Sourdough Starter

I bake a lot of bread, but I’ve noticed I don’t really mention it much here. I guess it’s probably because I don’t often make up my own recipes for bread. I usually bake breads from one of Peter Reinhart’s books, either The Bread Baker’s Apprentice or Whole Grains. I recommend both of them very, very much if you have any interest in baking artisan breads.

Although I bake bread just about every weekend – usually several loaves – I’ve of late neglected my sourdough starter and I recently had to throw it away. Bad Renae. But the first piece of good news is I documented making a new one for you! The other good news is that it’s really easy to do! Don’t be afraid! (Or, if you live in Northern Virginia, just get a starter from me; I often end up throwing some away when feeding it: there IS a limit to the number of baked goods I can make.)

It takes five days to get a starter going, which means if you start it on Monday, you can be baking your first loaf by the weekend. And it takes less than five minutes of attention per day. Here’s what you need:

dark rye (pumpernickel) flour, preferably organic
high gluten flour, preferably organic

Now, if you don’t live near any fancy flour stores, you may be casting a wary eye on this pumpernickel and “high gluten” flour nonsense, but never fear. I actually order mine from King Arthur Flour, but I can understand you may not want to go through the trouble of ordering special flour if you aren’t sure you’re definitely going to get into the whole bread-baking thing. The truth of the matter is you don’t NEED to use the pumpernickel or high gluten flours. Both whole grain and organic flours, though, contain more of the yeast organisms that you are hoping to harness than white, non-organic flours, so try to make the flour you buy fit at least one of those descriptions. Once the starter is, well, started, you can feed it with any kind of flour, so you don’t have to buy much. Rye is thought to yield better and faster results. “Pumpernickel” flour is whole rye flour, similar to whole wheat. I have made successful starters using regular or “white” rye flour, so if you can’t find whole rye flour, it’s an option. You could also use whole wheat flour instead of the pumpernickel.

As for high gluten flour, it’s a specialty flour that contains more protein than bread flour (which in turn contains more protein than all-purpose flour). I use it exclusively to feed my starter, and it’s called for in a lot of Peter Reinhart’s recipes. If you are serious about baking artisan breads, I recommend you get some high gluten flour. If you aren’t sure you’re ready to classify yourself as “serious” about bread baking, just use bread flour, which you can buy at any supermarket, instead.

Getting to the process, though, let’s break it down by day. The following are Peter Reinhart’s measurements from BBA (which is how we bakers refer to The Bread Baker’s Apprentice). I don’t really want to post his recipes because I’m not sure how cool that is, but this is pretty standard stuff and is pretty much exactly the same thing I did before I developed my huge bread crush on Peter. BUT I HIGHLY RECOMMEND YOU BUY HIS BOOKS!

Day One

4.25 ounces (1 cup) dark rye (pumpernickel) flour
8 ounces (1 cup) water

Mix flour and water together until all flour is incorporated.

Cover and let sit for 24 hours.

Day Two

4.5 ounces (1 cup) high gluten or bread flour
6 ounces (3/4 cup) water

On day two, your dough may or may not have risen. I’ve read numerous times not to expect it to have risen any by day two, however, I usually do get some rise.

Here it was on Day Two before mixing in the new ingredients:

Add the Day Two ingredients and stir until completely incorporated.

Cover and set aside for 24 hours.

Day Three

4.5 ounces (1 cup) high gluten or bread flour
6 ounces (3/4 cup) water

On the morning of Day Three (only 12 hours after I’d mixed in the Day Two ingredients the night before), I had a huge rise:

I just covered it back up and let it continue doing its thing. By the time I got home after work, it had fallen somewhat, so unless you are checking on it, yours might actually rise and fall without your knowledge. You can usually check the sides of the container; it will leave tracks when it falls. This is how it looked when I got home; you can see the higher level it had made it to earlier in the day before falling:

On Day Three, remove half of the starter and discard*. Mix in the Day Three ingredients until completely incorporated:

Cover and set aside for 24 hours.

Day Four

4.5 ounces (1 cup) high gluten or bread flour
6 ounces (3/4 cup) water

On Day Four, the starter was more bubbly. Here’s how I found it that night:

This is a little redundant, but discard half of the starter again and then mix in the Day Four ingredients.

Cover and set aside.

Day Five

16 ounces (3 1/2 cups) high gluten or bread flour
16 ounces (2 cups) water
7 ounces (1 cup) starter

By Day Five, your starter should be rising a lot – at least doubling in volume, and even better, tripling – and be quite bubbly and active. Here is how I found mine on the morning of Day Five:

As soon as yours has at last doubled and is bubbly – and falls easily when tapped – you can proceed with the Day Five instructions – it may not take 24 hours (although you can wait that long if your schedule demands it). I did the Day Five routine about 12 hours after Day Four. Here’s what it looked like after shaking the container a bit; it fell easily:

Mix the Day Five ingredients in a large bowl.

Cover and let sit for 6 hours or until doubled or tripled. It must at least double. If it hasn’t doubled in six hours, give it more time. Mine had more than doubled in six hours:

Transfer to a refrigerator-friendly container in which it has room to double and refrigerate over night. After 8 hours, the starter will be ready to bake with. And I’ll be back with a recipe – and instructions on how to feed your starter.

* You’ll hear the word “discard” in reference to feeding your starter, because you have to remove at least half of it in order to feed it, and, especially in these times of extravagant wheat prices, the idea of throwing away dough may upset you. Never fear, though, there are many things you can do with the “discarded” dough; I’ll try to share some with you over the next few days and as I get back into the swing of using my starter again. So in the future, when I say “discard the extra dough”, feel free to read it as “reserve the extra dough and make English muffins with it”.


  1. Walter Johnson Said,

    March 13, 2012 @ 10:53 pm

    I live in McLean VA on the poor side of 123 and am interested in getting some of your starter. You kindly offered to give some away and I’d love it. I wanted to make a rye bread recipe from Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads every day.

  2. LaShemma Simmons Said,

    November 18, 2012 @ 2:19 pm

    Hi, I found your site very useful in helping to understand the process for building a starter. With the holidays quickly approaching, I would like to buy some starter from you. Would you be open to this?

    Thank you,
    L. Simmons
    Centreville, VA

  3. renae Said,

    November 19, 2012 @ 6:15 pm

    Hi LaShemma, I’m happy to share my starter – I’ll send you a private email.

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