How to make a starter

I’ve often thought that making a sourdough starter is well… often over thought! This is why I’d like to share my views (for there are no recipes) on how to make a sourdough starter.

“Music is the space between the notes” - Claude Debussy

“Muscles grow while you rest” - biological science

In the same vein when making a starter (and indeed the whole bread baking process) it is the space between the notes or the rest between the work that ensures a successful starter and bread. It is our job to put the ingredients together but its when we step back and take a rest between the starter feed or during the dough fermentation when the magic happens. This is the golden rule for all bread baking amplified when it comes to sourdough. Too many times i have heard, “my starter wasn’t doing anything so I fed it again and now it still isn’t doing anything”. To which I reply… " if your starter wasn’t active then what are you feeding"? More often than not it’s the impatience and watching the clock, when one should be watching the starter or dough, that leads to failure. Another golden rule “watch the dough and not the clock”!

So I’m going to and make this very simple and quick for now. I will be adding to this as ideas come to me but my idea is not to over complicate things and give you the tools (not a recipe as such) to get a starter going. Some rules if you will. So let’s begin…

1: Any flour will do however I’d avoid bleached flour. All the goodies within a starter come from the flour itself. If its bleached its going to be far from ideal in making a starter which is a colony of live bacteria and yeasts. In the same vein while any flour will do wholegrain flour is better. And wholegrain rye best of all.

2: While water can be an issue in some areas I think its blamed too much when it comes to starter issues where the fault lies with impatience. So unless you know for definite your water is an issue it probably isn’t. Tap water which is boiled and cooled should be just fine. More often than not it doesn’t even have to be boiled first but hey… we wish to nudge this in the best direction we can.

3: Starters like warmth. While it certainly isn’t impossible to make a starter in cooler temperatures it will make a big difference when it comes to how quickly it’ll mature.

4: I think I’ve said this before but its an ingredient most people forget and that’s time!

Now forget recipes which use hundreds of grams of flour with endless feedings. In reality you should be able to make a starter with a relatively small amount of flour without having having to feed it like a bottomless pit. I’m going to give you weights and so called feeding patterns but that’s just to convey the idea after all how does one describe going by feel or how can one read a starter when its the first one they’ve made. As a friend once said to me that making a starter for the first time is like trying to find the exit in a very large room when its pitch black. So we start somewhere and hopefully my experience will help but with time you will get a feel for it too. I just hope to make an easier process.

What you will need:

  • One small clean jar with a loose fitting lid
  • Flour
  • Boiled and Cooled Water
  • A warm place (preferably 75-78°F)
  • and, you guessed it, patience!

In the jar add 50g flour + 50g water (1:1) and mix into a paste. With the spoon clean down the sides then put the lid loosely and keep in a warm place. That’s it for now. Do not do anything until you see some activity. Might take 24 to 48 hours. Might be slow at first but at some point you should see a burst of activity. Until then you’ve nothing else to do.

This initial burst of activity can be impressive and its the quick off the mark bacteria. Some good and often some not so good. Its all good! And by that I mean its a normal part of the process it has to go through. It might smell a bit but do not worry.

Now onto the first feed…

From the 100g starter remove 50g and feed the remaining 50g with 25g water + 25g flour this is a feed often expressed as (2:1:1). The starter needs to be fed to be kept alive and given food however at this point one doesn’t wish to feed too much as its trying to become acidic which will kill off the bad bacteria and at the same time create a home for all the good critters. Feeding too much too quickly will only upset this balance.

Now you wait again however you will notice a change in your starter. Perhaps a slowing down or even coming to halt. Both are normal! It might seem not a lot is going on in your starter, especially after that impressive burst of energy, but believe you me this is a critical stage and a lot is going on.

Now here are your instructions from here on in…

After the first feed you’re going to follow this simple rule…

REPEAT THE SAME FEED AT 24 HOURLY INTERVALS BUT ONLY IF YOU SEE ACTIVITY. IF NO ACTIVITY THEN SKIP HOWEVER MANY FEEDS, AND JUST STIR INSTEAD, UNTIL IT COMES BACK TO LIFE (HOWEVER LONG THAT TAKES) AND THEN START THE FEEDS AGAIN.

That’s it! At any one time you’ll only be keeping 100g of starter and you’ll only be feeding when there is activity. If there is activity then keep up this feed at 24 hourly intervals and if not then skip feeds until there is activity.

Now flour mixed with water will get more wet (as its breaking down) the longer its left. So if you do have to wait a few days because all has gone quiet and the mixture is beginning to separate then add in just a teaspoon or two of flour to thicken it up a bit. Otherwise do not feed at all while its quiet.

When you find your starter is predictable and its bubbling up on cue every time its fed and within 24 hours (might be starting to do this every 12 hours) then its ready and will benefit from healthier feeds. In which case you can slowly increase them as follows…

Try keeping 34g starter and feeding 33g water + 33g flour (near enough 1:1:1 instead of 2:1:1). See how that responds. If it needs 24 hours to do its job then wait. If it bubbles up within 12 hours then go onto 12 hourly feeds.

Should that go well then increase to 20g starter + 40g water + 40g flour (2:1:1). Now this is a nice healthy feed. If this responds well and has no trouble bubbling up within 6-8 hours then you have a nice healthy mature starter ready to bake with.

So you see what’s happening here at different stages. What to expect, look out for and how to know its ready.

Hope I’ve conveyed this well, I’ve helped you on your way and somewhere in that dark room there’s a small light for you to find the exit. I realise it’s impossible to predict all outcomes and to preempt all questions but I hope I’ve cleared up some of the mystery on how to make a starter.

I am going to try…

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Best of luck. Any questions then don’t hesitate to ask. When in doubt ask first. Easier that way!

Here goes

Hi Abe. I’m new to sourdough and starters. Can you please explain at which point in your explanation above could you start to put it in the fridge and only give it food once a week? I understand putting it in the fridge requires less feedings and with a busy schedule and planning to make bread about once every two weeks I’m wondering if that’s the best way for me. Thank you.

Hi Christina. Welcome to Sourdough. You’re gonna love it. Very rewarding! A sourdough can be refrigerated once it’s mature which can take anything from a week or two. You first mix the flour and water together then it has to be given time to ferment naturally. Once it’s mature the mixture will have become acidic and will be populated by wild yeasts and bacteria. While it is in the process of fermenting the yeasts and bacteria will have to be fed to keep them healthy hence the feedings with fresh water and flour. Not too much too soon but a little fresh water and flour every time it shows some activity. Once it’s strong, predictable and bubbling up on cue within 6-8 hours after being fed that’s a good indicator it’s ready and then you can store it in the fridge. This may sound laborious but you only need to go through this process once and it’s not as hands on as most people think.

Thank you Abe for the welcome and explanation, much appreciated :). I’m excited to be part of this group. I look forward to‘starting’ this home baked sourdough adventure!