In the years since I first shared my sourdough explorations with you, I’ve gotten a LOT of questions about growing a starter, keeping it, and recipes using it. I wrote a bunch of tips that I learned in the first year after growing my own sourdough starter, and then published a number of recipes using the starter (scroll down to see a list of all the sourdough recipes on AOC).
Since I still do get a number of questions, I thought I’d finally post how to grow, keep & use a sourdough starter, along with an update (now that I just realized that I’ve kept that original starter going for FOUR YEARS!) and a list of all the recipes I’ve posted on the blog. So consider this to be An Oregon Cottage’s main guide to all things sourdough! (disclaimer: I’m by no means a sourdough expert – I’m simply sharing my easy home kitchen, occasional-user sourdough tips with you!)
What is Sourdough?
Sourdough is made by ‘growing’ the natural yeast that occurs in flour with good bacteria found in the air (lactic acid). Each area of the country (and world, for that matter!) creates it’s own varieties of sourdough depending on the air and climate because of this bacteria – like San Francisco’s famous sourdough that can’t really be exactly replicated outside of it’s coastal climate. The wild yeast and the lactic acid bacteria working together create the bubbles and gas to rise bread. (Because of the starter’s pH level and the presence of antibacterial agents, it’s able to prevent colonization by unwanted yeasts and bacteria – this is why you can have a starter last for many years.)
What this means for you is that your starter may take longer or shorter to grow than the steps I outline below. It’s okay – and as I discussed in my sourdough tips page, the main thing I’ve learned with sourdough over the last three years is to have patience, with both the starter and the dough.
How to Grow A Sourdough Starter in 7 Days
(Adapted from Heavenly Homemakers)
- Gather 1 half-gallon jar or 4-qt. or bigger glass bowl (not metal or plastic, sourdough is acid-based), 1 cup whole wheat flour + 1 cup rye flour (you can use all whole wheat – 2 cups total – but I read that rye flour makes the best sourdough starter, so I added half), and 2 cups warm water (just warm tap water) – using warm water is the major difference in my adaptation of the Heavenly Homemaker’s method, as I’ve read – and experienced – that yeast responds better to warm water.
- Put the flour into the jar or bowl and stir in the water. It should be mixed well and look pretty liquidy – that’s just the way it’s supposed to be the first day.
- Cover the top of the container with muslin (or cheesecloth). You can secure it with a rubberband or tie, but I didn’t, as you want the yeast to find it’s way in – just not dust or bugs.
- Keep in a warm place – I set mine on the top of the refrigerator, since I started making it in February.
- After 24 hours, the starter may have separated some (like in the day 2 photo above). You can pour off the dark liquid that on the top or mix it in – this is called the “hooch” and is perfectly normal. (Over the years I’ve realized that it always produces some hooch as it waits in the fridge, and mixing it back in creates a more sour bread.)
- Pour the starter in to a fresh, clean jar or bowl (note: I followed Heavenly Homemaker’s instructions for this. Transfering it to a clean jar each day allows the sides to remain clean. I’ve no idea if it’s truly necessary or not). Add 1 cup of whole wheat flour and 1 cup of warm water, stirring well. Replace the cloth and return the jar to it’s warm spot. (note: your starter probably doesn’t smell very soury yet and that’s okay)
- Repeat day 2: pour any liquid off (or mix it in), put your starter into another clean jar or bowl, add 1 c. flour and 1 c. warm water and place it back in it’s spot, covered with the cloth.
- Your starter may have risen some by now, have a slightly sour smell, and have little bubbles as well as the hooch after waiting 24 hours from day 3 (but again, don’t worry if yours looks different – just keep moving forward..). Repeat the steps from days 2 & 3.
- You may not like the smell of your starter by this stage, but don’t think it’s bad – it’s just working. There’ll be a number of different smells as you go through the process. There may be be a lot of liquid with stuff on the top – again, normal.
- Add 1 cup flour and only 3/4 c. of warm water* to your starter (again you can choose to pour the liquid off or mix it in).
- Your starter may outgrow your container today or tomorrow – go ahead and move it to a bigger glass bowl when you see it’s getting near the top.
*Note: what I’ve learned is that the more liquid-to-flour ratio, the more sour your starter and subsequent bread. 1 cup water to 1 cup flour is considered a 100% hydration and is a bit more liquidy and sour. If you want a less sour bread, try a 3/4 c. water-to-1-cup-flour ratio, which is what I now do, since it seems to make the starter rise better. However, you can actually add only 1/4 c. or 1/2 c. water at this point if you’d like hardly any sour flavor.
- You should see bubbles in your starter today and maybe liquid depending on how much water you added yesterday.
- Add another cup of flour and 3/4 -1 c. of water, transferring the starter to a large bowl, like an 8-qt. size glass measure. Lay your piece of muslin or cheesecloth over the bowl and return it to the warm place.
- Repeat day 6.
- Today’s the day to make something using your starter, which should have bubbles and have grown in it’s container! At this point it’s considered an ‘active’ starter.
- Place 2 cups of the starter in a glass jar, place a lid on the jar – but don’t seal tightly – and place in the refrigerator. This is now the starter you will feed and use each time you want to make something.
- As for what to make with the rest of your new starter, I found the hard way that even though the starter looked all bubbly and active on day 8, it’s not really mature enough yet to rise bread really well.
- So my suggestion on day 8 is to make these amazing waffles, a batch of these slightly addictive crackers, or a basic sourdough pancake recipe.
Week 2 and Beyond
- Once a week, remove the starter from the fridge, pour into a bowl and feed it with 1 cup of whole wheat flour and 3/4 to 1 cup of water (the thicker starter above was fed the 1 to 3/4 c. ratio), stirring well. Leave it to grow and become active again 12 to 24 hours before using it in a recipe. It should double in size during that period. (Tip: I clean the jar I store the starter in with warm water only – no soap, so not to introduce anything weird into the starter.)
The idea is to get in the habit of using your starter at least once a week by bringing it to room temperature, feeding it until it’s doubling in size, and then making something with some of it, putting 1 to 2 cups back into the fridge for the next week. Each time you use some of the starter and refeed it, it is maturing and growing stronger.
Here’s a suggested timeline for what to make with your brand new starter:
- Weeks 2-3: waffles, pancakes, and crackers
- Weeks 4-5: english muffins, bagels (and maybe a King Arthur Flour sourdough recipe, which always use a bit of yeast with the sourdough).
- Weeks 6-7: easy sourdough artisan bread, sourdough cheesy batter bread (batter breads don’t require kneading, etc.)
- Week 8 and beyond: Finally, after your starter has been successful with these items, it’s time to try a traditional sandwich loaf! I always use my friend, Gina’s (Homejoys) soft sourdough bread – she also has a lot of great sourdough tips and recipes, so be sure to check her site out!
My Year Four Sourdough Update
After using my sourdough at least monthly (it’s hard to do it every week!) for more than three years, I got tired of being a ‘slave to the sourdough.’ Last summer I stopped needing as much bread and I didn’t bother with my starter – until seven months later. Our power went out and the contents of our fridge needed to be put in a cooler. I left the sourdough starter – which had about a 2-inch layer of hooch by now – outside, figuring it was long gone.
However, after our power came back on, I decided to see if I couldn’t bring it back to life, since it still smelled like sourdough starter. (Some people have said they threw out their starter because it was growing mold – I’ve never had this happen! The hooch had some white bubbles floating on it, but it wasn’t mold – so look carefully to be sure before throwing out your precious starter.) I started feeding it and guess what? It came back to life – 7 months and 5 days with no power later!
I fed it for a week before baking with it, just to make sure it was good and strong. Then I baked up a batch of artisan bread and my daughter declared it my best sourdough yet! Moral? Don’t give up on your starter. (PS- and the first photo in this article is what my starter looks like when I first pull it out of the fridge, thoroughly inactive. A little flour, warm water & time and voila, it comes back to life!)
Here’s a list of all the sourdough articles & recipes on An Oregon Cottage:
- Sourdough Bread? My first bread-baking attempt: Feb. 2010
- What I called Sourdough Bread Success (but I cheated and used some yeast, and the bread looks pretty dense…)
- My Sourdough Tips after 1 year
- Amazing Sourdough Waffles
- Easy Whole Wheat Sourdough Crackers (really – this dough is a dream to work with!)
- Easy Whole Wheat Sourdough English Muffins
- How to Make Sourdough Bagels
- Cheesy Sourdough Batter Bread
- Easy Sourdough Artisan Bread
Have you grown your own sourdough starter? Have any tips to share?