The simplest way to make Sourdough Starter requires only flour and water and time!
I find it rather amazing that you can eventually make delicious bread or even wine by capturing the yeast in the environment around you.
Sourdough starter is not rocket science but it needs time and attention from you. Of course some mature starter from a friend is always a welcome gift because the longer the starter has been around the stronger it will tend to be.
But... you can easily make your own. It takes 5-7 days on average but 11-14 will give you a stronger starter.
You can use unbleached all purpose flour.
You can use whole wheat flour.
You can use a combination of whole wheat and all purpose flour.
Other specialty flours can be used but save that for Sourdough starter 201. Some elaborate flours can lend some funky properties to a starter so get used to the basic first.
Is Whole Wheat Flour better than All Purpose?
Whole wheat might give your starter a bit of a jumpstart in the beginning but it is not necessary. Unbleached all purpose will work just fine.
One thing to think about is what you want your final loaf to be eventually. I like baking the actual loaf using a combination of whole wheat flour and all purpose so it is not an issue for me to have whole wheat flour on hand in general. (All I mean there is you don't have to go out and buy whole wheat flour if you don't use it very often.)
To start your culture filtered or distilled water is best. Tap water may be fine. Just try to avoid heavily chlorinated water. If you tap water is heavily chlorinated you might want to pour some in a container and let it sit out overnight. Once your starter is robust it will probably tolerate tap water but hey... if you have filtered water from your fridge go for it.
No commercial yeast is required here. No wonder sourdough baking became the rage during Covid lockdown! There is wild yeast in the air, in the flour already. The flour and water over time is going to activate it.
Instructions will say to leave out in a warm place. If it is summer and your house is in the mid 70s F any draft free counter is fine.
If it is cooler you might want to turn your oven light on with the starter on a pan in the oven. Turn the light off after an hour or so and let the starter continue to develop.
Or set your jar on top of your fridge.
Let's Get Started
If you already own a kitchen scale then get it out. Weighing the flour and water for the starter and the subsequent is the most accurate way to measure and it will be a Godsend when you actually start making the bread.
I get it if you don't want to invest in kitchen equipment at this point until you see if this sourdough thing is for you....just keep that thought in the back of your mind in case you decide to continue with your home bread baking.
Take a glass quart jar - like a Mason jar. Mix 85 grams flour (about ⅔ cup) and 80ml (about ⅓ cup) of water together. Stir well, cover loosely with a tea towel or cheese cloth and move to a warm place. Mixture should look like paste but not runny. If it seems too dry add another tablespoon of water.
Day 2- Feed the Starter. Repeat Day one measurements of flour and water and add to your Day 1 base. Stir well, cover and return to the warm place.
Day 3 - Repeat Feeding as per Day 2. Day 3 or so you should be starting to see some bubble activity. This is a good sign that the yeast is starting to work.
Day 4 - Add ⅔ cup of flour and a splash of water to make thick pancake batter consistency You should be seeing bubbles and the mixture should have visibly increased in Volume.
Day 5- Your starter should be ready to use. (See below).
If you see a dark liquid forming in your starter do not be alarmed. It means the starter needs to be fed. You can just mix the liquid into your starter or pour it off.
How Do I Know When My Starter is Ready to Use?
The starter should look like pancake batter. Before you use it in a bread recipe you MUST drop a teaspoon of it in a glass of water. The starter should float to the top. If it doesn't then you need to feed it and leave it on your counter. You may need to feed it again after 4 hours or so until it floats.
Maintaining Your Starter
Here is the part where you now have a new pet! The starter doesn't have to be demanding but it does need consistency from you.
If you have made your bread and are storing the remainder then feed it the ratio of flour (⅔ cup) and water (⅓) you have been using, cover your jar with a lid and put it in the fridge.
- If you plan to use it within a few days keep it on your counter. Discard half of it and feed it ⅔ cup flour/1/3 cup water daily until you use it. Do the float test.
- If you are not planning to use it within the week put it in the fridge with the jar lid on loosely. After 6 or 7 days - stir it and 'discard' half of the volume. (You may want to keep the 'discard' half because there are lots of delicious recipes you can make with it. More on that later). Feed the remaining starter with equal parts flour and water, stir well, cover and return to the fridge. You can continue this weekly schedule indefinitely. When you are ready to bake take it out of the fridge the night before, feed it and let it sit on the counter. Check if it floats- if not you will want to feed it a second time after 8- 12 hours.
Dealing with the 'Discard'
I put discard in quotes because I like the discard as much as the actual bread! You can accumulate what you would have discarded in a separate sealed container until you have enough to make some of the delicious discard recipes like pancakes, biscuits and crackers. I feed the discard container if I am holding it for more than 7 days. Check out some of the things you can make in Recipes For Sourdough Starter Discard.
What If I Am Going to Be Away?
If you know you won't be around to feed your starter or you know you won't be baking for a long time you can dry the starter on a Silpat or parchment paper. Smear it out in a thin layer and let it dry. When it is dry and crumbly, break it up and store it in an airtight container. Keep it dark and dry and it will keep like this for months. To re-activate it take ¼ cup of starter flakes and 4 oz water. Stir together and start the 5-7 day feeding process again.