How To Make Sourdough Bread And Starter From Scratch

Everyone's baking sourdough during the coronavirus pandemic, and for good reason. Here's how to get started.

For those leading busy lives, making sourdough bread likely had been seen as requiring more trouble than it was worth. You have to either make or acquire a sourdough starter, feed it like you would a baby and care for it with close attention. But now that most of us are locked inside our homes due to the coronavirus pandemic, it seems everyone is making it. Sourdough is more appealing than ever, providing the perfect use of ample time and a delicious result to feast on.

Two finished loaves of beautiful sourdough bread.
Ilana Freddye
Two finished loaves of beautiful sourdough bread.

As popular and revered as it has become, sourdough has humble beginnings. Most food historians believe it was probably discovered when bread dough was left out too long and wild yeasts wandered into the mix, raising their bread into a lighter, crustier loaf that’s similar to what we know now.

Even these days, the process for making it remains relatively the same. It begins with a sourdough “starter”— a bubbly batter of cultivated microbes and wild yeasts that both flavors and leavens the bread. And while some bakers have starters that are years, if not generations, old, it’s fairly easy to make one at home. And it only requires two ingredients: flour and water.

“Bread was always made at home at some point before it got professionalized,” said Tara Jensen of Smoke Signals Baking. “And I think right now is a good time to honor some of those traditions.” She’s been posting daily tutorials on her Instagram account over the last few weeks on building a sourdough starter from scratch.

We spoke to Jensen for all the details on making a sourdough starter at home — and how to bake bread with it, too.

Here’s what you need to get started.

  • Digital food scale

  • Any glass, ceramic, or food-grade plastic container that’s at least 1 quart in size (avoid metal ― the acids in the starter can react with it) with a loose-fitting lid

  • Spoon

  • Marker or a rubber band to mark the side of the container

  • 1 5-pound bag of strong white bread flour

  • Water

First, be patient. And understand what you’re about to make.

It can take anywhere from five to 14 days to build a starter from scratch.

Once your starter is active, it will last you a lifetime. But it takes a little patience and attention in the beginning.

“What we’re trying to cultivate in those first two weeks is a good combination of wild yeast and lactobacilli,” Jensen said. Lactobacilli creates a range of acids that bring that tangy sourdough taste and wild yeasts provide the rise. Daily “feedings” or “refreshments” provide fresh food and water for the microbes and help them develop.

The goal is to “train” the microbes to predictably digest what you’re feeding them. That’s why you want to be as consistent as possible with your ingredients, timing and temperature. “If you’re changing what you feed them or you’re forgetting to feed them regularly, there’s going to be lag time as they readjust,” Jensen said.

This is what a bubbling sourdough starter looks like.
Ilana Freddye
This is what a bubbling sourdough starter looks like.

Do you have to use bread flour? Not necessarily, but it will give you the most predictable results with this particular recipe. If you can’t find bread flour, you can substitute with all-purpose flour, said Jensen, though you might want to adjust the ratio.

Her advice is to stay away from whole wheat or rye flour if you can, as these can ferment too quickly and change your results. And definitely avoid using any kind of gluten-free flour or other flour that’s not milled from wheat. Gluten is critical to building structure in the starter, trapping gas bubbles and ultimately leavening the dough.

Whatever you do, be as consistent as possible. Try to stick with one kind of flour if you can. And always weigh your ingredients. “This is a very forgiving process but it’s all about ratios,” Jensen said. “You may think you’re adding equal portions but you’re not.”

Day 1: Make the initial starter by combining equal parts flour and water.

Weigh out 100g white bread flour and 100g lukewarm water into a quart-size container. Stir with a spoon until no dry bits remain and let sit, loosely covered with the lid, at room temperature for 24 hours.

If you don’t have a lid, you can cover your container loosely with a tea towel or plastic wrap. Mark your container with either a marker or a rubber band — this will help you see if it’s risen or moved at all when you check on it the following day.

An active starter in the beginning stages (left), and a very healthy active starter after eight days.
Ilana Freddye
An active starter in the beginning stages (left), and a very healthy active starter after eight days.

Day 2: It’s time to start feeding your starter.

Discard all but 50g of the initial starter from Day 1. Add 100g lukewarm water and 100g strong white bread flour. Stir to combine until no dry clumps remain. Cover loosely and let sit at room temperature for another 24 hours. You’ll repeat this feeding process for the next 3-14 days until the starter becomes active and mature. (See below for the signs to watch out for.)

Note: Discarding a portion of the starter does three things: it maintains a nice flavor by reducing acidity, provides a small colony of yeast with lots of fresh food and keeps your starter from getting too big. If you feel like it’s a waste of flour, “you can go ahead and toss it right into something else,” Jensen told HuffPost. She has sourdough cookie, pizza, cake and loaf recipes on her highlighted stories on Instagram, all of which use the day’s discard.

Days 3-7: Continue feeding your starter every 24 hours while looking out for signs of activity.

This is when it’s time to become observant. Look out for any signs of activity: a change in smell, small bubbles forming, or a rise above the line you marked on the container. By Day 3, you’ll likely see some signs of activity — but don’t be discouraged if you don’t. Just keep feeding it every 24 hours until you do.

Jensen recommends taking notes between feedings. “In that way you can become your own expert on your own unique starter. The guidelines I set out are there as general rules but every time you think of it, try to check on it and see what it’s doing,” she said.

Most of the things you might worry about are probably normal, she said. Weird smells will probably start to normalize in Week 2, when the pH rises in the starter and kills off bad microbes. If you see alcohol or water forming on the top, it’s probably fermenting too fast and should be fed more frequently. Try every 12 hours and see if you start to see more activity.

The “float test” can tell you if the starter is ready for baking.

If you’re seeing a lot of activity in your starter, you can use the float test to determine if it’s ready to go. Wet your fingers and grab a small amount of starter and drop it into a bowl of cool water. If it floats, it means there’s yeast present in the starter and producing enough gas to act as a leaven in your bread. If it doesn’t float, it’s either too early or too late, Jensen said. Keep feeding it every 24 hours and observe it as closely as you can. If you see big bubbles ― and a dimple forming on top ― that probably means it’s at its peak, so make sure to test it right away.

Once the starter is established, it will pretty much last forever in your fridge. Keep feeding it every day if you plan to regularly bake bread, but otherwise just keep it in the fridge with a loose-fitting lid. Even if the starter goes dormant, you can bring it back with regular feedings a few days before you plan to bake bread.

Once it’s active, you’re ready to bake bread.

Congratulations! You’ve built your starter and it’s time to put it to work. There are a lot of different styles of sourdough, but start with one that interests you and practice it, Jensen said. Her basic loaf recipe is on her Instagram:

Her advice? Don’t get too caught up in fancy equipment. Go ahead and use what you have.

Many recipes call for a banneton ― a special basket that helps bread keep its shape. But if you don’t have one at home, try lining a colander with a tea towel, she said. Just avoid terry cloth or you might get some fuzzies in your dough.

When it comes to baking, a dutch oven or combo cooker is your best bet. But “any kind of large pot with a lid that’s able to get up to 500 degrees” will work, she said. “If you have a pizza stone, you can put your bread on that and use a bowl as a lid.” The lid traps the steam released from the dough in the beginning of the bake ― which helps it rise.

A classic bread tin is also a good way to go, she said. “I know there’s been a big trend in being able to bake “bakery style” loaves in your home kitchen which is wonderful” she said. “But personally I’m really enjoying using bread tins and simple ingredients and a few tools. I think this is a nice moment to really embrace home baking and the flexibility we have at home.”

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