Updated: Feb 25
Learn all you need to know about sourdough starter! If you're familiar with starter, you've established a solid launching point to easily navigate countless dough recipes.
The most basic of these recipes is a timeless classic (and my personal favorite): Sourdough Bread. With 3 basic ingredients, flour, salt, and water, you can create the most stunning loaf of bread that looks like it belongs on the "fancy bread" rack at the bakery, but is impossibly better!
Above photo: The proud documentation of my FIRST successful attempt making sourdough! Tackling this with zero experience working with starter (or even yeast) was tricky, but after years of experience, I'm ready to share some tips and tricks I've learned along the way. This here is SO attainable, so prepare to impress yourself and anyone you want to share with (if it lasts that long!)
What is "starter"?
Starter is a natural type of leavening agent for dough. It helps the dough to achieve a pillowy, somewhat springy, expanded state while proofing, and an open, airy, and deceptively formidable crumb we love in a hearty slice of sourdough.
To be more specific, starter is made up of two ingredients: flour and water. Yep, it's that simple (well, sort of). Starter has a thick consistency, similar to pancake batter, and a slightly "sour" and tangy smell. Depending on how recently it was fed, the viscosity will vary and the smell can range from nearly scentless to overpoweringly sour or alcoholic. If your starter goes bad or dies, it's a good idea to reset with a fresh supply.
How does sourdough starter work?
Check out this article for a thorough explanation behind the magic (I mean science)!
To offer a much simpler explanation, the way starter behaves when it's fed flour and water is similar to the way yeast behaves when mixed with water and sugar (--and then mixed into a dough). The mixture expands, pockets of tiny gas bubbles form, and eventually, the whole thing deflates after reaching its peak level of expansion. It quite literally "runs out of gas," loses its structural integrity, and collapses in on itself. It starts to deflate once the wild cultures have run out of food, and it will need more flour and water to become active again.
Imagine blowing bubbles in a glass of milk through a straw. The bubbles reach a certain height before collapsing under their weight. When you stop blowing, the bubbles stick around for a bit, but eventually, you're left with just plain milk. Fermenting starter is a similar concept, except with wheat and natural sugars, instead of dairy and forced air. Starter will become almost "gummy" when it's super active or hasn't finished rising yet, but after it's done feeding and starts to relax, it gradually loses its structure and becomes much runnier. Food is fascinating! That probably wasn't the best analogy, but it was the first to come to mind.
Reminds me of that kids' song.. beans, beans, the magical fruit... but for flour?
I don't want to order it--Can I make my own?
You can absolutely create your own starter! However, it will take some real patience, sometimes requiring up to two weeks. It might feel like you've adopted the world's most boring pet. I recommend buying live starter here. It's a small investment, incredibly cheap to maintain, and there are countless recipes you can use it in, from pancakes to pizza crust, even homemade croissants!
If you're curious about the process of creating your own starter, check out this page. King Arthur has a lot of amazing resources for learning about all-things-bread.
Essentially, the idea is to mix a little water and flour together, then every 24 hours, dump half of your mixture and add the same portion of fresh flour and water and mix. The "dump" starter is the leftover starter that wasn't used after fermentation, and while it has a place in many recipes, the dump starter you have before the cultures are present is useless. Just throw it in the trash until you have a well-established, super active starter.
Okay... How do I use it, though?
Let's quickly gloss over care/maintenance and then dive in deeper:
Always store your starter in the fridge if you're not going to be using it
Feed your starter at least once per week
When feeding your starter, 1:1 water to flour, by weight
Occasionally transfer your starter to a new jar and disinfect the dirty jar
Avoid cross-contamination! Starter lasts forever (literally), assuming you care for it and maintain it properly. The starter I worked with at Breadtopia came from a batch that was originally created decades ago!
When you bring your live starter home, immediately transfer it to a mason jar or other food-safe storage container, NOT completely airtight, "feed" it, then give it time to ferment at room temperature. Leave the lid somewhat loose, to allow for gasses to escape the jar as it becomes active and expands. My favorite starter jars can be found here. Just remove the rubber gasket to allow those gasses to escape!
Store your active live starter in the fridge, unless you will be using it in the next 12 hours. A visual queue that your live starter is "active" would be visible bubbles and notable expansion.
To feed your starter, add equal portions of water and flour to your starter in a mason jar, mix completely with a dough whisk, spoon, or whatever you have handy, and leave it to ferment on the counter at room temperature until it has doubled in volume. Voila, It's ready to use!
Important! By "equal portions," I mean by weight. So if you're feeding your starter 75 grams of flour, match that with 75 grams, or 75 mL of water. No scale? No biggie. Just add enough flour to bring it to a "thick pancake batter consistency." Being perfectly exact is not necessary, the viscosity is what we pay special attention to. I will say that using a kitchen scale is super convenient--no more measuring cups!
Note: Remember to check the recipe you're using to ensure you've fed your starter enough to have a little leftover! You don't need much to keep it going, really. I've fed a tiny amount (enough to partially line the inside of the jar) to get it back to a full 100 grams or more.
Left: Jars of live sourdough starter, fed about 8 hours earlier and ready to use. From my recent days working directly with Breadtopia
Below: Balls of freshly fed sourdough starter, rolled in extra flour and ready for packaging to ship! They won't look this perfect when they arrive, but they'll work all the same. (How did I retain my sanity after rolling thousands of these??)
Can I skip/substitute the starter?
Sorry, but no. Many other types of bread use other leavening agents (such as yeast and baking soda), but sourdough isn't one of them.
Personally, I avoided learning to make sourdough for so long just because the concept of using starter was completely new to me. "New" can be scary or overwhelming, with an undisclosed number of steps, which is just too much for my sensitive ADHD brain to handle.
Then, I was ready to let go of that anxiety. A friend gave me some tips and I threw caution to the wind and went for it.
My first attempt at sourdough was... well, disappointing. It didn't rise, the crumb was very dense, and the crust was hard as a rock. I didn't even need to slice it, I just knew it was more akin to a deadly weapon than a delicious reward. What happened? Well, the starter hadn't been given time to ferment, for one. Once mixed, I didn't allow the dough to rest long enough, either. I expected the typical "1-2 hours" rising time you see with yeasted goods, which obviously wasn't nearly enough time. I also had not yet learned the concept of a "bulk fermentation" or a "final rise". But we'll circle back to that!
To use your starter, simply use whatever amount a recipe calls for just as you would with yeast. Whether you're measuring by grams, tablespoons, or liquid-ounce measurements, just add your starter to the liquid mixture for a recipe (ie: water in sourdough) and then mix in your dry ingredients even incorporation.
Note: make sure your starter is active before using it in a recipe. This means you've fed your starter and it has had a chance to ferment, typically anywhere from 8 hours to overnight, or even longer in the fridge. ie: For "extra sour" sourdough, you can feed your starter, let it ferment for several hours, then leave it in the fridge for up to three days before using it. Incorporating it into a recipe with flour will feed it again and reactivate the cultures.
I have high hopes that by now, you have a fundamental understanding of what starter is and how to know when it's ready to use in a recipe. If you're feeling comfortable so far, go ahead and read our next article, Proofing 101. There, you will learn fool-proof (pun intended) methodology for using your starter (or dry yeast) to properly proof your bread!