Flour + Water = Starter

Ah, summer… corn on the cob, lazy reading in the hammock, and… sourdough starter, of course!

Mature sourdough starter

I’ve been taking advantage of this warm weather to try raising some starters from scratch. I had done it before in a week-long class (in fact, that’s the starter I’ve been using for months), but we were able to keep our cultures at a constant 80 degrees F, and we added extra malt to jump-start the process. I wanted to see how it worked with just flour and water, in the warm but fluctuating room temperatures of my non-air-conditioned house in these beautiful early summer weeks in northern California.

Success! Raising a starter seems to be something that is perceived as mysterious, complicated, or hard. But in my experience, it’s not; it just requires attention and patience.

I did this a couple of times, once with rye and once with whole wheat flour. Both worked, but the rye worked better, so that’s the one I’m summarizing. (Note: this ends up as a white starter. The rye is just in the beginning, to get things going.)

Ready to try it?

Sourdough Starter from Scratch

Ingredients:

  • White flour (bread or all-purpose), preferably one that contains malted barley flour. Most white flours do, but some do not, especially if they are organic. Check the label.
  • Rye flour.
  • Water. I use bottled (not distilled) water because I don’t want the chlorine in tap water, and I do want the minerals that are removed by my water softener. If your tap water is not softened, you could let some sit out for a few hours to allow the chlorine to dissipate. All the water should be at about 85F; the yeast you want to nurture likes warmish water. I heat a small amount of water in the microwave and mix it with room temperature water, checking it with an instant-read thermometer. If you don’t have one, the water should feel about neutral to the touch.

Equipment:

  • A 1-quart or larger container with a lid, preferably transparent and with straight vertical sides (this makes it easier to gauge the activity of the culture).
  • A kitchen scale. If you don’t have one, get one. In the meantime, I’ll give the approximate volume measurements. But just this once; really, weigh your ingredients! (I never said I wasn’t opinionated.)
  • An instant-read thermometer is useful for checking water temperature.
  • A rubber spatula or plastic dough scraper.
  • Transparent tape.
  • A way to heat water.
  • A warm(ish) place, preferably around 80F. The room I used fluctuated from low 70’s to mid 80’s. A room thermometer is helpful.

General process:

  • The stuff you’re growing is a “culture” before it is mature and stable enough to bake with, at which point it becomes a “starter.”
  • The volume measurements I’ve given do not corresponding exactly to the weight measurements, but the proportions are the same. Don’t mix weight and volume measurements.
  • You will initially leave the culture alone for 24 hours, after which you will “feed” it at 12-hour intervals; choose your starting time accordingly. I arbitrarily assume you’re starting in the morning.
  • Feeding involves removing and discarding a portion of the culture, and adding water and flour to what remains: first mix the culture and water together thoroughly, then add the flour and mix until thoroughly blended.
  • Before you begin, it’s helpful to mark the weight of the container on the bottom with a Sharpie, or note it elsewhere. Then when it’s time to discard some of the culture, you can just keep taking some out and weighing the container until you know that the remaining culture is the right amount. I do not wash my container between every feeding.
  • Contrary to a somewhat popular belief, it is OK to use a stainless steel spoon for mixing.
  • After mixing, use a spatula or dough scraper to squeegee the sides of the container so they’re nice and clean. This helps you see how much the culture has risen, and keeps things tidy.
  • When you’re done mixing, smooth the top of the culture flat as much as possible. Place a piece of tape running straight up the outside of the container, and mark the level of the culture. This is how you will know how much it has risen.
  • Replace the container lid when you’re done mixing. If it’s a screw on lid or mason-jar type, you may want to leave it a little loose to give accumulated gas an escape route. If it is a plastic snap-on lid, you can snap it tight; the lid will pop off if the pressure inside gets too high.

Day 1 AM:

  • Make sure your container is clean, well-rinsed, and dry.
  • Mix 100 g water, 50 g rye flour, and 50 g white flour (or 1/2 c. water and 3/8 c. of each flour.)
  • Leave the culture in its warm spot for 24 hours.

Day 2 AM:

  • Hopefully you will see signs of life. Has the culture risen a little? Are there any bubbles in it, even one or two? (These are sometimes best seen by picking it up and looking at it through the bottom of the container.)
  • Bubbles in culture after 12 hours

  • It is possible that you will see a large rise (50% or more) at this point. Don’t be fooled; this does not mean you’ve birthed a miracle baby. In the initial stages of a culture, a type of bacteria called leuconostoc may predominate; it produces a lot of gas and causes the rapid rise. This bacteria is not desirable, but not harmful either, and it will eventually die out as the beneficial critters settle in and the culture becomes more acidic. You may also notice that the culture has a rather unpleasant odor; don’t worry, this too shall pass.
  • (If you see absolutely no sign of life whatsoever, I suggest leaving it alone for another 12 hours before proceeding. If there is still nothing, why not forge ahead anyway and see what happens?)
  • Discard all but 75 g of the culture. Feed this with 75 g water, 25 g rye flour, and 50 g white flour (1/3 c. starter, 1/3 c. water, 5 teaspoons rye flour, and 1/3 c. white flour).
  • Set it back in its warm spot for 12 hours.

Day 2 PM:

  • You may see signs of activity, but the culture may be either more or less lively than what you saw this morning. Anything from a single bubble to a 100% rise is good.
  • Sourdough culture at 36 hours

  • Again, feed 75 g of culture with 75 g water, 25 g rye flour, and 50 g white flour, and return it to the warm spot.

Day 3 AM:

  • Your culture may appear dead, but it’s probably not. Don’t worry, just go ahead and feed as before.

Day 3 PM and every 12 hours thereafter:

  • Continue to feed as you’ve been doing. At some point things should pick up steam, and you will notice that the culture gets a little more vigorous with each feeding.
  • When the culture at least doubles itself in 12 hours and is looking nice and bubbly, start feeding with only white flour (75 g culture / 75 g water / 75 g flour). This happened for me around the end of Day 4.
  • Sourdough culture at 4 days

  • After about 5 – 7 days, hopefully you will observe that the culture can double itself in 8 hours or less, smells pleasantly sour, and is full of bubbles. Congratulations, you have raised a 100% hydration starter that’s ready to bake with! If you’re looking for a recipe, how about this Norwich Sourdough?
  • Norwich sourdough

  • At this point you can also start decreasing the amount of culture in relation to the feeding flour and water, and use room-temperature instead of 85-degree water. You have been mixing 1:1:1 culture:water:flour at each feeding. Now try 1:2:2 and see if the starter can still double in 8 hours or less.

I’ll say more about the care and feeding of my starter in a near-future post.

CommentsLeave a comment

  1. says

    I’m so glad you posted photos.

    When I saw that you were going to post about your natural starter, I imagined that I was going to be coming in to agree that they’re really easy to build and that the bread made with them is fabulous.

    Now I’m thinking that this time I didn’t let mine get bubbly enough before trying to use it. The smell of my (non)starter is wonderful – reminiscent of very mild yoghurt – but the shaped bread just refused to rise.

    This is my second attempt. I tried in April when it was still quite cold. It started bubbling and then fizzled out. I blamed it on the cold.

    So this week when it was so insanely hot, I thought I’d try again. Like the first time, I began with rye flour, water and a tiny bit of honey. Then after the first day, I switched to using unbleached all-purpose flour and water for feeding. I soon had bubbles like yours. I thought everything was going correctly. But no.

    I made the bread; it rose(ish); I shaped it; it lay there and its only movement was to flatten out slightly.

    RATS!

    I want to blame it on the sudden cool front that swept in a couple of days ago. The temperature in the kitchen has dropped dramatically from around 27C to about 18C.

    But on the same coolish day that I began mixing the natural-starter dough, I also made regular bread, using commercial yeast (active dry) That bread rose like a fiend and those loaves are spectacular.

    RATS.

    -Elizabeth

  2. says

    One more thing… I did not weigh my ingredients. Nor did I use a thermometer. RRRrrrrrr.

    Okay, okay. I’ll get out the scale…

    -Elizabeth

  3. says

    Elizabeth: I think you had early leuconostoc; looks promising early on, but not good to bake with! I hope you keep feeding your culture and I think eventually it will turn into a good starter.

    Kim: You’re welcome. Please share how it turns out when you try it.

  4. says

    I suspect you are right, Susan. When I cut sawed open one of the discs, there had clearly been some activity. There were a few bubbles. But in spite of baking for over an hour, the bread didn’t get done.

    I wish I could say it was satisfying breaking up the discs to put into the composter – but the bread was so hard that I hurt my hands… :-D

    I am feeding the culture now and hoping that I will soon see a bubbling mass like your photo.

    -Elizabeth

  5. grrranimal says

    Susan:
    Thanks for this post. Toying with the idea of making my first starter. I’d love to do it wild style!

    Bitsy question: On Day 1, do you keep the container sealed, or leave it exposed to air during that first 24 hours?

    Thanks, in advance!

  6. says

    grrranimal, I leave the lid on the container always. I’d be worried about it drying out or catching flies if left open. Good luck with yours!

  7. says

    Susan, have you had any experience with travelling by plane with your starter? I’m flying out west to visit family and am planning to take my starter with me. Because of the regulations, I’m going to have to put it in my luggage in the hold. I’d be much happier if I could bring it into the cabin of the plane with me…

    Yikes!! I hope it survives! I know I’ll be able to capture yeast again but I don’t really want to have to.

    -Elizabeth

    P.S. Defiinitely leave a lid on the container, grrranimal. We had an infestation of fruitflies recently (we foolishly left peach pits in the compost container under the sink! – they were great peaches though!!) and even though I keep our starter covered (except when I’m stirring in new flour) I found a fruit fly happily swimming around in the starter when I took it out of the fridge to feed it….

    I think fruit flies are relatively harmless though, so I just lifted out the swimmer and proceeded with the feeding by using part of the starter that seemed undisturbed. Everything appears to be normal now and I haven’t seen fruit flies in the starter since.

  8. says

    Thank you Susan… I think. I just read the thread and aaauggghhhhhhh it was all about the suitcase with the starter having been lost. Apparently, it finally arrived and the starter was still alive but just barely. Oh dear.

    If only I could carry it on the plane….

    Oh well, c’est la vie. If it doesn’t survive, I’ll just have to capture more wild yeast.

    -Elizabeth

  9. says

    Elizabeth, why not just refrigerate your starter while you’re gone? Of course that means you won’t be able to dazzle the family you’re visiting with glorious sourdough bread, but at least the starter will be waiting for you when you get back.

  10. says

    My husband really wanted me to take the starter with me so that I could make bread while we’re here. I did take it with me and double wrapped the container in two plastic bags and put it in my luggage to go in the hold of the plane. Good thing too. The starter was quite active and pushed its way out of the container, continued bubbling in the inner plastic bag and moved on into the second plastic bag. As soon as we arrived at my sister’s house, I fed it. The next day I built it up and there are now two loaves of bread on the counter. Interesting working in a foreign kitchen with foreign oven and NO bread stone!! (At least there is parchment paper…)

    I’m considering trying to take the starter on the plane with me when we fly home. The only thing I’m concerned about is that airport security will freak out when they see the bubbles. Not to mention that I’m uncertain whether it will be100ml when we get to the airport. What if it manages to bubble over past the 100ml limit while we’re in the taxi on the way to the airport?? (Wheee!!! …and people think travelling with pets is tricky….)

    -Elizabeth

  11. Danielle says

    I have been baking simple white breads for a few years . But recently started thinking about expanding my horizons.. and then I read about starters and sourdoughs and decided that I really want to try it. My question, I live in a little town in Russia, and I have never seen rye flour here, maybe I just don’t know what its called here.. Could I make a starter with white flour only?

    Danielle

  12. says

    Danielle, I’ve never been to Russia, but I was under the impression that rye bread is pretty common there. I know the grain is grown in Russia. But if you can’t find rye flour the next best would be to substitute whole wheat. I have never tried it with only white flour but I think you could do it, I would just expect it to take longer than with the rye or whole wheat. Good luck!

  13. Danielle says

    Thanks Susan. I found out what rye is in russian, now the only problem is to find it in the store. Apparently they only sell rye flour directly to the bakeries.

  14. Rachelle says

    My flour doesn’t say anywhere on it whether or not it has malted barley flour in it. If I wanted to add it in, how much should I use?

  15. says

    Rachelle, if malted barley is not listed in the ingredients then It’s a pretty sure bet that the flour isn’t malted. I’m sorry I can’t advise you on how much malt to use; one reason I prefer the malted flour is because without the malt, flours vary in their enzyme content. With the malt (which is basically adding sprouted barley, which is very enzymatically active) you know the miller has adjusted it to the “correct” level (i.e., a range that works well for most baking).

    Danielle, I hope you were able to find the flour you were looking for and have gotten you starter off the ground!

  16. Rachelle says

    oops sorry. I forgot to ask you… what flour do you use that has the malted barley in it? I’m using Bob’s Red Mill now, but usually use King Arthur’s for my AP flour. What do you recommend?

  17. says

    Rachelle, I’ve never used King Arthur AP for bread, but I know of people who do, with good results. I believe it is malted, as is every other non-organic flour I know of. I have found three organic malted flours: Giusto’s Golden Haven (the one I’m currently using; I have to special order it from a local natural foods store), Heartland Mill unbleached all-purpose (available for order on their website), and one from Central Milling I found at Costco. All three have given me good results.

    I hope your starter is flourishing!

  18. Rachelle says

    Hi Susan,

    I am now entering day 14 of trying to raise this starter. There are enough bubbles everyday to keep me going, but nowhere near what you describe. At most, I think I’ve gotten a 20% raise. Should I keep going, or give up and start over??? Please help!

  19. says

    Rachelle — Is your starter in a warm place? (That may be hard this time of year.) If not it may take longer to get going. It sounds like there are good signs of life — I’d keep it up and see what happens.

  20. Rachelle says

    Hi Susan,
    Thanks for your reply. Yes, my starter is in a warm place. I am keeping my starter in my oven (when its not in use!). The pilot light keeps it at a constant warm temperature. Since I last posted, my started has begun to pick up steam… it can double its volume in 12 hours. My next question for you is, should I begin feeding it only white flour (ie. leave out the rye)?

  21. says

    Sugarlaw, instead of cracking up the heat, why not try to find a warm nook, like in the oven as Rachelle suggests. Good luck with the starter!

  22. Dan says

    I was just going to write here about how my starter had finally taken off and gotten really active after plodding along for weeks in our cold upstate NY house. It did, and I made some very nice Norwich Sourdough the other day. Then, tonight while I was at work, disaster! My wife decided to cook something in the oven, where my starter has been living and growing. Now I have a gnarly molten mess of plastic and dead starter. I guess this is a good excuse to try your method now; my last starter was started using Peter Reinharts method in the BBA. I’ve been looking for an excuse to try yours, and here it is. I hope it won’t be too long before I can get going again. I had just convinced one of my cooks to start baking sourdough and promised him some of my starter.

  23. says

    Dan, so sorry about your starter’s demise but I’m confident you can have a new one going soon. Sending good starter wishes your way…

  24. Tim says

    Hi Susan, thank you for this wonderful blog. I’ve raised a starter using your method and now, at the 4-day mark, it’s hit its stride.

    I have a question about using the starter (for example, when making your Norwich sourdough). At what point in the feeding/discarding cycle is it best to draw from the starter so that the resulting bread has the most yeast activity? Before feeding, after feeding (how long after?), or does it not matter?

    Thanks again — I tried to raise a starter a few months ago with lukewarm success, but your method has worked brilliantly.

  25. says

    Tim, the starter should be used when it “peaks,” that is, it has reached its maximum volume and before it starts to fall again. My starter is fed twice a day; it peaks about 8 hours after feeding and holds there for about 4 hours before it starts to fall. It can be used any time in that 4 hours. I’m glad you starter is chugging along, and I’d love to hear how your first bread turns out.

  26. Derrick says

    Susan,

    I came across your website while researching sourdough. You finally gave me the kick in the pants to try and capture my own local starter.

    I’m on day four, and it seems to be ready to bake with (at least to my impatient eyes), but I’m holding off for a few more days to make sure it’s really established.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/dmoreno/2327351901/in/photostream

    Thanks for the tips and virtual hand holding.

  27. says

    Finally, a sourdough starter that works! It’s actually sour!

    I think the success that I achieved from following these directions was a lot about technique. My house was a little cool so it took longer for things to progress, but the end result was super sour stuff!

    I’ve made two different breads using this starter, and I’m just amazed. Thank you!

  28. Cheryll says

    The flour I have been using to try to create my starter was frozen (precaution against flour bugs) before I began. Could this have killed or lowered the yeast population of the flour?
    I have leuconostoc at the beginning of each attempt, followed by starter that never really develops a good rise, just sits and bubbles. How long does the leuconostoc tend to slow the process down? Should I expect it to take a lot longer than predicted because of this ‘interference’?
    Thanks!

  29. bulent says

    Hi
    I had my starter from L?nda Collister’s ‘The Bread Book’
    4 years ago and been using the same starter for 3 years.
    Than one day I had a vacation for two weeks. I made a special container with towels for a comfortable travel. But in the hurry I left it behind. My precious had gone. I couldnt recover from that day on. anyway I had many tries after that without success. I finally used dried yeast to make a regular bread and saved some of it as a starter. It worked and been using it for the last two months. But my conscience is not clear as it is not from the scratch. Today I found Susans’s descriptions. I will have a go at the real thing again.

  30. says

    Hola Susan,
    You know your always outdoing yourself and stirring up lots of questions.
    Do you think that bottled water is that pure? Some people say that it’s just glorified tap in plastic with lots of pretty shapes and ads? Is it that eco friendly? I use filtered from a britta filtered or even tap water, NY is the best, so they say? Great to see your like Johnny Appleseed sowing sourdough into the hearts and minds of I hope future bakers!

    Keep up the good work!

  31. bulent says

    Hi susan
    I started everything afresh and keeping a diary with pictures. Today is day one. Lets see how it goes.

  32. says

    Hmm, I was sure I answered some of the older comments before but what happened? :-(

    Derrick, Jeff : Great to hear about your success!

    Bulent: Lots of luck with your new one.

    Cheryll: I’m not sure about the freezing. I freeze instant yeast but I’m not sure how wild yeast tolerate it. When I have gotten leuconostoc it has gone away after a couple of days at most. Although I can’t vouch for it from personal experience or give you specific instructions, you may want to try using pineapple juice to inhibit the leuconostoc. I think you can find directions by searching at The Fresh Loaf.

    Jeremy: You raise great questions and I admit I’m growing increasingly uncomfortable with using bottled water from an environmental standpoint. Also I think bottled water is more susceptible to contamination because it’s not well-regulated. We drink and cook with plain old tap water but I have been reluctant to use it in starter or bread because of the concern that the chloramine (which does not dissipate when you let it stand like chlorine does) with which our city water is treated would inhibit the yeast. Also because our tap water is softened, so it doesn’t have all those minerals that the yeast like. I think it’s time to rethink this, though, or at least to do some experiments to see if the bottled vs. tap water really does make a difference.

  33. Angela says

    Hi Elizabeth, I’ve been using a slightly different recipe which says to feed every 24 hours instead of every 12 (which is a lot easier with my schedule), so I figured my times would take longer than yours, but…
    Today is Day 7. The first 2 days I had crazy leuconostoc and the third day it had settled down to not doing much, so I figured I was on the right track. But since then it has done nothing except bubble a tiny bit, not rise at all, and yesterday when I smelled it in the evening it smelled like nail polish remover! I figure this CANNOT be good. Could it be my water? I leave the tap water out on the counter to disperse the chlorine, but maybe it has the other chemical you mentioned that doesn’t. I live in Phoenix, so haven’t had any trouble keeping things warm (my house varies between low 70s to mid 80s this time of year). I’m thinking about starting over and trying your method. Any words of wisdom?

  34. Angela says

    Sorry, I was reading all of Elizabeth’s comments and wrote her name instead of yours, Susan! Brain freeze!

  35. says

    Angela, the nail polish remover smell is acetone, and it’s a tipoff that you’re starving your starter. Try feeding it more often. I do not understand recipes that say to feed every 24 hours. I suppose they must work for some people but I’m not sure how.

  36. Angela says

    Susan, you can’t imagine what a relief it is to hear that this is a problem with a solution. I’m going to try to stick with this starter and feed every 12 hours as per your instructions and see if I can’t save it.

  37. Angela says

    Susan, I’ve fed my starter twice since I wrote you and also increased the amount (but same proportion, of course), and it exploded into a super rising, crazy, wants to take over my house, starter! Yesterday I was mourning its death and now it’s doubling itself in 8 hours. Thanks so much!

  38. Peter says

    Ok, I have a dumb question. How does the wild yeast get into the flour/water mixture if you keep the lid on the container? I thought you were to leave the flour/water mixture exposed to the ambient air and the wild yeast floated from the air into the mixture. Is it already in the flour?

    Thanks.

  39. says

    Peter, not a dumb question at all. Yes, the yeast arrive on the flour. The idea that yeast are “captured” from the air is a common misconception; although there are yeast in the air, on our hands, everywhere, the ones that like to eat grain are on the grain in the first place. That’s also why using fruit (grapes is a common one) to start starters is not necessary: even though there are yeast on fruit, the ones on the grain are the ones we care about.

  40. Peter says

    Susan, thanks. I’m taking advantage of a Manhattan heatwave and have begun my starter this evening.

  41. javi says

    Susan,
    I’m currently on day 4 of my starter. Things have been going nicely (or at least, i hope so), there’s always some sort of activity after feedings (the culture grows about 30-40% after feedings, and there are always plenty of bubbles). My main concern though, is that I don’t think the yeast has started to grow yet. It still has a very strong, sour, pungent smell, reminiscent of vomit (not appetizing at all). Is this normal? I was expecting the bacteria to die out, but the smell doesn’t seem to be diminishing in the least. Having said all that, I’m very glad to have found your blog, and I’d like to thank you for posting all of these wonderful instructions and recipes. I also have to comment on the beautiful photography, whomever’s taking the pictures sure knows how to capture the essence of all your breads.
    Peter, I’m in the tri-state area and have also been taking advantage of our heatwave (105 degrees is a bit much, though).

  42. says

    Peter, I hope your starter is thriving!

    Javi, sorry if I’m too late with this — I’d keep going. It sounds like you’re still in the leuconostoc phase but it should die down soon, I’d think. The Fresh Loaf is also a great place to seek starter advice!

  43. kristin says

    hi susan,

    i’m on day 3 of my starter and this morning when i went to discard half and feed, the starter smelled TERRIBLE. i mean it smelled like baby vomit.

    it looks great, definitely doubled in size overnight but that smell is atrocious. is this the leuconostoc phase and will it eventually become the sour smelling starter that i’m used to?

    i’m using whole wheat organic flour and spring water.

    thanks!

  44. Shad says

    Hi, after stumbling onto the site I decided to have a go with mixing up a starter. I decided to begin upon arriving home and mixed up Day 1 last night, about 9 p.m.

    After the 24 hour period, I noticed a few bubbles, and fed it. Now it’s been just hours on into Day 2, and I notice there’s been considerable rise to about nearly double, a lot of foam on top, and some kind of liquid at the bottom of the jar. I am using whole white wheat and tap water. Should I be worried? What should I do?

  45. Shad says

    Well, the next day, it went back to not doing much, but I am continuing to feed it every 12 hours. I see bubbles on the top today. That’s encouraging.

  46. Shad says

    Hi, I thought I would update the progress on my starter I have named “George”. Well, I’ve been feeding him every 12 hours, and this morning, discovered lots of foamy bubbles, and track marks down the container, appears that it doubled. I have begun feeding with white flour as of this morning, and have found that stirring the batter really well helps oxygenate the starter. So am I looking for it to now double in 8 hours before it’s ready?

    Oh, I’ve also been using a glass container. To allow for a little air escape, I had my husband drill the tiniest hole in the center of the lid, and I place it onto the jar snug. Seems to be working.

  47. Shad says

    Ok, got up to feed the starter this morning at 10:00 a.m., and when I saw it, it was very, very bubbly. I dumped some, stirred it really well, and fed it. It is now nearly 1:00 p.m., and the starter has doubled in size. Is it ready?

  48. Shad says

    My starter is alive! Yesterday I made some english muffin dough–it doubled in 4 hours. When I feed the starter now–I feed it with a 50/50 mix of unbleached bread flour and whole wheat flour–it doubles in about 1 1/2 – 2 hours in a small lunch cooler. Yikes! I have divided it and given some away today. I am sooooo happy. I am going to feed it some more, and freeze some as a backup. Thanks, I am so excited.

  49. says

    Just a tip on the water..

    If your water is treated, pour some into a large container and leave uncovered in the fridge for a day. The refrigeration process will remove most of the chlorine.

    Also, sunlight will do the same thing.

  50. says

    Angela, most sourdough do breads do taste at least a little sour — and some very much so, depending on how the starter is maintained and how the final dough is made. How to make bread more or less sour is a popular discussion topic and there are varying opinions on this — do a search at The Fresh Loaf and you’ll find quite a bit.

  51. Robin says

    Shalom from Israel. Thank you for your wonderful step-by-step instructions. I am currently on day three of growing my own pet yeast. It’s looking good, exactly as you write (thanks so much for letting me know that although it may “look” dead on the 3rd day am… it’s probably not) but now I am panicking as to how I am going to keep this alive…
    It’s bubbling on 3rd day pm. I keep reading your instructions over and over but am not feeling confident. I think that raising children is easier than raising yeast 8)

  52. says

    Hiya, great blog. Came across your blog and been learning heaps, the pix are a great inspiration esp. since I’m a breadmachine type of baker. Anyway, I’m in my 3rd day of your Starter. Things are going well (smelly & blubbly). I hope to try your Nordic Sourdough bread in 5 days time. In meantime, can I ask (i) How do i or can i slow things down to a 24 feed as I find the 12-hour baby a little too much work? (ii) Also, I read your note on how to maintain a Starter, could you pls let me know how to refridgerate it and bring it back to ‘life’? I probably bake bread once a week. TIA.

  53. says

    javapots, think of feeding as hosting a dinner party. The amount of food you need to provide depends on how many guests you have (i.e., the amount of starter you start with) and how hungry the guests are (i.e., how long it’s been since they last ate). If they haven’t eaten for 24 hours you need to feed them more (about twice as much) than if it’s been only 12. This will produce a more sour starter though. You may want to maintain a stiff rather than a liquid starter if feeding only once a day. And while getting your starter up and running I recommend feeding twice a day. To bring back to life after refrigerating, just take it out and start feeding it as usual. It takes a few feedings before it’s lively again. You’ll have to experiment and see how long your particular starter takes to revive.

  54. Susan says

    I have been working on this starter for about 5 days now. Night 3 I have a 50% raise, but since then only some bubbles. Last night, nothing, not even a bubble! Do I keep going or start over? Smells right, and I am measuring ingredients. Still using Rye…. any ideas?

  55. Susan says

    Also, I’m wondering if I can use the excess I’m taking out every 12 hours for something else now, or only once it’s an active starter? I just don’t like throwing all that away. Thanks :)

  56. says

    Susan, I would keep going. Make sure you’re keeping the starter warm (where I live that’s harder this time of year than in the summer). You can add the excess to bread but it won’t be ready to raise your bread until it can raise itself.

  57. yonason says

    I haven’t read everything here yet, but it looks good so I will in a bit. But I wanted to say, in case no one else has, that the reason the rye flour worked better may be because, as a friend who has taken baking classes and who advised me to use it said, it has a lot of wild yeasts in the flour itself so it’s almost guaranteed to work. I tried it, and it worked pretty well, but when I tried to feed some of the excess with white flour it took a while before that got going, even though re-feeding with rye flour gave a nice burst of activity. Whole wheat also worked as a feed right away. But that pesky wild yeast just wasn’t interested in the white flour for whatever reason.

  58. JessL says

    Susan, just stumbled on your blog looking for an answer to my starter query – your photos look great! My culture (white organic flour, water, red grapes) had a huge amount of activity in the first 20 hours – more than doubled, very bubbly, quite smelly, it was in a pretty warm place. I’m now thinking it is the early bacteria you mention above. My recipe says to wait for 10 days before starting to feed, but I was tempted to start feeding it now based on that activity.

    What do you think? Shall I wait the 10 days called for, because this initial bacteria will likely die down and I need to wait for the right yeasts to develop, or should I start feeding now? I have moved the culture to a cooler spot.

    Thanks!

  59. susannah says

    Hi, can anyone give me some advise please. I am on day 17.. and quite desperate. I have been following instructions and the initial 4 days were fine – all according to plan. Then the culture really went flat apart from the tiny bubbles that were visible when I remixed in order to feed each day. The smell is sour but not yeasty. And the culture does not rise at all!!… surface bubbles are visible but then the mixture tends to start to separate very very quickly and within about 12 hours.. liquid has separated off on the two (with the remaining slightly foamy bubbles)… Do I keep on feeding or abandon the attempt. At what point do we decide this is hopeless. Incidentally, I have tried the trick suggested on The Fresh Loaf of adding a 1/4 tsp of apple vinegar to lower the ph but it has not made any difference so far…………. any comments welcome.

  60. karl says

    hey man thanks for the info

    i´m in a thrid world country and cant get my hands on rye will just flour and water work? its a great temperature here, would putting a bit of yeast in with the flour and water work well? i can get some refrigerated yeast.

    thanks

  61. Calvin says

    Just ran across the site….great info! Noticed the question on “air travel with starter?” I have done it many times between homes in Florida and SF Bay Area. What has worked for me is to save a spice bottle (plastic). Get the starter active a couple of days before travel. Let it calm down. Put inside plastic bag and send in checked luggage. Alternatively, make some dried starter chips if you have time on the other end to reactivate.

  62. Dove Mejorado says

    Can you please post a starter using air-borne yeast, possibly like the potato-water type recipes that were used for the famous San Francisco style sour doughs? I have been looking for a good recipe, and have an outdoor adobe bread oven, and health prevents me from eating the regular yeast breads. Thank you.

  63. says

    Fantastic blog, Susan!

    I have my first starter going and after looking promising is now not looking good. There has been an abrupt cooling of the temperature here, as we go into winter. Until now, the temp has been mild.

    I’m wondering how you go about maintaining a constant warm temperature when it’s winter – or is it just not possible to begin a starter in cold months? Is there any workaround to this dilemma (heated containers, or something like that?)?

    Would be grateful for your advice.

    Cheers
    R

  64. says

    Dove Mejorado, the yeast really come mostly on the flour, not from the air. The starter described here is a “wild yeast” starter.

    Ross, I have only attempted starter starting in the summer. Maybe a heating pad or hot water bottle around the container?

  65. says

    Susan, you are a Sourdough Saint!

    A web search sent me to you when I was first looking into making a starter, but didn’t have much of a clue as to what I was doing.

    Today is day 5, and I woke up to the acetone smell. I had begun another starter off the main one last night, hoping SOMETHING would start to do some bubbling that would last more than 15 minutes with a not-unpleasant, yet not fermenting smell. I was bad from the get go, in that I put 3 oz. of an oatmeal stout in my original liquid, and used a combination of bread flour, with a bit of soy flour, semolina flour, and just a dash of rice baby cereal (yes, I know…).

    So, I saved 1/4 cup of “Barry” and “Barry Jr.” and fed Barry a nice breakfast of 1/2 cup flour, and 1/4 cup bottled water. Barry Jr. still had a huge lump of his starter food from last night in the middle, so I just stirred the dickens out of him. His hooch was a pale golden color, not (sadly, “Oatmeal Stout”) dark brown, although both are pale creamy in body color.

    Well, an hour and a half later, Barry is still just kind of sitting there, but I will feed him again tonight.

    But Barry Jr., who just got a good stir, has gone nuts. He has doubled since I stirred him, and if he keeps this up, I’m baking with him this afternoon!

    I would have tossed both of them and started over, “cheating” this time with commercial yeast, which, for all my weird adjustments to the process, is still one line I didn’t want to cross…

    So a GIANT “thank you.” My enthusiasm is renewed, and I’ll let you know how things turn out.

    You are truly wonderful for being here to answer, soothe, and motivate all of us who are new to this. Just to have someone to turn to and SHARE the ups and downs of “the first time.” Thanks again SO much!
    ~Kizzle

  66. says

    Thanks for the prompt response, Susan, and the suggestions re the heating pad/hot water bottle.

    I’d just like to check something at this point, if you don’t mind, before I try your starter warming suggestions. Am I correct in assuming that once you have a mature, active starter, it can be fed and continues to stay active enough to use for baking sourdough breads regardless of how cold the temperatures are?

    Or is it the case that you just can’t keep a starter active, no matter how mature it is, if the temperatures are cool-to-cold (say, in the 32 – 60F range)? If this were the case, I guess there would be no sourdough baking in winter…anyway, would be appreciative of your clarification.

    Cheers
    Ross

  67. says

    WooHoo, Houston, we have sourdough!
    Little Barry Jr. went hogwild, so I fed him again and made my first loaf of sourdough bread yesterday afternoon. It came out a bit tough crusted, although once you cut *sawed* through it, it was nicely chewy.

    The flavor was indescribable. I still don’t have it down right, but the taste shows me why the quest is SO worth the worries and wait…

    So I am a Starter Virgin no more. Yay!
    Now I just have to work at making this Sourdough Beastie work his magic in a somewhat predictable fashion!

    Barry Sr. went in the fridge, freshly fed, to stay handy and age a bit. Barry Jr. has been fed for the evening and will once again give up the majority of his growing bulk (already tripled from the refeed after the loaf earlier!) for Sourdough Belgian Waffles tomorrow morning!

    I read that the most common mistake for sourdough newbies is not feeding it enough the first week. Better to cut back the size and feed it twice daily if you’re concerned about flour, but more food seems to have done the trick for me once Barry went into “acetone” mode. It was your statement about that meaning he was hungry that came up in the search engine. Thanks again for being here!

    ~Kizzle

  68. says

    Someone save me. I think I have “sourdough-itis!” The Belgian Sourdough Waffles were fabulous! I see why people swear off any other kind after eating them! Barry Jr. is huge in the fridge, Barry Sr. is almost doubled, and JUST for fun, I decided to take a cup of the water I had been soaking pinto beans in, and whip a cup of flour into it, because I had read that in India, they use the water from “black udal,” a type of lentil bean, to make sourdough. I read on one site that this water is like “water on steroids” for sourdough starter…It looked like a jar of flour water (I didn’t weigh the flour, just lightly filled the cup by “sprinkling” the flour into it), and I didn’t feed it, just vigorously stirred it every 3 or 4 hours before I went to bed, because the flour kept settling to the bottom, with the water all on top (It was WATERY)…

    That was yesterday afternoon, about 16 hours ago. I got up this morning, and could not believe my eyes!
    Here is a picture of “Pinto” this morning:
    http://s10.directupload.net/images/090525/r86gnmc3.jpg

    Now THAT is a FAST Sourdough starter! It smells like beans, very subtle, but NO sour tang at all. It smells like beans and flour water, to be honest…But the doubling in size shows me something is going on. Whether this is “legitimate” sourdough activity, or some other chemical / wild beastie infestation, remains to be seen.

    I’ve stirred Pinto, threw out all but 1/2 cup, and simply whisked in 2 Tbs. of flour, because he’s still so runny and watery…We will see in a day or so. But still…After 5 days of angst to get “Barry” and “Barry Jr.” off the ground, less than 24 hours IS encouraging!

    I suggest Bean Water over Potato Water, anytime! (but that doesn’t mean much, because I’m pretty clueless, here!)

    Have you ever used bean water for sourdough?

    ~Kizzle

  69. says

    Kizzle, thanks for sharing your sourdough adventures! It’s so exciting to start to be able to see the payoff, isn’t it? I haven’t used bean water, I’m strictly a flour and water type myself. :)

  70. Michelle says

    Hello…unfortunately this process was a total failure for me. And that does not happen to me frequently. I am on day 4 with no more than a few bubbles since the initial activity after 24 hours. I am very disappointed.

  71. Kay says

    Hello Susan,
    I am very happy to have found your blog. Thank you for sharing your recipes and experience with sourdough.
    I tried making sourdough using your method, and I have a problem. My starter seems to double when I feed a mixture of rye and white flour, although it doesn’t look as bubbly as yours. It doubled, but never tripled so far. The problem is, when I feed only white flour, it starts to lose liveliness. It has some bubbles still, but if I keep feeding just white flour, it just gets less and less active, and never doubles. Then when I go back to feeding part rye again, it seems to recover.
    I’ve tried like 3 different types/brands of white flour, but the results were always the same.
    I’ve actually tried making sourdough with other methods such as the Barm in Peter Reinhart’s book, but I had the same problem. When I fed rye or wholewheat flour, my starter looked bubbly, but when I just fed white flour, it just lost action.
    What do you think is the problem? Is my starter just not developed right? Should I feed something like vinegar to boost the yeast?
    I’m really hoping you could give me some clue on this.
    Thank you so much.

  72. Anna says

    Susan,

    Your site is great and very informative. I like the tone of your writing. Thank you!

    I have a question, please.
    Should the starter looks like batter for pancakes or more like a dough? I weight my ingredients, but not sure that the consistency is right.

    Thank you!

  73. Jen says

    Hi –
    I followed your recipe for a sourdough starter and a week later had a strong one going. I baked bread with it and the loaf rose beautifully. When I tasted it, I was surprised by the flavor – it’s not at all sour! In fact, it’s borderline sweet.
    I used a really basic recipe with no sugar, so I’m curious as to why my bread didn’t have the sourdough tang I was hoping for….
    Do you have any suggestions for how I could encourage a sourdough flavor?
    Thanks -

  74. says

    Kay, why not just do what works for you and continue feeding a combination of rye and white flours? Try 5% rye to 95% white, see what happens.

    Anna, immediately after feeding the starter will have the consistency of a thick paste or wet dough. In a few hours, at its peak, it should be light like the gooey interior of a perfectly toasted marshmallow. If it is soupy, it is overfermented and should have been fed sooner.

    Jen, try this recipe and see how you like it:
    http://www.wildyeastblog.com/2008/11/05/more-sour-sourdough/

  75. Pietro says

    Hello Susan,

    Please excuse me if I posted this elsewhere… I can’t seem to find where I posted it… I thought it was here.

    I’m wondering why feeding sour dough starter means getting rid of part of it first? What’s the reason?

    One reason I ask is that if I have say 300 grams, and I want to increase it to make lots of bread, how do I go about doing this, if I’m always removing? Or, wait a second, can I just feed the starter a lot more? And if so, I suppose I need to give it more time to eat all that additional flour (ie- more than 12 hours?)

    Thank you so much for the care put into your site!

    Pietro

  76. Fern says

    Just wanted to respond to an old discussion about making starter with rye flour that had been frozen – I’m here to tell you that it works fine. After five days, using flour that had been frozen and room temp bottled water, I have a lively, clean-smelling starter.

    Thanks for your clear description of the process, Susan -tomorrow I bake sourdough bread!

  77. Bernardo says

    Hi,

    I had been looking for a good starter recipe for some time and after reading through your instructions, I gave it a go. Two days in and things are looking good. I just have one question. Do I remove all but 75 grams of the culture every time I feed or only for the first two feeds?

    Thanks!

  78. Greg says

    So, I have been playing around with a new sourdough culture for a few weeks, however, when I started it(and to this day) I just kind of eyeballed the amounts of flour and water used at feedings. Now in my readings here and elsewhere, I have found some recipes that call for a 100% hydration. Is there a way to change my unknown starter hydration to a known quantity?

    Thanks,
    Greg

  79. says

    Greg, just start feeding your starter with equal amounts of flour and water (by weight) from now on. After a few feedings, it will be a 100%-hydration starter.

  80. petra says

    I have lost my old starter not to long ago and will start a new one with your method tonight. My question is we travel quite a bit at times. Sometimes just on the weekends but sometimes also longer. How long can I refrigerate the starter and do i bring it back by simply feeding it like usual? thanks so much for your wonderful website and all that information.

  81. Sarah says

    Hello! I’m fairly new to baking bread, in that I’ve only ever helped my mom make friendship bread from scratch every winter. I’ve just started making the starter, and am just completed the AM part of day 3 (I started in the evening) and accidentally forgot to take all but the 75 grams of starter out… what do I do? Start over?

  82. George says

    I have had a starter going for a week but it is still not strong enough to make bread.I have visited other sites that suggest it can take months.The longer the better it gets.

  83. Michael says

    Hi Susan; I found your site while reading the comments on the Chews Wise baguette page; thanks for all the info.

    A question: I’m nearing the end of my fourth day, and after the first two days of big growth (due to the leuconostoc, I guess), the starter has been pretty quiet, only rising at most 1/4″ (and that’s being generous; more likely 1/8″). Is it possible that I’ve already killed it and should start over? Could I have possibly overheated the water that I use when feeding? I only heated if for a few moments in a microwave, but I didn’t actually measure the temp. There are some small bubbles at the end of each 12 hour rest, but they’re pretty minimal. I’m just wondering if I should keep at this batch or start over. Thanks.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] At first I aspired to make sourdough bread using only wild leavening – meaning, instead of prepackaged yeast, I would use a starter built up from just flour and water, left to ferment and “bloom” over a series of days and weeks.  I’m proud to say that I’ve built a rather ripe and potent starter over the past few weeks, and encourage you to do so as well.  How does one do that, you may ask?  The short answer is: mix 1 part flour to 1 part filtered water in a wide-mouth jar, let it sit out at room temp until bubbles form, and BLAM-O, you’ve got a starter.  The long answer can be found here. [...]

  2. [...] Years ago, I read about a local bakery that did a lot of research on capturing and cultivating wild yeasts for its bread. It sounded fascinating and adventurous and exotic…and hard. Further, I wasn’t all that fond of that bakery’s breads, so I just decided it wasn’t worth it. Then I started thinking about sourdough. I’ve read a lot about sourdough starters and wondered, well…what’s the difference? Some people start their sourdoughs with rapid-rise yeast (which to me seems to defeat the purpose, but hey), some people buy their starter, and some people do it themselves. I’ve done it myself… raised (and then killed) a sourdough start. And the interesting thing about sourdough is that you can say stuff like “San Francisco Sourdough” and mean it… because wild yeasts vary by region, just like any fauna/flora, and impart a distinctive flavor to your dough. But we’re not talking sourdough here. We’re talking wild yeast. Check this blog out for a method of starting your own sourdough/wild yeast: Wild Yeast Blog [...]

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