Sourdough basics: the starter

Naturally leavened bread, or sourdough, is one of the most satisfying things a baker can wish to pull from their oven. It does take time and a little patience, but the result will undoubtedly be some of the finest bread you have ever tasted.

Sourdough baked at home. Source: DWD.
Sourdough baked at home. Source: DWD.

Sourdough’s name refers to the slight tang in flavor caused by the production of acids during the retarded (cold) final proof, which can last from anything between 10 and 18 hours.

With a good method and an attention to detail, anyone can bake great tasting sourdough at home.

The starter
The starter. Source: DWD.

First, you will need what’s called a starter. This is a small quantity of flour and water that you leave to rest for a short period of time. With the help of natural bacteria (on your hands, in the air, in the flour), a yeast culture will form and it is this that you will use to make your bread rise.

You will use this starter every time you want to bake bread, so look after it: name it, nurture it, and make sure it’s always looking healthy.

The starter:

It’s important to be as accurate as possible when measuring flour and water quantities, and if you can, try to carry out each step at a similar time each day. Working the process of feeding your starter into your daily routine will make sure it is always strong and active.

You will need:

A clear 1ltr container

A set of digital scales, with at least 5g accuracy

350g strong white bread flour

350g water

Day 1:

In your container, mix together 25g of bread flour with 25g of water, using a fork to beat out any dry clumps of flour until you have a thick, smooth batter. Cover, and place in a warm spot (22-26c) to rest for 24hrs.

Day 2:

Scatter a little (5g) of bread flour over the batter and leave to rest for another 24hrs.

Day 3:

Add 50g of bread flour and 50g water to your starter, again mixing with a fork until smooth. Cover, and place in a warm area and leave to rest for another 24hrs.

Day 4:

By now your starter may be showing signs of life! Very small air pockets within the batter, visible from the side of your container, or a slightly acidic smell are both good signs that your starter is building up strength.

If your starter doesn’t exhibit any of these symptoms yet, simply scatter a little (5g) flour on the surface and leave to rest for another 24hrs.

If your starter is looking active, it is time to ‘feed’ it.

Pour away 100g of your starter, and to the remaining 100g in the container, add 50g bread flour and 50g water, beating together as you have done on previous steps. Cover, and leave in a warm place for 24hrs.

Day 5:

By now your mixture should be active. Discard 100g of your starter and add 50g of bread flour and 50g water. Mix together and cover, leaving it in a warm place for 24hrs.

Repeat step 5 for another two days, and by day 7 your starter should be strong enough to bake with.

After each feed you should be able to notice a regular ‘rise and fall’ in the starter. After you have fed it, the starter should appear relatively inactive, as it did at the beginning. It should smell milky and slightly sweet.

The starter immediately after feeding. Source: DWD.
The starter immediately after feeding. Source: DWD.

Two or so hours after the feed you should see an increase in volume, with air pockets in the batter visible from the side of your container and on top of the starter. It should still smell sweet, but with an acidic smell starting to build.

The starter two hours after feeding. Source: DWD.
The starter two hours after feeding. Source: DWD.

Roughly four hours after your feed the starter should be obviously active, often nearly doubling in size. At this stage the starter is referred to as ‘young’ and it should still exhibit a slightly milky aroma. The further into the 24-hour rest the starter goes, the more ‘mature’ it will become.

The starter four hours after feeding. Source: DWD.
The starter four hours after feeding. Source: DWD.

Once your starter rises and falls regularly after feeding, you are ready to bake bread!

Please note:
It is important to always replace the starter that you throw away with equal quantities of flour and water.

If you struggle to find a warm spot in your house, simply increase the temperature of the water you use when you feed the starter. Anything up to around 35c is fine (a little warm to the touch) but try not to go any higher than this as it will inhibit the fermentation process.

If you have any questions, or would like a FREE tub of the sourdough starter I use, please comment below or email me at: hugohharrison@gmail.com and I will reply within 24 hours.

22 thoughts on “Sourdough basics: the starter

  1. Hm.. I couldn’t get my starter to rise again after the first or second feeding. Tried bread flour, rye and spelt flour but failed after a few days. I’m going to try using your method and sprinkle the top with flour and use warmish water. Maybe it’ll work better this time.

    1. Hi Gigi. Yeah warm water and a sprinkle of flour may well help. It could be that your starter isn’t quite strong enough for a feed yet (where you dispose of some and replace with fresh flour and water). If that’s the case, just leave it for a little longer in a warm place to develop. It’s also important to not regularly change the flour you use for feeding, as the bacteria in each grain will vary. For example, rye flour often contains the whole grain, and white will usually have the wheat bran and germ removed.

  2. Starter usually looks active the first couple of days before going flat for a few days and then picks back up. The first active period is bacteria and the second is the yeast. Can take 7-10 days before it is stable.

  3. This looks like a great starter recipe. I’m looking forward to trying it, but I do have a question: my last starter started splitting and smelled vinegary, so I had to get rid of it. What was this and is there any way to prevent it or save it after it does this? Thanks 🙂

    1. Hi Loony, thanks for your comment. If a layer of liquid formed on top of the starter this is called ‘hooch’ and is simply a byproduct of fermentation: primarily alcohol. This top layer can be poured away and your starter can be refreshed/fed as normal. After four or five feedings it will hopefully be strong and active again. H

      1. I have heard of the hooch, but I didn’t get this on my starter, it just started smelling ‘off’ and the consistency went weird. I think this may have been because I was underfeeding it, but I researched how to save it and wasn’t successful. Is there a way to store your starter so you don’t have to feed it as often? I don’t bake bread more than weekly at most. Thanks, Loony.

      2. Ah I see. This could be that on one of your feedings your ratio of flour to water wasn’t quite exact, and so the batter was too fluid. In which case simply add more flour to thicken it. If you look at your starter from the side in a plastic container, it should almost have a very slightly domed top. To store your starter between bakes, after feeding it place it in the fridge! If it’s left for over a week you may notice some hooch on the surface, but again simply pour this away. Try to feed your starter at least three times after it has come out from the fridge before baking, or until it is regularly rising and falling. H

      3. Thanks!! Can you overfeed a starter as well? Is there a recommended time period to wait while doing the three feedings before baking? Sorry for all the questions, it’s just great to have someone’s brains to pick!!

      4. No problem at all! It is hard to say: usually a good indication that a starter is ready to be fed is when it has risen and then fallen back to it’s original level again. If the starter is very active and in a warm spot it can need as many as two or three feeds in 24hrs. But after the starter has regularly risen and fallen after three days (possibly up to 6 feedings if they’re twice daily) it should be strong enough to bake with.

  4. Here’s one for you: I got to day three with a starter that looked like it was really vigorously bubbling and (pleasantly) sour-smelling, so I decided to feed it for the first time. I removed 100g of starter and replaced it with 50g bread flour (same as the original on day one) and 50g water from the tap, without being too precise on the temperature but making sure it wasn’t too hot; lukewarm at the most. Later in the evening (3 hours after feeding) I noticed a thin layer of water on top that had increased overnight. The started itself seemed to have deflated and when I stirred it this morning it didn’t seem to be very active at all. It smelled much more sour than it did twelve hours earlier so I decided to dump it and start over again with water that had been previously boiled and brought to room temperature. Was I too hasty in giving up on the first attempt? I plan on using bottled water for this attempt.

    1. Hi John, sorry for the delayed response! I can think of two things that may have happened here: perhaps your starter was not strong enough for a feeding yet, despite it’s bubbling characteristics. Or, perhaps not enough starter was left in the tub once you had removed the 100g. Since writing this post I have found two things: firstly, a blend of light rye and white might give your sourdough starter a better chance at life if you are starting new. For this, simply blend 300g light rye with 300g white bread flour, and use this ‘blend’ whenever you feed your starter. Secondly, on the first feeding get rid of all but 40g of your starter. To this 40g of starter add 40g of water (filtered, or booed may also give your starter a better chance), and 40g of your light rye/white flour. It should be very thick and after a vigorous stirring almost ‘sit up’ in the tub. This is not a problem as after an hour or so it will have settled. I hope this helps, and please get back to me if you have any other questions!

  5. I’m back!
    I’ve started my starter and I’m on Day 4. After trying to pull it out of its container to weigh the container alone (to measure weight of the starter at any given time) it showed considerable strength, stretching a LOT and generally being difficult, which I think is good. It might be that I have a lot of good wild yeasts around because the starter was active from Day 2. The only problem is the smell; quite acidic and icky. Is my starter okay?

    1. Fantastic news! The elasticity is a good sign, but when it is mature it shouldn’t stretch too much. The Starter should smell quite acidic and vinegary just before you feed it, and here we refer to it as ‘mature’. After you refresh it with new water and flour it should smell quite milky, and here the starter is referred to as ‘young’. Hope that helps and please come back with any questions if you have them.

      1. I fed him again the next day and yes, he smells milky after I feed him. I fed him today and he smelt REALLY acidic beforehand, and afterwards, though he smelled milky at first, he resumed an acidic smell pretty quickly. Apart from that he’s behaving pretty well and I’m hoping to bake with him in a couple of days. I was wondering how mature your starter should be when you bake with it? Also, apparently my sourdough needs to retard in the fridge.. how long should this be for?
        Thanks 🙂

      2. Great! Next time you feed the starter keep an eye out for if it is rising and falling in its container? After you feed it, within a few hours it should be rising (or increasing in volume) as the bacteria get to work on the fresh flour and produce gas. It will then decrease in volume back to its original size, and this is when it will smell acidic. If the starter is smelling very acidic, it could mean that you’ll need to up the feedings to twice a day. You’ll know when it’s ready for a second feeding – which is when it has completed a full cycle of rising and falling in volume.

        For the best results I would recommend retarding the dough in the fridge. Depending on the temperature of your fridge loaves can take anywhere between 8-16 hours to rise.

        After you shape your loaf, poke it with your finger and the indent your finger made should spring back immediately. After 8 hours in the fridge, poke the rising loaf again – if it springs back quickly then it will need another couple of hours rising. If it bounces back but slowly (around 5 seconds as a general rule) then your loaf is ready for the oven. If it fills the indent extremely slowly or not at all then your loaf is over-proofed.

        Next, make sure that your oven is VERY HOT before baking your dough. Hope that helps!

      3. Thanks! I think instead of feeding him twice a day (which is difficult with time and cost) I’m going to keep him in the fridge during the week, until Thursday or Friday when I can bulk him up for baking. Because of how long it takes I’m planning on retarding the dough either overnight or tomorrow, but I’m no sure which I should do because I usually feed him in the afternoon, so he’d be fairly young when I used him, or about halfway (although ‘halfway’ may actually be mature, if he is needing more feedings.) Thanks 🙂

    1. He’s still alive!! Thanks so much for this recipe and all your help. He’s just spent about two weeks in the fridge without being fed (I’ve been very busy and forgetful.) He has been fed now but is still smelling vinegary instead of milky like he usually does. If I feed him again every 8 hours or so (he usually matures fully in 12 at room temp) will he come back to normal??
      Thanks,
      Loony

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