Eleanor, my mature sourdough starter
I get many questions about starting a sourdough starter and usually, the same ones pop up over and over, like bubbles in a happy, well-nurtured culture. Below, I’ve tried to address the most common questions I hear.
Your sourdough starter’s nursery
What should I make my starter in?
Use a jar. You can observe your starter at a glance—whether it has bubbled, separated or has done nothing at all. A jar with a lid also works well for long-term storage. If you choose a bowl instead, do not use reactive metal, such as aluminum or copper. Ceramic works also.
Closed or open jar?
If you opt to keep the jar open to help attract good microbes from the air, cover it securely with tightly woven cheesecloth or other breathable cloth, like butter muslin, to keep out impurities. If a crust forms on the surface of the starter, scrape it off and compost it. Once the starter has matured, you may want to switch to a closed jar. I keep my established, mature starter in a closed jar.
How big should my starter’s home be?
A starter bubbling up and oozing out of your antique mason jar will rack up the shares on Instagram and I do have to admit that waking up to find my very lively starter making a run for it from my jar does give me a little thrill when it happens (which happens rarely). But cleaning very sticky sourdough starter from the jar and counter daily gets old and sends precious starter down the drain.
I keep a fairly small starter, between 40 and 50 grams each of flour and water. That fits into a Bonne Maman jam jar very well. If you want to make a larger starter, upgrade it to a larger home at its next feeding. Choose a jar in which your starter will occupy from a quarter to a third of the jar’s total volume. It will have lots of room to grow.
What shape of jar should I choose?
Any jar will do but I prefer wide-mouth, shorter jars with flush sides and no neck. If you use a jar with a narrow neck, you’ll have trouble scooping out and feeding your sticky sourdough starter and you might make a mess. Right now, Eleanor is in her usual jam jar. When I want to make a larger starter, I upgrade her to a deluxe Le Parfait Terrine. This larger, short jar has a very wide mouth and completely flush sides. Weck jars are also very nice.
Both Weck jars and Le Parfait jars have glass lids—an added bonus. The inner lids of Mason jars and repurposed jam jars do have an epoxy (i.e. plastic) coating. My starter never touches the top of the jar so I’m not too worried about this.
My kitchen is cold. Should I give my starter a hot water bottle?
My starter rather enjoys a cooler kitchen in the mid 60s Fahrenheit but if yours shows no sign of life after several days in your cold kitchen, try moving it to a warmer room, putting it in a microwave with the door ajar (so as to keep the light on), setting it on heating pad turned on to the lowest setting possible or knitting it a sweater.
Eleanor (right) in the sweater I knit her for her 2nd birthday, with my ginger bug, Mary Ann (left) and my buttermilk, Betty (middle)
I live in a very hot climate. My starter bubbles up within a couple of hours and then smells very sour. Can I fix this?
Very hot, humid weather will cause your starter to ferment quickly—and go through it’s food. Feed it more frequently, at least twice a day. You will accumulate a large amount of starter with extra feedings so keep your starter small to keep the discard pile manageable.
What is the Goldilocks temperature of my starter’s environment?
The ideal temperature for your kitchen sort of depends on what you’re aiming for. Do you want your starter to rise faster? Move it to a warmer spot. Want it to slow down? Find a cooler spot. Generally, the Goldilocks temperature is somewhere in the low 70s Fahrenheit.
Your sourdough starter’s diet: the flour
What type of flour do you use?
Generally, I feed my starter Eleanor a combination of all-purpose flour and rye flour. She loves rye flour and responds best to freshly ground flour that I grind up in my small hand-cranked grain mill. I often feed her spelt flour also.
Do you grind up your own flour because you’re a prepper?
Freshly ground flour contains the entire kernel, or seed. Refined flour that you buy at the store has been stripped of the bran and the seed’s embryo, or the germ, to render it shelf-stable. This also strips it of protein, vitamins and minerals. The germ also contains oils that, once released upon grinding, turn flour rancid quickly, shortening the shelf-life. When you grind flour, try to use it immediately. Otherwise, store it in the refrigerator.
I grind up winter wheat berries, emmer wheat berries and rye berries in my small hand-cranked mill. (This is the model I have.) During the current COVID-19 flour shortage, wheat berries may be easier to find than flour, since few people grind their own flour. If you’ve pondered buying a grain mill, now might be a good time to take the plunge. Mine grinds up about ½ cup of flour per minute, depending on how coarse I make it. And the grinding process is meditative.
Must the flour be organic?
No, non-organic will work. I do prefer organic though. It’s better for the soil and the farmers.
Do I have to use artisanal, expensive baker’s flour?
No, you don’t need to buy upscale, specialty flour. I do find that my loaves turn out better when I buy very fresh flour from my favorite bulk bins that have a high turnover rate, however.
Can I make a 100 percent whole-wheat starter?
Follow the directions here for a starter but use whole wheat flour only and omit the all-purpose flour.
Can I make a 100 percent rye flour starter?
Yes, but do not use 100 percent rye flour for the bread as it has much less gluten than wheat flour and will make a very dense loaf. Follow my standard sourdough starter directions and increase the amount of rye to 100 percent.
Can I make a 100 percent bleached, all-purpose flour starter?
Yes, but your starter may not be too happy. It will have less food than if you feed it some whole-wheat or rye flour, which contains more nutrients, sort of like when I binge on cookies instead of eating a square meal. You may need to feed your starter its bleached all-purpose flour twice a day to keep it happy.
Can I use bread flour?
Absolutely. Sourdough bread turns out well with bread flour. Bread flour contains more gluten, which results in a better rise. I prefer to save my bread flour for my bread because I don’t have as much of it on hand as I do all-purpose, rye and whole-wheat. But I do occasionally use it to feed my starter.
Can I turn my [insert flour type(s) here] sourdough starter into a 100 percent [insert a different flour type here] sourdough starter?
Yes, simply change your starter’s diet at its next meal. It may take a couple of feedings to adjust.
Can I make a gluten-free starter?
Yes. I have made a gluten-free starter with hand-milled buckwheat flour. Oat flour should also work. You can also try commercial gluten-free flour blends. Follow the instructions for my standard starter and use buckwheat or other gluten-free flour instead of all-purpose and rye flours.
Although my buckwheat starter sprang to life, I have not made gluten-free bread with it. These gluten-free sourdough bread recipes from Cultures for Health look good.
Can I make a gluten-free starter with almond flour?
I don’t think so. The bacteria and yeast in a sourdough starter consume the starch in the flours and almonds don’t contain starch. You could try making a regular sourdough starter and then use that to make sourdough bread with some almond flour in it.
Your sourdough starter’s diet: the water
Do different types of flour require more or less water?
I find that spelt makes a very wet dough. The starter should have the consistency of very thick pancake batter so with whatever type of flour you use, aim for that consistency.
Can I use boiled water to feed my starter?
Yes, you can feed your starter water that you have boiled and have allowed to cool to room temperature. Never add boiling water to your starter unless you want to kill it.
My water contains high levels of chlorine. Will that kill the starter?
High levels of chlorine can kill the bacteria and yeasts in your starter. If your water contains lots of chlorine, you’ll be able to smell it. To remove chlorine, pour water into a wide-mouth vessel and cover it with a cloth. The chlorine will evaporate from the wide surface area. You can also boil off chorine. Allow the water to cool. Some water filters also remove chlorine.
Certain expensive water filters can also remove chloramine, a combination of chlorine and ammonia that more and more municipalities have added to the water supply. However, chloramine won’t evaporate or boil off.
What does “100 percent hydration” mean?
This refers to the amount of water in your sourdough starter (or bread). I use equal parts of water and flour—by weight—to make a 100 percent hydration starter. A 75 percent hydration starter would contain 75 grams of water for every 100 grams of flour. If you see a recipe that calls for a different hydration than yours, feed your starter the amount of water necessary for that hydration level and then, after the starter has bubbled up, use it in your recipe.
When should I feed my new starter its first meal?
You’ll feed it when you observe the two following signs of life.
Bubbles form in the starter. You won’t see as many bubbles as you do in a mature, active starter, but you should see several.
The starter has developed an aroma. It may smell like vinegar, dirty socks, cheese or worse. This is a good sign. Many people think they’ve done something wrong when they smell their rank starter. DO NOT THROW IT OUT! Instead, start feeding it. After several feedings, the aroma should transform to fruity and slightly sour.
Do not feed it before you observe both the bubbles and the aroma. The biggest mistake people make when starting a starter is feeding it too early. They remove the nascent bacteria and yeast just as they begin to grow in the flour and water. Then after they feed the starter, it shows zero signs of life. Opt for later rather than sooner.
How do I feed it?
Remove most of the starter—about 80 percent—from its jar. Set this aside in a discard jar. Add fresh flour and water to the small amount of starter you have left in the first jar. Stir it up. Let it sit. Do the same thing around the same time the next day. Remove most of the starter, add that to the discard jar and stir fresh flour and water into your smidgen of sourdough starter left in the jar. For more details, go to this post.
If you’d like to gauge how much the sourdough rises, put a rubber band around the jar at the level of the top of the starter after you feed it. The starter will bubble past this line and give you a little thrill.
Can I feed it without a scale?
Yes, you can. A scale makes measuring easier and more accurate but you can measure the flour and water by volume instead. My sourdough starter post contains measurements for volume and weight.
Must I remove 80 percent of the sourdough starter? Why not just keep adding flour and water to the jar every day?
If you feed the existing starter every day, it will grow exponentially large. Each time you feed it, you’ll add about 4 parts fresh food for every 1 part of existing starter. That 1 spoonful of starter will soon grow into 1 cup of starter and will require 4 cups of food. The next day, the starter, even larger now, will require even more food. And so on and so on and so on.
Why do I have to feed it every day?
Like a pet, you must feed the starter daily. The bacteria and yeast in it need a steady supply of food—the flour. They eat the sugars in the flour and reward you with carbon dioxide and yeast that make the bread rise. If you want a break, once it has matured, put the starter in the refrigerator and feed it once a week or so.
What if I forget to feed it one day?
Feed it as soon as you remember and get back on its feeding schedule. It will forgive you and spring back to life. If a crusty layer has formed on top, peel that off, compost it and feed your starter as usual.
Should I feed it once a day or twice a day?
With practice, you’ll be able to interpret your starter’s signals—when it’s hungry, when it’s happy, which food it prefers. If it rises and falls quickly within a few of hours—in other words, it eats its food quickly—you’ll likely need to feed it more frequently to keep it happy. It won’t die if you don’t do this, it just won’t be as vigorous.
Before I start my dough, I will have fed my starter twice during the day—once in the morning and once in the afternoon. I’ll make my leaven that night and the bread the next day.
Should I stir it a bunch of times after I feed it or just let it be?
While you wait for your starter to bubble up—before its first feeding—stirring daily can help coax it to life. But after you start feeding it, just let it sit and bubble up after every meal.
My starter is very runny immediately after feeding it. Where did I go wrong?
You likely added too much water. Add more flour to render a consistency like thick pancake batter.
My starter has become runny several hours after feeding it. Where did I go wrong?
Your starter will be like thick pancake batter when you first start it and immediately after you feed it. Once it reaches starter adolescence, when you stir it within several hours after feeding, it will have a springy consistency and quite a bit of resistance. Let it go 24 hours, and it will be much more runny and deflated, like an older adult.
Signs of maturity: baking
How long must I wait to use the starter? When do I know it’s ready?
When your starter has matured enough to use in baking, it rises (about double, but not always) within about 6 hours after feeding it, however, the time depends on your environment. It then falls back down over several hours. Ideally, it will smell fruity and yeasty and perhaps a bit sour but not too sour. If it smells very sour, feed it.
My sourdough starter failed the float test. Can I use it?
If you gently place a spoonful of starter in warm water and it floats, then it’s ready to use. If it sinks, it may also be ready to use. The float test, like some forms of birth control, is not always reliable.
I don’t have an oven. What can I make on a stovetop?
Make delicious pancakes or, if you have a waffle iron, crispy waffles. If you have no intention of ever baking the bread, you may nonetheless want to keep a sourdough starter just to make the pancakes.
How much starter do I need to make bread?
You’ll need only a little bit of active starter to the make the bread. When you make the bread, you’ll make a leaven for it, essentially a giant starter. You’ll use only a couple of spoonfuls of the starter to make a leaven for two large loaves of bread.
How does a sourdough starter differ from a leaven? Or is levain the correct term? I’m so confused.
The terms sourdough starter, leaven and the French levain essentially all represent the same thing—leavening agents made of flour, water and wild yeast. But a sourdough starter is the small culture you feed daily (or weekly, if you store it in the refrigerator). A leaven is a larger starter that you make specifically for a recipe, such as the bread.
I see recipes that call for all the starter I have. I don’t want to use it all. What should I do?
Scale it up! I keep my starter small, sometimes only about 50 grams. If I need, say, 120 grams for a recipe, I will feed a few tablespoons of starter 60 grams of flour and 60 grams of water. I’ll have enough for my recipe (120 grams) plus plenty of starter leftover to keep my starter going. Just make sure you make enough so that you will have a spoonful left to keep it going.
How old is your starter in both starter years and human years?
Eleanor turned six years old on February 10th this year. Some starters at the sourdough library in Belgium are well over 100 years old. So I’d say mine is still an infant in human years.
Why do I need to throw away the starter that I remove at feedings?
You don’t. Store the discard in the refrigerator in a jar. After each feeding, you’ll add more to this jar. The first couple of discards from your new starter won’t be very sour. Give them a week or so. Once the discard has soured and you have a pile of it, use some to make flat breads that don’t need the leavening power of an active starter, such as:
Sourdough pretzels (I do add a bit of baker’s yeast for insurance)
Can I make bread with the discarded starter?
The bacteria and yeast in the discard, low on food, lack the stamina necessary to make bread rise. However, think of your discard as an insurance policy. If you active sourdough starter dies for some reason or you accidentally put it all in a recipe (it can happen!), you can remove a spoonful of discard from the refrigerator and feed it for a few days until it revives into a vigorous starter once again.
If I don’t discard the discard, why do you call it discard?
Well, you have me there. Sometimes I refer to it as unfed starter. Better?
How long does the discard keep in the refrigerator?
I recycle my discard constantly. Every time I feed my starter, I put some in the jar and stir it up. Several times a week, I take some out to make pancakes or crackers or something else. I’ll keep the same jar in the refrigerator for months at a time.
How can I avoid accumulating so much discard that I feel as though I have a part-time job baking with it?
Keep the starter very small to accumulate less discard. And if you need a break from feedings, store it in the refrigerator. You’ll feed it less and cut down on discard. Do not move it to the refrigerator until you have established your starter! Otherwise, you might bring the fermentation to a screeching halt.
How do I find time to care for a starter?
Feeding your starter should take only a few minutes each day. If you do it at the same time every day, it will become part of your routine. To speed that routine up, store the flours you use in a jar, premixed. So if you use half white / half whole-wheat, measure a bunch of each out, mix them and store them in a large jar. You’ll have only one type of flour to measure at feedings, instead of two.
Can I store my sourdough starter next to its fermented siblings on the counter?
I would keep your fledgling starter away from other ferments while it gestates to prevent things like kimchi sharing microbes with your starter. I keep fermented vegetables on one side of my small kitchen and my sourdough on the other. My kombucha sits up on a high shelf away from everything. I have never had a problem with microbe sharing but it could happen. In the refrigerator, I don’t separate my fermented foods in their closed jars.
What if I need a vacation? How do I store my starter?
If you don’t live in Stockholm, Sweden, where you can put your starter up at a sourdough starter hotel, store it in the refrigerator when you go on vacation or simply need a break from starter maintenance. Take it out every week or so to feed it.
What’s the best way to feed my starter after removing it from the refrigerator?
I let mine warm up for an hour, maybe less, remove most of it, feed it and then let it rise for a couple of hours before returning it the the refrigerator. If you don’t feel like baking the next week, return it to the refrigerator again after feeding it.
Can I freeze sourdough starter and if so, how?
Yes, you can freeze starter! Put a bit in a small, wide-mouth jar with straight sides and store it in the freezer. I have kept mine in there for a couple of months at a time and it has worked well. When you want to get back to feeding your starter, pull it out, let it thaw, then feed it as usual. It may take two or more feedings to get it back up to speed.
When things fall apart: troubleshooting
Will I kill my family?
Fermentation is very safe. People have fermented foods for thousands of years, including baking sourdough bread. The good bacteria in your fermented food will protect it from any bad bacteria. If there’s any killing going on, it’s the good bacteria killing the bad guys.
I’m afraid I’ll kill my new starter. Help!
Sourdough starters are very hardy and can withstand some neglect. And if you do kill it by accident, you can start over pretty easily.
My starter is drunk. What should I do?
A very hungry starter may develop a gray layer of liquid on its surface. This is hooch. Pour it off and feed your starter.
My sourdough starter smells like dirty socks / cheese / vinegar / alcohol / vomit. Have I killed it?
Describing aromas is very subjective. One man’s alcohol is another man’s vomit. If it smells bad, you’re on the right track. Many people have told me they have tossed their starters at this pungent phase, which is a shame, because that smell indicates that the starter had merely wanted its meal, not its end. When you see the bubbling and it smells, feed it. It will show you its appreciation through its bubbling.
I was horrified the first time my starter smelled like nail polish remover. I thought I certainly had killed it. If your established starter develops a funky smell, it needs food. After a couple of feedings, the bacteria should get back on track and emit a more pleasant aroma.
My starter developed mold. Should I throw it out?
If you see a bit of mold—green, white or black fuzz—on the jar, you can remove a spoonful of starter and feed it in new, clean jar. If you see a bit of mold on the top of the starter, you can remove that and feed the starter as usual—if you feel comfortable doing that. If you see pink or orange streaks in the starter, compost it and start over.
My starter shows zero signs of life after two weeks. What am I doing wrong?
You may have started feeding it too early. Let it sit for at least a couple of days without feeding it. Once you observe bubbling and an aroma, feed it.
My starter doesn’t double in size after feeding. Can I use it?
Starters don’t always double in size. Don’t worry too much if yours rises less than this as long as it does rise and fall consistently and smells fruity / yeasty / slightly sour. But if it is lackluster, see the tips below to attempt to perk it up.
My starter doubles in 8 hours. Why does it take so long?
Your kitchen might be cold. Move your starter to a warmer spot. What have you been feeding it? It may not love its food. Give it a bit of rye flour—starters really do love the stuff and warm up its water to about 80F maximum. If those tricks don’t help, check your water. Does it smell of chlorine? If so, see the earlier section on water and chlorine.
My starter makes me feel so inadequate. Why doesn’t it have huge bubbles like the starters I see on Instagram?
Occasionally, my starter will have giant bubbles, especially if I’ve fed it freshly ground flour but usually, it’s riddled with small bubbles. Either way the bread always tastes good, regardless of the size of the bubbles.
Size doesn’t matter