Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Starting Sourdough

One of the questions I get most often is - "Where can I get a sourdough starter?"

Three answers - Raise your own starter, buy a starter, or bum a starter. All three options work. Some better than others - if you go from my experience!

1. Raise your own starter.

This was the option I started with first. I loved the idea. Mix a little flour and water and watch the yeast grow! Only one problem, it didn't work well for me.

I first followed the directions from Heavenly Homemakers. Now, I know her directions have worked well for others, but I didn't have success. The bread I baked was absolutely horrible.

The second attempt was from directions from a magazine. Once again, I had some bubbly action but not enough to rise bread.

The third time I followed the directions in Artisan Breads Every Day. This time I made bread that actually was edible. In fact it tasted very good. But when I attempted 100% whole wheat bread, it was another failure.

But since that attempt was the best yet, a year later, I followed the Artisan Breads Every Day directions again. Again, I was able to bake good bread, just not excellent. I kept that starter alive for a few months before I got tired of caring for such a thick dough-like starter.

I should back track and say that I was going for the purist method. I've seen recipes that start with a little commercial yeast. I wanted a 100% wild yeast AND 100% whole wheat flour. Maybe I was stacking the odds against me.

I also know now that I was too rushed. A new starter needs time to develop and strengthen before it is asked to rise 100% whole wheat bread. If I was repeating the experiment, I would spend a few weeks using the starter for pizza crust, waffles and muffins before trying bread.

Another mistake that I know now was that I would tire of my starter and place it in the refrigerator. This is fine for a mature starter but for a new starter, it couldn't take the neglect. I think this  is why my starter kept getting weaker instead of stronger.

If you want to try making your own starter, I recommend using the pineapple juice method. I had my best success with this method which uses pineapple juice instead of water for the first couple days to keep the bad bacteria from growing before the good bacteria has time to take hold. For complete directions, download the free ebook "Beginning Sourdough".


2. Buy a Starter

Numerous online sources sell starters. One company is Cultures for Health. I've never purchased a starter from them but they have numerous types and also very helpful videos and information on their website.

King Arthur sells fresh sourdough.

The cost is very minimal and, I think, a great bargain to avoid the headache of a failed starter.

3. Bum a Starter

Free is best, right! After all my tries at sourdough baking, I finally was given a sourdough starter and had instant success! Getting a mature starter allows you to have professional results immediately without the growing pains of growing your own.

If you have a friend who has sourdough, ask for some starter. I'm sure they would love to share. Sourdough starter is something you always have extra of. If you live local to me, I would love to share some of mine!

If you don't know of anyone local who uses sourdough, there is a free online source. I got mine from Old Sourdough and have been very pleased with it, but he is no longer is mailing starter.

Another free source is Carl's Friends, a group of friends of Carl Griffeth who, in honor of their sourdough loving friend, share starters with anyone who sends a self-addressed stamped envelope. I've heard that it is an excellent starter.

Most starters you receive in the mail will be dried. You will receive instructions on how to rehydrate your starter.

If you are interested in sourdough baking, in my opinion, it is worthwhile to acquire an established starter. Once you've figured out a few tricks, then you may try growing your own starter. This is one of those, please don't do as I did and learn from my mistakes. I wasted a lot of time growing my own. If I would have just started four years ago from a reputable sourdough starter, I could have had years more of sourdough baking.  Just think of all the wonderful bread I missed from my stubbornness. Sigh.

But if you are contrary like me, I won't stop you. You may be one of those who gets it right on the first try!

Have you attempted your own starter? How did it work for you?


  1. I tried to make starter too wanting the "purest" method as well. It didn't work for me either, maybe someday.

    I bought mine from breadtopia.com. I asked Eric, who runs the site if this was a "cheater" starter(with active dry to start it). He assured me it is 100% au natural.

    It's a wonderful starter (though not whole wheat) that I've been using for over 2 years.

  2. Gina, this is great information for a beginner like me! I tried a commercial sour dough starter and it failed miserably as well, but knowing some of the things you just mentioned may have been part of my issue. I gave up almost immediately and I should have worked with it. I'm going to actually dive in to sourdough pretty quick here and your tips will be a great help!

  3. I start mine with yogurt. It works great and the flavor is wonderful. I grew up cooking with sourdough, I remember my mother trading and sharing starters with friends when I was a little girl. I guess it was the thing to do when living near San Francisco in the 70's. We even brought our starter with us when we moved to Virgina. We would carefully tend it every day of that 2 week drive and it lasted for years before we started a new one.

  4. ah, you are giving me an education! I did start my own sourdough over a year ago with a few grains of yeast, water, and flour. It's been fine, really. I use 1-2 cups white flour to 9 cups whole wheat and it doesn't rise high, but we love the flavor and I love the ease of making it.

    Do I now have a mature starter? How old does it have to be to be considered mature?

    I was reading By the Shores of Silver Lake to my daughter today - the chapter where Laura and Ma expalin their sourdough method to Mrs. Boast. Just lovely! I want to try to make biscuits with sourdough after reading that.

  5. I might live local to you, but I don't know. Our weather certainly sounds similar. If you email me at moonrani1(at)yahoo.com, I'll tell you where I live. Then you could just say yes or no. But if I don't hear from you, it's all right. I don't want to put my location on a blog for public reading, and I understand you may have similar privacy concerns.

  6. I began my breadbaking journey after reading an article by Donna Currie on seriouseats.com and her website Cookistry. She gives a day by day account on making a starter. I like it because of its simplicity, just water and flour. Take a look: http://cookistry.blogspot.com/2010/12/growing-sourdough-starter-day-by-day.html

  7. ive had my starter for 6 years, the one before that was 10 years but it broke while moving!

    i make mine the usual way, using potatoes, water and flour

    im always trying to improve on it!

  8. Now if I get a starter from a friend, and I want to do it like you do can I still use your recipes with her starter? What I'm saying is, she uses instant potatoes and water to feed her starter and I want to do like you do with your whole wheat and it be natural. Just wondering if this starter would also work with your recipes and would I always have to use the potatoes? I'd rather not use those since that would be another starch I'd be adding to the bread. I'm a diabetic.

    1. I think it should work fine, but since I haven't tried it I don't know for sure. You may need to experiment a little.

  9. Can you use a white flour starter to make whole wheat bread?

    1. Yes you can. It won't be 100% whole wheat because of the white flour in your starter but it should work fine.

  10. Hi, I'm from Denmark. I would like to contribute to your sourdough experiment.
    I have started a few and they have worked great. This recipe is an all-round sourdough, which can be used for both rye and wheat bread. It is easy to start and easy to care for.

    1/2 liter of water
    200 grams of wheat flour
    200 grams of wholegrain flour (I use graham or spelt, but any type of wholegrain will do)
    100 grams rye flour

    Mix ingredients well in an appropriate container. I use a large canning jar (about 2liter) Leave the sourdough uncovered for approx. 2 hours to oxidize. Close the lit after 2 hours and let the sourdough work for the next 8 days. Let the sourdough develop on the kitchen counter at room temperature. Every day for the next 8 days you should stir the sourdough 2 times a day. Remember that you have to refil it, when you use your sourdough.

    While the sourdough developes it can look a bit funky, but don't let that fool you. Your sourdough should smell a bit like vinigar or a least sour.

    Happy bread making,


  11. A friend just told me about your blog, and I am really enjoying it. I recently was given a sourdough starter and I'm having fun making sourdough bread- especially since my husband loves it! I haven't tried anything else besides bread, but your blog gives me lots of inspiration. However, my sourdough starter doesn't sound like yours. Is mine the real thing if it is fed with instant potato flakes, sugar, & water??? It smells sour and it bubbles, but it isn't fed with flour. I use whole wheat flour then when I bake bread. Curious...

    1. I have seen many different recipes for sourdough starter. I have never used one with potato flakes but I have a friend who does. I think she has used my sourdough recipes successfully with her starter.

      Happy Baking,

  12. Your blog was very helpful! I think I know where I went wrong with my starter (at least one area where I went wrong) - I didn't let it mature enough before trying to make bread. When I have time to try again, I will follow the instructions at the link posted by Bentobochs and /or the pineapple method.

  13. I have enjoyed following your blog for a couple years but am just now writing! I have baked my own bread for years and have been interested in baking with sourdough now for a while but have been afraid of the time it would take to care for a starter and risk failure... lol! I'm ready start now, although I'm as busy as ever with little ones and homeschool. I wanted your advice on how to get started. I'd really like a 100% whole wheat starter so I can bake 100% WW bread. I've always ground my own hard red wheat at home but have read you can't feed a starter with home-ground wheat. I like the idea of the King Arthur starter already being liquid. Seems like a safer, maybe more fail-proof way to start. Is that too much, though, for a newbie like me to try to immediately start converting it to WW? Would it be better to order the Cultures for Health whole wheat starter although it is dried and be starting out with something WW? Is it possible to then feed my starter with my own ground wheat if it is milled on the finest setting? (I have a Wonder Mill) or, should I buy store-bought whole wheat to feed the starter and use my home-ground wheat in the recipes along with the starter? Or do you recommend starting some other way? I don't know anyone who bakes with sourdough so I can't bum a starter :/ Thank you for all your helpful info on your blog and for letting me bombard you with all my questions!


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