Making sourdough starters

Making sourdough starters

Posted on 17. Jan, 2011 by in Bread and conversation

Further to the previous blog begging you all not to get freaked out by sourdough, I have had lots of requests for simple instructions about how to make and keep a sourdough starter.

I have three sourdough starters on the go at any one time:  white wheat, whole wheat, and rye.

I don't have a spelt starter because a) I find it tricksy:  at any given moment if I turn your back it just jumps up and pours itself all over the counter and the floor.  Maybe it's just me, but I cannot be doing with such an independent creature in the kitchen and b) I find it makes bread that is rather bitter unless I add sugar or honey or some other thing to add sweetness and I don't necessarily want to do that all the time.  Feel free to disagree and let us know.

General rules for making a sourdough starter

1.  Once you have mixed flour and water together (see quantities below) for four days, your starter should be frothy and/or bubbly.  If it is not, just tuck it up and leave it for another 24 hours.  After that if nothing at all is happening you can add a few grains of yeast to it and leave it for 24 hours but you should not have to do this.  If nothing is happening naturally you have been using too much disinfectant and need to let your house get a bit more (normally) dirty!

2.  To store your starter once it is frothy and bubbly, you put it in the fridge in a plastic container with an air tight lid or a kilner jar (the kind with the rubber sea).  Do not use a regular jam jar because it may explode in a dangerous shower of glass shards.  You will need a lot of space in your container especially for the first few days - the starter may continue to froth up.  The worst that will happen in a kilner jar or a plastic tub is that it will leak through the seal and form a thick pool in your fridge!

3.  You do not need to feed your starter slavishly every day.  I once found some of the 1857 in the back of the fridge that had been there for about 5 years.  I refreshed it and made bread.  Good as new.  Remember, sourdough was used by people who did not have access to commercial yeast - cowboys rolled it up in their bed rolls, pioneering women transported it in the back of covered waggons, families living on the steppes of Russia managed to keep theirs alive in spite of harsh siberian winters.  You can freeze it, you can dry it, you can ignore it - it will always come back.

When it comes to using it, you have a choice:

a)  If you are going to bake every day or every other day you may want to feed your starter every day.  That way it is in a permanent state of being "refreshed" and you can usually cut out the step that says "The day before you want to make bread, refresh your sourdough".  To feed your starter every day simply put it in a big container with a lid and put in as much as you took out.  Sound odd?  Not at all.  Your starter will have the consistency of thick cream.  When you make bread you take starter out of the pot to make the bread.  Add flour and water to the starter - maintining the thick cream consistency.  If you change flours you will have to change quantities because flours are all different.  If your starter gets a little thin, add a bit more flour.  If it gets a little thick, add more water.  Use tepid water if you can - sourdough likes warm water.  If you have not fed it in 4-5 days you will need to go through the refreshment cycle again.  Just follow the instructions of the recipe you are using.

b) Refresh the starter when you need it.  If you do this always refresh more than you need so you have some to put back in the fridge for the next time you want to bake.  To refresh the dough, follow the recipe instructions as there are lots of ways to refresh dough and different bread calls for different refreshment techniques.

White wheat sourdough starter

Day 1

Mix 50 g white wheat flour and 50 g warm water together.  Cover and put somewhere warm (airing cupboard, on a heated floor, sunny place) for 24 hours.

Day 2

Add 50 g white wheat flour and 50 g warm water to the Day 1.  Mix.  Cover and put somewhere warm.

Day 3

Add 50 g white wheat flour and 50 g warm water to the Day 2.  Mix.  Cover and put somewhere warm.

Day 4

Add 50 g white wheat flour and 50 g warm water to the Day 3.  Mix.  Cover and put somewhere warm.

Voila.  You have a viable white wheat starter.

Whole wheat sourdough starter

Day 1

Mix 50 g whole wheat flour and 50 g warm water together.  Cover and put somewhere warm (airing cupboard, on a heated floor, sunny place) for 24 hours.

Day 2

Add 50 g whole wheat flour and 50 g warm water to the Day 1.  Mix.  Cover and put somewhere warm.

Day 3

Add 50 g whole wheat flour and 50 g warm water to the Day 2.  Mix.  Cover and put somewhere warm.

Day 4

Add 50 g whole wheat flour and 50 g warm water to the Day 3.  Mix.  Cover and put somewhere warm.

Voila.  You have a viable whole wheat starter.

Rye sourdough starter

Day 1

Mix 25 g whole rye flour and 50 g warm water together.  Cover and put somewhere warm (airing cupboard, on a heated floor, sunny place) for 24 hours.

Day 2

Add 25 g whole rye flour and 50 g warm water to the Day 1.  Mix.  Cover and put somewhere warm.

Day 3

Add 25 g whole rye flour and 50 g warm waterto the Day 2.  Mix.  Cover and put somewhere warm.

Day 4

Add 25 g whole rye flour and 50 g warm water to the Day 3.  Mix.  Cover and put somewhere warm.

Voila.  You have a viable rye starter.

And now you can bake.

As a final final note, a lot of bread that is called "sourdough" has yeast added to it.  That's fine, it's still sourdough bread, it is not "pure" sourdough bread.  If you are concerned, ask the baker.

For recipes using a wheat starter click here.  For recipes using a rye starter click here .

If you would like to take an introduction to sourdough class to really get your head around the topic, do click here to find a trainer.

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34 Responses to “Making sourdough starters”

  1. Sally

    17. Jan, 2011

    Too late - I read some of those instructions that say feed every day. I didn't for over a week in the fridge - so down the drain it went. How sad - I'll know for next time.

  2. Carl

    27. Jan, 2011

    Is white wheat the same as strong white bread flour ?
    OK I am a man but if you don't ask you don't lean.

  3. virtuousbread

    28. Jan, 2011

    Hi Carl, that did just make me chuckle!

    White wheat flour comes in different "strengths". The "strength" refers to the "hardness" or "gluten content". The stronger the flour the stronger the bread. Soft flour is great for cake (soft) and some bread and hard flour is good for other bread. Sadly there is no global or even european standard labelling although you can find comparison tables in Andrew Whitley's book Bread Matters. In general, when making bread you should use the strongest flour you can get which is usually labelled strong or extra strong bread flour. Then again, you may have to trade off between local and strong: In the UK we don't have a lot of really stong flour and a lot of the bread flour that is sold is supplemented with flour from abroad (Canada, US, Turkey, Russia, Khazakstan...) - countries with wide open prairie spaces that produce wonderful, hard flour. So you may have a principle issue with where your food comes from? If you are keen to make bread NOW and you only have regular plain flour - just do it! If, however, you are not so impatient and you can get to a shop, you may want to buy strong bread flour.

    There is a further level of detail and that is how the flour is milled. For some info on that type "stone milling" into the search bar on the web site.

    You raise an excellent question, though, and that will make me go back and be more clear in some of the recipes I am giving. Jane

  4. Carl

    28. Jan, 2011

    Thank you that as help a great deal, I do live in England and the store and supermarkets have a good range of bread flours, is there any that is better than others ? I also see it may be wise to buy in bulk as the price of grain is going up and up; if I do how long would the flour last ? I know there is a sell by date and I also know you don't always go by that.
    Carl.

  5. virtuousbread

    28. Jan, 2011

    Hey! There is a fantastic resource on the Traditional Corn Millers' Guild website (TCMG.org.uk) that helps you find wind or water mills near you. If you click here: http://www.brockwell-bake.org.uk/map.php you will find the map and see if there is a mill near you. I buy from Michael Stoate outside Shaftesbury - great flour and bonus that he dlivers in London anyway and so will stop by my house and deliver for free. Flour is heavy - the only downside - so carriage can be expensive. Ask the miller about "use by" dates. The oil in wheat germ does go rancid after a while and I have never had flour long enough to test that. the miller will know.

  6. Alison

    28. Jan, 2011

    When making a sourdough starter what container do I use?
    when you say cover it, with what?
    Can I leave it on the back of the Aga to grow?

  7. virtuousbread

    29. Jan, 2011

    Great question - and I will change it on the page. You can make it in a plastic box with a tight fitting lid or a bowl with clingfilm on it that you secure with an elastic. You want an air tight container so the sourdough does not dry out. Please don't use a regular glass jar because it may shatter! You can, however, use a kilner jar (the kind with the clip and the rubber seal. When you store it in the fridge, you can store it in the same kind of container you used to make it.

    As re the aga, I think the back of the aga is too warm. Just pop it on the counter top near the aga or on the floor around the aga but not directly on the aga. I confess I have not tried it on the aga but I do find the aga too warm to proof dough - although somewhere near it is perfect!

  8. Alison

    29. Jan, 2011

    Thank you for your advice, I just wasn't sure if I covered it tightly as it was growing, I thought it might need the air/bacteria to grow! I guess theres enough air/bacteria in the container for it to feed on.
    I love sour dough and have been trying to make it for years, and finally I 've found your instructions which are the clearest yet, thank you. I want to make a white spelt starter (like a challenge!), should I use the same ratio flour to water as a white wheat starter?

  9. WENDY STACEY

    18. Apr, 2011

    My son cannot take gluten and would very much like to make some good bread himself: can you tell me whether the sourdough process works with any of the gluten-free flour products?

    With thanks.

  10. virtuousbread

    19. Apr, 2011

    Hi Wendy, is your son a coeliac or gluten intolerant? If coeliac, I am not an expert but there are a lot of experts participating in a forum http://www.sourdough.com so I know someone there will be able to help. If he is intolerant, he will be able to tolerate a true sourdough bread even with gluten because the gluten is so broken down by the long fermentation period. The longer the better - some of mine are on the go for 48 hours, for example, which makes them very easy to digest. Good luck with this and do contact me again if you have any questions. Kind regards, Jane

  11. Sarah Taylor

    17. Jul, 2011

    Hi Jane, Sarah T here from school days! Found you on FB and wandered over to your blog. Fantastic!

    I have always wanted to make my own sourdough. Based on your discussion of hard flours, would typical Canadian All Purpose do?

    Cheers,
    Sarah

  12. virtuousbread

    18. Jul, 2011

    Hi Sarah,

    Canadian all purpose will be fine. However if you can find bread flour or hard flour that is even better. We have some of the world's hardest wheat in Manitoba! Alas, not used to make bread by Canadians in the main and much of it exported to, for example, the UK!

  13. Elizabeth

    25. Feb, 2012

    Hello, I try to make my first sourdough with brown wheat flour. It's 5th day and I cannot see any bubbles. Although it has a sour smell. I am wondering whether I should wait or just start again? Someone told me it is easier with rye flour. any advice, please! :-)

  14. virtuousbread

    25. Feb, 2012

    Hello Elizabeth

    if the starter is not bubbling that is a bad sign. You will need to try again. Make sure the water is warm and that the starter is somewhere warm (airing cupboard, heated floor) over the five days. Rye is no more or less easy - you follow the same principles. Serious question: is your house too clean? yeast likes some germs and does not like bleach or disinfectant.

  15. Craig

    21. Nov, 2012

    Hi
    I make sour-dough. In making yeast based bread I [believe] I discovered that using milk makes nicer bread. I am now making sour-dough bread with milk and all seems well. Should I worry about leaving a milk based dough for 24 to 48 hours with a bunch of 'bugs'!? I keep doing it and don't get unwell - and I haven't had complaints from my SMALL customer-base!

  16. virtuousbread

    22. Nov, 2012

    Dear Craig, thanks for your message! In fact, there is a proud tradition of milk bread (starch and protein in one small slice!!) and indeed the fat in the milk makes a softer, richer crumb. In addition, there is a proud tradition of using soured milk in bread (the acidity helps bread rise especially quick bread made of baking powder/soda) and if you grew up on a dairy farm it was a great way to use milk. I would not worry AT ALL about bugs. They would mostly die in the oven in any case and aside from that, unless there is mold or it smells rotten it is likely it is NOT! Kind regards, Jane

  17. jabu4711

    27. Nov, 2012

    Hi! I hope you can help.

    The instructions I have for refreshing the rye sourdough starter I keep in the fridge are to mix 10g of it with 60g of wheat flour and 30g of water and leave it for 8 to 12 hours before using it. This normally works fine; but last time (after leaving the paste overnight in the airing cupboard) a pretty solid crust had formed. Is the result useable? and why had it happened?

  18. virtuousbread

    27. Nov, 2012

    Dear Jan

    I cannot say why it would suddenly change if it has never done that before. I presume you covered it? What else has changed? the brand of flour, the temp in the cupboard? Hard for me to say.....Is the result useable? Again, I don't know. It's not going to kill you, at worst it is just that IT is dead and the bread won't rise! Give it a try!!!

  19. jabu4711

    27. Nov, 2012

    Many thanks for that reply. I usually leave it (as suggested) overnight in the kitchen - maybe the airing cupboard was too much for it. Back to the worktop! Regards, and thanks again.

  20. Frank Dawson

    17. May, 2013

    What would recipe be to make a sourdough starter from an existing commercial mix, such as the 75g packet of "Seitenbacher All Natural Ready Sourdough"?

    When rye sourdough starter is made, can I keep in refrigerator in a closed plastic container (EG, Tupperware)?

    Do I have to feed the rye sourdough starter every day, after the 4th day of feeding?

  21. noel

    17. Oct, 2013

    I have followed your instruction keeping the starter by the boiler in a sealed plastic box- all seemed to good for a couple of days then yesterday it seemed to have split and when i went to feed it today there is a very sour smell and brown water floating on the top. Has something gone wrong? I am using a good quality white bread flour. help please as I really want to try the sourdough hot cross buns.

  22. Natty

    21. Oct, 2013

    I'm finally attempting a sourdough starter today, I have some whole wheat flour to use. In a few other starter recipes that I've seen, they suggest removing a portion of the starter before feeding it each day. You don't mention anything about this, why would it be/not be necessary to do? Cheers :)

  23. virtuousbread

    21. Oct, 2013

    Dear Noel

    You are doing nothing wrong! It is just that your starter is really active and has gobbled up all the yeast in the flour. However, this does not mean it has "taken" permanently. Just that it's moving fast. Take it away from the boiler and just put it on the counter in the kitchen and feed it as you have been doing for the rest of the time. It's all well!!!!

  24. virtuousbread

    21. Oct, 2013

    Hi Natty

    you DON"T need to throw away any of the starter. It's a long discussion about how to KEEP a starter (fridge/no fridge and if no fridge you have to use ALOT or get into the habit of throwing some away for reasons I can bore you with if you are interested) but to MAKE a starter - no need! Over the five days just do equal amounts of wheat and water every day, stir and cover! Promise. It will bubble up by day 2-3 but keep going for the full time. let us know how it goes!

  25. Kate Poll (Baking in Suburbia)

    06. Dec, 2013

    Is there any reason why you need different kinds of starter, aside from purity? Could I use a white starter for example in a 100% rye bread for example and, if not, why not?

    (I'm sorry if you explained this when I did your sourdough course all those years ago but I just can't remember and can't find the answer.)

    P.S. I loved your tweet about Nelson Mandela and forgiveness. Thank you.

  26. virtuousbread

    07. Dec, 2013

    Hi Kate, not to worry! There is a lot to take in. Of course you can use a wheat starter and use it - adding wheat, spelt, or rye flour to make your final loaf. However, you need more wheat starter to make (for example) 1 kg of flour "rise" than you do rye starter. The more wheat starter you have, the less rye you use and so you cannot get 100% rye - just having the wheat in with the rye makes it NOT 100%. Does that make sense? You can get closer to 100% wheat using a rye starter simply because you need less of the starter to start with.

    Thanks for the comment on forgiveness. I genuinely believe it...do write if I have not cleared up your question. Jane

  27. Dorset Chick

    22. Jan, 2014

    I have a nice starter which has been sitting un-fed in the fridge for a fortnight. It had separated, some of the liquid was on top of the mix so I stirred it back together. It smells fine. I now want to make some bread, so I have taken some of it out of the tub and then fed the remaining starter. Can I use what was taken out, or will it not be any good ? Can I use what I have taken out as a "sponge" for a standard bread recipe ? What do you think please ? This is a great website by the way, we scoffed the Christmas "faux-caccia" ! Mmmm

  28. virtuousbread

    23. Jan, 2014

    Dear Liz

    thanks for the message and I am pleased you like the faux caccia! It's GREAT, isn't it! As re the starter, I am not sure I understand. You took some out and fed the remainder.....why is that? Why not take some out and feed that? Leaving the remainder in the fridge that you did not refresh and putting any refreshed left over back in the container with the leftover. Do let me know. As re using leftover or remainder in your "normal" bread recipe - do it! It's not active so you will need to add yeast, but the sourdough adds flavour and acidity and that's quite nice! Looking forward to hearing from you!

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