Sourdough Starter – How to create it & keep it alive

I have been planning to write about developing a sourdough starter from scratch. But I never got around to doing it. I have multiple scraps of paper and digital notes on all the topics I wanted to cover in this post. For the last couple of weeks quite a few people asked me about creating a sourdough starter and so I did a make-along series on Instagram. That led to quite a few questions and I figured this could be the best time to pen down everything I want to write on this topic.

Sourdough starter ready to create a loaf of bread

All we need to create a sourdough starter is flour, water, time and patience.

  • Flour It can be either all purpose flour or whole wheat flour or rye flour. Usually all purpose flour or whole wheat flour is used.
  • Water You can use mineral water or tap water. If the water contains chlorine then leave a vessel full of water open for 24 hours. The chlorine evaporates and then the water can be used. RO water is not recommended for sourdough starter since it impedes the growth of the starter.
  • Time You need about 10 minutes a day to feed your starter. You can adjust the feeding schedule as per yours. 5 minutes at a time 12 hours apart is not much right?
  • Patience This you need a lot of. Depending on your flour, water, weather, etc the starter can take anywhere between 4 to 7 days. You need to be patient and diligent in feeding it and not giving up because you do not see as much activity in yours as compared to the frothy bubbling over starters on Instagram. Wait and the sourdough Gods will reward you.

Ingredients & Equipment

  • All purpose flour / Whole wheat flour 200-400 gms
  • Water 200-400 gms
  • 6″ or more sized Glass or plastic bowl (transparent to see through)
  • Spatula
  • Weighing Scale *
  • Cling wrap / shower cap / Cloth / Plate to cover the bowl
  • 300ml or larger transparent jar

* If you do not have a weighing scale then you can measure with tbsp. A rough estimate would be 1tbsp =10 gms flour and 1tbsp = 15gms water.

Day 1

On the first day, we start with 20 gms of flour and 20 gms of water. In a glass or transparent plastic bowl mix the flour and water. Ensure that no dry flour remains. Cover the bowl with a shower cap or cling film or a piece of cloth or a plate. The cover does not need to be airtight.

Day 2

After 24 hours you will see some activity in the bowl, There will be a few bubbles. It is possible that there are no bubbles as yet. That will depend on the weather in your area. If it is too cold then the starter will take longer to show any activity. On day 2 we add 20 gms each of flour and water to the bowl and mix in well. Cover and keep aside. As you can see in the picture below the starter is bubbly with quite a few bubbles visible. After feeding it subsides and becomes a gooey mix again.

Day 3

We will now see quite bit of activity in the bowl. Even if you cant see the bubbles on top you should be able to see some activity at the bottom of the bowl. From Day 3 we start feeding the starter twice a day at 12 hours intervals. We add 20 gms each of flour and water to the bowl and mix well. At the end of 3 days and 4 feeds we will have 160 gms of starter mix. Now we can start discarding a part of it. Transfer 40 gms of the starter mix (after the fourth feed) to a transparent jar and mark the level at which the starter mix is. This will give us an idea of how much the starter rises before the next feed.

Day 4

My starter was ready in four days. If your starter is not ready in the same time then you continue to discard half of the starter mix and feed it 20 gms each of flour and water twice a day till it is ready.

Starter is ready to use once it doubles in volume within 4 hours of feeding it

When is the Starter ready to use?

The starter is ready to use when it doubles in volume within 4 hours of feeding it. But it is not always strong enough to be used as soon as it doubles within 4 hours. So we continue to feed it twice a day for another 2-3 days by which time the starter will be strong enough. The starter becomes stronger with each feed and older mature starters are stronger than fresh and new starters. If you live in a tropical climate then you can feed the starter thrice a day to make it stronger because the yeast will be more active and can take more feeds.

How to feed the starter?

Usually we feed the starter in the ratio of 1:1:1 by weight. So we need the same amount of starter, flour and water to make a fed starter ready to bake bread. For example -If we need 90gms of total starter for our bread, then we take 30 gms of unfed starter and add 30 gms of flour and 30 gms of water. Then we mix it and once it doubles in volume within 4 hours we can use it to bake a lovely loaf of bread.

How to maintain the Sourdough starter?

Maintaining a starter is easy. Just put it in an mason jar or any other jar and close the lid and refrigerate it. That is pretty much what you need to do. When you want to bake your next loaf of bread take out the starter, feed it as per your requirement and use it. Starters will stay alive for around 2 months without feeding and sometimes even longer in the refrigerator.

Points to note

  • Weather is an important aspect when it comes to developing a starter. The ideal temperature for the growth of a sourdough starter is between 24C to 28C. If the temperature is more then the starter takes lesser time to develop and if it is less then it takes more time to develop.
  • If you live in a hot tropical place then keep the bowl of sourdough starter mix in the coolest part of your house. Do not refrigerate it or keep it in an air conditioned room.
  • If the weather is too hot, keep the starter in a bowl of water during afternoon time to reduce the temperature for the sourdough starter.
  • If you live in cold climates then keep the starter mix in a warm spot. Options are – inside the oven witht the light on, on top of the refrigerator, near the cooking range. You can also slightly warm the water which you add to the starter mix in order to increase the temperature slightly. The water should only be slightly warm. Hot water will kill all the yeast.
  • If you do not see any activity after 3 days in your starter, try keeping it near a bowl of fruits on the counter top. Yeast from the fruits can help in activating the starter.
  • If you find the starter is runny and there are few to no bubbles in it even after 7 days then discard it and start again.
  • The discard from the sourdough starter during its development can be used in multiple dishes like pooris, pancakes, dosais, bhaturas, waffles, etc. You can also use it to make cookies, muffins, cakes, etc. So do not throw it. It wont go to waste.
  • The amount of starter you want to keep refrigerated will depend on how often you bake and how big loaves you bake. If you bake large loaves like 1 kilo loaves then you will need around 40-50 gms of starter in your refrigerator. If you bake smaller loaves then you need around 20 gms of starter refrigerated which can then be fed as per your need and used for baking.

Some unpopular opinions

There are few hundred ways of making your own sourdough starter. Each is as good as the other and different ways work for different people based on multiple factors. So what I have explained here is what works for me. There are other methods to do the same thing and be as successful. I have fine tuned this method primarily because I found that it is easy to understand and explain and the discard is minimal. Having said this, I have a few opinions on sourdough starters and sourdough baking which are not the popular opinions. Thought I should list them. 1. I do not recommend using cups and spoons for baking in general and breads in particular. It is significantly more accurate and easier to weigh the ingredients. A weighing scale is inexpensive and easily available and so there is little reason for someone to not invest in it. 2. You do not need to feed your sourdough starter every week religiously to keep it alive and kicking. Starters are quite resilient and sturdy beings. They can be revived even after 2 months of inactivity and sleeping in your refrigerator. Weekly feeding is nice to do but not mandatory. It will definitely make your starter stronger with each feed but if it feels like a millstone around your neck you can avoid it and yet be able to bake beautiful sourdough loaves when you want. 3. One of the most recommended tests to understand if your starter is ready for baking is to do the float test. The float test is taking a small scoop of the starter and putting it in a glass of water. If the starter floats it is seen to be ready and if it sinks it is deemed to need more time. I have never relied on it as the ultimate test for starter readiness. I have had starters that did not float yet led to some beautiful loaves of bread. So no need to stress if your starter fails the float test. If it doubles within 4 hours it is quite likely ready for the next big step of bread baking.

In conclusion

Hope this post gives you a reasonable understanding of how to create a starter. I realize I have a lot more to say. So it may be better to write another post with some further information on using the starter and playing with time and temperature to suit your schedule and needs. I will be posting a bread recipe tomorrow by using the starter that i created and a recipe for cookies using the discard from this starter. Hope you enjoy them and let me know if you have any more questions or suggestions.

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