How to Make, Feed, and Store Homemade Sourdough Starters
All out of yeast? Sourdough starter to the rescue! Learn how to make sourdough starter from ordinary pantry ingredients, plus how to feed and store it so you can use your sourdough starter to make breads, pancakes, rolls, and more.
What is Sourdough Starter?
A sourdough starter is a fermented dough made of water and flour, filled with naturally occurring wild yeast and lactobacilli. Sourdough starter is what you use instead of commercial yeast to make sourdough bread rise.
Related: How to Bake Sourdough Bread
Some of the best sourdough starters have been specifically developed to provide predictable results. Buying a tried-and-true starter is your best bet, although you can easily make your own. Yeast and bacillus are everywhere in our environment, including in the water and milled grains used to make most starters. It is possible to mix together just these two ingredients, and create a homemade starter in about 10 days.
Sourdough Starters: Wild vs. Domesticated Yeasts
We have recipes for wild yeast starters, as well as a few you can make from packages of active dry yeast. However, the starters made with domesticated yeasts are more akin to a sponge — a "poolish" for French bakers, "biga" for Italian — and may require many months to develop the desired "tang" of a sourdough made from a wild yeast starter.
Sourdough Starter Recipes to Try
- Sourdough Starter II (pictured at top) is made with active dry yeast, all-purpose flour, and water.
- Sourdough Starter I is made with instant mashed potato flakes, sugar, active dry yeast, and water.
- Herman Sourdough Starter is a sweet sourdough starter made with active dry yeast, water, all-purpose flour, sugar, and milk.
- Sourdough Starter III uses water from cooking potatoes, all-purpose flour, and sugar. You can add an optional package of active dry yeast to speed things along, if you need to.
- Sourdough Starter IV is simply water from cooking potatoes, all-purpose flour, sugar, and a pinch of salt.
- Sourdough Starter - Wheat uses whole wheat flour, honey, and water.
- Wild Grape Starter is made with unwashed, organically grown red or purple grapes and whole wheat flour.
- No Commercial Yeast Starter used all purpose flour and water.
- Biga is made with active dry yeast, bread flour, and water.
Keep a few things to keep in mind when you're making a starter from scratch, whether you're using wild or domesticated yeast.
- Use non-chlorinated water. Adding chlorine to your starter will almost certainly destroy the very organisms you are hoping to nurture. Use distilled or filtered water, or simply leave tap water open to the air for 24 hours to evaporate the chlorine.
- Choose unprocessed grains such as whole wheat or rye flour for the best results when you're making a starter. You can switch to bread flour or all-purpose flour after the first few feedings.
- Don't starve the yeast. This is a common mistake. Even if you do not see any activity, the starter must be fed every 24 hours in the beginning. Stop feeding the yeast, and you'll end up with a stinky gooey mess, as mold and "bad" bacteria take over your starter.
- Store in a glass or ceramic container at room temperature, and cover with a loose-fitting lid or a piece of damp cheesecloth.
Signs of Success
After three to five days, your starter should resemble a foamy, thick pancake batter, and it should smell yeasty and slightly sour. Starters will sometimes separate into a clear liquid and a denser layer of flour. This is fine — just stir it together before using. If the mixture smells bad, is any color other than creamy white or slightly yellow, or is growing a furry mold colony, throw it out. Also, if there are no bubbles after three to five days, discard and begin again.
Feeding Your Starter
Usually a feeding consists of stirring in amounts of flour and water equal to the amount of starter you have. For instance, if you have 2 cups of starter, stir in 2 cups flour and 2 cups water. This may have to be adjusted slightly to maintain the consistency.
Professional bakers keep their starters at room temperature and feed at 6- to 8-hour intervals. This method produces a lot, and if you are not baking everyday you could end up throwing a bunch away.
- You should plan to feed your starter every 6 to 8 hours when it is kept at room temperature (between 70 to 80 degrees F or 21 to 27 degrees C). Cooler temperatures will tend to slow down growth, while warmer temperatures will speed it up. Take this into consideration when you set up a feeding schedule.
- Always feed the starter at the peak of activity, when the mixture is bubbling actively and is at its greatest volume. However, do not wait for the scheduled feeding, especially if the volume is decreasing. This indicates that the yeast have run out of food, and are beginning to die off.
- After feeding, stir vigorously to make sure the flour and water are well incorporated.
Tips for Refrigerated Starters
Most home bakers store starter in the refrigerator. This slows down the growth of both the yeast and the bacillus. A refrigerator will keep your starter at temperatures between 36 and 38 degrees F (2 to 3 degrees C). Growth will slow quite a bit, but not completely.
- Feed the starter right before placing in the refrigerator, and stir vigorously.
- The starter will need to be fed once a week. If you will not be using it, discard half, measure, and feed accordingly.
Baking with Sourdough Starter
Before you use it in a recipe, the starter should be fed at least once, and allowed to reach peak activity. (This will take about 6 to 8 hours.) Some bakers recommend building the starter up with several feedings in order to bring the yeast and bacillus to the highest possible level of activity and to achieve the best flavor. Since there are many thousands of organisms per gram of starter, you can use very small amounts of starter in this process.
- Remove 2 tablespoons from your starter, and mix with 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup water. Continue feeding at 6 hour intervals until you have made enough starter for your recipe.
- After the first feeding, maintain a ratio of 1 part starter : 1 part flour : 1 part water per feeding, effectively doubling the starter each time you feed it.
Freezing and Drying Sourdough Starter
Freezing and drying are additional methods of storage — and they're also good insurance against losing an especially good batch of starter.
When the starter has reached peak activity, give it a mini feeding, about 1/4 of what you would ordinarily feed it.
- Freeze in an airtight container.
- To use, defrost at room temperature. Feed, and then use in your recipe when the mixture is bubbly and active.
- Spread starter in a thin layer on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.
- Allow to dry at room temperature for 2 to 3 days.
- Store frozen for up to 6 months or dried for 2 to 3 months.
- To restart, crumble dried starter in warm water, and begin regular feedings.
Sending dried starter through the mail is an excellent way to share it with a faraway friend or relative.