How to Make a Sourdough Starter

By Emily Leikam on September 13, 2023
9 min read

If you’re looking for a way to embrace a more mindful process of baking, then look no further than baking bread. There’s no better place to start the humble process of baking bread than with a starter! A starter is the key ingredient to making the perfect sourdough loaf. This fermented flour and water mixture is what gives sourdough its unique taste loved by so many. This process has been used by many cultures for thousands of years. In fact, there are some starters still around today that have been passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years. 

Making a starter for sourdough bread is a chance to combine art and science to create a tasty, nourishing loaf of bread. It sounds intimidating, but with time, patience, and a few ingredients, you can easily create and keep a sourdough starter alive. Keep reading for tips and tricks to getting started with your own sourdough starter.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Sourdough Starter?

A sourdough starter, also called levain, is what makes the loaf rise. Simply put, it’s a live, fermented culture of flour and water. Once combined and monitored for days, the culture grows and cultivates, creating a “wild” yeast. No need for a store-bought package of active dry yeast, all you need is to add a small portion of your starter to your sourdough bread recipe and watch the magic happen.

Brown Bread On White Paper
Sourdough Loaf. Photo by: Vicky Ng.

How Long Will the Process Take? 

Making a sourdough starter is rather easy and requires few ingredients. One of the hardest parts is waiting for it to be ready. The entire process typically takes 7 days, though it could take up to 14 days, depending on how the starter progresses. 

What Flour is Needed for a Sourdough Starter? 

The type of flour used to create your starter depends on personal preference. Any flour that includes starch – since the sugar is what the microbes feed on – is suitable for the starter. Many people choose whole wheat and unbleached all purpose white flour, but you can also use rye, spelt, rice, or einkorn. For the starter recipe below, we recommend beginning with whole wheat, then using unbleached all purpose four to keep feeding the starter. 

How Often Do You Need to Feed the Starter?

After the first two days of letting your starter sit, you’ll begin feeding it every 12-24 hours. Sourdough starters can last for many years with this simple process of feeding. 

How Do You Know When the Sourdough Starter is Ready?

Starters are typically ready on Day 7 of the process. The key features to check are size, texture, smell, and bubbles. Your starter should be doubled in size; the texture should be fluffy and elastic; the smell should be nice and yeasty; and there should be plenty of bubbles present. Use the “float test” by placing a spoonful of your unstirred starter in a glass of water. If it floats, the starter is ready to bake with; if it sinks it’s not ready.

A woman is carefully removing the top cover of a sourdough starter culture which is about to overflow the glass cup
Sourdough overflowing a glass. Photo by: Grandbrothers.

Materials Needed for a Sourdough Starter

  • 1 – 5lb bag of whole wheat flour
  • 1 – 5lb bag of unbleached all-purpose flour
  • Warm water (85 degrees F)
  • Measuring cups
  • Stirring utensil 
  • 3/4 L glass jar with lid
  • Larger glass jar with lid 

Instructions for a Sourdough Starter

Making a sourdough starter doesn’t require a lot of ingredients, but it does require time and patience. A sourdough starter can be sensitive, so it’s important to feed it with high-quality ingredients like unbleached flour and filtered water. Also important to note is that extreme temperatures and too much neglect may kill your starter. As long as you keep it at a constant temperature and feed it often, your starter will thrive and provide you with a beautiful loaf of sourdough bread.

Day 1: The Beginning

Combine 1/2 cup of whole wheat flour with 1/4 cup of warm (not hot) water in a large jar. Mix together with a fork until the consistency is smooth, thick, and pasty. Cover the top of the jar with a lid or plastic wrap; place in a warm area (75-80 degrees F); and let sit for 24 hours.

To help begin the process, set your jar inside an oven or microwave (turned off), with the light on for a few hours. For a more controlled temperature setting, you may be interested in a proofing box.

Day 2: Observing 

After 24 hours, check for bubbles on the surface of your starter. Bubbles are an indicator of fermentation, which means it’s working! Don’t worry if you don’t see any just yet, they may have already appeared overnight while you were sleeping.

During the second day, you may see and smell a brown liquid on the surface of the starter. There’s no need to worry, this is known as “hooch” and is an important sign that your starter is hungry and needs to be fed. Technically speaking, this liquid is the alcohol given off as yeast ferments. Normally you’ll want to get rid of it and feed your starter, but on the second day, you’ll leave everything alone and let the jar sit in the same location for another 24 hours.  

Glass jars with dough leaven
Fermentation process. Photo by: David Ferencik.

Day 3: Feeding Time

After sitting for 48 hours, it’s time to “feed” your starter. Just like anything living, it needs to be fed to be kept strong. If your starter isn’t strong, your bread won’t rise. Here’s what you’ll need to do:

  • Remove and discard exactly half of your starter from the jar (this helps refresh the acidity levels and controls the growth of the starter). There should be 1/2 cup or about 64 g left over. The texture should be very stretchy at this point.
  • Add 1/2 cup of all-purpose flour and 1/4 cup of warm water. Mix together with a fork until nice and smooth. The texture should resemble a thick pancake batter, 
  • Add more water as needed. Cover the jar again, and let it sit in the same warm spot for another 24 hours. 

Remember, sourdough starters can be sensitive, so it’s important to feed them with high-quality ingredients like unbleached flour and filtered water. 

Days 4-6: Follow the Feeding Process 

Days 4 through 6, follow the same steps as Day 3. Remove and discard half the starter, and feed with 1/2 cup of all-purpose flour and 1/4 cup of warm water. As the yeast expands, the starter will begin to rise, and bubbles will form at the surface. When the starter falls, it’s an indicator that it’s time to feed again. Placing a rubber band or hair tie around your jar is a good way to measure the starter's growth.

Day 7: Activation

On Day 7 your starter should be doubled in size with plenty of bubbles at the surface. The texture should be fluffy and elastic, and the smell should be pleasant (not like a stinky gym bag!). All of this indicates your starter is active!

The final step is to transfer your active starter to a new, clean jar so it’s ready to help you bake a beautiful loaf of sourdough bread!

Homemade sourdough starter in glass on dark background and graham bread
Fluffy sourdough. Photo by: Wojciech Bobrowicz.

Tips for Maintaining your Sourdough Starter

Feeding Routine

Once you’ve created your starter, you will need to care for it and feed it to keep it alive. Just like maintaining a garden or watering houseplants, your sourdough starter requires a routine. 

  • Always remove and discard about half of your starter.
  • Replenish what’s left in the jar with fresh all-purpose flour and water.
  • Cover loosely and let it rise at room temperature until bubbly and doubled in size. 
  • When it falls and the bubbles disappear, it’s time to feed again.
  • Feed your starter every day if it’s stored at room temperature or once a week if stored in the refrigerator.

How to Store your Starter

You can store your starter in several different ways depending on how often you’ll use it:

  • Store at room temperature if you bake often. It may need to be fed once or twice a day.
  • Store in the refrigerator if you don’t bake weekly. Feed it once a week and when ready to use, let it come to room temperature. 
  • You can also preserve your starter by freezing or dehydrating it if you’ll be away from it for a while. 

What to Do With the Sourdough Discard

You must always discard some of your sourdough starter before it requires more and more flour and becomes unmanageable. But what can you do with the discarded starter? The obvious answer is to just throw it away. But If you don’t like to waste food items and want to put your sourdough discard to use, you can always share it with friends or family members. 

Or you can add it to other baking recipes for an interesting flavor profile. Try adding it to your favorite cookie, cracker, cake, brownie or pancake recipe the next time you decide to bake. 

Sliced freshly baked homemade rye-wheat whole grain bread and rye sourdough in a glass jar. Close up
homemade rye-wheat whole grain bread and rye sourdough. Photo by: Sorocka.

What If the Starter is Neglected?

Your starter is live and active, which is what you need to create the perfect sourdough loaf. If you forget to feed your starter for a while, especially if it’s in the fridge, it will start to show signs of neglect. Look for these signs that your starter is hungry and needs to be revived:

  • A dark layer of “hooch” on top of the starter
  • White spots or lumps below the layer of hooch
  • A strong acidic smell, like vinegar or nail polish remover
  • A crusty appearance to the container

All of these signs are normal and mean that your starter is still able to be revived. If you notice mold or a rotten, spoiled smell then discard your starter immediately.

How To Revive Inactive Starter

Reviving a neglected sourdough starter is much like feeding it under normal circumstances. However, an inactive starter needs more care, time, and patience in order to rebuild its strength. 

  1. Bring to room temperature. If stored in the refrigerator, take it out and let it warm up before proceeding.
  2. Pour off the hooch. This is best when reviving an inactive starter.
  3. Use a clean container. Give your starter a clean place to begin again.
  4. Discard ½ of the old starter. 
  5. Feed. Use equal weights of starter, flour and warm water. Combine and stir well. Mark the starting level and track the growth.
  6. Keep Warm. Find a cozy, warm spot (70-75 degrees F) and keep your starter happy.

Your starter will be ready to use again when it smells pleasantly yeasty and sweet (rather than sour) and doubles in volume. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work. If the starter doesn’t revive at all after a day or two of feedings, it is probably beyond saving, and it’s time to start a new one from scratch.

Feed Your Starter & Feed Yourself

Creating, maintaining, and even sharing a sourdough starter is something many home bakers are passionate about. Baking an amazing loaf of sourdough bread all starts with the starter! And when you get into the routine of feeding your own sourdough starter, you’ll soon be able to feed yourself your own delicious homemade bread!

Featured image by: Anshu AHire.

Emily Leikam
Emily Leikam

Emily is an avid traveler and has been all around the world from Alaska and Iceland to Peru and Bali. Her home base is Nashville, TN and when not traveling you can find her hiking, practicing yoga or cooking/baking!


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