Sourdough FAQs part one: the starter

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: Sourdough. Is. Simple.

Just flour, water, salt, and the yeast that naturally occurs in and around your kitchen. That’s literally all there is to it.

And yet, “simple” does not necessarily mean easy. Or straightforward. Or that you’ll get it right on the first try. Because there is most definitely an art to making sourdough. There are a lot of steps and details, plus a bit of finesse and even some intuition all of which go into making a humble loaf of bread. I want to help remove some of those roadblocks that might keep you from experiencing the joy of baking your own sourdough.

Like most anything, you’re going to learn the most about sourdough by just DOING. You can read and watch and research all you want, but you’ll learn a lot of these lessons by getting your hands in the flour, flopping a couple of loaves, and getting after it.

However, if I can save you a couple of failed attempts, I’d love to do so. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions I get, specifically today about the starter. This is part one, with part two to follow next week, where we’ll cover some questions concerning the rest of the baking process.

The starter

As you probably already know, a good loaf of sourdough must begin with a good starter. And this is where I see a lot of people getting hung up, understandably so. The easiest route would be to ask a sourdough-baking friend for some of their established starter. (I’ll totally be that friend if you’re local!) Don’t be shy, even if you have to ask for a replacement. Sourdough bakers are always in a good supply of starter and happy to share! If you are set on making your own, I have a post walking you through that here. Keep in mind that it can take some time for a new starter to get established. New, young starters can be a bit unruly and unpredictable until properly trained. So if you’re going that route, keep at it, keep feeding. I promise it will level out eventually and you’ll be left with a nice dependable, predictable starter.

Why does my starter have a layer of liquid on top?

A layer of liquid on top of your starter (sometimes called “hooch”) usually means your starter is hungry. But it’s no cause for alarm. If it has been sitting in your fridge or on your counter for an extended period of time without feeding, this liquid is its way of showing you that it has consumed all the fresh flour and water from the last feeding and is ready for more.

Sometimes people will see this happening when making a new starter. If this is happening to you, I would first suggest trying to feed your starter a bit more dry, meaning you’ll use slightly more flour than water. I usually suggest a 1:1 ratio, but you might try adding just a bit more flour in this case. The next thing I would suggest is to try switching out your flour for something just a little higher quality. I don’t think you need expensive, fancy flour to make good bread. But if you’re struggling with your starter or bread dough, you might consider your flour choice.

You’ll want to look for something unbleached no matter what. Bleached flour is pretty lifeless and is going to make it pretty difficult for any of those good yeasts to grow and colonize your starter. Freshness is also key. The very best option would be to grind your own flour, as it would be optimally fresh. The wild yeast LOVE fresh flour and your starter will go crazy for it. But if that is not an option, try to find something more local to you, something that is less likely to have sat for months on the grocery store shelves and in transit. I use Wheat Montana all-purpose flour and Bronze Chief whole wheat flour when baking, and would highly recommend it. The better and fresher your flour is, the more active your starter will be.

Has my starter gone bad?

If your starter has a layer of liquid like I previously described, it has not gone bad. Even if that liquid has a grey tint to it, you are probably in the clear. Just pour off the liquid or stir it in if it’s clear, and go on discarding and feeding as usual. If you notice visible mold or orange or pink streaks in your starter, its time to throw it out. If you keep your starter refrigerated when not in use, this shouldn’t be a problem. As with any fermentation projects, trust your nose. Your starter should smell sour, sharp, sweet, even fruity. If it has been sitting a while it may even start to smell alcoholic, vinegary, or slightly like acetone. But it should NOT smell off-putting or rancid. If it does, trust your nose and throw it out.

What is the difference between sourdough discard and starter?

Sourdough discard, starter, and leaven are all really just different names for the same things. There is not anything different in the ingredients, or often even the hydration percentage, or ratio of flour to water. The difference lies in the stage the starter is at in the fermentation process.

The starter is- you guessed it- what you start with. If you are still in the process of making your starter, this is what you are discarding and feeding. If you have an established starter, this is what you pull out of your fridge to feed when you’re getting ready to bake.

You use your starter to make a leaven. Leaven is still essentially just starter, but it’s fed at a strategic time so that it is at it’s peak state when you want to mix your dough for baking. Leaven that is ready for baking is bubbly, light, airy, and floats in water. In my recipe, I take 1 TBS starter directly from my jar in the fridge and feed it 200g all-purpose flour and 200g warm water. I let this rise 8-10 hours, usually overnight, and in the morning I have my leaven, ready to use for baking.

Discard, again is just what it sounds like. It is the starter at any stage that is not used. Here’s how it works in my kitchen. When I have added my leaven to my bread dough, I take the excess and put it in the fridge, in the same jar that I started from when making my leaven. Thus, the discard becomes the starter and the process repeats itself. I draw from this jar each time I make a new leaven and when making recipes that call for sourdough discard. Just be sure to always leave at least a tablespoon behind so that you can make more!

What can I do with sourdough discard?

If you bake even somewhat frequently, you’ll end up with an abundance of discard. There are so many different things you can make with this discard, none of it needs to go to waste! Just keep that starter/discard jar in the fridge (and maybe a backup too) and you’ll always have some to add to your favorite recipes. Here are some of my favorite recipes that use sourdough discard.

Sourdough discard recipes will call for starter, discard, un-fed or fallen starter. This can come straight from your jar in the fridge, or from your leftover leaven that you made. Most of these recipes are going to assume that you are working with a flat, no very active and bubbling starter. But if yours is, like if you’ve just made a leaven and it hasn’t fallen yet, you can still use it. Just keep in mind that it might rise a little faster because you’re starting with something that’s already active.

If a recipe calls for a fed or active starter (like the english muffin recipe above), this is not a true discard recipe. You’ll essentially need to plan ahead to make a leaven just like you would when making a loaf of bread. Most recipes that require an active starter to begin with will include that information in the recipe and instructions.

Also, keep in mind that you can add sourdough to almost any bread recipe with a little trial and error. Starter is half water and half flour. So every cup of starter replaces 1/2 cup of flour and 1/2 cup of liquid in a recipe. I’ve had great success doing this with quick bread and muffin recipes.

How do I know when my starter is ready to bake with?

In short, your starter can be used to bake with as soon as it is rising and falling predictably. There is a huge variation in how long it will take your particular starter to rise to its peak and begin to fall. There are so many factors that will affect this, including but not limited to temperature, maturity of starter, amount fed, and type of flour used. I can’t tell you exactly how long it should take your starter to rise and fall.

If you have made your own starter, I would plan to give it at least a couple of weeks of consistent feedings before it will be predictable. If you can discard and feed around the same time each day, you will more easily be able to gauge if it’s rising and falling predictably or not. Pay attention to your specific starter. If you feed it in the morning, check in on it at that evening. You should definitely see some activity. If you prefer feeding at night, it should have risen by the morning. If it’s taking longer than that, you may want to wait before baking, or try moving it to a warmer spot.

How soon should I feed my starter before baking?

Again, this depends on your confidence in your starter! Mine is several years old at this point, and I use it often enough that I’m not worried about it. Like I said previously, I take my starter directly from the fridge to make my leaven the night before I am going to mix my dough.

If your starter is less dependable, give it an additional feed the day before you want to make your leaven. This will give it a chance to “wake up” a bit and give you the confidence that it is going to work! If it doubles in size in 12 hours or less, you are ready to make your leaven. If it’s looking flat and lifeless, discard and feed until it’s awake and happy again. You can always chance it and make your leaven, but you don’t want to mix up your dough until that leaven is at it’s peak stage. You will just waste your flour and end up with a dense, flat hunk of bread. I’ve been there. As tempting as it can be, don’t rush the process!

I hope this has helped you solve any sourdough starter dilemmas you may be facing, and I’ll be back next week with part two, where we’ll chat about the rest of the process. If you have any unanswered questions, feel free to send me an email or you can find me on Instagram @vine.and.harvest and I’d be happy to help troubleshoot your bread problems! Happy baking!

Until next time,



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