Baker Bettie

How to Make a Sourdough Starter for Beginners

 

Learn the step-by-step process of how to make a sourdough starter from scratch. This easy method is geared towards beginners and will help you get your starter going very quickly. 

A jar of sourdough starter that is filled with bubbles

Note: At the very bottom of this article there is a concise printable schedule for making your sourdough starter. However, I highly suggest reading through the full post as it will give you much more detailed information and will answer many of your questions. 

Sourdough Starter Overview

A sourdough starter is a culture of wild yeast and bacteria that is used to leaven bread. Those who bake with a sourdough starter have either obtained one from someone else, or have cultivated their own. 

The process of making your own sourdough starter from scratch is actually quite simple. There are many different methods to create a starter, but they all essentially involve combining flour and water together and letting it ferment.

There are naturally occurring yeast and bacteria living in flour, as well as in the air. When water is added to the equation, these yeast and bacteria start feeding on the starches in the flour. As the starter is fed fresh flour and water over and over again, the culture gets vigorous enough that it can be used to leaven bread. 

A loaf of sourdough bread

How Long Can a Sourdough Starter Live? 

A sourdough starter, also called a levain, is a living culture. It must be cared for in order for it to stay healthy and active, however, if cared for properly it can stay alive indefinitely. There are people baking with sourdough starters that are 100+ year old. 

My sourdough starter’s name is Millie, and I have cared for her for about a year. It is common to name your starter because it is alive and it helps you feel the need to care for it. Furthermore, every starter is unique in its makeup of yeast and bacteria. Your unique starter deserves a unique name! 

Bettie posing with your jar of sourdough starter named "Millie"

A brand new sourdough starter will be much more mild in flavor than a sourdough starter that has aged a bit. As your starter ages, it will take on a more complex and sour flour. Some believe that the older the starter, the better the starter. However in my experience, a well cared for starter that is one year old works just as well as a starter that is 20 years old. 

Before You Start Your Sourdough Starter

Before you start day one of making your starter from scratch, you will need to pick a time of day that you can dedicate about 5-10 minutes to your starter for about 10 days in a row. Once your starter gets nice and active, you will not have to tend to it every single day. But as you are building it up nice and strong, you will need to feed it every day. 

Equipment needed to make a sourdough starter from scratch

There are also a few pieces of equipment that you will need. I go much more in depth about the equipment in my Sourdough Bread Making Equipment article, but I will briefly review them here as well. (Note: the links below are affiliate links.)

  • Digital scale: We will be weighing our water and flour as we get our starter going. It really does make the process a lot easier! 
  • Digital thermometer: We will be taking the temperature of our water and it is important to be accurate. 
  • 3 Glass Containers at least 24 oz in size with lid: You will need 1 container for your starter, 1 container for your discard, and 1 clean container to switch your starter into when you are ready. The lid does not need to be airtight, and in fact, I will be instructing you to keep the lid somewhat loose on your starter. 
  • Small Rubber Spatula (optional): This spatula is completely optional, but I think it works really well to mix your water and flour together. 

How to Start a Sourdough Starter from Scratch

I want to preface this section by stating that there are endless different methods of building a sourdough starter. No one way is the best way. This method is the one that I have had success with time and time again and what I find to be the most consistent. 

Day 1

Watch my Day 1 Sourdough Starter Video on YouTube. 

On day one, you want to weigh your empty container without the lid and write that down in grams. You can tape it to your jar so you’ll always know it. You’ll have a better understanding of why we do this on day two, but it will help you know how much starter is left in your jar. 

Keep your jar on the scale and then zero it out, so the jar isn’t being weighed anymore. The button on your scale may say “tare”. Now measure out 50 grams of whole wheat flour and 50 grams of filtered water that has been just slightly warmed to 85-90 degrees F (29-32 degrees C). Mix all of this together vigorously until all of the flour is completely hydrated. 

Flour and water mixed together in jar for day 1 of starting sourdough starter

Place the lid on your starter but do not make it airtight. My lids come with rubber seals on them that I remove. This way as the starter creates gasses they have somewhere to escape. Leave your starter to sit at room temperature (about 70-75 F, 21-24 C) until about the same time tomorrow. 

Day 2

Watch my Day 2 Sourdough Starter Video on YouTube. 

On day two you might not see much change in your starter. It might look completely the same, or you might already see some small bubbles forming. 

My starter had some small bubbles but it also had a thin layer of greyish/black liquid on top. This is called “hooch” and it is normal. Sometimes your starter will get it and it is a byproduct of the alcohol production in your starter. It is also a sign that your starter is hungry and it is time to feed it! If there is a lot of hooch, you can pour it off, or you can stir it back in if there is only a small amount. It isn’t harmful. 

Today we are going to do our first feeding, which means that we are going to discard some of the starter and give it fresh flour and water. You want to keep 25 grams of your starter from yesterday. So weigh your jar and remove enough starter so that the jar now weighs 25 grams more than the empty jar weight.

You will want to throw away (or you can compost) the discard while you are building up your starter. Once the starter is very active you can start saving your sourdough discard and use it in other baking. You can read my full article about how to reduce and use your sourdough discard here! 

Add 50 grams of whole wheat flour and 50 grams of filtered water at 85-90 degrees F (29-32 degrees C). Mix together until well combined. Cover and let sit at room temperature until about the same time tomorrow. 

This is called a 1:2:2 feeding. Which means you have one part starter and added two parts (or double the amount) flour and two parts water. 

Day 3

Watch my Day 3 Sourdough Starter Video on YouTube. 

By day 3 you might see a little surge of activity. My starter was full of bubbles and signs of life! It is so fun to see. If you don’t see this, do not worry! Keep going with the process and trust that it will get active. 

Showing sourdough starter on day 3, there are some bubbles

Today, repeat the exact same thing that you did yesterday. Keep 25 grams of starter and add 50 grams of whole wheat flour and 50 grams of filtered water at 85-90 degrees F (29-32 degrees C). Mix together until well combined. Cover and let sit at room temperature until about the same time tomorrow. 

Day 4, 5, 6, Etc… 

Watch my Day 4+ Sourdough Starter Video on YouTube. 

By day 4 my starter doubled in size and is looking really bubbly and nice. But it still isn’t quite ready to bake with! It will likely take a few more days. 

Sourdough starter on day 4 with larger bubbles

Over the next few days you are going to do the same feeding until your starter is ready to move into the maintenance phase. Instead of doing the same 1:2:2 feeding that we have been doing over the past few days, we are going to do a 1:3:3 feeding. Meaning that we will mix one part starter with three parts (or triple the amount) flour, and three parts water. The reason for this is that hopefully our starter is getting more active so we are going to give it more food to get through the day. 

Keep 25 grams of starter and add 75 grams of whole wheat flour and 75 grams of water at 85-90 degrees F (29-32 degrees C). Mix together until well combined. Cover and let sit at room temperature until the next day. Do this same feeding over the next few days. 

When you starter looks like it is at least doubling in size in about 8 hours, you can do a float test to see if it is ready to move into the maintenance phase and ready to bake with! To perform a float test, gently drop a spoonful of starter into a cup of water about 8-12 hours after you fed your starter. If it floats, then it is ready to move on to the maintenance phase and you can start using it to bake with. If it doesn’t float then you will want to continue with this same feeding until it does. 

Demonstrating the float test by dropping some starter into a glass of water

Maintenance Feeding

Watch my Sourdough Maintenance Video on YouTube

Once you starter passes the float test, you can start feeding it what I call “the maintenance feeding.” This is the feeding that I do every time I feed my starter moving forward. 

We are going to keep the same ratio of the 1:3:3 feeding, except this time we are going to use part whole wheat flour and part unbleached all purpose flour. So we will keep 25 grams of starter and feed it 25 grams of whole wheat flour, 50 grams of unbleached all purpose flour, and 75 grams of filtered water at 85-90 degrees F (29-32 degrees C).

After you feed your sourdough starter you have 3 options: You can use part of it in a bread dough, you can leave it at room temperature until the next feeding, or you can store it in the refrigerator. 

To Use Your Starter in a Recipe

The maintenance feeding will give you 100-150 grams of starter to use in a recipe. You never want to use all of your starter in a recipe or you want have any to feed the next day. If your recipe calls for more than 150 grams of starter, you can feed a larger portion of it keeping that same 1:3:3 ratio. (ex. Keep 50 grams starter and feed it 50 grams ww flour, 100 grams ap flour, and 150 grams water). 

Feed your starter about 8-10 hours before you want to mix your dough. After you feed it, it will get bubbly and start rising in your jar. In the beginning, your starter will get sort of a dome on top of it as it rises, and then it will eventually flatten out, and start falling. You need to use your starter before it falls. 

Sourdough bread cut open showing the crumb

There will be a window of time in which your starter is active enough to use in a dough. Usually it is somewhere between 6-12 hours. I try to use mine in the 8-10 hour range. Do the float test, as described in “day 4+ feeding” to test when it is ready. When your starter floats, it is ready to go into a dough. If your starter doesn’t float it either isn’t quite ready yet, or you have waited too long and it has started to loose its gasses. 

After you use some of your starter in your bread dough, you can leave it be until your normal feeding time. 

Long Term Sourdough Storage & Maintenance 

There are two main ways to store your starter for maintenance: at room temperature or in the refrigerator. Whichever way you choose, you will need to care for it. It is alive and needs to be fed. 

Room Temperature Sourdough Starter Storage

Storing your sourdough starter at room temperature is the best way to keep a really active and vigorous starter. Feeding your starter consistently will keep it the strongest. However, keeping it at room temperature does mean you need to feed it at least once a day. I work this into my morning routine and honestly it doesn’t take much longer than it takes me to brush my teeth. 

But I totally understand if you do not want to do this everyday. If that is the case for you, then you can store it in your refrigerator. 

Refrigerator Sourdough Starter Storage

Cold temperatures will slow the yeast and bacteria in your sourdough culture way down which means you don’t need to feed it as frequently. Ideally, if you keep your starter in the refrigerator, you want to try to feed it at least every 7-10 days to keep it really healthy. But if you forget to feed your starter for a few weeks, do not throw it out! Starters are much harder to kill then is commonly thought. It might get very weak, but it probably isn’t dead. Give it a few consistent feedings and it should spring back to life. They are very resilient.

To store your sourdough starter in the refrigerator, feed it your normal feeding and then let it sit out at room temperature to get bubbly. Once it looks lively, you can move it to the refrigerator. 

When you go to feed your refrigerated starter, take it out of the fridge and feed it as you normally do. Let it sit at room temperature to wake up and start feeding for a few hours. Once it looks bubbly, you can place it back in the refrigerator. 

How to Bake with Your Starter that has Been Refrigerated

When you want to bake with your starter and it has been in the refrigerator, you might need a couple of feedings before it is active enough to put in a bread dough. If I want to start a dough on a Friday, I will typically take mine out on Wednesday and feed it Wednesday, Thursday, and then after Friday’s feeding it is good to go. 

There are some bread baker’s that will bake with it the same day they refresh it from the refrigerator. It really just depends on how vigorous your starter is and you will have to get to know your unique starter and how well it works! 

Fully active sourdough starter full of bubbles

Troubleshooting Sourdough Starter

If your starter is struggling to get going active, you can try a few things to give it a bit of a boost. Make sure that where you are storing it is not drafty. Cool temperatures slows down the culture activity. Find a warmer spot to keep your starter. 

You might also try switching to a different, higher quality, brand of flour. I have always used conventional flour for my starters, but an organic flour may help give you starter a little more strength. 

If your starter is consistently getting a lot of hooch on top (the liquid that can form on top) it may be getting too hungry before you feed it. Try keeping your starter somewhere that is a little cooler or using water that is slightly cooler when you feed it. You can also try to increase the amount of flour and water you are feeding the starter to make sure it has enough food until its next feeding. 

Resources

There are many different sourdough resources I used when I was first learning. They all have been helpful in their own way. But as I started baking sourdough myself, I was able to stitch all of the information together to create my own method that I feel makes the most sense and has been the most consistent. 

Below are the resources I have used the most and are definitely worth diving into if you want to go more in depth about sourdough! 


Please ask any questions you may have in the comment section. I am always happy to answer them. Below you will find a more concise printable schedule for how to build and maintain your starter. You also may find my Sourdough Series on YouTube to be really helpful. I made a video for each day of building the starter so you can see the whole process! 

How to Make a Sourdough Starter for Beginners

How to Make a Sourdough Starter for Beginners

Yield: 1 Sourdough Starter
Prep Time: 7 days
Active Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 7 days 1 hour

This is a comprehensive step-by-step guide for how to start a sourdough starter from scratch for beginners. Your very own sourdough starter can be created from only flour and water and is much easier to make than most think!

Materials

  • Whole Wheat Flour
  • Filtered Water
  • Unbleached All-Purpose Flour

Instructions

Before you start day one of the process, make sure that you can set aside 5-10 minutes at about the same time of day for the next 10 days. I find it best to work it into your morning or nighttime routine. Once your starter is nice and strong you will no longer have to tend to it every single day.

DAY 1

  1. Weigh your empty jar without the lid and write that down in grams. I like to tape it to my jar so I always know how much it weighs. You will need this weight later.
  2. Zero out your scale (tare) and then add 50 grams of whole wheat flour and 50 grams of water that has been just slightly warmed to 85-90 degrees F (29-32 degrees C). Mix all of this together vigorously until all of the flour is completely hydrated.
  3. Place the lid on your container but not airtight. If your lid has a rubber seal you can remove it. Or flip the lid upside down. You want the gasses to be able to escape.
  4. Let your jar sit at room temperature (about 70-75 F, 21-24 C) until about the same time tomorrow. 

DAY 2

    1. On day two you might not see much change in your starter. It might look completely the same, or you might already see some small bubbles forming. If it has a black liquid forming on top, this is hooch and it is normal. Either pour it off or stir it back in.
    2. You want to keep 25 grams of your starter from yesterday and toss the rest out. Weigh your jar and remove enough starter so that the jar now weighs 25 grams more than the empty jar weight.
    3. Add 50 grams of whole wheat flour and 50 grams of filtered water at 85-90 degrees F (29-32 degrees C). Mix together until well combined. Cover and let sit at room temperature until about the same time tomorrow. 

    DAY 3

      1. By day 3 you might see a little surge of activity. If you don’t see this, do not worry! Keep going with the process and trust that it will get active. 
      2. Today, repeat the exact same thing that you did yesterday. Keep 25 grams of starter and add 50 grams of whole wheat flour and 50 grams of filtered water at 85-90 degrees F (29-32 degrees C). Mix together until well combined. Cover and let sit at room temperature until about the same time tomorrow. 

      DAY 4+

      1. By day 4 you will likely be seeing at least a little activity, and usually quite a lot of bubbles. It still isn't strong enough to bake with, but signs of life will hopefully be there. If not, trust the process and keep going!
      2. Over the next few days you are going to do the same feeding until your starter is ready to move into the maintenance phase. Keep 25 grams of flour and add 75 grams of whole wheat flour and 75 grams of water at 85-90 degrees F (29-32 degrees C). Mix together until well combined. Cover and let sit at room temperature until the next day. Do this same feeding over the next few days. 
      3. When your starter looks like it is at least doubling in size in about 8 hours, you can do a float test to see if it is ready to move into the maintenance phase and ready to bake with! To perform a float test, gently drop a spoonful of starter into a cup of water about 8-12 hours after you fed your starter. If it floats, then it is ready to move on to the maintenance phase and you can start using it to bake with. If it doesn’t float then you will want to continue with this same feeding until it does. 

      MAINTENANCE FEEDING

      1. Once you starter passes the float test, you can start feeding it the maintenance feeding. Keep 25 grams of starter and feed it 25 grams of whole wheat flour, 50 grams of unbleached all purpose flour, and 75 grams of filtered water at 85-90 degrees F (29-32 degrees C).
      2. After you feed your sourdough starter you have 3 options: You can use part of it in a bread dough, you can leave it at room temperature until the next feeding, or you can store it in the refrigerator.

      TO USE YOUR STARTER IN A RECIPE

      Feed your starter about 8-10 hours before you want to mix your dough. After you feed it, it will get bubbly and start rising in your jar. In the beginning, your starter will get sort of a dome on top of it as it rises, and then it will eventually flatten out, and start falling. You need to use your starter before it falls.

      There will be a window of time in which your starter is active enough to use in a dough. Usually it is somewhere between 6-12 hours. I try to use mine in the 8-10 hour range. Do the float test, as described in “day 4+ feeding” to test when it is ready. When your starter floats, it is ready to go into a dough. If your starter doesn’t float it either isn’t quite ready yet, or you have waited too long and it has started to loose its gasses. 

      After you use some of your starter in your bread dough, you can leave the rest of it alone until your normal feeding time. 

      TO REFRIGERATE YOUR STARTER

      To store your sourdough starter in the refrigerator, feed it your normal feeding and then let it sit out at room temperature to get bubbly. Once it looks lively, you can move it to the refrigerator.

      You will want to feed your refrigerated starter every 7-10 days. To feed, take it out of the fridge and feed it as you normally do. Let it sit at room temperature to wake up and start feeding for a few hours. Once it looks bubbly, you can place it back in the refrigerator. 

      When you want to bake with your starter and it has been in the refrigerator, you might need a couple of feedings before it is active enough to put in a bread dough. If I want to start a dough on a Friday, I will typically take mine out on Wednesday and feed it Wednesday, Thursday, and then after Friday’s feeding it is good to go. 

Notes

Sourdough starters are more resilient than most think. If you forget to feed your starter for a while or mess up the ratios, do not throw it out! Get back on schedule and after a few regular feedings it should spring back to life!

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Learn the step-by-step process of how to make a sourdough starter from scratch. This easy method is geared towards beginners and will help you get your starter going very quickly. #sourdough

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7 comments on “How to Make a Sourdough Starter for Beginners”

  1. Bettie:

    I’m not a whole wheat lover.
    Could the starter be made from white flour? Or perhaps a bit of both?

    • Hi Charlie! Eventually you will move into using a very small amount of whole wheat and mostly white flour. However, to get your starter going you are going to be much more successful with whole wheat flour. Whole grains contain more natural yeast and bacteria, as well as more nutrients to feed them. Once you put your starter into your bread dough, there will be a negligible amount of whole wheat flour in the bread. A teaspoon at the most for a whole loaf of bread. Hope that helps!

  2. Love your site and your recipes! From cakes to breads, all your recipes are delicious!

    Is it practical for the occasional bread baker to keep a starter or should I rely on the dry starter I have been using in the past.

    I love the whole concept of sourdough. I’ve only attempted it a few times, but it is pure magic!

    Thank you!

    • Hi Darlene! I think it is absolutely practical for the occasional bread baker to maintain a starter. But it all depends on if you want to have to think about it and remember to feed it. If you keep your starter in the refrigerator, ideally you want to try to feed it every 7-10 days to keep it healthy. If you forget it about it for a few weeks or even a month or two, it likely won’t die. But it may take a few regular feedings to become strong again. I find so much joy in building and maintaining my own. It feels like a deeply personal process made with so much love. But I definitely understand it not being for everyone! Let me know if you have any other questions!

  3. After about 4 days my starter looked great, nice and big and healthy. Then it wouldn’t rise anymore. Now about day 10 or so, it struggles. I feed it 25/75/75 everyday but it just stays flat. A little liquid in there everyday. Too much water? I even changed out the jar, but no change.
    On a side note, and I’m not complaining, in your instructions I think it’s supposed to say starter instead of flour in step 2.
    Quote “Over the next few days you are going to do the same feeding until your starter is ready to move into the maintenance phase. Keep 25 grams of flour and add 75 grams of whole wheat flour and 75 grams of water at 85-90 degrees F (29-32 degrees C). Mix together until well combined. Cover and let sit at room temperature until the next day. Do this same feeding over the next few days. ”
    Also, I didn’t know you were from Lawrence Kansas, or at least went to college there. I’m from there and my son works at Burt Nash in Lawrence.
    Thanks for all you do.
    Frank

    • Hi Frank! Ugh, so sorry to hear that your starter is having issues. Did it start when you switched to white flour? I’m sure you are, but just checking that you are definitely using unbleached flour? Why don’t you try to switch back to all whole wheat flour and see if it springs back to life. Sometimes that can help! Thank you for pointing out the typo! I’m fixing it now!

      I am actually from Hutchinson, Ks. But I went to KU and lived in Lawrence for about 6 years. I worked at Bert Nash too! I was a dual diagnosis case manager there from 2011-2013. What a small world!

    • I just realized you said it was once you moved to 1:3:3 feeding so you are still doing all whole wheat. Did you by chance change the brand of whole wheat? Sometimes starters can be quite picky. Also, maybe try to use slightly warmer water for a few days or finding a bit warmer spot for it.

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