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How To Make Your Own Sourdough Bread Starter – and Maintain it

Learn to make and maintain your own homemade bread starter from scratch with step-by-step instructions. This Yeast Starter Recipe takes only 3 simple ingredients and will have you baking your own Artisan Style Sourdough bread, and so much more, in no time!

A loaf of browned sourdough bread on a wooden cutting board. A lame sits to the side.

Bread starter is mystifying. How can flour and water become a culture that creates a beautiful loaf of bread with a soft crumb and the perfect crispy crust? This step-by-step tutorial will take the mystery out of yeast starters so pull out your apron and let’s get started!

What do you need to bake an Artisan style loaf of bread?

  • A vigorous Starter
  • A developed Levain
  • Proofed dough
  • Baking

Even though the steps are few, you can’t make homemade bread by skipping any of them.

When I finally convinced myself that I wanted to bake sourdough, I poured over articles and videos. The more I read the more freaked out I got!

I actually purchased a bread baking series that was supposed to help me make my own starter and bake some amazing bread.

I meticulously followed the instructions for making my own bread starter. I didn’t have any luck which really messed with my bread baking psyche!

That recipe had you replacing a lot of the “seed” starter before it even got a chance to get going. It also used only all-purpose flour. This starter will give you a much better chance of success!

What is Bread Starter?

Bread starter is a combination of flour and water that mixes with wild yeasts and bacteria that are naturally found in the flour, air, and even your hands to form a culture.

This culture feeds on the natural sugars in the flour and must be fed regularly to prevent the depletion of the sugar supply. If you hear the term starving your starter, it means your starter has a lack of sugar to feed on.

This is especially important while you’re building your starter. Once you have a strong and vigorous starter if you skip a feeding don’t fret. Just get back on track.

Too many skipped feedings will throw off the microbial balance and lead to inconsistent results. See my tips on storing your starter below.

What’s the difference between a bread starter and sourdough starter?

Many bakers call their starter a Levain or Starter. The characteristics and flavor of the bread is dependant on ingredients, method, time, temperature, shape, and technique.

A thicker Levain or longer proof can help produce the tang or sour flavor commonly associated wit sourdough bread recipes.

Bread Starter Ingredients:

two bowls of flour, a bowl of water and a mixing bowl
  • Flour – You can use any flour. I use an equal mix of wheat flour and unbleached all-purpose flour. Whole grain flour such as wheat and rye have more nutrients and microorganisms than all-purpose flour. The yeasts and bacteria consume rye flour or whole wheat flour more quickly than others.
  • Water – I use filtered water. It’s said that chlorinated water and water that has a high mineral count (hard water) can inhibit yeast growth. Also, use slightly warm or room temperature water. Using cold water will slow the growth down.

How to make a Bread Starter

Use a non-reactive clear container such as glass or food-grade plastic. You want to be able to see through your container so you can monitor the progress. I recommend a container that is approximately 1 quart. Your starter needs room to rise.

You will also want to use a food scale that measures in grams. Why? Ingredients are added by weight not volume. You could measure out 1/4 cup of starter several times and never get the same weight because of the gasses it contains. Also, flour weight can differ according to how you fill a measuring cup.

You can convert my measurements in the recipe below but if you have any difficulties making your yeast starter, the first thing I’ll ask is “did you weigh your ingredients”?

Ok, let’s get started!

A container of a newly mixed starter.
First mix of bread starter ingredients.
  1. Combine 180 grams of filtered water and 90 grams of Whole Wheat flour and 90 grams of Unbleached All-Purpose Flour. Mix it with your hand until no flour remains visible. Your mixture will be like a thick sticky batter. *Cover the container and let it sit at room temperature in a shaded spot for 2 days. Check for bubbles around the sides and on the top. If there’s just a few let it sit for another day.
  2. Once bubbles appear, you will notice that your starter stinks and that’s normal.
    • Discard about 80% of the starter and add 100 grams of filtered water and 50 grams of the all-purpose flour and 50 grams of whole wheat flour. Mix again by hand. Cover and let it sit for 24 hours. *You don’t need to wash out the container between feedings.
      • Maintenance feeding is actually training your starter into a lively and predictable starter and that’s what you’re now doing.
  3. Continue discarding all but about 20% of the starter. Add 100 grams of flour (50/50 mix) and 100 grams of filtered water every 24 hours at approximately the same time of day, preferably morning.
Comparison of new bread starter and mature bread starter in quart containers showing their levels start the same.
The volume of a fed new starter and a mature starter are the same.

*Some people believe that you should loosely cover your starter with a dishtowel or light cloth so it can breathe. I’ve always covered mine with a lid and the only problem I’ve had is if the container was too small. My starter will actually blow the lid off!

While I was building my starter, I put a rubber band around the container to monitor its progress. You can also just make a line where your starter begins and follow it throughout the day.

Be Patient – Building a starter can take up to 14 days if not longer.

Once the yeast and bacteria are established, you will notice that the volume increases several hours after feeding and then collapses. The aroma also becomes milder and sweeter. At 8 hours my starter more than doubles.

It’s normal to take less time or more time depending on the temperature of your kitchen, the flour your use and the culture itself.

Two plastic containers holding fed bread starters showing how they raised in volume
The new starter rivals mature starter in volume.

Once the yeast starter starts rising and falling predictably, you’re ready to bake your first loaf of bread!

I used this starter 10 days after making it.

10 days worked with my baking schedule. It was rising predictably closer to 8 days.

How to maintain and store your Bread Starter

If you plan to bake several times a week, leave the bread starter out at room temperature. Continue discarding and feeding every 24 hours.

There are variables that affect your yeast starter. Temperature is a big one. Cool temperatures will slow your starter down. Hot weather will speed up your starter and you may have to feed it more often.

If you will not be baking regularly, after you feed your starter, put it into the refrigerator. Discard all but a couple of tablespoons and feed it weekly. Continue using 100 grams of water and 100 grams of the flour mix.

You may notice a gray film or a liquid form over the top. Especially if you’ve ignored it for more than a week (guilty). That is commonly called Hooch. You can remove it but I just stir it back in. It doesn’t hurt a thing.

When you plan on baking remove the starter from the refrigerator and let it return to room temperature. Discard and feed your starter recipe again. I will do this for 2 to 3 days to get it good and vigorous again. If it seems sluggish feed it twice a day (every 12 hours).

I often bake on Monday or Tuesday so I will remove my yeast starter from the refrigerator on Friday and start feeding it regularly.

Bread starter is resilient. You can kill it from neglect but not very easily. Most often you and activate it with normal feedings. The exception is if it becomes moldy. Time to throw it out and make a new one. Hopefully, you have a little starter powder in the freezer?

Can I freeze Bread Starter?

Two plastic bags filled with dried bread starter sitting on a navy blue napkin

Starter Insurance – I was so fearful that I would kill my first starter that I smeared it on waxed paper and let it dry. Once dried I peeled it off the waxed paper then crushed it up in my mini-food processor. I froze it in tablespoon-sized packets.

I’ve heard you can freeze a liquid starter but I’ve never done it.

Using your starter

Before you bake with your starter, you want to make sure it is vigorous. If it’s been in the refrigerator, I’ll feed it and if it raises well, I’ll mix my Levain before I go to bed.

If it’s sluggish, feed it another day or two or feed it twice in 12-hour intervals the day you remove it from the refrigerator. The second day feed it in the morning and mix your Levain the night before you want to mix your dough.

I’ll generally mix my Levain around 9 o’clock in the evening and make sure that I use it by 9 o’clock the next morning even though I probably have a little more time than that.

You want to use your Levain within 2 hours of when it’s ready so it’s not going in starvation mode when you start mixing your dough.

A new starter will get stronger and stronger as it matures. I found even though I continued to feed my new starter the same as my existing starter, it was a little thinner than my mature starter. I guess we all get better with age right?

It also smelled a little more acidic but when it was time to bake with it, I couldn’t detect the difference in the baked bread.

Do I need a different Yeast Starter Recipe for different types of bread?

No, you do not. This Starter recipe can be used for any bread recipe that calls for a natural or wild yeast starter.

Some recipes may state that you need to feed your starter or make your Levain from the flour in the bread such as Rye or Pumpernickle. That’s not necessary. Just use the ratios of flour (50/50 mix) to water as they suggest.

If you want San Francisco Sourdough bread why not just buy their starter?

You can find a lot of San Francisco starters for sale. However, unless you continue feeding it with the same water and flour they used to make it, it’s not going to be a San Francisco starter for very long. It will take on the characteristics of the water and flour you use.

What is Levain?

Building a Levain is adding volume to a yeast starter.

NOTE: Levain and Leaven is the same thing.

Your bread dough usually needs more starter than you keep when you’re feeding your bread starter in order for the dough to rise. We build it by adding more flour and water. So, Levain is a fancy word for more starter.

When you are maintaining a starter, you don’t have to keep as much as is called for in most bread recipes that use a natural yeast starter. Keeping a lot more than you need is a waste of flour.

For that reason, we build on our vigorous starter so we have enough for the bread recipe. That’s called a Levain. Any leftover Levain becomes our new starter so we want to make sure that we have enough leftover.

Comparison of Levains made with a new starter and mature starter

How do I know how much Levain to make?

The recipe will usually tell you how much you need. They may say starter but it’s the same remember?

If your recipe calls for 150 grams of Starter or Levain, the night before I will mix up 1 tablespoon of my mature starter, 150 grams of filtered water, and 150 grams of my flour mix.

After I measure out the amount of starter (Levain) that I need to mix my dough, I will take a tablespoon of my Levain for my maintenance starter and feed it with the filtered water and flour mix.

Let it sit out at room temperature for about 30 minutes and then refrigerate it if you’re not going to be baking with it right. It’s ready to go if you are.

How do I know if my Levain is ready to use?

Once you mix up you Levain, let it sit for about 8 hours. Most of the time I’ll mix up my Levain before I go to bed and then the next morning mix my dough.

Put a small amount of water in a bowl. Drop some Levain into the water. If it floats it’s ready. Levain is aerated by wild yeast activity that produces carbon dioxide making it float.

If it doesn’t float cover it and place it in a warm place 73°-75°F for another 30 minutes and test it again. Ultimately, if it doesn’t work discard half the Levain, add 100gr warm water and 100gr flour mix. Cover it and set it in a warm area for 2 hours and then retest it again.

If your Levain is thin, it could be because you allowed the starter to ferment for too long before trying to use it, you will have to feed it again before you can use it.

Tip: To create a warm environment I will often briefly heat up a cup of water in the microwave and then put the container containing the Levain in the microwave where it’s warm and moist. You don’t want it too hot, however. You can also just turn the light on in your oven and set it in there.

Many bakers will use a “proof box” which maintains a constant temperature for your starter and dough. I use my microwave like a proof box.

Troubleshooting and FAQ’s

Question – “I followed the recipe to a T, but when I woke up, the dough was completely liquified… I’m not sure what I did wrong, but it was more like melted ice cream than dough.”

Answer – Most likely your starter is starving and not strong enough to bake with. If you’ve neglected it or it’s been stored in the refrigerator for an extended time, feed it every 12 hours. It should be doubling in volume and collapsing predictably with plenty of strong bubbles before you use it.

To get it going again refortify it with several feedings of 20% starter, 100 grams of the flour mix, and 100 grams of filtered water. You want all of your ingredients to be at room temperature.

What you may need to make this Bread Starter Recipe:

Kitchen Scale – You absolutely must have a scale. This one holds up to 22 lbs and will weigh grams and ounces. Make sure you tare the scale with the container sitting on top of it then add the ingredients.

Clear container – you can use any food-safe clear container. I recommend at least 1 quart. I used this container to build my starter and use it to mix my Levain. You see a lot of starters are made in jars. If you use a jar make sure the opening is large enough to mix your ingredients and that it’s big enough for the starter to rise.

I have two books (out of several) that I’ve learned so much from. I recommend them exclusively to help in your bread experience. They are easy to read and will help you get that beautiful loaf on the table!

  1. Tartine Bread
  2. Flour Water Salt Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza

Are you ready?

Are you ready to jump into making your own starter? Is a delicious loaf of sourdough or an Artisan Wheat bread in your future? Once you’ve dabbled in this dough, the sky’s the limit of what you can do!

As you can see in the above pictures, there aren’t many visible differences in my mature bread starter versus the one that I started. The new starter may have been a touch thinner but it kept up with the old girl quite well.

Two loaves of sourdough made with an old bread starter and a newly made one. There isn't any difference.

Just take a look at the way they baked up! They were both delicious. I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference if I hadn’t been diligent in keeping them separated!

Here are recipes that use Bread Starter:

Recipes to make using your leftover Starter (also called discard)

You can use your starter instead of commercial yeast. A packet of yeast equals 1 cup of your liquid starter. This article has some instructions and considerations that are helpful.

If you hate throwing away sourdough starter discard, you’re going to love these Sourdough Starter Discard recipes!

How long is Starter Discard good for?

Lots of bread bakers will stockpile their discard (depleted starter) in to use in all kinds of recipes. Generally, these people are active sourdough bread bakers. I’m an on and off sourdough bread baker so I usually have to get my starter active before I bake by feeding it two or three times.

It’s o.k. to store your discard for 2 to 3 weeks in the refrigerator. Make sure that there are no signs of mold or a pink or orange discoloration before you use it. After you’ve been using a starter for a while, you’ll know what a good starter smells like. It’s a yeast or floral smell that’s not off-putting or an acidic smell.

What’s in a name?

Finally, you have to give your starter a name and tell me what it is in the comments below.

My first starter was built from some dried starter a dear friend gave me. I named her Phoenix because she was literally built from dust. My new starter is Nomad. He’s aptly named because he went on vacation with us while I was building him. He must have had a great time because he’s still very happy!

This document is constantly changing. Your questions and comments benefit all of us!

As always, I answer my own comments and emails so let me know how I can help you.

Tina

Sunday 3rd of July 2022

Hi Julie, thank you for the detailed instructions. Now that I am retired, I am hoping I can tackle a sourdough starter and keep it alive (although I don't have the best track record with plants). I messed up and bought a huge bag of AP flour at the big box store without realizing it was bleached. Is it possible to use it for a starter?

Tina

Monday 4th of July 2022

@Julie Menghini, I should have looked at my new starter before I sent my first reply. It doubled in size overnight and has quite a few bubbles. Do I really need to wait two days or should I go ahead and start the daily feedings?

Tina

Monday 4th of July 2022

@Julie Menghini, Thanks for the quick response! I have a bag of sprouted whole wheat so I mixed that in 50/50. I'll let you know how it turns out

Julie Menghini

Sunday 3rd of July 2022

Yes, you can, Tina. Any flour will work. Will you be using any whole wheat with the apf? Congratulations on your retirement!

Doree

Tuesday 1st of March 2022

Hi can you convert to cups please . I always get discouraged when I have to look it up . I want to start making sourdough bread but nervous about the starter .

Julie Menghini

Wednesday 2nd of March 2022

Hi Doree! This is an easy one for you. Your flour and your water will be equal measurements(1:1). So, for 1 cup of water use 1/2 cup of wheat flour and 1/2 cup of AP flour. Or 1 cup of water to 1 cup of flour. Please let me know if you have any questions! ~Julie

Stephanie Brown Morgan

Sunday 9th of January 2022

Hi…I love making discard recipes. Can you tell me how long discard is useable when left in the fridge?

Julie Menghini

Monday 10th of January 2022

Lots of people actually store it and I wouldn't be afraid to use it for up to 1 month old. Make sure it smells ripe with no signs of mold or a pink discolor. I generally use mine when I'm getting ready to bake because I'll feed it a couple of times (having discard) so it's good and strong for baking. Hope this helps! Thank you for the question.

Renee

Thursday 4th of February 2021

Do you have a calendar or table to follow? I keep having to go back to reread and would love a chart or calendar of some sort. Thanks!

Julie Menghini

Thursday 4th of February 2021

That's a great request, Renee! When developing this recipe I just used a small notebook and listed my results by day. I fed it pretty much at the same time and jotted down how it acted by rising and falling in volume. Does this help?

Linda Waldren

Friday 2nd of October 2020

OK, I have just made my first starter! Haven't named it yet (will if it lives!). It didn't seem as thick as I thought it would be. I used the scale to measure everything, so it should be ok. My whole wheat flour did say whole wheat "Pastry" flour. Would that make a difference? And another question: Can I save some of the discard to start a second batch or should I wait a few times of feeding and discarding to start my second batch of starter?

Julie Menghini

Saturday 3rd of October 2020

I've never used pastry flour Linda so don't know how it will work. You can also use just all-purpose flour. I would wait until your starter grows and consistently doubles before using it to start another one. Why not experiment and start another one from scratch using APF? See if it grows a little quicker. Good job measuring! You are keeping it at room temperature right?