How to make a sourdough starter

I’ve been asked for the recipe and for a piece of my sourdough starter all over North America, from the Yukon to Arizona, Colorado to Alberta to British Columbia. My current starter is coming up to its fourth birthday, still going strong after being created in the Yukon in May 2015. I enjoy the challenges of baking with it and I like to share the various creations with friends, family and work colleagues.

As part of my goal to share more light in 2018, this post will detail how I make a sourdough starter. It’s empowering to know how to make your own products, and there’s a sense of satisfaction at eating the creations of your own hands and knowing what went into the food you eat. I’ve used this method to catch a wild yeast starter in Wyoming, Colorado, British Columbia and the Yukon Territory.

I first started experimenting with sourdough starter during my time as a student in Wyoming. To decompress from school, work and being in a new place I read a LOT of back issues of Western Horseman. Several mentioned sourdough biscuits in stories about ranches. I didn’t have a lot of money and I enjoyed cooking and baking (and still do!). Mom taught us to bake bread as kids, and used a bread maker when we got to high school to keep up with what we ate.

My starter bubbling away, ready to be used in the sourdough biscuits recipe

Sourdough intrigued me: it was associated with recent western history from cattle drives across the plains to the late 1800s gold rush in the Yukon. What better way to connect to the pioneer spirit and can-do attitude than to try making my own cowboy bread? After all, it was much cheaper to make my own bread with the bread maker than buy it at the store… and I could play with adding nuts, seeds, protein and spices. Sourdough offered all of those opportunities… plus a connection to the pioneers. I was ready to start!

The recipe and instructions below are the method for making starter that worked for me. It relies on catching wild yeast out of the air to help in the fermentation process and contribute to the starter’s flavor. I tried several ways of creating starter when I was first inspired: using water that I’d boiled potatoes in, adding yeast and honey to a flour mixture and trying different water temperatures with a specific flour. The most effective way I tried to catch a starter was also the simplest: mix flour and water.

I first made this starter in 2005 in Laramie, Wyoming. That batch was accidentally thrown away during a move, so I created another starter in 2006. That one went moldy when I was on vacation, and it wasn’t until I finally moved to my own place in February 2010 that I caught a wild yeast starter again. The 2010 starter was created with the same recipe as below, and lasted until 2013.

With a little care, your starter will last for years.

Sourdough Starter ingredients

1 cup flour
1 cup water

A non-metallic bowl or container big enough to hold 8 cups. I prefer glass or plastic.
A non-metallic spatula, spoon or mixing tool. I use a heat-safe spatula or wooden spoon.

Thoroughly mix the flour and water in your container. Place a tea towel loosely over the mixture and let it stand in a warm place for 24 hours.

After 24 hours, add another 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water. Mix this thoroughly, cover it loosely with a tea towel and let it stand for another 24 hours.

Check the starter at this point, 48 hours after you’ve begun your experiment. It may be starting to bubble, expand and/or smell sour. If not, let it stand for another 24 hours and check for signs it is become sourdough starter… it will smell sour and be frothing, or turn moldy and smell worse.

If your starter is moldy and smelly, simply wash the mixture down the sink, clean out your container and try again.

Your sourdough container doesn’t need to be fancy or new. I kept my first starter in a plastic 64 ounce Folgers coffee container from the grocery store because it’s what I had at the time. It fit all criteria: it had a tightly fitting lid for sealing out air when I put the starter in the fridge bed between uses, it was not metallic and it was cheap. I like repurposing items if I can, and that coffee container held starter for three years.

The starter jar I use today had a wonderful yet brief life as a jar of Adams Natural creamy peanut butter (I really like peanut butter). I repurposed the jar to hold starter after hand washing, then running it through the dishwasher twice before using it to hold my starter. It’s a small glass jar with a screw-on lid that holds between 1.5 and 2 cups of starter. It’s easy to fit into the fridge, no matter how full it is.

My starter an hour after being removed from the fridge- notice the beautiful bubbles at the top!

If you’re using a glass jar in a newer refrigerator, be aware that as the starter sits, some of the moisture seems to sweat out of the jar. I’ve had to gently pry my starter jar off of the top glass shelf, as the liquid sweating out of the glass jar has formed a seal to the top shelf. I’ve found it helpful to place the starter jar onto a plastic lid so that I can easily remove it without too much elbow grease and/or broken glass.


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