Sourdough Basics: How to Make and Maintain a Starter
Sourdough Starter Basics and Maintenance
In this article, we will talk about how to create and maintain sourdough starters.
However, before creating a starter, we need to cover some of the rules for keeping a starter happy, so you can have the right materials on hand before you begin.
What You Need
Firstly, your starter will be made up of a mixture of flour and water, which becomes the home for the yeast and bacteria that create the sourdough bread and other baked goods. The starter needs to be "refreshed" from time to time with more flour and water to keep the yeast and bacteria alive and healthy.
- Water: The more natural the water used in your starter, the more healthy it will be. However, this doesn't mean you need to go out and get special water. The main idea is that you shouldn't use chlorinated (or fluoridated) water, because the chlorine will kill the yeast and bacteria in the starter. While a safe source of water for your starter could be bottled spring water, you may be able to use tap water (if you have your own well), or you could remove the chlorine in your water (filters, boiling, etc).
- Flour: The next important ingredient for your starter is flour. Most of my baking is done with white flour from my local store. I have done some work with whole wheat, but only a small amount. One caution on flours: Starters need time to adapt to a different type of flour, so if you have a white flour starter and want to use it with whole wheat or rye flour, the amount of time for the dough to rise will be longer than using the same starter with white flour. The other option is to feed your starter with whatever type of flour you normally use for baking. That way it will already be adapted to your "normal" flour type.
Choosing the Right Container
Once you have your flour and water, you need a container for your starter. This doesn't need to be anything fancy, but there are a few requirements:
- Size: It should be at least 1 quart. When feeding your starter, you will usually be adding 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water to your starter to "freshen" it. You should also leave some space for the starter to expand after feeding. Larger containers are also fine, but if it's too big it will be hard to store.
- Material: Metals should not be used because they will react with the starter creating a bad flavor. Ceramics or plastic are good as long as they are not chipped or scratched, because this allows unfriendly bacteria a place to hide (I have lost several starters to plastic that had small scratches I could barely see). The best material to use is glass, because it does not scratch as easily.
- Cover: Your container should be loosely covered to keep out molds and other contamination that would ruin your starter. However, the cover should not be too tight because the bubbles formed in the starter need to escape, and if the cover is too tight, the pressure could break the container. The cover can either be a lid that is in place, but not tightened or a fine cloth that is held in place with a rubber band. The idea is to allow the gasses to escape, but not allow the outside air in (so a lid with holes in it is NOT a good choice).
How to Create Your Starter: 4 Options
There are several different ways to get your starter going.
- You can take the easy way by buying one. There are many different types of starters from all over the world which are available for purchase. These will add slightly different flavors to your baking depending on where they originated. They normally come in a dried form with instructions on how to "revive" the starter for your own use.
- You can get some starter from someone who already has one. Once you have some of this established starter, keep it in a container as described above, and freshen it to keep it growing.
- You can create your own with dry yeast. This is how I started, using a recipe from a book I purchased.
- Finally, you can make your own by using natural yeasts. A description of how to do this is explained in my article, "An Introduction to Sourdough Basics."
Once your starter is ready, it can be used as an ingredient to create a variety of wonderful baked goods.
How to Take Care of Your Starter
Once you have a starter, you need to keep it healthy and growing. The starter needs to be fed (or "freshened") regularly to keep the yeast happy. This is done by adding a mixture of flour and water to the starter.
I use equal volumes of flour and water: 1 cup of flour mixed with 1 cup of water. Stir this together until it is well mixed, but don't worry if there are still some small lumps of flour—the starter will take care of these. Add this mixture to the starter container, and stir it all together. Cover the container and set it in a warm place to allow it to work. Stir the starter a couple times a day to make sure everything is well mixed.
I have also heard that the ratio above can vary—some people use equal weights of flour and water, or they use 1.5 cups of flour to 1 cup of water. I don't know of any reasons why one method would be better than another. The main thing to keep in mind here is that these different ratios will affect how the starter is used in different recipes. So, when using your starter in a new recipe, take a minute to check on how the starter for that recipe is made.
In the paragraph above, I mentioned that the starter should be freshened "regularly." The idea here is to keep the starter "active" which means the mixture should be bubbling, which means it should be fed roughly 2-3 times a week. While this sounds like a lot of work, it only takes a few minutes to mix up the flour and water and stir it in. Also, most sourdough recipes include a section that "freshens" the starter, so every time you use the starter for baking, this keeps it active.
How to Slow Things Down
- Slow down the starter by putting the container in the fridge. This will cause the yeast to slow down and last longer. If you put the starter in the fridge, it should be taken out every week or two, allowed to warm up, and be fed a few times. This will keep it going if you don't need to make any sourdough breads for a while. Just remember to give the starter time to get active again if you are using it for a recipe; otherwise, it will take a long time for your bread to rise!
- You can also take some of the starter and "dry" it to keep some for a longer time. This allows you to keep some starter for several months either as a backup (in case something happens to your primary starter), or if you want to take some time off from sourdough. Basically, you take some of the starter and dry it out. The tricky part here is to dry it out while keeping it from being exposed to things like mold.
If your starter seems a little bland (i.e., not very sour), the first thing to try is feeding it more often. However, if this doesn't help, or you want to quickly add some sourness, you can do this by adding some sugar, which will give the yeast some immediate food. It is best to do this slowly to avoid adding too much. I would start with about 1 tablespoon of sugar in your starter and give it at least a few hours to see how this works before adding more. Just go slowly and make sure you don't add too much too quickly.
With a little care and attention, your starter should stay happy for a long time. The suggestions and rules above are to make sure that nothing bad happens to your starter. Unfortunately, there are things that occasionally happen, and the starters that I have lost were due to not following the rules above, so it is best to keep an eye on your starter for anything that looks unusual. If you notice a strange smell or color in your starter, it is best to just dump the whole thing and start over with new starter and a new container.