What is Sourdough Starter?
Sourdough starter is a mixture customarily made with flour and water, yet can include other ingredients, such as organic grapes or figs. It captures the wild yeast present in flour to create a rising agent to be used in baking. It therefore replaces cake yeast, dry yeast, or other forms of baking yeast.
You may replace sourdough starter for yeast or other rising agents, such as baking powder, in any recipe. You may need to play a little to find the right amount of sourdough starter needed, as much will depend on your starter’s potency. The result might not be exactly the same, but you can be sure it will be more healthy.
Sourdough starter in French is known as levain. Most breads baked before the end of the 19th century were made with sourdough starter of some kind. Bread-makers started to use baker’s yeast only about 150 years ago.
Since sourdough starter is alive, it must be cultivated and nurtured to keep it thriving. In short, this means you will need to feed your starter and create an environment that will protect your sourdough starter. Fortunately, it is relatively easy to feed and protect sourdough starter since it is very resilient.
You can create a sourdough starter with two ingredients: flour and water. As you can imagine, it’s best to use organic flour and spring or filtered water to avoid any kind of chemical contamination. Let nature take its course. You can read below about sourdough starter recipes and the steps needed to create your starter.
How Much Commitment Do You Need to Create and Maintain Your Own Sourdough Starter?
You’ve probably heard it takes a lot of work and care to maintain a sourdough starter.
Or you’ve read that you have to feed your sourdough starter at least once daily. It’s true, some bakers feed it two to three times per day. Ok, a baby or a dog requires about the same amount of care and attention, you might think. Are you ready for such a life-changing commitment? Be assured that the feeding schedule can be a lot less burdensome if you want, as you will read below.
Remember all this effort is only to maintain your sourdough starter. Afterwards, it can take you between 18 and 36 hours to make a traditional sourdough loaf. Don’t fret, however, most of this time is passive. You can therefore relax or go about your life as the dough ferments and rises. Try this Trustworthy Sourdough Bread recipe to make a tasty sourdough bread time after time.
Why Create and Maintain Your Own Sourdough Starter?
With all the effort it takes to create and maintain a sourdough starter, why do it? Well, a few reasons come to mind:
- There is almost nothing as satisfying as baking your own bread from start. Using your hands to knead the dough, then watching your dough expand, and finally smelling the bread as it bakes in the oven is fulfilling on a primal level. Discover more reasons by reading A Guide to Making Bread at Home.
- Sourdough breads are healthier than faster-fermenting breads, as the sourdough starter breaks down the gluten, making it easier for people to digest and to absorb the nutrients. Many people who are gluten-intolerant actually tolerate sourdough goods made with wheat flour.
- Sourdough bread does not go stale as quickly as yeast breads. Your sourdough bread might get hard, but this can be fixed easily by putting your slices in a toaster or oven.
- Bread made principally or exclusively with rye flour, like many breads traditionally prepared in Northern Europe, need the slow-acting work of sourdough starter to get the dough to rise. Rye flour does not contain gluten and therefore needs extra help to rise and stretch.
- With sourdough starter, you can make all kinds of baked goods, including numerous kinds of breads as well as sweet baked goods, such as brownies, pie crusts, muffins, and cakes. Almost any flour recipe can be easily adapted to use a sourdough starter.
How Do You Make Sourdough Starter?
Homemade Sourdough Starter Recipes
I’ve made sourdough starter several times using various recipes. The easiest one requires mixing only water and flour.
Some recipes call for adding yeast, but this is not necessary. It will help kickstart your sourdough starter, yet purists would skip adding yeast.
Other recipes suggest adding organic grapes or other fruit, such as figs, since they also have wild yeasts present on them. There are endless recipes. They all work.
A couple months ago, I followed Nancy Silverton’s Grape Sourdough Starter recipe to create a new batch. Nancy Silverton is a legend in Los Angeles, as well as elsewhere in the United States, for having started and run a few eating establishments considered among the most popular in the Los Angeles. La Brea Bakery, Campanile (the predecessor to the now popular République on La Brea Avenue), and Osteria Mozza are a few examples of her ventures.
What each restaurant had in common was its fabulous bread and baked goods. Nancy Silverton is credited with helping to bring fresh-baked artisan bread back in America. So when I found her Grape Sourdough Starter recipe it was an easy choice to make. I have since purchased her acclaimed book Nancy Silverton’s Breads from the La Brea Bakery: Recipes for the Connoisseur and would recommend it to anyone thinking about starting to bake bread.
The only ingredients needed to create this wonderful sourdough starter are bread flour, water and organic red grapes. The hardest part might be finding organic red grapes, depending on the season.
How Long Does It Take To Make a Sourdough Starter?
Count on it taking you about nine days to create your own starter by following Nancy Silverton’s recipe. With other recipes you may need a few extra days. In general, within about two weeks, you should have sourdough starter ready to use.
How Long Can You Keep Sourdough Starter?
In Belgium, I created a starter that remained good about three years. I left my sourdough starter out on my kitchen table in an uncovered glass bowl with a cheesecloth fastened around the top with a rubber band. When I travelled, I put the glass bowl into my refrigerator to slow down the fermentation process, as you will read below.
Leaving the bowl with only a cheesecloth as a cover let a subtle sourdough smell permeate my kitchen. I like the smell of sourdough starter. However, you can easily cover completely your sourdough starter and accomplish the same results.
Sadly, I had to stop that sourdough starter when I moved to Los Angeles in 2016. Had I not left Brussels, I’m sure my starter would still be alive.
Be reassured, sourdough starter can last centuries. Boudin Bakery has been making its famous San Francisco Sourdough Bread from the same mother sourdough since 1849!
Maintaining and Caring for Your Sourdough Starter
Time and Cost Involved
Feeding your sourdough starter does not require much time. Each feeding takes less than five minutes. All you do is add equal weights of flour and water to your sourdough starter, then mix and cover your container, either with a cheese cloth or with the top.
You might have read that you need to feed your starter at the same time every day. Although this may be optimal, I have never been so exact in my feeding times. I try to feed my sourdough starter in the morning or in the evening, yet do not always feed my starter at the same time each day.
The only monetary costs are for the flour and perhaps the water added. In Belgium, I successfully maintained my starter using tap water. Now I’m purchasing natural spring water to use for my sourdough starter to ensure its quality.
Sourdough starters are extremely durable. It would take more effort to kill your starter than to keep it going. The starter’s culture environment helps protect it from infection from bacteria or other contaminants.
Sourdough Starter Containers Needed
No special materials are needed to store sourdough starter. You can use wide-mouth glass jars, such as mason jars, food-grade plastic containers free of BPA, or stoneware crocks designed for fermentation. I have used all of these with much success.
There is no need to spend a lot of money on containers. Over the years, my Ball wide-mouth jars, especially in larger sizes, have come in handy for my fermentation projects, including sourdough starter, kombucha, red wine vinegar and kefir.
Recently, I’ve been enjoying Anchor Hocking True Seal Glass Food Storage Containers. They have wide openings, which make it easy to feed your starter as well as remove some starter for use. Their lids secure the top tightly, avoiding any bad odors getting out or any bugs getting in. In addition, they are super easy to clean.
If you plan on keeping your sourdough starter on your counter and making bread often, you might wish to invest a little more to buy a stoneware fermentation crock. They are more attractive to be visible in your kitchen. In addition, their top keeps odors in and bugs out. You may also use your crock for other fermentation projects you might have.
If you opt for a container without a lid, you should purchase some unbleached cheesecloth. It’s super cheap and reusable (after being washed, of course). Then all you’ll need are rubber bands to keep the cheesecloth attached on top.
Different Uses of Sourdough Starter During Maintenance
When you feed your sourdough starter it reproduces exponentially. Unless you use starter on a regular basis you will soon find yourself, like I did recently, with several large glass containers filled with sourdough starter.
If you hate to waste anything, like I do, it can be stressful to see your starter expand so quickly. To avoid being overtaken by sourdough starter, you have a few simple options:
- Use your starter to bake all kinds of goods, as mentioned above;
- Share your sourdough starter with friends so “they can also enjoy the joys of sourdough baked goods”. Ok, that may be one way to sell the idea to your friends. But it’s also one simple way to transfer the problem to them;
- Discard excess starter; basically throw it away; or
- Slow your sourdough starter by putting it in the refrigerator. Your starter can stay a long time in your refrigerator. I’ve left mine in the refrigerator more than a month once when I was traveling. When I returned I just had to remove a crust that formed on the top.
Making sourdough pancakes is one of my favorite ways to use extra starter. Pouring a ladle of sourdough starter onto a hot pan gives you wonderful tasting sourdough pancakes in a couple minutes! Surely, you can improve these pancakes by adding other ingredients. Adding a little baking soda, for instance, will make your sourdough pancakes more fluffy. An egg will also give a fluffier result. A little molasses or sugar will slightly offset some of the pancakes’ natural sourness. Fruit will make them healthier and more attractive. Yet, sourdough pancakes are yummy as they are, just plain. I often add honey or fruit jam on top of mine.
Discover several new ways to enjoy your sourdough pancakes by reading Sourdough Pancakes – Sweet or Savory. You’ll find how to make Sourdough Pancakes with Gravalax, Banana Sourdough Pancakes, Blueberry Sourdough Pancakes, Sourdough Pancakes with Avocado and Tomato, and much more.
How Often Do You Need to Feed Your Sourdough Starter?
The feeding frequency for your sourdough starter will depend on your plans for using it. Think of your sourdough starter as a living organism. If you feed it once a day, it would adapt its activity so it doesn’t consume all its energy reserves before the next feeding. Whereas if you feed it twice daily it would become more active to digest the first feeding before starting on the second feeding.
Regular feeding schedule
If you plan to make bread daily, you will need to feed your sourdough starter more frequently to ensure that the starter is active enough to enable the dough to rise daily. The more active the starter, the less time you might need for your dough to ferment (i.e., to rise).
Bakers making bread regularly will probably keep feeding and using the same sourdough starter without putting it to rest in the refrigerator. The sourdough starter will thus be ready whenever they need it.
Generally you should begin making a new dough with your sourdough starter when it’s time for its feeding. In this way, your starter will be hungry for the new flour and water and will immediately start feeding on these new ingredients to begin making a new loaf.
Less frequent feeding schedule – Putting your sourdough starter to rest
If you do not plan to bake bread regularly (i.e, a few times per week), you can put your starter in the refrigerator in a covered container. The colder temperature will reduce the sourdough starter’s activity, making it less hungry for new feedings. Your sourdough starter will not die, but will merely sleep or hibernate.
It’s recommended to remove your sourdough starter from the refrigerator every week to feed it once before putting it back in the refrigerator. You should let the starter sit on the counter for a couple hours before feeding it. Afterwards, let it sit again a couple hours before putting it back in the refrigerator if you do not plan on using it immediately.
After removing your sourdough starter from the refrigerator for re-use, try to feed your starter at least three times at more frequent intervals before you make your bread. For example, try feeding it twice daily for the last three feedings to make sure it is active enough to make the dough rise. Don’t stress too much, however. I sometimes feed it only once before bread-making and get good results. If your starter is not very active, it might just take more time for your dough to rise.
These recommendations follow general practice. However, as mentioned above, your starter is fairly durable and can survive changes in its feeding schedule.
You will soon become an expert and will recognize the signs of when your starter is sufficiently active. Generally, it is active if your starter becomes bubbly and rises up into a foamy texture when you feed it.
Below are an image and a video of a healthy sourdough starter. Hopefully, these images will help provide you comfort when you start wondering if you are making your starter the correct way.
If there is little activity a couple hours after feeding it, it is not sufficiently active. In this case, it’s best to discard most of your starter. Then start feeding your starter more frequently for a couple days. During this time, you could also increase the amount you feed your starter. For instance, if you have 8 ounces (approximately 250 grams) of sourdough starter, you will feed it with the same weight (i.e., 8 ounces / 250 grams) in flour and again in water. At each feeding you will continue to increase the quantity, so you basically triple the weight of your starter each time. These steps will re-activate your sourdough starter after a few days.
As mentioned above, when a sourdough starter starves, the mixture produces more alcohol. You might in this case see a dark grayish color liquid on top of your starter. In the sourdough world, this alcohol is sometimes referred to as hooch. To prevent it becoming alcohol, you just need to feed your starter in time and avoid it becoming starved. Don’t worry, however, if part of your starter has already become alcohol. You can simply discard the alcohol. With regular feedings you can then get your sourdough starter back on track.
If your container is not covered tightly or with only a cheesecloth, a dry crust might build up on top of your starter. Simply remove this crust and begin feeding your starter again more regularly to re-activate it.
Good Luck on Your New Sourdough Starter Adventures
Creating your sourdough starter is only the first step. Afterwards you will have endless choices on how to use it. See above for some examples. Review the 10 Tips for Working with a Traditional Sourdough Culture for more information on how to create, maintain and use your sourdough starter.
Don’t overthink it. Although you can maintain a starter for years, you can also use it for only a few weeks to make some delicious bread and treats. Then when you are in the mood to make sourdough products again, you can make a new sourdough starter.
What Other Recipes Can You Make with Sourdough Starter?
I’ve been enjoying using my current sourdough starter to make sourdough bread that has a chewy crust and an airy medium-density dough. Recently, I’ve perfected this Trustworthy Sourdough Bread recipe for you to enjoy.
Some other new dishes I’ve created using my starter include sourdough brownies and sourdough crust pizza as well as the Sourdough Pancake dishes mentioned above. The sourdough starter offsets some of the brownies’ sweetness, making it easier for you to eat double portions. The starter helps make the sourdough crust of a pizza a bit more chewy with a soft rise. Check back on this site to discover these new recipes.
How Do You Share Sourdough Starter?
Not only can you share with your friends bread, brownies and other goodies made with sourdough starter, but you can also share some sourdough starter so they can also enjoy making their own treats.
Many people are curious about making sourdough starter, yet are intimidated by how difficult they hear it is. Help them by showing how simple it really is. It’s a lot less scary when someone’s leading the way.
Please use the social media links below to start sharing the joy.