Sourdough Starter from scratch - step by step guide
Updated: Mar 29, 2020
Flour, water, salt - you need only these 3 ingredients to bake beautiful bread. To do this, you will need bubbly and vigorous starter.
The guide below will give you step by step instructions on how to prepare your own sourdough starter from scratch.
To start your sourdough journey you will need some basic ingredients:
Flour - we are using wholemeal rye flour to build the starter. You can also use wholemeal wheat flour to kick start the process. Wholemeal flours expedite the process and add resilience to your starter. On Day 5 we will transfer to regular feedings using 80% white bread flour (good quality, unbleached, free-from raising agents, organic all-purpose flour will work too) and 20% wholemeal rye flour. Again - rye will bring lovely wholemeal flavour to your breads and build in some resilience into your starter.
Water - choose non-chloride water. Chloride will hinder good bacteria growth. We will prepare starter at 100% hydration (1:1 ratio of flour:water, by weight).
Temperature - we will treat temperature as one of the ingredients. It has a major impact on cultures’ growth (acetic/lactic acid balance) and on bread baking process.
Digital weighing scale - use for precision of measurement. Weighing your ingredients will set you up for success. No guessing. This way you will be able to know how long it takes for your starter to mature, when to prepare levain etc. Not weighing ingredients precisely will add hard to predict volatility into your baking process.
Digital thermometer - as temperature is one of the key ingredients, it’s worth to invest few euro to measure the temperature correctly.
Glass jar - jar with clip top would be best. We will use it without the seal (to allow some access of air) but it’s good to buy one with option to put a seal on (in case you want to store it in the fridge later on). Weigh your empty jar and record it somewhere - this way you will know how much residue is left over.
From Day 1-5 we will feed starter once a day. Choose your time window and repeat the process at about same hour (let’s say, mornings 9-11am). On Day 5 we will introduce white bread flour (80%), cooler water and more frequent feedings. Around day 8-9 (but this can happen anytime between wk 2-4) we will introduce repeatable, regular feeding schedule of 1:5:5 (starter:flour:water, by weight), twice a day. At this point, when you are starting to build sourdough cultures, you will need to keep your starter in warm place (first 5-6 days at 24-26C), then going forward you will keep you starter at room temperature (anything between 18-27C). You will be able to keep your starter in the fridge (which will require less frequent feedings). However, at first, you need to build sourdough cultures and strong starter (this will take anything between 1-3 months, or longer). No point to start the process and put your starter to sleep at the beginning of the journey! That starter will not bake a good bread.
Day 1 - measure 100ml water (31-32C). We will use lukewarm water to kick start fermentation process. Add 100g wholemeal rye flour (or wholemeal wheat flour) and gently mix until combined and no flour pockets remain (don't over-mix). Your starter will have a paste-like consistency. Transfer to clean (sterilised) jar and leave uncovered at room temperature for 2 hours. After that time, cover with lid (without seal - for some access of air) and transfer to warm place (24-26C).
Day 2 - the starter is still fairly stiff but you already can see some bubbles. If you fed your starter with wheat flour - it will be more gooey/liquid-y and bubbles (if any at this stage) will be less pronounced.
Measure 100ml water (31-32C). Add 50g of your starter (take the good stuff from the middle). Give it a swirl and let it sit in water for 1-2 minutes. Then, mix briefly by hand to incorporate. Add 100g wholemeal rye flour and mix gently until no flour pockets remain. Discard the rest of your starter (don’t wash the jar - we are collecting cultures). Transfer freshly fed starter to the jar, leave uncovered at room temperature for 2 hours. Then cover and transfer to warm place (24-26C). You just fed the living creature - name your new buddy! :)
Day 3 - progress! Levain increased in volume, the mixture is less thick, there are some airy bubbles and it’s starting to smell less sour (rye will give sweet aroma, wheat will give pungent, sour porridge smell). Wheat starter will be thinner and will have consistency of gooey/mushy wheatabix.
Measure 100ml water (31-32C). Add 60g starter (take the good stuff from the middle). Give it a swirl and let sit in water for 1-2 minutes. Mix briefly by hand to incorporate. Add 100g wholemeal rye flour and mix gently until no flour pockets remain. Discard the rest of your starter (don’t wash the jar - we are collecting cultures). Transfer freshly fed starter to the jar. Gently even out the mixture and mark the level (use hairband or elastic band). From now on you will be tracking how active and vigorous your starter is. Leave uncovered at room temperature for 2 hours. Then cover and transfer to warm place (24-26C).
Day 4 - visible progress - levain at this stage will most probably double in size (this may take 1-2 days longer, so if it didn’t happen at this stage, give it more time and keep feeding). You can now see bubbles throughout. In wheat-based starters, these bubbles will be less visible but in texture it should resemble whipped cream consistency (with little bubbles - you should start feeling its gassiness). The starter is less thick, more goopy and is slowly changing into viscous texture. The smell (rye) is sweet/warm OR it will have medium-ripe pungency (wheat).
Measure 100ml water (31-32C), add 40g starter. Give it a swirl and let it sit in water for 1-2 minutes. Mix briefly by hand to incorporate. Add 100g wholemeal rye flour and mix gently until no flour pockets remain. Discard the rest of your starter (don’t wash the jar - we are collecting cultures). Transfer freshly fed starter to the jar. Gently even out the mixture and mark the level (use hairband or elastic band). Close the jar right away and transfer to warm place (24-26C).
Day 5 - the starter doubled in volume, has bubbles throughout. When you pull out a chunk you should feel its gassiness. It’s way less pasty and more goopy. You may get this look anytime between day 5-8. If you are not there yet - continue feeding with proportions from Day 4. Be patient, show your starter some TLC (keeping it at 24-26C) and keep going. On Day 5 our starter showed all the signs of readiness (gassiness, somehow viscous in texture, doubled in size) so we will slowly start transferring to regular feedings. We will introduce a blend of white bread flour (80%), wholemeal rye flour (20%) and slightly cooler water.
Measure 100ml water (28-29C), add 30g starter (take the good stuff from the middle). Give it a swirl and let it sit in water for 1-2 minutes. Mix briefly by hand to incorporate. Add 80g white bread flour and 20g wholemeal rye flour - mix gently until no flour pockets remain. Discard the rest of your starter (don’t wash the jar - we are collecting cultures). Transfer freshly fed starter to the jar. Gently even out the mixture and mark the level (use hairband or elastic band). Close the jar right away and transfer to warm place (24-26C).
Day 6 - our Beast is alive! Nice bubbles throughout. Most probably your starter peaked already on Day 5 and now there are signs of slow descent (little smudges and lines around the wall of the jar). This is a sign that your starter is hungry and needs more regular feedings (healthy descent will last max 2-4 hours, not longer). We will transfer to feedings twice a day, every 12 hours.
Measure 100ml water (26-27C), add 30g starter and gently mix in. Add 80g white bread flour and 20g wholemeal rye flour. Mix gently until no flour pockets remain (don’t over-mix). In a meantime, discard the rest of your starter and sterilise the jar. If you opt not to sterilise - wash with hot water (don’t use sponge or washing liquid). Transfer freshly fed starter to clean jar, cover and keep at room temperature (best to keep at 21-24C until cultures are established). Repeat in 12 hours.
Day 7 - starter tripled in volume. It has started developing viscous texture, you can feel its gassiness. It has pleasant, yoghurt/wheat/sweet/lightly sour smell. It's happy! It's bubbling away!
Feeding: repeat schedule from day 6.
Day 8 onwards - at some point (for this starter - it was already on Day 8!) you will need to transfer to feedings at 1:5:5 ratio (starter:flour:water, by weight), twice a day. You can use this ratio going forward as this should suffice to keep vigorous starter going (kept at room temperature).
How to know when to transfer to 1:5:5 feedings, twice a day?
Your starer will peak after few hours, will float at peak level for 1-2 hours and then start descending. If this descent lasts 4 or more hours - it will be too long and your starter most probably will be hungry (will start smelling like a vinegar and start changing from viscous into liquid-y texture). These are all signs you should feed it with more flour to start with (to last longer). You can feed using below proportions:
20g starter + 80g white bread flour + 20g wholemeal rye flour + 100ml water (26-27C), every 12 hours.
Alternatively, to minimise waste you can feed your starter:
10g starter + 40g white bread flour + 10 g wholemeal rye flour (or wheat) + 50ml water (26-27C), every 12 hours.
Keep discarding your starter residue - you can bake cakes, sweet doughs, make pancakes, crackers with it. After 3-4 weeks, you can start collecting discard in the fridge and when you have enough you can bake bread or rolls. It's important not to keep this excess in your main starter - it's like feeding your baby with food which passed its BBE date. It won't like it and you will loose hold on predictability of your starter and acetic/lactic acid balance.
How often do you need to wash the jar? It's up to you. Some bakers wash the jar infrequently. I wash it after every second feeding.
Keep your starter at room temperature (18-24C). In warmer temperatures - it will ferment faster, in lower - slower and less vigorous fermentation will occur. You want to keep your ‘baby’ cultures well pampered to establish vigorous fermentation. As your starter matures it will become more resilient.
Lower temperatures will favour acetic acid cultures (12-18C) and warmer temperatures (26-32C) - lactic acid cultures. Young starter will double or even triple in volume but remember that it has mainly acetic acid cultures at the beginning. It doesn’t mean it will be able to lift your bread as well as mature starter which triples in volume. As time passes, your starter will have more and more lactic acid cultures, until lovely balance between acetic/lactic acid cultures forms. With every bread you will start seeing visible progress.
You have created a little baby sourdough starter. It will crawl before it can walk, it will walk before it can run and sprint. Be patient and keep going.
It is also perfectly fine for young starters to go quiet for a day or two. Be patient and keep feeding. It’s very helpful to use sensory checks as you go - smell it, feel it, look at it (well maybe don't eat it raw :) - it will give you hints through your senses that it’s not happy (vinegar smell, no gassiness, liquid-y texture, unwanted residues at the top etc). Course-correct as needed.
How to know when to bake first bread?
Don’t rush it. Give your starter at least 7-8 days for it to get used to its feeding schedule. It can take anything between 7-21 days until you can bake your first bread. What signs should you look for? Starter which doubles or triples in predictable time - usually 6-8 hours after feeding, is vigorous, gassy, somehow viscous in texture with whipped cream consistency and feel. These are all good signs. Predictability is your key word here - with regular feedings you can pinpoint after what time your starter will peak (and use it at that time for bread baking). If your starter gives you all those signs - it's ready for bread baking.
Once your starter is well established you can start manipulating its flavour and hydration. Remember though that each transition will bring some volatility so your starter may react to it - smell, texture etc. It’s better to keep feeding your starter with one type(s) of flour(s) for as long as you can and experiment building the levain. Once you have your starter established, you may consider other storage options like: drying and freezing or keeping it in the fridge.