Fast Track to Sourdough
Getting A Good Starter
A good starter is the heart of the sourdough experience. Starting and maintaining a starter isn't hard, people have been doing it for between 6,000 and 10,000 years. You can do it too. There are no mysteries here. As my son's martial arts teacher used to remind him before a match, "Relax, it's just a fight. Remember to breathe!" Only with sourdough, it's not a fight. So, don't get uptight. And remember to breathe - it helps you relax. In case you got here from your favorite search engine or a link on another web site, this article is part of our "Fast Track to Sourdough" series of articles.
Since you are here, reading these pages, I suspect you've either never made sourdough before, or that you've not been successful with it. As a result, I strongly encourage you to get a known good sourdough starter from a reliable source. If you have a friend who bakes sourdough you like, that's probably the best source. Both King Arthur Flour and Sourdoughs International sell their own starters, which are quite good.
However, if you can't get a starter from a friend, my top suggestion for a beginning sourdough baker is to get Carl Griffith's 1847 Oregon Trail starter. The starter is one of the best and most reliable starters I have used. And it's free. Carl gave the starter away, and after his passing, his friends have taken over the task. Did I mention it's free? The starter has been in Carl's family since at least 1847 when his family moved west on the Oregon Trail. To get a free starter from the Friends of Carl, just surf over to their web page and follow their instructions for ordering starter. While all you need to send them is a stamped self-addressed envelope (did I mention it's free?), it would be a good thing to send them a buck or two to help support their efforts.
There are a few caveats here. If you picked up a packet of starter when you were visiting San Francisco a few years back, or if you have any starter that is more than a few months old, set it aside until you are more experienced. That packet is so far past its prime you are better off not using now, if ever. Similarly, if you have a packet included with Sourdough Jack's book, it has more historical than baking value - the book hasn't been printed in several decades. Finally, if you have a packet of San Francisco Gold Rush sourdough starter (which is sold in many health food stores), see if you can get your money back. If you can't, save yourself time, money and aggravation and just throw it away and get some GOOD starter from one of the sources above. The most positive comment I have seen online about this starter was, "you can do better." Having used this product, I think that comment was far too kind.
Once you get the starter, revive it according to the instructions that came with it. When your starter is ready according to the instructions that came with it, it's time to go to the next page in this series, "Maintaining Your Starter."
Many people want to start their experience in sourdough by making their own sourdough starter. I STRONGLY discourage this. If you haven't ever worked with sourdough, you don't know what a good starter should look like, smell like, or how to handle it. This is like starting your bicycle riding experience by building your own bike. I get more unhappy emails from beginners who are having trouble creating a starter than ALL other issues combined. Once you have sourdough experience, by all means, make your own starter. Until then, I cannot suggest that you use a pre-made starter strongly enough. If you just have to make your own starter, check out "Starting a Starter" and then move on to specific instructions at "Starter, My Way."