Sourdough Starter Guide

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What is a sourdough starter? 

While sourness is the most spoken about characteristic of sourdough bread, there’s a two part truth that many do not realize. First, like dry or fresh yeast, a sourdough starter is just another leavening agent. Second, while sourdough bread can be sour tasting it does not have to be. Therefore, I feel that the nutritional and quality of life benefits of leavening bread with a sourdough starter should be tantamount. 

Now you may ask, what does he mean by “quality of life benefits?” To this, I’d simply answer that one’s sourdough starter represents his or her “ticket to the whole grain lifestyle.” Fermenting doughs that contain whole grain flours with the wild yeasts and bacteria in your starter allows you to unlock their flavor and nutritional potentials. This in turn allows you to digest them more easily and give your immune system a boost. Furthermore, your ability to bake truly healthy bread at home will spark a sense of genuine joy and curiosity. This in turn often leads to one getting to know more about the grains and flours that he or she bakes with. Doing so first through reading articles and books and subsequently through seeking out opportunities to connect with likeminded individuals (such as fellow sourdough bakers and those involved in getting you from grain to loaf). Over time you’ll recognize just how much sourdough baking has become a major part of your daily lifestyle and increased your overall quality of life. 

Goals for this guide:

  1. To provide easy to follow steps towards making a strong and dependable whole grain sourdough starter in 7-10 days. 
  2. To help you understand the purpose behind each step.
  3. To provide troubleshooting advice and in turn help you avoid the anxiety that often comes with the sourdough starter creation process. 

Let’s get started….

Key Terms:

Whole Grain Flour – Flours containing all of the parts of the grain kernel (berry). At times in the your sourdough baking journey you may choose to use flours that have had portions sifted out (e.g. bread flour and bolted wheat flour).

Hydration Percentage – The ratio of flour to water. When it comes to sourdough starters, most are maintained at 100% hydration or equal parts flour and water.

Starter Discard – This refers to the portion of your starter that you remove before a feeding. This portion can be used when making pancakes, cookies, crackers, and more. Some sourdough bakers treat discard merely as unfed starter and therefore occasionally use it to leaven loaves. However, I would not recommend doing so until you have a strong and dependable starter.

Feeding – refreshing your dormant sourdough starter in order to prepare it for baking and/or keep it strong. If one week you choose not bake, you can feed your starter, let it ferment at room temperature until it starts to bubble and gain volume, and then return it to your refrigerator. More on this later…

Starter’s Peak – After feeding your starter and marking the volume of starter in your jar, fermentation slowly kicks off. Between 4 and 8 hours later it’ll have doubled in volume, domed at the top, and smell more like fermented than sweet fresh flour. This point is called its peak (or peak activity level). After it hits this point it slowly starts to decrease as less food is available for the yeast and bacteria to eat and digest.

Essential equipment:

Jar with lid: I prefer to use a glass jars (e.g. mason jars) because it’s easier to keep clean.

Food Scale: While baker’s math can be confusing, measuring out your ingredients by weight helps keep your feedings and subsequent baking consistent and therefore more predictable. 

Silicon Jar Spatula or spoon: Having a set tool to stir your starter and scrape down the sides of your jar goes a long way.

Thermometer: An instant-read thermometer (e.g. a Thermopen) will help you monitor the temperature of the water you use while creating your starter. During this process and later on it will help you ensure that it’s in the temperature optimal range for increasing its fermentation activity. Cold = slower fermentation -> Warm = faster fermentation.

Filtered Water: Filtering your tap water or using bottled water to create your starter helps keep out minerals etc that may hinder fermentation.

Whole Grain Flour:While whole wheat or rye flour are most common for making 100% whole grain starters due to their fermentability (being full of sugars and nutrients that yeast and bacteria thrive on) and dependability. Whole grain spelt flour can be used as well, but may not be as strong. I highly recommend sourcing organic flour from a local mill when possible. 

Starter Preparation Schedule

Day 1: Before you start, record your jars weight without the lid

100g stone ground wheat flour OR 50g each of whole grain rye and wheat flour

150g lukewarm water* @85F / 29C

*130g if using only whole whole wheat flour. Note: If a layer of water starters to form on top after the mixture has been sitting for a while, stir it back into the mixture below. 

What to look for: Over the first 24-36 hours there likely will NOT be any significantly visible fermentation activity (bubbles or increase in volume). Therefore, do not hesitate to proceed to the ‘Day 2’ feeding after giving your initial flour and water mixture a full day to start building up yeast and good bacteria.

Day 2: 

70g mature starter (jar weight + 70g = what your jar should weigh when the correct amount of starter has been removed)

100g stoneground whole wheat flour OR 50g each of whole wheat and rye flour

115g lukewarm water @85F / 29C

Feeding Steps:

1. Discarding: Using a spoon or silicon jar spatula, remove all but 70 grams (later on less) of starter. Once your starter activity becomes more predictable and smells good, as long as as you discard close to your target amount, your starter’s consistency and fermentation rate will not be significantly affected. 

2. Refreshing: Add listed amount of water and flour and then stir to incorporate all of the new flour. I personally check the bottom and sides of the jar to look for spots of dry flour.

3. Cleaning: After you’re done stirring and then removing any excess starter from you mixing utensil, scrape down the sides of your jar and wipe off its rim before putting the lid back on. Tighten the lid most of the way, leaving room for fermentation gasses (CO2) to escape. Lastly, put a rubber band on your jar to mark the top of the starter mixture.

What to look out for: During the first few days, there’s often a jump in fermentation activity which then drops off significantly and almost suddenly. When this happens, many first-timers panic and think that their young starter has “died,” and that they need to start over. In reality, this situation is most likely caused by yeast and bacteria that are initially present in the air or flour, but eventually die off. This is where it’s most important to be patient and trust the process. Continue with the schedule and eventually, the more desirable “good” yeast and bacteria will dominate and stabilize the starter. 

Day 3: 

70g mature starter (jar weight + 70g = what your jar should weigh when the correct amount of starter has been removed)

100g stoneground whole wheat flour OR 50g each of whole wheat and rye flour

115g lukewarm water @85F / 29C

What to look for: 1) When discarding you’ll see that the starter is thinner than when you initially mixed it. This happens as a product of the flour’s being digested by the yeast and lactic bacteria and the subsequent production of alcohol and carbon dioxide (air/bubbles) 2) If your starter went through a significant jump in visible activity following day 2’s feeding then the increase in volume will slowly recede. Following day 3’s feeding you may see that there is not much fermentation activity due to your newly formed yeast culture stabilizing. However, if your starter is going to go through a rise and drop in activity it will likely happen more slowly than ‘Day 2’. 3) Lastly, the aromas given off from your starter may be unpleasant. With time, as the healthy (more desirable) yeast and bacteria become more dominant, these aromas will dissipate and become pleasant.

Day 4:

70g mature starter

100g stoneground whole wheat flour OR 50g each of whole wheat and rye flour

100g lukewarm water @ 85F / 29C

What to look for: With the decrease in water (hydration) comes a somewhat thicker texture at the end of the feeding process from this point forward. As with ‘Day 3’ it may take a 4-5 hours for you to day to a significant amount of fermentation activity, but your starter should eventually at least double in volume.

Day 5:

70g mature starter

100g stoneground whole wheat flour OR 50g each of whole wheat and rye flour

100g lukewarm water @ 85F / 29C

What to look for: By‘Day 5’ your starter will have become a stable culture of yeast and healthy bacteria. As a result it will begin to rise (increase in volume) and fall at a more predictable rate. Pay attention to how many hours it takes to double in size or reach its peak volume (see above). Doing so will help you in the coming days when you’re gauging when your starter will be strong enough to bake with. 

Day6:

50g mature starter

100g stoneground wheat flour OR 50g each of whole wheat and rye flour

100g lukewarm water @ 85 degrees F

What to look for: While there may be some fluctuation in the time it takes your starter to peak in activity and volume. It should reach our get close to peak within 4-6 hours of being fed. Factors effecting rate of rise include the following. Consistency of your starter, room and starter temperature, tightness of jar lid (controls rate of CO2 leave jar), and hours since its last feeding. 

Day 7: This is not only your last feeding until it’s ready to be used for baking, but it will also be your maintenance feeding going forward. 

30g mature starter

100g stoneground wheat flour OR 50g each of whole wheat and rye flour

100g room temperature water

What to look for: While your starter may have reached consistent growth to peak at this point, I feel that it’s worthwhile to wait at least until day 9 or 10 before using it to bake. Waiting will allow you to get to know what your starter needs to be at its strongest (for example, discarding down to more or less starter, temperatures, and consistency). Figuring these factors out will also give you insights on how to maintain it going forward. Especially when factors such as seasonal temperatures and humidity fluctuate throughout the year. 

Feedings going forward: 

As stated above, your ‘Day 7’ feeding amounts (“recipe”) will serve as your means for maintaining your start both until you decide to try baking with it and going forward. However, if you’d like to conserve flour and water. Then you can use less than 100 each of flour and water when feeding just to keep your starter going or you’re only planning on baking one loaf. Just remember to keep your flour and water amounts the same. I personally recommend waiting until your starter is 10 days old before trying to bake with it (using it to leaven bread dough). 

A note on feeding ratios: While you may hear about other feeding ratios, I personally do my best to maintain a 1:2:2 ratio. That means 1 part starter to 2 parts flour to 2 parts water. 

Once you’ve baked with your new whole grain starter and confirmed that its strong enough to leaven loaves, you have two choices. To refrigerate or to leave it out at room temperature. If you plan on baking multiple times throughout the week then you can leave your starter out on your kitchen counter and feed it 1-2 times per day. For those who plan on baking once weekly (or even less often), you can store your starter in your refrigerator until you’re ready to use it. 

It takes a lot to “kill” a sourdough starter. Other than it accidentally getting too hot (in oven for warm environment or use of hot water) or mold in your jar. Bakers have revived starters that have been left without feeding for over a month.

As an example, when I only bake sourdough loaves for the weekend, I “awaken” my starter/s in the following manner. On Wednesday morning or afternoon I take my starter/s out and feed them. It takes a bit longer for them to get going as the starter left behind after discarding and jar are cold. Then late Wednesday night, after preparing my flours and any additional ingredients for Thursday’s dough preparation, I feed my starter/s once again so they’ll be ready for mixing into dough early Thursday morning…If you’re going to use this method, make sure to incorporate your starter (levain) into your dough within 9-10 hours of feeding it. As you want to give it the best chance of getting bulk fermentation started as fast as possible. One tip that I learned to remedy changes in your baking schedule is the following. If you know that you will not be ready to incorporate for your starter (levain) into your dough by the 10 hour mark. You can feed it 10-15g each of flour and water and then leave it let it come back to peek over the next 1.5 to 2 hours. 

While some bakers use what’s called the “scrapings method” and return their starter jar to the refrigerator with whatever is left after using the majority of it for baking. I prefer to feed my starters beforehand. Meaning, I feed them, let them sit out at room temperature for at least 3 hours to get going, and then put them in the refrigerator. This method ensures that at as your starter goes into hibernation, it’s munching on fresh flour. 

Your First Sourdough Loaves

Starting off with a base of bread flour (e.g. King Arthur) leaves a clean slate for the nutty and spicy whole grain flavors of whole wheat and rye flours to shine. While many beginner sourdough recipes call for 10-20% whole grain flour, I chose to increase this amount to 35% in order to boost the whole grain flavor and add a heartier texture to this recipe’s dough and finished loaves. Keys to successful baking of this recipe include careful dough handling, use of a sourdough starter (levain) that has been fed no more than 8 hours prior to being incorporated into the dough (see tips above), and adequate steam during baking (see instructions below).

Makes 2 loaves*

750g Bread Flour (unbleached) – 65%

250g  Wheat wheat flour – 25%

100g Whole grain Rye flour – 10%

715g Water 

200g Active Sourdough Starter (100% hydration)

23g Salt

Recipe Link: https://fgbc.dk/2v07

Instructions:

  1. Once your sourdough starter (levain) is bubbly and is close to double its post-feeding volume you’re ready to start.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, mix together the flours, salt, and water into a shaggy dough and let it rest for 30-60 minutes i.e. until your starter (levain) is close to its peak activity level (doubled in size). 
  3. Fully incorporate the 200g of active sourdough starter by spreading of over the top of your dough, dimpling it in, and then stretch and folding around the perimeter (check out my Instagram reels for a visual of this technique). Let the dough rest for 30 minutes. You have now begun the bulk fermentation stage.
  4. Over the next 1.5-2 hours perform three sets of stretch and folds (separated by 30 minutes). Each set is comprised of using one or two hands to pinch and lift up (stretch) one side of the dough and fold it over. Then turning the mixing bowl 45 degrees three more times, repeating the same motions. 
  5. After the last set of stretch and folds allow the dough to rest for 3-4 hours. With a room temperature of 72F (22C) bulk fermentation will likely take 5.5-6 hours total*. Aim for a 30-50% increase in dough volume.
  6. Using a bowl scraper or bench knife gently loosen the from the sides of the bowl and slowly transfer it onto a clean surface. Using a big pinch of bread flour, mark a line for dividing the dough in half. Then cut it in half using a bench knife.
  7. Gently pre-shape each half into a round “ball” of dough. Do a set of stretch and folds around the perimeter to get the shaping started. Then flip over the dough and tighten the dough with a bench knife and/or your hands. Cover each pre-shaped loaf with a bowl and rest for 20 minutes.
  8. Prepare two bannetons (proofing baskets) or tea towel lined bowls by dusting them with rice flour. Then final-shape your dough rounds into loaves into your desired shape (round/boule or oblong/batard). Once done, transfer the loaves seam-side up (facing up towards you) into your prepared proofing vessels. Cover them (with large plastic bags, kitchen towels, or Glad brand Press and Seal) and proof in the refrigerator for 8-24 hours. 
  9. One hour before baking, preheat your oven at 500F (260C) with a dutch oven inside. Once the hour is up you’re ready to bake. Remove one loaf at a time from the refrigerator, uncover it, and sprinkle its bottom with rice flour. Carefully transfer it onto a prepared piece of parchment paper and then into your preheated dutch oven. 
  10. Using a sharp knife or bread lame score a large plus sign of square on top of the loaf, cover it (to seal in steam), and return the dutch oven to the oven. Bake it for 20 minutes. 
  11. Once the 20 minutes has elapsed. Lower the oven temperature to 450F (230C), uncover the dutch oven, and bake for 20 minutes or until the loaf has reached your desired level of caramelization (color). Checking for color first at the 18 minute mark.
  12. Remove from oven and carefully transfer your loaf onto a cooling rack. A finished loaf will sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Allow to cool completely (at least 2 hours) before slicing. Repeat baking steps with second loaf. 

Notes:

* This recipe can be halved if you’d like to bake one loaf instead of two.

**Conditions like temperature and humidity can significantly effect a dough’s fermentation rate. The warmer your room temperature is, the faster fermentation will progress and visa versa.

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