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How to Create a Sourdough Starter (No Yeast Required)

MH Bonham is an award-winning author and editor. Bonham is also the author of more than 50 books as well as thousands of articles.

Make delicious homemade sourdough bread with your own starter

Make delicious homemade sourdough bread with your own starter

Going Sourdough Out of Necessity

I never expected to go back to sourdough. I really didn't. In the early years of my marriage, I tried my hand at sourdough but ended up having to toss it because it would turn red, or become nasty. Or, I'd just forget about it and it would die an unholy death in my refrigerator.

Oh, I baked bread regularly before the novel coronavirus pandemic. My husband and I love to have snack bread to munch on, which is oh-so-much better than the stuff you buy at the store. But with COVID-19 quarantines and stay-at-home orders, I was forced to revisit the whole sourdough thing, especially when I started running out of yeast and just couldn't find any in the stores. Hence my foray into sourdough.


Sourdough Starter Schedule

Day 1:

  • 1 cup rye or whole wheat flour
  • ~1/2 cup water

Day 2:

  • 1 cup all-purpose or bread flour
  • ~1/2 cup water

Day 3 (morning):

  • 1 cup all-purpose or bread flour
  • ~1/2 cup water

Day 3 (afternoon):

  • 1 cup all-purpose or bread flour
  • ~1/2 cup water

Day 4 (morning):

  • 1 cup all-purpose or bread flour
  • ~1/2 cup water

Day 5 (morning):

  • 1 cup all-purpose or bread flour
  • ~1/2 cup water

Day 1: Creating the Sourdough Starter

Back in the days when the internet was young, I really didn't have the resources to learn how to make decent sourdough like I do today. Hence, my sourdough back then started with active dry yeast. While you can still make sourdough with active dry yeast, I recommend that you don't, because part of the fun of creating your own sourdough is creating sourdough from wild yeast. Which means you're going to have to choose your ingredients for the best chance of creating a sourdough wort or sponge.

To start your sourdough, you need to use a whole-grain flour like rye or whole wheat. This is because the less processing the flour has, the more likely it has wild yeast spores sticking to the flour. I used Bob's Red Mill Organic Dark Rye Flour, but you can use whatever rye or whole wheat flour you care to. You can probably even try other flours like barley and oat flours, but I have no idea how they will work out. You'll need water, too, preferably non-chlorinated. If the water smells of chlorine or has a strong chemical smell, the chemicals may be strong enough to kill the yeast, or at least inhibit them. I don't have that problem because I'm on well water, so I can't tell you what municipal water will do to your starter. If you're not sure if your water has too many chemicals, go with distilled or bottled water.

  1. Mix 1 cup of your whole grain flour and ½ cup of water. Place the ingredients in a 1-quart Mason jar or some other large jar or non-metallic bowl that is easy for you to stir the ingredients in.
  2. Leave the top off the jar for now, and cover the top with cheesecloth or even a paper towel with at least a hole or tear in it to keep the dust and bugs out of your starter.
  3. Stir the flour and water until all the flour is wet. If you need to use a bit more water to accomplish this, that's fine. Just don't end up with a really soupy starter.
  4. Place your jar in a warm (not hot) place in the kitchen and let sit for about a day.
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Day 2

After 24 hours, you have to feed the starter. You'll want a separate jar or plastic tub to put the excess starter in while you are feeding your main starter. Why? Because you're otherwise going to be throwing out a whole bunch of starter, which is wasteful. You need to keep about a half cup or so of your original starter in your starter container and either dump the rest in the trash, or save it in the refrigerator for baking in a couple of days.

Why throw out most of your starter? Well, the yeast is going to need to grow and multiply, and if you don't cull some of them, the starter can go flat. At the same time, your yeast needs to be fed, which means you need to add more flour and water. You'll end up with more starter than will fit in the container you use to make it. So, unless you have a really big container, or plan on making a lot of bread every day, you will need to cut back on the starter.

  1. Even if you're not seeing bubbles or any activity with your starter right now, remove all the starter except a bit more than ½ cup of the original.
  2. Add one cup of white all-purpose or bread flour, and ½ cup of water.
  3. Stir your starter until all the new flour is mixed into the wort.
  4. Cover loosely with cheesecloth or a paper towel, and let sit in a warm place for another 24 hours.

Days 3–5

By the third day, you should be seeing some bubbles and some activity with your starter. If you don't, no worries. Sometimes it takes longer for some starters to get going. If it's bubbling away, that's fine too, as long as it doesn't smell bad. The smell should be pleasant, like that of sourdough bread, or maybe fruity, but it should never smell rotten. After the first couple of days, my sourdough starter smelled a bit like rye (go figure), and had a pleasant aroma. Because my house is on the cold side, I only started really seeing a few bubbles on day 3. Your mileage may vary, of course.

You'll now need to be feeding your starter twice a day at what should be close to 12-hour intervals. Do the following twice daily:

  1. Remove all the starter except a little more than ½ cup.
  2. Adding 1 cup of white flour and ½ cup of water.
  3. Mix it well.
  4. Let sit in a warm place in your kitchen.

As I said, this is a wasteful process if you don't use the amount you just removed. If you use the starter's discard, you'll get some delicious sourdough foods while waiting for your starter to mature.

That being said, I have cheated and a few days I only fed the starter once a day. This will most likely slow the starter's progress a bit and may make it take longer to get to the maturity you need.


Day 5: How to Tell When It's Ready

By the fifth day, the starter should be bubbling merrily. Do the following:

  1. Discard or save all but a ½ cup of the starter.
  2. Add 1 cup of white flour and ½ cup of water.
  3. Mix thoroughly again and let sit for about 8 hours.
  4. If it is bubbling merrily, you can then use a cup of the starter in whatever recipe you desire.
  5. If your starter is mature enough, transfer it into the container where you're going to keep it while in the refrigerator.

About the starter's "new home:" Choose a nonmetallic container to keep your starter in while in the refrigerator. It can be plastic, glass, or ceramic. Any jar that has a screw top will need to have it on loose so the CO2 from the yeast can release properly. If you don't, you can suffocate the yeast, or even cause the bottle to shatter from built-up gas.

You'll need to feed your starter at least once a week in the refrigerator, either using up or discarding all the starter, except ½ cup, and mixing in a cup of flour and a half cup of water.

What If the Starter Isn't Ready Yet?

But let's say your starter isn't enthusiastic, and is hardly bubbling or not bubbling at all. That's okay. Keep feeding and discarding (or using up) the starter until it shows signs of being active. Some starters take longer due to the environmental conditions and the types of whole grain you started with. As long as it doesn't stink or look discolored, you just have to show some patience.


Substituting Starter for Yeast

If you're planning on using sourdough starter instead of yeast, plan on one cup of starter per package of active dry yeast, as long as your yeast is healthy and active. Take into account the water and flour, too. Oh, and expect your bread—or whatever you're making to take a longer rise time if you're converting from active dry yeast to starter. I discovered this much to my chagrin when I tried to make a favorite recipe in the bread machine the other day and ended up with a hockey puck. Unless the recipe specifically calls for starter in a bread machine, use your bread machine to mix and knead your bread and then put it in a loaf pan and let it rise. Then, bake it in the oven instead of letting your bread machine bake it when it rises enough. I've read it can take twice as long for a starter to work its magic on your bread than the commercial yeast.

How to Use Your Starter

Many recipes I've seen actually have you add yeast in addition to a starter, but honestly, this is not necessary if you have a healthy sourdough wort. I made the mistake of adding a teaspoon of yeast to a bread machine recipe for sourdough bread, and the bread went totally crazy and grew to touch the top of the bread machine's cover. Yeah, lesson learned. The good news is that the bread was awesome.

Most sourdough recipes call for a cup of starter or less. In that case, remove the starter from the refrigerator and let it warm up and start getting bubbly again. (This can take several hours.) Once it is responding to the warmer temperatures, take the amount you need out of your starter and use it in the recipe. Then, you'll need to mix a cup of flour and ½ cup of water in the starter, and let it sit for eight to 12 hours in a warm place before returning it back to the refrigerator.

If your recipe calls for more starter than a cup, add the amount of flour you need along with half that amount in water, mix it thoroughly, and then let it sit for a day before using the quantity in the recipe.

Good luck with your starter! Let me know how you did in the comments!

© 2020 MH Bonham

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