A sourdough starter is so easy to make–all you need is water and flour–but it will reward you for years to come with breads, waffles, pancakes and more, with no need for added yeast. Even better, the wild yeast in the sourdough is great for your gut health. Stir up a batch today--it's truly the gift that keeps on giving.
This easy sourdough starter recipe has lived on this blog for almost four years now--almost as long as I've had my starter. Back in 2016 I shared the process with you, with every day photos, as I went through it myself, day by day.
In the years since, I've learned so much more from baking with the starter, working with it in its different moods, and answering your questions. So I thought I'd refresh this post for you by addressing some of your most common queries here, and share some tips on troubleshooting.
Making a sourdough starter is an extraordinarily simple process that requires just two ingredients, flour and water, and a bowl and a whisk. It truly is something anyone can do. That said, there is some patience and technique involved, and ensuring your sourdough starter stays at the right temperature. And you will need to dedicate a few minutes every day for a week to get your starter going.
If you have little ones around, you might consider involving them in the process. It's a great lesson in how the process of making food is as much a science as it is an art. When I made my starter, named "George" by a reader, Jay (who was seven at the time) was really excited when little bubbles first appeared, indicating that the yeast -- captured from the air -- was now thriving and flourishing in the pasty flour-and-water mixture. He would ask to look at the sourdough starter every day to see how it was progressing and, as you can imagine, all that bubbling and rising was rather magical to his young mind. 🙂
Many of you have since followed the recipe and the step-by-step instructions and daily photos I posted to make successful starters of your own. Dozens of you have come back to tell me about your starters, named Georgina, Crunchy, the Hulk and even Tina (after quaranTine :)) among many more. You've made me smile and you've made me happier than you can imagine.
If this is your first time making a sourdough starter, tighten your seatbelts because you're in for the adventure of your life. Really. It should take seven days to get a viable starter, but once you have established it, you will forever have a great reason to bake bread…and so much more. I promise you'll be a changed person--or at least a changed baker.
I can vouch that after I'd made George, I definitely began looking at all baked goods differently. My jar of yeast sat in the freezer while I experimented with not just breads but pancakes, waffles, pretzels, English muffins, biscuits, sticky buns and so much more. The sourdough made eating these treats not just more fun and delicious, but also more guilt-free.
That's because all those billions of yeast bacteria teeming through your sourdough starter--the ones that make it bubble and rise--are probiotic and therefore great for your gut.
Some studies even show that sourdough is easy to digest, and could be eaten by people with celiac disease who cannot normally tolerate gluten (although this is something you should check with your doctor). Bread made with sourdough is also said to be better for diabetics because it's lower on the glycemic index than regular bread is.
In this post, I will go through the process of making a sourdough starter step by step, with photos. You can just jump to the recipe below, but I strongly advise taking the time to look at the FAQs so you have a clear picture of what to do and what to expect.
All you need to do, really, is mix flour and water together, whisk it, and then set the mixture aside. The flour contains a variety of yeast and other bacteria, and when combined with water and allowed to sit, it will give you the sourdough starter of your dreams. You will need to help your sourdough starter strengthen by feeding it every day for the first seven days, and, once you have an established starter, at least once a week.
When I made my starter, I made it in a glass bowl. Once it was established, I moved it to a large glass jar with a tight lid.
Glass, ceramic and stainless steel containers are all fine. Make sure you choose a large container because as you feed the sourdough it will rise and expand.
You will need whole wheat flour to begin your starter, but you can use all purpose flour or bread flour for subsequent feedings.
The reason for this is that whole wheat flour gives your sourdough starter a stronger start because it's full of micronutrients and friendly bacteria.
If you can't use whole wheat flour for any reason, use all purpose flour, bread flour or rye flour.
If you want to make a starter without gluten, see my recipe for a gluten-free sourdough starter.
When you work with sourdough, you want to be sure and keep any chemicals out of the equation. Tap water usually has chlorine in it, and chlorine can kill the wild yeast. While tap water may work in places where it's not heavily chlorinated, for best results I prefer to use filtered or non-chlorinated water while establishing a starter and feeding it.
Yes and no.
Let me explain. The hydration of your sourdough starter matters not so much for the health of the starter itself. But it will matter for the recipes you'll make with it.
In other words, if you accidentally add more or less water to your starter, don't worry, it won't go belly up on you. Just continue feeding it in the right proportions in future and it should be fine.
But how much water is in your starter will matter when you add the starter to the recipe. That's because every recipe will have instructions for starter hydrated to a specific level.
For example, I use a 1 cup flour to 3/4 cup water ratio in my starter. Some other recipes use more water, some less.
So all the recipes I post are tailored to the hydration specific to my sourdough starter. If your sourdough starter recipe came from somewhere else, and you are planning to bake a bread from my blog, you'll need to adjust the level of liquid in your bread recipe up or down based on how much water is in your starter.
You'll find that sourdough starters in different temperatures perform very differently. For instance, if you're in 90+ temperatures, your sourdough might ferment too fast and taste extremely tangy within a day or two. On the other hand, in a cooler temperature, you might not see any activity at all for a few days after beginning.
To get a strong and healthy starter that'll give you the best results when you bake and for taste, you want to try and keep your sourdough starter in a room where the temperature is between 70 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
Seven days. You might find that your starter ferments more quickly in warmer temperatures, but to get the best flavor, try and keep your sourdough in a room at a temperature no more than 70-75 degrees F. Feed it every day for seven days.
You will know it's ready when it starts to rise within six to eight hours of feeding and gets really puffy.
Your sourdough starter, once it begins to bubble, will have a smell not unlike buttermilk. It should smell fresh and somewhat fruity, and not moldy or spoilt.
A sourdough starter will keep for years, even decades, and there are sourdough starters out there that are family heirlooms. A mature, well-established sourdough starter is a treasure to cherish, and think of the days you'll pass this gift of good health to your sons and daughters--or grandsons and granddaughters.
For the first seven days, between feedings, leave your starter outside at a room temperature of no more than 75 degrees F. Make sure it's covered with a kitchen towel. If you find that your starter is forming a hard crust on top, but otherwise appears to be developing nicely, stir it, feed it, and cover it with something more airtight or even cling wrap after the first couple of days.
Once your starter is ready, you can store it in the refrigerator. Each time you feed it, leave it out at room temperature for a few hours or until it gets puffy and expands, then put it back in the fridge.
If a recipe calls for, say, two cups of starter, just make sure you feed your sourdough starter the day before with more flour. Stick with the correct proportions of water and flour.
There could be two reasons for this: your sourdough starter is either really new, or your starter was just fed.
Starter that's just been established will not taste tangy enough because it just hasn't been around that long. But don't fret, it will still have loads of flavor and with regular feeding you will get there. And you'll still be able to make great bread and other baked goods with the starter.
If your starter is mature with a lovely tang, but you recently used most of it up and fed it and then used it again the next day to make bread, you might find that the starter simply doesn't have the same tang (although it will develop faster once your sourdough has matured further).
I've been hearing a lot about the float test, and I've got some questions about it. Float tests sound ridiculously simple--you put a bit of your sourdough in a bowl of water and if it rises, your starter is ready, if it sinks, it isn't.
Unfortunately, it's not as simple as that. Float tests are known to give false positives and are quite unreliable. I don't use them, and I suggest you don't either. Instead, follow your eyes and your nose--like I said above, if your sourdough gets very puffy and rises a few hours after feeding, it is ready.
The quick answer is, no.
One of the reasons you discard a portion of the sourdough each time you feed it because you don't want the sourdough starter to keep growing.
The other is that your starter will grow stronger if there's more food for the hungry yeast in your starter. If you don't discard, there will be more hungry yeast cells competing for the same food and they won't grow as strong, see?
You don't have to waste a drop of your discard. See my post on easy recipes for your sourdough discard. You can also add the sourdough to flatbreads from day 1.
You can also share your discard with a friend so they have their own sourdough starter without making it from scratch. Just give them a quarter to a half cup of discard and ask them to begin feeding it, preferably with a cup of flour and 3/4ths cup of water.
First of all, never--ever--use up all of your sourdough starter in a recipe. You'll have to go back and start all over again and it'll become a drudge rather than fun.
Instead, if you want to bake a recipe that would use up all your starter--or require even more than what you have--make sure you feed your starter with more flour and water in advance. So if you will need two cups of starter, feed your starter with two cups of flour and 1 1/2 cups of water the day before and let it stand a day to develop.
The recipe below will give you just about a cup of starter, but that's because you don't want a gigantic crock of starter stashed away in your refrigerator. So long as you have some starter, you can feed it and multiply it for repeated uses. It's like magic beans, only better. 😉
I think I've addressed some of your most frequent questions here, but if more come up, be sure to leave a comment and I'll be sure to get back to you.
Now let's get started--I can't wait! I've retained the process photos and directions from the time I made this starter so you can follow along and compare as you go through this day by day. Cheers, and happy sourdough making!
How to make the starter (step by step and day by day photos)
- DAY 1: Measure out 1 cup of whole wheat flour into a large bowl or a crock. Remember, the container you use should be large enough to hold the sourdough starter as it rises and bubbles.
- Measure out 3/4th cup of bottled or non-chlorinated, room-temperature water. Remember, chlorine can inhibit the formation and growth of yeast, so it’s rather important that your water be as non-chlorinated as you can get it.
- Add the water to the flour and whisk together to mix well. You should not have any traces of flour.
- Cover the sourdough starter loosely with a kitchen towel.
- If the weather where you live is cold, place it in a warm spot, like on top of a radiator or in an oven with the oven light on. It was rather warm here and in the 70s when I started George so I could leave him out on the kitchen table.
- DAY 2: Leave your sourdough starter alone for 24 hours. When you look at it, you might see some bubbles, or there may be none, especially if you are in cooler temperatures. Either way, mix the starter well with a whisk or fork, measure out half a cup of the starter, and “discard” it. See tips in FAQs for how to use your sourdough discard.
- After discarding a portion of the sourdough starter, add half a cup of unbleached, all purpose flour and 3/8ths cup or 6 tbsp or 90 mils of non-chlorinated water. Use warm water (not hot) if you are working in cool temperatures, as I am. Mix well and again, leave in a warm place. You will start noticing that your starter lightens in color with the addition of all purpose flour. (Below, sourdough starter photo before feeding on day 2)
- (Sourdough starter after feeding on day 2):
- Day 3: By the third day you should see some activity in your starter and also a fruity aroma. Once again, discard half a cup of starter and add half a cup of all-purpose flour and 3/8ths of a cup of water (90 mils or 6 tbsp).
- (Below, the sourdough starter on day 3, before feeding. You can see the yeast is bubbling, and there is some dark fluid accumulated on top. Stir down the starter thoroughly before discarding 1/2 cup and feeding.)
- (Below, sourdough starter after feeding on day 3)
- Day 4: Continue the process for the next three days (try and do this at the same time of day– for instance, I began my starter Sunday morning, so I have to try and feed it around the same time every day, although an hour here or there won’t be amiss). Your starter should have started to thrive by now, rising after you feed it, and eventually settling down. King Arthur Flour, where I got my initial recipe, recommends discarding and feeding your starter twice after day 3, but I found that doing it just once was okay in warmer weather. (Below, starter before feeding on day 4)
- (Below, this is the starter about 10 minutes after feeding on day 4. It’s not easy to see in the photo, but there are more very tiny bubbles in the starter.)
- Day 5 (Below, the sourdough starter on day 5 before feeding– it’s very bubbly today and getting stronger by the day.)
- (Below, sourdough starter after feeding on day 5. Although the starter is well on its way, I will feed it a second time later today, to help it gather strength faster in this cool weather.)
- Day 6: (Below, here’s the sourdough starter before feeding on day 6. I fed it once more last night because the sourdough is getting stronger now and beginning to rise after feeding, and I wanted it to eat a little better. 🙂)
- (Below, the sourdough starter on day 6, about two hours after feeding. You can see it has risen quite a bit and looks puffy and very healthy. I will repeat a second feeding today, and by tomorrow my sourdough should be ready to use.)
- Day 7: By the seventh day, your starter, if it’s healthy and bubbling, should be ready to use. If your sourdough starter is still slow in developing, increase feedings to twice a day and continue to keep it warm. It will eventually strengthen.
How to use your starter
To use the starter, mix it well, especially if some of the liquid has separated on the top. I then take out about the amount of sourdough starter I need to bake with, and replace it immediately. So if I took out 1 cup of sourdough, I'll feed the remaining starter with 1 cup of flour to 3/4 cup of water.
Keep in mind that if you make my sourdough recipe and bake a recipe for sourdough bread from another cookbook or blog, you should first check what the hydration---or water-to-flour ratio---of their starter is. So, for example, if the starter they used has a lower hydration, you might need to cut back on the liquid in the bread recipe when you make it. If it has a greater hydration, you might need to add more liquid.
Here's a picture of my mature sourdough starter, a couple of hours after feeding, and then a day after he was last fed. He rose overnight and was beginning to fall back in the morning.
How often do you feed an established starter
It is good practice to feed your sourdough starter each week so it's ready--or close to ready--for baking at any time. But if you forget to feed it for a couple of weeks, or even for a month, don't panic. You might be able to revive your starter so long as it's not moldy and you refrigerated it in an airtight container. Don't go too long without feeding it, though, and do it as soon as you remember.
- Sourdough starter not bubbling after a few days of feeding: This could be caused by cool temperatures. Remember the ideal temp to maintain sourdough is between 70 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. In coooler temperatures it might take a while and extra days of feeding for your starter to kick off.
- Sourdough starter getting too bubbly, too tangy, too fast: Just as cold temps will delay your starter process, extremely hot climates will make it act like it's on steroids. Again,make sure you move the starter to a cooler part of your house, where the room temperature is no more than 75 degrees.
- Brownish/grayish/blackish, hooch-like liquid forming on top: This does not mean your sourdough starter has gone bad, it just means it's hungry. When you are still creating the starter, just stir it back in and feed your starter. Once your starter is established, and you see the liquid on top, you can either stir it back in or, if it's too strong-smelling, pour it off, then feed the starter.
- Sourdough smells like acetone or nail polish remover: This just means the starter--or rather the bacteria in your starter--are hungry, and it's time for feeding.
- Forgot to feed starter: Not a biggie, just feed it immediately and continue feeding according to schedule.
- Added too much water to starter. Is it spoilt? No. You can't spoil a starter by adding too much water to it. See the hydration tips in my FAQs above for more detail.
- Neglected the sourdough and now it looks dry: Don't beat yourself up if this happens, it's happened to me, more than once. An established sourdough starter is extremely hard to kill. To revive a dry but not moldy sourdough starter, pour some filtered water into the container, let the sourdough starter sit for some time, and then try to stir it until you have a smooth paste. You can discard some of the starter at this point and feed it for 2-3 days, twice a day, to build up its strength. (I once spent two to three days soaking and crushing my dry sourdough starter between my fingers to crumble it up (it was my gluten-free starter which dries more readily), but I brought it back to life and it's bubbling away now. :)) Try not to get to this point, though!
- Sourdough starter has pink or orange streaks and it smells moldy: If you have an established starter that gets moldy, you may be able to save it in some cases. If the mold is only on top, carefully skim the layer of mold off and save a small amount of the clear starter underneath. Place the retrieved starter in a new container and feed it a few times to build up its strength. But if the mold has penetrated through into the entire starter, just discard it and start over.
Breads and more to make with your starter
- No Knead Sourdough Bread
- Whole Wheat Sourdough Waffles
- The Best Sourdough Sandwich Bread
- Sourdough Pretzels
- Crusty Sourdough Dinner Rolls, no-knead
- Soft Sourdough Rolls
- More recipes for baking with sourdough and recipes for sourdough discard.
Sourdough starter recipe
- Measure out the whole wheat flour into a large bowl or a crock (if you live in India, you can use whole wheat atta flour). The container you use should be large enough to hold the sourdough starter as it rises and bubbles. Also make sure you use a glass or ceramic or sturdy, food-safe plastic container.
- Measure out the bottled or non-chlorinated, room-temperature water. Chlorine can inhibit the formation and growth of yeast, so it’s rather important that your water be as non-chlorinated as you can get it.
- Now add the water to the flour and whisk together to mix well. You should not have any traces of flour.
- Cover the sourdough starter loosely with a kitchen towel.
- If the weather where you live is cold, place it in a warm spot, like on top of a radiator or in an oven with the light on. It was rather warm here when I started George so I could leave him out on the kitchen table, but this time — with temperatures kissing the 40s — I have my new starter in the oven with the light on. Keep in mind that it may take longer for the yeast to develop in the starter in cooler weather.
- Leave your starter alone for 24 hours. When you look at it, you might see some bubbles, or there may be none, especially if you are in cooler temperatures. Either way, mix the starter well with a whisk or fork, measure out half a cup of the starter, and discard* it. (You can use the discard in flatbreads or unleavened breads, and from day 4 you can use it in sourdough waffles and pancakes)
- After discarding a portion of the starter, add half a cup of unbleached, all purpose flour and 3/8ths of a cup of non-chlorinated water. Use warm water (not hot) if you are working in cool temperatures, as I am. Mix well and again, leave in a warm place. You will start noticing that your starter lightens in color with the addition of all purpose flour.
- By the third day you should see some activity in your starter and also a fruity aroma. Once again, discard half a cup of starter and add half a cup of all-purpose flour and 90 milliliters of water (3/8ths of a cup).
- Continue the process for the next three days (try and do this at the same time of day– for instance, I began my starter Sunday morning, so I have to try and feed it around the same time every day, although an hour here or there won’t be amiss). Your starter should have started to thrive by now, rising after you feed it, and eventually settling down. King Arthur Flour, where I got my initial recipe, recommends discarding and feeding your starter twice after day 3, but I found that doing it just once was okay, especially since it was quite warm when I made my starter. This time, with cooler weather, I might feed the new starter twice depending on how it goes.
- By the seventh day, your starter, if it’s healthy and bubbling, should be ready to use. When I made George, I used the “discard” portion of the starter to make waffles, and they turned out great. If your sourdough starter is still slow in developing, increase feedings to twice a day and continue to keep it warm. It will eventually strengthen.
- Once your sourdough starter has matured, you will need to feed it once every week. I mix the starter well, take out about 1 or 2 cups of sourdough starter to bake with (or you can just discard it), and replace it immediately in the proportion of 1 cup of flour to 3/4 cup of water. For example, if I take out 2 cups of sourdough, I replace it with 2 cups of flour and 1 1/2 cups of water. After feeding the starter, I leave it on the counter for a day, and then refrigerate it.