Sourdough Starter

Don’t shy away from sourdough because it seems complicated. It really isn’t. Learn here how to make your own sourdough starter, how to feed it and keep it happy.

For a sourdough you only need three things: flour, water, and the right temperature. Maybe also a little patience when you make your first starter. But let’s not jump ahead and first explain the sourdough baking process to make things easier to understand.

Three Steps to a Sourdough Bread

1. The Sourdough Starter

This is often confused with the sourdough. The sourdough starter is a small batch of sourdough that you make once and then keep in your fridge. Think of it as an ingredient for your bread that you can multiply.

2. The Sourdough

With some of your sourdough starter and some more flour and water you make a larger batch of sourdough and let it rest overnight to become active (increase in size similar to a yeast dough). This larger batch will be added to the bread dough in step 3 and will give the bread the following benefits:

  1. Let the dough rise – this is especially needed in bread with rye flour!
  2. It will not go bad that fast. Usually, a sourdough bread will be good for a week or even ten days – depending on your climate.
  3. Gives the bread a specific taste. If the sourdough was made at the right temperature, this taste will be very pleasing.

3. The Sourdough Bread

Your recipe will ask for more flour and water and maybe even honey or bread spice, maybe seeds, etc.. With these ingredients, you will make the bread dough and then add the sourdough to that dough. Mix it and continue according to your recipe and eventually bake your bread.

What you need to know about the Starter

To make a sourdough starter, you only need flour and lukewarm water. Everything else is actually in the air: Our air is full of wild yeast and bacterias that are on the flour and all around us. These bacterias and yeasts use the water in your starter as their habitat and the flour as their food.
Now, there are bacterias and yeasts that we want to grow in our sourdough starter and others that we don’t want to encourage. To accomplish that, our starter needs to be kept at the right temperature when we create it. We especially want the lactic acid bacterias to thrive and they love a temperature of 25°C to 28°C which is 77°F to 82°F. When they thrive, they create acid which suppresses other bacterias that we don’t want to have in our starter.

If you mix your flour and the warm water, stir it, cover it and set it at a warm place that ensures the desired temperature, then you will observe some interesting changes:
After 24 hours your little starter will have a different smell. Now, if you add some more water and flour, you increase the habitat and the food, which will let the lactic acid bacterias feel really great and let them flourish. After an additional 12 to 18 hours your sourdough starter will show some growth and maybe even bubbles. It might smell a little sour or like alcohol. It clearly shows some reaction (it’s called fermentation). At this time you feed your starter again.

You double the amount of flour and water and give it another day to grow and react. On the fourth day, your sourdough starter should be really foamy (from the carbon dioxide, if you must know) and smell acidic. It’s ready! Now you can keep it in the fridge until you want to bake bread with sourdough.

how to make sourdough starter

Making the SOURDOUGH STARTER

  • Day 1: Mix 60 g of flour with 60 g of lukewarm, filtered water and set aside at 25°C-28°C / 77°F – 82°F for 24 hours.
  • Day 2: Add 60 g of lukewarm, filtered water and 60 g of flour, mix and set aside at 25°C-28°C / 77°F – 82°F for 18 hours.
  • Day 3: Add 100 g to 120 g of flour and 100 g to 120 g of lukewarm, filtered water, mix and set aside at 25°C-28°C / 77°F – 82°F for 18 hours.
  • Day 4: Use for a sourdough or store in an airtight jar in the fridge.

Wait, doesn’t a sourdough starter need to be fed?

Right! If you don’t bake bread like once a week, your starter needs to be fed on a regular basis. Every 10 to 12 days you take it out of the fridge and feed it like this:

  1. Pour 100 ml of warm water into a bowl.
  2. Add about 20 g of your starter to the water and mix.
  3. Add 100 g of flour to the bowl.
  4. Cover the bowl and let stand at 25°C-28°C / 77°F – 82°F for 24 hours.
  5. Put back into the jar and store in the fridge.

You might wonder what to do with the remaining starter from which you took the 20g. You can either discard it or use it in a bread dough. If you use this leftover in a bread dough let’s say a yeast bread, it will only have a slight effect on the taste of that bread. It will not be strong enough to make your bread rise or taste like a sourdough bread. It’s still better than discarding it.

Some people use the leftover sourdough starter and fry it in a pan with oil. Add some salt and herbs, fry from both sides, and maybe spread some sour cream on it – ready is your medieval flatbread!

A different Method:

Since there are different methods, I want to mention this one. I used to do it this way and it worked, too. Instead of discarding the remaining sourdough starter and mixing a new batch from a part of the sourdough, you can simply do this:

After the sourdough has fermented and before you add it to the bread dough, you take as much as you took from the starter out of the sourdough and add it back to the starter jar. Example: You took 70 g of the starter to make sourdough for a new bread, now you take 70 g from the sourdough and put it back into the jar with the remaining starter. Stir and put back into the fridge.

feeding sourdough starter

What if can’t feed my sourdough starter?

There are so many situations in life that make it difficult to stay on track with feeding a sourdough that is not used for baking for a while. Maybe you want to go on a long vacation or business trip or the arrival of a new baby distracts from that routine. Whatever it is that keeps you from feeding your starter, you don’t have to worry too much. There are two things to know:

  1. You can take some of the sourdough starter and mix it with a lot of flour (1:4 or 1:5). Then spread it out and let dry. Once dry, you can store this in a container in the fridge. The lactic acid bacterias will be kind of dormant now and once you want to go back to a feeding and baking routine, you just add warm water and a little time at the right temperature to reactivate the starter.
  2. If you forget your sourdough for a while, it might turn grey or some liquid forms on top, it might smell very sour or like alcohol … but as long as it doesn’t have mold or really stinks, it is still good! All you need to do is, take a tablespoon of that starter and mix it with 100 ml warm water and 100 g flour, set it aside at the desired temperature to react and then store it again in the fridge.

Some people don’t even feed their starter. They just stir it once a week. The problem with that is, that this might turn the sourdough starter too sour but that is a matter of personal preference / taste.

Why not starting over?

You can always start a new sourdough starter but there is a downside (besides waiting several days to finish it) to it:

Every time you feed your sourdough starter or even better add some part of a sourdough back to the starter, it increases in taste. Read more about that in the next section.

sourdough maintenance

Making the SOURDOUGH

So, once you have created your sourdough starter, you are all set to make a sourdough bread. But before you can bake your bread, you first have to create the sourdough. Here is how this works:

  1. According to your bread recipe, mix the right amount of flour and warm water and some of the sourdough starter in a larger bowl.
  2. Cover the bowl and set aside at 25°C – 28°C or 77°F – 82°F for 12 hours or how long it takes to double its size.
  3. When the sourdough has doubled its size, you can mix the bread ingredients and then add the sourdough to it.

This affects the TASTE of your Sourdough

Temperature

As I mentioned before, the taste is affected by temperature. A sourdough that is made at a cooler temperature, will play in favor of the lactic acid bacterias and therefore create more acid. This will make the taste of your bread sourer. At a higher temperature until up to 28°C the taste will be milder. But if you keep the sourdough at an even higher temperature, this will play in favor of the wild yeast that is also present in the sourdough. The bread will taste mild and more like yeast bread. This can be especially problematic in rye bread.

Rye amylase can survive higher temperatures. That property combined with a weak gluten structure and the overaction of many yeasts consuming the plentiful starches, can cause rye bread to quickly deflate into hard, gooey patties in the oven. Thankfully, acids produced during a traditional souring slow amylase, producing lighter loaves of bread.

( https://www.culturesforhealth.com)

Age

What also affects the taste of your sourdough bread, is the age of your starter. If you have used your starter many times, fed it frequently and maybe kept it even for several years, then you will have an amazing tasting starter! Many bakeries in Germany have their sourdough starter for generations and that specific taste of their bread keeps customers coming back again and again. So don’t give up on your starter if you think it’s too old or you forgot to feed it for a while. Just keep reactivating it as described earlier in this post.

Flour

It’s probably obvious that the flour in your sourdough affects the taste but I want to mention it anyway. And since the flour is a variable, it is worth thinking about having several starters for different kinds of bread. Some people have a rye starter for rye bread, a wheat starter for wheat bread, a spelt starter for spelt bread and so on. But you can as well use a wheat starter for all kinds of bread. I would, however, recommend using a rye starter only for rye bread. Also worth mentioning is, that the reactions in wheat starter and wheat sourdough are faster and much more obvious to observe.

taste of sourdough

This affects the BEHAVIOR of your Sourdough

Age

If you have just started out with making a starter, then your sourdough starter isn’t very strong, yet. To make up for that weakness, I recommend adding some yeast to the bread dough to give it a little more boost. After baking several loaves of bread over some weeks or months, your starter will be stronger and you won’t need the additional yeast any longer.

Temperature

I have explained it previously but want to mention it here again: The right room temperature is between 25°C and 28°C or 77°F and 82°F. If it is a cold season and your home is too cold, there are some tricks to give your sourdough (or your starter) the right environment:

  1. Just turn on the light in your oven without any temperature and put the sourdough into the oven. In many cases this creates the right temperature. But be aware that in some ovens the light can create too much heat. Then either keep the oven door slightly open or try trick number 2.
  2. Use a cooler, styrofoam box or insulated lunch bag – anything that keeps a temperature for a longer time. Fill a bottle with warm (not hot!) water and place it in there. Add the bowl with the sourdough. You might need to replace the water bottle after some hours to make sure the temperature stays warm. A trick from my grandmother was, to place a hot-water bottle into the bed and cover it with warm blankets and keep food warm in this “blanket fortress”.

Time

To get to the point: Longer isn’t better. If your sourdough is kept for too long before adding it to the bread dough, it might become overripe. So if you mix the sourdough in the evening and then only have time to bake the bread the next evening, your sourdough might have fermented for too long. This will not result in a larger sourdough because once it becomes overripe, it will decrease its size again. But don’t worry, you can still use it, it might just taste different as I explained earlier.

The Bread Dough and Finished Bread

For the bread dough you now only need to mix the ingredients from your recipe and add the sourdough. Mix it, let it rest & rise and bake it as described in your bread recipe. There is one thing you should be aware of: If your recipe asks for boiling water, don’t let the sourdough get in direct contact with the boiling water. Mix the flour and the water first and then add the sourdough.

Once your bread has baked and looks delicious and smells like heaven, you will be tempted to immediately cut and eat it. Well, it’s not a felony but I would recommend to at least let it cool completely so it doesn’t lose its moistness. Even better: Let your bread rest until the next day and it will have even more of its amazing taste! I know, usually, I recommend eating baked goods as fresh as possible but sourdough bread really changes its taste every day and day 2, in my opinion, is the best!

Now check out some of my wonderful recipes for German bread and rolls and enjoy baking!

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43 thoughts on “How to make and feed Sourdough Starter”

  1. Dear Barbara, thank you so much for your video presentations and for explaining the very important details of making sourdough bread from start to finish. I am a new baker and was always fascinated by the idea to learn to make sourdough bread. I carefully listened to your instructions, saw your video. I made a couple of loaves already, but I still have a lot to learn to make it right. My question is my starter looks okay, bubbly, out of the fridge, I fed it, put it back, next morning took it out, waited for it to get warmer, but when I did a float test, it went down, and the starter was not too firm, though had a lot of bubbles, it dissolved in the water easily. Why they say starter has to float first, is it important? Did something go wrong? Will appreciate your thoughts.

    1. I wouldn’t place the fed starter back into the fridge if you intend to use it soon. Maybe feed it and when you see it has doubled in size, just use it to make the sourdough (predough) for the next day.

  2. You mention the use of different starter flours: “But you can as well use a wheat starter for all kinds of bread. I would, however, recommend using a rye starter only for rye bread.”

    Why is it you only recommend rye starter for rye bread? Thanks!

    1. Because rye is heavier than wheat or spelt flour and might not blend in as good in those flours.

  3. Many thanks for this. I was Googling for making an all-rye bread for my gluten-intolerant mother-in-law, and I came across your page. I am grateful for having found all of the things that you have on your page and look forward to some new baking possibilities that you have in here!

    And yes, I DO like the metric system and am not sure why the U.S. still hasn’t moved over. It makes cooking, and just about everything, easier.

  4. Ooops … beginners error.

    So I found your recipe and thought this is the best so simple to follow. Started the sour dough starter all went well. Then moved onto the pre dough. Not so well.

    In my morning excitement to continue the rye bread making I got all the ingredients ready and then brought my starter out. Somewhere between getting the starter out and mixing up the pre dough I read the next stage instructions and added all of the starter and not 60g. It wasn’t until I re read the instructions (like a million times) that I realised my error.

    Q is my pre dough ruined! ?

  5. One more question from Peter:
    Can I use part of the sour dough on the day it is ready as a starter for the sough dough to be prepared on the same day?
    Or it is better to use freshly feeded starter every day I start to prepare the sough dough?
    Thank you for your advice.

    1. When your starter has first been created and fed for three days, you can use it in your bread but also use a little yeast to give the bread an extra boost. For the next breads, it is my experience that breads turn out better if you take the starter out and feed it a day before you make a sourdough.

      1. Thank you Barbara,
        My question is – if I feed the starter day by day after the 4-th day – Do I get a constant starter with one and the same quality?

        1. I don’t know, I’ve never fed my starter day after day. I guess you’ll have to find out yourself.

  6. My name is Peter. I am a beginner in sough dough preparation.
    Can I continue feeding the starter on the 5th, 6th, 7th day and so on, instead of keeping the starter in the fridge for 10-12 days and then feed it again?
    I mean can I feed the starter day after day? Do I get a better taste and constant aroma in this way?
    Will the bread baked with this starter have one and the same volume, taste and aroma day after day?

    1. Hi Peter,

      If you feed your starter every day, you will end up discarding a lot of that starter since you always double the mass. If you bake a bread every day, that would make sense but else it’s a waste of flour. The starter’s taste will increase more if you use a good stone ground flour and keep it at the right temperature. I believe TIME is the key, too, rather than feeding every day.
      Your bread will not be the same every time you bake. It very much depends on several factors like the seasonal climate in your area: temperature & humidity change during the year! Also, you might sometimes overproof or underproof your dough so there is also a human factor. Once you have baked a lot of bread and learned from your experience, you will be able to produce a bread that is consistent in quality. It really takes time and even I still fail sometimes. So, don*t be discouraged if the first breads don’t turn out perfectly, just keep baking and learning.
      Best,
      Barbara

  7. I followed this and on day 2, my starter was very dry, so I added a tiny bit more water than 60g, then on day 3 it was still quite dry, but smelled a tiny bit sour; so I added a lot more water, like 129g rather than 100g. I wonder if you have any experience with this or advice. We’ll see what it’s like tomorrow. Thanks!

    1. What flour were you using? If you are working with rye, my experience is that it tends to be dry until it is fully developed. Then it will be more liquid. It can also be that your flour just soaks more liquid than mine but usually the 1:1 measure should be working. Did you cover it, so it wouldn’t evaporate?

      1. I’m using rye.

        As far covering: in your video, it seemed like you covered it loosely with wax paper, so I covered it loosely with a cheesecloth the first two days and an ajar plastic lid the third.

        1. That sounds about right. Not sure what the problem was. I hope it all worked out in the end!
          Greetings,
          Barbara

  8. You are an excellent teacher! Thank you for the detailed videos. I have learned a lot from you!

  9. Hi Barbara!
    There’s one thing I don’t understand…
    When does your refrigerated starter stops being good for making bread until you feed it?
    Your’e supposed to feed it every 10 days or so but can you use it during these 10 days to make a sourdough? When does it stop being active? I’m a bit confused…
    Does it have to be fresh and not refrigerated at all to make the sourdough? Or can you just use it straight from the fridge?

    1. Hi,
      think of your starter like this: The bacteria live in the environment of the water and they feed off the energy in the flour. The fridge slows the feeding process down but in general, the number of bacteria will increase. At some point the bacteria will not have enough environment and food to thrive, that’s why it needs feeding. What happens if the environment doesn’t provide for the starter culture is – as of my understanding – that the starter produces more acid and can get too sour. In that case, it will not let the dough rise very well and also the bread will taste too sour and not very well.
      You can use your sourdough starter at any point between feeding and you can take the starter right from the fridge and make a sourdough. Since the sourdough is mixt with water and flour and has to ferment for several hours, it will get to room temperature soon. However, it is my experience that feeding the starter the day before using it, helps a lot to increase the rising of the dough later.
      I hope this helped.
      Best,
      Barbara

    2. How do you know whether to add 100 or 120 g of flour and lukewarm water on day 3? What consistency or look am I supposed to have?
      Thanks.

      1. It doesn’t really matter, just both somewhere between 100 and 120 g. The consistency is not important, what’s important is that the sourdough starter has enough food (flour) and environment (water) for the lactic acid bacteria and natural yeast to grow. They will make your bread rise.

  10. Hi Barbara,

    Thanks for creating this website with the recipes and videos, I love it. I just made a sourdough starter using your recipe (after discarding a starter with a different recipe that didn’t work out). It looked great so I started making the Rye Bread Mixed recipe mixing the starter with rye flower and water and letting it rise. But now it doesn’t rise and the top gets crusty. Underneath the crust the dough seems pretty active, but it just doesn’t rise. Do you have any suggestions?

    I read somewhere on your website that with a young starter you might need to add a little yeast. But how much yeast and how and when in the process to add it?

    Thank you so much,
    Mijke

    1. Hi Miijke,
      when you make the sourdough, cover the bowl with a lid (i.e. from a cook pot or so) so there is no crust on top which can keep the sourdough from fermenting properly. With a young starter, add a little yeast when you mix the final dough and give it enough time to rise. I hope this will help.

      Best,
      Barbara

  11. Hi Barbara,
    First of all a massive thank you for putting all the recipies together on this website, it provides a family of Germans, living abroad, much balm for their Heimweh.
    I do have a few questions however. I have followed your instructions to get the sourdough starter started, I have baked several Mischbrote and they seem to come out fine. However when I create the sourdough, a day ahead of baking the bread, the sourdough does not bubble or increase in volume much, it somewhat smells though. Is that because my starter is only a month old now? Does the grow come from the yeast used in the recipe only?
    I have taken the sourdough starter out of the fridge for a day each week, because I concluded it would help the starter, is that wrong or even risky? Could the starter end up going wrong?
    Many thanks for taking the time to respond to all of my questions, I can’t wait to read your response.
    Nocheinmal vielen Dank!

    1. Hi TJ,
      My guess is that your sourdough is still young or maybe it‘s too cold in your house for it to rise better. Here is what I suggest: Take the starter out even one day earlier. Feed it with water and flour to double it‘s quantity. Let it stand at a warm room temperature for 24 hours and then make the sourdough with the fresh fed starter and follow the recipe with making the bread dough the next day. You should see a much better rise.
      While sourdough is still young, it is helpful to add a little yeast to the recipe but once your sourdough has aged a little more, you should be able to leave it out and just use the starter/sourdough.

      I hope this will help. Let me know how it goes!
      Liebe Grüße,
      Barbara

      1. Tjark Schoenfeld

        Hi Barbara,
        Vielen Dank for your advice, that worked perfectly well. After I left the starter out and fed it, using the ‘waste’ for a tasty sourdough pizza base ;), the resulting sourdough base was much more active and bubbly, resulting in a more airy and more grown base after the proving stage.
        Do you have a recipe for a classic artisan sourdough on your website? Can’t find it and would love to make this my next project. Dankeschön, Tj

        1. I am not sure what a classic artisan bread is for you but if you check on the blog the baking bread section, there is a bread recipe with yeast water. Just use regular yeast instead of the yeast water and it might be what you are looking for.

  12. Hi Barbara, I really enjoy your videos and articles, learned a lot from it! I have two questions ~
    1) as I’m a “free hand” cooker & Baker, I usually do not use scales to mesure the ingredients, what are the proportion of Sourdough to Bread Dough?
    2) once the sourdough is ready, can I just add the rest of the ingredients and knead all together, or do I have to knead the Bread Doug separately, then combin two doughs and knead together?
    I’d really appreciate it if you can answer my questions, thank you!
    Ruby

    1. Hi Ruby,
      to answer your questions:
      1) It usually depends on your recipe and your flour (rye, wheat, spelt …). For a wheat bread with 500 g flour (4 cups), you usually need 100g to 150g of sourdough to use on a bread.
      2) You can do it either way. I prefer to mix the flour and liquid first for a moment and then add the sourdough. I think the outcome is better but it might not make a big difference. What I also like to do is called autolyse, where I mix the water and flour quickly (no kneading) and let it stand for an hour or two and then mix in the remaining ingredients, including the sourdough. It makes the bread taste better and have a better structure.

      I hope I could answer your questions.
      Best, Barbara

  13. I’ve read so many other sourdough starter recipes that discarding Half when they feed the sourdough starter before it is ready to be used as a starter. My question is after reading your post about making sourdough starter and no mention of discarding before you feed the starter. So my question is, you don’t need to discard half of the starter each time? Is this what you’re saying? I’ve never made starter mainly because it was so wasteful to me.

    1. Hi San,
      it very much depends on what you are doing with your starter. If you bake on a regular basis, you will get low on sourdough regularly and therefor feeding is also refilling. If you don’t use your sourdough starter that often but feed it, you will get into the problem of having too much starter. Here is what I do: I don’t throw half away. I use it in something else like out it into a pancake dough or pizza dough. Since it is not freshly fed and hasn’t rised for hours, it will not do anything to those doughs other than adding some taste. Sometimes I just put some starter in my bread dough to get rid of the excess starter. I just put it in as the last step while kneading and before proofing.
      Some people fry the excess sourdough starter in the pan, sprinkle some herbs on top, and some sour cream. It tastes good but the house stinks like a nasty cheese after the frying, so I stopped doing that.
      The removal of half the starter is just to avoid that you have a huge bowl of starter in your fridge after feeding it without using it. I hope this gave you some ideas how to handle a starter.
      Best,
      Barbara

  14. Hi Barbara,
    Grusse aus England.
    I’m trying to replicate the Landbrot we ate in Berlin as a child, and I’m thinking it needs more acidity or sourness, could a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar enhance the bread flavour? I have heard that using vinegar can help the structure of the loaf too! I’m also not sure what the percentage of rye was in it, or even if it was 100%? I shall need to experiment!
    In any case, I am really enjoying your videos, it is invoking some lovely memories of being with Oma & Opa in Berlin!
    Frank

    1. Hi Frank,
      I know that some bread recipes ask for some vinegar and it might be a solution. Another way would be to make your sourdough starter sourer by making it with a different temperature. Have you read my post about sourdough starter? You can find it in the bread section.
      Usually, people try to avoid a too sour taste in their bread but you can make it sourer sour on purpose. I would try that.
      It’s always nice to hear that dear memories come back with my recipes. I get that feedback from a lot of people and I often wonder, what culinary memories we leave for our kids and following generations.
      Cheers,
      Barbara

  15. Wish you would publish a book. It would make a great present. Best sourdough instructions I’ve read so far!

    1. Thank you, Liz! I am actually really thinking about making a book about German baking. I’m just not sure if I will find the time.
      Best,
      Barbara

  16. THANK YOU! This is a very good article in explaining about the myth of sourdough and you make it simplified to do and maintain. MANY THANKS!

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