Sourdough Demystified: Making a Sourdough Starter From Scratch

sourdough starter title

I’ve had so many friends ask me to teach them how to bake sourdough bread, bagels, cinnamon rolls and pizza that it warranted a blog series of its own. My effort will be to highlight the most important steps only so as not to intimidate aspiring sourdough bakers with non-critical details along the way.

My goal is to create a series of videos you can follow in order to successfully develop your own sourdough skillset to the point where you can confidently bake bread, pizza, bagels, and any other sourdough-based creations you can think of.

Starting Your “Starter”

If your bread doesn’t rise, it will suck. Non-sourdough bread cheats during this step by simply dropping in store-bought (commercial) yeast. It rises in a fraction of the time, but with a fraction of the flavour of sourdough. We want that sour flavour and all of the nutrients that come with a slower fermentation process. So instead of using commercial yeast, we sourdough bakers capture “wild yeast” out of thin air, in what’s called a “starter”.

A sourdough “starter” is just flour and water mixed into dough, and left in a jar at room temperature for a few days to ferment.

Wild yeast (microbes which exist naturally in the air) finds its way into the jar, colonizes the dough and begins the fermentation process. During fermentation, the yeast is simply eating the flour/water dough mix and pooping out CO² and a bunch of other nutrients. Those CO² fart bubbles cause the dough to rise.

We will start all future bakes (bread, pizza, everything) by taking a bit of the our original starter dough and adding it to batches of new dough we want to rise for baking purposes. Down the road, we’ll always keep a little bit of our starter in the fridge so we’re ready to bake on a day’s notice. Otherwise we’d have to create a new starter every time, and that can take several days depending on temperature (warmer = faster).

Having a starter means we can have bread ready for tomorrow instead of having bread ready next week.

Assume Your Flour SUCKS

The biggest cause of failure for beginner sourdough bakers is they assume the flour they’re using will work for making sourdough. They’ve purchased expensive organic “bread flour” from the grocery store and so it’s easy to assume that it will work for fermentation. It probably is NOT suitable for sourdough fermentation, especially if you live in a challenging climate like Canada where the cooler temperatures really impede our efforts.

In cold places, we need all the help we can get. Making sure we have the very best possible flour to work with is probably the most important thing you can do in your entire journey of learning the secrets of sourdough.

Call your local bakery, and ask if they bake “naturally leavened” sourdough. If they do, ask if they’ll sell you a bag of their baking flour (or point you in the right direction for you to source it yourself). I use “strong baker’s flour” from Parrish & Heimbecker – and I buy it from my local bakery in 50 lb sacks.

This step can be a hassle, but if you’re not absolutely certain that someone else is producing excellent sourdough bread without commercial yeast using the flour you’re working with – you stand to waste a LOT of time.

It took me 9 painful months of utter failure to figure this out for myself. Do yourself a favour, get a big ol’ sack of flour directly from your most reputable local bakery. In my experience, the local baker was stoked for me to be learning something as tricky as sourdough, and was super supportive. 

Once you have your flour, all you do is mix a couple heaping tablespoons of it with room temperature water. Leave it in a jar with the lid loosely covering it (so airborne yeast can get in and out).

This takes a long time to get going, so leave the jar at room temperature on your kitchen counter and we’ll pick up where we left off tomorrow. Here’s the next post in the series: Sourdough Demystified Day 2: No Starter Activity Yet

If I gave you a bag of flour, and water, and you had nothing else to live on – you could live on that for a while. But eventually you would die.

But if you take that same bag of flour, and water, and bake it into bread – you could live indefinitely.

Michael Pollan in Cooked S1: E3: Air

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