Learn how to make a sourdough starter from scratch in today’s post, a traditional method for making easier digested, naturally-leavened homemade breads and baked goods.
I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that there has been a sourdough revolution this year. My guess is that COVID really inspired people to get creative and try out some new things. Not sure why sourdough became the popular thing, but it kinda did, and I’m all here for it.
I actually first tried making a sourdough starter back in the Spring. I had two on the go: a spelt starter and a gluten-free buckwheat starter. The spelt one turned out really well but I had less success with the buckwheat one which turned me off of the whole thing until I tried it again last month using only spelt. I’m pleased to say that my sourdough starter is thriving and I’ve made a few delicious recipes with it so far.
What is Sourdough Starter?
Sourdough starter is a mixture of flour and water that has undergone a fermentation process from the presence of friendly microorganisms, such as lactic acid bacteria and wild yeasts, that break down carbohydrates and other components in the flour (grain). If you’re wondering where they come from, they’re simply present in the environment, so they don’t need to be added. Your starter is literally alive!
The fermentation process is what helps improve the digestibility of the grain (flour) and increases nutrient availability. Sourdough starter is used as a base for all kinds of breads and baked goods without the use of a leavening agent, as the fermented dough takes care of that for you.
Sourdough starters are made by mixing together flour and water, then continually “feeding” it this mixture as the fermentation process begins. It takes about a week for your sourdough starter to be ready to use, although it can take a couple months for it to be fully mature.
Health Benefits of Sourdough
Grains, beans, and nuts contain an anti-nutrient compound called phytic acid that acts as a protective mechanism (it prevents insects from eating them) and to keep them from spoiling. Anti-nutrients can hinder our ability to absorb certain nutrients like iron and zinc, and can make these kinds of foods harder to digest. However, preparing foods like grains properly significantly reduces, if not completely eliminates, this phytic acid compound.
Traditionally, grains were soaked and fermented before being consumed, but nowadays, this is done less often due to the use of instant yeast packets and the rise and convenience of industrial food manufacturing.
Making your own sourdough starter to use in a variety of ways is a great way to aid digestibility and nutrient absorption and enjoy the freshness of your own homemade baking, as opposed the many additives, stabilizers, and preservatives that are used in commercially baked goods.
How to Make Sourdough Starter from Scratch
I’ve found Traditional Cooking School and Farmhouse On Boone to be helpful resources for me this year in learning how to get started with a sourdough starter. While there are specific steps to follow to help you get started (it’s really not hard!), what I’ve learned the most is that you and your sourdough starter will learn to dance with each other and find a groove with what works and what doesn’t in terms of taking care of it. This means that over time you’ll likely discover that you don’t need to adhere to any strict guidelines once you get the hang of it.
I use spelt flour by Bob’s Red Mill. You can also use whole grain wheat, unbleached all-purpose, or einkorn (an ancient variety of wheat). You can make a gluten-free starter, but I have not had success with a recipe yet.
In a glass jar or bowl, mix 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup flour until smooth and well combined. Cover with a tea towel to prevent dust from getting in, but nothing airtight so that it can breathe. Let rest in a room temperature/warm spot for 24 hours, such as your kitchen counter or pantry. Avoid using metal bowls/utensils as they can react with starter. I like to use a glass jar and a wooden spoon for stirring.
Add 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup flour and stir well until smooth and well combined. Let rest in same spot for another 24 hours.
Remove and discard half of your starter by simply pouring out half of the mixture you have created. Then, add 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup water and stir to fully combine. Continue to let sit for 24 hours on these days, just like before.
The reason for removing the mixture is because you will have WAY too much if you keep adding to it and it would start overflowing. Removing half also ensures that you’re feeding it the the right amount of flour and water to help the bacterial and yeast colonies thrive. Otherwise, if you didn’t remove any, the 1/2 cup of flour wouldn’t be sufficient to feed them on these days.
Discarding may seem wasteful but at this point in the process, the discard is too immature to use, so it’s best to toss it.
Once again, discard half of your mixture and add 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup water. Let it ferment for a few hours (it should start bubbling), and it’s now ready to use.
You can either leave it out on your counter so it’s always ready to use (feeding daily will be necessary), or keep it in your fridge. Refrigeration slows down the fermentation process between uses, so you’ll only need to feed it once a week or so. Most people store it in the fridge because it’s unlikely that you’ll use it every single day.
Maintaining Your Starter
When you use your starter for a recipe, be sure not to use the entire jar. You want to leave some starter left behind in the jar so you can feed it the appropriate amount of flour and water to build it back up again, otherwise you’d have no more starter and you’d have to create one all over again.
For example, if you’ve used your starter for a recipe and you have about 1 cup left over in your jar, add around 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup water to replenish it, then let it sit for a few hours until bubbly (so you know it has fermented) and put it in your fridge again until you’re ready to use it.
I don’t measure it anymore when I feed mine, I just add enough to roughly double the quantity of it in my jar and until the consistency is creamy like pancake batter (not too thick, it should be easy to stir but not watery).
How do I know it’s ready? Your starter is ready when it’s bubbling and growing in size after it’s fed, and around at least the 7 day mark. It may take up to 10 days or so for you to notice that it becomes very bubbly.
How often should I feed it? Generally speaking, during the first few days of creating the starter, you’ll want to feed it every 24 hours. Then, every 12 hours is a good timeframe. However, there is no strict rule here as it depends on a few things: the temperature in your home (if it’s too cold it may slow things down), the type of flour you’re using, type of water, how much it’s being fed, etc.
This is why simply paying attention to what it looks like will help you know what it needs. If there’s a dark liquid on top of the mixture, this is most likely “hooch” and is an alcohol substance that the bacteria/yeasts create. It means that the starter is “hungry” and needs to be fed.
What if it’s not bubbling? It’s normal during the creation process (within that first 7-10 days) for it to become dormant at one point or another. If that happens, don’t give up (unless it smells very foul or is growing mold). Continue to feed it as per the instructions and it should be fine.
What is the dark liquid on top of my starter? As mentioned above, this is most likely “hooch” and is an alcohol substance that the bacteria/yeasts create. It means that the starter is “hungry” and needs to be fed. You can either discard it or stir it in. If there’s a LOT of it, I usually carefully pour it out and then feed the starter. But if there’s just a tiny bit, I’ll just stir it in and may not feed it immediately at that time.
What should my sourdough starter smell like? A healthy starter should smell like sweetly sour bread or a little dough-y. Its smell will actually change depending on how recently it was fed or how hungry it is. If it smells like alcohol or nail polish remover, it most likely needs to be fed. But if it smells very bad (such as, say, rotten eggs) then toss it. It should also not have any fuzzy or mold growths on it!
How do I start using it once I take it out of the fridge? If you’ve had your sourdough starter in the fridge for a week and are ready to use it, you’ll want to let it sit out to warm up for a few hours. Once you take it out, you’ll notice that it’ll start bubbling again. Ideally, the starter should have been fed before it was placed in the fridge, but if it wasn’t, you’ll need to feed it again and let it ferment for a few hours (it’ll start bubbling) before you use it.
For a more comprehensive FAQ, I recommend checking out Lisa’s blog post over at farmhouseonboone.com.