How to make sourdough starter with step-by-step recipe and all the troubleshooting techniques.
What is sourdough starter?
Sourdough starter is a fermented mixture of flour and water which is used as a leaven to bake sourdough bread. Think of it as the yeast that you use for bread baking - only that it is wild yeast and not the commercial ones available at the market. The process to build a starter takes time and depends on a lot of parameters - the flour used, the ambient temperature of your kitchen, etc. Once the starter is ready, it is quite low-maintenance.
You can make a sourdough starter with any kind of flour. I have made my starter with bread flour. I have also made a sourdough starter with atta or Indian whole wheat flour and it has worked really well. I will share the recipe soon.
Making the starter is definitely going to take time, but it is simple as long as you give it the love it needs and feed it diligently. Once it is ready, it can be stored in the refrigerator and needs to be fed once a week.
I have shared a post on how to maintain the starter, activate it and all the tips & tricks I learned in my sourdough baking journey. Once your starter is ready, bake the no-knead sourdough bread using a simple recipe that I have shared here.
Important points to keep in mind when making a sourdough starter
- FLOUR - Rye and whole wheat flour work really well for a starter, and here I have made my starter with bread flour which works equally well. Freshly milled flours work the best, but since I don’t have access to it, I stick with regular bread flour. As the starter gets active and bubbly, you can also feed it with plain flour. This starter recipe here is based on how I cultivated it with bread flour and the results may vary if the flour is changed. Remember not to use self-raising flour or bleached flour to make your starter. I have also made a starter with atta (Indian whole wheat flour) which has turned out really well.
- TEMPERATURE - The colder the ambient temperature, the longer it takes for the starter to grow and mature. The temperature is very important to establish your new starter and also activate it for baking. Ideally, the temperature that the starter loves is 22 to 28 degrees Celsius. Find a warm spot to place the starter - a sunny window (although if you are using a glass jar, place it in a brown bag to avoid direct contact with sunlight), in the turned-off oven with the light on, near a heating duct vent, on top of the refrigerator, covered with a blanket, whatever works best. It's always a good idea to test the temperature of the starter if possible.
- WATER - Use filtered water. Chlorinated tap water does not work when you are making a starter. It is best to use filtered or bottled water. If you do not have access to filtered water, use boiled and cooled water. The temperature of the water can also help. I use mildly warm water (20-22 degree Celsius) to make the starter, but take care not to use a higher temperature of the water - I have a food thermometer to check this.
- WEIGHING SCALE - Invest in a weighing scale. I have tried making a starter (and bread) by both volume and weight measurement and have seen that weight measurement gives me the best results. All my recipes here are based on weight rather than volume.
- STARTER JAR - I prefer to set aside a jar to make my starter and also to activate it every time I bake. After every use, I just wash it with warm water and set aside. Weigh your starter and note it down. This will help know how much starter is in the jar, how much to discard etc.
- KEEP NOTES - When you plan to make a new starter, make notes. Jot down the feeding time and amount, how much did your starter rise, the activities it had, etc.
- DISCARD - While making a starter, you have to regularly discard it. You don’t have to throw the discard away. From the fourth or fifth day onwards, the discarded starter can be used to make some yummy dishes - you can find my discard recipes here.
How to check if the starter is ready to bake
Your starter should be ready to bake by around day 7, but it will mature with time. By day 10 or 12, it will be more mature and would give great baking results.
To check if the starter is ready to bake, do the float test. Take a teaspoon of the starter and add it to a glass of water. If it floats on top, it is ready to bake. If not, continue the twice a day feeding routine for a few more days and test again. The best time to do the float test is when the starter is fully active, that is when it has risen and doubled. Float test is a good indication to know if a starter is ready, but is not a showstopper. A mature starter can give great results even if it does not pass the float test. Any starter that is 10-15 days old should give great baking results
Troubleshooting the starter
Why is my starter not bubbly and rising?
If the starter is not bubbly, it may need more frequent feedings. Also, check the temperature at which the starter is placed. It needs a warm spot to grow and develop bacterial and yeast culture.
Some new starters may take more time to become active and bubbly, which is completely normal. With so many factors influencing the bacterial and yeast growth, it is important to be patient and continue to follow the discard and feed cycles. You can also stir the starter one or two times between the feeds which can help in increasing the oxygen levels in it. The starter is healthy as long as there are no molds/black spots on it.
What to do if there are moulds?
If your starter develops black spots or has a pink tinge to it or is furry, you will have to throw it away and start again. Clean the jar thoroughly before starting a new starter. You may also consider changing the flour.
Why does my starter smell weird/funny?
When making a new starter, it is normal for it to not smell good during the first couple of days. It can have a strong and pungent smell in the beginning, and it can stink as well. This only means that you have caught yourself some wild yeast and the yeast culture has begun in the starter. Keep continuing the discard and feed cycle and as the starter starts to mature and ripen, it will have a fruity and yeasty smell with an astringent note to it.
Sometimes, a mature starter develops a funny smell - like nail polish remover or acetone. This means that the starter is hungry. Feed it to reduce the smell. The starter is perfectly normal. With a more frequent feeding cycle, the smell will go away completely. A healthy starter should smell yeasty or a bit like vinegar.
What is the dark liquid on top of my starter?
This is called hooch and happens if the starter is hungry. You can choose to throw it away or stir it back in - it does not make any difference to the starter. Just feed the starter right away. I prefer to stir the hooch back into it as this adds more sourness to the bread.
Why is my starter very liquidy?
If the starter is placed in a very warm place, it eats up all the food quickly turning it very watery or liquidy. If this happens, you will have to place the starter in a spot that is less warm. Continue to discard and feed, and move the starter to a slightly cooler spot to fix this issue.
What if I miss a feed?
While it is important to feed the starter regularly, the starter will not die if you miss a feeding cycle. But feed it straight away once you remember and continue with the regular feeding cycle. While making a new starter, I prefer to set a reminder on my phone so that I can feed the starter on time. But I can assure you by experience that mild negligence will not kill your starter. Once the starter is well established and goes into the fridge, it only needs to be fed once a week. Consider setting a particular day of the week as a part of the routine to do it.
Read how to maintain your established starter here.
This is easier said than done. It takes time for the starter to get mature and ripe, and it needs some love and care while it is developing. Remember there are no shortcuts to create a starter. Don’t rush into it as making and establishing a starter takes time. The only shortcut to make the starter fast is to have an established starter - consider getting some discard from friends and family who bake sourdough regularly.
Every starter is different and can behave differently. It may take anywhere from 7 to 14 days for the starter to be active, bubbly, rising double, and ready to bake. Don’t give up on your starter as long as there are no molds. It takes time but is absolutely worth it when we get to bake real bread with it.
Just start with flour and water, and nature will take its course to give you what is needed to bake the perfect loaf of real bread. I have tried to jot down everything I have learned here. Remember that this is a lengthy process, not a difficult one. Read over this article a couple of times, make a plan, and get your starter started.
Sourdough starter step-by-step recipe with photos
1. DAY 1: Weigh out 100 grams of flour and water, mix well and let it sit on the counter for 24 hours
2. DAY 2: Discard 100 grams of starter, add 50 grams of water and 50 grams of flour. Mix well and let it sit on the counter for 24 hours
3. DAY 3: Discard 100 grams of starter and feed with 50 grams of flour and 50 grams of water. Let it ferment for 24 hours
4. DAY 4 MORNING: There is some rise in the starter today. Discard 100 grams, and feed 50 grams of flour and 50 grams of water
5. DAY 4 EVENING: There is hooch on top meaning the starter is very active and is hungry. Discard 100 grams, and feed 50 grams of flour and 50 grams of water
6. Continue to discard and feed the starter for the next few days
How to make sourdough starter