How To Start Sourdough From Scratch

Sourdough starter with lots of bubbles
Want to start a sourdough adventure with me? This post will show you how. 

There's something so satisfying about nurturing wild yeast from a simple flour and water mixture, keeping it healthy and active, watching it grow and, eventually, creating a loaf of naturally leavened bread. Here I talk you through the process of creating and maintaining your own sourdough starter.

The method described here is based on that given by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in his book, River Cottage Every Day* with some adaptions because I tend to like to experiment.
*Affiliate link

Further down this article there is a description and pictures of my sourdough starter over the course of the first week. Firstly, I will give you the instructions.

You will need:

Flour - this can be wheat or rye, wholemeal or white. Hugh says to use at least some wholemeal flour. I am using 100% wholemeal wheat flour.

A suitable container - I have found that one with a wide top is easiest since you need to be adding flour and stirring daily. A narrow top will only make this process awkward. As I happened to have a spare one in the cupboard, this is similar to what I am using.* A volume of 1 litre is ideal. Glass, plastic or ceramic is fine but metal is unsuitable, apparently. It should not be airtight. I have removed the rubber seal from the lid of mine and only rest the lid on lightly as a dust cover.
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Water - Tap water is fine.

Note

You are going to be cultivating the wild yeast that is already in the flour. Yeasts are everywhere. Yeasts that can break down flour are already in the flour. Usually, they are in such small amounts that we don't notice them. They are probably even dormant, waiting for a favourable moment to grow. If you create the right conditions, you can encourage the yeast to reproduce and multiply to such an extent that you can use it to make bread. Commercial bakers' yeast, fresh yeast, dried yeast and instant yeast are all the same species, conveniently multiplied and presented ready to use. In the sourdough process you are nurturing wild yeast in the way that our first bread-baking ancestors must have done. Keep it alive and happy and it will feed you well. It's an encouraging thought.

Day One

Start with 100g of flour. HughF says to stir in enough water to make a thick batter. I used 100g of water. I slightly warmed the water to create the most advantageous conditions for the yeast to grow. Stirring the mixture will help to incorporate plenty of air, which the yeast will need in order to respire. Because it is a living thing, the yeast needs oxygen, water and food (the flour). Now that it has all three it will wake up from its dormancy and start to digest the flour and reproduce. Your aim is to develop a strong colony of yeast that can produce sufficient carbon dioxide to raise bread dough.

Day Two

Add another 100g of flour and enough water to maintain the consistency of your starter. I accurately weighed in 100g of flour and 100g of warm water. Stir well with the aim of mixing in plenty of air.

By now you might be starting to see bubbles appearing in your starter, a sign that the yeast is becoming active.

Days Three to Seven-ish (This Might Hurt A Little)

Take out half of your starter and discard it*. That's the part that might hurt. It feels so wasteful, especially as you are going to repeat this process every day. Replenish your starter with another 100g of flour and sufficient water to maintain the consistency. I literally weighed 200g of my starter into a mixing bowl and added back 100g of flour and 100g of water. You don't have to be so precise.
*Only don't! Don't waste it! I have a plan...

You now need to continue to feed and stir your starter daily for about a week. Your starter will appear to be increasingly active. It will also go through a period of smelling quite bad but this will change, over a day or so, into smelling quite good. By the end of a week, my starter was smelling fruity and slightly alcoholic.

I have it on good authority that you must not attempt to bake with your starter until at least seven days have passed, however tempting it may be. (We'll see about that!)

Continuing

Beyond the initial week-to-ten-days of starting off your starter, you will need to keep feeding it, of course, but the 'discard' part will be different since you will be taking some starter out to use for baking bread, rather than to discard. Next week's article will explain how to bake with your sourdough starter. For now, let me introduce you to Bernard.

Bernard Begins

My sourdough is called Bernard. A lot of people like to give their sourdough a name. You don't have to. Bernard doesn't know his name and doesn't come when he's called. Not naming your sourdough will in no way affect your chances of success. However, Bernard is alive and thriving and giving him a name helps me to feel more kindly disposed towards him, talk about him and engage my children in his care. I don't know where the name Bernard came from, only that my children said he 'looks like a Bernard.' If you are a Bernard and are feeling somewhat aggrieved to be compared to a bubbling mixture of flour and water, I can only apologise. No offence was intended.

Bernard started life on a sunny window sill on a warm, spring day. He lived in an old pasta sauce jar.

A jar containing a small amount of flour and water mixture

A jar containing a small amount of flour and water mixture

Bernard was a pampered sourdough, being moved into the warmest, sunniest positions around the house as the day wore on.

When I woke up on Day 2, Bernard looked like this:

Sourdough starter with a layer of water on top

Some of the water had separated out and was visible at the top of the mixture. Bernard still smelled blandly of flour and water.

I added 100g of flour and 100g of water.

sourdough starter

I stirred Bernard frequently throughout the day to ensure that he was getting plenty of air.

By bedtime, Bernard was showing signs of bubbling by himself. This was not just trapped air.

sourdough starter

On Day 3, Bernard once again had a layer of water on top. He also smelled pretty yucky. My boy, who had been in the habit of smelling Bernard frequently, to find out if he smelled fruity yet, took a huge and optimistic sniff of Bernard on Day 3 and was quite shocked and surprised to find out how pungently Bernard was smelling. It took him a while to recover.

sourdough starter

The good news, of course, was that Bernard was definitely bubbling.

I 'discarded' 200g of Bernard* and added 100g of flour and 100g of water. I gave him a good stir and once again kept him in the warmest, cosiest locations all day.
*I didn't waste it! More details below.

By Day 4, Bernard was smelling less unpleasant.

sourdough starter looking bubbly

Incidentally, that was also the day that I got my Lucky Iron Leaf* which is another new experience for me.
*Affiliate link.

And here's Bernard by the evening of Day 5, looking bubbly and smelling quite fruity:

Sourdough starter has increased in volume and is full of bubbles

You can see how much he has grown. All the bubbles of carbon dioxide are inflating the mixture. It is definitely looking active at this stage.

On Day 6, Bernard burst from his bottle! The lid, which was only supposed to be resting on lightly, came off with a pop.

Sourdough starter completely filling the jar


Bernard escaping from his jar

Bernard was bubbling beautifully.

It was at this point that I decided to move Bernard to a bigger container.

Bernard in a plastic tub

He's much more comfortable in here and, anyway, the wider top to this container makes the daily care routine much easier.

What About The Discard?


You have to remove some of your sourdough starter in order to give it fresh flour to work with, otherwise the volume of starter will soon exceed the volume of the container. If you are not going to bake with your starter (during the first week while you are establishing your yeast or later, when you're not wanting to bake any more bread) what can you do? 

Never fear, you don't need to waste it. This week I have successfully added my 200g of discarded starter to various flour-based recipes with no detrimental effects.

Focaccia


I turned the first lot of discard into focaccia by simply adding it to my go-to focaccia recipe:

Focaccia

Focaccia

Focaccia

Focaccia

Mr P got creative with the toppings so, for once, cheese and bacon were involved.

Crackers


The next lot of discard was made into crackers, similar to these Homemade Savoury Crackers Four Ways.
I added the 200g of discarded starter to some more flour, some oil and some honey, finally adding enough water to create a stiff dough. I baked them as two large crackers, to be broken up into rustic pieces for sharing later.

homemade crackers

homemade crackers

I cut some fancy patterns to make them easier to break up (as well as looking pretty).

homemade crackers

I sprinkled on some seasoning. Herbs and salt:

homemade crackers

Herbs and cheese:

homemade crackers

homemade crackers

Bread Sticks


With another batch of discarded starter, I made bread sticks. I combined 200g of discarded starter with 400g of flour and 215g of water, thus ending up with dough that had the same hydration as I would normally make (see The Formula For Great Dough). Making it into bread sticks, I reasoned, would mean it didn't matter if it didn't really rise very much. There is nothing to stop you adding a bit of instant dried yeast to the dough, though, if you want to ensure a good rise.

Here are breadsticks on the tray, seasoned with salt, pepper and oregano:

breadsticks

Breadsticks in a mug:

breadsticks

And, almost* inexplicably, breadsticks 'chillin' in the garden:

breadsticks on the lawn

*There is an explanation: my daughter was lazing in the hammock (chilling quite literally because it was a cold day) and I took her some freshly baked breadsticks to warm her up.

Pizza


The other portion of discarded starter was used to make pizza. I made dough with it, as described above (see 'Bread Sticks') and made it into pizza without adding any dried yeast. Bernard didn't help the pizza to rise much but we made my son's favourite, thin and crispy bases with just enough rise in them to be pleasant to eat. Again, you could add instant dried yeast to the dough if you really want it to rise as normal.

And so, to bread


After that, your starter can probably be used to make actual bread, all by itself. But if you find yourself with starter to 'discard' you can incorporate it into your usual baking without too much trouble. There are also loads of recipes specifically for using up discarded starter which you can find online.

Starter (discarded or otherwise) can also be frozen or dried (with thanks to Dave for that advice!) if you're not ready to work with it. More on that topic in future, if you like.

Are You Starting A Starter?


Let me know if you're starting some starter and if you have any questions. We continue the sourdough journey next week when we come to baking our first loaf. Hope to see you there!

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