two: In a medium glass bowl or jar, whisk 2 Tbs (40g) of mixture you made yesterday (throw out the leftovers), 1/4 C (40g) flour, 2 Tbs + 2 tsp (40g) water. Cover with a damp towel or loose fitting lid and rest at room temperature for 24 hours.
- Day Three Through Day Seven or Eight (or beyond): Repeat step two using the previous days starter, continuing to throw out the discard, until the mixture becomes puffy, fluffy, has a pleasant sweet-sour aroma (not sweaty socks) and small and large bubbles begin to appear just under the surface and throughout the culture. Notice on day three you may begin to notice a sour aroma, with a few bubbles and puffy appearance. On day four, a doubling in size in not uncommon - but it maintains it's stinky odor. On day five-six, it'll probably pass the float test but it's still stinky! Keep going!This process takes about seven to eight days (as this has been my experience) - but it may take longer. Time is not a determining factor for when the starter is ready, it's simply a guide. It's ready when it's ready. Use the cues and your senses to determine when your starter is ready. This is the nature of sourdough.Before using your new starter in a recipe, you'll need to refresh (feed) it.
To Refresh or Feed Your Starter:
- If not using a Mason jar at this point, now is the time to transfer your starter to one. I use a 2 C wide mouth Mason jar. In a glass jar whisk 3 Tbs (60g) of sourdough starter with 1/4 C (60g) water. Add 1/3 C (60g) unbleached all purpose flour to the water mixture. Mix well until the flour is hydrated.
- Lid the jar and wrap a rubber band around it at the height of the starter.
- Allow the starter to develop at room temperature for about 8-10 hours (65F/18C). This time can vary due to ambient temperature and how active your starter is. If it's rising too fast, you can pop in in the refrigerator where it will continue to rise at a slower rate. Or, if you want to speed it up, refresh it with 80F (27C) water. That'll get it moving a little more quickly.Once the starter has doubled in size, is bubbly and puffy, has a pleasant sweet-sour aroma, and passes the float test, it’s ready to use in your sourdough recipe. After measuring out the portion needed for your recipe, feed the starter and store it until your next refreshment. If there’s and starter left, you can save the discard for use in other recipes like pancakes and waffles (or toss it or give it away).Float Test! Test to see if your starter is ripe or ready to be used in a recipe by giving it a float test. Simply fill a glass with water and drop a small portion of sourdough starter into the glass. If it floats, its ready! If it sinks, it needs more time to double in size or develop.
How to Store Your Established Starter:
- If you see any orange or pink film or mold, or it has an unusual oder, toss it.
- Room Temperature Storage: If you plan on baking daily or every few days, leaving your starter on the kitchen counter is fine. Keep an eye on it because the warmer the kitchen, the more active your starter will be. It can double in size quickly, in as little as 5 1/2 hours at 70F! You'll need to feed it more frequently, once or twice a day to keep it active and strong.
- Refrigerator Storage: I bake with my starter about once or twice a week, so I store my starter in the refrigerator until I'm ready to prepare for mixing dough. If your starter is sluggish after refrigerating it for a while, you can feed it up to twice a day until it's bubbly, elastic, doubles in size and has a pleasant sweet/sour smell.
How to Store Your Discard if Saving:
- After you have an established starter, your sourdough discard can be used for pancakes, waffles and other recipes to add a tangy sourdough flavor. Store it in the fridge, in a lidded glass jar, for up to two weeks. You may see a layer of hooch, and this is not unusual. You can pour it off or stir it in. If you see any orange or pink film or mold, or it has an unusual oder, toss it.