Sourdough 101 – A Tutorial

Like many people, I had long wanted to learn how to make sourdough.  In fact, at one point I had a starter going and was sure I had killed it.  After much reading, in books and online, and some encouragement from my online friends, I tried again, this time with better results.Although there is a wealth of information out there, I was never able to find one source that detailed the method I used, which was based on Reinhart’s “barm” in The Breadbaker’s Apprentice (“BBA”).  My own experience and that of others here has taught me one thing:  sourdough starters don’t read baking books, so they don’t know how they are “supposed” to behave.  I could have been spared the angst, the wasted time, and of course, pounds of precious flour, if only I had known what to expect and what to look for.

In the hopes of sparing others what I went through, I put together this tutorial blog.  This was a real test, as I wrote it day by day as I was trying out a modified starter that I had’t made before.  It’s still based on Peter’s starter, but I altered the amounts and the times to suit my own fancy.  I ended up with a more reasonable (i.e., much smaller) amount of starter and got there with much less wasted flour.

So here goes:

Day 1:

Ingredients:  1/3 cup rye flour and 1/4 cup water

For the flour, I use stone-ground rye.  Nothing special, just what I got from the grocery store.  My water is tap water run through a filter.  Before I had a filter on my sink, I used bottled drinking water.

Mix the flour and water in a bowl.  It will be thick and pasty, kind of like the oatmeal that’s left in the pot if you don’t come down for breakfast on time.

Day One - A Gloopy Mess

Once all the flour is mixed in, put it in a pint-sized or larger container and cover with plastic wrap.  Leave it out on the counter.

Day One - Ready to Rest

And that’s it for today.

Day 2:

Ingredients:  1/4 cup unbleached AP, bread, or high gluten flour; 1/8 cup water

There should be little, if any, change in the culture from yesterday.  Again, I’m not really particular about the flour.  I would just recommend staying away from bleached flour.  I am using AP flour for this batch.

Mix the flour, water, and all of the starter from yesterday in a bowl.  It will still be thick but a little wetter than yesterday.

Day 2-1

Put it back in the container (no need to wash it), press it down as level as you can get it, and mark the top of the culture with a piece of tape on the outside of the container.

Day 2-2

Put the plastic wrap back on top, and you’re finished.

Day 3:

Ingredients:  1/4 cup unbleached AP, bread, or high gluten flour; 1/8 cup water

Around Day 3 or 4, something happens that puts terror in the heart of the amateur sourdough maker:  they get a whiff of their starter.  When you check your starter on Day 3, you may notice a strange, and not at all pleasant, odor.  And unless you know better (which you will now), you’ll swear something is drastically wrong.  In fact, I would venture to guess that that smell has been the ruin of more amateur sourdough growers than anything else.  It’s an acrid, sour, almost rotten smell, and it’s perfectly normal.  And rest assured, your new baby sourdough starter will soon outgrow it.  So, take heart, and press on.

You may also notice that your starter has begun to come to life.  It probably won’t grow a lot, maybe 50%, but you will start to see bubbles, like these:

Day 3-1

Regardless of the amount of growth, stir down your starter, throw out about half (no need to measure, just eyeball it), and mix the rest with today’s flour and water.  You will get a slightly more doughy-looking mass:

Day 3-2

Once it’s well mixed, put it back in the container (still no need to wash), pat it down, and move your tape to again mark the top of the starter.

Day 3-3

Put the plastic wrap back on the container, and take the rest of the evening off.  You worked hard today.

Day 4:

Ingredients:  1/4 cup unbleached AP, bread, or high gluten flour; 1/8 cup water

And now, a word about measurements.  If you bake regularly, or even if you’ve just been nosing around baking sites for a while, you are no doubt aware that the ingredients in most artisan bread recipes are listed by weight rather than volume.  I measure by weight for my baking and for maintaining my sourdough starter.

You might wonder why, then, am I using volume measurements here?  Two reasons: first, I have tried to make this starter as simple to follow as possible — no special tools, no monkeying around with the scales, just a couple of measuring cups and a bowl.  And, when it comes to starting a starter, the measurements aren’t as critical as when you actually go to bake with it.  So for now, we’re just using measuring cups.

Today is another one of those days where novice sourdough starter makers often lose heart.  Your starter is now coming to life, and like most living things, it kind of has a mind of its own.  Up until now, we followed the clock, making our additions every 24 hours.  Now, we will be letting the starter dictate the timeframe.

Before you do your Day 4 additions, you want to make sure your starter has at least doubled.  If it doubles in less than 24 hours, you should still wait until the 24 hour mark.  If it takes more than 24 hours, be patient.  Let it double.  It may take another 12 or 24 hours, or it may take longer.  Again, be patient.  It will double.  Just give it time.  Eventually, you’ll end up with a nice, bubbly starter:

Day 4-1

You can see that mine more than doubled.  But I still waited for 24 hours.  Once it doubles, throw out half of the starter, then mix the rest with the flour and water, and back into the bowl it goes:

Day 4-2

Replace the tape and plastic wrap.  Then wait for it to double.   It could take as little as 4 hours, or it may take more than 24 hours.  This time, you can move on to Day 5 at any point after doubling.  It’s OK if you let it more than double; it’s also OK to move on right when it hits the double mark.  So, hurry up and wait.  If it doesn’t seem to be doing anything after 24 hours, you can goose it with a tablespoon or so of rye flour.

Day 5:

Ingredients:  3/4 cup unbleached AP, bread, or high gluten flour; 1/2 cup water

Once your starter has at least doubled, it’s time for the final mix.

Day 5-1

Combine flour, water, and 1/4 cup starter in a bowl and mix well.  Transfer to a clean container with room for the starter to at least double.

Day 5-2

OK, one last time, cover with plastic wrap and let it sit on the counter until it gets nice and bubbly.  Don’t worry so much about how much it grows, just so that it’s bubbly looking.  This will probably take around 6 hours, but, again, don’t stress about the time.  Let the starter tell you when it’s ready.

Day 5-3

When your starter gets bubbly, pat yourself on the back:  you are now the proud parent of a bouncing baby starter!  Put a lid or other cover on your container and put it in the refrigerator.  Let it chill overnight, and you can begin using it the next day.

Day 6 and beyond:

By today, your starter is ready to use.  The flavor will continue to develop over the next several weeks to month, so don’t be disappointed if your first few loaves aren’t sour enough for you.  I would still recommend beginning to bake with it right away, especially if you have never made sourdough bread before.  That way, you can hone your skills while your starter develops its flavor.

Feeding your sourdough:  If you keep your sourdough in the fridge, you only have to feed it about once a week.  And you can minimize your discards by keeping only what you need and feeding it when you want to bake with it.  I recommend a 1:1:1 (starter:water:flour) feeding, which means each feeding includes an equal amount, by weight, of starter, water, and flour.

Start by weighing your starter, subtracting the weight of your container.  Then add an equal amount of water and flour directly to the container.  So, for example, if you have 100 grams of starter, you would add 100 grams each of water and flour.  If you feed your starter right out of the fridge, as I do, warm your water to lukewarm (90 – 100 degrees F).  After you mix in the water and flour, leave it out on the counter for a few hours, then put it back in the refrigerator.  It’s best if you feed your starter a few days before you intend to bake with it.

To illustrate, here is an example of my feeding routine, starting with the Day 5 starter and assuming that I finished making the starter on Friday night:

  • Saturday morning, I take out what I need to bake bread (2/3 cup using my normal sourdough bread recipe) and return the rest of the starter to the refrigerator.
  • Wednesday of the next week, I get out the starter, weigh it, and add equal amounts of flour and water in a 1:1:1 ratio, as outlined above.  My goal here is to build up as much starter as I need to make bread on the weekend, and enough left over for my next build.  It’s OK if I have more than I need to bake with.  If I don’t think I’ll have enough after a 1:1:1 build, I will increase my ratio of water and flour, maybe to 1:2:2 or 1:1.5:1.5.  In that case, I will let it sit out until it almost doubles before returning it to the fridge, which might take a bit longer, as I’m using less starter relative to flour and water.
  • Friday night or Saturday morning, I again take out what I need to bake with and return the rest to the fridge, to be fed again mid-week.

This is just an example of how I keep my starter.  You can feed yours more often if you bake more than I do.  It’s also OK to let it go more than a week between feedings.  If you do that, though, you might want to feed it a few times before you bake with it.

So, that’s it.  Hopefully I’ve unravelled some of the mystery of sourdough starters and given you the confidence to try one yourself.  Good luck, and let me know how it works out for you!

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34 Comments

  1. February 12, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    [...] fellow BBA baker.   With his guidance and detailed instructions, I made my own starter.  He has idiot proof instructions on his web site.  I followed the steps, day by day.  When I arrived at day 4, Phyl said to wait [...]

  2. January 26, 2013 at 1:25 pm

    [...] bread begins with mixing about 1/2 a cup of Phyl (my starter) with rye flour and water.  It is just mixed until all the flour is hydrated.  No [...]

  3. Brenda said,

    January 8, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    Thank you I bought some sourdough starter New England starter and started it Saturday Night and stressed cause its not doing much… I guess I need patience… First time I’ve tried this.. Thanks..

  4. June 27, 2011 at 1:25 am

    [...] but after ‘talking’ to Phyl I found out I could have saved it. Thanks for Sourdough 101, Phy. Next time I will know that… The greyish liquid floating on top of the starter is [...]

  5. November 14, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    [...] is that the bread stays fresh longer and won’t get moldy as quickly. Since I keep two sourdough starters in the refrigerator and it was time to get them out to feed them anyway, I decided to make my [...]

  6. October 11, 2010 at 12:10 am

    [...] sourdough starter tutorial, sourdough tutorial A lot of people have written to tell me that my foolproof sourdough starter has worked for them. Many of them had tried numerous times to create their own starter, only to [...]

  7. Jim K said,

    June 22, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    My sourdough starter worked beautifully and the first breads were deliciously sour. I immediately fed my starter and three days later made more bread, but eventhough the starter was bubbly and had grown there was no sour taste. I am now thinking it needs a week of fermenting, as per your example, to rejuvinate the flavor even though it is bubbly. Am I in the ball park?
    Jim

    • gaaarp said,

      June 22, 2010 at 4:56 pm

      Jim,

      Sounds like you’re on the right track. Your starter will develop more character and flavor over time. Also, the longer it ages, the more sour it will get. If you feed it and leave it out on the counter, rather than putting it in the fridge, the sourness will develop faster, too.

      You can also get more flavor in your bread by retarding the dough, either during the primary (bulk) fermentation or after shaping. Either way, put the dough in the fridge for a day or so. You’ll be amazed at the difference.

  8. figsetc said,

    March 31, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    I followed you here form Salt and Serenity’s mention of your “idiot proof” guide to making PR’s sourdough bread and THANK YOU for going into more detail about the feeding. After I read PR’s notes about feeding the starter I was left with two main questions – do I keep it on the counter or the fridge? How do I feed it without having a scale?

    and on that second question I’m hoping you could offer some advice. I’ve attempted to make this starter twice now and have failed both times (but I havent given up!). For someone who doesnt own a scale, how would you recommend feeding it? using the 1:1:1 ratio but in cups?

    Thanks so much!

    • gaaarp said,

      March 31, 2010 at 8:34 pm

      First. a bit of nagging. If you are even a halfway serious baker, you really should own a scale. You can pick up an Escali (which is what I use) for about $25 on Amazon. If I could only keep and use one kitchen instrument for baking, it would hands down be my scale. You only be able to achieve consistently remarkable results as a baker if you scale your ingredients.

      OK, with that out of the way, I did a little experiment this evening when I fed Adrian and Edwina. You can roughly approximate a 1:1:1 feeding as follows: 1/8 cup starter, 1 1/2 ounces water, and 1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons flour. It’s not exact, but it’s fairly close. If you feed with this formula over a period of time, you will have to adjust your flour and water to achieve the right consistency.

      As far as the refrigerator goes, don’t put your starter in the fridge while you’re building it. But once it is strong enough to use in bread, you can store it in the fridge.

      • figsetc said,

        April 1, 2010 at 7:50 pm

        Ha. I suppose I deserve that. I’m just starting my baking adventures so its not something that I have invested in – I’ll have to look into the Escali. Thanks for the help, I really appreciate it.

      • gaaarp said,

        April 1, 2010 at 8:03 pm

        Sorry if I sounded too scolding. That wasn’t my intention. I get a bit wound up when it comes to baking. And scaling ingredients is one of the things I am most passionate about.

  9. Handful said,

    March 14, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    I absolutely do not understand the discard process! Make noodles, pancakes, English muffins. Too much waste.

    • gaaarp said,

      March 14, 2010 at 12:55 pm

      If you read my maintenance routine, you’ll see that I don’t have any discard. I feed my starter up to what I need to bake plus a small amount to put back in the fridge. That way I have what I need but no extra.

  10. Hélène said,

    March 3, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    I want to learn to make sourdough. Thanks for the tutorial. I’ll have to try it.

  11. February 21, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    [...] bread begins with mixing about 1/2 a cup of Phyl (my starter) with rye flour and water.  It is just mixed until all the flour is hydrated.  No [...]

  12. February 12, 2010 at 9:18 pm

    [...] fellow BBA baker.   With his guidance and detailed instructions, I made my own starter.  He has idiot proof instructions on his web site.  I followed the steps, day by day.  When I arrived at day 4, Phyl said to wait [...]

  13. sarabclever said,

    December 16, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    Me again–so I’ve moved on to creating a barm. PR says it should double. it doesn’t look much like it’s doubling but it is really foamy. Is this right? I also saw PR’s correction on his website but I’m already too far along in the process for pineapple juice.

    • gaaarp said,

      December 16, 2009 at 9:51 pm

      Sounds like you’re doing fine. Remember — your starter hasn’t read the rules, so it doesn’t know how it is supposed to behave.

      As for PR’s revised instructions, I am not a fan of the pineapple juice method. Call me a purist or old-fashioned, but I think a sourdough starter should be made from flour and water, and nothing else.

  14. sarabclever said,

    December 14, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    Thank you! I’m at day 4 now…I will wait until tomorrow and jazz it up with some more rye. I wish I had seen your proportions (i.e. much less wasted flour) before I started, but c’est la vie!

  15. MaryAnn said,

    December 11, 2009 at 8:25 am

    Yipee ~ I have my 1st beautiful SD starter! Tomorrow we bake! Thanks Phyl for the fantastic tutorial, Santa’s bringing me The BBA so I wanted to be ready. I’ll have to post a pic of my 1st bake on the Facebook group page! I appreciate you Phyl ~ thanks
    MaryAnn (Jaysmama)

    • gaaarp said,

      December 11, 2009 at 9:07 am

      MaryAnn,

      Thanks for the props. I appreciate it. And it’s great to know you have a newly-minted starter. Keep feeding it between now and when Santa comes. It will have good flavor and rising power by then.

      Phyl

  16. September 27, 2009 at 12:29 am

    [...] hydration — this term, used with sourdough starters, refers to the amount of water in a starter in relation to the amount of flour, both measured by [...]

  17. August 3, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    [...] used 15 ounces of sourdough starter discard in the recipe. Since I keep my starter at 100% hydration (the weight of flour and water [...]

  18. June 6, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    [...] of those crazy generous souls who bakes bread for everyone but me to eat). And I wanted to use my sourdough starter in place of the sponge. And substitute buttermilk powder for the milk. And of course choose my own [...]

  19. Denise said,

    May 31, 2009 at 11:36 am

    Thanks so mcuh for the help, my starter is bubbly and happy, and named Muk (a pokemon), Now I just need to find a good recipe to make some sourdough bread! Thanks again for posting this!!:)

    • gaaarp said,

      May 31, 2009 at 12:22 pm

      Denise, the Basic Sourdough recipe in The Bread Baker’s Apprentice is really good. So is Hamelman’s Vermont Sourdough. I would highly recommend either of them.

  20. May 31, 2009 at 11:17 am

    [...] attempt failed, due, I think, to my impatience rather than a true failure of the process.  My second attempt, seasoned with more patience, worked, and I am baking my first sourdough loaves [...]

  21. gaaarp said,

    May 21, 2009 at 9:36 pm

    Thanks to all of you for the kind words. Feel free to post here or e-mail me at phyl(dot)law(at)gmail(dot)com if you have any questions as you build your starters. You really CAN do it!!!!

  22. Wendy said,

    May 21, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Thank you for posting this. I’m a leeeetle less scared to make my own starter now. I actually can’t wait to make one.

  23. butternthyme said,

    May 21, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    Wow, this sounds completely do-able. Going to start my starter next week! Thanks for your help. Now to think of a good name……

  24. Kelly said,

    May 21, 2009 at 9:12 am

    JUST what I needed. Thank you so much! The idea of a starter has always been a bit scary, and while it still seems a bit that way, at least I have this to refer to. Chances are, I would have been one of those that chucked the starter on day 3 or 4. :)

  25. Gabi said,

    May 21, 2009 at 4:38 am

    Thanks for the excellent tutorial. I was thinking of making my first starter, but decided to wait until I find a clear guide to follow; now I have no more excuses…

  26. May 21, 2009 at 12:06 am

    You are a natural teacher. You make it look so simple. I am encouraged to try it. Thanks for doing this.


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