This is your ultimate guide to sourdough starter and becoming a super healthy sourdough baker extraordinaire!
Sourdough can seem like a daunting and intimidating baking challenge but I’m writing this guide to show you how easy it is. I will explain what sourdough is, how it works and how to make it work for you. If you ever feel intimidated during the sourdough process just try to remember that up until two hundred years ago, all leavened bread was made traditionally with wild yeast and bacteria (sourdough)!
My fifteen year old sourdough is my pride and joy. I bake with it at least once a week and it’s become a part of my family and part of my history and evolution as a chef.
I’ve recently made a commitment to only eat soaked and fermented grains for the rest of my life. I know, that’s a big commitment! What that means is that I now make my own breads, crackers, pancakes, waffles, biscuits, muffins, tortillas, pasta, pastry crust, cookies, cakes, English muffins, and quickbreads all with my trusty and very happy mother starter.
It is my mission to transform every recipe that uses wheat flour into a sourdough recipe.
See all of my sourdough recipes here.
Let’s Start At The Beginning. What Is Sourdough?
Sourdough is a combination of flour, water, wild yeast and bacteria that live in symbiotic harmony. Wild yeast is responsible for leavening dough by producing carbon dioxide and bacteria are responsible for souring the dough by producing lactic and/or acedic acid.
The leavening process happens when the wild yeasts start to break down the sugars in the flour, predigesting it and using it for energy. The sugars in the flour feed the wild yeasts and allow them to multiply.
While the yeast is multiplying it is producing carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Carbon dioxide is responsible for making the bread rise. This “leavening” happens when the carbon dioxide gas is trapped under the network of gluten protein that is produced by mixing flour with water.
The beneficial bacteria in sourdough produces the lactic and acedic acid that gives sourdough it’s classic sour flavor and reduces phytic acid in grains that can block nutrients in the digestive tract.
Gluten is a kind of protein found in wheat grain that forms long strands when mixed with water thus giving bread the structure it needs to trap the gasses of fermentation.
Flours that are organically grown and that have a higher percentage of bran and husk will have more of their own wild yeasts and bacteria attached to the flour. That is why using a whole organic grain like rye is recommended for starting a starter from scratch.
Wild yeast and bacteria are everywhere. I mean everywhere! It’s on all organic and wild fruit and veggies and is responsible for the beginnings of fermentation. A fallen fruit in the organic orchard will ferment just the same as a fallen fruit in the jungle.
Yeast really likes sugar so it can be found in higher concentrations on fruits, think wine grapes with their white yeasty skins. Wild yeasts were responsible for the first alcoholic beverages like wine, beer and mead and had been utilized for leavening bread for countless centuries.
Important Sourdough Bread Terminology
Starter – A continuous mixture of flour, water, wild yeast and bacteria that is left to ferment. Starter supplies the yeast and acids needed to ferment any sourdough recipe. Portions of the active starter are removed to make bread and other baked goods and then replaced (feedings) with fresh flour and water. Starter is also referred to as “the mother” or “leavan”.
Discard – The portion of starter removed before feeding. Typically 50% of the starter is removed to make room for fresh flour and water. The action of removing a portion of fully-fermented starter and replacing it with fresh flour and water gives the starter fresh sugars to consume and revives the starter prior to baking. Discard can be used to make pancakes, waffles, crackers, and tortillas.
Feeding – The process of adding fresh flour and water to the starter to revive it before baking.
Levian – A small portion of stiff dough (usually around 60-70% hydration) made with flour, water and starter. The levian is left to ferment for up to 24 hours at room temperature before using it to start a loaf of bread.
Hydration – The word used to refer to the percentage by weight of water to flour in a starter or dough. “100% hydration” is a dough/starter made with equal weights water and flour. Typical bread dough is usually 65-85% hydration. The higher the hydration a dough is the larger the air pockets will be, but also the harder the dough will be to work with. My own personal recommended hydration for sourdough starter is 100%. This makes it extremely easy to divide and multiply for recipes. My bread loaves are around 75% hydration, they are easy to work with but still produce a nice open crumb.
Crumb – The texture of the baked good’s gluten pockets inside the crust. An open crumb has large airy pockets while a dense or tight crumb is heavy without any air pockets.
Leavening – The process of rising the bread through fermentation and trapped gas.
Fermentation – The act of fermenting a food with yeast and lactic acid bacteria. Fermentation preserves food by creating an acidic or alcoholic environment where potentially harmful bacteria cannot survive.
Proofing– The time it takes for a dough to rise. Typically a bread will proof two times before baking. The first proof happens after the ingredients have been mixed and kneaded and usually requires the dough to double in size. The second proof happens after the dough has been shaped and again can be as long as it takes for the dough to double in volume before baking.
Kneading – Kneading dough can be done by hand (usually on a floured surface) or by machine. Kneading is done before the first fermentation and is the action that produces gluten. It is done by folding one side of the dough toward the middle and pressing it down, turning the dough one-quarter turn and repeating the fold. These motions are repeated until the dough is smooth, elastic and passes the windowpane test.
Windowpane test – The windowpane test is used to determine if a strong gluten structure has been achieved. To do so you take a small piece of dough and flatten it in your fingers. Gently pull the dough out from the middle to the edges. If you can stretch the dough out into a translucent layer (hence the name windowpane) then the dough has a strong gluten structure.
Stretch and fold – An important kneading technique that encourages long gluten strands. The dough is left in the mixing bowl, taken by hand and pulled out in one direction before folding it over the middle. The dough is then turned 90 degrees and this process is repeated in the remaining three directions. Stretch and fold takes the place of common kneading and can happen anywhere from 3 to 10 times during the initial fermentation.
Oven-spring – The quick and significant rise when a dough is placed in a hot oven. As the yeast warms it gets really happy and starts to produce a lot of carbon dioxide very quickly creating a big “spring” in the bread. Oven-spring is best observed when dough has been scored.
Scoring – Slashing an uncooked dough with a very sharp blade right before baking. Scoring has two main functions, decoration and allowing for more oven-spring.
Docking – Pricking a flat dough like pizza or crackers with a docking tool or fork. This keeps the dough from bubbling up when it is cooked.
Carryover cooking – The cooking that continues inside the bread when it’s removed from the oven. Hot steam is trapped inside the crust of the bread and will continue to cook the dough as it cools to room temperature. I try to never cut a hot loaf of bread because it will change the texture of the whole loaf. When the steam is released from the bread it evaporates and the crumb will dry out much more quickly than a loaf cooled to room temperature.
Boule – The French word for “ball” and the term used to describe an artisan round loaf.
Batard – An oblong shaped loaf.
Baguette – The French classic, a long and narrow loaf.
Banneton – A bread proofing basket usually made of concentric circles of willow branches. Bannetons are used in bread making at home and in commercial bakeries. They are especially helpful in supporting high-hydration (soft) doughs so they can rise in a uniform shape. They give bread a distinctive artisan appearance.
Shaping – Shaping the dough is done after the first ferment and the punch down. It is the process that shapes the dough into a bun, boule, batard, baguette, sandwich loaf, roll, etc. Shaping is an important step that allows the dough to rise in a uniform and desired way by creating a tightly pulled outer layer of dough.
Punch down – To punch down a dough is to deflate the gasses from the dough. This step is usually preformed after the first proof and before shaping. It typically involves removing the dough from the proofing bowl to a floured surface. The dough is then pushed down with your fists, deflating any big gas bubbles. The dough is then rested for a few minutes before shaping.
Why Should You Eat Sourdough? What’s The Difference Between Sourdough And Bread Made With Rapid Rise Yeast?
If you’ve been following along on my journey to health then you probably know that I soak, sour or sprout all the grains, nuts and legumes that I eat, usually with some sort of acid (typically whey from my raw yogurt). This soaking process does several different things. The most important being it neutralizes the naturally occurring phytic acid in these plant foods.
Phytic acid acts as an anti-nutrient, actually blocking nutrients and minerals from being absorbed in your digestive tract. In small quantities it’s not a huge problem but for many people the complex carbohydrates that are provided from grains, legumes and nuts make up a huge proportion of their diets. That’s when reducing phytic acid becomes so important! This is really becoming a health problem when we talk about “plant-based” diets. Most modern people who practice plant-based, vegetarian, or vegan diets are often consuming much higher levels of phytic acid.
When you bake with sourdough the fermentation process is long. It gives plenty of time for producing the lactic acid required for phytic acid reduction. It is for this reason that I am committed to baking with sourdough and use alternative flours like almond very sparingly.
On the other hand, rapid rise yeast consumes the sugars in the flour so quickly and without the benefit of lactic acid producing bacteria that very little reduction in phytic acid occurs. This is a major problem considering the quantity of bread foods that most of the world consumes on a daily basis.
Almost all traditional peoples knew to soak and ferment the grains, nuts and legumes they were consuming. And all bread was naturally leavened (like sourdough) up until the invention of rapid rise yeast in the 1860’s. So for over 14,000 years of bread making, early humans were utilizing wild yeast. And over the last two centuries we have almost completely abandoned these traditional ways. If you are starting to wonder if there is a correlation between abandoning our traditional food-ways and our declining health then you are on the right track.
To learn more about traditional peoples, what real traditional foods they ate, and why they had superior health please read Sally Fallon-Morell’s new book Nourishing Diets: How Paleo, Ancestral and Traditional Peoples Really Ate.
The sourdough fermentation process also breaks down gluten protein making it much easier to digest!
Many people with gluten sensitivities are able to enjoy traditionally fermented sourdough bread! The longer the bread ferments, the more gluten protein is broken down. Real sourdough bread can be fermented for 12, 24, 36 and even up to 48 hours!
Tools of the Trade, What You Should Have On Hand Before Beginning Your Sourdough Journey
1. Access to freshly milled organic flour. This will make all the difference in the quality of your baked goods. There are many types of wheat flour, ancient grains and non-wheat flours that can be used for sourdough. I will list my top five kinds of wheat flour below.
- Organic All-Purpose – This is a perfect flour for feeding your starter and baking pies, cakes, muffins and tortillas.
- Organic Bread Flour – Bread flour is slightly higher in protein than all-purpose flour which in turn creates more gluten and traps more gasses giving bread more structure and loft. Bread flour is great for baking soft and lofty loaves of bread with a nice open crumb.
- Organic Whole Wheat – Whole wheat flour has the bran and husk of the flour kernel milled in. It has a sweet and earthy flavor with more natural fiber. I like to add up to 50% whole wheat flour in many recipes. The bran of the flour kernel will interfere with gluten production that is why 100% whole wheat bread is much more dense with a tighter crumb structure. Whole wheat flour is great for adding to any recipe to give it more flavor and texture.
- Organic Triple 200 Wheat Flours – Triple 200 flours are still whole wheat but the have passed through a 200 gauge sieve three times making the flour extra soft and light. They are fabulous for adding whole wheat flavor with a very delicate texture. Triple 200 is perfect for adding whole wheat flavor to delicate cakes, doughnuts, bread and cookies.
- Organic Heirloom and Ancient Grains – Heirloom and ancient grains are making a huge comeback as people start to reinvest in the traditional food-ways of our ancestors. Einkorn, Emmer, Spelt, and Kamut are just a few of the choices on the market. They all have varying levels of gluten, typically lower than industrialized hybridized wheat. Heirloom grains can have lots of different flavor profiles as well, from sweet to smoky to nutty. Once you are feeling confident with your baking skills it is fun to add these ancient grains into any of your baking projects!
If you don’t have access to freshly milled local flour there are several brands that I have personally had great success with.
2. Fresh un-chlorinated water. Chlorine can really harm the growth of wild yeast and bacteria, not to mention it’s gross. Chlorinated water can be left to off-gas for 24-48 hours in an open glass container if needed. But the best thing you can invest in is a high powered portable water filter. I would recommend The Berkey Water Filter to anyone. It’s portable, has a great capacity, and the filters last years with proper care. It is also so reassuring to have the Berkey in case of emergency situations. Please do not use bottled water. Plastic water bottles are one of the most unsustainable choices that people make.
3. A baking scale. This is such a crucial tool for baking exceptional sourdough. Can you bake good bread without one? Sure. I did it for years but my bread was elevated to the next level when I started paying close attention to the hydration and weights of my recipes.
4. A glass storage container. The proper storage container for your starter is really important. The starter needs to breathe but shouldn’t be left open to the elements. Fruit flies can be a bothersome pest to sourdough and can contaminate a starter with unwanted bacteria. I choose to use a locking lid jar with the rubber seal removed. This allows the starter to breathe without it drying out or becoming infested with intruders.
5. A set of ceramic or glass mixing bowls. Sometimes the metal alloys found in aluminum or even stainless steel mixing bowls can have a negative effect on fermentation. I suggest a sturdy set of ceramic or glass mixing bowls to keep your starter in prime condition for baking.
6. A proofing basket (Banneton). Traditional proofing baskets made from willow are beautiful and functional. They give sourdough loaves an artisanal shape and texture. The light weight willow is breathable and the shape of the basket supports the dough and gives the bread optimal conditions to rise to full potential.
7. A dutch oven. I can’t stress enough how much baking in a dutch oven improved my bread game. The dutch oven traps steam inside while baking, keeping the crust soft and stretchy and allowing the bread to rise as high as possible. The lid of the dutch oven is removed halfway through baking to allow the crust to brown nicely.
8. A dough whisk. This handy little tool is perfect for mixing doughs of all kinds. You can even use it to stretch and fold your dough.
9. Parchment paper. Parchment paper is a baking luxury that I highly recommend. It can be used to line cookie sheets when making crackers, in-between balls of dough or as a sling for transporting your delicate loaves to the oven. Make sure to look for an eco-friendly brand and reuse parchment whenever possible!
10. A bread lame. A bread lame is the tool use by bakers to easily hold a sharp razor blade for scoring bread. The lame gives you a nice handle and provides comfort and accuracy during the important scoring process.
And finally here are some fun optional additions to the sourdough baker’s tool chest.
How To Start A Sourdough Starter
There are three main ways to start a sourdough starter. Borrow, buy or trap.
My favorite method of acquiring sourdough is definitely from a friend. If you can find someone with a healthy, active sourdough starter who is willing to part with some then you can be baking as soon as the next day! Sourdough is a joyful and loving hobby and most sourdough bakers will be happy to share that passion with a beginner.
You can also purchase a dried starter from many different sources. My first starter was originally given to me as a gift from my husband before we were married. Little did he know how important that gift would be to our health! There are some really awesome choices for sourdough starter on the market and I will list a few below that I personally trust.
If you want to get super authentic you can start your own starter by trapping wild yeast off of flour, fruits, herbs or vegetables.
To start a starter with flour you will want to use organic, freshly milled flour if that is available. Organic rye flour is a good choice for starting a vigorous starter. Rye flour tends to have plenty of wild yeast and bacteria and (in my case) makes a sweet smelling ferment.
Easy instructions for trapping your own wild yeast and bacteria strains to make a 100% hydration sourdough starter. This process takes fourteen days to complete so plan accordingly. You will end up with a sourdough starter that can be used for baking breads, cakes, tortillas and more!
- 1050 Grams Organic Rye Flour Or other organic wheat flour
- 1050 Grams Water Un-chlorinated, filtered (Not Plastic Bottled)
Mix 50g of flour and 50g of water into a paste. Store it in a clean locking lid jar with the rubber seal removed. Keep your jar in a draft-free place at room temperature. This is the beginning of your starter!
Remove 50g of starter (half) from the jar and replace it with 25g of flour and 25g of water. Stir well and store it at room temperature.
Remove 50g of starter (half) from the jar and replace it with 25g of flour and 25g of water. Stir well and store it at room temperature.
You may start to see gas bubbles as early as day three. If not, just keep feeding your starter once a day.
Remove 50g of starter (half) from the jar and replace it with 25g of flour and 25g of water. Stir well and store it at room temperature.
By day seven you should be seeing some signs of activity. The starter should be bubbling, smell fermented (slightly sweet, sour, or alcoholic). You may even see it rise after feeding.
If there is mold, off color, off smell and little to no activity do not continue the feedings and please see my troubleshooting guide in the body of this article.
Morning: Remove 50g of starter (half) from the jar and replace it with 25g of flour and 25g of water. Stir well and store it at room temperature.
Evening: Remove 50g of starter (half) from the jar and replace it with 25g of flour and 25g of water. Stir well and store it at room temperature.
Some people have found that their starter is ready to bake with by day 7. I add an extra 7 days of double feedings to insure that the starter is powerful, active and ready for all the baking projects!
Keep in mind, Sourdough is as unique as you are. Results may vary!
The Difference Between Active Sourdough Starter And Discard
In my recipes I use the term “active sourdough starter” to indicate a starter that is at its peak fermentation. This is the best time to use the starter for baking breads and in recipes that will undergo further fermentation. The starter is active, has doubled or peaked, and is ready for more fermenting.
But I also use “discard” in many of my recipes! Sourdough discard is fully fermented and therefore it is extremely digestible. It has usually spent some time in the refrigerator so it will be deflated, thicker and more sour. Some people choose to throw discard out before refreshing their starter but I choose to use this extra fermented flour in some of my recipes. Discard is my solution to having a wheat flour baked good that doesn’t need any extra fermentation time or one that will be fermenting for a very long time. If you are baking often enough, then discard doesn’t really need to be discarded! Waste not, want not!
How to measure your sourdough starter for consistency in a recipe.
Always stir your sourdough starter down to release trapped gas!
Here is why,
One cup of active 100% hydration sourdough starter weighs approximately 165 grams.
One cup of 100% hydration sourdough starter discard weighs approximately 250 grams.
This is a noticeable difference and the reason why all sourdough recipes should use a common hydration percentage, be stirred down before measuring, and be weighed for accuracy.
Converting Your Pre-existing Sourdough Starter To 100% Hydration For Ease Of Use
A 100% hydration sourdough starter is quickly becoming my standard measurement. Once you starter is the exact hydration percentage you can feel very confident in the recipes provided here.
To convert your starter mix 100 grams of flour and 100 grams of water together into a thick paste. Add 20 grams of your sourdough starter and let it ferment. For future feedings always use equal weight flour to water and you will keep your starter at 100% hydration.
Feeding Your Sourdough For Successful Baking
Learning how to feed your sourdough starter and understanding the optimal time to use it will ultimately make you a better baker. I wrote a post all about feeding sourdough starter. See it now ↓.
Get My Favorite Sourdough Recipes Now!
My Favorite Sourdough Recipes For Beginners
Recipes For The More Seasoned Baker
Find these and many more sourdough recipes in the Sourdough Archives!
Troubleshooting Your Sourdough Starter
There are no bubbles in my starter – Your starter probably needs to be fed. Yeast can only produce carbon dioxide if it has a source of sugar to consume. Feed you starter with equal weight flour and water.
I fed my starter and there are still no bubbles or rise – If your starter is new continue to feed it based on the timeline instructions above. Hopefully within 14 days you will see signs of the yeast and bacteria colonizing, becoming stronger and more active. If the starter has been refrigerated for a long period of time it may take several feedings to “wake up”.
There is grey or brown liquid on the top of my stater – This liquid is called “hootch”. It is a byproduct of an underfed over-fermented starter. It will smell strongly of alcohol and while unpleasant in appearance, cannot hurt you. You can pour it off and discard half of your starter before re-feeding or stir it back into the starter for a very strong sour flavor.
There is mold on my starter – Unfortunately mold spores can contaminate a starter through the flour, water or air. In this case, it is best to discard the contaminated starter, wash all sourdough utensils thoroughly and replace it with a fresh starter. Keep your new starter as active as possible. The production of acids in the fermenting process will prohibit mold growth.
My starter smells like alcohol – When all the sugars in the flour have been consumed the acids will start to become alcoholic. A starter that smells strongly of alcohol needs to be fed! Feed your starter with equal weights flour and water.
My starter is bubbly but it won’t rise bread – In the early stages of sourdough baking this can be a real problem. It happens to all of us. A sourdough starter needs to be used often, fed often and kept at a warm room temperature.
First, feed your starter with double feeding for three days.
Second, make sure to remove starter every time before feeding. This will give the remaining yeast more food sources and it will encourage the strong yeast to multiply.
Third, make sure you’re storing your starter in a warm environment that encourages the fermentation process. If you keep your house cool, try placing your starter or bread dough in the oven with the light on. Warming mats can also be purchased or dehydrators with a very low setting can work as well.
Having a sourdough insurance policy
S*** happens, lets face it. It’s best to always have a sourdough insurance policy!
Sourdough starters can get thrown away by well intentioned family members, house cleaners, or guests.
They can get contaminated by mold, unhealthy bacteria, fruit flies or chemicals.
The can get forgotten in the back of the fridge for years, left out until rock hard, or accidentally cooked in preheating ovens.
I guarantee that at some point in your sourdough journey you will have a close call with your starter.
Here is your insurance policy!
Dehydrated Starter – Once your starter is active and producing wonderful baked goods you can dehydrate that active starter and keep it indefinitely in an airtight storage container. To do so, spread one cup of sourdough starter, as thin as possible, on a large sheet of parchment paper. Lay the paper on a baking sheet and dry the starter in a warm place (the oven with the light on works well) until no moisture remains. Or use your dehydrator on the lowest setting. Once the starter is completely dry you can break it into small pieces for storage.
To use dehydrated starter – Make a slurry of 50 grams of flour and 100 grams of water. Add 50 grams of dehydrated starter and let it rehydrate for 8-12 hours in a warm place. Feed your starter everyday after until it is strong and active and ready to bake with.
Recipes That Use Pre-made Or Leftover Sourdough Bread
Sometimes I’m baking so much that there will be leftover bread from the previous loaf. When this happens I just throw the heels and leftovers in a bag in the freezer. Every time I have a old piece of bread I add it to my freezer stash. I use this leftover bread to make bread crumbs!
To Make Bread Crumbs – Spread out the frozen heels and leftover pieces of bread on a baking sheet and defrost them at room temperature. It’s okay if they dry out a little. In fact it is better. That is why I always freeze the bread prior to making crumbs. Frozen bread is always drier after being defrosted.
Tear the defrosted bread into bite size chunks and place them in your food processor. Pulse the food processor until the crumbs are small and uniform in size. For stuffing or dressing you can leave the crumbs larger, but if you want to use the crumbs like panko make sure they are small and uniform.
Recipes You Won’t Want To Miss
Now you know everything I know about sourdough!
I hope you get inspired to start baking this healthy and time-honored style of bread and baked goods. Please feel free to leave a comment, ask a question or find me on facebook to chat about sourdough!