Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Growing a Sourdough Starter from Wild Yeast

I should say before I write anything else that I am NOT a sourdough expert.  I have not yet baked a loaf of sourdough bread.  My sourdough journey is in its initial, tentative steps.  But I have successfully gotten a sourdough starter going from wild yeast, and I am quite proud of it.  I can get you at least that far, and then hopefully if you return to my blog I will have had luck with the baking step--if not, I'll be pointing you to other blogs and websites for further reference!

I have seen recipes for sourdough online, and in my favourite cookbooks, and most of them start with a "cheater" starter using commercial yeast.  That's ok, if it turns out for you and you like it, but being a biologist I thought it would be a lot more interesting to start my own.  When I read that you could "capture" wild yeast to develop your starter, it sounded infinitely more exciting to me!

It is so easy to do, and I am glad that I tried.  I even abused my poor starter a little bit, and it is still going.  It needs to get a little stronger before I attempt bread again (my first shot at it was pretty miserable) but even the fact that it is living on top of my fridge seems amazing to me.  I got the instructions/recipe for one technique of getting a starter going from this post on The Fresh Loaf website and followed the directions with the ingredients that I had.  It takes time to develop a starter, it is certainly not closely related to instant or even regular active dry yeast.  It takes patience, clean dishes and hands, and a lot of love.  But you can totally do it in your kitchen!  All you need is some whole grain flour and pineapple or orange juice.  So let's get started:

As you can see, I used regular Robin Hood whole wheat flour.  I think if you can get organic stone-ground rye, like I have since purchased from the Bulk Barn, it would be better.  However, mine worked with the flour I used.

Day 1
Combine 2 tablespoons of whole wheat or rye flour with two tablespoons of juice. Mix well, and cover lightly (I used a piece of cotton dishtowel held in place over a mason jar with the screw band).  Keep it in a warm place, like on top of your refrigerator.

Day 2
Add another 2 tablespoons of w.w. or rye flour and two more tablespoons of juice.  Mix well again, and re-cover.

Day 3
Add yet another two tablespoons of both flour and juice.  Mix it up, cover it up, sing it a little song.

Day 4
Open up your starter, stir it all up, measure out 1/4 cup and then discard the rest.  Wash out your jar, and return your 1/4 cup of starter to it.  Then add 1/4 cup of unbleached all-purpose flour, and 1/4 cup of warm filtered water.  Stir it all up nicely, cover it back up, and put it back in its warm little nook.

After Day Four
Continue the Day 4 steps of stirring, discarding, and adding flour and water to it until you start to see some really bubbly action, the starter begins to expand, and you smell a characteristic yeast scent when you give it a sniff.  I'd keep it going for a while.  I noticed my starter took off in the evening of day 5, but I am now at day 15 and still have it on my counter, feeding it at least once daily and sometimes twice if I think it seems hungry.  You want to get it strong enough to to really be able to leaven your bread when you use it to make a sourdough loaf, and it takes a little while to get there.  Some people recommend at least two weeks.  Trust me, you want it strong.  I would show you a photo of my horrible first attempt at loaves if I hadn't been so ashamed of them that I threw them out to the birds and didn't take a picture!

My sourdough starter on Day 7, ready to be fed.

According to SourdoLady (the user who posted the procedure on The Fresh Loaf), when you feed it you can actually keep less starter than even a quarter cup, for instance 1-2 tablespoons.  I personally keep holding onto 1/4 cup because I am worried that something will happen and I will have thrown it all away and have to start over again.  But you should give it more water and flour in order to feed it properly.

To feed your sourdough starter, it is basically the same as the Day 4 step.  You discard most of your starter, mix it up with flour and water, and let it go crazy eating and growing.  From what I have read, you should feed it equal portions by weight water and flour, which comes out with a quantity of almost double the flour if you measure using cups.  Basically, when you mix it up, it should look like thick pancake batter.

When your starter stops expanding, starts to sink back down, begins to smell more like alcohol than yeast, and gets a layer of clear or yellowish liquid near the top, it is hungry and really needs to be fed.  After your starter gets going and becomes strong, you don't have to keep it at room temperature anymore.  You can feed it, put it in the fridge, and leave it.  Weekly feedings are recommended but if it's strong, it can go even longer than that and still be revived when you take it out to get it ready for baking.  I really should have taken before and after photos to show you the difference in volume from where it starts before a feeding and ends up later; I may edit this later and add one in. :)

Starter on Day 10, ready to be fed.

The way I have described feeding it, you'll never really have more than about 3/4 cup of starter, and when you bake, you'll probably need at least a cup plus some left over to keep your starter going for the next time.  If you want to increase it, the feeding before you plan to use it (say the night before), just give it a bigger feeding.  That will increase its volume to what you will need.  And when you feed it, the quantity that you discard can be put to use; it doesn't absolutely have to be thrown away. You can give it to a friend to start his/her own starter, or you can use it in a recipe like sourdough pancakes (note: I haven't made these yet, they're on my to-do list and if anyone is interested I'll post the results up here when I do it).

Good luck!  I am still learning, and my starter has in the last couple of days had a couple of near-death experiences.  If you check out the post I linked to earlier where I learned how to do this and have a look at the enormous comment thread, you'll get loads of help.  Also check out this post by Tamatha at A Flock in the City; she is amazing and knows all sorts of things about baking and fermenting and looking after various cultures.  She actually posted a sourdough bread recipe today, than I plan on trying as soon as my starter seems a bit more hearty!

This post is shared with Simple Living WednesdaysFrugal Days Sustainable Ways and Homestead Barn Hop #58.


  1. Hi Rosalyn,
    I was looking at your stater, we were talking before about your troubles with it. You have such a small amount of starter there. My stater has at this point about 4 cups of very lively starter that I bake with often. If you still have troubles with this recipe, please consider mine. It makes a larger amount which keeps things thriving more easily. My boule recipe for example uses a whole cup of starter. Anyway, I was just trying to help you get that perfect sourdough loaf you are looking for. Either way I know you will get it!

    1. Tamatha, thanks so much for your comment! I noticed that my starter isn't as lively lately as it seemed to have been, and I honestly wondered about keeping so little of it. I'll try keeping more starter and see how it goes. I appreciate your advice!

  2. I am also a sourdough junkie. I make everything with it. I even use it to soak beans. But, the real reason I am commenting is that I just gave your blog The Liebster Award. Stop by and see:

    1. Thank you so much! I really appreciate it! :) I will look forward to checking out your blog, especially for some sourdough wisdom. :)


I love to get comments and questions, and particularly suggestions!