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sourdough beginners guide

Welcome to the slow, magical, and rewarding world of sourdough! We’re here to help you make naturally fermented bread from scratch, and of course learn how to incorporate sprouted grains.

If you’re new to sourdough, you’re in the right place. This post will walk you through how to build and maintain a sourdough starter, some background and baker’s lingo, and our favourite basic sprouted sourdough recipe. 

Before You Start

What is Sourdough?

Sourdough may be trendy now, but it’s actually so ancient that no one knows its origin. It’s known worldwide for its tangy flavour, digestive benefits and long shelf life.

At its most basic, sourdough has only three ingredients – flour, water and salt. By simply combining flour and water and giving it lots of time to ferment, it captures wild yeast and friendly bacteria. This is used to leaven bread without the need for commercial yeast, which is why it’s known as natural fermentation.

Sourdough starter is a community of living organisms that must be nurtured and can adapt to their environment. This means that your starter will be unique to you, many people even name it like a pet. Starters can be passed down through generations and live for thousands of years.

There is no “right” way to make sourdough. As you can imagine, over millennia people have developed many different methods, and starting out the choices can be overwhelming. With this guide, we are simply giving you one way of achieving naturally fermented bread, feel free to adapt it to a process that works for you.

Sourdough also takes patience and intuition. Explore, make mistakes and don’t get discouraged. If you ask any experienced sourdough baker, they’ll tell you that every loaf is an opportunity to learn.

In this Guide

Why Sourdough?

Like sprouting, sourdough is an ancient method of grain preparation that many people lost touch with as they opted for quick commercial breads. But bakers have been using sourdough for most of human history, and many people are now reconnecting with slower, traditional ways of eating.

During fermentation, dense proteins and complex starches are pre-digested, resulting in bread that many people find gentler on their digestive system. It also improves texture, shelf life, and produces more complex flavours. 

Do these benefits sound familiar? Sourdough has many of the same benefits as sprouting, so putting them together yields a delicious, highly digestible loaf. 

How does Sourdough Work?

Wild yeast and bacteria are all around us in the air, on surfaces and naturally on grains. When water and flour ferment, wild yeasts and bacterias consume sugars and convert them to lactic and acetic acids. These acids give sourdough its signature tangy flavour, control fermentation and produce carbon dioxide. Different varieties of bacteria and yeast can create distinct flavours, which is why starters made in different regions will be unique. If you move a starter, eventually the varieties in the new environment will take over. 

We develop gluten in breads so that it is strong enough to capture the carbon dioxide bubbles, causing the bread to rise. Gluten is made up of two proteins: glutenin makes the dough stretchy (extensible) and gliadin allows the bread to hold its shape (think of a rubber band snapping back). Kneading or folding the dough aligns these two proteins into web. If the gluten isn’t strong enough, the air bubbles will collapse and you’d end up with a dense, gummy brick.  

You don’t need to understand the science to make great sourdough, people made bread this way for thousands of years before science could explain it. Some bakers dive into the chemistry to change the flavour and texture of their bread, while others work off experience and intuition. Sourdough is both a science and an art. 

Baker's math

There are often percentages next to the ingredients in sourdough recipes, these are baker’s math. The percentages calculate each ingredient in relation to flour, which is always 100%. To do this, the weight of each ingredient is divided by the weight of the flour.

For example, if a recipe uses 1000g of flour and 700g of water, 700 ÷ 1000 = 0.7 or 70% water. Or, if you have 1000g of flour and want 70% hydration (water), 1000 x 0.7 = 700g of water. If you use more than one kind of flour, the combined flour will equal 100%.

Here’s an example of a recipe:
Wheat Flour 900g 90%
Rye Flour 100g 10%
Water 700g 70%
Salt 20g 2%
Starter 200g 20%

Why does this matter? When you understand the ingredients in relation to each other, you can predict how a dough may turn out (soft, crusty, rustic, mild, very sour etc.). Baker’s math allows you to easily scale a recipe up or down, and it can also help you adjust or develop your own recipes.

Still with us? Don’t worry, there isn’t a quiz later. Baker’s math will start to make more sense once you’ve made a few loaves.

Building a starter

All sourdough begins with a pre-ferment – a portion of dough that’s made ahead of time. You may hear different names like levain, sponge, or mother, but we’ll call it a starter. All you need is flour, water, and a bit of patience. There are many kinds of starters, but for now we’ll focus on the most common: equal parts flour and water (also called 100% hydration starter).

Starting from scratch, your starter should be ready in about 7 days, depending on your environment. If your home is warm it may be faster, cold environments can take up to a few weeks. Once it’s ready to use, it can be maintained indefinitely with very little effort.

“Feeding” a sourdough starter simply means mixing in fresh flour and water. While you’re establishing a starter, you’ll be feeding it daily at a 1:1:1 ratio. That is, one part starter, one part flour and one part water (by weight). In order to keep a manageable amount of starter we “discard”, where you remove some starter that’s no longer needed. This doesn’t need to be literally discarded, we like to collect it in a separate container and store it in the fridge. It’s perfect for adding flavour to recipes that use other leavening (like baking soda) including pancakes, muffins, biscuits and more! Discard is also a great way to share your starter with a friend.

Equipment

  • Clear container, jar or bowl — Your starter will double (or more) in size, so leave lots of extra space, no one wants a starter volcano!
  • Kitchen scale (or measuring cups) — a scale is recommended for accuracy
  • Spoon, fork or small spatula to stir
  • Elastic band — an easy way mark how much the starter has risen

Note: to grow a colony of good bacteria and not the kinds that cause mold, make sure your tools are sanitized with boiling water or in a dishwasher.

Ingredients

  • Unbleached bread flour (we prefer organic)
  • Whole wheat, sprouted wheat or sprouted rye flour — higher in nutrients to give your starter an initial boost
  • Water — chlorine can interfere with fermentation so bottled/filtered water or leaving a jug of tap water out overnight is your safest bet

Day 1

50g (about 1/2 cup) bread flour
50g (about 1/2 cup) whole wheat/sprouted flour
100g (about 1/2 cup) room temperature water

Combine flours and water in a container and mix into a smooth paste (be sure there is no dry flour left). You’re looking for a thick pancake batter consistency, depending on your flour you may need an extra splash of water to achieve this. Cover loosely and allow it to sit at warm room temperature for 24 hours.

A coffee filter or a scrap of fabric secured with an elastic works well as a breathable lid, but you can also just loosely balance the container lid. A warm spot could be on or near an appliance (top of fridge/stove) for ambient heat, or in the oven with just the light on (if you choose this option, be very careful not to turn the oven on!)

Day 2

100g (about 1/2 cup) starter
50g (about 1/2 cup) bread flour
50g (about 1/2 cup) whole wheat/sprouted flour
100g (about 1/2 cup) room temperature water

Approximately 24 hours later, discard half of the starter. You should be left with 100g. Add flours and water and mix thoroughly. Cover loosely and let it rest for 24 hours.

Day 3

100g (about 1/2 cup) starter
50g (about 1/2 cup) bread flour
50g (about 1/2 cup) whole wheat/sprouted flour
100g (about 1/2 cup) room temperature water

You may start seeing some activity – bubbling, rising or a sour aroma. If not, don’t panic, it could take longer. All starters grow at their own pace. Again, combine starter, flours and water and mix thoroughly. Wrap the elastic band around the jar to mark the level of starter. Cover loosely and let it rest for 24 hours.

Day 4 - 7+

100g (about 1/2 cup) starter
100g (about 1 cup) bread flour
100g (about 1/2 cup) room temperature water

Feed the starter as usual, but increase feedings to every 12 hours (rather than 24). You should start to see lots of activity. Your starter should be bubbly and doubling or even tripling in volume. Although it may look ready to use, you want to keep feeding it until it’s rising and falling predictably.

During this time your starter may also plateau and have noticeably less activity, this is just the yeast and bacteria adjusting and it is completely normal. Keep feeding on schedule and activity will pick back up again.

How to know when your starter is ready

If after 7 days you don’t have consistent activity, don’t panic, starters can take up to a few weeks. Once your starter predictably doubles (or more) every 6 – 8 hours, and has signs of good fermentation like lots of bubbles and a sour aroma, it is time to try your first loaf!

Another good indication that your starter is ready is if it passes a “float test”, but don’t rely on this method alone. Take a spoonful of starter and drop it into some lukewarm water. If it floats, it likely has enough carbon dioxide to leaven dough.

Refreshing & Maintaining your Starter

When you bake, be sure to save approximately 200g of starter to keep for next time. You can save more, but small amounts can spoil more easily, especially if you don’t feed it often.

If you plan to bake several times a week, starter can be left at room temperature and fed every 12-24 hours. When not in use, starter can be stored with and airtight lid in the fridge. A dark liquid may form on top, this is known as hooch and is completely normal, simply stir it back into the mixture. Your starter may also develop a stronger sour aroma, this is also normal. To refresh, feed the starter and leave at room temperature until ready to use.

If left in the fridge for more than a week or two, the yeast and bacteria will have nothing to eat and begin to gradually die off. Unless it shows signs of mold, it is likely still viable, but it will take multiple feedings (every 12 hours) to revive it. The longer it’s neglected, the longer it will take to bring it back.

Glossary

The percentage of water in relation to the flour. Starter or dough with equal weights of flour and water is 100% hydration. The higher the hydration, the more open the crumb will be (larger holes). 

The process of sugars being converted to acids, alcohols and gas. In sourdough, this results in the signature sour flavour and leavening of the dough. Sourdough is referred to as natural fermentation because it doesn’t require the use of commercially manufactured yeast.

Fermentation of sourdough is done in two stages: bulk ferment or first rise usually happens at room temperature or warmer with all the dough together (if making multiple loaves) and the final proof (sometimes referred to as just “proofing”) happens after the dough has been divided and shaped. This can be at room temperature but is often done in the fridge (cold proof) to slow down fermentation and develop more flavour. 

The rate of fermentation can be controlled. The easiest way to do this is with temperature (warmer = faster) but it can also be controlled with the amount of starter used, additives like sugar and fat, and hydration (higher hydration = faster). Most sourdough bakers prefer a slow fermentation to develop the most flavour, and for the digestive benefits.

Feeding your starter simply means adding fresh flour and water to it. When you first start, this is usually done at a 1:1:1 ratio: 1 part starter, 1 part fresh flour, and 1 part water, by weight. Once your starter is established you can have anywhere from 1:1:1 to 1:5:5 ratio, depending on when you want to mix your dough (the higher the ratio, the longer the ferment time). Your starter should be fed 4-12 hours before making your bread dough.

A portion of your starter that is no longer needed. This doesn’t have to be thrown away, you can collect it in a separate container and store it in the fridge. Discard is perfect for adding flavour to recipes that use other leavening (like baking soda) including pancakes, muffins, biscuits, banana bread and more! Discard is also a great way to share your starter with a friend.

A method to determine if your starter had created enough gas to leaven your sourdough. It works by placing a small portion of starter in water to see if it floats.

Gluten is the backbone of bread. It is made up of two proteins: glutenin makes the dough stretchy (extensible) and gliadin allows the bread to hold its shape (elastic). Kneading or folding the dough aligns these two proteins into web. If the gluten isn’t developed enough, the air bubbles will collapse. Gluten can be found in varieties of wheat, spelt, rye and barley.

Gluten free sourdough requires extra ingredients to do gluten’s job, there is no direct replacement. Things like psyllium, flax, starches and gums are often added for structure. 

Anything that causes bread to rise. This can be biological (commercial yeast), chemical (baking soda/powder) or physical (gas/air). 

Confusing, we know. Levian is the French term for a starter. 

Troubleshooting & FAQ

Sprouted starter is possible but sprouted flours have so much enzyme activity that they lose their structural integrity quickly. While the yeast and bacteria are still in there, after a few days your starter won’t have enough structure left to rise. We recommend either using a portion of sprouted flour to give your starter a boost or converting your starter made with bread or whole wheat flour to a sprouted starter for the final feeding before you use it.

You can measure by volume (measuring cups). Scoop the flour into a measuring cup and overfill it. Without packing the flour down, sweep the excess off the top with a straight edge. This method isn’t as accurate as measuring by weight, so make sure you also pay attention to any textures described in the recipe and adjust as needed.

Don’t stress too much, starters are quite resilient! Just continue feeding it at the right ratio and you should begin to see more activity again.

Be patient, some starters take longer than others to develop. The average is about 5-7 days but it can take up to several weeks. If you don’t see any activity at all (bubbles, rising, aroma) within the first 5 days, you may have an issue with your ingredients. If it just needs an extra boost, try adding some whole/sprouted wheat or rye flour.

This dark liquid is called hooch and it’s completely normal. It is a layer of water and alcohol to protect your starter from unwanted organisms. It means your starter is hungry, just stir the liquid back in and feed as usual.

If your starter has been in the fridge and has no visible signs of mold, a foul smell, or pink/reddish discolouration it should still be viable. It will likely take several feedings (every 12 hours) for it to spring back to life, but the longer you left it, the more sluggish it will be. If it has been left for a long time and doesn’t hold sentimental value, it may be just as quick to start over. 

If your starter shows visible signs of mold, has an orange/pink streak or tint, or if it smells off, it’s time to throw it out and start over.

If your starter has small, almost foamy bubbles that means it’s really hungry! If you fed it recently it could mean your starter is consuming the sugars too quickly. Try feeding it at a higher ratio (less starter and more flour and water). 

This is really a personal preference, but most people like to keep it small, a couple tbsp should be sufficient.  

When a starter is left to ferment in an anaerobic environment (with an airtight lid in the fridge) it slows down and produces alcohols. This starter will be very acidic and won’t produce very good bread.

Unfortunately, there is no way to speed up the ripening process of sourdough. Your starter needs to be fed at minimum 4 hours before mixing the dough, but develops the most flavour around 12. However, you do have a few options: use unfed sourdough starter only for flavour and add yeast to leaven the bread, you can delay your baking, or you can make a different recipe that calls for unfed or discard starter.

The sour flavour is more dependent of the fermentation of your bread dough rather than your starter. Try adding less starter and fermenting your dough for a longer time.

How much starter you need varies widely and is based on the bread recipe, size of loaf, how many loaves etc.

The average amount of starter is about 20-30% (baker’s percentage), but some recipes go as low as 15% and up to 100%.

We prefer to weigh but once you are very familiar with the desired consistency, some bakers just mix it up until it feels right. 

Once your starter is established it can be converted to different gluten flours.

Basic Sprouted Sourdough Recipe

This is a classic sourdough loaf with 100% sprouted wheat flour. It’s fermented for 24 hours for a delicious tang and digestibility. If it’s your first time making sprouted sourdough, this is a great step-by-step recipe to get you started. 

Enter your email below to download our FREE sourdough ebook with a printable starter guide and the 100% sprouted sourdough recipe.

We’re here to help with any questions or troubleshooting, leave us a comment and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can. Have tips and tricks to share? We would love to hear those too!

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