Sourdough Starter Information


Since my post on sourdough bread vs. yeasted bread, I have gotten more questions regarding sourdough. While I am certainly not an sourdough expert and learning along with everyone else, I do have some great resources from which I wanted to share. For anyone out there who is an sourdough expert, I value your comments and/or corrections! 🙂

The most common question is about sourdough starters, how to make them, what not to put in them, and what they are anyway! I will be taking a lot of this information from the book, Classic Sourdoughs, by Ed Wood. I have found this book useful in getting good information about sourdough, and I am excited to try some of his recipes.

What is a sourdough starter?

A sourdough starter is basically flour and water left out that accumulates wild yeast from the air as well as beneficial bacteria. . This starter is “fed” flour and water as that wild yeast continues to grow until is has enough wild yeast power to rise a loaf of bread This wild yeast produces the rise, the beneficial bacteria, the flavor. For more on the difference between wild yeast and commercial yeast, read this post.

Can I add a bit of commercial yeast to my starter?

“….you should never use baker’s yeast either in your sourdough culture or in the recipe of your sourdough bread. The addition of baker’s yeast to a culture may overwhelm the wild yeast and destroy the culture. In addition, you risk the introduction of bacteriophage, or virus, to which the commercial cells are immune, but that may kill wild yeast. Plus if you leaven your dough with baker’s yeast, the open texture characteristic of sourdough may disappear. “Ed Wood

Can I use milk products in my starter?

First, milk often contains antibiotics or trace amounts of disinfectants which will kill good bacteria as well as bad bacteria. This could wreck havoc in your starter. I have read that if that milk has any type of bad bacteria in it, it can start breeding in your starter. Also bad news! So keep that in mind if you consider doing it. Though I do know that in the past they would add scrapes of biscuits and such into their starter to keep it going! But they may have had purer sources of food, then.

Why do different sourdough starters taste differently?

Because wild yeast are different in different areas of the world, sourdough starters can widely vary in how they taste and rise.

Should I put honey in my starter?

The reason some put honey in their starter is so give the yeast something more to eat off of. The problem with this, according to Sally Fallon, is that it encourages yeast instead of lactic-acid producing bacteria which would give you an alcoholic fermentation (not what you are looking for).

What if I don’t want to make my own?

I have the New England starter from Fermented Treasures, and I really like it. They have several other starters as well. Ed Wood also has many, many starters from around the world for sell, here. If you plan on making sourdough products often, I definitely think that these products are worth the money. It insures that you have a viable starter, and gives you a taste of history when you think that some of these starters were started so long ago!

How do I make my own?

Now there are hundreds of different recipes for making sourdough starters. I bought one of my starters, and the other was started by a friend. I don’t like to put recipes on my site that I have not tested, so I am not going to put one on now. (I have considered starting one and taking pictures of the process, but haven’t decided whether I really need three starters!) But I do have a few tips when looking at different recipes. My inclination would be to do a recipe that doesn’t require a lot of special ingredients. Flour and water recipes are what mine are made off, and that’s probably what I would look for as well. Nourishing Traditions has a recipe you could try and there are some great recipes in sourdough books. Look for one that doesn’t have yeast, milk, honey or other additions to the recipe.

This post is part of Kitchen tip Tuesday!

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I love beautiful and simple food that is nourishing to the body and the soul. I wrote Fresh: Nourishing Salads for All Seasons and Ladled: Nourishing Soups for All Seasons as another outlet of sharing this love of mine. I also love sharing practical tips on how to make a real food diet work on a real life budget. Find me online elsewhere by clicking on the icons below!

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Comments

  1. Candace says

    Thanks for sharing this information, Kimi. I’m going to look into purchasing a starter. I like the idea of it having a “history”.

    • holly says

      Amazon has a dry starter from Alaska that I am having great results from ( i just ordered one more as a just in case). It is doing better than my homegrown starters that are a week old.

  2. Anonymous says

    When my mom made sourdough she always fed it the water she boiled potatoes in. Does this do something helpful or is it bad for the starter.

  3. Kimi Harris says

    Anonymous,
    I am not sure what to answer in regard to your question with potato water. I know that is a very popular thing to use, but I haven’t come across it in my reading about classic sourdoughs. I wonder what it is about it that makes people like to use it? Does that water (like the potato) have a higher sugar content that helps feed the yeast? If so, then, while it could produce a good tasting starter, it could also perhaps be having the same bad effect as honey.So that’s one thought. But truthfully, I am not really positive one way or another. 🙂

  4. Rebekah says

    Thanks so much I’m really considering ordering one since I haven’t had any luck making one myself. Everyone says it’s so easy I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, but it would be nice to have one that’s well established.

  5. mamashortcake says

    I would love to have your bread recipe! I, too, tried the NT starter recipe many times with no success. I just ordered the New England starter from FT. Now I need a recipe! It will be so nice to have bread again. Thanks!

  6. Carrie says

    Well, after being one of those people who peppered Kim with questions last week, I started doing my own research online (I just couldn’t wait for her next post!) I’ve found a wonderful site which I found most helpful:

    The Fresh Loaf Forum – everything you ever wanted to know about artisan baking in general – including many articles on sourdough – http://www.thefreshloaf.com/

    On this forum is the sourdough recipe I’ve just begun – along with many questions and answers about what do do when it goes wrong – http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/233/wild-yeast-sourdough-starter

    I hope this is helpful!

  7. Kimi Harris says

    Carrie,
    I also had seen that post on sourdough starter! It looks like it would create great tasting bread. Taste aside, the only thing about it is that since it does use juice, that will probably have the same effect as adding honey to the starter. So that’s just one thing to consider. 🙂
    Thanks for sharing the link!

  8. Carrie says

    Yes, but you only use juice for the first 3 days, then it’s down to plain water for the life of the starter. I think it gets a kick start, then settles down to business. There can’t be any juice left after several weeks – the yeasts will have eaten it all! Of course, that’s why I’m asking around – I’m definitely NOT the expert. Just repeating what I’ve read.

  9. Kimi Harris says

    Carrie,

    I certainly am not an expert either. 😉 And, for that matter, Sally Fallon could be wrong for all we know. But I do think that it would be the same as honey, in that it would help produce more yeast that the lactic-acid producing bacteria that you want. This will produce a great loaf of bread, but won’t deliver all of the health benefits of sourdough. In fact, when I was reading this post before, I noticed that they all seemed to be mentioning that it smelled really yeasty. I don’t think that my starters smell strongly of yeast.

    But, even so, I am sure that regardless, that this type of sourdough starter will still be a lot better than any yeasted bread.

    Happy baking and good luck. 🙂

  10. Watercolor says

    I’m single. So one loaf pan sized loaf of bread would do for me a week. How much bread do you need to bake a week to keep a starter happy? I have no idea how these things work. Does the bowl of it just get bigger and bigger and bigger if you don’t use enough of it a week? Is one loaf a week enough? Or what would be normal. I work full time so Saturday is the only day I could bake a loaf. What about weeks I couldn’t bake. What do you do then? Do the instructions with the starters tell you what to do in these situations?

  11. Carrie says

    Hmm… I REALLY don’t want to argue, but I just don’t understand… I thought we were after the wild yeasts? After re-reading your article, it seems that you advocate feeding the yeasts (albeit with water and flour only) and the lactic acid doesn’t get a mention until the Sally Fallon paragraph… I’m just a little flummoxed…

    Watercolor – no matter what kind of starter you use, the same rules should apply… check out http://www.thefreshloaf.com – they give lots of advice on starters in general – not just the juice one I chose to start with. Also, how to keep them, feed them, and bake with them.

  12. Kimi Harris says

    Watercolor,
    I bake bread about once a week, but you can refresh your starter if it has gone longer than that. It won’t keep growing, but you should try to feed it once a week, because it will get sour (and then you will have to refresh it!). Some people will even feed their starter once or twice a day!!!! But most people I know only bake once a week. You can definitely make it work for just one loaf of bread a week. 🙂

  13. Kimi Harris says

    Carrie,
    LOL, I am not wanting to argue either. The reason I was trying to clarify this, is because I think, if Sally Fallon is right, it is an important distinction to make. I will see if I can explain it a little better. 🙂

    You are right, we are after the wild yeast, but we are ALSO after the beneficial bacteria (mentioned in the first part of the my post).The bacteria gives flavor as well as ferments with lactic acid. The wild yeast gives the rising ability to your bread.

    Feeding the starter honey (or other sweet things, like juice) could cause it to have more wild yeast, and not as much of the bacteria (basically an imbalance of them), at least, that’s my understanding from Sally Fallon. This may cause a more alcoholic fermentation (which would be more like a yeasted bread, though not exactly the same).

    As far as my other sources, My Classic Sourdough book doesn’t ever talk about adding in anything sweet to the starter, that I can find. Another well respected book we used at a bakery I worked at, did use yeast in some of the sponges (that were kind of like starters), but never sweetener that I remember. Perhaps the books I have learned from just don’t use that method.

    All to say, adding in sweetener to the starter may make a great yeasty starter that makes a great loaf of bread, but it may not have the same balance of beneficial bacteria (which helps ferment with lactic acid). Which is why I don’t necessarily want to recommend that from my blog, as of yet, but you all are welcome to do what works for you. 🙂

    I hope that makes things a little more clear.

  14. Stephanie @ Keeper of the Home says

    This is really helpful for me. I’ve made lots of sourdough bread that is just fine and I did it using my own starter, but I’ve never been thrilled with it (even after adding more starter, as you suggested). I want to make really great sourdough, not just so-so, you know?

    Thanks for the link to Fermented Treasures. I think I might just try buying a starter and see how I like that instead. Perhaps I’m not happy with my bread because my starter isn’t ideal. Hmmmm…

    Which starter do you have? (Of course, as soon as I publish this comment, I’ll look back at the post to realize you’ve probably already told us, lol!)

    Stephanie

  15. stayathomemyheart says

    Kimi,

    First of all, I just want to say THANK YOU for your blog. I can’t begin to tell you how much I’ve learned from your blog. I love Nourishing Traditions, but haven’t been thrilled with many recipes. Your recipes are “tried and true”, coming from a real person and not a cook book!

    I’ve read through all (I think) of your posts on sourdough.

    I tried making a sourdough starter myself, and failed. I bought a sourdough starter, the California 49er one, and messed that up (I think my adding whole wheat to it instead of white at first). I’m now on my second starter from the CA one, and it seems to be working! Hallelujah!!

    Here are my questions:

    Do you know at what point I can begin to add to whole wheat to my starter? I’ve only made pancakes so far, and that directly from the starter I was going to throw out that day (no added flour). When I go to make bread, can I just begin slowly turning my starter over to a whole wheat starter? ACK!

    My next question is about storing the starter. When families make bread about once a week, do you need to keep the starter in the fridge on off days, or is it better to continue feeding it on the counter?

    I don’t know if those questions make sense, and I don’t want to overburden you with too many questions! Thank you already for all the information on your site!

    God bless you richly!

    Deborah

  16. Kimi Harris says

    Hi Deborah,
    Oh, how sad that you lost one of your starters!

    I have made my starters mostly whole wheat, by slowly starting to add whole wheat to the feeding mixture. I have never had a problem with it. I would just take it slow, and see how it goes. You can always go back to white flour, if it starts to not do well.

    A lot of sourdough bakers, keep their sourdough at room temperature all the time, and feed it twice a day! These are usually people that bake almost every day however. I have kept mine in the fridge with good results. If left too long, it can become sour, and not have as much rise power, so you will need to take some out and feed it again, and let rise for about 12 hours before using it in a recipe. Just be careful about not leaving it anymore than a week. I lost both of my starters recently because I left them for too long, and they both started growing a fungus. 🙁

    Lastly, starters do act differently, so get to “learn” your starter. 🙂

    Hope that helps!

    🙂

    • Meredith says

      Hi~ in yr response u say not to leave the start too long- I’ve got questions about that. I created my starter myself via Sally Fallon’s instructions in NT (it was really easy & the resulting bread is yummy. And she says to use rye flour in the starter). I am wondering if it is bad for the starter when I miss a dail feeding here & there? I noticed the day following a missed ‘feeding’ the starter smells especially sour. Is this not ok? The bread still tastes great. Also, the starter gets a dried layer across the top (which I discard), but sometimes I notice a white speckeling (mold?? Excess yeast??) across the crust- is that a bad thing?

      Thanks!

  17. sarena says

    OK, so first time sourdough bread maker here!! Not new to bread making tho:-)
    Got some starter from my friend who is an expert in these things. He even built himself a brick oven in his yard for bread baking of all things!!
    He keeps it refrigerated. He said everytime I add flour and water to add some more sea salt as well. And that’s all! I did that several times over the course of about 18 hrs or so. Then I added the last batch of flour (no more water), more salt and kneaded for about 20 minutes. According to my friend, a LONG kneading is crucial here. I then also added some ground flax seeds and chopped black olives to some of my loaves. I have 4 loaves and 4 or 5 rolls sitting out and rising again. I will bake them in about 8-12 hrs. Oh and he HIGHLY recommends a baking stone or using cast irons pans.
    I will try to get back and post here after they are done and eaten!! Although I dont eat bread, my friends and family will!

  18. says

    Hi there,
    I just love your website! I would like to make a sourdough starter using Rye bread. I dont have a grinder so I bought organic rye flour from Whole Foods. What is the best way to store it? Also what is the best way to store all my flour?

    Thanks so much!

  19. KimiHarris says

    Hi Caitlin,

    Thanks! The best place to store your flour is in the freezer or fridge. This helps protect it, and keep it fresher. 🙂

  20. Jack Mackenzie says

    I’m more than a decent cook, and have been baking for years, but I have been utterly unable to get anything grow with natural sourdough and that includes Ed’s excellent starters. They … just … lay … there. I’ve tried my own way. I’ve tried a number of different starters. Zip. Nothing. Nada. Nothing ever happens. It just lies there stinking up the joint.

    I’m baffled.

  21. Loraleigh says

    Hi, I’m wondering if you can help me with my starter? I was given a store bought pack of dried starter, I don’t know where it came from and no instructions came with it. I moisetened the starter with water then added Whole Wheat flour, I am on day 3 now, have been feeding with equal whole wheat flour and water. I just don’t know if what I have is right? It looks like it is turning moldy? I’m not sure if this is hooch or actual mold. The smell is yeasty, and not like dirt like a mold would be, anyway just wondering if I’m on the right track. Can you hlep? Thanks

    KH: Sounds like you are doing things right! If it seems like it is nice and bubbly, you could probably use it now in a recipe! Otherwise, take a portion out, and then feed it again. You can keep it in the fridge after it’s sat out for about 8 hours, or you can just keep feeding it every day. Hope that helps. 🙂

  22. Kumar says

    Hi, Kimi. I appreciate the effort you put in to build such an interesting and information-stradded blog. As for me, it’s just over a year that I am married and since then it has really been a challenge for both of us. I try to eat as healthy and natural as possible, but it is demands real inner strength at the start. And I think I am still at the start because I give in to my old bad habits once in a week on average. Thank you for motivating people like me. Bye.

  23. Ashley says

    Do you by chance know how to substitute starters in yeast recipes? Like how much starter per how many tablespoons of yeast?

    Thank you!

    • says

      I’ve been trying to find out the same thing! Today I found two possible answers, although I haven’t tried any of them yet.

      http://chocolateandzucchini.com/archives/2010/03/converting_yeastbased_recipes_to_use_a_sourdough_starter.php

      Also, a paragraph from another website (not sure which):

      “A cup of robust Sourdough starter ought to be the equivalent of a single packet (two and a quarter tsp [NOTE: allrecipes.com says it’s 2 1/2 tsp, and they’re probably right]) of yeast in its ability to rise. A regular recipe can be converted to sourdough by lowering the fluid measure by 1/2 cup and decreasing the measure of flour by three fourths cup for each packet of yeast swapped out with a cupful of sourdough starter. You may need to adjust how much flour and water needed to get the correct consistency to the dough.”

      I hope one of these helps! 🙂

  24. sandra says

    Hi All,

    I have just found your site. I am trying sourdough for the first time. I found instructions and recipes at -Sourdough Home-. Mike teaches people how to make bread and sourdough. So far the starter is good. I am on day 3 I think. He also gives you an address of a family who gives you a sourdough starter free of charge. You have to send him a self addressed envelope-that’s it. Guys this is a good place to start your sourdough adventures. Sandra

  25. Natasha says

    Hi Kimi,

    I would like to purchase the New England sourdough starter from Fermented Treasures, but when I click on “buy now” or “contact” it says “oops, this link appears to be broken”. Do you happen to know if this company is still in business? Thanks.

    Natasha

    • KimiHarris says

      Natasha,

      I don’t know if they are still in business now. I’ve been getting my sourdoughs from Cultures from Health (check my resource page) as I killed my fermented treasure’s starter long ago. 🙂

  26. Jerry says

    I use the Chad Robertson Tartin bread recipe. Makes great loaves and uses stretch and fold instead of kneading. When I make the starter for the bread it sits out, covered, overnight. The next morning before mixing in other ingredients, I take out a couple of tablespoons and put it in the freezer. It springs to life when it thaws. I have left it in the freezer for over a month with no problem.

    My understanding of sourdough starters is that the wild yeast comes with the flour, not from the air and the reason for using juice is to keep the beginning starter in an acidic state to prevent the growth of mold and lactobacillus cultures. I Think!

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