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Sourdough Starter from Scratch: Capturing the Wild Yeast


This is the time of year when I can look forward to baking again soon.  I don't bake much in the summer because it makes the house too hot, and I am limited to an itty bitty outdoor toaster oven.  Not so good for fussing over bread loaves.  So the cooler weather encouraged me to get a sourdough starter going, to be ready for the bread baking season to come.

Every few years I experiment with making a starter from scratch - catching the wild yeast and making it grow.  I have had some successes and some failures, but this time I have a very active culture.  Here is how I did it.

making a sourdough starter from scratch


To make a sourdough mother, you need:

  • Clean glass or enamel bowl
  • Clean spoon
  • Clean distowel
  • 2 cups good quality white flour (I use King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour)
  • 1 1/2 cups good water (I use well water, but you could use distilled water or purified bottled water - you don't want to use water that has been chlorinated, like what we call "city water."  If you wouldn't put it in your fishtank, don't put it in your starter.)
  • a couple of cups more flour and water on hand to feed the starter for the first week

On Day 1, you will mix your 2 cups flour and 1 1/2 cups water in the bowl, with the spoon, and cover with the dishtowel.  Leave it out on the counter in the kitchen.  That is all.  Seems simple, but you have just laid a Cunning Trap for some wild yeast.  If there is any wild yeast floating around in your kitchen (and there probably is), it will begin to grow in your yeast trap, also known as your bread and water mixture.  It may take a couple of days to show itself, or you may get lucky, like I did this time, and you may get a yeast culture growing rapidly right away.  In the picture above, the "mother" (in sourdough circles we call it a "mother" and refer to it as a "her," now that you are making your own, you can do the same) is only 12 hours old, but you can see the bubbling that indicates the yeast is growing, feeding and respiring.  Those bubbles are what make your bread rise.

On Day 2, you will feed "her" 1/3 cup flour and 1/4 cup water.  As shown above, this is a simple process of dump and stir.  You won't get her perfectly smooth, just a few swipes with a clean spoon to incorporate the flour and water is good enough; the yeast will do the rest.  If you see a clear fluid on top of the mother when you check it, that is fine, just stir it back in when you feed her.  The fluid is alcohol which is a result of the metabolism of yeast (wine or beer, anyone?) and acts as a natural preservative for your starter and adds flavor to your bread.

On Day 3, do the same.  Keep on doing this until you have reached Day 7.  At this point, you should use or discard some of the starter, and refrigerate the mother in a glass container (I am using a mason jar).

**I decided to refrigerate my starter on Day 3, due to its very active nature and the fact that it was already getting very flavorful/sour.  Use your own judgement, these are guidelines, not rules!

IF you see any kind of mold or pinkish fluid on your starter - it is no good!  Throw it out at once!  The lovely trap of flour and water is desirable to many microorganisms, but the only one that we want to catch is the wild bread yeast.  You may unwittingly catch some other kind.  Just throw it out and try again with fresh and very clean bowl, spoon, and towel.

Wild Sourdough Starter Links

Here are some good resources for reading about making a starter from scratch, but I encourage you to go ahead and try it.  You can read and read about this kind of process, and look at various methods and ingredients, but in the end, you just have to try it for yourself.

My guidelines above are based on the instructions found at "Bread the Mary Jane Way."  I love how her site expresses the joy of making an elemental baking substance out of thin air, as it were!

My first experience with setting a Cunning Trap for the wild yeast living in my house came from the encouragement found in my dear old battered King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary Cookbook.  They have quite a bit of that book online and here is the part about the starter.

There are very detailed instructions and lots of pictures here on the Wild Yeast Blog.

Soon I will tell you what to do with that starter once you have made it...

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Posted by on January 08, 2013 at 10:53 PM CST #

When can I actually start baking from this? It's doubled in size on day 3 and technically since I've started it in an afternoon it's about 2 full days old and a few hours.

Posted by Robert on March 11, 2013 at 03:40 PM CDT #

Robert - you could try it as soon as you felt like it was really going well... but most sources say to wait until the culture doubles itself in 8 hours or less, which usually takes 5-7 days. After a few days, the flavor really starts to develop. If you try it early, you may want to try with a recipe that also includes some dry yeast, so that if your starter is not yet fully charged, your dough will still rise. Above all, just ENJOY!

Posted by Georgiaberry/Sunshine for Dinner on March 11, 2013 at 05:23 PM CDT #

Hey - I'm going to start make sour dough starter.

1) WHY would I have wild yeast floating around in my kitchen air?


2) Is it possible (or even advisable) to take a bowl of starter and leave it out in a field to capture wild yeast?


Posted by Mark Faby on March 17, 2013 at 12:30 PM CDT #

And these:

1) Sorry for the above typo


2) Why a glass bowl for the starter? All the articles I've read say that plastic is fine and almost advisable.


Posted by Mark Faby on March 17, 2013 at 12:32 PM CDT #

Mark - there is wild yeast floating around everywhere, just as part of the natural environment. Yeast grows on plants and on animals, it is part of the many thousands of kinds of microorganisms that live on our skin. From what I understand, different regions and climates have different natural yeast populations, just like they have different plant and animal populations. This is why the traditional breads of an area taste a certain way - the bread of San Francisco tastes different than the bread of New Orleans. I read in the King Arthur Cookbook, I believe, that you can get a San Francisco sourdough starter and bring it to another part of the country, and for a while you will have the bread with that distinctive taste, but as you keep the starter in your own climate longer and longer, the native yeasts will eventually get into it and become dominant and the taste will change.

Posted by Georgiaberry/Sunshine for Dinner on March 19, 2013 at 07:22 AM CDT #

So, anyway, that is why you have natural yeast in your kitchen. If you cook with yeast a lot - making bread, perhaps, you may have some of that yeast living in your kitchen as well. Your kitchen is a very good place to make a starter and "catch" a yeast colony. A field would be fine, I guess, and if you did not succeed in the kitchen you could try it, but I don't think it will be necessary.

Posted by Georgiaberry/Sunshine for Dinner on March 19, 2013 at 07:23 AM CDT #

As to the glass bowl, well all the resources say to use one LOL. And there is probably a good reason - the sourdough culture is very acidic, a metal bowl could react and give 'off' flavors and discoloration to the culture. Plastic bowls actually can harbor microorganisms - when you stir or wash a plastic bowl you make tiny scratches on its surface, and substances can remain in those scratches. That is why if you are brewing wine or beer in a plastic 5 gallon bucket they tell you to use a new bucket each time - to avoid contamination with anything that might be living in the tiny microclimate of the scratched plastic. It is the same thing with the plastic bowl and the sourdough culture. While just mixing in a plastic bowl won't grow any weird bacteria, leaving a culture with food and heat for days and weeks certainly might. So that is why glass is recommended.

Posted by Georgiaberry/Sunshine for Dinner on March 19, 2013 at 07:24 AM CDT #

I hope that answers some of your questions and that you do try to make the culture. Let us know how it turns out :)

Sorry I had to answer with so many posts - the Local Harvest blog system kept tagging my own posts as spam LOL because it was too long...


Posted by Georgiaberry/Sunshine for Dinner on March 19, 2013 at 07:25 AM CDT #

I was wondering if you seal the container once your starter is stored in the fridge. I assume so, but does that affect the mixture's ability to grow/keep capturing yeast? And if not, is it possible to start the mixture in a covered container in the first week? My husband and I have had some failed starters because our climate is so dry and the flour mixture quickly starts turning to cement. I'm wondering if I can just add water when I feed it (or use a higher ratio of water to flour to start?).

Thank you for your instructions and information.

Posted by Maggie on June 14, 2013 at 11:25 PM CDT #

Hi, Maggie. I do seal the container in the fridge, and it does not affect the mixture then because the yeast I want has already been captured. Now I am just maintaining the culture.

I know what you mean by the cement-like mixture, as when it dries it is very hard. I think it would be fine to add a bit of water each day when you feed and stir the culture. You could start with a couple of tablespoons and see if that helps. And you can cover with a damp dishtowel, as well, and maybe that will help keep it from drying out quite as fast.

It would also be fine, I would guess, to start with 1/2 c or so more water in the beginning. I hope it works for you!

Posted by Georgiaberry/Sunshine for Dinner on June 15, 2013 at 03:14 PM CDT #

Using a metal spoon? I thought that all metal was forbidden with sourdough.

Posted by Brian on September 02, 2013 at 05:20 PM CDT #

Posted by on November 17, 2013 at 10:36 PM CST #


I'm just wondering how much of the starter should be use when making a loaf?



Posted by Steven Lewis on August 13, 2014 at 06:17 PM CDT #

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