There's something about sourdough bread that sets it apart from the rest. The thick, golden outer crust, open crumb, and tangy flavor... it's wonderful. Sourdough bread is leavened by wild yeast as opposed to the commercial options that are more commonly used in bread recipes (you're probably familiar with active dry and instant yeast). Unlike commercial yeast, wild yeast needs a vessel to thrive in. That's where sourdough starter comes in. Sourdough starters and bread can take a bit of trial and error at first, but they're worth it. Wild yeast adds flavor to bread that's incomparable.
Gather your Ingredients and Tools
A digital scale is important when creating a starter. Set yourself up for success by making sure that all measurements are exact.
Contrary to popular belief, the wild yeast used for sourdough is not actually captured from the air. It's present in the flour, and it's present in all flours. All-purpose flour is an easy option for getting started and it offers consistent results. However, you can also use rye flour, whole wheat flour, or a mix. Any grain-based flours should work.
Once your starter becomes active, the wild yeast will cause it to rise. While any bowl or container will work, it's helpful (and fun) to use a more narrow, tall storage option so you can track when/if the starter is rising. Large (32 ounce) deli cups are an excellent option, as are larger canning jars.
Place a clean jar, bowl, or deli cup on the scale and make sure it's zeroed out. Weigh out 4 ounces of flour.
Add in 4 ounces of filtered, room temperature water.
Using a spatula, stir the mixture vigorously until smooth. Cover with a paper towel or cheesecloth and secure with a rubber band. Leave at room temperature for 24 hours.
Day 2: Repeat
There most likely won't be a noticeable difference at this point. Give the mixture a good stir. Place the container back on the kitchen scale and zero it out. Add another 4 ounces of flour + 4 ounces of water. Stir vigorously until combined. Transfer the mixture to a clean container. (Another option is to weigh out the ingredients in a clean bowl, then wash the original container and use it again). Cover with a paper towel or cheesecloth and secure with a rubber band. Leave at room temperature for 24 hours.
After this point you may start noticing some activity on the starter. You can track if the starter is rising by marking its level with an additional rubber band or piece of tape.
You might start noticing bubbles at this point. The starter might have risen slightly. If not, don't panic! Sometimes it takes a bit longer depending on various factors (room temperature, etc).
What do the bubbles mean? The wild yeast have landed and are eating the sugars in the the flour. This causes the release of alcohol and carbon dioxide (bubbles).
Stir the mixture vigorously (it might smell slightly sweet and yeasty at this point). Place a clean bowl or container on the scale, and zero it out. Pour in 4 ounces of the starter and either discard the rest or give it away. Add 4 ounces of flour + 4 ounces of water. Stir vigorously to combine. Cover, and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.
The mixture should be very bubbly, and may have doubled in size by now. The consistency should be thinner and more elastic when stirred. The smell should be pungent. Go ahead and taste it if you like; it won't hurt you.
Place a clean bowl or container on the scale, and zero it out. Pour in 4 ounces of the starter and either discard the rest or give it away. Add 4 ounces of flour + 4 ounces of water. Stir vigorously to combine. Cover, and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.
Your starter should have doubled in size by now and is most likely ready to use! If not, repeat the process for another 1to 2 days.
You do not need to feed and and discard your sourdough starter every day unless you plan on baking with it every day. The "discarded starter" is what you bake with, and as you can see, it's easy to continue doubling the amount of starter you have if more is needed for a bread recipe. If you don't plan on baking bread for awhile, store the starter in an airtight container with a tight fitting lid and refrigerate. Feed once per week (4 ounces starter + 4 ounces flour + 4 ounces water). Before baking, you should feed the starter for a few days for best results.
- The starter isn't doing anything: If nothing is happening after 8 to 10 days, start over. Make sure the container is always clean and the mixture is stirred vigorously each day.
- There's a layer of liquid on top: This is OK. Pour the liquid off before adding the flour and water. Continue as normal.
- There's a very bad smell: If the starter begins to smell rancid as opposed to yeasty, bad bacteria got in there. Start over. To avoid this happening again, make sure the container is always clean to start with and that you stir vigorously every day.