February 27, 2012

Making a Sourdough Starter

This is bread I made using a sourdough starter that I made on January 10 of this year. It was delicious, but this post isn’t about the bread, it’s about the starter. I’ll have the recipe for the bread in a different post. In the meantime, if you’ve been contemplating making a sourdough starter of your own, I hope this post will encourage you to do just that.

I read so many different sites about how to make a sourdough starter. Everything sounded so intimidating. So many dos and don’ts. So many contradictions on different sites that had instructions. There were also many, many recipes for starters – recipes using pineapple juice and flour; milk and flour; water and flour. Some called for yeast and some didn’t. Some took a few days and others took several days. Some recipes said to pour off the hooch that formed and others said to stir it back into the starter. Some said you should refrigerate it, others said you could keep it on the counter as long as it was fed regularly.

Photo Credit
I finally came across one site that said something to the effect of “If sourdough starters were that hard to start, or keep, they wouldn’t have been around thousands of years.” This was my “aha” moment. I pictured “Cookie” out on the wagon trail making sourdough pancakes for the crew and thought, well, if he could  keep a starter alive in those conditions, surely I could do it, too!

I’ve made enough bread to know that yeast is a magical thing. Providing the yeast hasn’t deteriorated somehow, if you mix it with water, it’s going to do it’s thing. If the water is a little too cool, it’s still going to do it’s thing… it’s just going to take a little longer. I’ve never made anything with yeast that failed to work, so when I decided that I wasn’t afraid of making a starter, I just went with it.

Although this site was wordy (and yellow), I managed to wade through much of what I thought were  unnecessary steps and warnings. After I got past the distraction of underlined and bolded text, I ended up adapting a starter recipe from here only because I (erroneously) thought  that I would get more of a sour tasting bread by using milk in my starter. More about that later. 
As I look back on the instructions that I adapted to make things easier, even they sound complicated, but I’m including them because it’s how I actually made my starter. 
I like a sour tasting sourdough bread. The first time I made bread, I was disappointed that, although it smelled sour, it didn’t really have a sour taste. So much for my theory on using milk in the starter! After reading up on it, I found that most sourdough breads only have a mild sour taste, and that many factors determine how sour the bread is. I found the main factors to be hydration of the starter, rising time of the bread dough, and omitting sugar in the bread recipe.

*Hydration: I now feed my starter at 50% hydration, which is 1 part H2O and 2 parts flour.
*Rising time: The slower the rise of the bread, the more sour taste.
*Sugar: Omit sugar from the bread recipe
*Refrigeration:  When you make the sponge for the bread (usually the night before), refrigerate it overnight
*Citric Acid: Adding 1/8 tsp citric acid for each cup of flour used in the bread recipe will increase sourness. Do not exceed 5/8 tsp for entire recipe. King Arthur Flour sells this.

I haven’t made bread since I changed the starter hydration to 50%. When I do, I’ll come back and edit this as to the results, i.e., did I get a more sour-tasting bread?
It’s interesting that the region where you make the starter will give the bread a different taste and is dependent on air temperature, humidity, and even elevation. So, the bread that I make with the starter made in Montana will taste different than one you make in another climate.

Here are some notes I made along the way:

In order to keep the starter active, feed it at least every week using the  instructions for Day7.

If you want to bake more than one loaf of bread, plan ahead and increase the starter by doubling the feed ingredients using instructions for Day 7.

The starter may rise, then fall. This is okay; it only means that it needs feeding.

I covered my container with a paper towel secured with a rubber band. Don’t cover the container with a lid that won’t allow it to breathe.

I found a square 2-quart plastic container with a lid at the walmarts for $1.97. Do yourself a favor and find a round one.
The liquid that may form on top of the starter is called “hooch”. Hooch is alcohol (so that’s where the name came from!) Just stir it into the starter before you feed it. Or, drink it… I won’t judge.

If you’re going on vacation and won’t be home to feed your starter, you can freeze it or dry it to be revitalized later.  Or, if you wanted to send your best friend some of your starter, you could dry it and send it along through the mail.

This is from the King Arthur Flour Sourdough Primer, which I think is one of the best out there.
Freezing - You may be able to ignore your starter for a month or even much longer, but if you know you’re going to be away for a time, you can store it, unlike children or pets, in the freezer. You may want to transfer it to a plastic container first since it will expand as it freezes.
When you are ready to use it again, give it a day to revive, feed it a good meal, give it another day to build up an armada of fresh, new wild siblings and it will be ready to go to work.
Drying - An alternative storage method is to dry your starter by spreading it out on a piece of heavy plastic wrap or waxed paper. Once it’s dry, crumble it up and put it in an airtight container. Store it someplace cool or, to be safe, in the freezer.
To reactivate the culture, place the dried starter in a mixture of flour and water as described in the first section. To help the dried chunks dissolve, you can grind them into smaller particles with a hand cranked grinder, a blender or a food processor before you add them to the flour/water mixture.
I’ve heard from a few of you that you’ve wanted to make a starter. So, whether you use my recipe or not, I hope you’ll read up a little and then just dive right in and make one. It’s not as difficult or complicated as some sites make you believe. So go ahead, and then, before you eat them all up, post beautiful pictures of your sourdough breads, pancakes, waffles, pizza crusts, rolls, pretzels, and even cakes!
Here are the instructions I followed to make my starter.


  1. Lots of great info here, Karen! I made a starter years ago and made lots of bread from it so it would be great to do again. And to think how this has been around for thousands of years like you said...

  2. Karen, what a wonderful post and explanation on sour dough starter. I have read all different ways to do it also, and just have stayed away. So glad to hear it can be frozen or dried if you can't get to it for a while. Thank you. BTW, your bread looks fantastic.

  3. I've been dying to make a sourdough starter but I like mine really sour...should I wait for your next post to see if it is better?

  4. I agree, if Cookie can do it .... :) I tried sourdough starter last year and just found it too complicated. Seemed it needed more attention than my dogs. I'd love to try it again though.

  5. What GORGEOUS loaves of bread!!! I still find it too complicated, lol! I'll have to stick with my fake sourdough for now. Wish you lived next door!

  6. Your bread always looks so pretty Karen. When i was young, I hated that sour taste you talk of... but now I love it.

  7. What a fantastic post; Love to make bread and have always wanted to make my own starter. This one is saved so I can tackle when I get back home in April; thanks so much. glad I found you.

  8. Great instructions! I bought a dried sour dough mix once, revived it and followed all the directions. It was perfect, but it smelled so bad that I dumped it all- I think being pregnant at the time had an effect!! I can't wait to see more of what you do with this.

  9. Hi Karen, I just found your blog:-) I had a sourdough starter for 18 years! I didn't make it but was given it by a friend and told how to feed it. It's several years ago now that I got rid of it when the last of my children left home and we just weren't using it often enough anymore. I used it most often for biscuits and gave many jars of it away to friends. I loved the flavor of it and so did the many people who ate the biscuits! I kept mine in a Tuppereware juice jug (air tight) in the fridge for all those years. I fed it once a week if I hadn't used it and when it got too big for the container I just poured some off. It really is an easy thing to care for and we enjoyed it all those years!

  10. Wow, this is wonderful looking bread Karen! I have not tried to make sourdough yet. It always sounds so involved. But your bread looks so good that I may have to take the plunge. Can't wait to see more.

  11. I've thought about trying to make sour dough bread and didn't realize making the starter was such a project. Now that I think about it it makes sense that it is. This is a fantastic post, Karen, and I've printed it and will add it to my bread recipe file.

  12. Wow Karen, I had no idea just how much goes into making sourdough bread! I think I'm living vicariously through you on this one though, my brain is swimming in a sea of yeast right now :-) Maybe starting with a basic white bread would be in my best interest! Looking forward to reading more though, I love to hear how it all turns out (& that bread is making me drool right now!)

  13. I haven't done this for such a long time.
    Just looking at your bread....I need to start!

  14. I've always been so scared of sourdough but this post is so inspiring!

  15. I love homemade bread! This sounds delicious!

  16. you always amaze me with your work, very impressive :p
    thumbs up.

  17. Karen,
    After reading this post, you had made me want to get my own sourdough starter.

    I will let you know how it goes.


  18. Thank you for posting. :) As a sourdough newbie, I am wondering a) could I substitute water or almond milk for the whole milk? and b) could I substitute all-purpose flour for whole wheat/white whole wheat?


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