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Making a Sourdough Starter from Scratch: Part I

Updated on August 9, 2013
Rustic sourdough loaf with whole golden flax seeds. Made from scratch with my sourdough starter!
Rustic sourdough loaf with whole golden flax seeds. Made from scratch with my sourdough starter!

I am simply amazed that I was able to make the loaf above completely from scratch with my own homemade sourdough starter. This article walks you through the step-by-step directions to make your own sourdough starter from scratch. Believe it or not, you can make the bread pictured above in your own kitchen from scratch! I know I sound incredulous, and if you have read my article, "Pitfalls of Baking with Yeast," you know why I am so amazed that I was able to produce such a bakery-quality loaf of sourdough bread.

Making Sourdough Starter from Scratch

As many of you are aware, I am a teacher. One of the perks of this job is having extended breaks during the holiday season. I have decided to take advantage of this bit of time off to make a sourdough starter. I have been thinking of making sourdough bread for a while, and I even considered purchasing a sourdough starter kit from my favorite source, King Arthur Flour, but I thought what would be more fun than making my own sourdough starter from scratch with a recipe?! I want to be able to say that I made the bread from start to finish rather than relying on someone else to begin the process for me and then me reap all the rewards (you know I love to be praised for a job well done, and I just would not feel right taking credit for someone else’s work). However, I am taking advice from King Arthur Flour and using their recipe for sourdough starter. I am going to share with you how I am making a sourdough starter in a step-by-step guide with pictures and videos. If I fail, I will share that with you as well. This is a learning process for me, and I am a firm believer that we learn just as much, if not more, from our failures as from our successes. Here we go!

Pumpernickel flour is a good starting point for sourdough starter.
Pumpernickel flour is a good starting point for sourdough starter.

Preparing for the Task!

Making a sourdough starter from scratch takes some time and patience. It is important to think ahead a bit before beginning.

  • Have a schedule with enough time allotted for the process. Sourdough starter takes about a week to create from start to finish. In the beginning, there is a once a day commitment of about 5 minutes, but after the first few days, the commitment increases to twice a day (5 minutes every 12 hours).
  • Don’t start the process if you think you will be out of town during the next 7 days, unless you want to take the starter with you. I can just see it now…a sourdough starter strapped into a car seat or riding shotgun with a seatbelt. Not a good idea!
  • Have all your recipe ingredients: 1 cup of whole-wheat flour (rye or pumpernickel work well, but any whole wheat flour will do), non-chlorinated water (I use a filter on my tap water to remove chlorine, but you could purchase bottled water if you like), unbleached all-purpose flour (at least 7 cups, but maybe more depending on how long it takes your starter to become active).
  • You will need a 4-cup storage container to store your starter. Anything you can safely put food in works. I’m going to use my 4-cup measuring cup. *Note: the storage container you use will be out of commission for the duration of the project, so don’t pick something you need to use regularly.
  • A warm, safe area to store the starter for a week, preferably out of reach of the kiddos and anyone else living in your home. My boyfriend is notorious for throwing away things he doesn’t recognize, so I will need to tell him the starter is not some sort of gross thing that needs to be disposed of.
  • Sourdough starter needs a temperature of about 70 degrees to grow. I am putting mine in the pantry/water heater closet. It stays warmer in there than most other areas of the house. It is winter in West Virginia, so it gets pretty chilly here and I keep my thermostat on 58 degrees at night to save on the gas bill. Luckily, we have an electric blanket (thanks, Mom!), so we don’t get frost-bite, but the sourdough starter needs a warmer environment than 58 degrees, hence the pantry. Keep in mind throughout the process that yeast is a living creature. It has to stay warm to survive. If it gets too cold, yeast goes dormant (I do this too when it gets too cold outside). If it gets really cold, yeast dies (I haven’t done that yet, thanks to the electric blanket). King Arthur Flour suggests using a heating pad set on the lowest setting with a dish towel on top of it, then the starter in its container on top of that.

Once you have all that lined up, you are ready to begin!

Day #1: The Beginning

  1. Mix 4 oz. of whole wheat flour with 4 oz. of cool, non-chlorinated water in your designated sourdough starter storage container. Leave no dry flour. I needed to add just a tad bit more water to accomplish this. The mixture is very much like a thick paste.
  2. Loosely cover the starter, put it in your 70 degree (up to 80 degrees) area and wait 24 hours.

Step #1

4 ounces of whole wheat flour is equal to about 1 cup
4 ounces of whole wheat flour is equal to about 1 cup

Step #2

4 ounces of non-chlorinated water added (1/2 cup)
4 ounces of non-chlorinated water added (1/2 cup)

Step #3

Stir thoroughly to make a cohesive dough/paste, leaving no dry flour
Stir thoroughly to make a cohesive dough/paste, leaving no dry flour

Step #4

Cover loosely and store in a 70 degree or slightly warmer area
Cover loosely and store in a 70 degree or slightly warmer area

*Note

When I first published this article, I had my sourdough starter container covered with plastic wrap and secured with a tight rubber band. After doing some research, I found that most people suggest a "loose" wrapping and some people suggest no cover at all. I just can't stand the idea of no cover at all, but I did remove the rubber band to allow more oxygen circulation and to allow for some of the gases produced by the yeast to be released at the starter grows.

Part II: The 1st Feeding!

An update on Baby Starter is posted here. Part II details the first feeding after 24 hours with photos and videos.

Once I have finished, there will be a series of articles detailing the experience with tips and techniques, pictures and videos, and a recipe for sourdough bread.

Sourdough Pizza Crust

Since first beginning this starter, I have made many loaves of bread with it, but my favorite recipe is sourdough pizza crust. I have linked to it here, if you are interested. Enjoy!

© 2012 Leah Wells-Marshburn

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    • Sherry Zugliani profile image

      Sherry Zugliani 3 years ago from Beaver, Pennsylvania

      Leah ,I was doing some research and found on "the fresh loaf" sourdolady had this to say."When using just flour and water, many will grow a gas-producing bacteria that slows down the process. It can raise the starter to three times its volume in a relatively short time. Don't worry--it is harmless. It is a bacteria sometimes used in other food fermentations like cheeses, and it is in the environment, including wheat fields and flours. It does not grow at a low pH, and the fruit juices keep the pH low enough to by-pass it. Things will still progress, but this is the point at which people get frustrated and quit, because the gassy bacteria stop growing. It will appear that the "yeast" died on you, when in fact, you haven't begun to grow yeast yet. When the pH drops below 3.5--4 or so, the yeast will activate, begin to grow, and the starter will expand again. You just need to keep it fed and cared for until then. " I thought I'd share this with you as you had said you were thinking to expand into ww. You may already know this but I just thought it to be very helpful! I see your comment above and will read it now . Be back soon I'm sure thank you again!

    • nurseleah profile image
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      Leah Wells-Marshburn 3 years ago from West Virginia

      Sherry,

      It sounds healthy to me. The rising and falling is part of the fermentation process and it may have fallen if it was jarred. Jarring might have allowed trapped gases to escape. It should survive 3 more hours until it's feeding time, but if you're worried, it shouldn't hurt to feed it a little early.

      Leah

    • Sherry Zugliani profile image

      Sherry Zugliani 3 years ago from Beaver, Pennsylvania

      Hi Leah, hope your day was fun! Well I would like to ask your thoughts...my starter looks great but seems to have shrunk a bit meaning maybe not as raised. Is it because I took it off the oven rack and placed it on the open oven door to look at it for just a few seconds. Does it fall like a cake would? I didn't notice any change until I looked at it a couple hours later. Or does this happen if I need to feed it sooner than I was going to which woul be tonight 3 hours from now? I never did the 24 hours as I started feeding before I found your blog. I have fed it twice in 12 hour intervals. I had read somewhere that ww starters need to eat more but also it said hootch was the sign it was hungry. Well nothing on top of my starter that looks like hootch just a bit shrunken from this afternoon . Shortly ( a couple hours after I fed it this morning it looked healthy and risen but now it is slightly smaller. Hmmmm your thoughts?

    • nurseleah profile image
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      Leah Wells-Marshburn 3 years ago from West Virginia

      Sherry,

      You are most welcome! It sounds like your starter is off to a good start this time :)

      Since getting your first comment, I have done some research into pure whole-wheat sourdough starters. What I have found is that you should be able to follow the exact recipe I posted, just using your whole-wheat flour as you have already been doing. I am guessing you are right about the oven temperature.

      I have read several articles about the use of grapes and other fermenting fruits to aid in the process of developing a starter. Experts seem to go back and forth on the usefulness. I have not tried it myself, but it certainly won't hurt anything. If your kitchen is not infested with yeast, I bet the grapes and apples help. I bake so much that my kitchen is full of yeast, so it was easy to capture some for the starter. I also think that having the starter in the oven may require the addition of the fruit, simply because natural yeast would not be able to survive in the oven, so it would be more difficult to capture that way. Having the grapes and apples in there may provide some natural yeast for you to catch in your starter.

      What I also found in my research is this: once you have developed your purely whole-wheat starter, you can use some of the discard to make a second all-purpose starter if you ever wanted to do so. It makes perfect sense; I just never thought of it. Then you would have two different types of starters to do different breads. And for anyone out there who, like me, has an established all-purpose flour starter, you can create a second whole-wheat one, by slowly incorporating whole-wheat flour into the feedings until you have transitioned completely over to whole-wheat feedings. By discarding and feeding with only whole-wheat, eventually the all-purpose flour will be completely eaten and replaced by whole-wheat. I'm thinking about trying this with my next discard.

      I've decided to make a Pain au Levain sourdough bread recipe today. According to the King Arthur Flour cookbook I use, Pain au Levain is a traditional French-style mild sourdough loaf much like the kind peasants baked in the communal ovens of Europe. It doesn't require the addition of any commercial yeast, so it's a slower rise and process, but it should develop the flavor of the sourdough well. It's a new recipe for me, so I'm going to track it with pictures and post my results later today.

      I really am so glad you stopped by and commented. I haven't baked any sourdough for a while, and you got me thinking about it. The weather is perfect for baking and my house is pretty cool, so heating it up with the oven is a great plan for the day!

      Leah

    • Sherry Zugliani profile image

      Sherry Zugliani 3 years ago from Beaver, Pennsylvania

      I also want to say that my excitement and hope for success has been ignited again, thank you for this blog! First time I ever used one!!!

    • Sherry Zugliani profile image

      Sherry Zugliani 3 years ago from Beaver, Pennsylvania

      Thank you Leah for your quick response! My starter last week was about a week old when I threw it out and started over. I hated to throw it out but because it started growing and then stopped for two days with the hootch ,even though I fed it more I figured it died. The hootch got darker the second day. I really think it was my oven being too hot! I would like to continue using ww organic flour if you agree,maybe feeding more often than 12 hours? So far as this will be the second night tonight since I began this new batch . I just fed it the second feeding. It is bubbling slowly! Do you think the grapes and apple have value in this process?

    • nurseleah profile image
      Author

      Leah Wells-Marshburn 3 years ago from West Virginia

      Sherry,

      First, thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your experience. We can learn from each other!

      Here are some questions to help us figure out what is going on:

      It does sound like maybe your starter got too hot last time and maybe killed off any yeast you had captured. How long did you have it going last week before you tossed it? Sometimes it takes a few days to get bubbling and growing.

      How many days have you had this new starter going this week? It may take up to a week to get good growth and bubbling.

      Are you still feeding with whole-wheat flour even after the first couple of days? You may want to try switching over to unbleached all-purpose flour after the first few feedings. The natural yeast in whole-wheat flour likely is eating all the nutrition too quickly, then it is starving to death before it gets fed again. The hooch you referred to is a by-product of the yeasts' feeding process. It means it needs fed again.

      Keep in mind that when you switch to unbleached all-purpose flour, the starter could slow down a bit as it adjusts to the change. Think of a baby switching over from breast milk to formula or from formula to baby food and cereal. It takes some adjustment.

      How fast are you expecting to see results? The older the starter is, the more vigorous it will become. Be patient. As long as it isn't turning pink or red and doesn't have any mold growing on it, keep discarding all but 4 oz. and feeding it every 12 hours. Some people will report their starter taking longer than a week to become active. In the meantime, don't try to bake with the discarded portion. It can have other microbes growing in it and not enough yeast to give your baked goods a good rise.

      Keep me updated and if you have any more questions, post them here for sure. We will work together until we get it! And just as a reminder, it is going to be well worth it when your starter is ready! I've had mine for almost a year now and I just love it. There is something truly special about the whole process...the nurturing, growing, baking. It is so fun and rewarding. You have inspired me to bake a loaf today!

      Leah

    • Sherry Zugliani profile image

      Sherry Zugliani 3 years ago from Beaver, Pennsylvania

      Well this is the beginning of my 2nd week at trying a starter! I found this site this morning and I am ready for the second feeding. I have my starter in the oven with the light on and off and on I have the door open. I also have a bunch of organic red grapes and an organic apple in the oven for Xtra yeast to float around. My trouble last week was what I have learned is called hootch on top and no rising but I think my starter got to hot as I was turning the oven on low heat . I'm just using the light in the oven now. My starter is bubbling slightly . I use organic ww flour and non chlorinated filtered water room temp. Feeding 1 cup flour and 1/2 cup water 12 hours. This time no hootch but not sure it is active enough. Any help would be appreciated as I am really wanting to succeed! Thanks a bunch!

    • nurseleah profile image
      Author

      Leah Wells-Marshburn 4 years ago from West Virginia

      Thank you, chef-de-jour! I hope if you have made the sourdough that you are enjoying it. I definitely love a nice crusty sourdough with soups and stews. It's perfect for soaking up juices!

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 4 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      What a thorough and engaging hub, with a delicious end result. I'll have to have a go at this sourdough - would be perfect with this vegetable broth I'm stewing and brewing up tonight!

      Votes and a share, thank you.

    • nurseleah profile image
      Author

      Leah Wells-Marshburn 4 years ago from West Virginia

      Athlyn, thank you so much for the compliment! The general appearance of my loaves is not usually the best, so I was proud of this one! I will post some recipes of the sourdough breads soon. This one was a typical sourdough bread recipe, but topped heartily with golden flax seeds. I sprayed it lightly when done with vegetable oil spray to get the sheen for the photo. Normally, I would have left out that step, but I wanted it to be oh-so-pretty!

    • nurseleah profile image
      Author

      Leah Wells-Marshburn 4 years ago from West Virginia

      Thank you, Tony, for your comment! I have heard of people adding apples, sitting the starter next to fermenting grapes, and other things along those lines to either speed up the process or add depth of flavor. I haven't tried it myself with this starter. I've had the starter going for about 7 months now and it has developed its own natural flavor, which I love. I occasionally feed it with half rye, half AP flour for a heartier meal and to develop more acidity, but otherwise, I have stuck to the basic recipe. Again, thank you for sharing your experience!

    • Athlyn Green profile image

      Athlyn Green 4 years ago from West Kootenays

      What a lovely looking loaf! I'm always on the look-out for good bread recipes.

    • tonymead60 profile image

      Tony Mead 4 years ago from Yorkshire

      nurseleah

      nice interesting hub, I enjoy sourdough bread and the taste variety you can achieve using different types of flour. I add some grated apple to my starter, which helps it ferment easier and feeds the natural yeast. It also adds a little extra taste.

      voted up and bits and bobs

      regards

      Tony

    • nurseleah profile image
      Author

      Leah Wells-Marshburn 4 years ago from West Virginia

      sallybea, if you try this project out, I would absolutely love to hear from you how everything goes. I need to post more sourdough recipes and pictures for everyone to try. Hopefully, I'll be getting to that in the next few weeks, so keep an eye out!

    • nurseleah profile image
      Author

      Leah Wells-Marshburn 4 years ago from West Virginia

      I cannot wait to hear from you how everything goes!

    • sallybea profile image

      Sally Gulbrandsen 4 years ago from Norfolk

      Great Hub, I have been making bread since I was about twelve years old but have never tried making sour dough bread. Really interesting and something I would love to try. Thanks for sharing, voted up.

    • pinto2011 profile image

      Subhas 4 years ago from New Delhi, India

      In our country, breads are altogether different and your bread sounds quite interesting to me and I am going to give it a try.

    • profile image

      summerberrie 4 years ago

      Wow. I can almost smell fresh baked bread. I've always wanted to do this. Now, I might just give it a try. I have been given the recipe before, but now with all your visuals I am more motivated! Great job! Voted up and shared.

    • nurseleah profile image
      Author

      Leah Wells-Marshburn 4 years ago from West Virginia

      Aww, thank you so much! I am amazed when my bread turns out like that. I made a braided seed bread once and it was just absolutely beautiful. I couldn't believe I had made it myself. You have got to read the my article, "The Pitfalls of Baking," to see how far I've come and why I am incredulous when I do it well. Lol.

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 4 years ago from Brazil

      I have been meaning to do this for years. No seriously. It is one of the things I missed when I went to the UK from America (and A & W rootbeer). Well now in Brazil, I have time on my hands, a warm kitchen and no excuses. I will keep you updated. Your bread photos are beautiful.

    • nurseleah profile image
      Author

      Leah Wells-Marshburn 4 years ago from West Virginia

      Dee, I have read about freezing starter as well. I'll have to look into that once I get this one going. Cooking with children definitely is an adventure! Parts II & III are now up and running on this series. There is a link in Part I for Part II and a link in Part II for Part III, if that makes sense. Lol. --Leah

    • SEXYLADYDEE profile image

      SEXYLADYDEE 4 years ago from Upstate NY

      Sounds wonderful! I follow Jillie on Pininterest and she put up a way to make one. I believe it's in plastic bags. She also mentioned you can put it in the freezer. It will go dormant and you can pull it out and restart it a week or so b4 you need it. Sounds wonderful. My 4 year old grandson loves to help cook so I can draw him in. Can't wait to see the next post! Dee

    • nurseleah profile image
      Author

      Leah Wells-Marshburn 4 years ago from West Virginia

      Oh, I see. I'm sorry to hear that about the starter, but I love your family traditions with cooking. It sounds like your mom was very family/food oriented. My grandmother was much the same way. She had lots of traditions with food...my uncle Rodney had to have German Chocolate Cake for Christmas, and she also made his turkey stuffing extra spicy in a separate pan. My dad liked 7-Up Cake, so she made those for him. When I was younger, she always made a big Sunday dinner, which in eastern Kentucky is the meal just after morning church services around 12:30. She often had friends and family stop by for those Sunday dinners. I hope to be able to begin some traditions of my own, starting with this sourdough starter. My mom is the only other person in my family who bakes bread as far as I know, but she doesn't have a starter, so when this one gets up and going, I'll pass it along to her. I may be able to get my sister involved as well and hopefully some day, my niece too. She's just 10 now, so we'll see :)

    • SEXYLADYDEE profile image

      SEXYLADYDEE 4 years ago from Upstate NY

      It disappeared after my Mom passed. I didn't know what it was and my stepfather either gave it away or threw it out. My Aubt recently told me about it. I was responsible for keeping up a container she kept filled with canned fruit and fruit cocktail and brandy. I would put it in small decorative containers and she would take it to work during the holidays for her co-workers & give to her bridge buddies. I just started my own in the spring. Can't wait to give it out to friends & family. Dee

    • nurseleah profile image
      Author

      Leah Wells-Marshburn 4 years ago from West Virginia

      Dee, thank you so much for sharing your story. I have absolutely no experience whatsoever with sourdough starter, so this is a completely new challenge for me. I'm excited to see what happens. I bet that 20 year old starter makes some great bread. Have you tried it?

    • SEXYLADYDEE profile image

      SEXYLADYDEE 4 years ago from Upstate NY

      My Mom had a starter for years. People used to ask her for some all the time. I didn't know what it was until recently. As a kid I used to bag up portions of it and she would give it to who ever asked for some. My Aunt mentioned recently it was about 20 years old. So I want to make one. I have a recipe but I will follow yours and incorporate the two. So far they are the same. Can't wait to see your end product. Keep hubbing! Voted up!