If you've ever wondered how to keep a sourdough starter, look no further! I'll walk you through the step by step instructions for keeping your starter happy!
For many, a sourdough starter is a daunting idea. Something you need to properly feed, properly store, and then use to bake bread, and if the starter isn't happy, your bread isn't going to be happy!
When I first got my sourdough starter, I got it from a friend. She had a starter that she was willing to share and I jumped on the chance! I was given a kitchen scale and a mason jar full of this flour and water mixture. I had no idea what I was doing, but with some research and practice I figured it out!
Full disclosure, when I first fed my starter, I did it wrong. The starter was super watery and not right. But it made my realize how resilient the starter actually is. All I had to do was feed it properly and we were back to having a strong starter perfect for bread!
What is a Sourdough Starter?
Sourdough starter is a colony of live fermented cultures that are used to make sourdough bread. Instead of commercial yeast, a sourdough starter will be the rising agent in a loaf of bread. It is filled with "wild yeast" known as lactobacilli. The starter is what gives the sourdough bread that distinct "sour" flavor. The older the starter, the more prominent the sour flavor.
If I'm being honest, science was never my thing. But when you think about how amazing it is that water and flour make an entire colony of yeast that makes bread rise, it's pretty cool!
There are some reports that sourdough bread is easier to digest than a regular loaf of bread. The yeast in the bread breaks down the starches, making it easier to digest. If you are gluten free, you can make gluten free starter. This is a great article about making a gluten free starter
Please Note: I'm not a doctor or a scientist. This is all information I've learned over time and through research. Always consult with a doctor when working through health issues and what should or should not be eaten.
What Does Hydration Mean?
A lot of times in sourdough recipes, you will hear the word hydration, as in "the starter is 100% hydration", but what the heck does that mean? It means that there are equal parts of flour and water. A lower hydration would mean there is more flour in the starter than water. The higher the hydration, the faster the fermentation. That's because there's enough water and flour for the yeast to feed on and it quickly ferments. For simplicity's sake, I keep my starter at 100% hydration.
It's Hungry, Let's Feed it!
Ok we have the background information out of the way, now let's feed the starter.
- First things first, you need to name your starter. That's right! It's a living organism, so it deserves a name! My starter's name is Jane Dough. Need some ideas? Check this out!
- Next, grab a clean mason jar or large container.
- Place the mason jar on a kitchen scale and tare out the scale until it is zero. You want to tare out the scale because you don't want to take into account the weight of the jar when you are weighing the water and flour.
- Add 5 ounces of flour to the mason jar.
- Add 5 ounces of your starter to the mason jar. Set the rest aside and we will save that to bake with at another time. Right now, you only need 5 ounces of starter.
- Top with 5 ounces of water in the mason jar.
- Mix the flour, water, and starter together well until it forms a paste.
- Loosely cover the jar and leave it in a warm, draft free area of your kitchen. I keep it right on my counter. A lot of people place it in an off oven. If you do this, just make sure you note that the starter is in the oven. The worst thing you can do is turn the oven on and cook your starter. No thank you!
- If you want, you can make a mark on the mason jar to tell where the starter started from and where it will grow to. Let the starter sit for 6-8 hours until it is doubled in size.
How To Know When It's Time To Bake
Be patient when the starter is growing. I've been impatient a few times and baked with my starter too early and my bread has been flat as a pancake. The starter needs to double in size and become very bubbly and active. If you wait too long to bake after the starter has become active and bubbly, it will "fall" meaning the size of the starter will start deflating. If it starts deflating, you have likely missed the window to start baking and should feed it again. You usually have about an hour after it rises to it's peak to bake. Check it 6-8 hours after you've fed it.
A quick test to see if you are ready to bake is to fill a small bowl with water. Take a tablespoon of the active starter and plop it into the water. If the starter floats, it has enough air in it and you're ready to bake! If it sinks, you need to feed it one more time before you are ready to bake.
How To Store Your Starter
Store your starter in the refrigerator when you aren't baking. When you are ready to feed it, take it out about 2 hours before you want to feed it to let it come to room temperature. Then feed it as you normally would with equal parts flour, water, and starter.
If you bake a lot and plan on making loaves and loaves of bread, keep it on the counter in a mason jar.
How Often Should I Feed My Starter?
That depends on how often you bake. The most important thing is to feed it on a schedule. I feed mine once a week and store it in the refrigerator when I'm not baking. If you bake a lot, leave the starter on the counter and feed it once, even twice a day.
If you are baking with a starter, you should use the amount you need and then immediately feed the rest of it. Let it rise, and then place it in your refrigerator to store until you are ready to use it again.
Types of Flour And Water To Use
No matter what type of flour you use to feed your starter, you can use any type of flour to bake with. For example, if you feed your starter all unbleached flour, you can still use rye to make a delicious bread.
- Unbleached Flour- This is the type of flour I use. It's readily available and my starter loves it. Whatever you do, do not use bleached flour. The bleach will inhibit the growth of the good bacteria and yeast in the starter, effecting the way it grows and it might even kill your starter. Some of my favorite types of flour are King Arthur and Great River Organic Flour.
- Bread flour- Bread flour has more protein in it than regular all purpose flour, so it is perfect for making bread and building up the gluten in bread. As long as bread flour is unbleached, it's great to use.
- This is a great article about the different types of flour to use if you want to venture into more exotic flours like rye or buckwheat. For beginners though, sticking with unbleached all purpose flour is the way to go!
- Water- Filtered water is best to make sure there aren't any unnecessary chemicals that are being added to your starter. Don't use cold water, or hot water, it should be room temperature. If the water is too hot, you could kill the starter. If the water is too cold, it will take a really long time for your starter to grow and become bubbly and active.
What To Do With Your Extra Starter
The extra starter that you aren't feeding is perfect for baking with! Don't throw it out! Keep it in a separate mason jar in your refrigerator labeled "sourdough discard" and add it to recipes.
Here are some of my favorite sourdough discard recipes
- Sourdough Pumpkin Waffles
- Sourdough Pumpkin Muffins
- Baked Sourdough Donuts
- Cinnamon Sugar Sourdough Crackers
- Light and Crisp Sourdough Waffles
- Sourdough Scones
- Sourdough Discard Banana Muffins
Recommended Tools For Sourdough
- Kitchen scale- It is the most accurate tool when making bread. When you are cooking, you can be a little more lenient about the measurements, but in baking, you need to be precise. A kitchen scale is the best tool to have to make sure everything is measured properly. You don't need anything fancy, just one that is easy to use and easy to store.
- Mason Jars- They are the easiest jars to use and the most readily available. The 32 ounce jars are recommended so the active starter does not grow too big and outgrow your container. 32 ounces will give you plenty of room for the starter to grow and it doesn't take up too much space in your refrigerator.
- Sourdough stirrer- Not necessary, but it's a handy tool to have. It makes stirring your starter easy and thorough.
Frequently Asked Questions
Sometimes, when you have a starter in the refrigerator for an extended period of time, a black liquid forms on top of the starter. It is known as "hooch". It's a great indicator that your starter has gone long enough without a feeding and needs another one. Simply pour off the black liquid and feed the starter as you normally would. To avoid getting that black liquid on top of the starter, make sure you feed it frequently and consistently.
That depends on how much you bake. Most recipes call for 50-75 grams of starter, so you'll want to keep at least 100g. That will give you 50 grams to bake with and then 50 grams to feed.
It should have a pleasant smell. If it smells like nail polish remover, or is a very foul smell, it has probably gone bad and you will need to restart your starter.
How To Keep A Sourdough Starter
- 5 ounces Unbleached All Purpose Flour
- 5 ounces Water Filtered, room temperature
- 5 ounces Starter
- Take out your kitchen scale and tare it out to zero. Place the mason jar on top of the scale and add 5 ounces of starter.
- Tare out the scale again and add 5 ounces of water.
- Tare out the scale again and add 5 ounces of flour.
- Mix the contents of the mason jar well until it forms a thick paste. Place a loosely fitted lid on top of the mason jar and place it in a cool, draft free place.
- After 6-8 hours, the starter will have doubled in size. To check if the starter is ready to bake with, place water in a bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of the active, bubbly starter to the water. If it floats, you are ready to bake. If it sinks, start from step 1 and feed the starter again.
- The starter should double in size and look active and bubbly when it is ready to bake.
- Use unfiltered water if you live in a town that has hard water, or water with excess chemicals in it. Running the water through a filter or using bottled water is great.