Getting into baking your own homemade bread? It’s only a matter of time before you graduate from beginner bread recipes to the more advanced bakes. Before you know it, you’ll be dabbling in the world of sourdough. Sourdough is a bit different than most yeasted breads because it starts with, well, a starter. Sourdough starter is fermented and contains natural yeast which gives it its signature tang.
Ready to dive into the world of sourdough? You can follow our Associate Culinary Producer Audrey Rompon’s sourdough journey. We’ve also got answers to your most burning sourdough questions from Audrey and Senior Food Stylist Josh Rink.
What is sourdough starter exactly?
Sourdough starter is natural or “wild yeast” and bacteria that’s grown over time with the help of water, flour and fermentation. If you’re relying on natural yeast for your starter, it can take some time for it to develop. You can jump-start your starter with packaged yeast.
This mix of yeast, flour and water that’s been fermented gives sourdough bread its rise and flavor.
How do you store sourdough starter?
“Sourdough starter should be stored at room temperature—ideally around 70 degrees,” according to Josh. Be sure to keep the starter out of direct sunlight.
Be sure to choose the right container for storing your starter. You’ll want the container to be about four times the size of the starter so it has room to grow. A large Mason jar is a great vessel for keeping your starter. Just be sure not to seal it (or any container you use) too tightly. You want to allow gasses to escape from the container so it doesn’t explode!
Once you have an established starter, you can stash it in the fridge.
How can you tell if your starter is alive?
Sourdough starter can take some time to develop—up to two weeks. Once its established itself, you need to “feed” the starter to keep it happy, according to Josh. Feeding means adding a bit more flour and water.
After feeding your starter, it should get bubbly and increase in volume over the course of a few hours. This is evidence that the yeast is consuming nutrients and releasing gas. “Bubbles are the sign that the starter is alive and thriving!” Josh says.
Just be aware that after eating, the starter will deflate again. This boom and bust is part of the cycle of sourdough starter.
How often should you feed sourdough starter?
When storing a starter at room temperature, Josh recommends daily feedings.
If you store it in the fridge, Audrey suggests letting it come to room temperature once a week and feeding it then. Fridge storage is best if you want to keep your starter going long-term.
Can you overfeed sourdough starter?
Yes, you can overfeed your sourdough starter. Audrey explains: “Every time you add more flour and water, you are depleting the existing population of natural bacteria and yeast.” If you keep adding more and more, eventually you’ll dilute the starter so much that you’ll just have flour and water.
How long until you can use the starter?
There’s no precise answer to this question, unfortunately, according to Josh. “Environment and ingredients play a role in the fermentation process,” he says. So your starter may be ready in just five days or up to two weeks.
The best way to tell if your starter is ready to use is by placing a spoonful in a bowl of water. If the dollop floats, it is ready to use.
Want to bake? Josh recommends baking with the starter a few hours after feeding. “When the starter has bubbled up dramatically and is near its peak volume,” he says is the right time.
Why do you discard half of the sourdough starter?
This might seem like the most heartbreaking part of making sourdough bread: discarding part of your starter. But Josh assures us that there’s a reason for this.
“Imagine the wild yeast and bacteria in the starter to be like little Pac-Man creatures. After feeding, these creatures consume all the available nutrients and reproduce. When the nutrients are gone the bacteria and yeast stop releasing gas, reproducing, and begin to die back. Removing a portion of the starter keeps the volume of the starter to a manageable size. Additionally, keeping the remaining portion of the starter is important to retain the yeast and bacteria that have taken so long to develop and grow.”
What can you do with the discard?
Here’s the secret: You don’t have to discard the discard. That can be the foundation for more starter.
If you’re not interested in keeping the starter going, you can make an additional loaf of bread, pizza crust, waffles, pancakes, cinnamon rolls and much more. Anything that requires yeast is a great application for a starter.
Can you use whole wheat flour to make sourdough bread?
You sure can! You can use lots of flours to make sourdough. Josh recommends a mix of bread flour and whole wheat flour for a really lovely and rustic loaf.
While there are lots of questions to ask about sourdough, it’s really not as challenging as you might think. Just follow the advice from our Test Kitchen and you should be ready to make your own! And once you do, share your creations with our baking community, Bakeable.