[Updated 9 June 2021]
While we've all been staying home during the pandemic, you've probably heard of friends, family members or acquaintances making their own sourdough starter. Maybe your curiosity has got you asking what's a sourdough starter and how do I make a sourdough starter? Well, we've got a full breakdown for you!
Disclaimer: At HHWT, we're no master bakers. That said, making your own starter isn't a super hard, and a couple of us have made them, including our co-founder Mikhail and my husband Faizal! It was a recent learning process that we're happy to share about in the hope it'll convince you to make your own starters too! ?
What is a sourdough starter?
If you aren't familiar with bread-making, then you might have some questions, starting with what is a sourdough starter? Well, let's back it up for a bit and talk about bread and yeast. Most baked goods require a leavening agent (i.e. the thing that makes them puff up and rise when they're baked in the oven), such as baking powder or baking soda. For bread, the leavening agent usually used is yeast. Fun fact: did you know that yeast is a type of fungus, and that this microscopic organism exists everywhere around us - in our food items, on plants, and even in the air?
Nowadays, home bakers usually use instant or active dry yeast to make bread items (the kind that's sold in the baking section of the supermarket). But before this commercial kind of yeast was available, bakers would make their own yeast for baking by essentially 'capturing' the natural yeast in the flour and the surrounding environment through a fermentation process. Made through a combination of just flour and water, the natural yeast and bacteria would start feeding on this and voila! A starter (which is also called the mother or mother dough). And once they had it, they basically kept it alive by periodically feeding it with more flour and water. And as long as you keep feeding your starter, it can stay alive basically, well, forever! That's why you'll read of starters that have even been passed down for generations.
And the bread that's made using a starter? It's known as sourdough bread! ? It's also interesting to note that starters are very environment-specific - a starter from New York wouldn't be the same as a starter from Singapore or KL, and may produce very different-tasting bread!
Why should I make a sourdough starter?
So why even bother with embarking on what seems like a project that will continue for as long as you're willing to commit? I'm glad you asked! Here are a few reasons to get you going:
- No more emergency yeast runs - You'll be able to make bread without having to go to the store for some yeast. In all seriousness, this a real reason why a lot of people have started making starters (Faizal included!). With the current situation, instant or active dry yeast aren't always as easily available in supermarkets anymore, so a solution for casual bakers has been to make a starter.
- It's like having a pet - A low-maintenance one! As you long as you feed it at regular intervals it'll be happy. And even if you miss out on the feeding sessions (like if you go on holiday or forget), no worries! You can revive it simply by feeding it again. Many people often name their starters (like Upstairs Cafe in Subang which named their latest starter En. Covid Junaidi, in light of the current situation when it was made ?).
- Better-tastingbread (and other baked goods!) - This is a popular reason why people can get fanatical about sourdough - the bread tastes better than you those can make with regular commercial yeast. Sourdough loaves are known for their crispy, chewy crust and a slight tangier, sour taste that comes from using the starter. It's perfect for everything from avocado toast to dunking in soups - which is probably why it's a go-to bread for many of your favourite brunch spots - but is delicious on its own too. And contrary to popular belief, a starter isn't just for breads - you can use it in things like pancakes, English muffins, pizza dough, muffins and more.
- May be easier to digest - The natural yeast and bacteria that occurs through the fermentation process are said to make the bread easier for us to digest, while the fact that we make it from scratch at home means it's also free from preservatives and other spooky ingredients that may be made in commercial loaves.
- It's a super rewarding process - just like any hobby where we devote our time to producing something, making your own sourdough can be a super gratifying activity. There's nothing like pulling a freshly-baked loaf of bread out of your oven that you made! In addition, making sourdough bread is a learning process - you probably won't get the most perfect loaf straight away, but as you continue doing it, you'll get better and better while also being able to tuck into many a delicious loaf.
Things you should know about making a sourdough starter
While the process of making a starter is easy, it's best to note a few things (so you know what you're signing up for!):
- It takes about a week to get your starter up and running to a point it's mature and active enough to make bread - at this point it's important you stick to the process and feed it daily.
- Making bread with a starter is often a lengthier and more involved process - because we're working with wild yeast rather than the commercial yeast that's built to make it as fast a process as possible, it'll take more love and time to get to your finished product. In addition, making a sourdough bread involves working with a dough that's much stickier than what we're usually used to and will need a bit more finesse and skill as you shape it. But it'll be so worth it!
- Success is not always guaranteed right away - making sourdough, just like going fishing or playing the piano, is something that takes an amount of skill that's honed through practice. It might take several tries to get comfortable making not just your starter but also your bread, but it gets easier over time as you get used to the feel of them.
Sounds good to you? Then let's get starter-ed!? If you're not really feeling the starter game, then make one of these easy breads instead!
How to make a sourdough starter?
I'm glad you asked! As an overview, the process of making a starter is this: you combine some flour and water in a container, mix it up into a paste, then leave it on your kitchen counter. Every day for the next 7 days or so, you pour out some of that starter, then replenish your container with more flour and water. You do this for the week and then it's ready for use in your baked goods! You'll use a portion of the starter for making bread, and for the remainder you can keep it in fridge, feeding it (i.e. discard some then add more flour and water) about once a week.
Sounds straightforward right? Where it can sometimes get complicated is in the fine details - there's an endless amount of resources online that detail how to go about making and maintaining your starter. While they are all fundamentally the same in terms of the overall process, they usually vary in quantities of flour and water used. They can also often differ in some steps or ingredients - some may feed their starter twice a day, while others only once a day. Some may say to only use rye or wholegrain flour, while others say any flour is fine, so long as it's unbleached.
Following a recipe or a video is great and easy as it helps narrow down on variables - you want to follow the measurements suggested as it's a pretty scientific process, but don't get caught up too much in the details. Just a pick a recipe that sounds nice and doable to you and go for it!
We won't pretend that we've come up with our own ratios and processes for making a starter - here are some sourdough starter guides that we followed which provide great instructions:
- Joshua Weissman's Ultimate Sourdough Starter Guide - it's in video form, making it easy to see what he's explaining, and he also has a handy written schedule so you know when and what to feed your starter! It's very thorough and is great for those who like to have very exact methodical instructions.
- Chef John of Foodwishes' Sourdough Starter Guide - this is also in video form, though you can find a written version too. I like Chef's John guide as it's very accessible (it shows that you don't need a Mason or glass jar to make it - your Tupperware or Rubbermaid is just fine!) and is straightforward to follow without sounding daunting.
- Feasting At Home's simple sourdough starter - for those who like to read through a recipe and prefer using measuring cups over weighing scales, this one might be for you! Not only are the instructions very thorough but it also includes tips for troubleshooting by explaining how different variables (such as types of flour, temperature) may affect your starter.
- Nasi Lemak Lover's experience making sourdough - it's nice to read about the sourdough starter process in a local context from someone living in the same geographical location, and Sonia over at the blog Nasi Lemak Lover does just that!
But if you're looking for a simplified step-by-step version of how to make your starter, here goes (it's modelled after Chef John's method, which is by far the most straightforward).
- Day 1:Using a see-through container, put 70g of unbleached flour (any kind), and 70g of water (filtered room temperature water is fine) into the container. Mix well, cover with a loose-fitting lid, and leave the container out on your counter for 24 hours.
- Day 2: Add 70g of flour, 70g of water, mix well, cover and leave for 24 hours.
- Day 3: Pour out 140g of the starter (about 50%) and discard. Add 70g of flour, 70g of water, mix well, cover and leave for 24 hours.
- Days 4 until Day 7: Repeat step from Day 3 each day. When your starter is ready it will smell yeasty (not in an unpleasant way) and will be active, often doubling in size a few hours after feeding. You can also see whether it's ready by doing a float test: take a small piece of the starter and put it in a bowl of water. If it floats to the surface it's ready for use! If not, continue the process with the daily feedings until it reaches that stage. At this point, you can measure out what you need to make your sourdough bread, re-feed the rest of your starter and store it in the fridge, feeding it once a week.
Some extra tips:
- If you notice a layer of liquid on top of your starter when you check on it for feeding, pour away the liquid before proceeding with the feeding process.
- It's helpful to mark the container (either with a marker or use a rubber band) so you can see how much the starter rises and deflates.
- Do remember that different variables may impact how quickly your starter matures - don't be discouraged if it doesn't seem to be working out like how it's supposed to! It's also nice to take reassurance in the fact that there are various ways to troubleshoot or fix a starter. Check out this extensive list of tips from King Arthur Flour.
#HHWT Tip: For recipes on making sourdough bread using your starter, check out Chef John's , Joshua Weissman's or this one by BBC Food.
A quick note about your discarded starter
As you make your starter, you'll be discarding about half of it every time you feed it. While it seems wasteful, it's important to remember that if you don't discard it, you'll need to keep feeding more and more flour to keep your starter alive! So it's a necessary process in the first week, but once your starter is mature, there's actually plenty you can do with the starter you discard every time you feed it. One recipe we're definitely eyeing to do is this one by Mike Green from Pro Home Cooks. You can also make these pancakes or check out this collection of recipes by Heart's Content Farmhouse.
Making your own sourdough starter may have seemed daunting in the past, but in the current circumstances, there's no better time to start doing it! Not only is it an amazing process to learn and master, once you have your own sourdough starter the baking possibilities are endless. So if you're interested in making your own starter at home, we hope this gives you the nudge you need! For more inspirations, check out easy bread recipes to make at home (no bread maker required) or simple bread recipes from around the world.