How to make your own sourdough starter: the path to great bread

Have you ever wondered how to make your own sourdough starter?

Whether it conjures up a crusty, flavorful loaf of bread or a bubbling crock of flour/water starter, sourdough is a treasured part of many bakers’ kitchens.

But where does the path to sourdough bread begin? And how do you start?

Start in your own home kitchen. And begin by learning how to make your own sourdough starter.

First, a word of advice. Sourdough baking is as much art as science. This method for making sourdough starter isn’t an exact match for the one you read on another site, or in a cookbook, or in your great-grandma’s diary.

If you have a process you’ve successfully followed before, then hey, stick with it. Or try this one and compare. All good.

A sourdough starter includes five key ingredients: flour, water, time, patience, and love. Click To Tweet

OK, ready? Let’s go.

The following timeline assumes you can find a relatively warm place (68°F to 70°F) to grow your starter. More on that below.

How to make your own sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

How to make your own sourdough starter, day 1

Combine 4 ounces (1 cup) whole rye flour (pumpernickel) or whole wheat flour with 4 ounces (1/2 cup) non-chlorinated cool water in a non-reactive container. Glass, crockery, stainless steel, or food-grade plastic all work fine for this.

Note that whole grain flour (whole wheat or rye) is used at the beginning of the process. This is because whole grains contain more nutrients and sourdough-friendly microorganisms than all-purpose flour.

You also may have better results if you feed your starter with non-chlorinated cool water; from now on, we’ll refer to this simply as “water.”

Stir everything together thoroughly; make sure there’s no dry flour anywhere. Cover the container loosely and let the mixture sit at warm room temperature (about 70°F) for 24 hours.

A note about room temperature: the colder the environment, the more slowly your starter will grow. If the normal temperature in your home is below 68°F, we suggest finding a smaller, warmer spot to develop your starter.

For instance, try setting the starter near a baseboard heater, or atop your water heater, refrigerator, or another appliance that might generate ambient heat. Your oven, turned off but with the light on, is another option, as is setting the container of starter on a folded dish towel laid atop a heating pad on its lowest setting.

How to make your own sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

A temperature-controlled bread proofer is the absolute ideal solution; if you bake lots of yeast bread, you might consider investing in one of these tools.

How to make your own sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

Day 2

You may see no activity at all in the first 24 hours, or you may see a bit of growth or bubbling. Note that this starter looks fairly inert when viewed from up top.

How to make your own sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

But when viewed from the side, you can see bubbles starting to form under the surface.

How to make your own sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

Either way, discard half the starter (4 ounces), and add to the remainder 4 ounces (a scant 1 cup) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour, and 4 ounces (1/2 cup) cool water (if your house is warm); or lukewarm water (if it’s cold).

How to make your own sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

Mix well, cover, and let the mixture rest at room temperature for 24 hours.

Note: Why do you need to discard half the starter? It seems so wasteful…

Well, it’s necessary for three reasons. First, unless you discard, eventually you’ll end up with The Sourdough That Ate Milwaukee – too much starter. Second, keeping the starter volume the same helps balance the pH. And third, keeping the volume down offers the yeast more food to eat each time you feed it; it’s not fighting with quite so many other little yeast cells to get enough to eat.

Also, you don’t have to discard it if you don’t want to; you can give it to a friend, or use it to bake. There are quite a few recipes on our site using “discard” starter, including sourdough pizza crust, sourdough pretzels, and my all-time favorite waffles.

How to make your own sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

Day 3

By the third day, you’ll likely see some activity – bubbling; a fresh, fruity aroma, and some evidence of expansion. The somewhat darker hue your starter got from its whole wheat beginnings will fade as you continue to feed it with all-purpose flour. It’s now time to begin two feedings daily, as evenly spaced as your schedule allows.

For each feeding, weigh out 4 ounces starter; this will be a generous 1/2 cup, once it’s thoroughly stirred down. Discard any remaining starter.

Add 4 ounces (a scant 1 cup) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour, and 4 ounces (1/2 cup) water to the 4 ounces starter.

How to make your own sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

Mix the starter, flour, and water, cover, and let the mixture rest at room temperature for approximately 12 hours before repeating.

How to make your own sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

Here’s the starter after its 12-hour rest. It may actually appear to be bubbling less than it did initially; this is normal.

How to make your own sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

Days 4, 5, 6…

Repeat two-a-day feedings on days 4, 5, and as many days as it takes for your starter to become very active — almost foamy. If your starter is in cool surroundings, you may find it takes up to 2 weeks (or perhaps even longer) to get going.

When it shows a markedly different type of bubbling, though, it’s just about ready to use.

How to make your own sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

When you stir it down and feed it this time, make a note of how high it comes on the bowl or jar. You’ll know it’s ready to use in baking when it doubles in size in about 4 to 6 hours. You’ll see lots of bubbles; there may be some little “rivulets” on the surface, full of finer bubbles.

Also, the starter should have a tangy aroma – pleasingly acidic, but not overpowering.

How to make your own sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

When it gets to this point — doubling in size in 4 to 6 hours — give it one last feeding. Discard all but 4 ounces (a generous 1/2 cup). Feed as usual. Let the starter rest at room temperature for 4 to 8 hours; it should be active, with bubbles breaking the surface.

Remove however much starter you need for your recipe (no more than 8 ounces, about 1 cup); and transfer the remaining 4 ounces of starter to its permanent home: a crock, jar, or whatever you’d like to store it in long-term. Feed this 4 ounces of starter with 4 ounces of flour and 4 ounces of water.

How to make your own sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

Let it bubble and become active for several hours before covering it and placing it in the refrigerator.

But wait — what if things haven’t gone exactly according to schedule?

No worries. If, after a week, your starter isn’t ready, don’t lose heart; keep feeding it regularly, and it will gain strength — really!

Be patient. The conditions in your kitchen may be more or less conducive to building a starter, depending on room temperature, the season, humidity, or how much you’ve been baking.

Remember, the keys to developing a successful starter are using good (unbleached) flour; having a consistent feeding schedule, and ripening (growing) the starter in an environment that’s adequately warm (at least 68°F, and preferably in the 70s).

Grape sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

When your starter is strong enough, it’s time to go ahead and make your favorite sourdough bread.

Good luck! And enjoy.

Want something printable to follow? See our recipe for Sourdough Starter.

Next: maintaining your starter.

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Herman in Chicago

    I have been nurturing a starter for the past four days. My partner and I, however, are having to take off for an unexpected wedding in just two days, which is great news for everyone except for the starter.

    Can I refrigerate the starter for the 36 hours that we’re gone and reanimate it when we get home? Or will this time in a refrigerator just kill a starter that has yet to be established?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      It might take a few days for it to come back and get bubbly again once you’re home, Herman, but we think it should be just fine in the fridge while you’re away. Put a plate or container under it just in case it goes crazy in there! Annabelle@KAF

  2. OC Koz

    I’m on day 2 and my starter doubled in size in 6 hours. Should I feed it at 12 hours or let it go the full 24? I’ve tried making my own starter before and gave up after 2 or 3 tries. This time used rye flour and distilled water and am very pleased with the early activity!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We’re glad to hear this starter is on the right track, OC! We’d recommend following the instructions and feeding your starter every 12 hours for best results. There’s usually a slump around day 4 but it picks up again and is usually healthy and more stable by day 10-14. Happy baking! Annabelle@KAF

  3. Richard

    Should the finished starter be stored in an air-tight container (as shown on another King Arthur site)? Also, what is a “scant” 1 cup? Almost a cup? Nearly a cup? I always thought a cup was a cup.

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid

      Hi, Richard. Air-tight can cause problems with happy, active starter; our crocks are designed to let the carbon dioxide produced get out. The reason we call for a scant cup is to better match the weight of the flour and water (weight is always a better way to measure, but not everyone has a scale). To get a scant cup, sprinkle the flour into a dry measure and when you sweep off the top you can leave a bit of an indent so it’s not quite filled to the top when you’re done. Susan

  4. Holly in Houston

    I have made this in the past. Very successful. However, I quit out of frustration because I never can figure out what to do with all the discarded starter. Help. I am ready to make starter again.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      You sure can, Freida. If you use a recipe like Classic Sandwich Bread, you’ll want to make the slurry on the stove top as described in the Baker’s Tips, and then you can mix, knead, and even bake the dough right in your machine! You can also try using the approach that’s outlined in this blog and convert one of your favorite bread machine recipes to include a tangzhong starter. Both approaches will yield delicious results. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

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