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How To Make Sourdough Starter (From Scratch)

If you’ve been making your own bread at home, Kudos to you! If you haven’t but it’s something you’ve always wanted to try, you’re in the right place!

You may have heard stories of sourdough starters being passed down from generation to generation. Even that these age-old starters can be closely guarded, and well taken care of secrets. Luckily learning how to make a sourdough starter from scratch requires neither a centuries-old ‘hand me down’, or any special ingredients.

I’ll show you not only how to make your own sourdough starter, but also how to properly take care of it, use it to make your own sourdough bread, as well as a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up from doing this myself over the past few years. 

This post contains affiliate links for which I may be compensated if a purchase is made through the links provided. For more information please read my affiliate disclosure.

A Quick History of Sourdough

Sourdough bread is essentially the ‘historical’ way of making leavened bread around the world. The very first loaves of bread where likely various forms of flatbread, which were made with whatever flour or grain was available in the region. At some point in history, an ‘unlucky’ (or very lucky depends on how you look at it), baker left his dough sitting in a warm spot for too long, and the water and flour mixture would have started to ferment. What a surprise he (or she) must have gotten when upon baking, a piece of soft fluffy bread was pulled out of the oven.

Sourdough bread was born.

This basic method of using naturally occurring yeasts to ferment flour products was the main method that would have been used up until the early 18th century for baking bread. Bakers would not really have had any control over the yeast itself, but strains ‘local’ to an area would have produced differing tastes and textures, especially when re-using old dough’s to start a new batch.

This eventually led to the creation of making slurry based yeast starters which often contained barley malt, and various flours. These were often referred to as ’emptins’ in old recipe books, and where essentially the scraps of the beer-making process (left-over wort), mixed with flour. It’s interesting that leavened bread and beer were usually produced in the same regions, as the fermentation process for yeast is similar in nature.

In time the ‘Vienna Process‘ for baking and making yeast was invented and bakers would have slowly started using press-yeast, a specially produced yeast meant for baking.

The Difference Between Sourdough and Regular Yeast Breads

As mentioned above, sourdough bread uses ‘wild yeasts’ to ferment a bread dough, while more modern yeast breads use what is knows as ‘bakers yeast’. Baking bread always requires a starter or yeast of some sort, and bakers yeast comes in easy to store, shelf-stable variations that require little work:

  • Fresh Yeast
  • Active Dry Yeast
  • Instant Yeast

Each have a different method of preparation, but in short: both fresh and active dry yeast need to be ‘bloomed’ or activated prior to use while instant yeast may be mixed right into the dry ingredients of the recipe.

a freshly sliced loaf of homemade sandwich bread

Modern breads leavened with bakers yeast (such as this white sandwhich bread) have a tendency to rise (or proof) fairly quickly in comparison to sourdough breads.

While this is convenient in a commercial setting, breads using bakers yeast often have less complex flavors and a lighter structure.

Sourdough breads are more complex in flavor due to differing wild yeasts, have a slightly ‘sour’ taste due to the fermentation process, and are usually a bit chewier then yeast breads.

Wild Yeasts

Naturally occurring wild yeasts, are present literally everywhere around us.  On fruit, in the air, on plants such as wheat, barley, and Einkorn, in dirt and in water. 

When flour is mixed with water and left in a warm environment these wild yeast will slowly start to multiply and ferment and turn natural carbohydrates present in the flour into carbon dioxide. This is the basis of how a sourdough is made possible.

The interesting thing is that, as a starter ferments and is ‘fed’, it picks up strains of yeast local to its surroundings and the flour used to feed it. This means that while you may receive a sourdough starter that is ‘so many years old’ and from a specific region, the starter will take on new local strains of yeast until the old ones have all but disappeared.

Using The Proper Ingredients For Your Sourdough Starter

When making your first batch of sourdough starter at home, it’s important to use good quality ingredients. This is the biggest secret to success.

The very first time I made my own sourdough starter from scratch, nothing happened. Literally. It went moldy on the counter, and I was left wondering how I could have screwed up something ‘so easy’.

Flour

I learned that since yeast is a living organism, giving it any old flour and water, will not exactly help it grow and multiply. Most often people have all-purpose flour at home which has been bleached and enriched. Freshly milled flour has a yellow appearance, and as such it is commercially bleached with a bleaching agent, (such as chlorine), to give the flour a white appearance. The bleaching process also makes it easier for the flour to develop gluten while kneading.

While this is fine and dandy, bleaching flour may kill the naturally present yeast and other beneficial bacteria. If it doesn’t, the chemical inhibits the growth of wild yeasts that may be introduced through other means (such as through the air or your hands.). For this reason, it is best to use organic unbleached all-purpose or bread flour when making a sourdough starter from scratch.

Whole wheat flour and other flours can in theory also be used, but they may produce of flavors in your starter. Using an un-bleached organic all-purpose flour is my recommendation. – Chef Markus Mueller

Water

While most of us in North America have access to clean, potable tap water, if you live in any urban setting, you may not know that it is most likely treated with chlorine and fluoride for health and safety reasons. This is not a bad thing for us, just bad for the wild yeasts!

While this is done to kill any bad bacteria that can cause disease and other illnesses in humans, chlorinated water also happens to destroy the wild yeasts as soon as it’s mixed into the flour. The easy way around this is to use filtered water, or distilled water in your sourdough starter.

If you don’t have access to filtered or distilled water, you can leave the water sitting out on the counter for 30 minutes or so to allow the chlorine to evaporate. Alternatively, you can also use fruit juice as your liquid to feed the starter.

Making Sourdough Starter From Scratch

Let’s get to the knitty gritty and actually make a sourdough starter from scratch! Keep in mind this is not something you will make start to finish in one afternoon. You’ll need about 4 days to properly let the starter ferment and become active.

Over these four days, you’ll periodically feed the ‘sourdough starter’ (about every 12 hours) with more flour and water to encourage yeast production. you’ll notice the sourdough starter start to become gloopy, bubbly, and slightly sour smelling.

You’ll need:

  • A non-reactive container (such as a wide mouth glass jar or plastic container. Old yogurt containers work well for this)
  • A clean spoon and measuring cup set
  • a clean linen towel or cheesecloth
  • unbleached all-purpose flour or bread flour
  • warm filtered water or distilled water (fruit juice such as orange or pineapple juice may also be used for the first two feedings)

(Optional)

  • plain greek yogurt

Using Greek yogurt adds a sour flavour to your starter, but is considered to be ‘cheating’ by professional bakers. Yogurt does not help the starter ferment as is believed by some.

What adding yogurt may potentially do is lower the pH level very slightly of the starter (as would happen when using fruit juice instead of water)discouraging bad bacteria and mold growth and encouraging the growth of wild yeasts.

Day 1

Start by mixing 2/3 cups (85 grams) of the flour in your non-reactive container with 1/3 cup (80ml) of warm water. Vigorously stir the mixture with a spoon to incorporate air. Scrape down the sides of the container with the spoon, and cover the container with a clean linen cloth or cheesecloth. You want the starter to ‘breath’ and be able to expel the carbon dioxide it produces. If the mixture seems VERY dry add another 1btsp (14ml)  of water. The consistency should be paste-like, but not runny.

Set the container in a corner on your kitchen counter and forget about it for a day.

Optional: At this stage you may add 1 Tbsp of plain Greek yogurt to the starter, to help add sourness and decrease the ph level of the mixture decreasing the chances of mold growth. – Chef Markus Mueller

Mixing flour and water in a glass jar to make sourdough starter from scratch

Day 2

After 12 – 24 hours, it’s time to feed your starter again. Over the past hours, the yeast present in the flour/air/water will very slowly start to begin fermentation. Depending on the temperature in your kitchen (especially if your ambient room temperature is under 20C or 68F) this may be closer to the 24 hour mark. Essentially the warmer the temperature the faster the sourdough starter will ferment. You may notice one or two lone bubbles in the mixture.

Add 2/3 cup of flour and 1/3 cup of water to the starter. Mix vigorously with a clean spoon, and again scrape down the sides and replace the cloth. The sourdough starter should be fairly gloopy and may start to appear gluey.

Day 3

Wait another 12-24 hours. At this point you should start seeing noticeable bubbles trying to break the surface of the sourdough starter. Don’t worry if you don’t, as long as there is no mold, or ‘rotten smell’ everything should be ok.

Feed the starter again with 2/3 cups of flour and 1/3 cup of water. Scrape down the sides of the container, and replace the cloth.

Day 4

At this point another 12 – 24 hours will have passed, and you should be seeing the surface of the sourdough starter look bubbly. The starter may even start to grow in volume, and depending on the temperature may even have doubled in size.

An overhead view of from scratch sour dough starter in a glass jar

Feed the starter one more time with 2/3 cups of flour and a splash of water to maintain consistency. Sit back and wait another 24 hours.

Day 5

This is it! Your sourdough starter should have at least doubled in size by now and smell quite yeasty. If you are still not seeing any visible signs of fermentation or notice a ‘sour’ smell, it’s a good idea to start over and try keeping the starter in a warmer location to encourage yeast growth.

homemamde sour dough starter after fermenting for 4 days. Nice and bubbly!

At this point, your starter is ready to use in a bread or other sourdough recipe, but if you aren’t quite ready to bake, you can store it in the refrigerator.

Storing Your Sourdough Starter

Many people keep their sourdough starters on the counter, but unless you plan on baking every two or three days, I have found it best to keep it refrigerated and dormant to avoid the yeast from losing its strength.

If kept at a warm temperature the yeast will keep eating the carbs in the flour until all the food has been consumed(unless you keep feeding it). The yeast then starts to die and loses its potency.

To avoid this, store at least 1 cup of starter in the fridge in a non-reactive container. The cold temperatures will make the yeast go dormant. They are easily awakened by taking them out of the fridge and feeding again with another round of water and flour.

If the sourdough is left to sit for a long time, a brownish liquid may appear on the surface ( called hooch by some). This is normal, and usually a sign of a little to much water in the mixture. Simple pour it off and continue feeding as normal.

A close up shot of homemade sourdough starter in a glass jar

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How to make sourdough starter from scratch . A close up shot of homemade sourdough starter in a glass jar

How To Make Sourdough Starter

Chef Markus Mueller
Learn how to make sourdough starter from scratch using only natural, whole ingredients. Easy to follow steps for making fool-proof sourdough bread at home without any special equipment.
4.8 from 20 votes
Prep Time 5 mins
Fermentation Time 2 d 12 hrs
Total Time 5 mins
Course Baking
Cuisine German
Servings 1 sourdough starter
Calories 303.3 kcal

Ingredients
  

Sourdough Starter Ingredients

  • 2/3 cup Un-Bleached All Purpose Flour Organic is best, but using un-bleached flour is most important.
  • 1/3 cup Filtered Spring Water Chlorine and Fluoride Free

Optional

  • 1 tbsp full fat plain greek yogurt

Instructions
 

Day 1

  • Start by mixing 2/3 cups (85 grams) of the flour in your non-reactive container with 1/3 cup of warm water. Vigorously stir the mixture with a spoon to incorporate air. Scrape down the sides of the container with the spoon, and cover the container with a clean linen cloth or cheese cloth. You want the starter to ‘breath’ and be able to expel the carbon dioxide it produces.

Day 2

  • Add 2/3 cup of flour and 1/3 cup of water to the starter. Mix vigorously with a clean spoon, and again scrape down the sides and replace the cloth. The sourdough starter should be fairly gloopy and may start to appear gluey.

Day 3

  • Feed the starter again with 2/3 cups of flour and 1/3 cup of water. Scrape down the sides of the container, and replace the cloth.

Day 4

  • At this point You should be seeing the surface of the sourdough starter look quite bubbly, The starter may even start to grow in volume, and depending on the temperature may even have doubled in size.
    Feed the starter one more time with another 2/3 cups of flour and 1/3 cup of water. Sit back and wait another 24 hours.

Day 5

  • Your sourdough starter should have at least doubled in size by now.
    At this point your starter is ready to use in a bread recipe, but if you aren’t quite ready to bake, you can store it in the refrigerator.

Using the starter in a recipe

  • After day 5, if your sourdough is bubbly, smells like sourdough, and isn’t mouldy, it’s ready to use in any sourdough recipe. Simply measure out the amount of starter the recipe calls for and proceed as is required.
  • If using a previously refrigerated starter, simply take the starter out of the fridge a day before you plan on baking. Feed the starter to re-activate it. Once bubbly and ‘active’ it’s ready for use.

Notes

If after 5 Days  are still not seeing any visible signs of fermentation or notice a ‘sour’ smell, it’s a good idea to start over and try keeping the starter in a warmer location to encourage yeast growth.
Keyword homemade sourdough, making sourdough bread, no knead bread, rustic bread

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191 Comments

  1. Hello Markus,

    I am making my second attempt of making sourdough starter, and I am currently using you’re recipe.
    Leading up to day 5 tomorrow in the starter and I have noticed it has doubled in size & becoming more of a sourdough smell to the starter.

    I’ve got a question with when I finish day 5. To keep feeding the starter once a day.
    How much do I discard to maintain the starter and how much would I add water & flour?

    I like to store my starter on the kitchen bench.

    • Hi Nell, After day 5, you are ready to bake with your starter. Use as much starter (unfed, because adding the recipe ingredients to it is essentially feeding it) as the recipe calls for, and then either refrigerate the rest or feed it again as described in the post here to keep it going. I personally don’t discard any starter because I feel there really is no need to unless you are feeding very large quantities of flour (which our recipe and method does not call for). I hope that helps!

      Markus

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