Starting a starter, Mike's Way
This is a part of our "Sourdough Starter Primer" and a thumbnail sketch of how I start a sourdough starter. It is, deliberately, devoid of details. I've been asked to cut the flowery prose and explanations, so as an experiment, I'm doing just that. If you need more detail, want to see a photo essay on starting a starter, or need to do some trouble shooting, please check the other tabs.
Let's be clear here. People have been starting sourdough starters for thousands of years. They were starting starters long before they understood that there were living creatures in the starter. It is really easy to over think this mess and to obsess over it. Don't go there. Relax. Remember to breathe. The process is simple and it works. If you forget a feeding, it's not the end of the world.
Get some flour: Pick up a sack of organic, stone-ground, whole wheat or rye flour. Ask your grocer which flour sells the best and check the expiration dates on the sacks of flour - you want to get the freshest sack of flour you can find at your grocery or health food store. I don't recommend using flour you ground yourself because most home mills overheat the flour which kills the organisms you want to cultivate - remember, you aren't catching your starter from the air, you're cultivating it from micro-organisms already on the flour.
Get some water: Many people ask what sort of water may be used with sourdough. Many people insist that sourdough starter can be killed by chlorinated water. Others say 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.
Get a container: You'll need some sort of container in which to mix your starter. I suggest a small mixing bowl or measuring cup that will hold between 2 to 4 cups (500 to 1000 ml). You can use a glass, ceramic, plastic or stainless steel container. You want a container you can cover with cling wrap (or plastic wrap).
Pick a place: You want a place where the starter isn't likely to be disturbed and where you can maintain the temperature within the 65 to 85F range (18 to 30C). If you need a warmer area, turning on the light in an oven will often get your temperature where you need it. Similarly, the top of many refrigerators is also a hot spot.
Mix up the starter: mix 1/4 cup of water with 1/2 cup of whole grain flour scooped from the bag. If you weigh your ingredients, which I recommend, use 60 grams each of flour and water. (Please note, the amounts measured by weight or volume are not quite the same. The amounts were selected to be fairly convenient for people using weight or volumetric measurements.) Mix the ingredients well, cover with plastic wrap. The mixture will be a thick mass, even a very thick mass. Once you've stirred the starter, scrape down the sides of the container to make sure you don't leave food on the side of the container to feed mold.
Wait - Sourdough is all about patience.
What are you waiting for? You want the starter to start bubbling, to be active. You want the starter to rise and reach a peak.
How long are you waiting? About 12 hours is usually enough for the starter to become active. Bubbling can begin a few hours into the wait, or it can take as long as 24 hours. If the starter is not active in 12 hours, give it another 12 hours. If it still isn't active, give it another 12 hours.
What if it's not active after 36 hours? I tend to think that means nothing is going to happen. Check the steps above to make sure you did them right. If everything is OK, try again. If you've tried twice with no results, try a different brand of flour. If you get here again, get a known good starter from a friend, the Friends of Carl or a commercial source such as Sourdoughs International or King Arthur Flour.
Feed the Starter! When the starter is active, you should feed it. Add another 1/4 cup, or 50 grams, of water and stir the starter. Then add 1/2 cup, or 50 grams, of whole grain flour. Stir again. As a reminder, the amounts by volume and weight are not quite the same.
Wait again - You are again waiting for the starter to rise. Often, the starter will double in size in 12 hours or less. Sometimes it takes 24 hours. If you get good bubbling and the starter doesn't double, that's OK.
Feed the starter again - this time discard half the starter, add 1/4 cup, or 50 grams, of water and stir the starter. Then add 1/2 cup, or 50 grams of whole grain flour and stir again. It is important to discard 1/2 the starter at each feeding at this stage.
The starter feeding should double the size of the starter and if you don't discard the starter you'll soon have a LOT of starter. Later in the process you can save the starter I suggest you discard, but at this stage the starter isn't stable enough to merit saving.
Wait some more - again, we want to see the starter bubble and we want the starter to reliably double in size between feedings at this point. When the starter is established, regular feedings are very important, but feeding the starter too soon could keep the culture from reaching a critical threshold - each feeding dilutes the culture.
If at any feeding it doesn't double, give it some more time. When a starter is starting, it is unstable. You might want to read, or re-read, "Starting a Starter."
Repeat the two steps above - until the starter will reliably double in size between feedings.
If, after three days, the starter isn't doubling in size, check the troubleshooting tab.
Switch to unbleached all-purpose flour. While many people might prefer to use whole grain flour, I suggest feeding the starter at this stage with all-purpose flour. We are trying to get rid of unwanted micro-organisms, and the whole grain flour keeps adding more of them. Once the sourdough starter is stable, you can switch back to whole grain flour.
- The starter may slow down when you switch to all-purpose flour. That is to be expected. Wait until the starter is active, up to 36 hours if needed, to let the starter revive from the shock of switching to white flour.
- You can ease the transition by not having a sudden switch. Make the transition to white flour in 3 steps. Start by using about 1/4 white flour and 3/4 whole wheat or rye. The next feeding, half white flour and half whole wheat or rye. The next feeding, about 3/4 white flour and 1/4 whole wheat or rye. And the next feeding, and subsequent feedings, can be all white flour. People who ease through the transition report their starter never slows down.
- The starter may not rise, even if it is active. This mostly happens to people who use cups. If you don't pack as much into your cup as other folks, your starter may not have the strength to trap gasses. Use a bit more flour if needed, perhaps a few extra tablespoons.
Feed the Starter Yet Again - like any pet, a sourdough starter needs to be fed regularly. Discard half the starter, add 1/4 cup, or 50 grams, water and stir. Then add 1/2 cup, or 50 grams, all-purpose flour and stir again. You may now start saving the discarded starter in another jar for other projects. I suggest refrigerating it.
Wait some more. As mentioned above, the starter may slow down for a feeding or so. Give it time, it will come back. You should soon be feeding the starter every 12 hours or so. A starter at room temperature should be fed no less than twice a day.
Repeat the two steps above - at this time, the starter is gaining in strength and maturity. I would not suggest using a new starter until it is at least a week old and until it can double itself between feedings. How long a starter continues to develop is not entirely clear. Most sourdough experts think between 30 and 90 days.
- When your starter is ready, go on to the pages on using a starter.
This was, and still is, my favorite way to start a starter. This is also a very fast and reliable way to start a starter. Moreover, there is lots of good information in this page, and I hope you'll read it.
Now then, let's be clear here. People have been starting sourdough starters for thousands of years. They were starting starters long before they understood that there were living creatures in the starter. It is really easy to over think this mess and to obsess over it. Don't go there. Relax. Remember to breathe. The process is simple and it works. If you forget a feeding, it's not the end of the world. I have added some photos of the process, which are in the "Starter My Way Photo Essay!" tab.
There are three basic guidelines or rules that really describe how I make and maintain a sourdough starter. Most failures with sourdough get back to these issues. Here they are.. we'll be referring to them often.
- An established sourdough starter at room temperature must be fed no less than twice a day. If you feed it less than twice a day, it will lose vitality and eventually become useless and die. This is also true for all but a few situations when you are starting a starter.
- Each feeding of the starter should be enough to double its size.
- Some people keep feeding the starter the same amount each time they feed it. That's like feeding a puppy 1/2 cup of dog food a day. Even when he's grows up to be a 120 pound Great Dane. How much organisms should eat depends, in part, on their size.
- If you keep doubling the size of your starter, in 10 days you'll have enough to fill a swimming pool. And 12 hours later, you'll have enough to fill two swimming pools. So, before you feed the starter, take half of your starter and set it aside. You may discard it, or you may save it for other projects like making biscuits, pancakes, cakes, pizza shells. But even throwing it away is less wasteful than continuing to double the size of your starter.
- Each feeding should be equal amounts of water and flour, by weight. You can use about 1 parts of water to 2 parts of flour by volume as an approximation.
Keeping those three guidelines in mind, let's get started. First, you need some flour. The flour feeds the starter, and also contains the micro-organisms that form the culture. Whole grains in general, and organic stone-ground grains in particular, have more wild yeast on them than highly processed white flours. So, pick up a sack of organic, stone-ground, whole wheat or rye flour. You might also ask your grocer which flour sells the best and check the expiration dates on the sacks of flour - you want to get the freshest sack of flour you can find at your grocery or health food store.
Many people feel that rye works better. However I've recently had better luck with whole wheat flour. Once your starter is healthy, you can use it with any kind of flour, so you can use rye flour to start your starter even if you don't plan on making rye bread. If your grocery store doesn't have such a thing, check out your local health food store. If your health food store doesn't carry such a thing, ask them to order some flour for you from Arrowhead Mills or Bob's Red Mill.
A recurring question with regard to 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 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 starters, you may want to try using de-chlorinated 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 spring water if you are experiencing what you think might be water related problems with your sourdough. Don't use distilled water or water treated with a reverse osmosis filter as those waters are lacking in minerals that your starter needs. If you think you might be having water problems, you might want to check out my more in-depth discussion of water issues.
You'll need some sort of container in which to mix your starter. I suggest a small mixing bowl or measuring cup that will hold between 2 to 4 cups (500 to 1000 ml). You can use a glass, ceramic, plastic or stainless steel container. You want a container you can cover with cling wrap (or plastic wrap). Old husbands tales warn against using metal. I've found that there is no problem with stainless steel, but I would recommend against aluminum, copper, brass, plain steel, iron, lead or any other base metal. Some people prefer to avoid plastic containers as plastic scratches easily and then becomes difficult to keep clean. The plastic wrap is there to keep bugs, cats and children out of the starter as well as to help prevent the starter from drying it out.
Temperature is the next issue. It's easy to obsess about temperature, but remember people have been making sourdough since long before temperature control was as easy as it is today. So, it might be important, but it's not the end of the world. In broad terms, you want to stay within the 65 to 85F range (18 to 30C). If you get much below that range, things will take far too long to happen. Above that range, you get into off tastes and organisms dying off. You really want to keep things under 90F (35C). It is impractical to heat or cool your whole house to keep a quart (liter) sized container at its optimum temperature. If you need a warmer area, turning on the light in an oven will often get your temperature where you need it. Similarly, the top of many refrigerators is also a hot spot. I suggest using a thermometer to double check the temperatures. Most people really can't gauge temperatures very accurately by feel. If your problem is that things are too hot, you can put your containers into a bath of cool water. If you are at too cool a temperature, remember to allow more time for things to happen. How much more time? I'd double most of the time predictions. When your starter is healthy and active, you can loosen up on your temperature control, although you still don't want to let the starter get much above 85F.
Covering the starter - absolute sterility is not a goal in sourdough. You're not looking for operating room cleanliness. You just want to keep the starter from drying out, as well as keeping stray bugs, the kids and the cat out of it. You don't need to tape or rubber band the cling wrap in place, just press the plastic wrap onto the sides of the container. You can use disposable shower caps (available from Sally Beauty Supply for a very reasonable price).
Now then, once you have your flour, water and container, mix 1/4 cup of water with 1/2 cup of whole grain flour. Mix the ingredients well, cover with plastic wrap or a saran wrap quick cover (if you can still find them). The mixture will be a thick mass, even a very thick mass. Congratulations, you've just mixed up a sourdough starter.
I really prefer to weigh ingredients. However, I have learned that most Americans can not be separated from their cups, and since most of the site's visitors are from America, I tend to stress cup measurements. If you prefer to weigh ingredients, start with 50 grams each of flour and water. Please note, I am not saying that a 1/4 cup of water or 1/2 cup of flour weigh 50 grams. I'm just using fairly convenient units of measure for site visitors who use either volumetric and weight measures.
After mixing up the starter, wait about 12 hours. Take the plastic wrap off the starter so you can get a good look at it and smell it too. At this point there is a very good chance that you'll see bubbles in the starter. If not, stir the starter vigorously, cover the starter again and let it sit for another 12 hours or so. Then check and stir again. If you don't see bubbles in two days, pitch the flour and water and start over. If you go through this twice with no results, you may want to change brands of whole wheat flour. And you may want to switch to bottled spring water. Changes to the smell of the starter will tell you that something is happening. If you looked at the Starting A Starter page, you should know that the first critters to start a starter may or may not be the final ones to rule the starter. So, if it smells bad don't be too surprised or at all discouraged - it's a sign of life, and that's a good thing.
Once you see bubbles, it's time to give the starter a feeding adding another 1/4 cup of water stirring that into the starter, then adding another 1/2 cup of your whole grain flour and stirring that in. (If you are weighing, use another 50 grams each of flour and water.) I like to stir after I add the water and again after I add the flour, it puts more air into the starter, which helps its growth at this phase of its life and it also makes it easier to mix. Even though this is hardly a starter, I think of this as the starter's first feeding. Any time you add flour to your starter, you are feeding it, much as you are feeding your dog when you put dog food in a bowl and put it on the floor for your pooch. You might notice that the feeding was equal parts of flour and water by weight and was enough to double the size of the starter. We're being deliberately loose on the timing at the start of making a starter. When the starter is established, we really want to feed it twice a day, but for now we're feeding it when it needs it. Later on, it will need to be fed more regularly.
Once you've stirred the starter, scrape down the sides of the container to make sure you don't leave food on the side of the container to feed mold. An active starter can take care of itself, but this starter is still too young to do so. I've had reports from people who didn't scrape their containers and wound up with mold on the sides of the container. This is one of the reasons I suggest a bowl with a wide top rather than a harder to scrape mason jar.
There are two issues I've gone back and forth on. One is when to start regularly feeding the starter. At this time, I suggest not feeding the starter again until it shows signs of life. If you start regular feedings of the starter too soon, you could wind up diluting the starter so much that the starter might not reach a critical threshold where it will have enough organisms to thrive. This isn't very common, but it has happened to a number of my correspondents in cooler climates. Usually, when the starter has shown enough life for a second feeding, it will be ready for another feeding twelve hours later.
Again, when your starter shows signs of life after a feeding, it's time to start regular feedings. Each regular feeding begins by discarding half the starter and then feeding it another 1/4 cup of water, stir, add 1/2 cup of whole grain flour and stir again. (If you weigh, retain 100 grams of starter and add to it 50 grams each of flour and water. What is important here is we are doubling the size of the starter with each feeding and feeding equal amounts of flour and water by weight.)
Every few days, you might switch containers as an additional precaution against mold. Once the starter is active, the danger of mold will drop. I've never had starter mold, but a few correspondents report it has happened to them.
The other issue I've gone back and forth on is when to switch to white flour. I DO suggest switching to unbleached white flour, even if you want to use whole grain flours. The reason we start with a whole grain flour is because it has more microorganisms on it, which makes it a better flour to start a starter. However, every time you feed with whole grain flour you are adding a large number of stray organisms you don't want into the starter. At this point in the starter development we want to refine the starter, encouraging the growth of the organisms we want and discouraging the ones we don't want. White flour helps us by adding fewer stray microorganisms.
However, when do we switch? In the photo essay, my third feeding was on white flour. For most starters, that is too early. I suggest waiting until the starter is active, bubbly and reliably doubling between feedings. I would suggest going out to 4 to 6 feedings at a minimum.
When the starter is active and bubbling reliably I suggest you switch to unbleached all-purpose flour flour. This will probably be around your 4th to 6th feeding. White flour has fewer microorganisms on it, and switching to white flour will help encourage the organisms you want to grow without introducing more organisms you don't want to encourage. Overall, I find starters maintained on white flour get into less trouble than starters maintained on whole grain flours.
In the past, we suggested people just switch from whole grain to white flour and we ran into starter slowdowns almost every time. Now we suggest that you do a gradual switch from whole grain to white flour. One feeding, about 1/4 white flour and 3/4 whole grain, The next, 1/2 white flour and 1/2 whole grain. The next, 3/4 white flour and 1/4 whole grain. And then, complete the switch by using all white flour. The reason is that you want to discourage stray microorganisms, and using more whole grain flours will ad a fresh crop of stray microorganisms with each flour addition.
When you switch to white flour, your starter may still slow down even if you make a gradual transition. If your starter hasn't doubled in 12 hours, let it sit a while longer. You don't want to feed it until it is bubbly. If you feed it too soon, you will be diluting the starter and you may delay how long it takes the starter to become really healthy again. I tend to treat the starter like I treated the first mixing, Be patient, wait for activity, then feed the starter. Once the starter is active, it will be ready for you to resume feeding it twice a day to encourage the growth of the microorganisms. Again, discard half the starter each time you feed the starter and then add 1/4 cup of water, stir, add 1/2 cup of flour and stir again. You should double the size of the starter with each feeding.
When you switch from whole grain to white flour the starter will get thinner. This is because whole grain flour absorbs more water than white flour. We see this again and again in our whole grain baking classes. You don't need to add more flour to compensate for this. The starter will get thinner over several days as the amount of whole grain flour decreases through the feeding process.
The reason we discard half the starter each time is because we want to double the size of the starter with each feeding. If we don't discard half the starter each time, the amount of starter will fill a modest sized swimming pool in about 10 days, an Olympic sized pool in 14 days, and a second pool the same size Twelve hours later. That's a lot of flour and that's a whole lot of stirring!
Some people object to discarding starter. It is made of flour, and it seems a shame and a waste to throw it away. At this point in the cycle, there is no telling which organisms are in the starter. I feel that until the starter is stable, it is better to discard the wannabe starter.
Within 3 or 4 days, you should have a very lively starter. You should see lots of bubbles in the starter. We are making a fairly thick starter, and it is unlikely to become frothy. Thinner starters will become frothy, but thinner starters are usually unable to double in size between feedings. Also thinner starters are more apt to go astray - they run out of food faster. Your goal is a starter that will rise to double its size after feeding.
When you feed the starter, it will rise. It can take 3 to 6 hours to reach its peak, depending on how active the starter is. Once it reaches its peak, it will remain there for a while and then it will start to recede as the starter slows down. If you feed your starter and go to work, you could miss the starter's peak, and see a quiet starter when you get home. You might think nothing is happening as a result. If you look at the container that holds the starter, you'll see that the starter will leave streaks on the side of the container.
When the starter is at least a week old and doubling in size after a feeding, it is ready to be used to make bread.
Please remember that if our fairly thick starter can't double its own size, it can't raise your bread.
If you won't be using the starter for several days, feed the starter and then put the starter into a quart canning jar, taking care not to fill the container more than half full. Put the jar's lid on loosely to allow any gas the starter produces to escape. Then put the jar into the refrigerator until you're ready to use it. The starter can be kept in the refrigerator for at least a month between feedings. If you are going to use the starter in the next day or two, just leave it out and feed it every 12 hours or so.
A sourdough starter will continue to mature for some time, gaining in taste and power. Enjoy!
Starter My Way Photo Essay
Again and again, I've been asked for pictures of starting a starter. Two weeks ago, I declared my starter was dead. Despite my attempts at washing the starter, it went back to dissolving protein. So, it was time to start a new starter. When God gives you lemons, make lemonade isn't just a cute saying, it's a formula for a happier life. So, since I had to start a starter, I took pictures and added something to the page that many people have asked for. If this page loads too slowly, I can always move the photo essay to another page. We'll see how it goes.
While the text of this page and the photo essay cover the same material, the time line of the two aren't quite in sync. I tried to put them close, but they didn't line up. Which may another reason to put the photo essay on another page.
|Here's the ingredients and tools. Since the water at my home isn't suitable for making bread, I use bottled spring water. Look for a water that has good mineral content and that is slightly acidic. I use an organic, stone-ground whole wheat flour - the freshest sack at the local health food store. And an assortment of measuring utensils and mixing implements.||I mixed 1/4 cup of water with 1/2 cup of flour. You can see doesn't makes a lot of starter. As you'll see more clearly in a later picture, about 1/2 cup. The starter smells very much like wet flour.||I mashed the starter against the side of the measuring cup so you could see how firm it is. It stands up on it's own - it's not slumping - and the fork marks remain clear and distinct. After this, I covered the measuring cup with plastic wrap and set it aside. My kitchen was in the mid 70's (22C or so) as I was starting this starter.|
|It rose a bit better than before.||The starter looks like mud after it has been fed.||And 12 hours later, there are good bubbles on the top.|
|The starter almost looks lost in its new home! We feed it and we wait.||It always looks sad after feeding, but||it more than doubled after being put in the new container.|
|If you're as curious as most people, you're wondering how the starter worked out. I fed it for 2 more days and then refrigerated it because I wasn't ready to bake. The next week, I pulled some out on Thursday, fed it 3 times and baked Saturday morning. It rose very nicely and the bread was good. I wasn't trying for super-sour bread, so I don't know how the starter will do in that regard, but the bread was very good.|
I get the same questions about sourdough starter again and again. I hope that the issue you are having will be covered in the suggestions below.
Get a known good starter - If you're a beginner with sourdough, you really don't know what a starter should look like, smell like, taste like and how it should handle. And you are trying to create a starter, chances are if you get there, you won't know it. Think of Columbus who didn't know where he was going, didn't know where he was when he was there and didn't know where he'd been when he got back. Of course, he knew how to get back there. Starting with a known good starter will help you "get back there". So, if you try to create a starter several times and keep getting back to the troubleshooting page, get a known good starter from a friend, the Friends of Carl or a commercial source such as Sourdoughs International or King Arthur Flour all offer good starters.
Pay Attention to the Starter - There are a number of things to pay attention to.
- Is the starter bubbling?
- If the starter is not bubbling, and has never bubbled, give it more time. If it doesn't bubble in three days, start over. If the second try doesn't work, try a different sack of flour.
- If the starter is not bubbling, but it had been bubbling, it may be responding to a change and just need a day or two to bubble happily again,
- If it is bubbling, it is alive and can be encouraged. If it is bubbling slowly, you might skip a feeding to let the number of critters in the starter grow - when you feed the starter, you are reducing the number of critters. With a fully active starter, this is no more a big deal than cutting a teenagers hair. With a struggling starter, reducing the number of critters you can keep the starter from reaching a critical level of having enough critters to thrive.
Is the starter doubling? If the starter is bubbling but not doubling, there are two major possibilities. It might not be thick enough. If you are measuring by volume, you might be making light cups, so use 2/3 cup instead of 1/2 cup of flour. Next, it might not be active enough. In that case, try skipping a feeding to let the starter get to a critical number of microorganisms in it. (See, I don't ALWAYS say "critters.")
Is there a layer of hooch on, or in, the starter? Hooch is a layer of clear. or lighter, liquid than can be on, in or under the starter. It is a sign that your starter isn't being fed enough. Either in terms of the amount of flour you are feeding it, or in in terms of how often it is being fed - maybe both. This web page uses a starter that is fed no less than twice a day, is fed equal amounts of flour and water by weight, and is usually fed enough to double the starters size. Again, if you are measuring flour by volume, try using more flour. Say 2/3 cup instead of 1/2. What should you do with hooch if you have any? If it's a small amount, stir it in. If there's a lot, pour it off and replace it with about the same amount of water. What's a lot? Around an inch of hooch in a half full quart sized jar.
- Is the starter bubbling?
New Starters Fear Change - Like Garth on "Wayne's World," new starters fear change. When you change from whole grain to all-purpose flour, you can expect the starter will slow down for a day or two. Check the suggestions above.
When In Doubt, Feed It - Feeding your starter is not always the answer that will save it. However, if you keep feeding it, it can be revived. If you stop feeding it (perhaps until I get around to answering your email), you might irretrievably kill the starter. We can always put the starter on a restricted diet later.
I'm sure I'll add to these hints later, but they are the biggies that I see in emails day in and day out. If you need help, please drop me a note through the "Contact Us" page.