The Rise & Fall of Sourdough Starter. | The History & Recipe (2024)


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Who wants to make a blob of guck that turns into bread?! I know. Everyone does. I mean, it's the year of Coronavirus where the two most popular things in the world are baking sourdough bread and thinking about baking sourdough bread. To do it, you need to know how to make sourdough starter.

The Rise & Fall of Sourdough Starter. | The History & Recipe (1)

If you already have sourdough starter and want to dry it (to preserve it) I have full instructions on how to dry sourdough starter here.

Sourdough starter hit its stride in the year ohhhhh 1500 BC or so. The Egyptians were all over it. For thousands of years it was the only way to make bread. Then something horrifying happened - progress.

With the invention of instant commercial yeast by Louis Pasteur in the 1800s, sourdough starter was abandoned by bakers.

Commercial yeast gave predictable results, was easier to use and a lot faster than the homemade levain people had been using for centuries. All but the most discriminating of bakers (the French) switched to using the commercial yeast.

What breads made with commercial yeast didn't have was the flavour of bread made with the traditional sourdough starter. But bakers were willing to give that taste up in exchange for convenience.

100 years after the invention of commercial yeast, around the 1980s, the popularity of sourdough starters began to rise again before levelling out in the 1990s.

Nobody (except every infectious disease expert around the world, plus that guy who made the movie Pandemic) could have predicted what would happen in the spring of 2020.

The entire world would shut down. And together we were alone.

Collectively, without prompting, the world knew what to do. We would bake bread.

The word "bread" spiked to an all time high in Google searches. This was partly because everyone locked inside their homes wanted to do and eat something that was comforting. What's more comforting than the smell of freshly baked bread and a warm hunk of it slathered in butter.

Even more explosive were the results for sourdough starter a week later when everyone started to realize yeast was suddenly sold out everywhere.

Overnight, sourdough starter and bread became the "it" thing. Nothing like this had happened since the Cabbage Patch doll riots of 1983.

Winter is coming again, the virus is in its second wave almost everywhere and even though you might not be in lock down, the safest place for you to be is at home.


Who wants to make sourdough starter?

The Rise & Fall of Sourdough Starter. | The History & Recipe (2)

If you were alive and coherent in the 1980's you might remember the fad with people passing around a gross glop of dirty looking glue. You were supposed to take a bit out and pass along the rest to a bunch of unsuspecting friends. It was like a chain letter but with if someone accidentally sneezed on it, you were going to eat it. Blech.

THAT was sourdough starter.

Sourdough starters have been known to be passed on from generation to generation.

It's a mixture of flour and water that's been left to ferment and turn into liquid yeast. It does this by "catching" wild yeast that's in the air.

Sourdough starter, which makes bread rise, tastes different than regular yeast because it contains different yeasts and bacterias. It's fermented and has a slight sour taste to because of that. It's what gives sourdough the unique flavour it has.

O.K. NOW do you want to know how to make this miracle of nature that has you catching wild yeast from the air known as sourdough starter?

I thought you might.

By the way, catching wild yeast is a bit of a romanticism. You are in fact catching wild yeast, but yeast is pretty much in abundance everywhere. You know when grapes have that white haze on them? YEAST! Yup. The white haze on grapes is yeast.

Yeast is in the air, on your hands, and possibly on the spoon you use to stir your concoction. Which is lucky for we sourdough starter makers.

Before I get to the sourdough starter recipe I know you're going to have this question:

Table of Contents

What flour is best for sourdough starter.

What kind of flour? Most people like rye and feel it ferments more quickly than other flours. BUT you can use whatever flour you want or have; rye, whole wheat, white ...

I use rye to start my starter. Then for subsequent feedings I may switch over to white.

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How to make it

A bit about hydration.

This is for a 100% hydration starter. That means it has 1 part flour to 1 part water. Different hydrations of starter and breads create different results. A lower hydration (more flour than water) will give you a more sour taste and needs to be fed less often. A higher hydration (more water than flour) will be milder tasting and need feeding more often.

There's a LOT more to it than that, but if you're a beginner I think this 1:1 starter is a good place to start for you.

  1. Mix ¼ cup clean room temperature (filtered or bottled) water with ¼ flour.

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Stir everything together until all the flour and water have mixed well.

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2. Cover it with a cloth and let it sit for a couple of days in a room that's approximately 23C (75F).

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I'm using a bowl but you can also use a glass or mason jar.

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After just 8 hours you can see tiny bubbles starting to form.

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3. Once you notice bubbles and a yeasty smell (after 2 or 3 days) you can get rid of half of your mixture. Just scoop it out and throw it down the drain. It may have dried out a bit. That's O.K. Add ¼ cup of water and ¼ cup of flour to the remaining starter, mix and cover up again. This is called feeding the starter.

Continue feeding the starter in this exact way every 8-12 hours for the next 2 weeks or so.

Remove half the starter, then add ¼ cup water and ¼ cup of flour. Wait 8 - 12 hours and do it again.

After several days of doing this you'll notice the bubbles are starting to get bigger.

Starter not rising?

If you don't think your starter is doing much you can:

  1. Put the starter close to an open window so it has more access to wild yeast. (no idea if this is a fable or not, but I did it and it worked)
  2. Put the starter in a warmer part of the room, or warmer room in general.
  3. Increase the amount of flour and water you add from ¼ cup of each to ½ cup of each.

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By day 12-15 you'll notice your starter will start to double in size after you feed it. It won't just get a bit bubbly, it will literally double in size!

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Once your starter reliably doubles in size for several days, you can break out the cigars because you are the proud parent of glop. Some people suggest you keep feeding it on the counter like this for up to a month to really get the sour taste.

Those people must not have a life. Because just feeding this starter twice a day for two weeks is enough to make a person crazy. Trust me. By the end of two weeks you'll be as sick of feeding this starter as you are of feeding your family every night.

Once you have a successful starter you can stick it in the refrigerator until the day before you're going to make bread.

Reviving it

The day before you make bread the starter should be removed from the refrigerator and brought up to room temperature. Once it's warm, add ¼ cup of bottled water and a ¼ cup of flour. This will help activate the starter and get it bubbly again. 8-12 hours later, do it again. Your starter should now be ready to use.

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Sourdough Starter

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Author: Karen Bertelsen


  • Bag of flour
  • Filtered tap water or bottled water


  • Day 1 - Mix together ¼ cup flour and ¼ cup lukewarm water. Let sit for 2-3 days until bubbles form and it smells of yeast. During this time, stir the mixture whenever you think of it.

  • Day 4 - Remove half the starter mixture and dump it down the drain. Feed the remaining mixture with ¼ cup flour and ¼ cup water. Mix.

  • Continue to dump and feed exactly the same way every 8-12 hours for 2 weeks or until the mixture reliably doubles in size after feeding.

  • Store the sourdough starter in the refrigerator until the day before you're ready to make bread. The day before, remove the starter, let it get to room temperature and then feed it. (add ¼ cup flour and ¼ cup water) 8-12 hours later, feed it again. It is now ready to use in the sourdough bread recipe of your choice.

So there you have it. Sourdough starter glop. Pass it on.

→Follow me on Instagram where I often make a fool of myself←

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The Rise & Fall of Sourdough Starter. | The History & Recipe (2024)


Why does sourdough starter rise and then fall? ›

It may stay at peak for a little while as the yeast slow in their gas production. Once they've consumed all the sugars in the jar, the yeast and lactic acid bacteria will be starving. The bacteria will start to break down the gluten network, allowing the gas to escape. This is what causes your starter to fall.

What is the history of sourdough starter? ›

The oldest known sourdough starter is said to have originated from clay pots unearthed in Egypt. Seamus Blackley baked a loaf of sourdough bread using yeast harvested from 4500 year old clay pots. If you want to read more about this 4500 year old sourdough starter, go here.

How did pioneers keep sourdough starter alive? ›

Sourdough starters, essential for bread making, became especially significant during the California Gold Rush. Miners in the San Francisco area relied on sourdough starters as a substitute for commercial leavening agents, often keeping them warm on cold nights to preserve the yeast and bacteria.

What is the first rise of sourdough called? ›

Bulk fermentation (also called the first rise or primary fermentation) is one of the most important steps of yeast bread baking. It begins right when mixing ends and lasts until the dough is divided and preshaped.

How quickly should a sourdough starter rise and fall? ›

When your starter is reliably rising to double or triple its size and falling in the jar anywhere between 4-8 hours after you feed it (dependent on your ambient conditions and the flour you feed with) it is ready to bake with. When the starter is at the peak of its rise, it is called ripe, fed, or mature.

Can I use starter that has fallen? ›

If your starter is well past peak (a few hours) and visibly falling, you can give it a “refresh” feeding to reactivate it.

What is the mother dough in sourdough starter? ›

The mother-dough is made of a mixture of flour and water fermented with bacteria such as Lactobacillus, Acetobacter and Saccharomyces. To create it and keep it alive requires patience and constant care. The mother-dough is a great leavening agent and makes a highly digestible bread.

How old is oldest sourdough starter? ›

The World's 'Oldest' Sourdough Starter Was Made With 4,500-Year-Old Yeast. There's no bread quite like sourdough. In addition to being tasty as a sandwich bread, delicious as sourdough croutons, and even great just toasted with butter, sourdough's production process is decidedly unlike other breads.

What makes sourdough starter so special? ›

Unlike baking yeast, which provides a quick rise, a sourdough starter requires a longer fermentation process, resulting in a more complex and tangy taste. Additionally, sourdough starters enhance the nutritional value of bread by breaking down gluten and making it easier to digest.

How does sourdough starter not get moldy? ›

Sourdough Starter Mold Prevention

Feeding your starter regularly cultivates a healthy colony of wild yeast and good bacteria, which maintain an average pH of 3.5-5, a level that inhibits the growth of mold spores and other pathogenic bacteria, such as botulism and E. coli.

What did the pioneers use instead of yeast? ›

Pioneers used both corn meal and wheat flours for bread. They baked bread in cast iron bake kettles set in the coals of the open hearth. Pearlash, eggs, saleratus, an early chemical leavening preceding baking soda, and home-created yeast starters were used to leaven bread.

How do you keep sourdough starter forever? ›

Storing: Crumble Into Dry Flour

This is by far my preferred method for long-term sourdough starter storage. Place a large dollop of your ripe sourdough starter in the bottom of a large bowl. Cover the starter with lots of flour—you can use the same flour used for feedings or 100% white flour.

What is the Italian name for sourdough starter? ›

Starter is also known as mother yeast (pasta madre or lievito madre in Italian, literally translated to “mother of dough”- usually a firm sourdough starter). Yeast breads take time and usually one or two risings, each of which might take up to an hour or several hours.

What is the French term for sourdough starter? ›

Because the term levain is French for leaven, which is almost always taken to mean naturally fermented bread, the term levain is often used synonymously with sourdough.

Who invented sourdough starter? ›

Ancient Egyptians are typically credited with creating the first sourdough starter. Gastro-Egyptologists Serena Love told BBC there's plenty of evidence ancient Egyptians were baking bread, and it's possible they happened upon creating a starter by using dough from the day before to make bread.

Why did my sourdough starter suddenly stop rising? ›

There can be many reasons why a sourdough starter isn't rising. Almost every factor you can imagine affects your starter: temperature, volume of ingredients, time, choice of ingredients, and consistency.

Why is my sourdough starter not rising and falling? ›

Most commonly, the issue here has to do with temperature (which is very important). If your sourdough starter is kept at a low temp, even 70°F (21°C), it will slow fermentation activity and appear to be sluggish, taking longer to rise and progress through the typical signs of fermentation. The solution: keep it warm.

Why did my bread deflated after proofing? ›

Overproofing the dough

If we put the loaf in the oven when it looks the size we are expecting when it is baked then it is highly likely that it is over proofed. The loaf has already reached its limits and when we put it in the oven the loaf will just deflate.

Why does my sourdough fall flat after proofing? ›

Not allowing the dough to double during the first rise can be one reason your sourdough bread is flat and dense. Not giving it long enough to ripen during the second rise (proof) is another. In both cases ~ your sourdough bread was not mature enough to bake.


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