How to Make a Sourdough Starter For Sourdough Bread (and Keep It Alive)

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Earlier this week, we talked about how to prep ahead for breakfast and lunch so we don’t have to spend as much time in the kitchen, particularly during the busy school year.

Over the next couple of days, we’re going to slow it down and spend some extra time in the kitchen embracing the slow art of making homemade sourdough bread.

#balance

Consider this Sourdough Start 101! Use my experience, testing & even failures to help you overcome your sourdough fears!

Now, before you dismiss the idea of making sourdough bread let me just encourage you: If I can find the time to make sourdough bread, you can, too!


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I lack the patience for baking on most days. There are those rare times when I’ll get the urge to make cookies or cupcakes, but most of my time spent baking is due to a special occasion or because there are ripe bananas on the counter (hello, banana bread).

Consider this Sourdough Start 101! Use my experience, testing & even failures to help you overcome your sourdough fears!

On top of the fact that I lack patience in the baking department, making sourdough bread has been a struggle and challenge for me. I’ve taken classes, read online tutorials, and experimented over the years with various sourdough methods. I’ve even purchased sourdough kits from the store. I’ve tried it all. On top of that, it’s hard to find good sourdough bread in my area. Well, that is, real sourdough bread that’s made with basic ingredients: flour, water, salt, and a sourdough starter.

Every one of my attempts resulted in less-than-ideal bread. I’d always give up and keep purchasing sourdough bread from the Whole Foods’ bakery (which is actually really tasty and it’s made with good ingredients).

Consider this Sourdough Start 101! Use my experience, testing & even failures to help you overcome your sourdough fears!

Last spring, I purchased a book from Amazon called, Tartine Bread. The book is written by the master baker and owner (I believe, I’m still a bit unclear about the owner part) of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. Tartine makes some of the most famous sourdough loaves in all the land, so I figured the book might help me on my quest to achieve good, homemade sourdough bread. After reading the book–which is very short considering that the first few pages contain the most important information–I felt confident enough to attempt homemade sourdough, again.

Consider this Sourdough Start 101! Use my experience, testing & even failures to help you overcome your sourdough fears!

Trying to make sourdough bread, again, meant that I had to create a sourdough starter, again. I had the sourdough starter process down, so I quickly whisked together the flour and water needed for the base of the starter and then let it sit for a few days until it “came to life.” Once the starter was active, I was ready to try my hand at the Tartine method.

Consider this Sourdough Start 101! Use my experience, testing & even failures to help you overcome your sourdough fears!

My first attempt at making sourdough bread, using the Tartine method, was a huge success. I had never created such perfect sourdough before. The crust crackled, the crumb was deliciously moist, and the holes in the bread were definitely Instagram-worthy. It was at that very moment that my love for making homemade sourdough began.

Over the past few months, I’ve tweaked the Tartine method, using the lessons from the book and the classes I’ve attended in my local community, to create a process that works for my schedule. I’ve also played around with using different flours to make the actual sourdough bread.

As I’ve played in the kitchen, I’ve shared my sourdough loaves over on Instagram. Many Instagram friends have messaged me, asking for the sourdough recipe. So here we are today. Together, I want to help you embark on your own (homemade) sourdough journey. I’m going to share my recipe and tips, from making the starter (yeast) to mixing the bread dough to baking the sourdough loaf, and then it’s your turn to experiment in your kitchen.

Consider this Sourdough Start 101! Use my experience, testing & even failures to help you overcome your sourdough fears!

Before we can make an actual loaf of sourdough bread, we need to make a sourdough starter–the base on which sourdough bread is formed. Before sharing how to make a starter, let’s talk about what exactly a starter is and why it’s so important. Then, in a couple of days, I’ll share how to use this starter to craft a loaf of homemade sourdough bread.

Consider this Sourdough Start 101! Use my experience, testing & even failures to help you overcome your sourdough fears!

Sourdough Starter 101

 A sourdough starter is simply yeast. Sourdough yeast differs from commercial active dry yeast (and other store-bought yeast varieties) in that a starter is made up of wild yeast. Wild yeast lives everywhere, so the intent of creating a sourdough starter is to capture the naturally-occurring wild yeast and use it for baking bread.

To make a starter, two simple ingredients are combined: water and flour. Wild yeast is already in the flour and air, so at this point it’s just a matter of “capturing” that yeast. After just a few days of the water and flour mixture sitting on the counter, the starter will begin to show signs of life–there will be visible air bubbles throughout the batter, the batter will rise and fall, and it will smell slightly sour (but not in a rotten food way). Once the starter shows signs of life (the good bacteria at work), the starter needs to be maintained with regular feedings of fresh flour and water. Think of the starter like a pet. A pet that gives you delicious bread! That’s my kind of pet.

Consider this Sourdough Start 101! Use my experience, testing & even failures to help you overcome your sourdough fears!How to Make a Sourdough Starter

Once the starter shows signs of life, a loaf of sourdough bread can be made using the starter as the yeast. Not only does a starter help the sourdough bread rise, it also breaks down phytic acid in the bread (thanks to the bacteria), making the bread easier to digest. <–This is just one of the reasons why I’ve wanted to learn the art of making sourdough at home, and why I think it would be beneficial for others, too. According to Discover Magazine (check out the article, it’s fascinating), “Sourdough is teeming with bugs—some 50 million yeasts and 5 billion lactobacilli bacteria in every teaspoon of starter dough.”  

Using wild yeast to make bread is a practice that’s been around for a very long time. It’s a practice that’s beneficial for us in a day when people are afraid of bread and gluten. We’ll talk more about this next time, when we actually make bread together.

Consider this Sourdough Start 101! Use my experience, testing & even failures to help you overcome your sourdough fears!

First, let’s make a sourdough starter…

How to Make a Sourdough Starter
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Sourdough Starter

How to make a from-scratch sourdough starter, and maintain that starter, for making homemade sourdough bread. 

Course How To
Cuisine American
Keyword Sourdough Starter
Prep Time 10 minutes
Total Time 10 minutes
Servings 1 starter
Calories 510 kcal
Author Kristin Marr

Ingredients

To Make a Starter:

To Maintain/Feed an Active Starter:

  • 50 grams whole wheat flour about 1/4 cup
  • 50 grams filtered water a bit less than 1/4 cup

Special Equipment:

  • digital scale you'll also need this to make the sourdough bread
  • high-rimmed jar an 8-ounce mason jar works well
  • cheesecloth
  • rubberband
  • patience

Instructions

To Make a Starter:

  1. In a high-rimmed jar, mix together the 100 grams of flour and 100 grams of water. Once combined, the flour and water will be thick and resemble a very thick pancake or waffle batter. Cover the jar with a cheesecloth and secure the cloth over the jar with a rubberband. 

  2. Your work is done for now. It's time to wait and let the natural yeast do its work and bring your starter to life. I recommend placing your starter near a fruit basket (on the counter). 

  3. After about 2-3 days, you should notice that your starter looks and smells different. It may have a slightly sweet and sour aroma, visible air bubbles may appear in the starter, and the starter has risen. The starter will also change from a thick and hard-to-stir to batter to one that's a bit more pliable. 

  4. Once the above characteristics are apparent (your starter is "active"), discard about 80% of that starter. Yes, this is a lot. No, you can't use this for anything. It's a sacrifice that must be made. 

  5. Now it's time to feed the active sourdough starter with 50 grams of fresh flour and 50 grams of filtered water. Stir the fresh ingredients into the remaining, active starter, place the cheesecloth back on the jar, and secure the cheesecloth with a rubberband. Place the starter back on the counter (near a fruit basket, if possible). 

To Maintain an Active Starter (AKA: Keep It Alive):

  1. Once a day, refresh your starter by feeding it with fresh flour and water. If your starter is super active (rising and falling often), you can feed it twice a day, but I've never needed to do this. After the first feeding (mentioned above) you'll only need to discard 50% of your starter before feeding it with 50 grams of flour and 50 grams of water. 

  2. If you're not going to regularly bake bread, you can keep your mature starter (it's been alive and healthy for a couple of weeks now) in the fridge. To do this, at feeding time, discard 50% of the starter, feed the starter, and cover the starter. Place the starter in the fridge to hibernate. This is also a good way to keep your starter alive if you're going to be traveling and won't be around to feed the starter on a daily basis. There's no need to feed the starter until you pull it back out of the fridge because you're ready to start baking bread again. The starter doesn't need to be fed while it's hibernating in the fridge. You'll need to pull the starter from the fridge at least 12 hours before starting the sourdough bread process, discarding 50% of the starter, giving the starter a fresh feeding (50 grams of flour and 50 grams of water), covering the starter, and placing it back on the counter. 

Recipe Notes

I've had the most success using whole wheat flour to make and maintain my starter. Plus, whole wheat flour is pretty inexpensive, which is important to me since I'm discarding and feeding my sourdough starter on a daily basis. 

I personally don't keep my starter in the fridge, because I usually bake bread 1-2 times a week and don't mind the regular feedings. I keep my starter in the fridge to hibernate when we travel, or during busy seasons of life when I won't be able to regularly feed my starter and make bread. 

Now that my starter is mature and thriving, I don't actually weigh the 50 grams of water and flour each time I feed the starter. I know, just from eye balling it and using a 1/4 cup measuring cup, what my starter should look like when it's fed. Once you get to a point of regular feedings, you'll get to know your starter and the ideal feeding appearance and consistency very well--so don't feel like you need to use the scale for this once you're a pro. You will need a scale for the initial starter creation and each time you make bread, because weight measurements are far more accurate than volume measurements. 

Now that you have a starter, you can make sourdough bread. A Sourdough starter can also be used to leaven more than just a loaf of sourdough bread. You can use a sourdough starter to make sourdough waffles or in place of the leavening agent (i.e. baking powder) in quick bread recipes. It can also be used to make pizza dough. Google is a wonderful resource for recipes. 

For troubleshooting (mold, etc.), Cultures for Health is a great resource. I recommend checking out this article

Consider this Sourdough Start 101! Use my experience, testing & even failures to help you overcome your sourdough fears!

More from Kristin Marr

34 Comments


  • This seems so much easier than other ways I’ve seen! I attempted to start making my own sourdough bread and bought a starter from a local bakery, but I’m pretty sure I killed it when the poor thing got neglected while we were all struck with a stomach bug. Boo. I’m going to try again using this method! Thanks Kristin.

  • You might address this later, but how do you slice your bread? I love making our own bread but I find cutting it the most difficult part!!


  • Great post – I love the idea of using cheese cloth to cover the starter. I have been using plastic to loosely cover it, but I would much rather minimize my use of plastic. As for the discarded 80% – for those who have backyard chickens, make mini ‘pancakes’ out of the starter, fry them up, and feed it to the chickens – they love it! Also, just something I learnt along the way – if you keep your starter on the counter and also make your own kombucha, keep these two separate or else you will end up with a scoby on top of your starter – which ultimately is very cool, but doesn’t make for the best sourdough!

  • Hey Kristin
    Thankful for this post. I know there’s so many different ways to make and maintain starter. Wondering if you feed with fresh whole wheat flour or white and if whole wheat, do you use white whole wheat? I’ve only ever fed w all purpose white flour. Also, once a starter is fed w a type of flour, have you found it’s best not to switch to others? Geez lots of questions!
    Thanks for all you do!!
    Tami

    • Hey Tami, Great questions! I always use whole wheat flour for feeding my starter. I haven’t really tried switching up the flour for the starter. It can be done, I believe.

      And thank you :)!

  • In reference to the half of the starter that you toss before feeding, once your starter has matured I am assuming the half you remove before feeding is the portion you use to make your bread that day. On non baking days, can that half be gifted to someone or to start a second batch of starter if you’d like to be able to bake two loaves in one day?

  • Can I use fresh milled whole wheat flour?
    Also, how far away do you keep your sourdough starter from your kombucha – mine is about 12 feet? Is this enough?

    Thanks!

  • I am wondering about the process of feeding your starter. Instead of throwing away some of it, could you give it to a friend? I have had amish friendship bread starter given to me before and that was what we did with that. It came with the instructions on how to keep it going. It would be a great way of using the starter instead of discarding. Thanks,

  • Hey Kristin,
    I’m going to try and make a starter but it’s confusing where you say you tried to feed your starter every 12 hours but you also said you only fed it once a day. I think you meant every 24 hours. Also, do you know if I can use white whole wheat flour?
    Thanks!

    • It Debbie, Sorry for the confusion. The frequency of the feedings will depend on your starter and the temperature outside. I do aim for once a day, and then sometimes do twice a day (particularly in the summer when it’s hot outside). Once a day should be fine right now once your starter is thriving. Thanks for catching this! I’ll rewrite that part.

  • I came across your blog and am excited to make my first starter! What do you recommend using to stir the initial batch and while feeding it? From what I’ve researched, making sure the flour is incorporated well is vital to keeping it going. Also, how important is the accuracy of measuring out the discarded mix and the part I am keeping. Do I need to measure on my scale for this? Thanks!

    • Hi Jennifer,

      Kristin is currently out of the country, but I’ll make sure to let her know of your comment so she can respond when she returns. ~Rachel

    • Hey Jennifer, Thank you! I use a metal long spoon. Some people recommend not using metal, but I haven’t had issues. I just stir really really well, making sure I get to the bottom to get all the flour mixed together. At first, I would focus on the accuracy. Then as you get a feel for the sourdough starter, it’s a lot easier to eyeball it. I would measure at first, and then you can get used to doing this part without the scale.


  • Hey Kristin! Pumped to make this. I’m wondering, do you mix the flour and water before adding it to the starter to feed? Thanks!

  • How long do you wait to use the starter to make bread, after the initial making of the starter, before you start feeding it everyday?

    • Hey Kathleen, It will depend on your starter and the environmental conditions. For some starters, using it within 3 hours may be fine. For others, it may need more time. You can perform a “float test” to determine if your starter is ready to use:

      Fill a glass with water, and use a spoon to pick up some of the starter and drop it in the water.

      If the starter sample floats it’s ready to use and will be strong enough to make the bread rise. If the starter sinks, you’ll need to wait longer.

  • OK help me with what went wrong. I did the above and after 4-5 days went to remove the 80% and feed and when I removed the top it smelt like rotten nasty garbage or something. I just threw it out as there’s no way this was good. What did I do wrong?

    • Hey Dennis, Was there any mold, or a black ring on top, or anything growing? It can/will smell due to fermentation at this point. If nothing was growing, I would discard the amount and feed it. That should help. My thought also is maybe your starter was ready before you went to feed it. This can happen (a faster process) due to a warmer environment.

  • Hey there! I used bobs red mill gluten free flower for my starter and after 2 days it had mold on top! Ugh! Do you recommend starting over? I’m assuming so. Thanks!

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