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Starting a Starter

On this page we talk about how sourdough starters work, and what you're doing when you start a sourdough starter. If you're in too much of hurry to read this and want to just make a starter, there are links to three tried and true methods of starting starters on the left and bottom of this page.

This is the most hit upon page at our site. A lot of people think if they can just start a good starter, they'll have mastered the art of sourdough. And if you look for sourdough starters on Google, chances are good that you'll wind up here. On this and three associated pages we'll talk about how to start a starter. However, having a good starter won't make you a good sourdough baker any more than having a hot race car will make you a great racer. Sure, a racer needs a good car to win, and a baker needs a good culture to make good sourdough bread, but you need to know what to do with your tools to get the most out of them. So, I hope you'll look around here and pick up some techniques and maybe some recipes too! I hope you'll also look at the pages that talk about maintaining a starter, using a starter, storing a starter and reviving a starter. Together, those pages in the Sourdough Starter Primer will really help you get going with your exploration of sourdough.

I cannot over-emphasize that the best way to get started in sourdough is with a known good starter. It eliminates so many of the variables as you embark on your sourdough journey. And this is even truer if you aren't an experienced baker - you're just fighting too many battles at once.

If you don't have any baking experience, I suggest you get some before you start down the sourdough path. I've put together a painless introduction to baking that can have you baking in less than a day. Please give it a try.

If you are a sourdough beginner, I strongly encourage you to get a known good starter. Perhaps from a friend who also can help answer your sourdough questions. If you don't have a friend who is a sourdough baker, you might get a starter from a commercial source such as Sourdoughs International, or King Arthur Flour, or Northwest Sourdough; or from a non-profit source, such as the Friends of Carl, who make the excellent Carl Griffith's 1847 Oregon Trail starter available for the cost of a stamped, self-addressed envelope.

While I strongly encourage sourdough beginners to get a known good starter, sooner or later, most sourdough fans want to start their own starter. In looking over the emails from the past decade, I have seen patterns emerge. A careful reading suggests most of my correspondents weren't using the techniques I describe on these pages. They used someone else's techniques. Maybe from a web site, maybe from a book, maybe from a friend's advice. And they dropped me a note because the starter wasn't starting. My instructions do work. They've worked for all but a small handful of people who have tried them - the ones who don't follow instructions very well. So, I am sure if you'll take the time to read, understand and follow the instructions, you'll get a good starter with any of the three methods I discuss. The rest of this page discusses some of the underlying mechanisms that are involved in capturing a sourdough starter. I think reading this will help you understand what you are doing, and why.

The mythology of sourdough is that you are capturing yeast from the air. However, there are many reasons to believe that doesn't happen very often. When people use sterilized flour and water to try to catch a culture, it fails much more often than not. When they don't use sterilized ingredients, it almost always works. In short, the flour has wild yeast in it, and chances are you are providing the lactobacillus from your skin. All you need to do is encourage their growth.

A few years back the lot behind our house was being sold. We decided to buy it. The lot was a vacant, untended lot in our hometown. It was a weed patch. And it was aggravating the neighbor's sinuses. When the neighbors found out we had bought it, they hinted it was time SOMEONE started taking care of the lot. We really didn't want to sod the lot, nor did we want to seed it. A bit of reading, and we had our strategy in hand. We weren't shooting for a lawn that could be featured in a gardening magazine, just something that would be OK and not make the neighbors sick.

The grasses people cultivate like to be watered often, so we ran a hose to the lot behind our house and started watering the lot regularly. Next, most weeds like to grow tall, so we started mowing the lot as often as we mowed our own lawn. Our mower is a mulching mower, and the theory is that the mower will destroy weed seeds and chop the grass and weeds so finely they would decompose and quickly act as fertilizer. When we had some fertilizer or weed'n'feed left over from our yard, we'd put it on the back lot.

The first year we did this, the lot was better largely because we were knocking the tops off the weeds. The second year, we started having grass move in from the neighbors lots. Each year there were fewer weeds and more grass. It never became a candidate for inclusion in a gardening magazine, but it was far from the worst lot in town.

You're probably wondering why I told that story. Honestly, it is the best analogy to starting a sourdough starter I have been able to come up with. And it IS a true story. When you use whole grain rye or wheat flour, the flour is covered with a LOT of microorganisms. We're interested in two of them, yeast and lactobacillus bacteria. When we mix flour and water, and keep adding more flour and water we are encouraging the critters that we want to take over the starter. By creating a hospitable environment, the critters we want will inevitably take over the culture. However, just as in the back lot, you are never completely rid of weeds, or the unwanted microorganisms. As long as you keep the conditions in your starter favorable, the unwanted critters will be kept under control. But, just as in the back lot, if you stop treating the starter right the unwanted critters can take over.

That story makes it sound like a straightforward process for both the yard and the starter. Sadly, it isn't. Stray weeds can take over the yard. Keep watering and mowing, and they go away. Similarly, when a starter starts there is no assurance that the right microorganisms will be the first ones out of the gate to take over the culture, and that they'll keep control over the starter. As noted above, whole grain flour has many, many microorganisms on it, and we're really only interested in two of them.

I've gotten a lot of emails from people whose starter took off in 12 hours or less, only to fizzle out the next day and do nothing. The answer here is to keep feeding the starter twice a day. I've had emails from people whose starter smelled awful. Again, the answer is to keep feeding the starters. When the right critters take over the first thing they do is kill off the wrong ones, and after a slight lull the starter starts smelling better and begins acting like a starter should. In general, I wouldn't dream of using a starter that won't double itself between feedings and that is less than a week old. If the secret of baking is patience, the secret of sourdough baking is even more patience.

A number of recent emails report that their starter grows mold on the side of the container about 4 days into the process. I've never had this happen. It is very important to feed your starter as much, and as often, as the instructions call for.

In any of the methods we use to start a starter, some starter is discarded. The amount of food that is added to a starter is proportional to the amount of starter you are maintaining. The growth is always a geometric progression. If you don't discard some of the starter, the amount of starter you have will grow beyond belief. If you are using the "Starter Mike's Way" method, which doubles the starter every 12 hours, you will have enough starter to fill a swimming pool in about 10 days. The other methods aren't much more thrifty. To keep the quantity of starter from getting totally out of control, the answer is to discard some of the starter before each feeding. Many people, like me, don't like discarding food. And the starter IS flour and water. So, here's my advice. If your starter is stable, it is fine to save the starter you would otherwise discard. I suggest refrigerating it. If your starter is too new to be stable, there is no telling what bacteria are running rampant in it. While that immature starter may be safe, I can't recommend saving the immature starter when you are first starting a starter.

Some people suggest using fruit, such as grapes; vegetables, such as cabbage; or even commercial baker's yeast to help start a culture. That's not necessary. In fact, it slows things down. You see, the yeast on grapes or cabbage are the ones that thrive on grapes or cabbages, rather than the yeast that thrive in wheat or rye flour. As mentioned in the "What IS sourdough?" FAQ, baker's yeast won't survive in a starter. What you want is yeast that will thrive and survive in a grain-based-sourdough starter. So, just use the yeast and lactobacillus that are already on the grain. You'll enjoy the grapes and cabbage a lot more than your sourdough culture will.

A recurring question with regard to a sourdough starter is what sort of water may be used with it. Many people insist that sourdough starter can be killed by chlorinated water. Others say that sourdough can be maintained on chlorinated water but that it cannot be started with chlorinated water. In my experience, chlorinated water has not been a problem. I have started, fed and used starters with chlorinated water with no problems. However, I have heard that the more persistent forms of chlorine used by some cities, such as chloramine, can cause problems.

In general, if your tap water smells and tastes good it will probably work well with sourdough. If you have problems with your starter, you may want to try using dechlorinated water. Since few home filters will remove chlorine from water, and from what I am told neither boiling nor standing will remove chloramine, I suggest that you try bottled water if you are experiencing what you think might be water related problems with your sourdough. Use spring water or drinking water, NOT distilled water. Distilled water has no minerals in it, and the minerals in spring water and drinking water really help the starter. There are other water issues, which we discuss in the water section of the All About Ingredients page.

The last "big question" we'll cover here is one that all beginning sourdough bakers want answered, "How will I know when my starter is ready to use?" There are two tests I use for a new starter. (1) I wouldn't use a starter that is less than one week old. Before then, there are probably too many strange critters in the starter. I discussed the progression of microorganisms in a Mike's (more or less) Weekly Baking Tips newsletter. The article is now in the breadblog also. (2) I wouldn't use a starter that can't double in size between feedings. With the thickness of the three starters I recommend, if they can't double themselves in size between feedings, they can't raise your bread either. This last test does not apply to thinner starters, starters where you are using more water (or less flour) to feed them. I don't recommend thinner starters for beginners, as things tend to happen too quickly with these starters. They can go from happy to distressed in a day. Thicker starters give you more time to figure out what's going on and correct the matter.

We are showcasing three different ways of starting starters. Links to these methods are in the navigation bar to the left, and are repeated below. All of these ways of starting starters work, and in the end the results are very similar and the processes have a lot in common. In each case, the baker creates an environment that is favorable to the growth of sourdough-friendly-yeast and sourdough bacteria. As the yeast and bacteria grow, they displace competing organisms. Or, they use a variation on the three guidelines I suggest.

The three ways that we'll talk about are a method that Professor Calvel describes in his book, "The Taste of Bread", the Desem technique that Laurel Robertson describes in "The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book", and finally my own method which is derived from many discussions in the Usenet newsgroup rec.food.sourdough. There are links to the left that will take you to the pages with the techniques. In all cases, keep feeding your starter for at least a week at room temperature to give it time to mature.