Easy Sourdough Starter

The recipe that excites me most in our latest book, The The New Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day, is the easy Sourdough Starter. I’m an admitted baking geek, so spending hours on a recipe can be exciting to me, but I know this concept sounds like work to some and just terrifies others. That’s why Jeff and I set out to write these books in the first place, being able to compel busy people to bake bread at home has been our mission. Now you can also create a sourdough starter; easily, without fear and without dedicating your whole day to the project. In fact, it only takes a few minutes a day to get your starter up and running. It really is that easy, but it takes several days to get your starter strong enough to actually use in a batch of bread. Until it is ready to go, you can always bake any of the other yeast filled recipes in our books.

All you need to make your sourdough starter is flour, water and a container to keep it in. Nothing special or fancy. Just make sure the container can hold at least two quarts of starter. You’ll see some Baking Bloopers below of what happens if your container is too small.

Once you have created your starter you can use it to bake beautiful loaves, with or without added yeast. The flavor is incredible and you will still be making a large batch of dough and storing it for up to a week, so you will do the work on one day for many loaves.

To make the starter:

Day 1: In a clean Jar or container* add 1/2 cup flour (unbleached white, whole wheat, rye, brown rice) and 1/2 cup water. That’s it.

*the jar needs to be big enough to hold 2 quarts and it needs to be open to the air, since you want to gather the natural yeasts from the flour and the environment. If you seal your jar, you won’t collect the yeast and/or the jar may actually explode. Yes, I said explode, see picture at the bottom of the post.

Stir the flour and water. Let this mixture sit for 2 days on the counter at room temperature.

Day 3: You should see bubbles forming in the starter. That’s the sign you are off to a great start. If you don’t see any bubbles on day 3, leave it for another day.

If you have bubbles, add 1/2 cup flour (you don’t have to stick to the same kind you used on the first day I like to make mine with a combination of whole wheat, rye and white flour) and 1/2 cup water. Str together and let sit for one day.

Day 4, 5, 6: Add 1/2 cup flour and water to the jar and stir on each of these days to build the strength of your starter. Let sit at room temperature after stirring.

By the 6th day your starter should seem mildly bubbly and it will have a pleasant sour smell building up. Add more flour and water so you have at least 3 1/2 cups of starter to use in a batch of dough.

Day 7: Once it is nice and strong, the starter will look foamy and

if your container isn’t big enough, the starter may try to escape. You’ll notice I never snap the jar shut.

Now you are ready to use the starter in any of our recipes.

Here is a basic rule to using sourdough in your recipes, but for WAY more information and specific recipes check out chapter 11 of The New Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day. You will also find information about how to store your sourdough long term and how to reactivate it if you haven’t used it in many months.

To bake with your starter: Use about 3 cups of the activated sourdough starter for a full-batch of dough, which make 4 to 5 pounds of dough.  This means that you need to decrease the water in the recipes by 1 1/2 cups, and the flour by 1 1/2 cups. Adjust the water and flour to create a dough that looks and feels just like what you get with our yeast-based recipes. Depending on the strength of your sourdough starter it may take 2-12 hours for your dough to rise. This slow rise is part of the beauty of a natural lavain bread.

If you want to use your sourdough in combination with commercial yeast, you can use half as much starter (replacing just 3/4 cup flour and 3/4 cup water). Some people like the lighter sour flavor and it gives beginner bakers a sense of insurance to add the yeast.

Shape and bake as you would any of our recipes. This one is proofed in a Round Basket/Banneton and baked on a preheated Baking Steel.

Baking Bloopers:

This why you never want to use a screw top glass jar for your starter. If you have a really large glass jar that will fit the dough, be sure to poke a hole in the top of the lid so the gas from the yeast can escape.


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30 thoughts on “Easy Sourdough Starter

  1. Zoe- thanks for showing the bloopers, too. As an insecure baker, it is always reassuring to see the mess other bakers make!

  2. So to adjust the flour and water when using the starter, should I use Baker Percentages based on the original recipe for proper hydration levels? In other words, the starter is 100% hydration and the recipe calls for say 70%. So i need to adjust flour and water in order to achieve 70% hydration. I know math well enough to get the proper weights and I assume since the water to flour ration is 1:1 then it is 100% in the starter.

    1. Hi John,

      Yes, that sounds about right, you need to go by the baker percentages of the recipe you hope to incorporate it into. The book has the amounts of starter by weight, which may also be helpful.

      Thanks, Zoë

    1. Hi Colleen,

      You’ll want to save about 1/2 cup to keep it going. There are more details in the book about keeping it going and the best ways to store it. Hope this at least gets you started. Oops, no pun intended! 😉

      Thanks, Zoë

    1. Hi Phyllis,

      Yes, it was just easier for me to show the growth through glass. You can use any type of non-reactive container.

      Thanks, Zoë

      1. Zoe, is the easy sourdough recipe discussed on your posting the same as the Levain (The New Health Bread, pages 386-388)?
        Thank you!

    1. Hi Colleen,

      It depends which recipe you are making with it, but I would suggest 5 days is about right. If you use yeast, you can store it longer.

      Thanks, Zoë

    1. Hi Shawndra,

      Yes, you can. We don’t cover GF sourdough starter in the book, but we’ve had readers who have shared their success with us. Maybe one of them will share their method.

      Thanks, Zoë

  3. I just bought your gluten free book. The pictures look wonderful and I think I am brave enough to start making bread because of your book and all the work and time that went in to it. At some point I would like to try making a gluten free sourdough starter. Should I try this recipe with rice flour? Or a gf flour mixture?

    1. Hi Denise,

      I’m so glad you are diving in, enjoy all the bread! I would suggest you start with commercial yeast for a few batches and just get the feel of baking GF breads. When you are comfortable with those then sourdough is great fun and tasty. You can use a blend of flours, but they can’t contain any gums or binders. Most GF flour mixes do contain these things, so you’ll want to avoid them.

      Thanks, Zoë

  4. Hey Zoe,

    I am at day 5 and while my starter looks good, it is a bit watery,it doesn’t seem to be thick (like your photos) or climbing up the jar. Do I need more flour? I have been doing the half cup of each.

    1. Hi Marie,

      What kind of flour are you using? It will seem watery if you are using white flour only. If so, you can add 3/4 cup flour and 1/2 cup water for the next couple of additions. Whole wheat absorbs more water so it will be thicker.

      Thanks, Zoë

      1. I was using all AP flour as I was out of whole wheat, so took your advice and did two days of 3/4 c. flour and 1/2 c. water…it got my starter bubbling again, as it had seemed to stop and had a lot of liquid settling out on top. However, it never got as thick in appearance as your photos (esp. the “blooper” photos at the bottom of the post)–more like slightly thin pancake batter–definitely pourable. Is this what it should be like? I just mixed up my first bucket of dough, using the starter in the master recipe. The dough seemed to be the correct consistency, so I’m hoping it rises well.

      2. Hi Taryn,

        The blooper photo is actually the dough, so you should be all set. I will make a note of that, so it isn’t confusing.

        Thanks, Zoë

  5. This is my very first attempt and I have a few questions…..
    I am currently on Day 5 of making the Sourdough starter- no knead method.
    While I do have bubbles they are small. Also, the smell is not so great. It does not smell like a sourdough to me. I am using a 5 quart plastic bucket- so the opening is quite large.
    Here’s what I have been using for flour:
    Started the starter with King Arthur Unbleached bread flour for day 1.
    The days I added flour I used 1/4 cup of the above flour, as well as 1/4 cup of King Arthur 100% whole wheat flour.

    Am I using what I should? I thought sourdough would smell differently.


    1. Hi Melanie,

      Yes, that sounds like a great flour combination. In our book we describe the smell as being a little “barn yard” like, but in a pleasant way. It is the smell of fermentation. If you only have small bubbles, you just need to let it go a bit longer. If your kitchen is on the cool side it may take a tiny bit longer. The bubbles indicate that it is working and you have gathered the yeast.

      I hope that helps. Thanks, Zoë

  6. I’m on day 3…I have some small bubbles, and there is a little dark liquid on top, which I know is normal. But there are a few spots that have an almost blue/green tinge to them. Is this normal? I’m about to feed it and I guess I’ll see how if it continues, but I just wanted to make sure this isn’t mold. I’m using a glass half gallon jar that came straight out of the dishwasher.

    1. Hi Taryn,

      Yes, this is all quite normal. The mold would take much longer than 3 days to develop and it would be hairy.

      Thanks, Zoë

  7. I’m definitely encouraged to try this now.
    I have a question about the 10 grain recipe. How long can I keep it in the refrigerator?
    How do you tell if your dough is spoiled or just sourdough?

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