How to make, feed, and maintain sourdough starter from scratch (2024)

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Written by Taylor Tobin


How to make, feed, and maintain sourdough starter from scratch (1)

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  • To make a sourdough loaf, you need to begin with sourdough "starter" that contains wild yeast.
  • It takes about seven days to get sourdough starter to the point where you can use it to make bread.
  • If your starter looks dried out or otherwise unusual, you can perk it up with a quick feeding.

How to make, feed, and maintain sourdough starter from scratch (4)


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How to make, feed, and maintain sourdough starter from scratch (6)


Sourdough bread is hearty, flavorful, and versatile. For the baker in charge, it also requires a significant amount of prep time and plenty of patience.

To get that classic sourdough tang and texture, you need to whip up a sourdough starter, or a mixture of flour and water designed to cultivate wild yeast for baking. Fortunately, the seasoned sourdough experts Kyrie Luke, recipe developer and healthy lifestyle blogger of Healthfully Rooted Home, and Sim Cass, dean of techniques of artisan bread baking at the Institute of Culinary Education, have some answers.


Storing and maintaining your sourdough starter

Because a sourdough starter is a "living organism," it's never a totally "finished" product. It requires maintenance and proper storage to keep it usable. The good news? Once you have a maintenance routine down, you can keep your sourdough starter "alive" indefinitely.

"How often you maintain your sourdough starter depends on how often you [bake with] it," Luke says. "If you use it everyday or every couple of days, you'll just leave it on the counter and feed it daily. If you use your starter only about once or twice a week, you can leave it in the fridge between uses and feed it one or two times a week."

When you "feed" your starter, make sure that you also discard some of your starter before adding to it (since sourdough starters expand in size). Luke uses one cup of flour and one cup of water as her go-to feeding formula, and she'll discard up to half of her existing starter before new feedings, depending on the volume and the overall health and age of the starter.

Glass jars and other lidded glass containers work best for sourdough starter storage, and a transparent jar will allow you to see how your starter is faring at any given time. Because cool temperatures slow the growth process of the starter's yeast, it's advisable to keep your starter in the fridge if you aren't planning to use it in the near future.

If you miss a few feedings and your starter begins to look dry and deflated, Luke says you can easily reactivate it by "feeding it…a lot!" On the subject of reactivation, Cass tells us that, if you're starting off with a refrigerated starter that's gone dormant (i.e. the yeast has slowed down from lack of "feeding"), you might notice a yellowish liquid forming on top (known to sourdough makers as "hooch") or even some black sediment (which are yeast cells that have died). In this case, Cass says you should "leave it at room temperature overnight. On the next day, feed it with equal parts flour and cool water for two days. The starter should be bubbly and smell tasty and sweet."


Sourdough starter tips and tricks

How to make, feed, and maintain sourdough starter from scratch (7)

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  • Don't panic if you see dark discharge or smell an alcoholic aroma. Luke insists that a bit of crustiness, a boozy fragrance, and even a dark liquid layer aren't anything to worry about. "You might notice a crust on the top – this just means that it needs to be stirred more frequently. Depending on the time of year and how warm you keep your house, you might need to stir your starter every 12 hours," Luke says. "Also, you could keep a damp tea towel over it, and that'll prevent the crust from forming." If you smell alcohol, Luke explains that just means the starter needs to be fed. And that scary-looking black water? According to Luke, "this is also normal. It just means that the starter is hungry."
  • Consider other uses for sourdough starter beyond a loaf of bread. If you find yourself with more starter than you need for bread, there are plenty of other ways to use this powerful stuff. "I would suggest using your starter for things you never thought of, like breading chicken, making muffins, and making pizza crust. The more you use and feed your starter, the healthier it'll be!" Luke says.
  • Don't overthink it. It's easy to assume that starters are a complicated project and that messing the whole thing up is a foregone conclusion. However, Cass says that there's no point in overthinking your starter-making."It's been done for years! Just make sure that you believe in the process," Cass says. Luke agrees that you should "go in with confidence." She also emphasizes the fact that "sourdough starters are super resilient. If you think it's dead, it's probably not. If something seems wrong, it's usually nothing that a few feedings can't fix."


Insider's takeaway

Daunting though they may seem to a baking novice, sourdough starters are an easy albeit time-consuming project, and they can result in big rewards in the form of delicious bread and other culinary treasures. Take your time, have faith in your process, and remember that your "mistakes" are fixable.

Taylor Tobin

Taylor Tobin is a contributing writer for Insider and a freelance food and beverage journalist with bylines at Eater, Food & Wine, Austin Chronicle, Wine Enthusiast, and Southern Living, among others. She lives in Austin with her rescue dog Marty McFly, who keeps her company as she tests kitchen products at home, develops new recipes, and visits cafes, beer gardens, and restaurants throughout the city. Follow her on Instagram at @tee_tobes.


How to make, feed, and maintain sourdough starter from scratch (2024)


How to make, feed, and maintain sourdough starter from scratch? ›

1:4:4 Ratio: This ratio involves using four times the weight of flour and water compared to the starter. For instance, if you have 25 grams of starter, you would feed it with 100 grams of flour and 100 grams of water. Use this ratio if you want a sourdough starter that is ready to bake within 10-12 hours.

What is the formula for feeding sourdough starter? ›

How To Feed Your Sourdough Starter (at a Glance) Feed what's left in the jar with equal parts flour and water by weight (1:1:1 feeding ratio). Let rise at room temperature (covered or airtight) ideally 75+ F, until bubbly, active and double in size (2-12 hrs.).

What is the best ratio for maintaining sourdough starter? ›

I like to start by eyeballing approximately how much sourdough starter I already have and feeding it at least that much in equal parts of flour and water. For example, if you have about 1 cup of sourdough starter, you will want to feed it at least 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup flour.

How do you maintain a large amount of sourdough starter? ›

Storing: Crumble Into Dry Flour

This is by far my preferred method for long-term sourdough starter storage. Place a large dollop of your ripe sourdough starter in the bottom of a large bowl. Cover the starter with lots of flour—you can use the same flour used for feedings or 100% white flour.

How do you make enough sourdough starter? ›

There is no single best ratio, but I've found a ratio of 1:5:5 fed twice daily at 12-hour intervals to produce a sourdough starter that's strong and healthy. This ratio corresponds to 20% ripe starter carryover, 100% water, and 100% flour (a mix of whole grain rye and white flour) at each feeding.

What is the ratio of flour and water to feed sourdough starter? ›

I typically use a 1:3:3 ratio meaning that however much starter I keep I feed it 3xs the amount of flour and water. So let's use our example again of keeping 10 grams of starter. For the 1:3:3 feeding you would give your starter 30 grams of flour and 30 grams of water resulting in 70 grams of total starter.

What is the best feeding schedule for sourdough starter? ›

Before using your starter, you may want to feed it every 6 to 12 hours for 24 to 48 hours to get it nice and active. From the counter I like to feed it every 12 hours for 24 hours and then 4 to 6 hours before use. This ensures the best rise and taste in my breads.

Do you have to discard sourdough starter every time you feed it? ›

It would be best if you discarded some portion of your starter each time you feed it unless you want to continue to let it grow. Eventually, you need to discard the used “food” (flour and water) that's been used to sustain your starter during the last fermentation period.

What happens if I forgot to discard starter before feeding? ›

If you didn't discard a portion of your starter each time you feed it, two things would happen: Your starter would grow to an enormous, unmanageable size. Your starter would likely become more and more inhospitable to the bacteria and yeast we want as the mixture would become ever more acidic.

Can you overfeed your sourdough starter? ›

Premature discarding and overfeeding will weaken your starter and elongate the process. Don't discard and re-feed a weak starter before it shows increasing bubble activity or height from the previous feeding. If you don't see more bubbles or a faster rise each day, skip a feeding, and give it more time.

Do you stir sourdough starter when feeding? ›

In short, to “activate” each, you simply add flour and water, stir, and wait — that's all there is to feeding a sourdough starter.

Can I use starter that has fallen? ›

You can keep a “peaked” starter in the refrigerator for about 12 hours (sometimes more), and still use it directly in your mix. You do not need to let it come up to room temperature. If your starter is well past peak (a few hours) and visibly falling, you can give it a “refresh” feeding to reactivate it.

How can I make my starter more active? ›

Starter is most active at 75-85F. Find a warm location in your kitchen/house, use warm water during feeding, consider using a heating pad or proofing box, and monitor the temperature with a thermometer. If your schedule allows, let refrigerated starter warm up to room temp before feeding. Feed with different flour.

Can you add too much flour to sourdough starter? ›

Because, yes, you can overfeed your sourdough. The explanation is quite simple: if you add too much water and flour, you're basically diluting the natural population of yeast and bacteria.

What is the healthiest flour for sourdough bread? ›

Compared to whole wheat flour, rye flour is said to be the most nutrient- and amylase-dense option for a sourdough starter. Overall, it has a lower gluten protein content than wheat flour, which means it produces slack, sticky, and dense doughs.

Can you overfeed sourdough starter? ›

Premature discarding and overfeeding will weaken your starter and elongate the process. Don't discard and re-feed a weak starter before it shows increasing bubble activity or height from the previous feeding. If you don't see more bubbles or a faster rise each day, skip a feeding, and give it more time.

What is peak to peak feeding sourdough starter? ›

To deacidify your starter, you will use the “Peak-to-Peak” feeding method for 3 to 5 feedings over a few days. With the Peak-to-Peak method, you ignore the clock, watch your starter's activity, then discard and feed your sourdough starter as it is peaking.

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