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Sourdough Starter Care & Baking Guide

We are excited to help you on your Sourdough journey – this is our guide which you can share.

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Let’s get you started and make your first sourdough bake. This guide is always a work in progress, and ever evolving, we learn something new everytime we bake sourdough (like you will).. If anything is unclear, or you still have questions then please let us know.

Whether you are new to bread making or a seasoned baker, don’t worry too much about things being perfect. Mastering bread is not about perfection, it’s about following a method, making notes, and being open to constant improvement. Read, bake and then repeat. The bread you make will be worth it!

What is a Starter Culture?

A sourdough starter culture is a complex ecosystem containing multiple species of yeast and lactic acid producing bacteria, which we use to make bread. These microbes produces carbon dioxide (and a bit of alcohol too) to make your bread airy. It is the bacteria that can give your bread the sour taste, this is because the bacteria transform the starch of the flour into lactic acid, acetic acid and alcohol. Both the acid and the alcohol give sourdough bread their unique and interesting taste.

The microbes work at a slower pace of fermentation compared to commercial ones. This is why bread recipes for sourdough bread tend to take much longer and consist of more steps.

Starter added to bread flour, before mixing.
First steps with your Starter

From receiving your wet or dried starter, to baking with it. It will take around 4-5 days to establish, if you feed it every day.

With the DRIED starter, you can keep this indefinitely stored in the pouch, dried, until you are ready to bring it to life. Here is a video by a friend, Mary – who rehydrates her starter during her travels.

When you are ready with the DRIED starter add the ENTIRE contents of the dried flakes to 40g/ml of water first, then when mixed to a paste, then add the 40g of strong bread flour to kick off feeding the starter. The starter should be like a loose paste.

First mix of the starter, flour and water – the aim here is to make a loose paste, but not too watery..

With the WET starter, when you receive it, transfer it immediately in a tall jar with a sealable lid, like a mason jar. And add 40g/ml of water, and same amount of flour.

For both WET and DRIED starters – feed with equal measures of organic strong bread flour and water (40g of each) everyday for 4-5 days. Stir thoroughly each day after each feed.

Feed like this every day and keep at room temperature (approx 20-22’c). Until you have a good amount (300 – 400g) of starter culture.

A healthy looking starter culture showing signs of fermentation. Ready to be baked with.

You are looking for signs of bubbling and a sweet and sour smell of the ethanol.
The bubbles and aroma are signs of the fermentation which is what you want.

Then once established, store your starter in the fridge, so it is asleep. You can also put around 40g in a pot or bag, and freeze, in case you need it in the future.

The day before baking – you would take it out of the fridge, and wake it up by feeding 40g of bread flour and same amount of water. You should see signs of activity within a few hours. The colour should be white, or light brown depending on flour type and have a nice sweet and sour smell. If your starter doesn’t have either of these characteristics, then move to a warmer area of your house to give the starter a better chance of fermentation,

We keep about 400g of starter in a 1l mason jar, of which we use 70-80g starter per loaf. So after taking out the amount from the jar, we add back to the jar 35ml water and 35g of bread flour, so we have about 400g of starter again. So what we take out we put back in equal measure back, so the starter always stays the same level.

After feeding we keep the starter in a kitchen cupboard at room temperature (usually around 20-22C) for about 12 hours so it can develop and double or triple in size. When it has developed, we store it in the refrigerator until the next baking session.

Baking Sourdough bread consists of 3 steps
  • Mix the ingredients
  • Wait for the dough to be ready
  • Bake it
Make your first Sourdough loaf

The ingredients below are for 1 large sourdough loaf.

Ingredients

  1. 420g organic strong bread flour. I like using a mix of flours for a deeper flavour and taste – for example – 330g white, with 90g wholemeal, or rye, or spelt, etc.
  2. 80g of your starter
  3. 300 ml water – filtered or bottled
  4. 10g salt

Hydration is 70% (300/420)

Primary Fermentation – 4-8 hrs (depending on room temp)

  • Now it’s time to gently knead the dough, for up to 5 mins to mix and aerate everything together.
  • Mix in a bowl and the result should be quite a wet dough. The wetter for a better fermentation!
  • Place dough in a covered bowl, and here we start the primary fermentation stage. Every hour during this stage, we perform a gentle stretch and fold of the dough. You’ll notice the dough becomes more elastic, and springy as time progresses.
  • You may have to leave longer if your house is cooler for this stage. Ideal temp is around > 20’c.
  • Use the chart for reference below – Example, 15% (% of starter added) at average 20⁰C is 8hrs and 13 minutes….I find that 8.5 hours is absolutely about right.

Sourdough Primary Fermentation chart – showing duration of fermentation against room temperature.
Sourdough Dough after primary fermentation.

Final rest, scoring and shaping

  • Let the dough warm up to room temp, where it should do a little rise in size. Approx 2 hrs depending on room temperature.
  • Lightly dust the surface that you will shape the dough on with rice or semolina flour.
  • Shape the dough into a loaf, or ball depending on your chosen shape.
  • Put the dough in a banneton basket to get the lovey rings you’ll see in our photo below.
  • Then transfer the dough to a Dutch oven, or any ceramic pot with lid. This traps steam generated by the loaf and helps form a nice crust.
  • Finally, before putting into the oven – you should score the bread with a knife to create a rustic style crust. A side slash, criss cross, or anything across the top of the dough will be fine.
Scoring with bread lame, before putting into the oven.

Baking

  • Put the dutch oven into the oven cold, and turn oven to 230’c. After 45 mins, take the lid off and then bake for 10 minutes more, until golden brown.
  • When you tap the bread it should sound hollow.
  • Always let bread rest for 2 hours before cutting to avoid bread sinking.
Et voila – the patience pays off!
A word on water

Tap water contains chlorine to a variable extent. Chlorine acts to kill the very organisms that you want to keep in your starter. So, for best results, use cool, boiled water or water that has been allowed to stand in a jug overnight so that there will be no chlorine present. Or filtered water. If your water has been sitting for a while it lose some oxygen so I’d give it a stir and get some of the oxygen back in as this really helps the microbes along.

Top tips for making Sourdough bread
  • Warmth speeds things along, cold slows things down. This can apply to the temperature of the water you use and the temperature of the environment, you can use this to your advantage and plan your baking schedule.
  • Time equals flavour. If you leave dough to prove in the fridge overnight it will have more flavour than a dough that’s proved at room temp for a few hours.
  • Steam creates crust. You can trap steam in by baking bread in a casserole dish / dutch oven, or you can spray the oven with a water mister or add ice cubes to a hot tray sitting on the rack below the bread.
  • To get a good ‘spring’ to your bread, it’s best baked at a high temperature to start with and then, if it starts to brown too quickly, you can lower the temperature.
  • However tantalising hot bread smells, it’s best left to cool on a wire rack until at least just warm before eating. Slicing into hot bread will make it go clumpy.
Sourdough Baking Myths

When I first started baking, I was too intimidated to start sourdough. It seemed so complex. With lots of rules. Somehow people (and books and videos) all seem to strive to make it as complex as possible, with lots of do’s and plenty of dont’s

Over the years I have learned that the vast majority of these rules don’t make any sense, and they show a fundamental misunderstanding of how sourdough baking works.

  • Your starter doesn’t need to be fed 6 hours before baking
  • You don’t need to feed your starter daily or weekly
  • Your starter doesn’t have to float to bake bread.
  • You never need to discard any starter if you bake frequently
  • You can bake with a starter straight from the fridge, even if it doesn’t look active
  • You don’t need to weigh when feeding your starter
  • Starters don’t grow stronger over time
  • You don’t have to feed your starter 1:2:2 or 1:4:4 or whatever
  • The proportion of flour and water in your starter doesn’t matter
  • You can feed it almost any flour
  • You can use a starter fed on white flour in a whole wheat or rye loaf, and vice versa
  • It doesn’t really matter how much starter you use in your recipe
  • You don’t need to proof in a climate-controlled environment (like an oven)
  • You don’t need to separate between bulk proofing and other stages of proofing
  • You can convert almost any recipe using commercial yeast to sourdough.
  • All recipes recommending X hours of this and X hours of that are estimates at best, and they are often wrong

Tips credit – Michiel Leijnse

Patience..

Because it’s a collection of amazing bacteria, and not a vigorous commercial yeast, everything happens much slower. Be ready for this. If rushed you will be disappointed.

“Everyone wants the quick, ‘Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.’ That’s not how it works…and this is part of the highly subjective nature of sourdough starter.”

So slow down, respect the process, use your senses, and just keep going. In the inimitable words of Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, “Life, uh…finds a way.”

When you think it’s not doing something, it probably is. Bear in mind the fermentation is not as vigorous as turbo charged commercial yeast. If the dough has not risen, leave it for longer until it does.. and preferably move to a warmer part of your home, to help move things along..

Confused? Actually, it’s really simple

The one thing you need to remember is that sourdough is very forgiving. When I doubt, bake it. Used too much flour? Bake it. Proofed too long? Bake it. Too much water? Bake it. Most of the time, the result will taste great, even if it doesn’t look Instagram worthy. Don’t overthink it.

A starter is just a home for yeast cells and bacteria. The yeast cells convert sugars and starches in the flour into gas- this is called fermentation. And when you mix your dough, all you do is starting the fermentation process for these yeast cells. As they do so, they multiply. At some point, they start crowding each other out and ‘run out of food’, so to speak.

Let’s not overstate the importance of the role of temperature. Fermentation goes fast above 20C/70F. It slows down significantly below 5C/40F. Just like a fire can burn fast when the wind brings it oxygen, and will be calm (but not dead) when there is no wind.

Keep your starter in the fridge, and it will remain alive, but quiet. Ready to use when you want. Keep it in a warm spot and it will ‘burn out’ pretty quickly. They stay active a long time in your fridge (someone recently re-activated 4500 year old yeast cells from an Egyptian tomb.)

Most recipes that say x hours of bulk fermentation, x hours of proofing: the yeast cells don’t know what shape the dough is in. As long as the temperature is right, they will keep on multiplying and creating gas. And if the temperature in your kitchen is 2C/4F warmer or colder than the one that was used in the recipe, the timings will be off. So take them with a grain of salt.

The solution is to bake when the dough is ready for baking. You need to learn when the dough is ready. This takes some practice. Once you have made the same recipe a number of times, you will know how much time it takes. And if it’s a warm day, you’ll see it going faster than usual. That’s fine: if you need to course correct because the dough is fermenting too quickly, put it in the fridge. If it’s too slow, put it in a warm spot.

Feeding the starter: Back to the fire metaphor: the starter doesn’t care what flour you feed it. As long as the flour has fuel, i.e. carbohydrates, the yeast cells will do their work. So you can keep a single starter, feed it whatever flour you want, and use it in any recipe, whether it’s whole wheat or white or something else.

Tips credit – Michiel Leijnse

Further links and troubleshooting