I first began my bread baking journey back in August 2019 and let me tell you, I’ve come a LONG way since then. Baking bread, and sourdough in particular, is both an art and a science that takes much trial and error to create that ideal crusty loaf of carby perfection.
I honestly had no idea what I was doing when I first got started. But in my quest to live a more traditional and simple life, ditching the store bought bread and making it myself seemed like such a natural next step. I’ve made many types of breads and baked goods with sourdough since I began, and yet, there is still so much more yet to explore!
To make a great loaf of sourdough, you really need a good, strong wild yeast starter. Fortunately though, I’ve learned that starting and maintaining sourdough is actually quite simple and the stuff really is quite forgiving, even when you forget to feed it on occasion.
What is Wild Yeast
When you first think about making homemade bread, that little packet of yeast from the grocery store may come to mind. But did you know that those little packets contain only one type of yeast when in fact there are many different kinds all around us, all the time, free and ready to be used? That’s right! Wild yeast sourdough uses the natural yeast and bacteria floating around in the air of your home to ferment and create the levain to rise your bread. All it takes is flour and water. It’s seriously that simple!
Some Things to Consider
One disclaimer I will give about keeping a sourdough starter is that it takes commitment. It’s kind of like having to feed a pet. It will need a feeding twice a day if you keep it out on the counter, or about once a week if you keep it in the refrigerator.
Second, don’t be alarmed when I tell you that you will be tossing out some of your mixture each day for the first week or two. It may seem wasteful, but this is actually the more budget friendly option. Every time you feed your starter, it’s going to grow. So unless you remove some each time you feed it, you will have to keep multiplying your ingredients each feeding. And since your starter won’t be strong enough to use much in baking for at least the first few days or more, you’ll probably end up tossing some early on. However, there are a ton of sourdough discard recipes out there that can be a wonderful use if you don’t want to waste resources.
Third, in talking with other sourdough folks, I’ve heard that some haven’t always had luck with getting a good starter going. I haven’t personally experienced that probe, but it can happen. The kitchen environment can potentially effect the health and strength of your sourdough depending on the temperature generally, but my starter has always been strong and bubbly and raised my loaves without a hitch. While I currently use a vintage starter from the Klondike Gold Rush, I have started and maintained several of my own starters from scratch over the years as well. And that’s what I’m going to teach you how to do below!
How to Start Your Starter
INGREDIENTS FOR DAY 1:
:: 1/2 Cup Flour :: My current starter uses an organic, all purpose wheat flour, but there’s a lot of freedom to choose which type you prefer such as whole wheat or rye for example. Really whatever your preference is. Simple all purpose flour is a good option for beginners though and is also likely the most budget friendly option, so that’s what I’ve always used for my basic starter.
:: 1/2 Cup Water :: I would highly recommend using filtered water for both your starter mixture and for making your bread dough later on. Municipal water sources often contain additives like chlorine and fluoride that can affect the health of your yeast, and you!
:: Glass Container :: When I first started out, I used a quart sized mason jar, then upgraded to a gallon sized jar, then finally to a larger glass food storage container since I’m often mixing larger batches and the opening is much bigger and easier to work with. But at the minimum, I would recommend at least a quart sized mason jar or similar. Your wild yeast will need some room to grow!
:: Jar Cover :: You’ll need to cover your starter once it’s mixed to keep any dirt or critters out. I use a vented lid with my storage container or a cotton jar cover, but you can simply use a paper towel or tea towel and a rubber band if that’s what you have available. Something that is snug fitting but allows the starter to breath.
:: More Flour!
:: More Water!
I recommend beginning your starter in either the morning or evening since you will need to feed it every 12 hours.
- On day one in your container, mix the 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 water together, then secure your cover and place in a warm and cozy spot out of the way in your kitchen.
- After 12 hours or so (don’t worry if it’s a little less or more than) remove the lid and stir your mixture until it’s all incorporated. Note here that you may notice some clear liquid has formed in your jar overnight within the first couple days of feedings. It’s call hooch and it is the normal alcohol that forms as your starter ferments. It’s a good thing to see in your mix and it helps protect your wild yeast from bacteria that you don’t want to thrive in there. So don’t dump the out, always mix it in first before discarding or using any starter.
- After you’ve mixed it up, remove half of the mixture from your container and either discard it or use it in a recipe. Please note: it won’t do much good for at least the first few days until you get some good yeast cultures growing in there, but eventually this “discard” is what you will use to bake bread and other delicious things!
- Mix in approximately 1/3 cup flour and 1/3 cup water, scrape down the side of your container so it doesn’t dry out, then re-secure the cover and put it back wherever you’re storing it.
- Repeat steps 2 through 4 every 12 hours for at least the next 10 days. Your mixture should be close to doubling in size within that 12 hours after every feeding and be showing lots of happy, active bubbles!
- Once you’ve reached at least a week’s worth of feedings, you should be able to start using your discard to make bread and other yeast based baked goods. Just keep on feeding it every 12 hours if you’re using it regularly and storing it on the counter. However, if you need a break, you can store it in the refrigerator and feed it only once per week. The cold slows down the fermentation process and essentially makes your yeast hibernate while it’s chilling out there. If you want to use it to bake again though, be sure to pull it out and start feeding it again at least 12 hours before you plan on cooking with it so it has a chance to warm up and start bubbling again.
One final thought on starting your own sourdough…
The instructions I listed above are just what I have personally used. But there really is a lot of wiggle room for variation here. I’ve read many different tutorials that used different measurements and flour types all with great success. If I’ve learned anything with this wild yeast journey, it’s that sourdough is definitely more of an art than an exact science. Every single loaf of bread I’ve made has been a little different, even when using the same exact ratios and ingredients. It’s a fun adventure and there will be plenty of opportunities for trial and error. So don’t give up if your first run with the whole process doesn’t work out perfectly. It definitely takes practice!