Sourdough Starters

Starters leaven and flavor breads, pancakes, biscuits–all kinds of baked goods, even chocolate cake!

Sourdough Starter

Photo by Valerie’s Kitchen

Getting Started
Some of the best starters have been specifically developed to provide predictable results. Buying a tried-and-true starter is your best bet, although you can begin your own with very little trouble. Yeast and bacillus are everywhere in our environment, including the water and milled grains used to make most starters. It is possible to mix together just these two ingredients, and create a new starter in a number of days.

We have recipes for wild yeast starters, as well as a few made from packages of active dry yeast. The starters made with these domesticated yeastes are more akin to a sponge–a “poolish” for French bakers, “biga” for Italian–in the beginning, and may require many months to develop the desired “tang” of a sourdough.

Recipes for Success
Regardless of the source of the yeast, there are a few things to keep in mind when making a starter from scratch.

  • Use non-chlorinated water: adding chlorine to your starter will almost certainly destroy the very organisms you are hoping to nurture. Use distilled or filtered water, or simply leave tap water open to the air for 24 hours to evaporate the chlorine.
  • Choose unprocessed grains such as whole wheat or rye flour for the best results when beginning a starter. You can switch to bread flour or all-purpose flour after the first few feedings.
  • Don’t starve the yeast. This is a common mistake. Even if you do not see any activity, the starter must be fed every 24 hours in the beginning. Stop feeding the yeast, and you’ll end up with a stinky gooey mess, as mold and “bad” bacteria take over your starter.
  • Store in a glass or ceramic container at room temperature, and cover with a loose-fitting lid or a piece of damp cheesecloth.

Did It Work?
Your starter should resemble a foamy, thick pancake batter; the aroma should be yeasty and slightly sour. Starters will sometimes separate into a clear liquid and a denser layer of flour. This is fine: just stir it together before using. If the mixture smells bad, is any color other than creamy white or slightly yellow, or has a furry mold colony, throw it out. Also, if there are no bubbles after 3 to 5 days, discard and begin again.

Maintaining Your Starter
Usually a feeding consists of stirring in amounts of flour and water equal to the amount of starter you have. For instance, if you have 2 cups of starter, stir in 2 cups flour and 2 cups water. This may have to be adjusted slightly to maintain the consistency.

Tips for Refrigerated Starters
Most home bakers store starter in the refrigerator. This slows down the growth of both the yeast and the bacillus. A refrigerator will keep your starter at temperatures between 36 and 38 degrees F (2 to 3 degrees C). Growth will slow quite a bit, but not completely.

  • Feed the starter right before placing in the refrigerator, and whip with a wire whisk to incorporate oxygen.
  • The starter will need to be fed once a week. If you will not be using it, discard half, measure, and feed accordingly.

The starter should be fed at least once, and allowed to reach peak activity before incorporating into a recipe. (This will take about 6 to 8 hours.) For the best flavor, some bakers recommend building the starter up with several feedings in order to bring the yeast and bacillus to the highest possible level of activity. Since there are many thousands of organisms per gram of starter, you can use very small amounts of starter in this process.

  • Remove 2 tablespoons from your starter, and mix with 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup water. Continue feeding at 6 hour intervals until you have made enough starter for your recipe.
  • After the first feeding, maintain a ratio of 1 part starter: 1 part flour:1 part water per feeding, effectively doubling the starter each time you feed it.

Professional bakers keep their starters at room temperature and feed at 6- to 8-hour intervals. This method produces a lot, and if you are not baking everyday you could end up throwing a bunch away.

Feeding Tips

  • Room temperature is considered to be between 70 to 80 degrees F (21 to 27 degrees C). Cooler temperatures will tend to slow down growth, while warmer temperatures will speed it up. Take this into consideration when setting up a feeding schedule. You should plan to feed your starter every 6 to 8 hours when it is kept at room temperature.
  • Always feed the starter at the peak of activity, when the mixture is bubbling actively and is at its greatest volume. Do not wait for the scheduled feeding, especially if the volume is decreasing. This indicates that the yeast have run out of food, and are beginning to die off.
  • After feeding, whip air into the batter using a wire whisk to provide the yeast with a bountiful amount of oxygen.

Freezing and Drying
Freezing and drying are additional methods of storage–and they’re also good insurance against losing an especially good creation. When the starter has reached peak activity, give it a mini feeding, about 1/4 of what you would ordinarily feed it. Freeze in an airtight container. To use, defrost at room temperature. Feed, and then use in your recipe when the mixture is bubbly and active.

Alternatively, spread starter in a thin layer on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Allow to dry at room temperature for 2 to 3 days. To restart, crumble dried starter in warm water, and begin regular feedings. Store frozen for up to 6 months or dried for 2 to 3 months. Sending dried starter through the mail is an excellent way to share it with a faraway friend or relative.