Sourdough Bread: The Starter

a-Tartine Bread Book
My favourite bread book.

At some point in 2014, I decided I wanted to try to make my own sourdough bread, with my own starter. I had read some interesting articles on the science of sourdough, suggesting that the human body can digest homemade sourdough bread more easily, primarily because wheat proteins and gluten are partially broken down during the long (24 hour or so) fermentation process.  Also, according to some research, sourdough is less likely to cause weight gain in the same way that eating high glycemic white bread does. Since I was trying to eat fewer “white” carbs, it seemed like something worth trying.

I’ve read conflicting research on the validity of these claims, so I still don’t know if it’s 100% true (I’ve posted links to a few articles below, but go do some research for yourself), but I do know that my homemade sourdough bread is made from unbleached white flour, water, and my own starter, so it is additive and chemical free. And even if it will still make me fat, it sure does taste good!

Creating my own starter was a long, time consuming process.  The concept is that you mix flour and water and leave it on the counter to capture and grow wild yeasts.  Whether those wild yeasts are found in the air, or in the flour itself (or more likely a combination of both), is still open to interpretation, but it took me several months to finally get my own starter going. Hopefully, with these few tips, yours might get active more quickly.

White flour on left, rye flour on right

Ultimately, I found that rye flour was much more likely to grow an active starter, and even now, when I want to quickly activate starter that’s been sitting in the fridge for too long, I take it out and feed it with rye flour several times a day until it’s back to its normal, bubbly self.

The second trick that seemed to help, was to mix in a little fruit juice at the beginning of the process.  One website had recommended pineapple juice, but since I didn’t have any in the house, I tried a few tablespoons of orange juice.  Whether this helped, or whether it just happened that I added it right when my starter was already going to start getting bubbly, I’ll never know, but at any rate, it finally worked. After about a week of this third try, I had a nice bubbly starter that had a sweet, yeasty, almost beer-like smell.  I was finally ready to try my hand at making an artisan loaf with no store bought yeast.

e-First loaf
My first loaf wasn’t too bad

For the past three years, I’ve made many loaves of varying sizes and success rates and I think I’ve finally nailed the perfect recipe for me.  I’ve read a lot of books and websites dedicated to the perfect recipe and I’ve found baking good sourdough is definitely an art, combined with a science, and multiplied by experience. I am still learning, but with the exception of one hard piece of unrisen “bread” which I tossed in the garbage, even my worst loaf has been tasty.

I do find that the weather plays a big part, the temp and humidity in particular.  It’s also true that Canadian flour is better for bread than US flour because it is ‘harder’ – has more gluten – which gives the dough more structure and allows it to rise better. I believe in Britain it is called ‘strong’ flour and in the US it’s called ‘bread’ flour.  However,  Canadian all-purpose flour is still considered better for baking bread than flour from both the US and the UK.

I leave my starter in a jar in the fridge until I want to make bread.  Then the night before, I bring it out, let it warm up, take what I need (usually about 1 tablespoon), ‘feed’ the rest, and put it back in the fridge. Starter is a living organism and needs to fed regularly with fresh flour and water. Keeping it in the fridge halts the growth and allows you to go for weeks (and sometimes months) without feeding it.  If you leave it out on the counter all the time, you have to feed it every day which I feel is wasteful, unless you make bread every day or two.

To feed your starter, take 1-2 T of your old starter, add equal parts water and flour, and stir. I like slightly more water when using rye flour (because it’s very dry where I live and our flour is very dry) so that I get a thick pancake-batter like consistency. When feeding with white flour, I use equal parts (by weight) of flour and water.

Pour the fed starter into a clean jar, put the lid on, and keep it in the fridge. I used to measure it all exactly but now I just estimate.  You can find info on feeding your starter in the links below. If my starter seems a little inactive, I use rye flour, and if it’s active (bubbly), I use unbleached white flour.

If I’m not going to make bread for a few months (like in summer when it’s too hot to have the oven on at 500° for more than an hour), I take the starter out of the fridge at least once a month, dump most of it, feed the rest, and leave it on the counter to activate.  In the morning, I repeat this process.  If it’s really active, I just feed it that morning and put it back in the fridge, but if it’s slow, I repeat the feeding process several mornings in a row, leaving it on the counter lightly covered with a plastic bag. Once it’s active, I feed it again and put it back in the fridge for another month.

By the way, if you leave your starter in the fridge for a long time, don’t worry if it has a layer of liquid on the top.  You can stir it in or drain it off. I’d only toss the starter if it went moldy which hasn’t happened to me yet.

Sourdough Starter Creation Timeline Nov. 2014

This is what  process finally worked for me.  It was my third attempt, in a jar, lightly covered with plastic, kept in oven with light on and door propped ajar with a wooden spoons which kept a constant temperature of 25-27C. (I had a thermometer to check the temperature).

Nov 12 – 10am started with 2 T rye flour, 2 T OJ  and added same amount again at 9pm
Nov 13 – 6pm add 2T rye, 2 T OJ
Nov 14 – 6pm 2T rye, 2 T pineapple juice (some bubbles showing)
Nov 15 – 4pm, Kept 1/4 cup starter, threw away the rest, and added 1/4 cup water, scant 1/4 cup rye flour, (bubbly 1cm rise)
Nov 16 – 4pm – all the starter (115 grams) into clean bowl. Add 60 gr rye, 65 gr water
– return to clean jar and marked the level on the jar to watch for rise.
Nov 17 – 7:30am – 1cm rise. I took 100 gr starter and added 60 gr rye flour, 65 gr water in a clean jar
– 6:00pm – 1cm rise.  50 gr. starter, 100 gr. water, 80 gr. rye flour
– 2nd jar – 50 gr starter, 100 gr. water, 80 gr. white flour
Nov 18 – 7:30am – 50gr starter, 50 gr water, 25-30 gr rye flour (or white/rye mix)
– 6:00pm – 50 gr starter, 50 gr water, 25-30 gr flour (mixed, put in fridge)
Nov 19 – 9:00pm fed one batch and made leaven for bread with the other
Nov 20 – made first loaf of bread – turned out well

I have continued to make bread off and on since then.  For the first year, it was a bit hit and miss – partly due to new starter and partly because I was trying out different recipes. But for the past 18 months, my bread has been consistently good.

I keep two jars of starter in my fridge – one straight rye flour because rye is the most reliable and seems to keep the longest.  The second jar is unbleached white flour. In winter I make bread about once a week but in summer, I make it less often.  Because I travel a lot, my starter sometimes sits in the fridge for over a month without any feeding or care but it always seems to survive. When I get home from a trip, I stir in any liquid sitting on top, feed it some flour and water, and leave it on the counter until it doubles.  Then I dump some out (or bake bread), feed the rest and put it back in the fridge. I feed the rye starter once a month at most.

Drying and Freezing Starter

This year, in June 2018, I decided to try drying and freezing my starter to see if it would retain potency when reconstituted.  I smeared a spoonful of my rye starter on a piece of parchment and waited for it to dry. Then I put the dried flakes of starter into a zip lock bag and threw it into the cupboard for a month.  I also put several spoonfuls of my white flour starter into a plastic container and put it into the freezer.

One month later, I took one of the flakes of dried starter – maybe a piece about 1cm X 2 cm – and put it in a bowl with a little warm water until it softened up.  I stirred it a bit and added about 1 tablespoon of rye flour and a little water. Then I left it on the counter and watched for some growth. After a day, nothing seemed to be happening.  I added in the rest of my dried starter and waited another day but nothing.  So for me, drying starter doesn’t seem to work but I might give it another go at some point.

I also pulled out the frozen starter and left it on the counter to thaw and warm to room temperature. I stirred in 1 T warm water and 1 T white flour and then watched it for growth as well. Within a few hours, it started to bubble and was clearly active.  I left it for 24 hours, fed it again, left it on the counter for another half day, then put it in the fridge.  At some point I will try making bread from it and see how it compares to my regular starter.

So – that’s everything I have in my brain about sour dough starter.  My next post will be about actually making bread –  including my recipe, my method, and the tools I find useful.  If you make sourdough, let me know how your experiences compare!

ETA:  April 2020.  I’ve been giving away my starter to friends as people become more interested in baking with sourdough during the COVID Pandemic and yeast is hard to find.  Someone asked me if my starter had a name and so I named it after my great great grandmother who likely baked bread with sourdough starter. If I had another daughter, I would call her Charlotte (Lottie), and so I’ve named my starter “Charlotte”.  My Charlotte was born in November 2014. 🙂

Useful Links

The Fresh LoafStarter Recipe  and lots of great info on the forum and website

Sourdough Blog Starter Recipe   and lots of other useful information

NPR article on sourdough

Sourdough Science – digestion

Health benefits of Sourdough

b-Tiny bubbles in 1st starter
Mixed rye and white flour starter

One thought on “Sourdough Bread: The Starter

  1. 40puddlejumper

    I’m going to give sourdough a go once we get back from Spain in October, I’ve been thinking about trying it for a while now myself, thanks for the blog on how you’re getting on with it, I’ll be interested to see how the frozen starter bread turns out!


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