How to Make a Sourdough Starter

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Let me start this post by saying that I am in love with my WonderMill Grain Mill. It has made such a difference in my kitchen. I have tried in the the past to make and keep up a sourdough starter, but to no avail. I am convinced that part of what made the difference this time around was using freshly milled grain.

Making and maintaining a sourdough starter is not difficult. In fact, it is quite simple to quite simple to maintain. Like any living thing in your home, it will require some attention, but the benefits (health and taste-wise) you get from taking care of it far outweigh the work it takes.

Establishing a sourdough starter couldn't be simpler. I first learned how to make a sourdough starter from reading Wardeh Harmon's book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Fermenting Foods. It is wonderful book that has recipes for all sorts of ferments-- from sourdough to kimchi to ketchup to natural sodas to yogurt and beyond. I HIGHLY recommend it for any kitchen. I use my copy all the time. (If you are interest to learn more you can read my full review here.)

How to Make a Sourdough Starter

You Will Need:

That's it.

INSTRUCTIONS: To start, place flour and water (3/8 cup flour and 1/4 cup water) in your clean glass jar (I used a pint jar and then transferred to a quart when the starter got too large). Stir, stir, stir to incorporate oxygen. Cover with a light cloth (securing with a rubber band if necessary). Leave in a warm place overnight. 

The next morning add the same amount of water and flour again. Stir, stir, stir. 

Feed again (3/8 cup flour and 1/4 cup water) at night before you go to bed. The starter should double or triple in size between each feeding. The time it takes to grow depends on many factors-- the temperature of your house, the humidity, the quantities of bacteria and yeast in the air, etc. If your starter seems to have issues rising, take out half of the starter and add more flour and water (3/8 cup flour and 1/4 cup water).

Continue feeding (3/8 cup flour and 1/4 cup water) 1-3 three times a day. Starter should double in size between feedings. If it has trouble rising, pour out half of the starter and continue to feed. If no bubbles appear after a week of following these instructions, start over, making sure to stir, stir, stir vigorously to incorporate oxygen.

Eventually, where there was just water and flour you now have a happy, bubbly, fermented, mixture of flour, water, and wild yeasts. 

If your starter is active and bubbly, it is ready to use as soon as you have enough available to make your desired recipe and still have some left over to continue your batch of starter.

Maintaing Your Starter

Maintaining your starter is the part that can sometimes get tricky. There are many theories on how to maintain the perfect sourdough starter. Some say you should feed a starter three times a day, others say once a day. Other say a few times a week is fine. 
Some say you should remove most of the starter before you feed it, others say that is unnecessary. 

I believe a lot of the difference of opinion comes from a few personal preferences including how sour one likes their baked sourdough goods, how much time and energy one actually has to put into their starter, and what one plans on making with it.

For myself, I find that my sourdough starter is happiest if I feed it 2 times a day (once in the morning and once at night). I find that to maintain an active and bubbly starter I need to feed my starter flour and water at least once daily. Of course, the longer you let a starter go without feeding it, the more sour it will become. And as far as dumping some of the starter out before you feed it... that is entirely up to you. If you leave all the starter, just know that it will make your baked goods more tart than if you did not.

In maintaining my sourdough starter I have found that the ratio of water to flour I feed it changes dramatically over the seasons. Sometimes I feed it equal parts water and flour. At other times I feed if more flour than water, other times I feed it more water than flour. I believe that a lot of this depends on the environment-- the temperature, the humidity, the activity level in my kitchen. 

Currently, to maintain my starter I never measure the amounts of water or flour I put in. I just put in enough water and flour to make a nice paste that is not super watery nor super sticky, but somewhere in-between. I can easily pour it from the jar without having to scoop it out. 

Options for Putting Your Starter on Hold

If you need to take a break from feeding your starter for a while (either because you are sick of sourdough baked goods or because you are taking a vacation, or for whatever reason...) all you need to do is put a tight plastic lid on your mason jar and place it in the refrigerator. The sourdough will continue to ferment but much more slowly then it would out on the counter. Ideally, you would remove it about once a week, allow it to reach room temperature, discard part of the starter and then feed it. 

If you are planning on not using it for quite some time you could also place it in the freezer. Though if you do this you might want to make your starter thicker rather than thinner. 

There is also, supposedly, a third option for putting your starter on hold. According to Sandor Katz in his book The Art of Fermentation, "Legend has it that many immigrants brought their sourdoughs and other cultures dried on handkerchiefs." (234) Fascinating.

When you are ready to begin using your starter again, simply remove it from the fridge or freezer. Allow it to reach room temperature. Discard half the starter that was in the jar and then feed it. It should wake up and come back to life and begin to bubble again. If for any reason it doesn't seem to want to come back to life, you can always just make a new starter from scratch.

This is a simple and basic lesson on how to begin and maintain a sourdough starter. If you are wanting to know more, there are wonderful books available which can help you on your quest to master the art of sourdough baking. Here are a few books I would recommend:

Good luck and happy fermenting!

My sourdough starter posing with my WonderMill Grain Mill right after a feeding.

Do you have a sourdough starter? What do you enjoy making with it?

Note: A slightly different version of this post originally appeared on Grain Mill Wagon as 'How to Make a Whole Wheat Sourdough Starter'. See it here

(Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. Meaning if you shop around on Amazon after clicking on these link you might be helping support my blogging endeavors. Many thanks.)

This post shared at: Healthy2Day, Allergy-Free Wednesday

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