Learn how to make a sourdough starter from scratch. In this easy guide I talk about the history of yeast, the different terms you’ll come across, and my tips for a successful starter.
When you start out, and even a few months in, making sourdough anything can be su-per overwhelming. You’ll come across new phrases and techniques. You may need to acquire new tools. And most importantly, there are so many recipes out there.
This guide on how to make a sourdough starter from scratch will hopefully be your no-nonsense and easy way to understand and enter that magical sourdough world.
So before I actually tell you how to make a sourdough starter from scratch. I’d like to tell you what a sourdough starter is and why people like to use it so much.
THE HISTORY OF YEAST
If you have ever made your own bread or pizza dough, you will be familiar with bakers yeast, or more specifically, dried yeast. It wasn’t until the 19th century that yeast was sold commercially.
Apparently the first country to sell yeast commercially was the Netherlands. They obtained their yeast from beer brewers. The beer foam was used to speed up fermentation and improve the taste of bread and the way it rose.
It was not until the invention of the microscope, followed by the pioneering scientific work of Louis Pasteur in the late 1860’s, that yeast was identified as a living organism and the agent responsible for alcoholic fermentation and dough leavening.
Until then, the fermentation and leavening was just a mysterious phenomenon that could be used but not be explained. Shortly after these discoveries, it became possible to isolate yeast in pure culture form. Commercial production of bakers yeast quickly followed suit.
So what did they use before all that then? They used leaven (or levain which is the French term). The cool thing is that the bible actually mentions it in the parable of the Leaven (Matthew 13:33 and Luke 13:20-21).
So by using sourdough starter to bake, you are actually using a method that was used in the time that Jesus Christ was alive.
You can imagine that a sourdough starter was very crucial in these days. It was a staple in each household and it’s said that when people traveled they carried it (or just the leaven) with them.
Sourdough starters were passed on from generation to generation. It was almost like a family heirloom!
On top of sourdough starter being a very natural, traditional, and delicious way to leaven your bread and for example your pizza. There are said to be some health benefits connected to sourdough too.
The speedy production of bread these days, causes most breads to contain a certain type of carbohydrate which is hard for the body to break down. This causes bloating, wind and other IBS symptoms. The slow fermentation involved in making sourdough, breaks down these specific carbohydrates in the wheat, which makes it a lot easier for your body to digest it. So it’s a great way to avoid those symptoms!
On top of that, the fermentation process of sourdough provides healthy bacteria which are great for your gut. The fermentation process also maintains many of the original nutrients that are processed out of other kinds of bread.
There are said to be many more health benefits linked to sourdough. Would you like to read some articles which discuss these health benefits into more details? Then click here and here.
SOURDOUGH STARTER OR LEAVEN?
There is quite some unclarity regarding the terms ‘(sourdough) starter’ and ‘leaven’ and the terms are sometimes used in a confusing and almost interchangeable way.
So just to clarify, the following applies in general: a sourdough starter is an ongoing culture that you feed regularly and keep alive. You use this over and over again from one baking session to another.
The sourdough starter is literally a mixture of flour and water that you regularly refresh (or ‘feed’) with new flour and water. Over time, by allowing it to sit, it ferments and cultivates wild yeast and good bacteria.
The wild yeast and good bacteria feed on the carbohydrates in the flour when hydrated with water. Every time they are fed, they get stronger. Hence the desirability of mature sourdough starters!
The wild yeast and good bacteria will release gases as they consume the carbohydrates (which explains the bubbles you’ll see). These gases provide the air and the lifting you aim for with bread for example.
But what’s leaven then? A leaven is a small portion of the sourdough starter that you use to start or leaven (to cause it to rise) each new lot of bread dough. You do this by separating and feeding this portion of your sourdough starter fresh flour and water.
Usually you feed it more flour and water than you would your sourdough starter during a regular feed. BUT, and this is a big but, it’s not necessary to use a leaven.
It’s also very much possible to just feed the sourdough starter itself extra flour and water and to just use that for a baking session (don’t forget to keep some of your sourdough starter for your next bake though). This is a method that’s handy for someone who bakes once in a while and just sticks to a basic sourdough bread recipe.
However, if you bake quite often and start to play around with different recipes and different types of flour or seeds. Then using a leaven is a smart move to make.
Using a leaven keeps your sourdough starter safe and stable and it allows you to play around with different flours without having to worry about destroying your o so precious starter.
This is important in case things go wrong. Or if you usually feed your starter with, say, white bread flour then you don’t suddenly want to incorporate wheat flour. Sourdough starters are creatures of habits and if you want predictable results, then you’ll want to stick to the same method during its’ lifetime.
SOURDOUGH STARTER FROM SCRATCH
You know what’s cool? Creating a sourdough starter is so super simple! All you will need is flour, water, a storage jar, a kitchen scale, a fork, and some patience. Nature will do the rest.
There’s a little side tip that I want to give you though. When you start out on your sourdough journey, it’s very attractive to start your own sourdough starter from scratch. I get it, I have done it twice. You want to do it ALL, right? But since getting my hands on a mature sourdough starter, I am convinced that it’s a much easier way to start your sourdough journey.
In the past they KNEW the power of having a mature starter. That’s why they passed them on from generation to generation. With it came precious experience and wisdom that they could use to make things easier for themselves. Not making your own sourdough starter from scratch isn’t a failure, it’s clever. It’s giving yourself a head start.
So if you know a friend who has been on this sourdough journey longer than you have, you could ask if you could have some of their starter. Or if you visit one of those lovely artisan bakeries where they sell mature starter, maybe use that opportunity.
It may be handy though to make sure that their starter is based on the same type of flour you wish to base your starter on. It makes it all a lot easier!
But if you still want to try and do it yourselves, because hey that’s likely why you’re reading this article, then keep on reading.
You can use different types of flour. I myself used to create my sourdough starter with all purpose flour. But since a friend gave me some of his mature sourdough starter (it’s from 1845, San Francisco!) I am a big fan of starters based on white bread flour.
It is SO alive. My bread has never looked this good before!
I am not 100% sure whether that’s just because of its age or because it’s based on white bread flour. But online research shows that white bread flour is recommended for an easier to work with and more stable sourdough starter. I buy my white bread flour in the Tesco and it has worked very well for me. Find the exact flour here.
When you search online, there are different recommendations for the type of water you should use for your sourdough starter. You can either use tap water or filtered water.
The reason why some sources recommend filtered water, is because tap water in certain areas and countries contain a high level of chlorine. And chlorine could kill off the precious wild yeast and good bacteria in your sourdough starter. In my area the level of chlorine isn’t that high, so I have been using our tap water.
If the chlorine level in your area is high, there are two main options for you.
The first one is to use bottled (filtered) water. You know, the type that you buy in supermarkets.
The second one is to decrease the amount of chlorine in your tap water. One way to do that is by filling a jug with the right amount of tap water and to let it stand on your kitchen counter overnight. It’s a natural way to evaporate the chlorine.
Don’t like the idea of leaving your water on the kitchen counter? You can also put it in the fridge but it will take longer for the chlorine to evaporate that way. It will take around 24 hours.
The second option does take some thinking ahead but if you use your sourdough starter regularly, you will get into a rhythm. When you feed your sourdough starter or leaven for your next baking session, you could simultaneously prepare your water.
Maybe even prepare a bit extra for those daily or weekly feeding sessions. I’ll explain later why and how you could choose for a daily or weekly feeding session!
There are different ways to store your sourdough starter and truthfully it all depends on your own preference. The main options are to use a glass jar or a plastic container.
The most important thing is that your storage jar or container has a lid that could be put on it loosely to allow the gases to escape.
I prefer a plastic container at the moment since it’s easier to handle and clean. Because you will have to clean your jar almost weekly. This way I won’t have to worry about chipping it!
My storage container used to have fresh soup from the Lidl in it. So it doesn’t even have to cost you any money.
LET’S GET STARTED
After reading about the history behind yeast and seeing the basics explained, it’s time to get started. The exact measurements are mentioned in the printable at the end of this post.
DAY 1: Start by putting the flour and water in your storage container (or jar). Mix it well with a fork and cover the container with a kitchen towel. Leave this on your kitchen counter until day 3.
DAY 3: You should see bubbles appear by now. Discard half of the starter and add fresh flour and water to feed the starter. Use the kitchen scale to get the measurements right. You will repeat this process daily for 2 weeks.
DAY 17: Your starter is now ready to be used! Do be patient though, the older your starter gets, the fluffier your bread will be.
HOW TO STORE YOUR STARTER
There are two ways you could store your sourdough starter. You could store your sourdough starter on the kitchen counter or in the fridge.
You’d store your sourdough starter on the kitchen counter if you are planning to use it nearly every day. If you decide to do this, then that means that you’ll have to feed your starter daily as well.
You’d store your sourdough starter in the fridge if you’ll be using it about twice a week or less. With this method you’ll only have to feed your starter once a week. I used to store mine on the kitchen counter but I prefer it in the fridge now. It’s a lot easier!
I just feed it weekly when the weekend arrives. I take it out of the fridge, feed it, and leave it on the kitchen counter for three hours or so before I put it back in the fridge again.
When I am planning to use it, I’ll take it out the morning before and feed it extra to prepare it. As you can see, I’m not using a leaven here since I currently stick to a very basic sourdough bread recipe. But if you felt more comfortable with a leaven, you’d just take a portion of the sourdough starter and prepare that for your baking session.
It’s also very important that you clean the storage jar or container regularly. I do it weekly. If you forget to do it, it could eventually kill off your starter. When I am feeding my starter, I just transfer it to a bowl and wash the container before I put the fed starter back in.
Sourdough is fun and there are so many ways to use your sourdough starter! I myself have used it for hot cross buns, homemade sourdough pizza, bread, and more. If you want to see my heavily tested and tried (and yet simple) bread recipe, make sure to tune back in next week!
If you want to know how to convert any recipe into a sourdough recipe, this article by Farmhouse on Boone has been an amazing help to me.
Make Sourdough Starter From Scratch
- storage jar or container
- kitchen scale