this post is about making a sourdough starter from flour + water to use as a leavening agent for breads, batters, and other floury recipes.
Spending time in the kitchen, working with my hands and cooking from scratch is my jam. It’s a way of recharging for my introverted spirit and being able to slow down and focus on one thing.
I first heard of trapping environmental yeast with a sourdough starter when we moved into the farmhouse and I was looking up homesteading stuff. Up until then, the thought “where does yeast come from?” had never crossed my mind. I happily bought the packaged or bottled stuff and called it good.
But it turns out there’s quite a difference between man-made, isolated yeast and wild yeast. I use both, now, for different recipes – but the health benefits of wild yeast are pretty cool!
What is Wild Yeast?
Wild yeast is a type of fungus found in our everyday environments. In our home on surfaces, in our grains, all around.
What Is A Sourdough Starter?
A sourdough starter is simply
- A yeast trap
- A rational combination of flour and water combined in a container, fed, and tended to regularly.
- The oldest leavening agent known to mankind.
- Something that lasts for years and years if maintained well and can be passed down from generation to generation.
- What you use to make stuff “rise” instead of store bought yeast.
Why Make A Sourdough Starter?
Back in the 1850’s Louis Pasteur became the first person to isolate a single strand of wild yeast, thus leading to the mass production of man-made yeast – the stuff we buy at the store.
Before that time, the only way to leaven bread and baked goods was by harnessing the simple power of water + the air + grain, a.k.a. keeping a sourdough starter.
Wild yeast converts natural grain starches and sugars into CO2 which makes air pockets and rises dough, the cultures also contain healthful lactobacilli that convert proteins such as gluten into lactic acid and make it easily digestible and the many beneficial nutrients bioavailable.
Man-made, isolated, single strand yeast doesn’t do any of this, which is why most modern bread and grain recipes call for added sweeteners such as cane sugar. (My favorite Amish Bread Recipe does! Remember, I’m not trying to knock anything down here – just pointing out some differences) The added sugar feeds the yeast to give it rise, meaning that the natural starches and sugars in the grain don’t get broken down. Leaving us to consume fully intact, non-bioavailable, difficult to digest grain proteins.
I think this could be why a lot of people have gluten intolerance. I’ve heard of many people switching to ancient grains and a sourdough starter, then being able to consume bread and wheat again!
A Quick Note About Flour
This is one reason I love using ancient grains in addition to modern flours. Einkorn is one of my favorites, it’s the original wheat. The word ‘Einkorn’ literally means: single grain. There’s evidence of the earliest gathering of wild Einkorn wheat in the fertile crescent some 12,000 years ago, with Einkorn also being one of the first plants to be domesticated and cultivated about 10,000 years ago. WHY IS THIS so fascinating to me?! I love history!
Einkorn is a diploid wheat, containing two sets of seven chromosomes, with the modern, modified Durum wheat we consume in large quantities being comprised of 42 chromosomes.
Once again: just because I get this question A LOT. I don’t just use Einkorn. But it is something I use a lot of along with other organic, non GMO flours! I usually try to specify which flour I use in recipes.
As far as my starter goes – I’ve used everything form whole wheat to Einkorn to unbleached white. They will all work and your starter will adjust if you use different flours.
Instructions – Establishing A Sourdough Starter
This is a week long process! Yes – it takes a week to establish a sourdough starter before it’s ready to use. So just to be clear – the starter is unusable during this first week of establishment and any instructions that read “discard half” means you will either compost or throw away what you discard – not save or use it!
What you’ll need
- Glass/Stone Container – I’ve used a big glass mason jar, a stone crock, and a stone bowl. All work fine. Just no plastic or stainless.
- Wooden Spoon. The acids that develop in the fermenting process might react with stainless steel negatively. The validity of this is debatable, but use wood to be safe.
- Flour – any variation of wheat will work such as all-purpose, whole wheat, Einkorn, Emmer, etc.
- Water – I use well water and have never had a problem. But if you have city water or softened water, it could cause issues. I’d stick with some kind of purified water or well water (I use both, we have a filtration system but I love our well water). If you have highly treated water, a filtration system like this Berkey is probably not a bad idea anyway so your drinking pure water, too. Think about it – if the chemicals in treated water are enough to mess up a sourdough starter, which is a living thing – they can’t be good for humans either! Google that topic and prepared to be blown away.
- Cover – to keep bugs our of your starter. A loose fitting lid, doubled up cheesecloth [folded in half for 2 layers], or lightweight towel will work. I use these cotton towels and they’re may favorite. I throw it over my starter jar and puta rubber band around the rim. It keeps all bugs out and allows the perfect amount of airflow.
- Day 1In a glass bowl or container like this one, combine 2/3 cup water with 1 cup flour.
- Stir with a wooden spoon, scraping sides and incorporating well. You should get a batter-like consistency that runs smoothly from your spoon when you lift it from the container. Like thick pancake batter.
- If your starter seems too thick or clumpy, slowly add 1 T of water at a time until until you reach the right consistency. If too thin, add flour 1T at a time.
- Cover with a loose fitting lid, towel, or doubled cheesecloth. If air can’t get in, fermentation won’t occur. I use one of these towels with a rubber band around the neck of the jar to keep bugs out!
- Now that you’ve stirred water + flour together in your container and covered it, you’re finished for day 1!
- Store your starter on your countertop at room temp until day 2.
- Day 2Uncover your starter and remove half of the contents, discard what you remove. It’s unusable at this point. This is the only step that’s different than day 1.
- Next, add 1 cup of flour and 2/3 cup water to the remaining contents of your starter.
- Once again, your flour to water ratio may be different than mine and thats ok, you just want a thick pancake batter consistency.
- Stir the flour and water you just added into the existing starter contents
- Cover and store on the counter just like day 1
- Days 3-7Repeat day 2 instructions exactly.
- After a few days, you should notice that your starter almost doubles in size every 24 hours when you feed it
- You should also notice air bubbles on the top and that distinct sourdough smell.
- Day 8 By now, your starter looks like this and you are definitely ready to go with a mature starter that will perform properly in all of your sourdough recipes! Scroll down to the “Maintenance Section” to see how to use and store your starter from now on.
- Why is it necessary to discard half of the mixture while establishing my starter? This ensures the correct amount of cultures are being fed and the mixture is maturing properly. Also, without this step, feeding a starter for a week would overflow your container. Once your starter is mature, you only need to discard some when you don’t use it frequently enough and it grows too large. A great way to avoid wasting is to give your excess mature starter to a friend! Just remove what you don’t need, place it in a jar, and now someone else has a ready-to-go starter that will last as long as its maintained, just like yours!
- Do I have to use filtered water? Not if you have well water on tap, I love our well water and use it more than the water from my filter tap! But highly treated water will not react properly with the flour.
- My starter smells terrible, now what? Something is wrong! Your starter should smell like a really strong loaf of sourdough bread, but not bad or rotten. If it does, its probably not being fed often enough. This can happen in the summer if you store if on your countertop and your house gets a bit warm. You may need to feed it twice a day then or think about fridge storage if you don’t use it daily! The water problem can also cause a bad smell.
- There are bugs. Well, if its just a few and they’re alive, get them out, discard the top of your starter, feed it, and maybe try a towel with a rubber band around the top for a cover. This has been foolproof for me in keeping bugs out.
- There is mold. This has happened to me! And its because I forgot to feed my starter for like a week while it was out on the counter. Luckily it was just the top so I kept some from the bottom and transferred it to a new container. If the whole thing is moldy through and through, discard it and start over.
- I’m not getting a good rise after feeding my starter. It’s probably too thin. Increase your flour to water ratio.
- It won’t come off the spoon. Too thick. Less flour, more water.
- How do you know all of this? I have experienced every one of these things personally!
Feeding Your Starter
Your starter will need to be fed. Daily or even twice daily if you store it on the countertop. Weekly if you store it in the fridge. Feeding a starter means you just add 1 cup flour and 2/3 cup water to your starter and stir it up every day. Thats how you feed it. Easy!
This is the best option if you’ll be using your starter every day or every other day. When left at room temperature, the fermentation process is most active so your starter will need to be fed every day.
Just as seasons change, so will your starter. In colder temps, if you notice a less active starter, you can get by with fewer feedings, perhaps every other day?
In extremely hot temps, you may need to feed twice a day.
For less frequent use, storage in the fridge is your best bet. Refrigeration will slow down the fermentation process and your starter will only need fed once a week or so. So for weekly use, this is the way to go. However, I caution against leaving it unfed in the fridge for longer than a week or two max, it will take a while to revive.
To prepare your starter for fridge storage: simply feed your starter a little more flour and a little less water to achieve a stiffer consistency, let it sit on the counter for an hour or so loosely covered so fermentation can begin. Then seal with an airtight lid and place in the fridge for storage until you’re ready to use it again.
Reviving Your Starter after Refrigeration
Take your starter out of the fridge a minimum of two hours before you plan to use it and feed it 1 cup flour and 3/4 cup water, adding more if you want a thinner consistency. Then let it sit on the counter and ferment until you’re ready to use it. If you can remove and feed it the night before or 8 hours before use, that’s best. Then use it and either leave it out on the counter and feed daily or prepare it for refrigeration again.
Baking With Your Starter
You can make so many things with a starter! One of my favorites that we make a few times a week is sourdough pancakes for breakfast.