If you enjoy sourdough bread, are sensitive to more processed bread, or just don’t want to ever run out of yeast again…maintaining your own sourdough starter might be a good option! Here are all the best tips on how to make a sourdough starter and keep it going strong – including everything I wish I had known before I got started!
I love bread – especially homemade bread.
Back when my oldest child was two, I was introduced to the idea of natural yeast – or a sourdough starter.
The idea intrigued me, especially as I learned about the health benefits and how it’s easier for people who are sensitive to wheat/gluten to digest.
I was given an active starter from a friend, but I quickly got overwhelmed. We also ended up moving to a new state at the time, I got pregnant, and that was the end of it.
Well, fast forward about six years. I saw my brother-in-law mention he was experimenting with a sourdough starter.
So I decided to try it again. I had heard many of the health benefits touted. I actually have a hard time tolerating most bread these days, and people said this way of making bread was supposed to be easier on your stomach.
I have had so much fun experimenting, and I’ve learned so much. It’s actually not as daunting as you might think! And I can actually eat what I make without feeling sick.
So this post is for anyone who is getting started with sourdough. I hope it’s helpful!
Table of contents
Getting Started with Sourdough
How to Make Sourdough Starter from Scratch
This will probably sound dumb, but I honestly had no idea that you could make your own until recently.
It does take about a week, and you have to be consistent – but it’s not hard to do. There are various recipes out there, but I found the King Arthur Sourdough Starter recipe to work really well.
Of course, if you don’t want to go through the trial and error process of growing your own, it can be helpful just to get a proven and active starter from a friend.
But if you don’t know anyone with one, just make it yourself. It’s really not that hard, and it’s kind of fun. I keep joking that it’s like we have a new pet!
Where to Buy Sourdough Starter
Don’t have a friend who can give you any and don’t want to make it yourself? You can buy sourdough starter kits! I’ve seen people selling it on Facebook groups even.
Feeding Sourdough Starter
In order to maintain your sourdough, you need to regularly feed it. When you are first developing yours, it has to be fed every 24 hours (sometimes more toward the end).
To feed it, you discard all but about 113 grams, and then add in 113 grams of flour and 113 grams of water (about 1/2 cup of each). If you want to keep more starter, then you’ll just add equal parts of water and flour (so if you keep 200 grams of starter, you’ll add 200 grams of flour and water to feed it).
How to Store Sourdough Starter
I recommend having a large mason jar or other glass container to store your sourdough starter in – about 64 ounces would be ideal.
You need something that it can get bigger in without overflowing over the top and that you can put a lid on – if you plan to refrigerate it.
When it’s sitting out, I recommend just having some plastic wrap loosely draped over the top.
If you are wanting to bake pretty much every day, you can leave it on your counter top. Otherwise, you will want to read my instructions below for refrigerating and freezing it.
Refrigerating and Freezing Sourdough Stater
So what if you don’t want to bake sourdough every. single. day. Most of of us don’t.
Fortunately, you can easily store your starter in the refrigerator. I feed mine once a week, though some recommend twice a week. Mine seems pretty strong though with just a once a week feeding.
You want to store it with a loose lid. I keep my starter in a glass mason jar, so I just loosely put the lid on in between feedings.
When you are wanting to use it, take it out about 12 hours before you want to start your dough. Let it sit at room temperature for a few hours, and then feed it. It should start getting nice and active pretty quickly.
Refrigerating your starter is a good option for anyone who wants to bake just a few times a month (or even just once a month).
If you aren’t planning to make sourdough for a while or super frequently, though, freezing is a good option. This is what I wish I had known about doing with my starter years ago.
To freeze your sourdough starter, place one cup of your starter in a freezer safe bag or container. It can take up to about a week for it to become fully active again.
Sourdough Starter Smell
An active sourdough starter should smell yeasty and a bit sour – but it shouldn’t smell bad or unpleasant.
Other Helpful Tools
Here a few tools that I find especially helpful when making sourdough bread:
Stand Mixer with Dough Hook
You can absolutely make sour dough bread mixing and kneading by hand – I mean, this is how they’ve been making bread since long before a mixer (or electricity) even existed.
And even with a mixer, I still recommend some hand kneading. However, I do find that a stand mixer helps significantly with the process.
I usually use my Kitchen Aid Artisan, though I really should be getting out my Bosch. It’s much better equipped to make bread, and my Artisan gets really sad sounding when I’m mixing and kneading my bread. The bowl actually got suck on it last time!
Anyways, whatever stand mixer you use, make sure you use the dough hook. It’s essential! If you are in the market for a new stand mixer, be sure to read our comparison of Bosch Universal Plus versus Kitchen Aid (though if you want something powerful for a lot less than either – check out the Nutrimill Artiste. It’s basically a mini Bosch!).
Large Silicone Bread Mat
I recently got this silicone baker’s mat, and it is LIFE changing. It is completely gigantic, but I love it. It’s non-slip, has measurements on it, and it is large enough for big batches of bread. I HIGHLY recommend getting one of these.
Sourdough Starter Tips
Try, Try Again
There’s a learning curve with any type of bread making – but it’s especially there with sourdough.
I have had some definite fails – such as my orange rolls. The rising wasn’t quite right, and they ended up hard as a rock. It was so sad!
But I’ve kept experimenting and have had some amazing success. For instance, I couldn’t believe how delicious the sourdough sandwich bread I made the other day was. I don’t think I’ve ever had something so soft and delicious.
Don’t throw away the discard
When I first started growing my sourdough starter, I cringed every day as I threw away the “discard”.
I know that doesn’t sound very appealing, but it’s just the extra flour and what that you have leftover when you measure out the amount you want to feed. If you kept feeding all of it, it would become monsterous quickly!
I was excited when I discovered discard recipes – and honestly, they have become something I really look forward to making.
You mostly use them in recipes that don’t typically require yeast or too much (if any) rising time typically. But they are a great way to make sure your discard doesn’t go to waste.
I will sometimes use it right away, or I’ll keep it in a container in the fridge until I’m ready to use it. We have made muffins, pancakes, pretzels, and my personal favorite every Saturday – pizza!
Getting More Starter
A lot of recipes call for 1 cup or more of sourdough starter – and if you are only maintaing about 1/2 cup at a time, that can be a little tricky. Or perhaps you want to share your starter with someone else!
I was so stressed out when I was trying to figure out how to get more…and I felt silly when I realized how easy it was.
If you want more starter – just don’t discard any when you go to feed your starter, and just add equal parts water and flour in the normal amounts you want. If it’s an active starter, it should bubble up within a few hours. Just keep adding more every time it doubles until you get the amount you need.
Rise time is a long time
Making sourdough bread is not a quick process. It requires a lot of rising and waiting, which is essential for the fermentation process.
But you need to make sure you give yourself enough time. I typically will start my recipes the night before I need them, because you want at least a good 12 hours for most recipes.
I did find a “hack” though – if you find yourself in a pinch. If you have an Instant Pot, you can 1/3 or half the time it rises by putting it in the Instant Pot on yogurt mode with a glass lid. I don’t think you’ll get all the benefits of a full fermentation, but it’s nice if you started later than you meant to.
Don’t leave your window open
One night Forrest left the window open downstairs, because it was a warm night. Well, he didn’t realize that my starter was sitting close by.
It was in pretty sad shape the next morning – it wasn’t bubbly at all, and I was convinced it was ruined. I made a recipe with it in the next day, and it rose a little bit but not much at all.
However, I was able to nurse it back to life with feedings every 12 hours, and I made sure to keep it in a warmer spot. I was actually quite impressed with my ability to revive it!
But learn from my mistakes – don’t leave your window open if you have your starter anywhere nearby. However, if you do, not all hope is lost. I have a very active starter now!
Try different recipes
Don’t feel like you are limited to just making a loaf of bread. While that’s what most people probably think of, there are lots of non-loaf sourdough recipes you can make. I am itching to try cinnamon rolls one of these days!
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It’s okay if the starter thicker
Which I first started developing my sourdough starter, it just seemed to thick. I’d seen other starters – and I remembered the one I used to have – just seemed a lot more liquid-y.
However, I came across this article about sourdough starter consistency, and it made me feel better when I read this:
As long as the starter is bubbly, has a pungent aroma, and is rising and lowering its levels after feedings, your starter will be happy to ferment your bread no matter what the consistency is.
I’ve switched flours many times over the years when feeding my starter, from wholemeal to rye, to different brands of strong white bread flour. At the moment I’m happy with my strong white starter, but whenever I switch brands, I notice the consistency of my starter changing. It will become extra runny, or extra thick, according to which flour I am using.
But has it made a difference to how my bread turns out? Absolutely not. My bread comes out with consistent results no matter how runny or thick the starter was, as the method I use (and teach) goes by the feel of the dough, which will mean the water content of the dough will always be adjusted accordingly. And this is the reason why the consistency of the starter is less important to the overall result of the bread.
Not sure if your starter is active enough? Just do a float test! I wish I would have learned about this earlier, because I think it would have made some of my initial bread a little more successful.
It’s very simple to do – fill a cup with some lukewarm water. Drop a small piece of the sourdough into the water – if it floats, it’s active enough to bake with. If it drops to the bottom, it needs to sit out longer or be fed again.
Sourdough isn’t always super sour
I think a lot of people hear sourdough and imagine something that’s, well, sour. And honestly, that was my experience with a lot of sourdough breads that I had purchased from the store.
However, none of the breads I have made have been really sour. Yes, there’s a bit of a sourdough taste to them, but it’s been nothing that has turned people away from eating it!
The longer it ferments, the stronger the taste will be. So if you let it rise for a long time, you can expect it to be a little more sour. However, we haven’t had anything really sour after a 12 hour rise!
Specks might be bubbles
I got my starter out a few weeks ago, and I was devastated! I though that it had mold when I saw little black specks all over it.
Starters can mold, and someone had just told me they had to throw theirs out and start all over due to mold, so I was preparing for the worst.
Well, I started mixing it around, and I realized the specks were actually just air bubbles! Not mold specks at all. So if it looks like there are black specks…it might just be air!
Use a Food Scale
I have never been one to use a food scale to bake until recently – but it really makes a difference with baking.
I was having trouble with my Starter until I used my food scale, and I realized how off my 1/2 cup measurements were!
I think it also helps when you are actually baking because you can get more precise measurements for flour – and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about flour is that it’s very easy to use too much!
As I started researching sourdough starter, I saw a lot of people say never to use tap water.
However, on the King Arthur recipe, it said that as long as your water isn’t heavily treated, it’s not a problem.
We have filtered water in our fridge, but I’ve just used tap water with no problem. So if you’ve been hesitant to start because you don’t have tap water, you may still be able to!
Converting Dry Yeast to Natural Yeast in Recipes
I have had the hardest time finding a simple method for replacing dry yeast with natural yeast. I find some complicated ideas online, but one of my favorite Instagram accounts – just.ingredients – posted this a while back. I’m not sure if it’s an exact art – but this is a good place to start.
Remove the water and instant yeast measurement and replace with one cup of natural yeast!
Can Sourdough Starter Go Bad?
It can, but a well-maintained sourdough starter is going to be pretty hard to kill. Here are a few things to look for that might mean it’s time to start over:
- Mold – it can be various colors and often fuzzy
- Bad Bacteria – any orange or pinkish tinge or streak
It may start to develop a “hooch”, which is just a some liquid on the top. This doesn’t mean it’s gone bad – you just want to pour it off before you use it. It typically just means that your sourdough starter need to be fed!
Not For You? Try This
Sourdough starters are not for everyone! But if you still love high-quality, sourdough bread products, be sure to check out our friends at Wildgrain. They offer a sourdough subscription box, and it is absolutely fantastic. You can get $10 off your first box with the code CLARKS_10. Watch our review video below!
And there you have it – everything I wish I had known and that I’ve learned through this natural yeast/sourdough starter journey. Please comment with any tips you have or recipes that you love. We will be sharing some of our favorite recipes over the next few months!