A simple guide on How to Make a Sourdough Starter + 8 Tips to Simplify Sourdough for the busy Mama! Sourdough has been a huge trending topic over the last three years, but so much of the conversation revolves around equipment and eccentric loaves. My goal is to simplify sourdough, take out the guess work, and leave you with confidence and a bubbly, beautiful starter!
I love food, probably to a fault. I love cooking it, studying it, growing it, and mostly indulging in it. There is something so pure and so beautiful about bread. I remember actually telling my mom a few years ago that my favorite thing in the world was baking bread. My reason, at that time, was that I always thought I had messed it up- every single time– and then somehow a crusty, pillowy loaf would emerge from the oven. Every bit of muscle I possess (which isn’t much) is from carrying around babies and kneading bread.
Based on that intro you probably think sourdough and I met in a warm embrace, but wrong you are! In fact for a while I swore off sourdough.
I was gifted a Sourdough starter from someone at my Mom’s work about 6 or 7 years ago. It sat bubbling and beautiful on the counter next to a small notecard explaining how to feed it and how to bake with it. I was very familiar with the taste and texture associated with sourdough, but I had no idea how to create that in my own kitchen.
This little starter was relatively old and ridiculously finicky. It had to eat twice a day- sugar, flour, and even potato flakes! It needed lots of tending, perhaps more than my newborn at the time. Two in the morning and I am up feeding the baby and my starter. But it made beautiful bread- so I kept it up for a while. Finally my husband deemed it too sour for garlic bread and too sweet for grilled cheese. So, quite relieved, I tossed the starter into the trash and took my life back from its giant gluten grasp.
Health Kneads (Pun Intended)
So what brought me back around to a love of Sourdough?
If you follow this blog much you probably already know. It was gut health! (For our full blog on gut health, click here!)
Our society really likes to push this idea that “Bread is bad.” This has never set right with me. If Jesus ate bread, if bread was kept in the temple- if Jesus is the bread of life- you are not going to convince me that bread is bad. Bread is one of our most ancient foods, and it never caused obesity, vitamin deficiencies, or gluten intolerance until after the Industrial Revolution. (ahem.. hint hint.)
So perhaps it isn’t bread that is the issue. Maybe- hear me out- maybe it is our modern farming, milling, and baking practices that are bad. Perhaps gluten isn’t the devil, but rather glyphosate and generations of poor grains and poor practices that have left us unable to consume the beautiful bounty of bread. The quality of food we consume matters.
Did you know that wheat is sprayed heavily with glyphosate (Round-up)? Oats, barley, wheat, durum- it is all heavily contaminated with glyphosate. Glyphosate kills weeds and helps to dry wheat faster- making for a quicker, and sometimes better harvest. Glyphosate is linked to cancer, obesity, depression, Alzheimers, and Parkinson’s disease. This is why words like ‘Organic’ and small family farm practices are so important!
Milling your own grains or buying them from a trusted source that mills wheat berries on site ensures that you are getting the entire grain- with all the minerals and vitamins in tact. Rather than added back in synthetic forms like commercial brands. But you can make any bread with high quality organic grains, so why opt for something as time consuming as sourdough?
Health Benefits of Sourdough
Most people have clung to sourdough in recent years because commercial yeast was hard to come by during the pandemic. Realizing there were supply chain issues that could halt sandwich production in our homes lead a lot of people to the doorstep of sourdough. But not me. I had a plethora of yeast packets and a few jars, so I never actually needed yeast during the pandemic. Not that I remember anyways. In fact, I didn’t even know there was a shortage of it.
The thing that lead me to finally mix some water and flour together and sit in a warm spot was the health benefits and as stated above more particularly- the gut benefits. So what are the health benefits of sourdough?
- It is fermented. Fermented foods have a wide variety of health benefits. Fermentation, particularly lacto-fermentation, is essentially a preservation process that allows good bacteria to grow and thrive and override the bad. It typically results in a sour taste, like sauerkraut or kimchi.
- It is Easy to Digest. The process of fermenting foods makes them easier for our bodies to digest. Sourdough is no exception. The fermenting process in sourdough allows for enzymes that aid our bodies in properly breaking down and utilizing the food we eat. For those who are gluten sensitive (not gluten intolerant) sourdough is often a safe option for bread consumption. Note: For gluten sensitivity and better fermentation benefits, your bread should undergo a bulk fermentation, usually 24-36 hours in the fridge before baking.
- Bioavailable Nutrients. Again, the fermentation process is not just to make you grow in patience. It doesn’t matter how nutrient dense your foods are if your body cannot access the nutrition. Bread prepared through a natural fermentation process allows for the nutrients to be better absorbed by your body.
8 Tips to Simplify Sourdough (that I wish I had known)
It took me a while to jump back on the sourdough train after my last experience. This time I dove in with research first and let me just tell you this can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. There is A LOT of information surrounding sourdough on the Internet. Not to mention all the crazy lingo that surrounds the process that sounds like a bad joke at the start. (Example: Hooch, autolyse, lame, batard)
I was so hesitant to jump in that it essentially took me just doing it still half blind- and tossing THREE starters before I finally figured it out. So here are 8 tips to simplify sourdough that I wish I had known at the start.
1. Starters are Not that Finicky
I had this in my head from the first round, but everywhere I looked I saw pictures of molded and nasty starters. Which of course led me to believe that starters are hard to keep alive. The reality is sourdough is an ancient form of bread making, starters were passed down generation to generation. They have withstood wars, poverty, hardships- in other words they have endured worse than you. That doesn’t mean you won’t have some failures on this journey, but starter is far more resilient than most bakers paint it to be.
Before you begin (and I cannot stress the importance of this enough), google images of moldy starter. Be familiar with hooch (a dark liquid that forms on top when starter is really needing to be fed) and Kahm yeast. Neither of these are harmful and both are pretty common. I tossed my first starter because of hooch because I thought that must surely mean my starter was bad. The truth was I could have skimmed it off or stirred it in, fed my starter, and moved on with life. Learn from my mistakes!
Your starter may go through some odd phases at first. One day it may double and bubble within a couple of hours and the next day it may form hooch and look unloved and malnourished. This is how starters communicate with us- learn their language!
Let’s say the worst happens, you accidentally bake your starter or it starts to mold. (Mold is fuzzy, pink, or orange, just for the record.) As someone who has restarted starters 3 or 4 times now- I get how frustrating that is. But you will not restart from scratch because with every attempt comes new knowledge- and you will retain that even if your starter is gone.
2. Times Are Not Exact
Again this is an idea I took away from my first failed attempt with sourdough. My thought process was every 12 hours, so if I started something at 2pm, I was up at 2am to do the next step..
I never do that now and I work with sourdough pretty much everyday. For one the temperature of your kitchen makes a huge difference. A warm kitchen means dough may double in as little as four hours. A cold kitchen may mean 12-15 hours. Sourdough loves a warm environment to rise in and can be left to ferment in the fridge for anywhere from 12 to 36 hours.
This idea that you have a 5 minute window to catch your dough before it goes to pot is absolute hogwash. Worst case scenario, it overproofs- in which case bake it anyways. Which leads me to my next point…
Bonus Tip: Measurements are not exact either. Unless you are weighing everything, sourdough involves a lot of estimating. Over time you will develop a feel for starter, dough, and hydration and be able to eyeball most anything. Starting may take some trial and error in measuring and time, but just keep at it- you will figure it out!
3. Even the Failures Are Worth Baking
Never, ever waste a mess up. Your ciabatta may bake as flatbread (that has happened to me) or your dough may be too dense. You may lose your shape or fail at scoring- bake it anyways. Nine times out of ten it will still taste good. It may not be what you envisioned, but it is still delicious.
Why waste perfectly good ingredients? Bake it and see what happens. Who knows you may like it more than your original plan! And in worse case scenario, cut it up and make croutons or French toast casserole! Never skip a bake!
4. Discards are Not Forever
There is a well known method for Sourdough that requires a 1:1:1 ratio for your starter at each feed. (One part starter, one part flour, one part water). Each time you come back to feed your starter, you discard a portion and feed the remainder. In the beginning this is good advice. In fact this is the ratio I always use when feeding my starter- but after the first few days I stop discarding and start feeding the whole lot. I do not feel that I have to produce a discard recipe, toss, or fret over extra starter. I simply feed it everyday, and bake with it often.
Rather than discarding, I feed the portion that is in my jar. I keep my starter in a gallon glass jar on the back of my stove. I don’t measure when I feed (which I know probably drives some people nuts); I simply eyeball the amount of flour and water to basically double whatever is in the jar. If it is too thick, I add more water. Too thin, more flour. The I stir it with a wooden spoon and place a cloth on top of the jar. If the jar seems too full I bake something that requires a lot of starter like Sourdough waffles or pizzas.
Note: In the early days, discarding typically means actually tossing a portion into the trash, but after a couple of days you can use your discard to create any number of ‘discard recipes’. My point here is that I do not keep a second jar of discard, feel the need to bake something unnecessarily, or toss starter daily.
5. You can Keep as Much or as little as you want
This goes along with Tip 4!
What kind of cook are you? Ask yourself that simple question, and then allow your starter to reflect the answer. If you are a “bake a loaf of bread on the weekends” kind of home chef, then there is no reason to keep a half a gallon of starter on hand. If you are a “I live in the kitchen and bake non-stop” kind of home cook, then keeping a cup of starter isn’t going to serve you well.
There is no shame in keeping a little or a lot. There is no shame in discarding into the trash if it gets overwhelming or popping your mature starter in the fridge if you need a break for a bit. As with anything you hope to implement in your home it only works if it serves your family well. Sourdough can do that but it may take some time to figure out how it serves your family best! Don’t let the details keep you from starting!
6. Sourdough makes a from Scratch Kitchen Work
Over the years we have made a slow transition from convenience meals to an almost entirely from scratch kitchen. (Emphasis on the word slow.) Sourdough starter is probably the most essential ingredient in my arsenal to keep us on track.
Sure there are planned nights where we serve pot roast with a side of sourdough bread or days where sourdough toast and sandwiches are served for breakfast or lunch. But there are a million uses for sourdough outside of just a loaf of bread. Keeping starer on hand, whether fed and bubbly or even in its discard state, makes meals simple. (See more on that in point 7!)
Sourdough also encourages us to do something that I for one am really bad at. And that is to think ahead. If we are having meatball subs for dinner, I need to start my bread hours before hand. If I plan to make tortillas for lunch, my dough needs to be fermenting the night before. This used to stress me out, but the thing about sourdough is: it is all small steps. Sourdough is not the same thing as baking a cake- where you are needed in the kitchen from start to finish. Instead sourdough is five minutes here- twelve hours wherever you want to be- and then ten minutes back with your dough. It is largely hands off and once you get the hang of it, you’ll find yourself making something beautiful even when you are out and about!
Even in a pinch, discard starter can be used for all kinds of simple meals. From the simplest pizza ever (recipe link listed above in tip #4) to a sourdough topping on a chicken pot pie. Sourdough makes a from scratch kitchen work!
7. Bread is only the tip of the Iceberg!
When you think of sourdough, your mind probably instantly pictures a loaf of bread. Mine definitely used to. But I want you to cast that image from your mind’s eye. When you think sourdough, I want you to picture cinnamon rolls, tortillas, biscuits, shepherd’s pie, pie crusts, cookies, doughnuts, dutch babies, ciabatta, focaccia, croissants- every beautiful baked good you can imagine and more can be made with sourdough!
Waffles, pancakes, breaded chicken- there is no end to the limits sourdough can reach. You may be tempted to say that sourdough isn’t for you because you don’t eat a ton of bread, but bread is just the tip of the iceberg. Sourdough can be used to make pasta, bagels, or banana muffins. There is really no end to the uses of a simple starter!
If you cook from scratch, desire healthier options for your family, and value knowing where your food comes from- sourdough is for you.
8. Just Jump in!
For a long time I really agonized over whether or not I wanted to start a starter. And as I mentioned earlier, I made a few mistakes in the beginning- even tossing a hungry starter because I thought I had killed it. But my only real regret is not starting sooner. After a year of sourdough, I can safely say it is one of the best decisions we have made.
Just like with everything else there is a learning curve, but jumping in is the easiest way to start. There may be a few bumps in the road, but you will learn from them. One day you will pull open your oven door to the beautiful aroma of fresh bread, and you will think back over the journey it took to get to that point and you will feel gratitude for every step. You do not have to be a well experienced baker or even a decent home cook to succeed with sourdough. You just need to be brave enough to start! If you have been thinking about starting your sourdough journey, this is your invitation to just jump in!
So How do You Start a Starter?
Great question! I thought you would never ask! It is actually quite simple.
Starters consist of only flour, water, and time! Once you create a starter, it will begin to feed off the natural yeast in the air. Starters desire daily feeds when kept at room temperature, but once they mature they can kept in the refrigerator during inactive days. If maintained, starters will last for generations to come!
Grab my full “How-To” card with step-by-step instructions below!
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- A glass (or ceramic) jar or bowl
- A good quality flour (rye is a great flour especially for starting out, but any flour option will work!)
- Filtered Water (Chlorine free!)
- A wooden spoon
1. To begin, simply place one cup of flour with about one cup of filtered water (or equal parts flour and water, over time you may need to adjust measurements- your starter should be about the consistency of pancake batter) into a glass jar or bowl and stir well to combine. Place a dishtowel, coffee filter with a rubber band, or some other breathable cloth over the top of the jar and sit in a warm place. (On top of the fridge, in the oven with only the oven light on (DO NOT PREHEAT YOUR OVEN WITH THE STARTER INSIDE), or close by your oven if your home is under 65 degrees.
Pro Tip: In the beginning you may want to place a rubber band around your jar or use a dry erase marker to mark where your starter comes to when you feed it- this will help you to know how much it is rising and doubling.
2. In 24 hours, discard half the starter in your jar and repeat step one. Note: In the beginning as you discard, you will want to actually toss your discard into the trash rather than using it to bake. This trend will not continue forever though!
Repeat step 2 for five days. Discard, feed, wait, repeat.
3. On days six and seven, repeat step 2 every 12 hours rather than 24 hours. You should be seeing your starter rise- nearly double, bubble, and then begin to deflate. After seven days, test out a discard recipe or try your first sourdough product!
If your first attempt at sourdough falls flat, do not despair. Sometimes starters take a little longer to gather the natural yeast needed to properly rise bread, keep feeding and try again in a few days.
- Rye flour is basically CPR for starters. You can feed your sourdough whatever flour you choose; I typically use an organic Wheat, rye, all purpose flour blend. But if your starter seems to be struggling to rise and bubble, try some good quality rye flour- starters love rye flour!
- Filtered water is essential for sourdough. Water with chlorine in it will kill your starter.
- Do not place a glass lid or a tight lid on your starter after feeding, it can blow it off or break your jar.
- Do not store your starter in the fridge during your starting off period. Once your starter is mature you can store it in the fridge if you do not plan to bake with it for a few days