Before we even start, if you’ve already tried this recipe and are having trouble getting your sourdough starter to the “very-active” stage, or if your loaves aren’t rising well, or if they’re too dense, you can skip to the Troubleshooting tips below… scroll waaaay down. If you’re new to this page, start right here with this post about sourdough starter. –Jeff
This sourdough starter recipe appears in The New Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day–and also in The Best of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. You can create sourdough starter (in French, levain) easily 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 “strengthen” your starter enough to actually use it to rise a batch of bread.
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. 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, or brown rice) and 1/2 cup water. That’s it (some readers report more reliable results with a combination of white and whole wheat or rye, which makes sense, since the microorganisms required are more prevalent on the outside of the grain).
*the jar needs to be big enough to hold 2 quarts and it needs to be open to the air. If you seal your jar, it may actually 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 may see some 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 don’t worry, it is not unusual, feed it by adding 1/2 cup more flour and 1/2 cup water.
(you don’t have to stick to the same kind of flour you used on the first day. You can use a combination of whole wheat, rye and white flour or use whatever flour you have on hand, just NOT BLEACHED). Stir together and let sit for one day. If at any stage dark liquid collects on top, don’t worry about it. Just mix this in as you feed/expand your starter.
Day 4, 5, 6: Add 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup 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. – If your starter isn’t bubbling at all by this stage, see the troubleshooting at the bottom of the post. Don’t give up, it can take a little more time.
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 be actively bubbling and puffy.
Some starters will be super active by day seven and others will just be a mild simmer of bubbles, both are normal. If your starter is not frothing yet, just keep up the feeding, but you’ll need to pour out at least a 1/3 of the starter before feeding it again.
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. After incorporating starter into a recipe (keep scrolling down), you’ll need to continue feeding it daily if you intend to bake with it or store what remains. You can store it in the fridge and feed it every few days, but if you won’t be baking for a while, try drying-out starter: Mix in as much flour as you can get it to absorb, and refrigerate in a non-airtight container. This will preserve the starter without the need for feeding. Re-activate within a month for new loaves, or the starter will die out. You can also freeze a starter, either dried-out or not, for up to a month or so, but you’ll have to bring it back to life by feeding it again for a few cycles. Reactivating dried-out starter: Defrost and scoop starter out of its storage container into a larger one, and work in water until it’s a very loose pancake batter. Then add back new flour until it’s the consistency of a thick pancake batter. That’s your first feeding cycle; continue until active.
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 makes 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 levain 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.
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, and in any case, don’t screw down the lid.
Troubleshooting tips: If your starter is stalled and it isn’t getting to the very active stage seen in the Day 7 pictures above, or if your loaves aren’t rising well, or if they’re too dense:
- Be patient! Depending on local conditions (especially cool/cold kitchen temperatures), this could take fourteen days of feeding, rather than seven. Most often, the process slows down around day four or five, so persevere–don’t give up–keep feeding through those days. If at any stage dark liquid collects on top, don’t worry about it. Just mix this in as you feed/expand your starter.
- Expectations: After incorporating starter into a dough and baking your first loaf, you should get the nice open hole-structure that is the hallmark of sourdough. If you’re doing our stored-dough method, that same dough probably won’t yield an “open” crumb on subsequent days. You’ll get smaller, more uniform holes, but sourdough flavor will still be there (and will intensify over the storage life of the batch).
- Increase the temperature: getting a starter to look like the Day 7 pictures requires a warm environment, and in cool weather, or anytime at all, you may have better results by storing the developing starter in a oven with the heat off, but with the oven light on. Many people have better results in the summer for this reason, but our problem of course… is that we like to bake bread in the cool seasons!
- Feed/expand twice-a-day rather than once: You’ll be giving the growing microorganism colony more food to eat. If you increase the feedings, you’ll need to pour off about 1/3 of the starter before feeding or you’ll end up with too much.
- Whole grains: It can be helpful and speedier to use at least some whole grain wheat or rye flour in the starter.
- Filtered or bottled (still) water: If your local water supply is high in chlorine, that can inhibit wild yeast growth.
- Transfer to a clean jar for every feeding: Contamination with poorly-rising microorganisms could be the culprit in a slow-to-expand starter.
- If you’re bread isn’t rising well, it may be that your starter isn’t quite active enough before use. One fail-safe way to test for this is to take a spoonful of starter and drop it into water. Really “gassy” starter, with lots of bubbles, will float on the surface. If it doesn’t float, keep feeding for a few more days, and be patient.