Flour, Water, and a little help from Mother Nature
is all that you need to create the Culture of Life that will leaven loaves of sourdough for as long as you wish to care for it.
Be prepared to invest a little bit of time, energy, and patience in creating your starter, and you will be rewarded. After starting from scratch, you should end up with a functioning, predictable sourdough starter within about 7 days -- depending on the temperature of your surroundings. Once your starter is alive and functioning, it takes very little effort to maintain.
The bacteria and yeast that you are cultivating tend to favour warmer temperatures (75-80F). If your home is cooler, your starter will likely take slightly longer. On the other end of things, if it is quite toasty where you are living, it can be expected to develop more quickly.
A scale is a beneficial tool to invest in for creating a starter, and to assist you on your Sourdough Baking journey. Accuracy translates into predictability.
A small rubber spatula helps to mix everything together, and 2 glass jars or clear plastic containers for feeding your starter in. I like to use clear containers so that you can watch the starter as it rises and falls. The containers should be big enough that there will be enough head space for your starter to grow, without overflowing the vessel.
A thermometer is key for regulating the water temperature that will provide your starter with its optimal living conditions.
Water. Non-chlorinated is preferred. We are creating life from just 2 ingredients. We want them to be the best ingredients available to us. If you live in a place where you feel that your water is heavily chlorinated, you can always fill up a big jug and let it sit on your counter overnight to allow the chemicals to dissipate. If you are truly concerned about the quality of your water, bottled water is also an option.
Organic, Stone-Ground is your best bet. When initially creating your starter, we use entirely Rye Flour for the total feeding quantity. Rye Flour is full of the nutrients that the sourdough bacteria thrive on and gives the whole process a good kick start. If Rye is not available to you, Whole Wheat is another good option. As we progress into the feedings, we switch from a mixture of Rye and Bread Flour to entirely Bread Flour and Whole Wheat. Rye does not have the same gluten developing properties as Wheat, and when getting started the rise and fall of a wheat starter can be a bit more predictable and easy to read -- understanding when it is ready for a feeding or to be used. However, there is no reason why once you get going, you can't switch to any flour that your heart desires, you will just have to adapt to what your starter is telling you.
When creating your starter, or planning on using it to bake with, you will be giving it daily feedings/refreshments. This involves taking a small quantity of starter and adding fresh flour and water (food) to it. During the feeding stage, you will also be discarding a significant portion. You have a few options with discarded starter: You can either collect it in a clean container and store it in the fridge for other baking recipes (pie dough, pancakes, ice cream?...), or you can compost it. It doesn't all need to just end up in the garbage.
100g Rye Flour
125g Water (80F)
In a clean jar, stir together the measured flour and water until you form a smooth paste. This is the first day of creating your little culture of life. Cover the jar with a tea towel or a piece of fabric secured with an elastic band. Letting the mixture "breathe" with the fabric opening, instead of sealing it up allows yeasts from the air to join the party with your starter and get things going. Let the jar sit out in a warm place (preferably 75-80F) for 24 hours. Come back at around the same time tomorrow for the first refreshment.
75g Starter Mix
50g Bread Flour
50g Rye Flour
125g Water (80F)
At this point, you may see a few small bubbles in your mixture, but don't fret if it looks just the way you left it yesterday. Put your clean container onto your scale and pour in 125g water (80F). Tare the scale to zero, and using your rubber spatula scoop out 75g of your starter mix from Day 1. You may have to scrape off a bit of a skin from the top that has dried out. Tare your scale to zero again, and add in your flours (today we are using a mixture of Bread + Rye). Give everything a good stir, cover it with your tea towel or secured fabric, and let sit in its new home for another 24 hours.
50g Bread Flour
50g Whole Wheat Flour
100g Water (80F)
By day 3, if your temperatures are optimal, it is quite possible that you will see a major surge of activity with your starter having nearly tripled in volume. At this point, although it has risen and looks ready to be used, it's strength needs to be harnessed and tamed in order to become a predictable starter. Over the next few feedings, the activity may drop off and then pick back up again. This is just a phase where the bacteria are battling it out, and is to be completely expected. We have quite a head start on the fermentation at this point and are moving away from Rye Flour, switching entirely over to Bread Flour and Whole Wheat. Repeat the same feeding process as yesterday, putting a clean container on your scale and adding in the water. Scoop out your 75g of starter. Does it float?! Yep, probably! If not, don't worry, you should start to see some action soon. Add in your flours, give it a good stir, cover it as per usual, and let sit for another 24 hours.
50g Bread Flour
50g Whole Wheat
For days 4 through 7, you are repeating the same feeding method, however instead of feeding at 24 hour intervals, you will be feeding it 2x daily at 12 hour intervals. By the end of the 7 days, you should have a starter that is rising and falling on a regular schedule, doubling, if not tripling in volume when it reaches its peak. If by Day 7, you do not have consistent signs of life, keep feeding it on a regular schedule and it will happen eventually. Sometimes it can take a little longer depending on where you are living, and the ingredients you are using. Once you have consistency, and your starter is full of gases, causing it to float on the surface of the water, you are ready to begin making a batch of Sourdough.
Once you have brought your starter to life, you need to maintain it in order to have it at the ready for baking with. After the initial start-up phase, I keep my starter covered with a plastic lid/or a mason jar with the lid twisted on loosely. This allows for some of the gases to escape as they build up, but prevents the top from drying out.
If you plan on baking with it consistently, then leaving it out on the counter and feeding it at 12-24 hour intervals is completely acceptable. If you feel that you aren't going to be baking often, feel free to put it into the fridge a few hours after a feeding, and bring it out for 2-3 refreshments before you do plan on baking with it.
Your new creature is quite resilient. If you forget to care for it for a few days, it should bounce back with a couple of feedings and be good as new. Put it on a schedule that works for you -- perhaps feeding it while you are making the morning coffee. The easier you make the process on yourself, the more likely you are to follow through.
Let me follow along with you as you create a culture of life by tagging me
on Instagram @lohambleton and if you ever get lost, you can check out my step-by-step highlights for extra tips on building a successful starter