Have you been dreaming of fresh, crusty, chewy sourdough, made right in your own kitchen? Maybe you’ve been ogling over photos of artisan loaves, covered in beautiful floury designs? Has your belly been craving something a bit more “real” and unprocessed than commercially-made bread? Yes, Yes, Yes! All these things. But, maybe you’ve felt too intimidated to dive in and get your hands sticky – believing that sourdough is too difficult and complicated? I am here to tell you that it really is not! Sure, it takes a few steps and a little practice, but nothing you can’t overcome!
So are you ready to make sourdough at home?!
The first and most important thing you will need to get going on your new sourdough adventure is a starter culture. What is sourdough starter? The starter culture is a colony of wild yeasts that are now living in flour and water – nurtured by routine “feedings” to keep them happy. They are what will make your bread rise, without the need for commercial yeast.
If you’re lucky enough to snag one from a friend, great! Starter cultures can also be purchased online, but are usually sold and shipped in a dehydrated state. I have heard varying success stories from folks using this type. So why not just make your own?
Let’s do it.
This article will go over the step-by-step process to transform three simple ingredients – water, flour, and apple – into an active and bubbly sourdough starter to get you on your way. We will also discuss feeding the sourdough starter, where to store it, and how to get it ready for baking.
For all the visual learners out there, a tutorial video is included at the end of this post!
- A large, glass, air-tight glass container. We used a 2-liter flip-top container, or about a half-gallon.
- A mixing bowl
- A silicone spatula
- A kitchen scale
- Liquid measuring cup
- Filtered water
- Organic white bread flour. You can also use organic whole wheat if you’d like.
- One large organic apple, or substitute for two small
- A warm location
Step 1: Flour
In a large mixing bowl, weigh out 500 grams of organic white bread flour. You can also add some organic whole wheat if you prefer. Just make sure your total flour weight is still 500 grams! Don’t forget to either tare the bowl on the scale, or add the weight of the bowl in to the total! No, sorry, I can’t provide an equivalent in cups here. Different flours weigh varying amounts, so it may not be accurate if I tried. A digital kitchen scale is a super useful homestead tool to have on hand anyways, if you don’t already have one!
Step 2: Apple
Grate your apple. Keep the skins, but avoid the core. Add the grated apple to the bowl of flour. Why add apple? Some homemade sourdough starter recipes do call for flour and water only. However, flour and water can be pretty sterile. I have heard mixed success stories from folks using only flour and water. Some of their starters didn’t get active.
With the addition of apple, it basically stacks the odds in your favor that it will get active! Organic fruits and vegetables are more likely to have natural wild yeasts and beneficial bacteria on them. I stress the word organic here, because inorganic produce may not only lack the good things you need, but may have harmful additives that will ruin your starter.
Step 3: Water & Mix
Measure out 360 mL of room temperature filtered water. Add this to the bowl of apple and flour, and thoroughly mix. You will likely need to get in there and use your hands to do so, so wash up really well first!
Avoiding chlorinated water is pretty important when it comes to any fermentation process, including making sourdough. We use filtered water. A basic carbon filter is enough to remove most of the chlorine from city tap water. In a pinch, bottled water could be used, but don’t get me started on bottled water….
Step 4: Transfer
Dump, pour, or otherwise scoop the flour, apple, water combo into an air-tight container. The container needs be large enough to allow for at least doubling in size, if not more. Ours usually quadruples while rising. In this step, try your best to get it all mashed down into the bottom, with the top of the mixture fairly level. You’ll see why in step 5.
Step 5: Let it sit
It’s time to close the container up and watch her rise! But first, using some kind of washable marker that writes on glass, draw a little line on the side of your container at the top level of the mixture. (We love our wineglass writers – used around here for labelling kombucha bottles and jars of homegrown dried seasonings.) This is so you can monitor its growth. A large rubber band could also be used around the container to mark that line. The mixture could rise and then fall again, so you’ll want to look for schmears on the sides of the container – not just the current level.
The mixture will now sit for 3 days. Keeping it in a spot that is about 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit (23 degrees Celsius) is ideal. Temperature is important! Too cool of conditions can lead to an inactive and moldy starter. It can be in the dark or light.
Ways to keep your sourdough starter warm:
If you’re making a sourdough starter during the summertime, you’ll likely have no issue keeping it happy by simply leaving the starter out on the countertop. However, if you attempt to create a starter during the winter (or if your house is otherwise on the cool side) it can be a bit more tricky. If you aren’t exactly sure what the ambient temperature is within microclimates in your house (e.g. in particular rooms, on the counter, etc) it is best to use a thermometer to assess the exact temperature where your starter is stored.
A couple options to provide warmth to a sourdough starter are to keep it near a warm appliance, use an electric heating pad or seedling heat mat nearby, or to wrap the container in classic holiday lights. I emphasize classic lights because newer LED lights do not get warm. These are all tricks we use and suggest for keeping homemade kombucha warm and active too!
Last but not least, our favorite easy way to keep both sourdough starter and the proofing dough warm is to keep it inside the oven – with the oven OFF, but oven light on! It creates the perfect cozy home. It if gets too warm in the oven, keep the door cracked open slightly. Keep the container on a plate or pan in case there are overflows.
(72 hours after step 5)
After 3 days, the mixture should be a bit bubbly. It mostly likely has risen, and should smell sweet and tangy, sort of like apple cider vinegar! It may also be a bit darker in color.
Step 6: Discard
It’s time to do the first discard, and then feed! To discard, first stir the mixture to knock out any air to let it fall back down to a more condensed state. Then you want to discard half of that amount. (I will talk about what to do with the discarded portion towards the end of this post!)
If you want to be exact, you can remove the mixture from its container, weigh it, and discard exactly half. We are lazy, and eyeball it. After mixing to knock out the air, I simply note the level it is in the jar, and gently tip out a little at a time until it looks like it’s down to about half of what I started with.
Step 7: Feed
After you discard, now it’s time to feed! See, the wild yeast in the mixture has probably eaten up a lot of their food already, and want more to continue to grow and be active. So let’s give her some food, ‘kay?
With your 3-day old sourdough starter, mix in another 250 grams of of bread flour and 170 mL of tepid filtered water. Mix thoroughly. You can do this either in a separate bowl, and put it back into a now-clean ferment vessel, or like we do, mix it in place. I guess it depends on your container and how easily you can get in there to stir well. If you do mix in place, make sure to clean up the sides a bit with a spatula afterwards so you can still monitor the rise and fall.
Step 8: Let sit again
Re-mark the top of the mixture height on your container if needed. Now, it’s time to let your homemade sourdough starter sit for 2 days, or 48 hours. Same as before, a spot that is about 75 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal.
(48 hours after Step 8)
There should be a lot of activity and small bubbles now. It has likely risen even higher than the first time.
Most folks breeze through this step without any issues, and their starter becomes nice active again after the first discard and feed. However, if you are going to experience any issues… this seems to be the step that does it.
- If there is no activity, let it sit an additional day or two. Sometimes that initial burst of promising bubbles and rise is a different bacteria at work. Once it dies out, the beneficial lactic acid and yeast we want present long term should start to develop – but maybe more slowly.
- Is your home on the cool side? Try to find a warmer spot!
- If the starter is bubbling but doesn’t rise after the first discard and feed, the mixture may be too wet or runny (as varying home humidities and flour types can lead to different consistencies). When a starter is too wet, the bubbles rise right through and out of the mixture – rather than being trapped inside and causing the starter to puff up and become spongy. Stir in more flour to thicken it up, adding just a few tablespoons at a time until it more closely resembles your original thick mixture from step 1 (a stiff dough).
- Another option is to try opening the lid of your jar. Cover it with a coffee filter or something else that will prevent fruit flies or other debris from getting inside inside.
- If your starter has risen and fallen, or, if seems to not rise after the first discard and feed, and instead it has a dark liquid formed on top, it may actually be overly active and hungry! Stir in a little more flour (and warm water as needed, if it becomes too thick and dry) and let it sit again. Wait a day or two to see if it perks up and begins to rise and bubble.
- Try to feed it with half whole wheat or rye flour, which usually enhances activity.
- Keep feeding! Don’t give up, unless it is obviously moldy.
Once your starter regains activity, move on to the next step.
Step 9: Discard and Feed
Repeat steps 6 and 7 again – the discard and feed. If your homemade sourdough starter has been nice and active, it is okay to make it just a tad more wet this time. Discard half and add the same 250 grams flour and 170 mL of water. If needed, add a few extra splashes of water – maybe about 30 to 40 mL more – until the desired consistency is reached (smooth and easy to stir, but not runny). As mentioned in the troubleshooting tips above, too runny/wet of a starter can sometimes make it rise less, though that has never been an issue for us.
Step 10: Sit one last time
Cover the sourdough starter and let it sit out one final time. This time is only for 24 hours.
If your starter is bubbly and active after those last 24 hours – congratulations – you did it! You now have a super happy homemade sourdough starter that is ready for baking with! Check out how crazy our starter got on the final day! This thing was rip-roarin’ ready to go!
Step 11: Name her
It is a tradition among sourdough bakers to name their starter culture. Don’t break tradition now! It is said to bring bad baking luck. We don’t need any of that! Our gal is named Apple. I know, suuuuper creative, right?
So… What do I do with it now?
Well, you bake with it! Check out our go-to, simple, no-knead sourdough bread recipe and instructions. Enjoy!
But hold up! Before you run off to make a loaf of bread, I highly suggest you continue on to read this article all about ongoing sourdough starter care. It covers:
- How to routinely feed your sourdough starter – which is a little different than the feeding process we did here to create it.
- How frequently to feed your sourdough starter.
- Where to store your starter: in the refrigerator or at room temperature?
- How to ready your sourdough starter for baking, and more!
FAQ: What is that dark liquid on the top of my sourdough starter?
When the yeast in a sourdough starter has eaten up all of its available food and is hungry for more, it produces a thin dark layer of liquid on top. This is an indication that your starter is more active than you’re feeding it. It is a naturally-occurring alcohol created by the yeast, called hooch. This is totally normal! Do not freak out.
Either pour it off the top, or simply mix it back in, then discard and feed as usual. If this happens while you are first making your sourdough starter, also discard some and feed it with the given ratio provided. Ours almost always has a thin layer of hooch developed when we take it out of the fridge for our weekly baking.
FAQ: What to do with discarded sourdough starter?
So many options! It does not need to go to waste. There are all sorts of “sourdough recipes” out there. We make some really killer whole wheat crackers with fresh herbs from the garden – check out that recipe here! Chickens really enjoy eating the discarded starter too. It is full of healthy probiotics for them! Some folks make pancakes, pizza dough, muffins, all sorts of things! Worse case scenario, throw it in your compost and bury it.
There you have it!
Your crash course on making your own sourdough starter is complete. I hope you also have a good idea of how to tend to it. Now it’s time to put this to good use!
I hope you found this helpful! If so, please share! As always, feel free to ask questions in the comments below too. Here is a video to go along with everything we just discussed:
How to Make Your Own Sourdough Starter
- Large, glass, air-tight container (2 liter or half-gallon)
- Kitchen scale
- 500 grams organic bread flour or all-purpose flour
- 360 mL filtered water, room-temperature
- 1 large organic apple (or 2 small apples)
- Wash your apple, but avoid using soaps or produce wash. Using a cheese grater, grate the organic apple into semi-fine shreds. Use the skins, but discard the core.
- Add the called-for flour, grated apple, and water to a mixing bowl and thoroughly combine.
- Transfer the mixture into a large glass airtight container that has enough room for it to at least double in size, minimum. (Ours usually quadruples while fermenting) Pack the mixture down into the bottom of the container. Close the lid.
- To monitor growth, mark the side of your container with a washable marker or rubber band at the top level of the mixture.
- Let the mixture sit for 3 days at a temperature of 70-75 degrees F. It should bubble and rise during this time.
- After approximately 72 hours, thoroughly stir the mixture and then discard half of the amount. Then, thoroughly mix in another 250 grams of flour and 170 mL of tepid filtered water to the remaining starter mixture. This is called "feeding" the sourdough starter. You can do this either in a separate bowl, and put it back into a now-clean ferment vessel, or like we do, mix it in place.
- Re-mark the container to note the height of the mixture. Let sit at 70-75 degrees, for 2 days or 48 hours this time.
- After 48 hours, repeat the same discard and feed process as done previously. Discard half, feed, mix, mark the level, and cover again.
- Allow the sourdough starter mixture to sit for a final 24 hours.
- Once complete, you now have a happy and active sourdough starter! Store it in the refrigerator when not in use, giving it a discard and feed weekly. OR if stored at room temperature, feed it daily to keep it alive.
- If there is no activity, let it sit another day or two.
- If your starter has risen and fallen, or, if seems to not rise after the first discard and feed, and instead it has a dark liquid formed on top (called hooch), it may actually be overly active and hungry! Stir in a little more flour (and warm water as needed, if it becomes too thick and dry) and let it sit again. Wait a day or two to see if it perks up and begins to rise and bubble.
- If your home is cold, try to find a warmer spot if possible!
- If the starter doesn’t rise at all after the first discard and feed, try opening the lid of your jar. Cover it with a coffee filter or something else that will prevent fruit flies or other debris from getting inside inside.
- Another troubleshooting tip is to feed with half whole wheat or rye flour, which usually enhances activity.
- Ensure that you use an organic apple.