To make your own, healthy, flavoursome sourdough bread at home means creating a sourdough starter from scratch.
It takes only two ingredients – flour and water – some feeding and nurturing and soon you’ll see natural fermentation bring it to life.
Usually it takes 7 - 10 days to get a viable sourdough starter but usually most bakers wait for about 14 days until their starter is active enough to bake with. You will definitely find that your early bakes will be different from the bakes you make with the same starter months afterwards, when it is ‘mature’. Generally, a mature starter lends more flavour. But we all, bakers and starters alike, have to start somewhere!
What flour to use?
You can successfully create a starter with any kind of flour, just not self-raising or bleached flour. You could use any of Risen’s flours or mix them up.
For those trying a starter for the first time, use whole grain flour, like our Awesome Wholemeal Flour, as starters tend to become active sooner as wild yeast is more prevalent in the natural environment of whole grain flour. Your starter will gather yeast not only from its new surroundings, but also from the bacteria on the flour. Whole flours have more of the good stuff on them, so starters have more to go on, essentially.
Rye flour is particularly potent so either mix this in with the type of flour you are using to kickstart fermentation at the beginning or start with 100% rye and after a week, start to introduce white flour.
Creating a sourdough starter from scratch
- 2 weck jars
- Elastic band
- Knife to mix
Risen flour and water
Place a tall, wide-mouthed jar on your scales and thoroughly mix 50g of Risen Mighty White flour* and 50g of water.
(Be sure that it is squeaky clean to prevent any unwanted jar-mates!)
Put the lid back on and leave in a warm place for 24 hours. The temperature ideally should be around 26 degrees and avoid direct sunlight.
Pop an elastic band around the jar where the level of your mixture is to give you an idea of how much it will rise.
*this can be 50/50 Mighty White flour and Awesome Wholemeal flour also
The life and behaviour of your starter is hugely dependent on the temperature of your kitchen. You want a cosy environment of 25 - 28 degrees. If your kitchen is cooler than that, warm the water to 26 degrees. As room temperatures tend to be unstable, you can put your starter in the oven with the light on.
Day 2 & 3 - Feeding a sourdough starter
You may not see bubbles on the second day. Don’t worry, there is still something happening in your jar. Either way, discard half your starter and feed the remaining amount on day 2 and 3.
Grab your other jar as from now, when you refresh your starter, start it in the clean jar. Feed your starter at the same time every day; the morning being ideal as you can check on activity throughout the day (assuming working from home continues to be a thing!)
- Stir your starter.
- Take out 50g of your starter and place it in a clean jar. Discard the rest.
- Add 50g of warm water and 50g of Risen Mighty White Flour *and mix well.
- Cover and put it back in the same place, moving the elastic band to where the level is.
*this can be 25g Mighty White Flour and 25g Awesome Wholemeal Flour
On day 3, do exactly as you did on day 2. You may see some activity now but it will come and go. If you don’t, again, keep up the feeding schedule and keep your room temperature ambient and stable. Remember: no two starters are the same – they each have their own personality, smell and reactions.
Day 4, 5 & 6
Feed your starter twice a day from now on as fermentation activity increases, once in the morning and then 12 hours later, in the evening.
For each feed, weigh out 50g of starter and discard the rest.
Add 50g of Risen Mighty White Flour* and 50g of water to the starter and mix it well.
Rest at room temperature for around 12 hours before repeating.
*this can be 25g Mighty White Flour and 25g Awesome Wholemeal Flour
By day 4 or 5 you should see the first peak and dip which means your starter is heading in the direction and evolving with the right bacterial environment.
By the end of day 5, the starter should have at least doubled in volume. You'll see lots of bubbles and should have seen your second peak and dip. If you haven’t, don’t worry, just keep up the feeding schedule and place your starter somewhere a little warmer.
Your aim here is to refresh your starter right when it’s at its peak activity, or soon after, just before it declines. So be sure to use your elastic band – place it at the height of the starter when it is fed.
By now, the starter should have a tangy aroma — pleasingly acidic, but not overpowering.
Day 7 – 10
Your starter should be rising and falling predictably by now and you should be getting to know your starter’s peak level before it declines.
If you haven’t got this consistent rising in the jar – at least doubling between 6 and 8 hours after feeding – just keep going for as long as it takes to create a bubbly, active starter. This could be anything up to two weeks, so be patient!
Use your starter to make your sourdough bread when it is at its peak or starting to dip. Once it has started to fall significantly, it means the strands of gluten are breaking slowly and will affect your dough quality.
How can you tell when your starter is ready?
- It smells pleasant – a bit yogurty, milky and slightly acidic
- There’s small and large bubbles on the surface and throughout and the texture is spongy, a bit like whipped cream.
- It has doubled in size, at least
You can also try the float test: drop a small dollop of starter into a glass of water. If it floats to the top, it’s ready to use and tells you that the starter contains enough gas to help lift the dough. Make sure you haven’t stirred or shaken your starter as that will have disturbed its gas formation, making it deflate.
Only baking once a week or less?
For all you weekend bakers out there, pop your starter in the fridge to slow down the fermentation process. You’ll only need to feed it once a week to keep it going. Once you are ready to bake, take it out, removing any ‘hooch’ (that’s a dark liquid that can form as a byproduct of fermentation) and give it some time to adjust to room temperature.
Wake it back up with a daily feeding schedule as before, storing it in a warm place, for 3 – 5 days before using it. Room temperature starters should be fed one to two times a day, depending on how quickly they rise and fall.
Liquid or stiff starter?
Both are made from flour, water and wild yeast and both are used to ferment and flavour dough but the difference is in the loaf of bread at the end.
All of our advice above is for making a liquid starter, which tend to be more popular as it is easier to mix, due to its thick milkshake consistency. A liquid starter is made up of equal weights of flour and water and is fed with the same. It smells milky when refreshed and is supposed to ferment faster and produce more subtle tasting sourdough bread.
Stiff starters, made up of 66% flour and 33% water, are more like dough and can be a little more difficult to mix due to its thicker nature. Some bakers take out their stiff starter and knead in the flour and water to mix it, preferring this more hands on approach. It’s more like a ball of dough in a jar than a paste. Stiff starters peak for longer, as it ferments more slowly, meaning bakers get a more flexible window of when they want to bake and can make more full flavoured, classic sourdough bread.
Feeding method for stiff starter:
- Prepare an oiled jar ready
- Rip off 50g of your starter and place it in a bowl. Discard the rest.
- Mix in 34g of warm water and 66g of Risen Mighty White Flour and begin to knead to a firm, smooth dough with no dry bits of flour.
- Put it in the oiled jar, covered. It should be more like a ball of dough.
Your stiff starter should be left to ferment for around 8 hours, or until it's doubled in size and domed, with the center just beginning to recede. It should feel like an airy dough ball. This mature or "fed" stiff starter is now ready to use in your recipe.
How much starter to use
Most recipes use 15 – 20% of the total weight of flour used. This results in a good balance of acid and milky flavour, giving you control of the fermentation during the bulk fermentation. You can change the amount of starter in a recipe to suit you and your specific needs, by all means.
Generally, the less sourdough starter you use, the slower your dough will ferment, so you will need to factor in more hours; great for when you are doing an overnight proof in the fridge and you want to bake the next day. This will result in a more sour flavoured loaf.
However, the more starter you use, your dough will ferment faster, resulting in a less sour loaf. This gives you tighter gluten and a shorter bulk fermentation time due to the increased amount of fuel given to your dough. This is better if it’s particularly cold and/or if you’re in a hurry and want to bake bread within a day.
Making a starter is an age-old process that takes practice and patience. Starters can be unpredictable so have the courage to experiment with the temperature and feeding frequencies and ratios. With each bake you become more experienced and you’ll soon have a compatible and rewarding partnership with your bubbly baking companion in the jar.
Next – check out our Making & Baking Sourdough pages