Sam Fromartz' Honey Sourdough Starter

May 11, 2016
6 Ratings
Photo by Sam Fromartz
  • Makes 1 happy sourdough starter
Author Notes

To make a sourdough starter, you should realize you are a farmer, not a cook! You are creating the conditions for your microscopic animals to live happily. If you keep that in mind, the process will go a little smoother. I use organic whole rye flour because it’s an especially active medium for fermentation. It has higher levels of sugar than wheat to feed wild yeasts; it also has more amylase enzymes to break down starch and create yet even more sources of sugar for these tiny organisms.

I also use raw (unpasteurized) honey, as a nod to Pliny the Elder from the 1st Century, who mentions it while writing about bakers and sourdough fermentation in the Roman Empire, and because it’s the most concentrated source of natural sugar found in nature. Plus, raw honey contains wild yeast. One word of warning: Avoid glass jars, unless you cover them loosely. If sealed, they can explode while fermenting.

Excerpted from In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey (Viking, 2014). Reprinted with permission. For more of Sam Fromartz' writing, click here. —Sam Fromartz

What You'll Need
  • Tools
  • 8- or 16-ounce plastic or ceramic container with lid
  • Spoon
  • Starter
  • Organic whole rye flour
  • Raw honey
  • Filtered or spring water (so bacteria-killing chlorine is removed)
  1. Mix 3 tablespoons (30 grams) lukewarm water (about 80 to 90˚F) with 1 teaspoon raw honey. Add 3 tablespoons (20 grams) rye flour and let this sit in a covered container for 1 to 2 days. The amount of time depends on the ambient temperature. If your kitchen is cool, the organisms will be less active and you’ll need more time. Ideally keep it at around 75˚F (24˚C). An oven with the lights or pilot light on works well.
  2. If you can maintain an ambient temperature of 75°F (24˚C), this first phase will probably take a day, which would be the case on your kitchen counter in the summer. If you simply ferment it in a cold kitchen in winter, it will likely take two days. When you pass by the starter, give it a mix with a spoon every now and again: your animals like oxygen in the initial stages. If they are happy, you will begin to see tiny bubbles forming on the surface of the starter as the organisms belch out carbon dioxide. This should occur after one or two days.
  3. At this point, add 3 tablespoons of rye flour, 3 tablespoon of water around 75˚F (24˚C), and 1 teaspoon honey. Let it sit for 24 hours. Stir occasionally.
  4. Discard half the starter. Add 3 tablespoons of rye, 3 tablespoons of water, and 1 teaspoon honey.
  5. Repeat this last step every 24 hours until the starter is bubbly and begins to rise noticeably. Once that happens, usually by day 5 or 6, you can stop adding the honey. The starter may weaken at that point (you’ve removed its sugar fix, after all) but proceed anyway. It will come alive again. When the mixture doubles in volume within 12 hours, you can think about making bread.
  6. Here’s the test to see if the starter is ready, after it has risen: carefully remove a bit of it (a tablespoon will do) and place it in bowl of warm water. If it floats to the surface within a couple of minutes, you’ve got an active starter.
  7. This whole process may take a week or more, especially in the winter. With my kitchen hovering around 65˚F (18˚C), it took me two weeks to achieve a predictable starter, with feedings every one to two days. Once the starter is bubbly and active, you can switch to whole wheat flour, or a mixture of equal parts white and whole wheat flour, in place of the rye. You can also increase the volume by using, say, 20 grams of the mature starter and then feeding it with 100 grams flour and 100 grams water.
  8. TROUBLESHOOTING: You may start out and get bubbles, but by day two or three it just looks dead. You have a few options:
  9. First, keep going, and eventually the yeast and bacteria will re-appear and the starter will rise. An active, robust culture is nearly impossible to kill, even if you do leave it around on the kitchen counter for a few days. So if you forget it feed it for a couple of days, don’t throw it out—just soldier on and see what happens.
  10. Second, you can replace the water with pineapple or apple juice to raise the acidity level, which creates a favorable environment for wild yeast.
  11. Third, start over. If you do decide to start over, try to acidify the starter by using juice in place of water or a pinch of vitamin C powder with the water for the first three days.
  12. Fourth, use a pinch of commercial yeast (really, just a pinch between your thumb and forefinger) to jump start your sourdough. Although it may feel like “cheating,” there’s really nothing wrong with this method. Once your starter becomes sufficiently acidic over time, the wild yeast and bacteria will outcompete the store-bought yeast and your starter will be much the same as if you started out without it.
  13. If all else fails, here is a guaranteed method: Ask for a knob of starter from a friend or local artisan baker (it helps to mention how wonderful their breads are). You may also get a few tips along the way. Feed it once or twice daily by taking 20 grams of the starter and adding 100 grams flour and 100 grams water and leaving it, ideally, at around 75˚F (24˚C) for about 6 to 8 hours. Refrigerate it an hour or two after feeding if you’re not going to use it within the next day. If kept in the refrigerator for a week or longer, refresh it at least once before using it to rise bread. I often refresh it twice, just to ensure it’s sufficiently strong.
  14. VARIATIONS: I tend to reuse a very small portion of my existing starter when it’s feeding time. I use 20 grams existing starter, 100 grams flour, and 75 grams water. This makes a stiff starter which rises slowly, especially in the winter. After eight hours it can be used, and will tend to have a very mild lactic acid taste.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Paula de la Cruz
    Paula de la Cruz
  • Sue
  • Jared Kent
    Jared Kent
  • Simon Bogaert Lindquist
    Simon Bogaert Lindquist
  • Sam Fromartz
    Sam Fromartz

19 Reviews

Ellen April 17, 2020
I have to use this with King Arthurs Bread Flour. I do not have Rye Flour but I have to buy that online since the Grocery Store does not stock it. I used to bake Bread every day when I was married but stopped because I made 3 Day Country French Rounds and I could not eat that all by myself. I will let you know how it turns out.
Paula D. April 2, 2020

I am on day 6 and just tiny bubbles but not much else....I'm stuck on step 4, do I continue to discard half, every time I add rye flour and honey and water? First time making a starter, I think the problem is that at night the kitchen is cold.
Simon B. April 12, 2020
That was always my issue, our house is chilly. I put mine above our wood stove and finally got a starter going.
nwalters714 March 23, 2020
Today was the first day I removed the honey, so it hasn't had sugar for over 30 hours and it has been bubbling over. Is it ready to go or should I keep feeding it for a few more days without the honey?
Also, when it is ready, how do I store it and keep it going?
pearse January 14, 2020
I am very much a newbie and couldn't understand bread making. I am reading a lot of lately . Your recipe seem to make sense .
Can I substitute all purpose flour for rye? Or Indian atta . Those are the 2 flour I have
Thank you !!
Sam F. January 15, 2020
Atta flour should work but ideally you want 100% whole grain flour. Atta as I recall is very fine and not 100% whole grain but perhaps I'm wrong. The whole grains contain minerals and other substances that really activate sourdough starter. It can be done with AP flour, but I think its quicker/easier with whole grain flour, especially rye.
Sue October 8, 2018
Late to the game....I want to try this recipe out. Once the starter has been established, should I store it in the refrigerator for future use? Or can it be left out indefinitely?
Nickole September 10, 2018
I just began my new start this weekend. Im on step 3-4. I woke up this morning and the start has exploded over the jar I’m using. It’s an 8oz jar. I put a paper towel over the top and screwed on the band so it wouldn’t fall off.
Did I do it wrong? Should it be so vigorous already?
Sam F. September 10, 2018
Vigorous is not wrong. Once you remove the honey it may calm down, even stall out. Keep on a regular feeding schedule regardless.
laurie January 5, 2018
sorry new to me once I grow my starter than how do I use it? Do I just use the starter as my dough?
Sam F. January 5, 2018
No, you add it to your dough instead of using store-bought yeast. You can try googling a sourdough bread recipe, or look at those on or other bread sites. I have several recipes in my book too, see
Jared K. October 1, 2016
Mine skyrocketed in size, height, and bubbles just on day 2 with the second addition (just 12 hours later). Should I jump ahead and move to the no honey stage. Or even the bread making stage?

Since this is a 5 month old article. I guess I'll start with removing the honey.
Sam F. October 3, 2016
Yeah, you can start removing the honey (which you probably have now done). The starter will appear weaker initially but then will come roaring back. Let me know how it goes.
Jared K. October 5, 2016
Removed the honey that day, 3 days went by and I no longer saw any rise, a couple medium sized bubbles on the surface, but no bubbles along the sides of my container. I added a half teaspoon of honey back into my starter last night and 24 hours later I'm seeing the same result as the past couple of days. No rise, very few bubbles.

What are the thoughts on troubleshooting? Start over and keep the honey going longer? Keep going and see what happens?
Jared K. October 6, 2016
Mold on top lid. Starting from scratch.
Sam F. November 4, 2016
Jared, sorry just seeing this now. How did it fare? And what was the temp? You don't want it too cool (78-80 is the sweet spot). Also, you just want to keep feeding it on the same 24 schedule even if you see no perceptible movement. It will come back.
dj January 2, 2018
you can store in the frig. just take out 24 hours before using. you don't have to stir as often or feed as often. when you do feed let it set out for 12 hours then place back into the frig
dj January 2, 2018
do not use honey. use sugar
Sam F. January 5, 2018
honey has wild yeast in it, sugar does not, but it will work.