Start Your Starters!

I’m off on a baking adventure and I want you to come along.

All you’ll need is a cup of flour and a cup of water.

Want to play?

We’re making sourdough starters.  All they need is a little attention and feeding and we’ve got starter enough for loaves, pancakes and rolls week after week.

I already have dreams of Saturday morning Sourdough Pancakes trotting through my head.  While the endless possibilities of loaves and rolls is enticing, we all know that I’m really just doing this for the pancakes.

Jump on over and we’ll get started!

But wait!

If you’re not interested in making a sourdough starter (gasp!) or you already happen to have one in your fridge (applause!), then check out my musings on Mocha Pots de Creme over at FoodProof.  What are these Pots de Creme I speak of?  Only like the most deliciously rich and flavorful chocolate pudding you’ll ever have.  Go on… I know you’re curious!

There is an awful lot of information online about sourdough starters.  Ultimately, creating a starter is a very simple process, so I’m going to keep it simple here.

Let’s go over the basics.  If you have anything to share, say it loud in the comment section.  I am, by no means, the authority on sourdough bread baking.

Sourdough bread is usually made without the addition of store bought yeast.  Instead, a “starter” is used to flavor and leaven the bread.  The starter is a bubbly dough composed of flour and water that fills with live yeast and bacteria over time.  This starter is cultivated over a period of days at room temperature, then kept in the refrigerator to be used and fed on a weekly basis.

I’ve seen several recipes for starters.  Some use a simple combination of flour and water, while others use pineapple juice and flour, or even milk and flour.  I’m sticking to the simple flour and water starter.

After searching high and low, I found Sourdough Baking: The Basics by S. John Ross to be the most straight forward.

Below is a picture of my starter just after I made it.  I’ll have equally exciting pictures as the process progresses.

Here’s what  S.  John Ross has to say about throwing a starter together:

Creating Your Starter

The novel thing about sourdough baking is that it requires that you keep something alive in your fridge. I think of my starter as a pet, kept and fed so that I will have all the bread we need. Sourdough “starter” is a batter of flour and water, filled with living yeast and bacteria. The yeast and bacteria form a stable symbiotic relationship, and (as long as you keep the starter fed) can live for centuries, a thriving colony of microorganisms. To make sourdough bread, you blend the starter with some flour and make dough. The yeast propogates, and leavens your bread. This is how you make your starter:

  • Select a container that your “pet” will live in. A wide-mouthed glass jar is best. I use a glass jar with a rubber and wireframe seal; you can find these for $2-$4 in any antique or junk shop. A small crock with a loose lid is also great; these can be bought in cheap sets for serving soup. You can also use a rubbermaid or tupperware container. I’ve begun starters using the plastic containers that take-out Chinese soup comes in, and then transferred them to jars later! A wide-mouthed mayonnaise or pickle jar will also do just fine. Metallic containers are a bad idea; some of them are reactive and can ruin your starter (for the same reason, avoid using metal utensils to stir your starter).
  • Blend a cup of warm water and a cup of flour, and pour it into the jar. That’s the whole recipe! I use plain, unbleached bread flour most of the time, but I’ve had good results with all-purpose and whole-wheat flour, too. If you want, you can add a little commercial yeast to a starter to “boost” it. If you do this, sourdough snobs will look down their nose at you – but who cares about snobs? I personally find that (at least here where I live) no yeast “boost” is necessary, and I can make “real” sourdough with no trouble. But if you are having trouble, go ahead and cheat. I won’t tell. Note that starter made with commercial yeast often produces a bread with less distinctive sour flavor than the real thing.
  • Every 24 Hours, Feed the Starter. You should keep the starter in a warm place; 70-80 degrees Farenheit is perfect. This allows the yeast already present in the flour (and in the air) to grow rapidly. Temperatures hotter than 100 degrees or so will kill it. You can take comfort from the fact that almost nothing else will do so. The way you feed the starter is to(A) throw away half of it and then (B) add a half-cup of flour and a half-cup of water. Do this every 24 hours. Within three or four days (it can take longer, a week or more, and it can happen more quickly) you should start getting lots of bubbles throughought, and a pleasant sour or beery smell. The starter may start to puff up, too. This is good. Here’s the gist: When your starter develops a bubbly froth, it is done. You have succeeded. If this sounds brain-dead simple, that’s because it is. People who didn’t believe the Earth was round did this for millenia.
  • Refrigerate the Starter. Keep the starter in your fridge, with a lid on it. Allow a little breathing space in the lid. If you’re using a mayo or pickle jar, punch a hole in the lid with a nail, that kind of thing. Once the starter is chilled, it needs to be fed only once a week. Realistically, you can get away with less; it’s important to remember that your starter is a colony of life-forms that are almost impossible to kill (except with extreme heat). Even starving them is difficult.
More about caring for and feeding your starter, as well as proofing and baking can be found on S. John Ross’ helpful page.

61 thoughts on “Start Your Starters!

  1. i’m one of those (gasp) who doesn’t like sour dough bread! but love love love sourdough pancakes! lol!
    do you have a recipe for using the starter in pancakes?
    gonna get my pet rock going tonight. :)

  2. I find sourdough starters to be intriguing. I had to make one for my bread class in pastry school, but threw it out as soon as class was finished. I wasn’t interested in breads at the time. What I find kind of cool is that the flavor of the starters varies by region depending on the air. A sourdough bread made in my kitchen might not taste the same as one made in the next state over.

    I worked with a chef who has had a starter for years and years. I hear those things can really get out of control!

  3. OK, I’m in. Your timing couldn’t be more perfect because just this last weekend I was thinking that I needed to get a new starter going (just didn’t like the last version enough). Anyway, I will get this one, well, started!

  4. I am totally casual about feeding our starter. We’ve had it for many years and it thrives on neglect. Three weeks ignored? No problem. We add flour and water the night before we want pancakes- equal parts with some interesting combination of flours (often use oatmeal in place of flour) and it seems happy. If it looks too thin, we add flour, if too thick, we add water- all corrections in the morning. The hardest part of keeping it alive is keeping it- remembering to save a dollop before cooking. Any amount will do- that we never measure. Pet rock- good description!

    What I need are some good bread recipes- my kids want bread sticks.

  5. I keep two starters in the fridge, all-purpose and whole wheat, both come from a woman who baked bread EVERY day for 25 years for her family with six kids. Whoa, that’s a lot of bread. For the longest time, I fed my starters every few days, being oh-so-careful with measuring / weighing / timing. Now I only feed them the day before I’m going to use them — throwing in some flour, stirring in some water — then leave out on the counter to revive. They’re resilient — more like an independent ‘cat’ than a needy ‘dog’. Or maybe mostly, like a pet rock.

  6. Mia- Thanks for the tips! I may start to double my feedings tomorrow.

    Laurie- Yay Soccer Mom!

    Avlor- Yogurt based starter sounds interesting! The more I read about starters the more interesting kinds I discover. I think I saw one with blueberries in it!

    Amy- Yay! I’m glad you’re here. What day is your starter on?

  7. This is so funny! I just found this website two days ago and started my starter too!!
    Good Luck to us!! I can’t wait to try my first taste!

  8. My hubby has a yogurt based starter in the fridge for his special sour dough pancakes. But I think I’ll try this one for a bread test. (It’s getting cool enough again to bake bread! Yay!)

  9. I just created my first starter, and baked my first loaf of sourdough bread a couple of days ago. One tip that I’ve heard (and that I used) is to weigh your starter ingredients, instead of measuring them by volume. This makes things more consistent. Also, after feeding my starter once a day for a few days, I started moving to twice a day, which ensured that my starter was well-fed. You’ll know your starter is working if it can at least double itself in volume between feedings. Yay for sourdough!

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