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First Sourdough Starter (via Nourishing Traditions Cookbook)

auzeen's picture

First Sourdough Starter (via Nourishing Traditions Cookbook)

Hi all,

I have been roaming around The Fresh Loaf for quite some time now and I have to say I am still very lost when it comes to sourdough starter, so I thought why not make an account and ask for help. I hope my questions/experience does not sound so silly or stupid.

I simply just want to learn how to make my own bread. I am currently making a sourdough starter based out of Nourishing Traditions Cookbook by Sally Fallon. The recipe calls for 2 cups of rye flour and 2 cups of water. It sits in a 6 qt container and every day I transfer it to another 6qt container, while adding 1 cup of water and 1 cup of rye flour. I leave it in room temperature with a thin flour towel covering it. I have repeated this every day for the last 7 days. Almost every day, the top layer of the dough is frothy. The recipe says, "after 7 days, the starter is ready for breadmaking. If not using starter immediately, you may store it in an airtight jar in the refrigerator."

So here are my questions:

1. The consistency is more runnier than I would expect. I don't know why I thought sourdough starters were supposed to be more doughy-like but still wet. What is it supposed to be like? Soupy, thick runny (like a better), or doughy?

2. A lot of other bread recipes call for discarding half of the batch. This book does not mention it. Is it totally awful if I do not discard half the batch? Is my week-long starter a bust?

3. The book says the starter will "develop a wine-like aroma after a few days." It smells more like beer. Is this bad, did it go bad?

4. Say all is fine and the way it should be, from here, as the book states, do I put the starter in the fridge? It's been 7 days but I don't plan on making bread until the weekend (another 4 days). If I do put it in the fridge, do I continue to feed it?


Thank you all for your time! I hope I can get some clarity to what seems to be very difficult for me to understand.

Alanaj81's picture

But what I have learnt so far is: experts feel free to correct me!!

1. The consistency depends on the hydration of your starter (and also the type of flour). I think your using a ratio 2:1:1. That means 2 parts starter to one part each flour & water. That will make a runnier starter. But there is nothing necessarily wrong with that. I currently use a ratio of 1:5:5 (20g starter, 100g water & flour) & use rye flour, which tends to be drier so my starter is probably more like you were expecting - more spongey but still wet. My Plain/rye combo starter is a more liquid consistency despite using the same ratios. I have been told the lower the hydration, the better it goes with refrigeration.  

2. Discarding half is important otherwise you will quickly end up with a starter too big to handle. Just think if you keep adding to it each day or twice a day, it's going to get huge!! So discarding just helps to keep it at a manageable size. However, if you are baking lots every day, it will be practical to keep a large starter but for us home bakers, it's not necessary. Discarding also helps to strengthen up your starter. If you are adding without discarding, you are essentially diluting the yeast population rather than getting it to multiply. 

3. No, a beery smell is fine. That's typically the way yeast smells. Think about is made with yeast so it makes sense. My starter smells like fruity beer. :)

4. Cant help on 4, as I'm still working on strengthening mine up before I put it in the fridge. But if you are baking in 4 days, I'd think there is probably no point, just keep feeding it on the counter & put it in the fridge after you bake & feed it. 

Hopefully someone else can confirm if I have been given the right info but fingers crossed I've helped at least a little. 

wooo00oo's picture

1 is partly incorrect, unfortunately. Assuming your feed's flour:water ratio is consistent, your starter's hydration will converge towards the % water in the feed. Therefore if you have a 100% hydration starter, whether you feed 2:1:1 or 1:1:1 1:5:5, you remain at 100% hydration. A starter fed 2:1:1 infrequently might seem runnier due to starch and gluten degradation instead.


David R's picture
David R

The smell: wine, beer, yeast, vinegar, good fermentation ... All those smells are fine.

Ugly rotting smells or terrible chemical smells are what you don't want.

wally's picture

Typcally, a wheat-based starter is 100% hydration to 100% flour by weight. Rye starters (or sours as they’re called) are more like 100% hydration to 125% rye by weight. However, you indicate you are doing this by cup measure. What you need to be aware of is that 1 cup of water by weight is approximately equivalent to 2 cups flour. So you are going to have a very runny starter that ripens earlier than it should if you keep feeding it in those proportions.

As for ready-to-use, in my experience you should feed a new starter daily about 14 days before using it. Sometimes in the early stages you get some bad bacteria that will eventually be replaced by good lactobacilli. But it takes time. Once it is performing solidly, you can refrigerate and feed it once or twice a week (mine are used to being fed just weekly and are healthy).

You should be throwing out about 2/3rds of your existing starter with each feeding. For home baking I generally use only about 1/2 cup of flour for each refresher. It can get expensive throwing away a lot of flour and your starter doesn’t need to be huge - remember, when you bake with it the night/day before you’re going to do a large build of flour and water and only use maybe 10% of your existing starter.

Hope this helps.

phaz's picture

I'll go by the numbers you have

1 - by weight, 1 cup of water is equal to about 2 cups flour, so your hydration is probably close to 200%, so it sure will be runny.

2 - discarding when starting things up isn't recommended by me. It tends to dilute what you want to happen. If waste is a concern (it's always a concern to me) start much smaller. All my staters were begun with a couple tablespoons of flour and enough water to get a thick pancake batter consistency only discarding when the container wouldn't hold more.

3 - aromas are dependent on the nose. Beer, wine, green apple, ripe banana, all have been used to describe the smell (of a developed starter that is). It sounds like you're ok there.

4 - fridge is really best for longer term storage, weeks, months, years (I just revived a starter that was in the fridge for a year and a half). If baking on a regular schedule, you can start with a small amount of starter and use feedings to build up enough starter for each bake. The basics for fridge storage - after it has risen and fell, feed it and store it. Just beware that when it comes time to use again, it may take a little time to get it back to peak performance again. Longer the storage, longer it can take. It took about 10 days to get my starter back in shape after 1.5 years in cold storage.

Ps - it's not really difficult to understand. As with anything, get a grasp on the fundamentals, and everything else will fall in place. Enjoy!

David R's picture
David R

In addition, some people (such as me) don't really understand something until they see it work. I need to just be patient and follow the instructions the first time, without the benefit of really understanding. Then I get it. Hopefully. 🙂

clazar123's picture

Welcome to TFL! Any questions are great-any level!. The "experts" got that way started out exactly the same way and from the beginning. They are just further on the same scale you are on. Don't be shy but be willing to participate in the journey.

First of al the sheer volume of your starter is overwhelming and expensive! Scale it back to 1-2 TBSP of flour and water. You are starting a seed culture and larger volumes can be generated much more easily when you have a healthy seed to grow it from! The challenge when you have a smaller volume is keeping it from drying out or the fruit flies (if they are around) from infesting the culture-they LOVe the stuff.

Here is a very brief synopsis of what happens (starter-wise) when you stir a CHO source (flour,sugar) with water.

The yeasts are in the environment-on the fruit or flour- in spore form. Yeast spores are literally everywhere. People used to think they were "captured" from the air but then we found out they are actually on or next to their food source and the more unprocessed the food, the higher the number of spores. Hence, freshly milled whole grain (any variety) is easiest to culture. Don't despair- ANY flour (whole or refined) has plenty of yeast spores to culture. Rye is favored because it has a simpler-to-digest food available for the yeasty beasties. I make my starter with unbleached AP flour because it is the cheapest. One caveat: un-bleached flour and un-chlorinated, spring water. Any bleaching agents or chlorination really puts the cabash on micro-organisms. I buy a bottle of spring water to use in my cultures.

A starter is generally a mix of yeasts and lactic acid bacilli (LABs) that eventually balance out in a symbiosis in a mature starter.. Both grow at similar temperatures but one or the other is favored (grows more) at their favorite temp. Look those temps up because I can only bring to mind that yeast LOVe 82F. LABs favorite is slightly different but have a great impact on the culture balance of yeast/LABs Temp is the single most important factor in success of a starter, IMO.

Each partner in the culture (yeasts/LABs) has a job. The LABs generally are active first and start to produce lactic acid as they digest the flour. This acidifies the culture and gets the yeasts attention because they LOVE an acidic environment. The acidic environment also DIScourages other opportunistic bacteria from growing. Some starters go through a phase of what looks like explosive growth-rises and falls with lots of bubbles but smells like yuck. This is NOT desirable but is usually a phase to go through. These undesirables will die out as the LAB contunue to acidify the environment. Some people help this along by using pineapple or orange juice as the liquid. Use the SEARCH box and enter "Pineapple method". LOTS of hits. The key is to get through this stage-keep going.

As the culture develops, it goes from being paste to a few bubbles to rising a bit when stirred (you are moving the immobile yeasts into contact with more food so more digestion and CO2 production is happening), to actually rising and falling in an erratic fashion to rising and falling in a more sedate and predictable fashion. It should smell a little to a lot yeasty. If it still smells fruity/sweet/sharp, it is not yeast ready to raise bread. Keep going a few more feeds or days. When you make your first loaf, choose a small recipe (3 cups flour or less) or even a roll. That is the reason to use weighed measurements-you can scale up or down. Volume (cups) measure works but is harder and less accurate to scale up/down.

When it is ready, choose a method (make a preferment (another "SEARCH" item-many ways to do this and called a lot of different names OR use a percentage of starter to total flour in the recipe-think of it like "how much yeast do I add?")

I've just talked about the concepts here-not the method. There are MANY ways to make a starter.I like to keep it small to start. Back in the day I had a 5 gallon crock that was more than half full sitting on a radiator! Not successful for anything but delicious pancakes. LOTs of pancakes!

As for method:

My way is to take 1-2 tbsp flour, enough spring water to make a thick pancake batter consistency and stir both into a 1 pint lidded jar. Get into clean habits from the start-wash your hands, use a clean jar and utensils. After stirring, scrape the inside flour/water debris off the sides using a spatula. It needs to be part of the culture and also it can be a place where mold grows. I cover my jars with the lid-it gets enough air if I am removing every few hours (to start) to stir. If you'd rather, rubberband a clean cloth/paper towel over the top so flying/crawling critters don't infest.

Cover, stir many times a day.Whole grain/larger milled (like rye) may tend to settle into layers with the flour and water separating. That is why I start with AP flour because it may be difficult to determine if this watery layer is water or hootch (explanation further down in this post) and that is an important distinction. Any AP starter can be easily converted to WW or rye later on when it is established. I just find it easier and cheaper to work with AP flour.

DO NOT feed until it consistently bubbles (may be days later). Usually seen around the edge first.

When it starts bubbling consistently, that means something (prob.LABs at first) is feeding and farting. It is acidifying and will taste a little sour, if you taste it.

Now is the time to feed using the same amounts flour/water  (DO NOT DISCARD-yeast/LAB population too low-more on discard later) . Stir multiple times/day. I kept it at my desk at work.Do this until you can see LOTS of bubbles.

When you see LOTs of bubbles and have some rising and falling, then start removing half (discarding) and feeding again. Discarding removes some of the population (unavoidable and why you don't discard when there are only a few present earlier in the process) and also removes some debris-cleaning their cage, so-to-speak.

If at any time in this part of the process you see a clear or grayish liquid (hootch) form at the top that has a sharp (to the nose) or acetone/alcohol smell, the culture is hungry and using anaerobic digestion to survive. Feed them and add another discard/feeding to the loose schedule (about every 12 hours now). It is equivalent to a human who is starving and going into ketosis-our breath gets stinky or acetoney smelling. FEED them!

Long post-hope it helps. LOTS of "how-to" advice out there but it helps to know what you are trying to accomplish-the concepts.

Have fun! It is a fun journey.