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Sourdough for Beginners

Sourdough for Beginners: How to Start, Feed, and Bake the Bread that Will Get You Through

updated Apr 21, 2020
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As we stay home, wait out this crisis, and bake our hearts out, sourdough is surging. No yeast needed, sourdough lets anyone turn flour, water, and time into absolutely spectacular bread. If you’ve thought about trying sourdough yourself, now is the time. Today I and the rest of the Kitchn team are kicking off Sourdough for Beginners, the perfect starting place for a baking adventure. Are you in?

Why Sourdough, and Why Now?

All of sudden, sourdough baking feels like it’s everywhere. Everyone from my neighbor to my best friend has been sending me sourdough questions: How do I start a starter? How can I revive this starter my mom shared? Did I kill my sourdough starter? I absolutely 100% get it: I recently got the itch to start a brand-new sourdough starter myself and feeding my starter every afternoon has become something I look forward to each day. And then there’s the fact that fresh bread and dry yeast are temporarily harder to find in many grocery stores right now. Sourdough is an emotional and a practical solution to fill your time and your bread basket.

That’s why there has never been a better time to get into the classic art of sourdough. It’s a grounding practice for the heavy times we’re in and, unlike other long cooking projects like croissants or braises that require hours of hands-on attention, sourdough only requires a few minutes of care each day in the first week. As it matures, you can enjoy the rewarding process of using it to make bread, biscuits, pancakes, and more. In other words, it’s a project that requires some care, but not too much — just in case you are managing a job and home-schooling a couple of kids right now — and the dividends are absolutely worth it.

How to Join Sourdough for Beginners

The Kitchn team is going full-on sourdough in the next few weeks. Some of us are creating a starter from scratch for the very first time, others are reviving shared starters, and a few of us are deeply invested in a sourdough bread routine. And we’re inviting you to jump into sourdough with us, follow along, and ask questions:

Ready for Sourdough? Start Here.

First, the basics. What is sourdough? How do you start it? What does it do?

What is a sourdough starter?

What we call sourdough “starter” is a mixture of flour and water that naturally collects yeast and bacteria. It’s part of the bread making process known as a preferment. (To read that word correctly, think of it as pre-ferment, as in, what happens before fermenting.) Any preferment can leaven (raise) and flavor bread.

Can a sourdough starter replace yeast?

Yes it can. Regular commercial yeast is sometimes used in perferments, such as the poolish for croissant dough Sourdough starter is a preferment that can live on and on, growing to replace what you use. A very cool thing about sourdough starter is that you can use it in place of (or in tandem with) commercial yeast.

We’ll get deeper into this when we talk about baking bread, but sourdough bread recipes will direct you to use a starter to leaven the bread. If you want to replace yeast in a recipe that calls for commercial yeast, you can replace 1 envelope of active dry yeast with 1 cup of starter. But because a starter also contains flour and water, you need to reduce the water called for in the recipe by 1/2 cup and the flour by 3/4 cup.

Can I make a sourdough starter, or do I need to get one from someone else?

Yes, you can make a sourdough starter yourself. It is extremely easy! The most basic version only requires water and flour and time to be ready for baking.

How long does it take to make a sourdough starter?

The hands-on time is just a few minutes. You mix together flour and water and then let it rest at room temperature. It will pick up wild yeast from your environment and give them a safe, happy place to grow. Then, daily you will feed this baby sourdough starter. It will be ready to bake with in about 5 to 7 days.

How to Start (and Feed) a Sourdough Starter

Here is our full, step-by-step guide to making a sourdough starter from scratch:

This is how to establish a new starter:

  • Mix equal weights flour and water in a clean plastic container that is at least 1 quart in volume. We recommend starting with 4 ounces all-purpose flour (3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons) and 4 ounces water (1/2 cup). Stir vigorously until smooth.
  • Let the starter rest at room temperature: Place the container somewhere with a consistent room temperature of 70°F to 75°F for 24 hours. A warm, draft free spot is best. Mine lives on top of our fridge.
  • Feed the starter more flour and water each day for about 4 days. You will stir in the same amount when feeding it each day. Refer to our step-by-step recipe for all the details. After a few days your starter should look bubbly between feedings.

What kind of container should I keep my starter in?

Any plastic container large enough to contain this volume of liquid and flour will do. You’ll need about 1 quart capacity. Use glass with caution — if it breaks you’ll have to toss your whole starter and start over We really love a pro container like these Cambro containers. The clear measurement markings on the side are helpful — plus they just look cool.

Hmm, this sourdough tutorial talks about flour and water in weight measurements. Do I need a scale?

No. Our sourdough starter tutorial also gives approximate volume measurements. But honestly, it’s super helpful to have a scale when baking bread (and cooking in general). Here’s our favorite:

What is “feeding” my starter and why do I do it?

The first 5 days of feeding a sourdough starter are all about creating bulk and activating the natural yeast. So for the first 4 days you’ll add flour and water at each feeding. On the fifth day of building a new starter, you’ll switch from simply adding bulk to discarding half of the starter and then feeding the same amounts. This discard is a nice little bonus because you can do other small bakes, besides bread, with this liquid.

For days 5 to 7 follow the same routine: Discard half of the starter, feed the starter 4 ounces by weight of each or 3/4 cup flour and 1/2 cup water. Store it in a warm, draft free spot, loosely covering it with plastic or a clean kitchen towel.

How do I know my starter is ready to use to bake bread?

After 5 to 7 days of regular feedings your starter will be ready for baking. You can test your starter’s readiness with one of these two methods:

  • It doubles in volume within 4 hours of feeding. First feeding your starter and making sure it doubles in volume within 4 hours of feeding is a simple test that also sets you up for the very first part of bread baking.
  • It passes the “float test.” The second method is known as the float test. Use a cup of cool water and add about a teaspoon of starter. If it floats your starter is ready for baking.

What if my starter never got bubbly?

A brand new starter will take at least 3 days to show signs of life — i.e. a bubbly surface and a sour aroma. If you still aren’t seeing any activity after day 4, try moving your starter to a slightly warmer area in your kitchen. Keep any eye out for any orange or pink streaks in the starter, this is a sign that the starter has gone bad and you should toss it.

If you notice any liquid sitting on the top of your starter in the first few days, don’t stress. Mix the liquids into the starter and feed as usual, but make sure you are feeding your starter every 24 hours and that your starter is stashed in an area that isn’t too warm.

OK I have a living, bubbling starter. What now?

Awesome! Your starter is almost ready for baking — make sure it passes the doubling or float test above before you begin baking. Here’s our Sourdough Bread Recipe. You can jump right into baking full loaves or you can dip your toe into the sourdough game by trying English muffins or focaccia made with sourdough starter. Just don’t forget to keep up with regular feeding of your starter or to store it safely — more on that below.

How much starter can I use for baking?

Most sourdough recipes — from bread to biscuits — call for 1 to 2 cups of starter (our classic sourdough recipe uses even less) so one batch of starter can make you 2 loaves of sourdough every few days with daily feedings. Or you can stash your starter in the fridge once it’s established and bake from it once a week.

How do I keep my starter alive? How often do I have to feed it?

Once your sourdough starter is established (that is about 7 to 9 days after starting and regular feedings) you can slow feedings to once a week (or less) by storing the starter in the fridge long term. Feed your fridge starter once a week if you plan to bake with it regularly. Otherwise sourdough starter can live happily in the fridge for months between feedings. If you stash your starter long-term, just be sure to give it a few feedings at room temperature before you plan to use it.

Oops I forgot to feed my starter. Is it dead?

This is a really common question! Mild neglect won’t kill your starter, like say missing a feeding or accidentally over or under feeding your starter. A little brown or grey liquid on top is a sign of an underfed starter not a dead one, and that liquid can be stirred right in and then the starter can be fed. Exposure to high heat and long periods of neglect at room temperature will kill your starter, though. You’ll need to trash any starter that grows mold or that has pink or orange hue to it.

Someone gave me a starter. What do I do now??

Most likely a gifted starter has been recently fed and can either be stored in the fridge until you’re ready to use it or you can establish a feeding schedule to make sure that starter is happy in your kitchen. It helps to ask the gifter how much and when they feed this particular starter but a general rule of thumb is equal parts starter, flour, and water at each feeding.

I have a healthy, thriving starter. I feel like a million bucks! What do I do with it now??

Congratulations!! You should feel like a million bucks; you’ve successfully captured wild yeast and cultivated it into a living, growing colony of yeast that can nourish you and your family in bread. That’s absolute magic, is it not?

Next up: How to make sourdough bread. (But do note and remember, sourdough starter is great for making raised pancakes, biscuits, and more. We’ll be sharing recipes we love for these as well.)

But sourdough bread is probably what you’re here for. The beautiful thing about sourdough bread is that a novice can make a loaf of bread that is delightful and tasty, but you can also go deep into perfecting the craft for years and years. To start, make sure your starter is thriving and healthy, then go here:

We’ll go deeper into the questions, answers, and nuances of bread baking next week. Until then, good luck on your new baby starter and remember to come and ask us questions this Friday in our office hours.

Sourdough for Beginners: Meet Your Crew

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