Learn how to make a sourdough starter the easy way. You will learn all about what a sourdough starter is, what you need to make one, how to make it without endless feedings and wasteful discard, and why the whole process doesn't have to be as difficult and time consuming as you think!
Question for you? Are you ready to learn how to make a sourdough starter?
Or let me rephrase ....
Are you ready to unlearn everything that you think you know about making sourdough starters and re-learn that it doesn't have to be as difficult as everyone in every cookbook and recipe on the internet makes out?
Yes!!! I was hoping you would say that.
Because actually, a sourdough starter is pretty easy to make and look after.
Most recipes online are just plain mind boggling with lots of complicated steps and unfamiliar terms and math ... I mean I hated math at school and I sure don't want to be calculating complicated percentages when all I want to do is make a loaf of bread.
So I am here to demystify it. This is my simple, no fuss guide to making a sourdough starter. I want to make the whole process accessible and approachable.
I want anyone, whether a natural baker or not, to be able to come along and learn to make a sourdough starter and a basic loaf of sourdough bread without getting confused over a million different complicated steps and without having to negotiate unfamiliar baker's terminology.
Of course there is a time and a place for the proper terminology, baker's percentages and dough hydration etc, but the average person isn't bothered with all that. They just want to come along and make an uncomplicated, easy starter, then knock out a pretty decent loaf of bread once it's ready. That's it.
So if you are that average person who just wants to learn to make a sourdough starter with no fuss and no complicated instructions then you are in the right place.
And if you don't want to be making massive jars of starter that grow and grow, take over your entire kitchen and need feeding twice a day without fail for the rest of your life, while you try to figure out what to do with the massive amounts that you are told to discard, you have also come to the right place.
I am going to teach you what you need to know to make a happy and thriving starter, without any of the superfluous details that you don't need to know, and it's all going to be done waste-free! Yep you heard me right. No discard.
This post is long, detailed and contains lots of essential information. I recommend you read the entire thing before making a start, but when you come back to it again, feel free to jump to where you want to be via the table of contents below:
What is a sourdough starter?
A sourdough starter is a live culture which you can use to leaven (rise) baked goods by adding a small amount to the dough. It's the oldest form of leavening bread, and is thought to originate from ancient Egyptian times.
A sourdough starter is created by mixing flour and water then allowing the mixture to sit for a period of time. During that time it begins to ferment and wild yeast, which are already present in the flour and the air around us, will start to grow and thrive as long as conditions are right.
The yeast eat the natural sugars in the flour and convert them into lactic (and other) acids which is what gives sourdough its characteristic tang. Carbon dioxide is produced by the yeast during this process and this is what makes the starter, and the bread you bake with it, rise.
When you make bread with a sourdough starter you do not need to use commercial yeast.
What is wild yeast?
Wild yeast is all around us, in the air, in our grains/flour and on the surface of fruit, and it was used in baking long before commercial yeast became available.
Commercial yeast is reliable and fast whereas wild yeast is slow, a little temperamental and needs looking after. Having a starter is almost like having a real live tamagotchi or pet to look after.
So you might be wondering why you'd even bother? Why not just use commercial yeast if it's quicker and easier?
Well, for starters as I am writing this, commercial yeast has become a hot commodity and access to grocery stores is limited. And as we know bread is life. I can't even imagine not eating it. So having a sourdough starter enables you to keep baking (and eating) homemade bread when you can't access dried yeast.
And secondly, you know I'm all about flavour in my recipes and everything I eat. Well, sourdough bread is FULL of complex flavour and amazing texture in a way that breads made with commercial yeast can't even get close to. It is so worth the extra time and effort.
What do you need to make a sourdough starter?
So then, what do you need to make your own sourdough starter?
The ingredients list is pretty basic:
And the equipment you need is also pretty basic:
- A jar/container to keep the starter in and a lid for it (see just below for advice on style/size).
- A digital kitchen scale. Please don't use cups to measure when making bread or starter. Baking is a science and cup measurements are not accurate enough if you want excellent results. In my sourdough recipes I will be asking you to weigh all of your ingredients, including the water. You can pick up a digital kitchen scale for under $15.
- A spoon or spatula that can easily reach into the bottom of the container/jar. I like these jar spatulas because they are long and thin and make stirring and scraping the jar easy.
- An elastic band to use to mark the level your starter is at after feeding. This isn't essential but it makes it really easy to see how much your starter has grown and when it is ready to use.
What is the best container to keep sourdough starter in?
Any container will do as long as it's not metal and it's food safe. A wide mouthed clear glass jar of between 750 ml (25 oz) and 1 litre (34 oz) is perfect. Something like a mason jar or Weck jar or a cleaned up store bought peanut butter/marinara sauce jar.
It should be clear so you can see inside easily, wide so it's easy to spoon the flour into and the starter out of, and a decent size so that when the starter rises there's no risk of it spilling over.
It should not be metal because there is a small chance that the acid in the starter could react with the metal. However, a metal spoon to stir the starter is fine because it isn't in contact with it for long enough for a reaction to happen.
What is the best flour for sourdough starter?
Technically you can use any good quality unbleached flour to make a sourdough starter but some flours create more demanding or more vigorous starters than others.
Common flours to use are all purpose flour, bread flour, wholewheat flour or rye flour. The flour you use must be fresh. Don't use a bag of flour that's been sitting opened in your pantry for the last 6 months. If you want your starter to be healthy and happy you need to feed it fresh food.
My flour of choice and the one I recommend using in this recipe is rye flour because it is virtually fool proof. Rye flour starters tend to come to life a lot quicker than starters made with other flour, they get more nutrients so can cope well with the small feeds, and they are also hardier and can cope with a bit of neglect without dying on you.
We might start the process all full of enthusiasm and excitement, but there will come a time when you forget to feed your starter for a few weeks or leave it in the back of the fridge for 3 months ... Yes I did that to my starter .... Sorry Percy. A rye flour starter will be much more forgiving and willing to spring back to life after that than any other.
In fact, if you already have a starter made with another flour that doesn't appear to be flourishing or that you think is dead, feed it some rye flour and watch it come back to life again. They just love it!
If you don't have any rye flour you can use wholewheat flour but things might happen a little slower and your starter will be more temperamental. You can even start with wholewheat then change to all rye or 50/50 rye later on to give it a boost and make it a bit more resilient and hardy.
And don't worry, just because you use rye flour to make your starter, it doesn't mean you can only make rye bread. You can use your rye starter to make white or whole wheat bread.
You can make a starter successfully with white flour but for this particular way of doing it, which is very different to other methods out there, it will not be as successful as it will with rye or wholewheat. The bacteria need the nutrients in the wholegrain flours to thrive and white flour doesn't have enough of them to keep it going well with minimal feeding and maintenance like this recipe involves.
Can I mix flours in my sourdough starter?
You can use a mix of different flours in your starter. Like all purpose flour mixed with rye flour or wholewheat flour. However I recommend using 100% rye flour if possible, especially if this is your first starter, because you are going to get it up and running faster and it will be more resilient.
Try not to chop and change the flour or blend of flours you use to feed your starter when you are getting it established. Be consistent and use the same for every feeding if at all possible. It will make things a lot more predictable and progress easier to track.
Remember that all flours have different qualities and will likely change how your starter behaves. And again it's best to be consistent rather than chopping and changing all the time.
You can also start new and different starters using your original one as the parent. If you have a rye starter, use a little bit of it to "seed" a new wholewheat or white flour starter. You'll have a new and happy, thriving starter almost immediately.
Feeding sourdough starter
When you make a starter you are cultivating wild yeast. To keep it happy and make it thrive you have to feed the wild yeast living in your starter.
Feeding is as simple as adding more flour and water. You open the jar, put it on a scale, add equal parts flour and water, stir it all up, pop the lid back on loosely and put the container back where-ever you keep it.
Then within a few hours, the wild yeast will have a party, go crazy, and your starter will begin to bubble and rise up to about double its size. When the wild yeast have consumed all of the natural sugars in the flour, they will calm down, go to sleep and the starter will slowly fall back down as carbon dioxide stops being produced.
Do you have to discard sourdough starter every-time you feed it?
Most recipes will have you feeding your starter every day. Sometimes twice a day. They will also have you discard half of it each time. This is so wasteful and unnecessary.
With my recipe you do not have to discard sourdough starter every-time you feed it.
Instead you feed the starter every day with equal amounts flour and water without discarding any while you are getting it established, then once it is established (after a week or two) you only need to feed it the day before you want to make bread. Then you will use all but a teeny tiny amount of the starter in your baking and leave the rest (which amounts to just the scrapings in the jar ) in your fridge until the next time you bake. When that time comes around you will feed the starter the day before you need it, using only as much flour and water as you need to make the amount of starter required by your recipe.
There really is no good reason to be keeping masses and masses of starter bubbling away and there's even less of a good reason to be wasting flour every day when you don't need to.
How do I know when I can bake bread with it?
Once your newborn starter looks really bubbly like the inside of an Aero bar or chocolate mousse, and doubles after you feed it, it is ready to start baking with, and it will continue to get stronger as it gets more mature.
The optimum time to prepare bread dough with your starter is when the starter has reached its peak after feeding. You will get to know what this looks like once your starter is established and you have seen it rise and fall.
Then when you mix the starter with the fresh flour, water and salt needed to make your loaf, it is provided with more food. It eats the natural sugars in the flour and carbon dioxide is produced which causes the dough/bread to rise.
How to make a sourdough starter from scratch with no discard
For detailed measurements and instructions, scroll to my printable recipe card at the bottom of the page or click the "jump to recipe" button at the top of the page.
It is really easy to cultivate your own sourdough starter. There are lots of different recipes out there, but they tend to be complicated and very wasteful. My recipe is as simple as it gets. Flour water and time. That's it. And you won't have any excess starter to discard!
Day 1 - Get yourself a clean jar. Add to it 25 grams of flour and 25 grams of room temperature water. Mix well so you can't see any dry flour, level it as best you can and cover loosely with a lid. Don't screw the lid on tightly. If you have an elastic band, put it over the jar, level with the top of the starter (to measure progress). Leave the jar in a sheltered, draft free spot for about 24 hours. It doesn't have to be exact. An hour less or a few hours more is fine. If your room is cooler than 20°C (68°F) you will speed things up greatly if you can increase the temperature a bit. See my tips under the heading "How to keep a sourdough starter warm" below for how to keep your starter nice and cozy.
Day 2 - It probably won't look any different today but may smell a little milky or fruity. It might have a bubble or two or it might not. Uncover the jar and add another 25 grams of flour and 25 grams of water. Stir, level again as best you can and leave loosely covered again for about 24 hours.
Days 3 to 7 - Repeat this process daily for the next 5 days. DO NOT discard any of the starter.
After day 2 or 3 you will probably start to see a few bubbles forming and notice a slightly milky or fruity smell when you sniff it. You could also get a sudden burst of bubbly/rising activity. This sometimes fools people into thinking it's ready, then the activity suddenly stops again and they are left thinking their starter died. Just keep going if this happens. It's common (but doesn't happen to everyone) and is due to different bacteria in the flour which will die off as the starter ferments and the PH changes. It will all go quiet then the good guys will take over and things will start happening for real. Progress is different for everyone though so don't worry if nothing appears to be happening. Just keep going with the daily feedings.
From days 4 to 6 changes to the appearance and smell should be very noticeable. You should be seeing bubbles and it should be rising a little between feedings. Again though, don't worry if yours is a little slow. Just carry on regardless, feeding it every day with 25 grams of flour and 25 grams of water.
From days 7 to 8 your starter should be getting really bubbly after feeding and it should be starting to rise and then fall reliably and predictably after each feed. Again though don't worry if yours isn't. This process can be unpredictable. Just keep going but try to keep it somewhere a little warmer as that will help. See my tips under the heading "How to keep a sourdough starter warm" below for how to keep your starter nice and cozy.
Here is mine on Day 7:
Once your sourdough starter is reliably doubling in size after feeding and looks really spongy, fluffy and bubbly like mine in the picture above, it is ready to make bread with.
Well done! You made a sourdough starter!
Sourdough Starter Names
Now that you have your own living and breathing sourdough starter you need to hold a naming ceremony and make it part of the family. It's an essential right of passage into the sourdough bread baking world ;O)
My starter is called Percy because when I shared a picture of it on Instagram and asked people to choose a name, someone noticed that the bubbles in the top looked like a pig's face.
Here are some sourdough starter names for inspiration:
- Bread Pitt
- Jane Dough
- Little Bread Rising Hood
- Clint Yeastwood
Here is Percy, my old sourdough starter. Charlie (the dog) loves the smell of him and is there by my side for every feeding and bake session!
How to keep a sourdough starter warm
To get things moving along quickly, a temperature between 20°C (72°F) to 26 °C (80°F) is perfect. Some of us are lucky and have an environment naturally at that temperature but if the room you keep your starter in is cooler then things will move along quite slowly.
Here are some ideas to provide your starter with a warmer environment to help speed it up:
- Move it to another room - You might have one room in your house that gets warmer than others. Try leaving it in there.
- Use the light in your oven - Simply place the jar of starter in a cold oven and turn the light on. It's best to place it quite near the bulb on the top shelf. The heat from the bulb will keep your starter warm. Just make sure no-one comes along and turns the oven on while it's in there!
- Use your home heating - Place the jar of starter near (but not too near) the furnace, radiator, fireplace, stove.
- Use an Instant Pot - If your Instant Pot has a yogurt setting, set it to low and place the jar of starter on the trivet inside. It's important to leave the lid off the Instant Pot as other wise it will get too hot for your starter.
- On top of your fridge/fridge freezer - This is usually a nice warm spot and works well if you don't have built in appliances.
- A sunny windowsill - Don't put it in direct contact with the sun as it could damage your starter, but put it in indirect sunlight or in a dark box on the windowsill to protect it.
- In the airing cupboard - If you are in the UK in an older style house you might well have one of these.
- A warm closet - I have forced air heating in my house and the closets have vents into them and get really warm. My starter loves it in there!
- Read this entire post before you begin. Everything here is useful and will set you up for success.
- Always weigh your ingredients. That means the flour and the water. When baking (which is what you will ultimately do with this starter), it is really important to be precise and cups are not precise enough. You can pick up a digital kitchen scale for under $15.
- Use rye flour for the easiest and hardiest starter.
- Do not use old flour. You wouldn't feed a baby old milk. Your starter needs fresh food that's full of nutrients just like a baby does. If you use old flour your starter will likely be harder to get going and there's a strong chance it will end up getting moldy.
- Do not use bleached flour.
- Don't be tempted to deviate from the recipe.
- Don't rush it. It takes as long long as it takes and patience is important.
- Don't store your starter in a metal container.
- Don't ever let the starter build up. Just make as much as you need and keep the scrapings. If you accidentally end up with too much use it up in a recipe that calls for sourdough starer discard.
- Read through my FAQ if you run into any problems. I've tried to think of all the possible situations you could run into along the way and provide an answer. However, if you get stuck feel free to reach out and I will do my best to help.
My starter is bubbly and is consistently rising and falling, now what?
You have a happy and thriving sourdough starter and you are ready to make bread.
Let's say your starter took 7 days to establish. That means that you now have 350g of sourdough starter in your jar.
25g of rye flour + 25g of water = 50 g
50 g x 7 days = 350g
.... I promise that's the extent of the math involved.
You can now remove all of that starter from the jar and use it for baking or any other recipe involving starter. You just need to leaving the scrapings behind (the clingy bits that are left on the bottom and sides). These clingy bits are all you need to keep your starter going.
Put the (almost) empty jar with clingy bits in the fridge and leave it there until a day or two before you want to make bread again.
Here is my jar of sourdough starter scrapings:
Then next time you want to bake:
- If a week or less has passed since you put the jar in the fridge - the night before you want to bake, read your recipe and see how much starter it calls for.
If it says you need 100 g of starter, put 50g of flour and 50g of water into your starter jar and stir it up really well. 50 g + 50 g = 100 g which is what you need for the recipe.
If the recipe says you need 300g of starter, put 150g of flour and 150g of water in your jar. 150g + 150g = 300g.
Get it? Then cover the jar and leave it wherever you keep it, until the next morning when it should be at its peak and ready to bake with. Take out all of the starter to use in your recipe leaving the scrapings in the jar and pop it back into the fridge for next time, then follow these directions again next time you want to bake.
- If 2 weeks have passed since you put the jar in the fridge - 2 nights before you want to bake, read your recipe and see how much starter it calls for. You are going to feed the starter over 2 nights to get it excited again.
If your recipe says you need 100 g of starter, put 25g of flour and 25g of water into your starter jar and stir it up really well. Then the following night add another 25g of flour and 25g of water. That brings you up to 100g of starter. Leave it until the next morning and it should be nice and bubbly ready to bake with.
If the recipe says you need 300g of starter, put 75g of flour and 75g of water in your jar and stir it up, then the following night add another 75g of flour and 75g of water, stir it up and leave it 'til morning when it should be ready to bake with.
- If more than 2 weeks have passed since you put the jar in the fridge - Don't worry. If it's only a few days over 2 weeks follow my directions above and you should be fine. If it's much longer then you might need to feed it over 3 or 4 nights to get it raring to go again. The good news is that it's pretty hard to kill it so no matter how long you've left it it should be salvageable (unless it's mouldy - see my FAQ below for more info on that).
Don't let the amount of starter you have build up in the jar. Too much and it can get sluggish and struggle to double in size. Just feed it as much flour and water as you need for your bake and no more. If you accidentally end up with too much use it up by making a recipe that calls for sourdough discard.
How soon after feeding can I use sourdough starter?
After feeding your starter you need to wait for it to reach its peak before you can bake with it. This time varies from starter to starter and is also dependent on temperature. For me it's about 12 to 14 hours. If it's particularly warm where you are it could happen more quickly. You will get to how long yours takes once you've been feeding it for a while.
I feed my starter the evening before I plan to bake with it because I tend to mix my dough in the morning. If you are going to mix your dough in the evening, feed your starter when you wake up in the morning.
What do I do if I want to make something other than bread with my starter?
By making a waste-free sourdough starter, you lose the problem of having to figure out what to do with all of the discard. But sometimes having some extra starter available to make pancakes, crumpets or waffles is a good thing.
If you want some extra starter available to do this, feed your starter as normal the night before you are baking, but use some extra flour and water so you have more than just the scrapings left in the jar after making the bread. Then you can use it right away or leave it in the fridge until you need it.
If you aren't making bread but want to make something else that calls for discard, simply feed your starter enough to make the amount of discard called for in the recipe a day or two before you want to make it. Take out what you need for your recipe and pop the scrapings back in the fridge for next time.
How much sourdough starter to use
You might be wondering what the ratio of sourdough starter to flour is when you make bread.
The amount of starter you need to use will be listed in the recipe you are following. It varies from recipe to recipe, but the general rule of thumb is that you use about 1/5th of the amount of flour. So for every 500g of flour that's about 100g of starter.
The more starter you use the quicker the progress will be and the less sour your bread will be. If you use less starter things will take much longer to happen but you will get more complex flavours and more sourness.
I suggest following recipes as they are written to start with until you get the hang of things, then you can experiment with amounts to get the balance of sourness and time that you need once you are more experienced.
I don't like my sourdough bread to be too sour so I never use less than 100g of starter to 500g of flour. Thats a perfect balance for me.
How much sourdough starter to keep
When you use your sourdough starter for baking, all you need to save are the scrapings that are left in the jar. You will feed the scrapings in the jar more flour and water the night before you want to bake again and in the meantime the jar will stay in the fridge. There is no need to keep more starter than that.
What can I make with sourdough starter?
You aren't just limited to bread when using sourdough starter. Here are some other ideas for using it:
- banana bread
- American style biscuits
- cinnamon rolls
A sourdough starter insurance policy
Just in case the very worst happens and your starter gets moldy or dies or put in the dishwasher accidentally (yes that happened to me 😱) you could stash a little bit away as insurance. Keep a tiny bit in a pot or bag in the freezer and change it every 3 or 4 months for a fresh piece, or scrape some wet starter in a thin layer onto some parchment paper and allow it to dry out completely until hard and moisture-free. Then scrape it off and keep in in an airtight jar in the back of the pantry. It will keep just about forever like that.
Hopefully you'll never need it but if you do it will be there ready and waiting to help you start again quickly.
What equipment should I gather in preparation for making my 1st loaf of bread?
While your starter comes to life over the next week or two, you might want to prepare for when you make your first sourdough bread recipe.
For that you will need:
- a large mixing bowl for mixing the dough
- a Dutch oven or a baking/pizza stone, but a baking tray will do if that's all you have
- a metal roasting pan or baking tray with sides and some boiling water (if you aren't using a Dutch oven)
- rice flour, course cornmeal or polenta - This isn't for actually making the bread. It's to ensure your dough doesn't stick to anything. Regular flour does not work well because it just absorbs the moisture from the dough and then sticks. If you've got rice (white or brown) in your pantry, and you have a blender, you can make your own rice flour in 2 minutes. Just pour the rice into the blender and blend until a fine powder. Store in an airtight container.
- a banneton (proofing basket) or a mixing bowl lined with a clean dish towel
- a very sharp serrated knife or a razor blade (or a lame/grignette if you want to get all posh) for scoring the bread.
- a spray bottle filled with water
Amazon sell handy little starter kits like this one that contain a banneton (proofing basket), lame and dough scraper. I bought myself one when I was starting out. The rest of the things you probably have at home anyway.
Why measure in grams and not ounces or cups?
(This section has been added post-publication after getting lots of messages about why I recommend measuring in grams and not ounces or cups)
The amounts of flour and water that you use MUST be absolutely exact and the only way to make them exact is to weigh them. Ounces don't go small enough. Grams are the only accurate way to measure very small amounts.
We need to use really small amounts of flour in this recipe so that we don't have to discard anything. If we were using larger amounts that you could potentially measure in ounces it would all build up too quickly in the jar and then we'd have to discard which is something this recipe avoids so that we aren't wasting precious food. That's what makes this recipe different to every other one out there. With every other recipe I have seen, you literally have to throw away half of your starter every single day. That is something I cannot get behind when it is completely unnecessary.
I absolutely do not recommend the use cups to measure because they aren't accurate enough for measuring a recipe like this. The measurements need to be absolutely exact so that you end up with a 100% hydration starter (50% water 50% flour). If the amounts of water or flour are even slightly off then the hydration won't be correct and then you will run into all sorts of problems when you come to make a sourdough bread recipe with the starter because they all rely on you having a 100% hydration starter. If it's not you'll end up with your dough being either too dry or way too wet and you won't get a good result.
Sourdough is a science. If it's going to work well you have to weigh. All digital kitchen scales measure in grams and you can pick one up for less than $15. Even the big grocery stores sell them (like Walmart etc). The amount you spend on a scale will be offset very quickly by the amount of flour that you don't have to buy then throw away every day like you would have to do with any other recipe.
A scale is such a good investment because all of your baking recipes will turn out better if you weigh the ingredients. It might seem like a cup is a cup, but 1 cup of every single type/brand of flour weighs a different amount, and even the way you fill a cup changes how much flour ends up in it. Scooping flour results in about 25% more than spooning it in gently and leveling with a knife. Because of that you can never be absolutely accurate when using them and that's why I always bang on about using a scale in my baking recipes and why professional bakers don't use cups to measure. They all weigh because it's the only way to be accurate and consistent.
I have added cup/tablespoon/teaspoon measurements in this recipe (under duress ;O) for those people without a scale, but if you want a good result (in this and more importantly your future breads) then you must use a scale.
Sourdough bread is not easy to make at the best of times until you've got some experience behind you. If you don't have all of the measurements correct you'll just be making the whole process even more difficult for yourself and will likely end up failing.
And that's why I recommend measuring in grams!
Important to bear in mind
When your starter is just a few weeks old it isn't yet fully mature. Although it can bake bread it won't have the power and strength of a mature starter. It will be quite weak and slow.
It's also important to realize that if you are new to the world of baking sourdough, your technique won't be perfect. That comes with time too.
Sourdough is as much an art as it is a science. For the first little while your bread might not be 100% perfect. Keep using your starter and practicing your technique and you and your starter will get better and better.
Remember too that no two sourdough starters are the same and everyones will behave differently. You will get used to your starters unique characteristics once it's been in the family for a while.
Sourdough starter FAQ
No. Cover it with the lid loosely but don't do it up tightly. We want to cover it to stop anything accidentally falling in the jar but we don't want to seal it. This is because as the carbon dioxide builds up in the jar it will create pressure. If you screw the lid on tightly you could end up with a mini sourdough explosion, which I can tell you from experience is not pretty!
Yes, for most people it is fine. as long as your tap water doesn't have a lot of chlorine in it. If it does use filtered water instead.
Did you use rye or wholewheat flour as recommended? If so then this is more than likely temperature related. Is your house or the room your starter in quite cool (below 20 °C (68 °F) ? Cooler temperatures really slow things down, so although something probably is happening, it's happening so slowly that you can't notice it yet. Try moving the jar somewhere warmer. A warmer room, maybe on top of the fridge, or even in the oven with just the light on.
This liquid is commonly known as "hooch". It basically means that your starter is hungry or lacking nutrients and you often see it if you miss a feeding or are late to feed. You can pour it off or stir it in. I tend to just stir it in when I feed. You are more likely to see this if you use white flour because it doesn't contain as many nutrients. That's why I recommend rye flour.
This means your starter is hungry. The strong smell will go away when you feed it.
It's always wise to never have your jar more than half full of unfed starter because it needs room to grow after feeding and you don't want it to overflow. In most instances with this recipe, and as long as you used a 1 litre or larger jar, this shouldn't happen, but in the rare event it does, simply remove most of the starter from the jar, just leaving a little bit at the bottom (even as little as a teaspoon is fine) and start feeding that small portion. Or transfer a small bit to a new clean jar and start feeding it there. The excess starter that you removed can be composted, added to the dough of a regular yeasted loaf, pizza dough or used to make pancakes or waffles.
When your starter is fluffy and bubbly and is reliably and consistently rising to about double its height and then falling back after each feed it is ready to make bread. For most this will be around the 7 or 8 day mark. Again though it is different for everyone. Don't worry if yours takes longer.
No, just because you use rye flour to make your starter, it doesn’t mean you can only make rye bread. You can use your rye starter to make any sourdough bread including white or wholewheat.
This is common with new starters until they get really mature. Try taking it out of the fridge two days before you bake. Read your recipe and see how much starter it calls for.
If it says you need 100 g of starter, put 25g of flour and 25g of water into your starter jar and stir it up really well. Then the following night add another 25g of flour and 25g of water. That brings you up to 100g of starter. Leave it until the next morning and it should be nice and bubbly ready to bake with.
If the recipe says you need 300g of starter, put 75g of flour and 75g of water in your jar and stir it up, then the following night add another 75g of flour and 75g of water, stir it up and leave it 'til morning when it should be ready to bake with and more vigorous. Also check the temperature of the area you are leaving your bread to rise. If it's too cool things will take a very long time. Move it somewhere over 21°C (70°F) and you will hopefully see a difference.
This is more than likely temperature/season related. Keep it somewhere warmer and things will speed up a bit. The type of flour you are using also makes a difference. Whole wheat flour will peak faster than white flour and rye flour will beat them all.
If this happens then you will need to feed it again and wait for it to reach its peak before you can bake.
Some people never clean the jar. I like to give my starter a new, clean jar about once every couple of weeks. Have the new jar ready when you are about to feed your starter. Scrape as much starter out of the old jar as you can (a very small amount is fine) and put it into the new jar. Feed as per usual and wash up the old jar.
A healthy starter should smell fruity, yeasty and sour in a pleasant way. If it is hungry it will smell like alcohol or nail polish remover. If it smells cheesy or foul then I would recommend composting it and starting afresh.
If this happens a few days after making your first starter then just keep going with your feeding schedule. It's normal to get a burst of sudden activity and for it to calm down for a while before things really take off.
If this happens to an established starter though, dispose of all but a really small amount ( just keep a teaspoon or two of it) and start daily feeding with rye flour as per my instructions for making a new starter. It should soon perk up!
You can make your bread less sour by using more starter in your recipe. This might sound counterintuitive but by using more you are going to make thing happen a lot faster. This cuts down the time the flavor has to develop and will make your bread less sour.
Use less starter to make your bread sourer. This might sound counterintuitive, but by using less starter you will slow things down and give more time for flavour to develop. Try cutting it down by 10% and see what a difference that makes. Decrease it a little more next time if that isn't enough.
Often if a starter is weak it's because there is too much of it. Discard all but a tablespoon and begin feeding it daily daily. You should see a difference quite quickly.
You might have heard that a sourdough starter should pass a float test before you use it. This isn't an accurate enough way to check though so I don't recommend you do it. Some starters will float even if they are not ready to bake with and some will sink when they are ok to bake with. All you need to know is that it is rising to twice its height after feeding and is really bubbly. As long as that happens consistently then it's ready to bake with and there is no need to perform a float test.
Mold is not good and is often caused by using old flour. Your flour should be fresh to make a starter. The bacteria need the nutrients. You wouldn't feed a baby old milk.
Or it could be that something that shouldn't have got introduced to the jar got in there at some point. Maybe a bit of dirt on a spatula or in the jar. It can also become moldy if it's left for ages and ages in the fridge without being used. Depending on how moldy it is, you can try retrieving some fresh starter from under the surface of the mould, transferring it to a clean jar and feeding it up until healthy and thriving again. There is a chance that the mould will appear again though. If that happens there's only one place for your starter to go. That's in the compost bin. R.I.P. I guess you'll be starting all over again. Take note of the tips about having a sourdough starter insurance policy a few paragraphs below.
We've all been there and yes it's frustrating. In my recipe I recommend using room temperature water when feeding your starter. But if you forget to feed it the night before, get up early on your baking day and feed your starter with warm water (not hot) (we're talking about 29 °C (85°F) and flour . That should speed things up and hopefully enable you to bake the same day.
If you are reading this after making a starter with another recipe, you can easily switch to this method. Just use up your starter in your baking, saving the scrapings, keep them in the fridge until the night before you are due to bake again, and then follow my instructions for how to feed it up the night before you need it.
Phew! I think that's it. This is officially my longest post ever but I thought it important to add as much information as I possibly can so that you have the best possible chance of success. I hope it enables you to feel confident in starting out (unintentional pun!) and helps you foresee and tackle with ease any challenges that you may or may not face along the way.
Let me know in the comments: Have you made sourdough before? If not, are you ready to take a chance on my easy, waste and fuss free method for making sourdough? If you have already started the process how are you getting on? Any questions? Ask away in the comments and I'll get back to you as soon as I can!
Hungry for more?
While you're growing your very first starter, here are some of my regular yeasted and yeast-free bread recipes to keep you going until it's ready:
- No Knead Focaccia Bread
- Easy Whole Wheat Bread
- Yeast-Free Spelt Bread
- Quick and Easy Homemade Pita Bread
- Easy Flatbread Recipe
- No Knead Cinnamon Pull Apart Bread
If you’re not already signed up for my email list, get signed up. You do not want to miss the new sourdough recipes I have coming up!
Sourdough Starter Recipe
- about 175 grams / 1¾ cup rye flour * (plus more as necessary) - please measure in grams if at all possible - see under heading "Why measure in grams and not ounces or cups?" in post above for more info.
- 175 grams / ½ cup + 3 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons room temperature water , (plus more as necessary) (please measure in grams if at all possible).
- Please start by reading my post above. It's long but it includes lots of important and useful information that will help you success.
- IMPORTANT - I do not recommend using cups/tablespoons to make this starter because they are not accurate enough and it has to be absolutely exact. But if you are going to use them, the cup/tablespoons/teaspoon conversions are based on you using rye flour which is what I recommend using if at all possible for best results. If you use any other kind of flour the cups/tablespoons and teaspoon measures will not be accurate so you will need to recalculate them. For reference 1 cup of rye flour weighs 102 grams. 1 cup of wholewheat flour weighs 128 grams and 1 cup of all purpose flour weighs 125 grams.
- ALSO IMPORTANT - At no point in this process should you discard any of the starter.
- Day 1 - To a clean jar/container that's between 750 ml (25 oz) and 1 litre (34 oz) in size, add 25 grams (3 tablespoons + 2¾ teaspoons) of rye flour and 25 grams (1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons) of room temperature water. Mix well so you can't see any dry flour, level it as best you can and cover loosely with a lid. Don't screw the lid on tightly. If you have an elastic band, put it over the jar so it is level with the top of the flour/water mixture. That way you can see easily if there is any increase in volume. Leave the jar in a sheltered spot for about 24 hours, ideally at a temperature of between 20°C (72°F) to 26 °C (80°F) If your kitchen is very cool see my tips in the post above for how to keep your starter warm.
- Day 2 - There probably won't be any changes yet but you might see a few bubbles and/or notice a milky smell. Open the jar of starter and add another 25 grams (3 tablespoons + 2¾ teaspoons) of rye flour and 25 grams (1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons) water. Mix well so you can't see any dry flour, level it as best you can and cover loosely with a lid, adjust the elastic band so it's level with the top of the mixture and put the jar back in it's spot.
- Day 3 - You might see and smell some changes now. Maybe a few bubbles and a fruity smell. Open the jar of starter and add another 25 grams (3 tablespoons + 2¾ teaspoons) of rye flour and 25 grams (1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons) water. Mix well so you can't see any dry flour, level it as best you can and cover loosely with a lid, adjust the elastic band so it's level with the top of the mixture and put the jar back in it's spot.
- Day 4 - You will likely see more bubbles today and it could be increasing in volume. Don't get excited and think it's ready to use yet though. Sometimes this happens, then the activity will stop again for a few days, so keep going for now. Open the jar of starter and add another 25 grams (3 tablespoons + 2¾ teaspoons) of rye flour and 25 grams (1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons) water. Mix well so you can't see any dry flour, level it as best you can and cover loosely with a lid, adjust the elastic band so it's level with the top of the mixture and put the jar back in it's spot.
- Days 5 to 7 - Keep feeding it 25 grams (3 tablespoons + 2¾ teaspoons) of rye flour and 25 grams (1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons) on days 5, 6 and 7. It should be pretty active and smell pleasantly sour and fruity by now. If by day 7 it has been rising to twice its volume then falling again after each feeding for a few days in a row then it is ready to use for baking bread. If it hasn't been rising to twice its volume consistently after feeding, just keep feeding it 25 grams (3 tablespoons + 2¾ teaspoons) of rye flour and 25 grams (1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons) daily until it does. Ensure the area it is kept is between 20°C (72°F) to 26 °C (80°F) and no less to give it a boost. See the recipe notes for what to do if your jar starts to become more than half way full after feeding.
- Once your starter has been rising and falling consistently after feeding for a few days it is ready to bake with. Now you must name it and make it part of your family ;O)
- You can use the starter to bake bread when it is at its peak (doubled in size) after feeding. Use what is in the jar for baking with and just leave behind a tiny bit of starter. A few teaspoons is sufficient, or what amounts to the scrapings in the jar. Pop the jar of scrapings in the fridge where it can stay until the day before you bake again. It does not need to be fed in between. The next time you want to bake, remove it from the fridge the evening before and feed it so it's ready and at its peak for you the next day.
For reference 1 cup of rye flour weighs 102 grams. 1 cup of wholewheat flour weighs 128 grams and 1 cup of all purpose flour weighs 125 grams. WHEN YOU WANT TO BAKE BREAD AGAIN: If a week or less has passed since you put the jar of starter in the fridge – the night before you want to bake, read your recipe and see how much starter it calls for.
If it says you need 100 g of starter, put 50g (½ cup) of rye flour and 50g (3 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon) of water into your starter jar and stir it up really well. 50 g + 50 g = 100 g which is what you need for the recipe.
If the recipe says you need 300g of starter, put 150g (1½ cup)of rye flour and 150g (½ cup + 2 tablespoons) of water in your jar. 150g + 150g = 300g.
Get it? Then cover the jar and leave it wherever you keep it, until the next morning when it should be at its peak and ready to bake with. Take out all of the starter to use in your recipe leaving the scrapings in the jar and pop it back into the fridge for next time, then follow these directions again next time you want to bake. If 2 weeks have passed since you put the jar in the fridge – 2 nights before you want to bake, read your recipe and see how much starter it calls for. You are going to feed the starter over 2 nights to get it excited again.
If your recipe says you need 100 g of starter, put 25g ( ¼ cup) of rye flour and 25g (1 tablespoon and 2 teaspoons) of water into your starter jar and stir it up really well. Then the following night add another 25g of flour (¼ cup) and 25g (1 tablespoon and 2 teaspoons) of water. That brings you up to 100g of starter. Leave it until the next morning and it should be nice and bubbly ready to bake with.
If the recipe says you need 300g of starter, put 75g (¾ cup) of rye flour and 75g (5 tablespoons) of water in your jar and stir it up, then the following night add another 75g (¾ cup) of flour and 75g ( 5 tablespoons) of water, stir it up and leave it ’til morning when it should be ready to bake with. If more than 2 weeks have passed since you put the jar in the fridge – Don’t worry. If it’s only a few days over 2 weeks follow my directions above and you should be fine. If it’s much longer then you might need to feed it over 3 or 4 nights to get it raring to go again. The good news is that it’s pretty hard to kill it so no matter how long you’ve left it it should be salvageable (unless it’s moldy – see my FAQ below for more info on that). *FLOUR The flour you use must be fresh. Don't use a bag that's been sitting around in your pantry for 6 months or you'll be setting yourself up for trouble. The bacteria need nutrients to grow so you'll have a hard time getting it going and a strong chance of mold appearing at some point if you use old flour.
I recommend using rye flour because it produces a hardier and more resilient starter that will be ready to use a lot quicker than other flours and that will be easier for a beginner to get going and maintain. It also copes really well with the maintenance regime in this recipe. If you can't get rye flour, wholewheat flour is next best. See my post above for lots more information on this. And don't worry, if you make a rye starter you aren't stuck with just having to make rye bread forever. It works fine for making any kind of sourdough bread with flours such as white or wholewheat. IMPORTANT NOTE Make sure that your starter never fills more than half of the jar when you have just fed it because otherwise it could overflow when it increases in volume. That's why I suggest using a large jar. If it does though, simply remove most of the starter from the jar, just leaving a little bit at the bottom (about a tablespoon is fine), or transfer a tablespoon of it to a new clean jar and start feeding it daily with 25 grams (3 tablespoons + 2¾ teaspoons) of rye flour and 25 grams (1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons) of water as before. The excess starter that you removed can be used in any sourdough discard recipe. I like to add it to the dough of regular yeasted loaves or pizza dough or I use it to make pancakes or waffles. You can also compost it.