When I first made sourdough starter, I encountered a lot of complicated recipes. I eventually succeeded with a recipe that used rye and white flours, and that’s the recipe I included in Bread Science. Since then, I’ve begun using an even more straightforward recipe. Together with a few tips, it seems to work just fine. So I’m sharing that recipe here.
I’ve tried to make this recipe as simple as possible, highlighting the most important tips for success.
What You Need
- White flour*
- A container**
- Plastic wrap or another loose-fitting lid**
- A spoon
- Baking soda
- A scale or measuring cup
Cleanliness. Even a clean container can have a residue of grease or soap. Swish some baking soda dissolved in water around your container using your hand, then rinse and air dry. (Don’t use a sponge or towel because these might not be 100% clean.) Also rinse the spoon and measuring cup. After using the tools, I rinse them with water and my hands and set them aside, and use them only for the starter, to avoid having to re-wash them with baking soda.
Room temperature. It’s easiest to create a starter in a room at a temperature of around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.***
What To Do
Mix equal weights flour and water in your container. If you have a scale, use 50 grams of each. If you have measuring cups, use ½ cup water and ~1 cup fluffy/sifted flour. The mixture should have a consistency like pancake batter.
Cover and let the mixture sit out. At first nothing will happen. Then you should see a few bubbles, and eventually, the surface should be frothy with lots of bubbles. It usually takes ~48 hours, but if you see lots of activity sooner, you can proceed to the next step.
Throw out half of the starter and feed it so that you end up with the same amount you started with. With a scale, throw out 50 grams, then add 25 grams flour and 25 grams water. With measuring cups, throw out about half, then add ¼ cup water, and ~½ cup flour. Cover and leave out.
Repeat this every 24 hours.
What’s Happening in There?
Microorganisms in the flour and air are settling in to their new home in your starter.**** As they perform fermentation, the pH falls, creating an acidic environment that favors the microorganisms we want (the bread-making ones). Each time you feed the starter, you throw out half of the microorganisms, but provide new food and water. The remaining microorganisms eat, produce gas, and multiply, until you again have a bubbly, active starter.
Sometimes people fail with a starter because they feed it too often. They think they are taking extra good care of it, but each time they feed it, they lose half of the microorganisms. Overfeeding results in being back at the start, with a mixture of flour and water. The starter should always be bubbly and active before you feed it (or make bread with it).
When Is It Ready?
Hopefully you will see lots of bubbling activity each day. The starter might smell interesting (fruity, fragrant, sour), but it should not smell sharp (like nail polish remover). Also, you should see it rising (use a mark or piece of tape at the top of the starter to aid in observing how far it rises). If you check it only every 24 hours, it might rise and fall before you check it; a telltale sign of this is a film of starter on the edge of the container all around, showing how high it rose.
It usually takes about a week before I feel comfortable calling the starter a success. If it is producing bubbles and rising regularly, it is doing what you need it to do to make bread. Note that a young starter will have a milder flavor and may be more delicate than an older starter. It will get stronger the longer you have it (up to a point). For example, you don’t need to use the baking soda rinse when you feed an adult starter.
Make more. In the beginning, when you’re throwing away a lot of starter, you only need a little. You need more starter to make bread. So, instead of throwing out half, feed all of it, and feed it twice as much. With a scale, keep 100 grams of starter and add 50 grams of water and 50 grams of flour. With measuring cups, keep all the starter and add ½ cup water and ~1 cup flour.
Make it drier. I think it’s easier to create a starter with a wetter recipe, but easier to work with a drier, dough-like recipe. (The drier starter will also rise more dramatically!) Change the feeding recipe and after a few times, the starter will be drier. The new recipe is 160 grams starter, 60 grams water, and 100 grams flour; OR half the starter, ¼ cup water, and 7/8 cup flour. It will be hard to stir, and might seem too dry; it softens up as it rises.
Make bread. I have two basic recipes (bread and English muffins) that use the drier starter, on my author website, here: https://emilybuehler.com/miscellany/recipes-2/
Stick it in the fridge.***** Unless you want to keep feeding your starter every 24 hours, use the fridge to slow it down. After you feed it, leave it out ~2 hours. Then put it into the fridge. Before you make bread with it, pull it out and let it warm up and continue rising, so that it is fully risen before you use it in dough. If it has been in the fridge more than a week, I would pull it out, let it warm up overnight, feed it, let it rise out of the fridge (takes about 10 hours), and then use it to make bread. This ensures that it is good and active before it is used.
Don’t panic. It can be confusing to manage a starter—Is it fully risen? How much do you have left? I would err on the side of letting it rise too much before using it. And, you don’t need an exact amount. Just feed whatever you have left and if it was too little, you’ll eventually be back at the right amount.
*All-purpose flour is fine. Use an all-natural, unbleached variety. I’ve used tap water, but if yours is particularly soft/hard or chlorine-filled, use bottled water.
**A glass container seems safest, but in the short term, you can use plastic. A see-through container with straight sides makes it easier to watch the starter rise. Canning jars are great. The lid should be loose-fitting to avoid gas pressure building up. I use a glass bowl with a silicone lid to avoid wasting plastic wrap. Some people are very concerned about covering the starter and not letting it get air; see ****.
***The moderate temperature helps “good” microorganisms take hold, while avoiding unwanted ones. If your house it not 70 degrees, try to find a localized 70-degree spot. For example, if your house it cold, the top of the fridge might be warmer, or another elevated location. If your house is hot, the tile floor in the kitchen by the AC vent might be colder. (I’ve even used extreme measures like creating an ice bath that the baby starter’s container floats in.)
****People used to think that the microorganisms came into the starter from the air. Now evidence suggests that they are in the flour.
*****Yes, this is a G. Love reference. https://youtu.be/pk9-28HgxfE