Make a Sourdough Starter

Every damn urban homesteader ought to have a sourdough starter living on their countertop. It’s easy and here’s how we do it around the Homegrown Evolution compound:

1. Get yourself a glass or ceramic container with a lid. It should be able to hold at least three to four cups of starter. Don’t use metal.

2. Put into this container one cup of white flour and one cup of lukewarm water and stir until mixed. Put it in a warm place. We use the top of our stove which has a pilot light.

3. Every day, pour off one cup of your starter and add a half cup of white flour and a half cup of lukewarm water.

4. Your starter should begin to get bubbly in a few days. A layer of liquid, known in sourdough fetish circles as “hooch” will form. Don’t be concerned, this is natural and simply stir it in every morning when you add the additional flour and water.

5. After one to two weeks, you should have an active culture of wild yeasts that will make your bread rise. You can now throw out those annoying packages of commercial yeast and bake bread the way ancient folks did for thousands of years. Just remember to feed your starter every day. We use the Torah’s mitzvah which suggests first feeding one’s animals (in our case our sourdough “pet”) before feeding yourself.

6. If you feel guilty about pouring off that cup of flour every day, and you aren’t making a loaf of bread, try making some sourdough pancakes.

7. If you aren’t going to bake for a few days put the starter in the fridge. Feed it once a week. To revive it, take it out of the fridge and give it a day or two of feedings before you use it.

So how does this work? What you have done is create a hospitable environment for a pair of organisms (wild yeasts and lactobacteria) that work symbiotically. The geeks at Wikipedia put it this way:

When wheat flour contacts water, naturally-occurring amylase enzymes break down the starch into complex sugars (saccharose and maltose); maltase converts the sugars into glucose and fructose that yeast can metabolize. The lactobacteria feed mostly on the metabolism products from the yeast.

The end result is a happy frothing mixture that due to its production of acid and anti-bacterial agents is resistant to spoilage.

Unfortunately the “internets” and bread cookbooks contain a great deal of misinformation about sourdough. Here are some of the many myths out there:

You should add grapes/potatoes/rice to the flour and water mixture to hasten the development of wild yeasts. Sorry folks, the wild yeasts are in the flour and you don’t need anything except flour and water to get a mother started. The wild yeasts on the skin of grapes are a different beast and not the kind that you are looking for.

You should add some commercial yeast to get it going. Wrong. Commercial yeast is another type of yeast that does not survive in the acidic/beneficial bacterial stew that makes up a healthy starter culture.

You should mail-order a sourdough starter. Wrong again. All you need is flour and water and a bit of patience. Wild yeasts, like love should be free. That being said, once you get your starter going, you can of course spread the love around and give some of it to friends so that they can start baking immediately.

You should use bottled water. We’ve done it with plain old LA tap water with no problems.

Wild yeasts are in the air and you have to “catch” them. Yes, there are yeasts in the air, but there are many millions more in the damn flour. If we had to “catch” wild yeasts we’d be making bread with Los Angeles yeasts, which would likely to be too busy yakking on their cell phones in search of an agent to bother helping to leaven a loaf of bread.

So now you have no excuses–creating a sourdough starter simple and there is no mystery to it. Get into your kitchen and get a starter going. To make a wheat starter go here. Check out our bread recipe for how to use your new starter here.

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24 Comments

  1. Two questions/comments on sourdough starter:
    1. When I take out 1 cup per day and add back 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup flour pretty soon I have nothing. What is the problem?
    2. I am in Houston. It is humid. I also now have mold growing in the starter. I grows everywhere. Solution?

  2. I should change the wording of these instructions to say that your goal is to keep the sourdough starter at around the 2 cup level. Sometimes that means throwing out a little less or adding a little more. I just eyeball it and if it seems to be getting low I’ll add a little more flour+water. Say 2/3 cup of each instead of 1/2 cup.

  3. I tried this, and when I went to bake the bread, it tasted great. but it didn’t rise. it was flat, and a bit like a brick. Any idea what went wrong?

  4. Anonymous,

    Could be a lot of things–did you let the dough rise long enough? Did the dough have sufficient water content? Was it a cold day? Water with chloronate in it is another possibility I’m looking into. I also recommend using a scale when mixing your dough. Bread baking has a bit of a science experiment vibe to it. When you have a problem you have to run through all the possible causes and eliminate them through experimentation. Keep at it and you’ll get the hang of it. Good luck!

  5. So, I started my sourdough starter (very exciting, btw). Is it supposed to smell so awful? When I went to feed it for the first time (24 hours after starting it), the smell was quite bad, almost like vomit. What did I do wrong?

  6. Anonymous, Are you using white flour? If not you should be to get it started out. Once it gets established you can convert it to a whole wheat flour. If you are using white flour keep feeding it consistently for a week and see if it stops smelling like vomit. Report back here if you have any problems and good luck.

  7. Thanks. This was day one with 1 cup of unbleached white flour and 1 cup lukewarm water. When I went to feed it for the very first time, the smell almost made me gag. I have it in a mason jar with the lid on, but not screwed tight. Is this how it should be? Again, thanks.

  8. Yep, you’re doing it right. Sometimes it starts out funky. Just keep feeding it everyday and see how it is after a week. Report back if you’re still having problems.

  9. Thanks for the post – I’m on Day 4 with a new starter (made with freshly ground whole wheat flour) and it smells super sour. I think I’ll try baking today or tomorrow and see if it’s ready yet.

  10. I’m trying to get a starter going, for almost 2 weeks now. It smells yeasty, but doesn’t seem to change in volume each day. Am I doing something wrong? Or is that the way it’s supposed to go?

    • A healthy starter should grow in volume a couple of hours after you feed it. Thereafter it will shrink back down. What time are you feeding it? Is it bubbly? Are you keeping it on the counter?

    • I’ve been feeding it at night, around 9 or 10. It’s not bubbly now, but I do leave it on the counter. It does have a layer of liquid on top. Would it hurt to try feeding in the morning, too? Thanks for your help.

    • The liquid on the top is ok–just stir it in. I try to feed my starter around 8 hours or less before I use it. It’s ready to use when you drop some in water and it floats. And, yes, you can try feeding it in the morning and watching what it does over the next couple of hours. Let me know if this helps and if you have any more questions. I’d also recommend a great book on sourdough–Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson. Lengthy directions and lots of pictures. Best of luck.

    • Thanks for your help. I’m going to feed this afternoon & watch it. I think having blogs to connect those who don’t know with those who do is one of the best uses of the internet!

  11. Pingback: Homesteading failures | gather and grow

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