Call it the mother, the culture, the starter, or your own pet name—this is the cornerstone of all sourdough bread. Looking for more bread tutorials, recipes, and inspiration? Grab our Bread Special Issue 2020!
Tools & Ingredients
Clear Glass Jar or Container: The starter will live—literally—in this container, so choose a high-quality glass container with plenty of room to grow. To track the rise and fall of the starter, place a rubber band around the glass jar at the original sourdough starter line on day one.
Digital Scale: This is essential for calculating the proper amount of each ingredient to add or discard.
Flour: We use a 50/50 blend of bread flour and whole wheat flour.
Water: Distilled or purified water, but depending on the quality of your local water, tap is fine, too.
Terms to Know
Hydration Level: This describes how much water is in a recipe in relation to flour. Our starter has a 100% hydration level, which means that there are equal parts water to flour (1:1 ratio).
Fermentation: The starter is basically flour and water that have gone through the process of fermentation, during which time the good bacteria and wild yeast present in the air and the flour are left to go through respiration. The mixture will begin to release carbon dioxide and ethanol—a sign of naturally forming yeast working some magic.
Feeding: After the first two-day rest for your sourdough starter, every day you’ll discard half (180 grams the first time) of the mixture and then replenish with the same amount of water and of flour mixture (180 grams each the first time). This is called feeding your starter. We use a 1:1:1 feeding ratio, meaning whatever is left of your starter after discarding (say, 100 grams) must be replenished by equal parts water (100 grams) and flour mixture (100 grams). Feed at the same time each day.
Leaven: A blend of water, flour, and sourdough starter, this mixture is sweeter and milder than pure sourdough starter.
How to Start Your Sourdough Starter
Three ingredients, two weeks, one formula: this is how you make a starter.
DAY 1 | MIX: 180 grams room temperature water, 90 grams bread flour, and 90 grams whole wheat flour
REST: 48 to 72 hours, at room temperature, loosely covered with lid or towel
DAY 3 | DISCARD: 180 grams (half) starter mixture
ADD: 180 grams room temperature water, 90 grams bread flour, and 90 grams whole wheat flour
REST: 24 hours, at room temperature, loosely covered with lid or towel
NEXT 2 WEEKS | REPEAT: Every 24 hours, repeat process from day 3 (discarding half and replenishing with the 1:1:1 ratio) for 2 weeks, or until sourdough starter shows consistent activity and rises and falls.
INDEFINITELY: After building your sourdough starter and seeing consistent activity, continue to feed your sourdough starter daily with the 1:1:1 ratio. We recommend feeding daily indefinitely for optimal health, but we have also seen success with feeding every other day. This will be dependent on individual starters, so make sure to monitor the health of your starter before making any significant changes. The starter that is discarded, coined sourdough discard, can also be saved and used in recipes. Find 7 Ways to Use Sourdough Discard here. If you are not making sourdough as often, see our Sourdough Starter Troubleshooting tips below on how to reduce the size of the starter.
Day 1: Once mixing together water and flour, the starter should have a thick, paste-like consistency. Now you’ll let it rest for a full 48 to 72 hours.
Day 3: After two to three days of rest, there should be some activity (namely, bubbles of carbon dioxide and a faint sour, tangy smell). There should be a slightly discolored skin on the surface of your starter. Remove the skin and begin discarding and feeding once a day.
Day 5: At this point, the sourdough culture should be showing significant activity, with plenty of good bacteria creating a noticeable sour smell and plenty of air pockets. In two weeks, it’ll begin to rise and fall on a regular basis—this is considered routine behavior and is a mark of a robust, healthy starter.
Sourdough Starter Troubleshooting
Common sourdough starter problems and how to solve them
The Problem: A pungent liquid has accumulated on top of your starter.
The Solution: Feed it! This liquid at the top of your starter is called “hooch,” the alcoholic byproduct of wild yeast fermenting. It will give off a pungent smell, like rubbing alcohol or paint varnish, and can take on a color, from black to gray to brown. No matter how off-putting it looks, know that your starter has not gone bad. It’s just ready for more-regular feeding. First, pour off the hooch on top. Then do regular feedings every 12 hours for the next few days and it’ll return to normal, with regular bubbly activity.
The Problem: You’d like to take a break from sourdough baking but don’t want to lose your hard-won starter.
The Solution: Dry it! Thinly spread your starter out on a baking sheet lined with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper, and leave it in the oven with just the light on. Over the next day, it’ll dry out. Once thoroughly dried out, it should easily come off the baking mat or parchment, and you can then break it into chips. Store the sourdough chips in an airtight container. When you’re ready to use it again, take 1 ounce of the sourdough chips and rehydrate with 1 ounce of water, stirring occasionally over the next 3 hours, until the chips have dissolved. Once chips are dissolved, stir 1 ounce of flour into the mix. Feed it over the next few days, and it’ll become active again.
The Problem: You’ve got an active starter but want to keep it small.
The Solution: By all means, keep it small. Once you get your starter active, you can scale it down to 1 tablespoon, feeding it with 1 tablespoon flour and 1 tablespoon water and discarding all but 1 tablespoon of starter each time. This will still give you an active starter to create leaven with while still keeping it small and low-maintenance.
This small amount of starter is perfect for our Sourdough Boule, which only calls for one tablespoon of starer. For recipes like our Sourdough Baguettes or Sourdough Ciabatta, which requires one or more cups of active starter, you’ll need to scale the starter back up again. Continue feeding the 1:1:1 ratio, but skip discarding to scale the starter up. This will take 3 or more days. As always, when you are ready to use your starter, remember to reserve at least one tablespoon of your starter to continue to maintain.
Sourdough Starter Deal Breakers
There are a couple things that will kill or spoil your starter and require you to start over from scratch. Here’s the deal (breakers).
Deal Breaker 1: Heat
Cold won’t hurt your sourdough starter too much—it’ll just make it sluggish in activity. It’s perfectly safe to store your starter in the refrigerator, taking it out once a week for feeding. In fact, starter has even been frozen and revived. But heat is a different matter. Yeast dies at 140°F (60°C), and your sourdough starter is even more sensitive than that. If you sit your starter in blazing sunshine in an unairconditioned spot, it may die. Keep your starter at room temperature (around 75°F/24°C) for the best results.
Deal Breaker 2: Mold
Mold is usually the sign of severe neglect, like not feeding your starter for a long time and leaving it in unideal conditions. Left to languish, your starter will develop mold or other bad bacteria. The truly dangerous mold is pink or orange in color. A happy starter, well-fed and kept at room temperature, can fight off this bad bacteria. But if you’ve neglected it for a while and it shows signs of this mold, you must discard it and start again.
Leave It to Leaven
The leaven is the final destination for your nurtured sourdough starter. Mix 80 grams water and 80 grams bread/whole wheat flour mixture with 1 tablespoon starter, and let it stand, loosely covered, overnight. It should have a milkier, thicker appearance than regular starterand a sweeter aroma. The leaven ensures that you have all the strength of the active bacteria without the acerbic sourness that is signature to the starter.