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Creating a sourdough starter from scratch can be a frustrating combination of science and art.
With the recent shortages of bread in the shops, I took the plunge and created my own sourdough starters – a wheat-based one and a gluten-free sourdough starter.
The process ended up being immensely satisfying, and yet also incredibly frustrating, because of the things you don’t know when you’re making a sourdough starter for the very first time.
So I’ve put together a collection of sourdough starter tips, from one complete beginner to another, to save you making the same mistakes that I did.
And if you read and take on everything I’m sharing with you, my hope is that your sourdough starter journey will be much easier than mine was!
Here’s a quick overview:
- Tip #1 – Be REALLY patient
- Tip #2 – Feed when hungry
- Tip #3 – Use quality ingredients
- Tip #4 – Be precise
- Tip #5 – Adjust hydration ratios
- Tip #6 – Keep it warm
- Tip #7 – Get used to the discard
- Making a sourdough starter from scratch
- Gluten-free sourdough starter
- How to store a sourdough starter
- Easy sourdough bread recipes
- Further reading
OK, let’s dive into the details.
Tip #1 – Be REALLY patient
And by this I mean be really, REALLY patient.
I am not by nature a very patient person, and there were many points during the early days of my first sourdough starter that I thought I’d got it all wrong and wanted to throw it away and start again.
In fact, I got so discouraged, that I put my starter in the fridge and left it for over a week before trying again.
Happily, I think neglecting it for this long actually helped, because it gave my microbes more time to multiply than I’d been giving them to before.
The point is, it will take longer than you expect, so be extremely patient with the process.
You’ll probably see blog posts out there that promise you a thriving starter in a week, if you just follow their steps.
But I just don’t think that’s true when you’re creating a sourdough starter for the very first time. There’s too much you don’t know.
So be willing for it to take 2 weeks – or longer – and trust that EVENTUALLY you will get there.
And no matter what happens, don’t throw it out!*
* Unless you get pink mould on your starter, in which case, you will need to start again.
To quote from one of my favourite movies, Galaxy Quest:
“Never give up. Never surrender!”
Tip #2 – Feed when hungry
If you’ve had kids, you might recall the old “feed every three hours” advice or whatever from the 70’s and 80’s, which over the years became “feed when hungry, roughly every 2-5 hours” by the time I had kids.
And trust me, this works a LOT better than feeding on some rigid schedule.
Have you ever tried feeding a baby when they’re not hungry? Trust me, it’s no fun for anyone and you just end up with milk everywhere.
Well the same applies when feeding your sourdough starter – wait until it’s hungry before you feed it!
I didn’t really appreciate this when I started my first batch of sourdough starter, and fed my starter religiously every 12 hours after the first couple of days, but I think this was actually slowing it down.
I got so discouraged I stuck it in the fridge for a week, and I suspect this was what actually rescued me, because finally my microbes finally had time to grow!
I wasn’t giving it enough time to actually thrive, and so instead of building up a strong stater, I was just diluting it out, and getting nowhere. And getting super frustrated.
So when you’re starting out, let your starter sit around for longer than you think you should, and you’ll have much better success.
Wait until it’s doubled, peaked and started to drop down before you touch that thing. In fact, if you wait as much as 6 hours after it’s started dropping back down, it’ll be fine, I promise!
And if it doesn’t seem to be doing anything at all, wait longer. Give it 24 hours, 36 or even 48, especially in the first few days.
It won’t starve to death, I promise, and you might just get to your healthy, thriving sourdough starter a lot faster.
And if all else fails, stick it in the fridge for a week. It worked for me ;)
Tip #3 – Use quality ingredients
I created my wheat-based sourdough starter using whatever leftover bits of wheat flour I had lying around the kitchen.
It worked, but it didn’t really start thriving until I started feeding it a quality wholemeal spelt flour.
And in fact that’s the only thing I’ve fed it with in the last couple of months and now it’s super strong and healthy.
With my gluten-free sourdough starter, I was feeding it brown rice flour and buckwheat flour, and getting nowhere fast (see Tip #2).
But then I had the bright idea to add some gluten-free flour blend to it, and it took off like crazy.
And then I tried making a loaf of bread with it, which was pretty much a total dud.
The trouble was that the gluten-free flour blend was made up of highly-refined flours like potato and corn, and it was almost like feeding my starter pure sugar.
Sure it was “bouncing off the walls” happy, but it wasn’t creating a resilient, strong starter that could make a good loaf of bread.
I tried tapioca flour instead of the gluten-free flour mix, and although it did better, it still wasn’t thriving.
So I switched the refined flours out for quinoa flour, and although it took another couple of weeks for my gluten-free sourdough starter to get really strong and happy, when I used it for a second time to make a gluten-free sourdough loaf, it was much more successful.
And remember that your starter is a living creature, so if you want it to be strong and healthy, don’t feed it rubbish.
Give it wholegrain, unrefined flours that contain lots of nutrients to keep it happy.
And along with that, use the best quality water you can.
I use filtered water for all of my cooking and drinking, and also for my sourdough starters.
Plain tap water may contain all kinds of “extra” things that can adversely affect your starter.
Think of it like this – if you wouldn’t eat it, don’t feed it to your starter.
Quality ingredients build a resilient, healthy starter that will bless you with many loaves of wonderful bread, so take care of it!
Tip #4 – Be precise
OK, just remember that I’m a scientist by training, so I can’t help but be precise.
But trust me, measuring out your ingredients precisely is going to make your sourdough activities so much more effective.
Every time you feed, you need to add a known amount of water and flour, plus a known amount of starter.
And especially early on, the more precise you are, the faster your starter will thrive.
Once it’s strong and healthy, you can be a bit more approximate with your quantities and it will be just fine, but sadly accuracy in the early days is quite important.
About 20 years ago I bought myself a set of electronic kitchen scales which we used every single day for so many things – they’re absolutely essential in my kitchen.
With the wheat-based sourdough starter, you’re generally using 1 part starter, 1 part flour and one part water, so you might be able to get away with not weighing your ingredients.
But remember that 1 cup of flour does not weigh the same as 1 cup of flour (it’s about 125g), and you need to do equal amounts by weight, not volume.
And when I was struggling with my gluten-free sourdough starter, I quickly realised that each flour I used needed a different amount of water to create the right consistency.
Too much water, and the mix is runny and bubbles can’t form properly and push the mix up.
Not enough water and the mix is too thick, and it also won’t move up.
You have to get that hydration ratio just right to make your starter a success.
So find a way to be precise and consistent with your amounts.
Tip #5 – Adjust hydration ratios
And speaking of hydration ratios, it really is important to get the consistency of your mix right to allow your starter to thrive, and create bubbles in the mix.
What is a hydration ratio?
Basically it’s the ratio of water (hydration) to flour.
If you use 100g of water per 100g of flour, you have a 100% hydration ratio.
Using 90g of water per 100g of flour would be a 90% hydration ratio, and 120g of water per 100g flour would be a 120% hydration ratio.
I found that my wheat sourdough starter thrived on a 100% hydration ratio for the wholegrain spelt flour I was using, and that’s also what you’ll read in most recipes for making your own sourdough starter.
So that generally means, if you transfer 120g of starter to a new jar, you add 120g of flour and 120g of water.
This seems to create just the right “smooth peanut butter” consistency in the mixture that’s ideal for the sourdough starter.
BUT, for my gluten-free sourdough starter I had all kinds of issues with the hydration ratio.
Firstly, I kept changing my flour mix, so my hydration ratios were all over the place.
Sometimes my mix was too wet, and it would separate out with a layer of water at the bottom, but be too heavy for the starter bubbles to push it up.
Sometimes it was too dry and thick, and I could barely mix it together, and my sourdough starter had no chance of pushing up past the thick gluggy top layer that formed.
I also read online that gluten-free flours generally soak up more water, which is why I ended up with wet mix so often.
But I kept playing with it, and finally discovered that my buckwheat/brown rice/quinoa blend actually needed about a 93% hydration to create the right consistency.
So keep playing with the hydration ratios to suit the specific flours you’re using, make a note of what works, be precise, and keep trying.
Remember you’re aiming for a “smooth nut butter” consistency when you feed your starter – one that is thick and may take some strength to mix, but is smooth and well mixed.
Tip #6 – Keep it warm
The temperature of your kitchen will also make a big difference to how quickly your sourdough starter gets going.
My wonderful ducted heating keeps our house at around 20-23ºC, which helps my sourdough grow more quickly.
If your house is on the cooler side, you’ll probably find that your sourdough takes longer to grow, both between feedings and also the total time it takes before it’s ready to cook with.
If you can find a warm spot in your kitchen, like next to the dehydrator, or the oven, this will help your starter to thrive.
Just be careful not to let it get too hot, as you may start to kill off your wonderful microbes if it gets above 30ºC/86ºF, or at least, it won’t grow as fast.
The best temperature for your sourdough starter is between 25ºC/77ºF to 28ºC/82ºF.
And if you really want to nurture your starter, especially in the early days, try feeding it with warm water, at around 27ºC/80ºF.
I boil my kettle for a few seconds and I use my hand dandy infrared thermometer to make sure the water is around 27ºC/80ºF before I use it.
Just be careful not to use water that’s too hot of you’ll cook your beautiful starter babies!
Tip #7 – Get used to the discard
Ugh, one of the things I’ve struggled most with making my own sourdough from scratch is the amount of starter I’ve had to throw away.
Yes, you can make it into things, but there’s only so many sourdough pancakes my kids will eat!
I simply detest wasting good food, and throwing away 2/3 of my starter each time seems like SUCH a waste.
But there were a couple of things I realised that really helped me.
Firstly, every time you feed your starter, you’re tripling the volume, so if you didn’t throw any away, you’d very rapidly have jars and JARS of the stuff and have to use kilograms of flour each time.
So by throwing away an amount of starter each time, you’re saving yourself from using tons of flour every time you feed it.
Secondly, I see the “wasted” flour as the price of creating a healthy and strong sourdough starter.
And it all goes into my compost to feed my garden anyway, so happily it’s not going completely to waste. It will end up feeding me eventually.
And of course, there’s nothing stopping you from getting creative in the kitchen with the discard portion.
But the sooner you can get comfortable with the discard, the easier you’ll find the process, and the more you’ll enjoy it.
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Making a sourdough starter from scratch
She’s my wheat-based sourdough starter, and she’s been thriving since mid April.
I followed a great recipe from Feasting at Home, which I highly recommend you also check out.
Maybe I didn’t read her tips properly, or maybe I just didn’t understand what was really required.
But although I followed her process faithfully, I ran into all of the issues I mentioned above.
So let me explain the process of creating a sourdough starter from scratch, in my own words.
Kicking off the sourdough starter
- Put 1 cup (125g) of whole wheat flour and 1/2 cup (125g) water in a glass or ceramic container (a wide-mouth mason jar works well)
- Mix thoroughly, until you achieve a “smooth nut butter” consistency” (it’s OK to add a little more water to get the right consistency if need be)
- Put the lid on, or cover it with wrap or a damp tea towel to keep the moisture in
- Let it sit on the bench at room temperature for a minimum of 24 hours (and up to 48 hours), until you see tiny bubbles in the mix
Feeding your starter
This is the process you’ll use every time you feed your starter.
- Keep 1/2 cup of starter, or transfer it to a new clean container (makes it easier to see doubling). Discard the rest
- Add 1 cup (125g) of whole wheat flour and 1/2 cup (125g) water
- Mix thoroughly until you achieve the right consistency (I find that a fork works best for this)
- Leave on the bench until it’s hungry again, then repeat
I’ve discovered that it’s a heck of a lot easier to add the water to the starter and mix it thoroughly first.
Then, when you add your flours, it’s easier to mix it in, and you can be confident that your starter is well mixed in because it’s completely blended with the water.
When to feed your starter
In the early days, you’ll probably need to wait for as much as 24-36 hours each time for bubbles to appear and for it to rise.
And it probably won’t rise very much initially, so you’ll want to feed it once it has stopped increasing in height, or has lots of bubbles, even if it hasn’t grown upwards much.
Remember, you’re better off to leave it for too long, than feed it too often, so trust that it will be OK if you leave for 36-48 hours to make sure it’s growing properly.
Eventually, your sourdough will begin to grow so much that it doubles in height, and then it will start to drop back a little. This makes it much easier to see when it’s ready for a feed, but you won’t have that feedback in the early days.
Once it begins to drop back, then it’s hungry and you’re good to feed it. It’s also OK to not feed it for several hours after it’s begun to drop back, if you can’t get to it.
Eventually you’ll find that your starter doubles in less than 12 hours, and then you can start feeding it twice a day.
If you start feeding it twice a day before it’s doubling this fast, you’ll be diluting your starter instead of making it stronger, so be patient and let it sit for as long as it needs to before feeding again.
I find that 7AM and 7PM works well with my schedule, but of course you can just adjust it to suit your routine.
Knowing when your sourdough is ready to use
Of course the thing we’re all hanging out to do is make our first sourdough loaf with our new starter, so how do we know when it’s active and ready to use.
There are two criteria you’ll need to use to know that your baby is ready to use:
- Your starter doubles in less than 8 hours
- A teaspoon of starter floats in water
Then you’re ready to explore all the wonderful sourdough bread recipes that are out there and create your first masterpiece.
Gluten-free sourdough starter
Cordelia is my gluten-free sourdough starter, and is finally thriving after weeks of messing around with flours and hydration ratios.
She’s Emelia’s daughter. In other words, I used some of Emeila to start Cordelia.
I’ve read that it takes just as long to start a new sourdough starter as it does to convert an existing wheat-based one to gluten-free.
And having gone through that process, I would wholeheartedly agree.
But I like the idea that both of my sourdough starters are related, like I have a whole family of microbes making bread for my family.
The process for feeding (and creating) a gluten-free sourdough starter is the same as for a wheat-based one, with two key differences:
- The flours you use
- The hydration ratio
I’m using a blend of flours to feed my gluten-free sourdough starter, because my bread recipes use a blend of flours, so I want my starter to be used to feeding off a range of flours.
The blend of flours I’ve settled on that’s working really well for me is:
- 1 part buckwheat flour
- 1 part brown rice flour
- 1 part quinoa flour
The buckwheat and brown rice flours form the base of my bread recipe, so I know my starter will be used to those, and the quinoa is in there for three reasons:
- It’s really nutritious, including being high in protein
- I don’t like the taste in my bread recipe, so I’m using it up!
The quinoa part is the one that I kept swapping out for other flours, until I found that the quinoa works best for me. When I run out of quinoa, I’ll probably swap it for besan or millet.
I would recommend for you that you begin your gluten-free sourdough starter with the same wholemeal flours you’ll be using in your final bread recipe.
So if you prefer sorghum and millet as the base for your bread, use those.
I have read that rice and buckwheat are great grains for starting sourdough starters, so I ‘d recommend including at least one of those in your blend.
So when I want to feed Cordelia, I measure out 120g of starter, and add 40g each of buckwheat, brown rice and quinoa flours.
And then comes the hydration ratio.
Like I said above, although I read that gluten-free flours are typically thirsty, I’ve found this blend to be quite the opposite.
My ideal hydration ratio is 93%, which means that for every 100g of flour, I’m only adding 93% water.
So for 120g of flour, that’s 112g of water.
I also find that when I first mix it all together it seems impossibly dry and stiff, but as I continue mixing and stabbing with a fork, the mix transforms into the perfect “smooth nut butter” consistency.
How to store a sourdough starter
Storing your starter in the fridge
The best way to store your starter, once it’s growing strongly, and you don’t currently need it to make bread, is to feed it and then put it into the fridge.
So if you’ve just used it to make a loaf of bread, then feed it as per usual and put it straight into the fridge.
I recommend putting a label on it so that you know when it was last fed, as you’ll need to feed it every week or so. Some sites say that you may be able to go for as long as a month between feedings.
You’ll see that it still bubbles and doubles, just more slowly than usual.
Keep an eye on your sourdough, and once it’s peaked, feed it as per usual, and then put it straight back into the fridge.
If your sourdough gets some liquid on top, that’s OK, it just means that it’s hungry and ready to be fed.
When you’re ready to make a loaf of sourdough, take your starter out of the fridge and feed it twice – once to get it going happily, and the second time to use in your loaf of bread.
Although you could feed it just once before using it to make bread, doing the second feed ensures that your starter is really thriving before cooking with it, which will make for a much more successful sourdough loaf.
And then just feed your leftover starter and put it back into the fridge until you need it again.
Storing your starter in the freezer
If you’re not making sourdough bread every few weeks, you may want to put your starter into long-term storage, which you can do by freezing.
Just take a cup of your starter, put it into a sturdy freezer bag or freezer-safe jar, and put it into the freezer. Make sure you label it with a date!
When you need to make bread with your sourdough starter, remove it from the freezer and let it sit on the bench to thaw at room temperature.
You’ll need to revive your starter by feeding it regularly for a while after being frozen, similar to the process you used when starting out.
Feed your starter when it’s hungry until it doubles within 8 hours, and you’re ready to make bread again. Make sure you follow the 7 tips above to maximise your success with bringing your starter back to full strength.
Drying your sourdough starter
Another option for long-term storage of your sourdough starter is to dry it out.
To dry your sourdough starter, you add enough flour and mix it in thoroughly (using your hands to break up any clumps) until the entire mixture feels very dry.
You then let the mixture sit out, exposed to dry air for an hour and then put it into a sealed, air-tight jar in a dark, cool place in your pantry.
Alternatively, you can spread your starter out in a thin layer and put it into a dehydrator set to 25ºC and dry it until the mixture lifts and cracks, and looks completely dry.
Make sure you don’t dry it at a temperature any hotter, or you risk killing your microbes instead of preserving them.
Again you’ll want to store this dried sourdough starter in a sealed, air-tight jar in a dark cool place.
With this method, you want to ensure that there’s no moisture able to get to your dry starter.
To revive dried sourdough starter, you add water to rehydrate it, and then additional fresh flour to feed it, and then swing back into the usual feeding schedule.
Easy sourdough bread recipes
You’ve created your amazing sourdough starter using just flour and water, it’s thriving and growing happily and rapidly.
What do you do with it now?
The short answer is, you make some bread with it!
But the longer answer is that it may take some time and practice before you perfect the art of the sourdough loaf.
Making good sourdough bread is an entire art unto itself, so I’m not going to try and even begin to explain how to do that here.
But then there’s no shortage of options and tips on making great sourdough bread out there on the internet, so I suggest you do some exploring to find an approach that works for you.
Here’s a selection of easy sourdough bread recipes to get you started on your sourdough bread journey:
Wheat sourdough bread recipes
- No-knead sourdough bread by Feasting at Home
- Easy Sourdough Artisan Bread by An Oregan Cottage
- Simple Sourdough Bread Recipe by Don’t Waste the Crumbs
- A Basic Sourdough tin Loaf Recipe by The Sourdough School
Gluten-free sourdough bread recipes
- Seeded Multigrain Gluten Free Sourdough Bread by Vanilla and Bean
- Gluten Free Sourdough Bread by Baking Magique
- Gluten Free Sourdough Bread by Healthy Taste of Life
- Gluten Free and Vegan Sourdough Bread by Fermenting for Foodies
These recipes should give you a place to start on your sourdough bread journey.
With my preference for low-fuss, my favourites are the gluten-free and tin recipes, because they’re so much easier to do, so that’s what I’m going to be focusing my time on from here.
Hopefully you’ve learned how to succeed with making sourdough starters from scratch, and that you’re enthused about jumping in and getting started.
If you’re looking for even more great information, here’s some of the articles that really helped me out as I was learning:
I look forward to seeing what you create!
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