Sourdough Starters 101: Becoming a Yeast Master


Sourdough bread is perhaps the oldest human-made food in the world, as well as the simplest. At its most basic, bread is no more than two ingredients: grain and water. One day, long ago, someone accidentally left a grain-water mash sitting out in the sun, and when they came back, they noticed it had begun to froth and was releasing an acidic smell. They baked it . . . and voilà! Bread. Soft, warm, flavorful bread.

Few people make their own homemade bread these days, perhaps because the idea of making your own anything from scratch is daunting. Even more daunting is the concept of using an ingredient like yeast. Fortunately, bread is forgiving, not to mention satisfying, so there’s really no reason not to at least attempt making your own bread.

If you’re going to make your own bread regularly, then you should also consider making your own starter.

Why You Should Make Your Own Starter

Michael Pollan explored slow food through the lens of the four main elements (air, water, fire, and earth), in his book, Cooked, and the eponymous Netflix series. In his segment on earth, Pollan focused on fermentation (bread, cheese, yogurt, and so on.) Until the release of his Netflix series, homemade sourdough remained in relative obscurity, except in San Francisco, where sourdough reigns supreme.

Spurred by Pollan’s exposition on homemade starters, I decided to create my own. His name is Herbert. He was born on March 13, 2016.

Why make your own starter when you can just buy active dry yeast and use that instead?

The yeasts that live in starters are more effective at breaking down the carbohydrates in grains and converting them to useful compounds for humans. Carbs can be a scary thing for people concerned about health or physique, but this wasn’t always the case. Bread used to be able to feed entire communities. Commercial yeast, while still able to produce carbon dioxide gas and alcohol, doesn’t break carbohydrates down fully. Baking with sourdough starters is healthier than using baker’s yeast.

That’s not to say that bread isn’t wonderful no matter how it’s made, but if you’re going to make bread, you’re best off using your own sourdough.

Finally, both baker’s yeast and sourdough starters are entirely vegan. Take that as you will.

Baker’s yeast has some advantages over sourdough starters, though, such as:

  1. Yeast doesn’t need to be fed and maintained
  2. Baker’s yeast acts faster than sourdough
  3. Sourdough produces less rise than yeast
  4. The flavors are more concentrated in dry yeast than in sourdough

Sourdough starters have at least as many advantages, though:

  1. Starters convert carbohydrates more fully
  2. The flavors in sourdough evolve with age
  3. Sourdough starters, if maintained well, are immortal, while baker’s yeast has an expiration date
  4. It costs nothing to make your own starter

How to Make and Maintain a Sourdough Starter

Sourdough is a living, breathing thing, and requires regular maintenance. Fortunately, the maintenance is simple and the yeast is relatively laid-back. The initial process of creating the starter and capturing the yeast takes a few days, but the time is well worth everything you’ll be able to do with your natural yeast afterwards.

There are five basic steps for making and maintaining your sourdough starter:

Step 1: Assembly

In a medium-large bowl, combine equal parts flour and water. Start with 1-2 ounces (weight) of each. Stir to combine, cover loosely with cheesecloth or paper towels, and let rest and proof overnight on the counter at room temperature.

Step 2: Feeding

For the next 2-4 days (3-5 days total), feed your starter once or twice a day by adding equal parts flour and water to the mixture (1-2 ounces of each), and mixing. After a few days, you should see bubbles forming and smell the acidic gas produced by the yeast. At this point, you’ve captured the yeast and are ready to store it.

Step 3: Storage

You can store your starter in any kind of sealed container, and keep it on the counter, or in the refrigerator or freezer. If you keep your starter at room temperature, you’ll need to feed it once a day. However, if you keep your starter chilling in the refrigerator, you only need to feed it 2-3 times a week. If you freeze it, you need to thaw the starter before feeding or using.

Step 4: Maintenance

Feed your starter regularly the same way you did in the beginning: equal parts flour and water, about an ounce or two of each, as needed. If you see a layer of liquid forming on top of the starter (alcohol produced by the starter and the sugars), mix it back in. Starters are resilient and can go to sleep and reawaken easily.

Step 5: Dump or Use

The yeasts in your starter are alive and competing for food. The more yeasts, the more competition. Once your chosen container is nearly full of starter (2-4 cups), you’ll need to start a routine of dumping or using and replenishing the mixture. If you can’t or don’t want to use the starter but need to make room, then dump some of it out. You can transfer it to a new container to make another starter, or dump it into the trash. Instead of letting that yeast go to waste, though, you can (and should) use it frequently. I recommend baking with your starter once a week on average. After removing whatever you need, feed the starter again, 1-2 ounces each of flour and water.

You can use different types of flour for your starter, such as whole wheat, all-purpose, and even gluten-free flours. Starters are completely vegan by default, but gluten-free is an entirely different issue, which you can learn about from blogs like art of gluten-free baking, Rodale’s Organic Life, or Don’t Waste the Crumbs.

30 Foods You Can Make with Sourdough Starters

When you mention sourdough to most people, San Francisco’s famous bread comes to mind the fastest. Not only are there countless types of bread you can make with your yeast, but you can also make things other than bread. Here are 30 suggestions for recipes to make with your new friend.

  1. Asiago artisan loaves
  2. Bagels
  3. Baguette
  4. Burger buns (Try: NYTimes Cooking, Light Brioche Buns)
  5. Brioche (French butter rolls) (Try: Epicurious, Basic Brioche)
  6. Carraway rye bread
  7. Challah (Jewish egg bread) (Try: Bon Appetit, Challah)
  8. Ciabatta (Italian crusted rolls) (Try: Leite’s Culinaria’s Ciabatta)
  9. Cinnamon sticky buns
  10. Cinnamon raisin bread
  11. Croissants
  12. Danishes
  13. English muffins
  14. Focaccia (Savory Italian flatbread)
  15. Kugelhof (German sweet yeasted bundt cakes)
  16. Naan (Indian grilled flatbread) (Try: Aarti Sequeira’s Naan)
  17. Pain au chocolat (French chocolate-filled bread)
  18. Pain de Campagne (peasant loaves)
  19. Parker house rolls
  20. Pizza dough
  21. Rosemary sourdough loaves
  22. Soft pretzels (Try: Alton Brown’s Soft Pretzels)
  23. Sourdough crepes (Try: Nourished Kitchen, Sourdough Rye Crepes with Cinnamon Apples)
  24. Sourdough pancakes
  25. Sourdough loaves
  26. Sourdough waffles
  27. Stollen (German sweet yeasted loaves)
  28. Whole wheat loaves
  29. Yeasted donuts
  30. Yeasted muffins

If you can make it with yeast, then you can make it with sourdough!

The substitution is simple, too. Starters are equal parts flour and water, so reduce the flour and water in a recipe by equal amounts and add twice as much starter. Eg., if a recipe asks for 300 grams of flour and 100 grams of water, you can use 100 grams starter, 250 grams of flour, and 50 grams of water. When baking with a starter, you don’t need to use active dry yeast, so that can be cut from the original recipe, as well.

Parting Words

There are scores of sourdough starter recipes and posts on the internet, and some are more complicated than others. Whenever you’re overwhelmed, just remember these four words, “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”


About Author

"Nick's journey with food began in 2008, when he tried making cookies for the first time ever...and forgot half of the flour. Ever since, he's been devouring culinary memoirs and cookbooks as voraciously as apple pie, tasting whatever foods he can get his hands on, and learning about cooking the only way he knows how: by trying, failing, and trying again. He currently works in retail management at a store that sells kitchen goods and hosts cooking classes, while blogging at Kitchen Klutz Blog, and studying for a Master of Arts in Teaching."

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