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All About Sourdough – Sourdough Starter

Thinking about bread making or want to dig deeper in the sourdough subject? Check out the secrets of sourdough starter from start to end!

Sourdough starter is a captivating result of cultivating a vibrant colony of wild yeast and beneficial bacteria. Flour and water are simply combined and left to ferment, fostering this active culture. Through consistent feeding and a nurturing environment (details to follow!), a reliable “natural yeast” source emerges. This empowers the creation of all sorts of leavened (risen) breads and pastries.

Delving deeper, a sourdough starter embodies a symbiotic partnership between lactic acid bacteria and wild yeast. Flour, when hydrated with water and allowed to ferment, becomes a feeding ground for both these microbes. As the starter is refreshed with fresh “food,” each microorganism thrives, releasing gasses that provide lift and air during the fermentation process. This harmonious coexistence within the starter fosters an environment rich in lactic and acetic acid. These acids not only contribute to the unique flavor profile but also offer valuable nutritional advantages.

Breads crafted exclusively with sourdough are distinguished as naturally leavened. This extended fermentation period, compared to commercially yeasted breads, allows the lactic acid within the sourdough to unlock the full potential of the flour’s nutrients. The result? Bread boasting a more profound flavor, enhanced digestibility, and a readily available bounty of nutrients.

Cultivating a new sourdough starter is a swift process, taking only a few days. However, to expedite this development, it’s recommended to create an ideal environment that fosters the growth of these beneficial bacteria and yeasts. Through experimentation, a warm temperature around 80°F (26°C) and a high hydration level (1:1 ratio of water to flour, expressed in baker’s percentages) have proven to be successful in jumpstarting the process. Additionally, while not essential, using specific flours can further enhance the chances of a starter establishing itself quickly.

Selecting the Ideal Flour for a Flourishing Starter

Extensive experimentation over a decade has explored various flours for sourdough starter creation, including whole wheat, spelt, and einkorn. While all can be successful, a combination of whole-grain rye flour and white flour (either all-purpose or high-protein bread flour) is preferred. The inclusion of whole-grain rye flour is believed to accelerate the starter’s development. This is attributed to the additional nutrients found in rye flour, which, when coupled with a warm and highly hydrated environment, contributes to a more reliable starter establishment.

Starter vs. Levain: Understanding the Distinction

  • Sourdough starter
    is known by various names, such as mother, chef, or pasta madre. It is a continuously maintained culture, receiving regular feedings at designated intervals. Notably, only a portion of the starter is ever used when baking bread, ensuring its ongoing existence.
  • Levain
    sometimes called leaven, represents a smaller portion derived from the main sourdough starter. This offshoot is entirely incorporated into the dough for a loaf of bread, eventually undergoing baking within the oven.


Sourdough starter maintenance involves a cycle of discarding a portion of the fermented mixture (known as the carryover), introducing fresh flour and water, and allowing it to ferment again. The frequency of these refresh cycles is influenced by the chosen flour type, the amount of retained starter (carryover), and the ambient environment.

A blend of medium-protein white flour and whole-grain rye flour is recommended. This combination, along with hydration (water weight equal to flour weight), is believed to contribute to a strong starter. Additionally, a carryover of ripe starter is incorporated during each refresh.

Ingredients (Baker’s Percentage)

  • Medium protein white flour (all-purpose): 70g (70%)
  • Whole-grain rye flour: 30g (30%)
  • Water: 100g (100%)
  • Ripe sourdough starter carryover: 20g (20%)

Twice-Daily Refresh Cycle (12hr window)

  • Discard and Reserve
    The starter container’s contents are reduced, leaving only 20 grams of the ripe starter for carryover. The discarded portion can be composted, disposed of, or creatively utilized in recipes specifically designed for starter discard.
  • Replenishment
    Freshly measured ingredients (70g white flour, 30g whole rye flour, and 100g water) are added to the jar containing the reserved starter carryover.
  • Mixing and Sealing
    The mixture is thoroughly stirred to ensure complete incorporation of all ingredients. The lid is placed back on the jar, allowing for gas release while preventing external contamination.

Feeding Frequency

The frequency of sourdough starter feedings (refreshments) can be adjusted based on individual preferences. Twice-daily feedings are employed to create multiple opportunities for preparing a levain for baking purposes. For those seeking to minimize flour usage, a single daily feeding can be implemented. This approach necessitates leaving a smaller amount of ripe starter carryover in the jar, effectively extending the time between refreshments. By gradually reducing the carryover amount, the starter can be conditioned to reach peak ripeness exactly when a daily feeding is desired.

Sourdough starter maintenance can also be adapted to reduce flour waste. While a 200g quantity of ripe starter is ideal for baking purposes, a smaller starter can be maintained. This is achieved by reducing the proportions of flour, water, and ripe starter used during refreshments.

Minimizing Discard

Discarding a portion of the starter is indeed necessary during each feeding. Failure to do so results in an excessively large and overly acidic mixture. However, the discarded portion, rich in active microorganisms, need not be wasted!

Sourdough starter, upon reaching peak fermentation after a set number of hours, is considered “ripe” and suitable for various bread-making applications. This includes incorporating it directly into dough or using it to create a levain (a smaller starter offshoot). Generally, a ripe starter exhibits several key characteristics: increased volume, a bubbly surface, a distinct sour aroma, and a looser consistency.

Sourdough Ripeness

  • Increased volume compared to its unfed state.
  • Presence of bubbles on both the top and sides of the starter.
  • A noticeable sour aroma.
  • A looser consistency compared to when unfed.

Ripe Liquid Starter

A liquid sourdough starter, upon reaching peak fermentation, exhibits several key characteristics that indicate its readiness for baking applications. These signs highlight a thriving microbial ecosystem within the starter. This starter boasts a high hydration level, typically ranging from 90% to 100%. This translates to a water quantity equal to or slightly exceeding the amount of flour used.

  • Abundant Bubbles and Aeration
    The starter should be teeming with bubbles, signifying a vigorous fermentation process. This visual indicator reflects a well-aerated mixture.
  • Loose Consistency
    A ripe liquid starter will have a looser consistency compared to its unfed state. This change in texture suggests the successful breakdown of starches and sugars within the flour.

Ripe Stiff Starter

In contrast, a stiff starter features a lower hydration level, usually between 50% and 65%. This means the amount of water used is roughly half that of the flour.

  • Dome Collapse and Plateau Formation
    Initially, a stiff starter forms a dome after mixing. When ripe, this dome begins to recede slightly, developing a flatter, plateau-like appearance.
  • Softening and Crackled Texture
    When ripe, the starter’s surface softens and develops a crackled texture, suggesting a breakdown within the mixture. A gentle pull-back of this top layer will reveal a pronounced, sour aroma.
  • Overall Softening
    The entire starter should exhibit a noticeable softening compared to its unfed state, further indicating a successful fermentation process.

Maturity vs. Ripeness

It’s important to differentiate between “mature” and “ripe.” While some bakers refer to a starter as “mature” after a period of fermentation, signifying its readiness for use, this guide utilizes the term “ripe” to designate a starter’s peak activity within a given day. A ripe starter is optimal for immediate incorporation into dough or levain creation.

A “mature” sourdough starter signifies a well-established symbiotic relationship between the resident lactic acid bacteria and wild yeasts. This stability allows the starter to consistently exhibit the same fermentation activity each day. This maturity reflects a robust and balanced culture, ideally suited to leaven and flavor sourdough bread effectively.

Fed vs. Unfed Starter States

  • Fed Starter
    A “fed” starter is synonymous with a “ripe” starter. It has undergone fermentation for several hours and is actively bubbling and exhibiting the characteristics indicative of readiness for use in baking applications.
  • Unfed Starter (Discard)
    An “unfed” starter signifies a starter that hasn’t been fed for a while and is essentially considered “discard” generated during the regular feeding process. While some baking practices incorporate this discard, a well-maintained starter refreshed with fresh flour and water will consistently provide a ripe starter for optimal bread-baking results.

Utilizing Leftover Starter

Sourdough starter refreshment generates a portion known as “discard.” To prevent waste and promote resource utilization, this discard can be stored for up to 2 weeks in a designated refrigerator container. This collection, referred to here as a “sourdough starter discard cache,” offers a wealth of possibilities for incorporating this active culture into delicious recipes.

Creative Uses for Starter Discard

Sourdough discard boasts a unique tang and fermentation profile that can elevate various baked goods. Consider incorporating it into:

  • Sourdough Waffles
    These light and fluffy waffles benefit from the subtle tang and rise-promoting properties of the discard.
  • Pancakes
    Similar to waffles, sourdough discard adds a delightful depth of flavor and contributes to a satisfyingly fluffy texture in pancakes.
  • Banana Bread
    Moist and flavorful banana bread can be achieved by using discard in place of some of the wet ingredients.

Preserving Sourdough Starter

  • Short-Term Storage (Up to 3 Weeks)
    The refrigerator is a suitable option for short-term storage. This method allows the starter to be revived relatively quickly with a few feedings at room temperature. Explore the provided guide for detailed storage and revival instructions.
  • Long-Term Storage (Months)
    Dehydration offers a viable option for longer storage periods lasting months. Through dehydration, the starter enters a dormant state, effectively pausing its activity.
  • Extended Storage (Years)
    For those seeking an extended storage solution (potentially years), complete dehydration followed by storage in a sealed container is recommended.

Restoring a Dormant Starter Culture

Sourdough starter cultures, harboring an array of beneficial microorganisms, can exhibit slight variations in their response to storage. Here’s a recommended approach for reviving a starter that has resided in the refrigerator:

  • Temperature Acclimatization
    Upon removing the starter from the refrigerator, allow it to reach room temperature on the kitchen counter for several hours. This gradual temperature shift facilitates a smoother revival process.
  • Initial Feeding
    Provide the starter with a feeding using its customary maintenance flour. This fresh flour infusion nourishes the culture and jumpstarts its activity.
  • Fermentation and Repeat Feedings
    Allow the mixture to ferment throughout the day or overnight. Subsequently, introduce another feeding. Repeat this process, ideally feeding twice daily for two days.
  • Evaluating Starter Strength
    Following this revival regimen, the starter should exhibit renewed vigor and be prepared for baking applications. Indicators of a strong starter include consistent daily fermentation activity.

It’s important to acknowledge that some sourdough starters may require a slightly different approach. While some bakers achieve successful bread-baking results directly from a refrigerated starter, others, like the example provided, may benefit from dedicated revival efforts. The provided guide offers a detailed roadmap for reviving a dormant starter culture and ensuring optimal performance for future baking endeavors.