The day my sourdough starter died. I could have also titled this: “How to create a sourdough starter, keep it alive, insure its legacy, and make delicious things with it,” but that seemed too long so . . . Here are my thoughts and advice on homemade sourdough bread.
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If you’ve ever attempted to make sourdough starter from scratch, you know how much love and attention goes into nurturing this tiny life form. You feed it multiple times a day, make sure it doesn’t get too warm or too cold, and protect it from the elements that would kill it.
When you do everything right, you could have a starter that you pass from generation to generation, making delicious breads, pizza crusts, and waffles with natural yeast and an air of history. And if you mess up, like I did, you might have a mini emotional breakdown when your starter develops mold out of nowhere and say an internal prayer that your mom (who you gave some of your starter to months ago) has managed to keep her baby alive. (Thank goodness, she did, and my starter from pre-COVID lives on.)
So while I wait for my sourdough starter’s grandchild to arrive, I am beginning to cultivate my sourdough 2.0 because I can’t fathom ever being in this position again. No starter to make this crusty, delicious no-knead bread from Feasting at Home! Unthinkable.
As you can see in the background of some of my photos, homemade sourdough bread is a staple in our household. For breakfast, it is the base for avocado toast, peanut butter and bananas, or a delicious runny egg. For lunch or dinner, it transforms into the best grilled cheese sandwich or the perfect sidecar to a hearty bowl of soup, like this Instant Pot Loaded Potato Soup.
Making Sourdough Starter
While it may look intimidating, making your own sourdough starter is actually quite simple. All you need is flour, water, and some patience. Here’s a great guide from The Clever Carrot to get you started. The basics are to combine an equal amount (by weight) of flour and water in a container, let it ferment for a couple days, and then “feed” it once it becomes active. (You will have to dispose of some of the starter as you go, so you don’t end up with a monstrous starter.)
I currently use a medium-sized mason jar to store my sourdough starter and a metal spoon to stir. I’ve heard that this prevents contamination. I use all-purpose flour for my starter and approximately half and half of all-purpose and bread flour for actual baking.
How to Care for Your Sourdough Starter
How you care for your sourdough starter will depend entirely on how you’re storing it. If you store it in a warm place, you will have to discard and feed much more often. I don’t recommend this method unless you are baking daily or in the “making sourdough starter” stage.
Feeding Your Sourdough Starter
Personally, I store my sourdough starter in the fridge and take it out once a week to use. I take it out approximately 24 hours before I want to eat my bread. So, for example, I typically remove it from the fridge in the morning, and it starts to activate and get bubbly as it warms. I then mix up a loaf of no-knead homemade sourdough bread using the active starter before I go to bed that night. I feed the starter and stick it back in the fridge. If it’s not smelling sour enough for my tastes, I let it sit out for a couple hours before returning it to the fridge.
If you’re someone who plans to bake daily or wants to try some of the many sourdough discard recipes, storing it on the counter and feeding it every 12 hours might work for you. You can also freeze starter for longer-term storage, but more on that in the next section.
Regardless of how you store it, the equation is the same for feeding your sourdough starter: equal parts (by weight–make sure you use a scale, like this one) water and flour (you can use bread flour or all-purpose), every 12 hours if stored on the counter and once a week if stored in the fridge.
Storage Containers for Your Sourdough Starter
This was something that tripped me up more than I’d care to admit: how the heck to store your starter. Over the past few years I’ve tried a glass-topped jar with a wide mouth (too messy with its rubber seal), a wide-mouthed jar with paper towel rubber-banded on the top (I think this is how mold go into it!), and most recently: a large Ball jar with its lid loosely screwed on. It prevents any contaminants from getting in, and it allows it to breathe. (Just be careful that you don’t close it tightly.)
There are many options out there for storage though, so don’t feel like you need to do what I’m doing. As long as it’s a non-porous, food-safe container with a secure covering, you should be good. You can select a cute container from The Container Store, or use an old spaghetti sauce jar. Just remember to wash and sanitize (with boiling water) first.
One thing I will recommend, however, is that you select a jar with a wide mouth. While you certainly can use any jar that you like, a wide mouth will make your life easier and less messy.
Different Preservation Methods (AKA Sourdough Starter Insurance)
Don’t make my mistake and put all your eggs in one basket! (Or homemade sourdough starter in one container.) If your starter turns out well, consider storing or gifting a backup. It has been my experience that not all sourdough starters will smell or taste the same, so if you like the one you create, preserve it.
When your sourdough starter is active (usually 4-6 hours after you’ve fed it), remove a little bit more than you’d use for a typical recipe. (I use 90 grams for the loaf I make, so I froze 100 grams.) Spoon it into either a freezer-safe container or a freezer bag. Label it with the date, and it should be good up to 12 months. When and if you decide to use it, you will need to let it thaw and bring it back to life with a few feedings. It could take a few days or longer. Here’s a handy guide for the process.
If you want an even longer-term backup solution, drying your sourdough starter may just be it. It doesn’t require any special tools (although a dehydrator might make it easier). You just need a pan, something to line it with, your starter, and some time. You’ll want to spread a thin layer of your sourdough starter on a parchment-lined sheet pan and let it dry completely. (I stuck mine in the oven, and it was dry in approximately 12 hours. It may take more or less time for you, depending on a lot of factors.) Once it’s dry, it should crumble like crackers. Break it up and store it in an airtight container (I use mason jars) in a cool, dark place. You can also pulverize it if you want it to be more compact.
With this method, your homemade sourdough starter should live on indefinitely. When it comes time to revive it, you’ll simply rehydrate it and begin feeding. As with the freezing method, however, it may take a few days or longer to resuscitate. Here’s the guide I followed.
This last option is the simplest and best, in my opinion. If you have a friend or family member who has wanted to dive into the wonderful world of sourdough baking, this is an amazing gift. Feed your sourdough starter and once it’s nice and bubbly, scoop some into a nice jar. Wrap a ribbon around it, write down some basic instructions (or send them this post), and gift it to your baking buddy. Everybody is happy, and you have one more backup to ensure many, many years of delicious sourdough bread.
My Favorite Sourdough Recipes
I’m not exaggerating when I say I make this all. the. time. It graces our kitchen at least once a week. I follow the recipe exactly as is, with the exception of the flour choice; I usually use half unbleached all-purpose flour and half bread flour, but sometimes I use all of one or the other, depending on what I have on hand. It always comes out fantastic, regardless.
This is a great way to use up some sourdough discard, or just a delicious option, period. As you may have noticed, we love homemade pizza here (like this Pesto and Roasted Tomato Pizza). And while I typically use either the Franny’s pizza dough recipe or this quick recipe from Sugar Spun Run, if I want something tangy, this sourdough pizza crust recipe is a hit.
I recently stopped buying sandwich bread. That was partially due to the fact that we don’t eat a ton of sandwiches and partially because the kind we like shot up in price. So when I know we’re going to be eating sandwiches, I’ll make a couple of these sourdough sandwich loaves and stick one in the freezer for future use. It slices really well and is absolutely delicious.