You only need two ingredients to start your sourdough starter. Flour and water. Preferable a whole grain flour as the bacteria feeds more effectively on the bran and filtered, spring, or well water; no tap. The chlorine in tap water will kill the good bacteria and the starter will never take off. If you want to do things the Hippie Hayden way, make sure you’re using a good flour that is from grains you have no doubt are non gmo and organic. If you need grain suggestions head over to the shopping guide or my “favorites” tab. Einkorn, spelt, rye,kamut, or whole wheat flour are great options. I like a blend, but for now choose one and you can mess around with ratios of multiple flours once you’ve got the hang of things.
The first day or feeding of your starter - mix together 3/8th a cup of flour and 1/4 a cup of water. Stir well so your flour is fully hydrated, scrape the edges of your container (a mason jar works perfect for this), and cover the top with a cloth and secure. I use coffee filters and a rubber band since things can get messy and you’ll soon find out that the flour and water paste sticks to everything like rubber cement.
Let that “feed” for 12 hours
By now you might be seeing some “action” brewing in your starter; a few or many bubbles, and a sour or musty smell. This is absolutely normal after the first few feedings. But don’t get too excited yet.
Add the same amount of flour and water (3/8th c flour to 1/4 c flour) to the starter in the jar, cover/secure, and allow to “feed” for twelve more hours.
Before feeding the same amounts, discard half the starter that you’ve built up thus far. Because it’s not an active starter yet I pitch it. There isn’t any use for it but it needs to be discarded anyway to continue building a high amount of good bacteria in your starter so it becomes a strong form of yeast to bake with in the future.
After you discard half, add the same ratios of water and flour to the remaining starter, stir well so all the flour is hydrated, scrape down the side, cover/secure
Usually anywhere between feed 2-5 you’ll hit a dead zone. When starting a new starter mine usually hits around feed 3-4; everything largely depends on the temperature of your kitchen and the presence, or lack there of, of wild yeast and bacteria. Don’t think you’ve messed it all up! So many people start to throw in the towel at this point. The starter looks dead, smells rotten, and you think you’ve haven’t got a taupe thumb (like a green thumb, but for baking….I made that up entirely). Keep going, things get better!
From this point, your feeding routine will be the same.
Discard half of your existing starter
Add 3/8 c flour and 1/4 c water
Stir well till flour, existing starter, and water are fully incorporated and hydrated.
Scrape down the sides and cover your container
Wait 12/24 hours till your next feeding
Somewhere between day 7-9 you should see a miraculous change take place. Your starter will start to double in size after feedings and it now smells of lucious sourdough. I say “should” because everyone’s kitchen is different and that can make all the difference in a starter. If a person underestimates the heat of their kitchen a starter will require more feedings as the bacteria feeds more rapidly on the natural yeast and sugars in the grain. If you kitchen is on the colder side (especially with winter on our heels) your starter might need less feedings and simply has too much food.
DON’T STRESS. You will be able to tell pretty easily whether your starter needs more or less feedings. It’s a lot simpler than it seems. People have been making starters longer than we’ve been using commercial yeast and somehow bread have survived in our society. If grandma’s in the 15th century could figure it out, so can you. Tap into the ancestral wisdom. You’ll be glad you did!
STORING YOUR STARTER
I do not recommend moving your starter into cold storage until it’s 3-6 months old. The longer the better. But a lot of you won’t be using it every day, or maybe you will! If you’re not, you will soon want to not feed your child, I mean starter, every day. I happen to love the routine of feeding my start each day. No matter what goes on that day I know I will need to feed my start when I get up and again right before I go to bed. It’s a reassuring little rhythm. But if you won’t be using it in some form or fashion on a regular basis, moving it to the fridge is a great way to keep it alive but less needy.
Once you’re past the 3-6 month mark and confident in the strength of your starter. Give it one last feeding and move it to the fridge after 1-2 hours post feeding. Most people like to keep their fridge stored feeder toward the front or on the side of the fridge since it’s a little warmer there than toward the back where it could potentially freeze. Make sure you put an airtight lid on it when moving it to the fridge, instead of just covering the top with towel, cheese cloth, or coffee filter for room temp feedings. Every time you want to use it from the fridge you will need to pull it out and build it back up to full strength 1-2 days before you are going to use it, and then feed it 1-2 hours before returning to the fridge.
Some also dehydrate their starters for long-term storage or if they are retiring a starter they would still like to keep around. You can do this by spreading the starter out on a silpat on top of a baking sheet and setting it in an oven with just the light on till it is completely dried out, or in an actual dehydrator. Once it’s completely dried out you can store in an airtight container till you wish to revive it again.
I’m convinced that sourdough starters can sense nervous energy. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked too who have told me about how incredibly difficult and temperamental the sourdough starter process was. It’s never likely the starter, and always the human that goes into the process with a heap of self doubt who practically have doomed the project to ruin before they begin. So take a deep breath, and follow the directions. Use a little intuition when necessary depending on your own environment and the signs your seeing. And for the love of all things holy don’t do any of those gimmicky tricks all over the internet. Like stirring your start with grape leaves or using kombucha as the liquid instead. Just….no. Flour, water, and time. That’s it, that’s always been it and it always will be.
- Hooch. Hooch is when there is a grey sort of liquid that forms over the top of your starter. The start is probably lifeless too. Maybe a few bubbles here and there but definitely not rising and falling after every feeding. It also might smell like alcohol or acetone. That’s because it is alcohol. No. Don’t drink it. If your starter has hooch you could be doing one of two things. You’re adding too much water to your starter and not following the proper ratio’s so it’s fermenting way too fast and going far past yeast stage and entering alcohol stage, or your kitchen is on the warm side so it’s just plain fermenting faster and needs closer timed feedings. Hooch does NOT mean your starter is dead and should be tossed. Simply pour off the hooch, and resume feedings as normal with the necessary adjustments to prevent hooch from there on out.
- Mold. Mold is the only reason a starter is actually ever declared dead. You don’t want to bring that back anyway even if you could. It’s now been inoculated with mold spores that are potentially dangerous for you and your families health. Pitch it and start a new one. Do learn the difference between fermenting “scum” and actual mold. Mold more often than not is fuzzy and/or smells absolutely off. When it doubt, throw it out!
Once your successful start has doubled in size after 5 consecutive feedings, you’re ready to go! There are so many things you can do with it, the possibilities are practically endless. Sourdough starter pancakes, cinnamon rolls, breads, tortillas, pie crusts, english muffins, pizza crusts. I use my starter every day for all sorts of treats, pancakes more than anything as my husband requests that just about every morning - recipe to come.
I hope that de-mystifies some of the sourdough starter process for you! For me, learning by doing was the easiest way to full understand what to do and what not to do, so jump right on in and remember to breathe…..the starter can smell fear. ;)
~ Hippie Hayden