Sourdough Basics: How to Make and Maintain a Starter

Updated on April 12, 2020
Deryl Gaier profile image

I guess you could say I have a fascination with yeast. My hobbies are baking bread and making my own beer and wine.

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.

Ingredients

  • 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.

Troubleshooting

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.

Questions & Answers

  • My starter container turns out to be too small. Can I transfer it while during the first three days?

    Sure - you can transfer the starter to another container any time you need.

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • lizmalay profile image

      Liza 

      4 months ago from USA

      Sure, I will. Thanks!

    • Deryl Gaier profile imageAUTHOR

      George Howard 

      4 months ago from Connecticut

      Yes, I tried to include different ways of getting a starter so people could try different methods. I actually began with a starter where I used dry yeast to get started - that way I could try things out without worrying about whether I made mistakes or not. Either way, give it a try and have fun! If I can help any answers, please let me know.

    • lizmalay profile image

      Liza 

      4 months ago from USA

      This is very exciting! I have never done a sourdough bread. My husband often asked me to make him one. Reading your experience and practice of making a sourdough starter was giving me an approach of trying to make my own at home. I guess it's the best time for doing it during this stay-home-order. Thanks for your detailed demonstration of sourdough basic.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, delishably.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://maven.io/company/pages/privacy

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)