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I love baking bread, but I avoided keeping a starter for years because it seemed like too much commitment. The recipes in my bread books looked long and daunting: There was a lot of talk about things like temperature and hydration and ash content, and I imagined a strict feeding schedule that would require me to get up at a reasonable hour on the weekends. I was certain that even if I could keep a fledgling starter alive for longer than a week, I wouldn’t be able to make good bread with it because I could never be devoted enough.
The truth is, while you certainly can dive very deep into the world of sourdough if you want to, you can also put in minimal effort and still reap the rewards: a tasty, made-with-your-own-two-hands loaf of crusty bread. It doesn’t need to have a perfect crumb or the exact right balance of lactic to acetic acid to be better—and cheaper, and fresher, and more satisfying—than anything you can buy in a store.
And, as I’ve discovered, keeping a starter alive is much less burdensome than many people would have you believe. Take five minutes to feed it once a day and you’ll have a little pet that you can use to make bread whenever you want (mine’s named Sir Mixalot). But you can also stick it in the fridge and feed it only once a week (or even less—I’ve forgotten about mine for weeks at a time) and it will be fine.
To get yours going:
- Start with 1 cup whole wheat or whole rye flour, which have more microorganisms and nutrients to contribute than the all-purpose stuff.
- Mix with ½ cup non-chlorinated water (filtered or bottled is ideal—chlorine kills things, and we don’t want that) in a food-safe container (bigger is better, so it has room to expand).
- Loosely cover it, and set it in a warmish spot (if your home is on the cool side, try the top of the fridge).
- Roughly 24 hours later, it’s time for the first feeding: Discard about half your starter and add 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour and ½ cup water, then mix.
Discarding half the starter might seem wasteful, but it’ll help keep the mix healthy and provide fresh food for all those little yeasties—and keep the thing from taking over your whole kitchen. (What to do with the discard? Compost it, or use it in pancakes, waffles, or pizza dough—try searching for recipes that use leftover starter.)
Continue this five-minute ritual of discarding and feeding every morning (or every evening, if you prefer), and by the third or fourth day, you’ll probably see some bubbles and growth. If nothing is happening, try a warmer spot for a day or two. If it’s still not showing any activity after five days, try starting over with different flour. Think of it as a plant—you may need to experiment a bit to find the environment it’s happiest in.
Once your starter is bubbling and rising after feedings, if you’re ready to bake some bread with it, up your feedings to twice a day for a couple days. Or, if you want to store it for future usage, transfer it to the fridge and drop the feedings to once a week. A couple days before you want to use it for baking, take it out and go back to daily or twice-daily feedings.
With a healthy starter going, the world is your bread basket. Use it to make dinner rolls, cherry hazelnut bread, cardamom buns, and even croissants. Or just stick with a simple loaf of bread—it’s up to you.
- 1 cup fed starter
- 1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
- 5 cups all-purpose flour, divided
- 2 1/2 teaspoons salt
Have you tried making a sourdough starter from scratch? Share your experience—and maybe some of your favorite starter recipes!—in the comments.