Starting a Sour Dough Culture

I am, admittedly, a novice at working with sour dough. I have had some fairly successful sour dough breads and I believe I understand the process and even some of the chemistry, but I know I have a long way to go. Sour dough starters generally make use of "wild" yeasts - yeast that naturally lies on the surface of flour, grape skins, air in your kitchen and other fruits and vegetables. I did find several recipes for sour dough starters that used cultured bread yeast, but there is no reason to do this- with patience you'll be able to coax a starter from nothing more than flour and water.

Starting and feeding a starter reminded me of how complicated, time consuming and important starters were to bread baking  in the not so distant past. Modern cultured yeast was not in production until the turn of the last century.

I believe that baking is something you learn as you go; therefore there was no need for me to master the entire art and science of sour dough and wild yeast before I start experimenting with this technique. I am encouraging you to try baking with a starter - you never know, you may find you love the challenge. I imagine that this process is somehow related to my son's interest in beer-making.

My daughter, Mikah, was in Denmark last year and mentioned a dark very heavy rye bread she ate there. I think I found this bread at Breads Bakery near Union Square in Manhattan, but germane to this posting is that I believe this bread requires a sour dough starter.

This is the second winter I've started a sour dough starter. Our kitchen is way too hot in the summer to bake very often and I was busy with the garden, so I discontinued the starter I was nursing along last winter/spring. The starter I used this week is about two months old. It lacks heritage, but I baked a very respectable "Korn Bread" (a type of rye bread that has no corn in it) this week using the starter. I will be uploading the photos and recipe for the Korn Bread in another posting.

At some point I may be comfortable enough to know how to create starters with subtle differences, but at this point it's a success to me to feed and keep one starter going.

If you are reading bread baking books you may notice a few techniques using dough preparations that are mixed and allowed to ripen (pre-ferment) prior to mixing the entire batch of bread dough.  Sour dough starter is one of these pre-ferments; it is a ripened paste of flour and water that has captured wild yeast from the surface of the flour and the air in the kitchen. A sour dough culture takes about a week to "build."

The following method is a digested version of several sources. I've worked out a simplified method of attending to the starter and bread baking around my work schedule- meaning that I "bake" (or engage in baking-related activities) early in the morning and after dinner. Because I have almost always been a working mom and I've wanted to bake, I've worked out a schedule that allows me to bake "around" my work day: early morning and after dinner.

The starter needs to be attended to on approximately 12 or 24 hour cycles, so if you start it at 7 am on day 1, the next time you attend to it will be either 7 pm on day 1, or 24 hours later at 7 am on day 2. You'll need rye flour or a combination of rye and unbleached all -purpose flour for your starter. Don't worry about yeast, the flour has yeast on it, rye flour also has sugars that are more easily fermented than wheat flour.  Water should be de-chlorinated, meaning that you should fill a glass of water and let the chlorine evaporate over a 12 hour period or use room temperature filtered water from your Britta.

Mix your sour dough in a non-reactive container: a ceramic crock, very large glass jar or a stainless steel bowl. Use a wooden spoon or silicone spatula to mix the starter.  The process of fermenting this pre-dough will produce lactic acid and acetic acid. The mixture will be bubbly and smell yeasty, it will have a color similar to oatmeal, although it will have the consistency of a thick gluey mass when you mix it. When you "feed" the mixture with flour it will look lumpy; however, after several hours the lactic acid will help smooth out the mixture to resemble a thick smooth gluey mass.  In a healthy active starter the liquid should not separate from the solid portion.  If the liquid begins to look dark grayish and the smell is very sour and unpleasant, throw it out and start again. I did have a batch of sour dough starter go bad last year, for reasons I could not figure out. After searching the internet, my husband,Fred,  suggested that  I contact the Bakers Hot Line at KA Flour and the baker that answered my e-mail said that the starter may have spoiled and that it should be thrown out.

NOTE: Sour dough is living and breathing, don't store or let rest in a sealed jar (with a screw cap). Carbon dioxide gas is being produced and you don't want to create a mess on your counter or in the refrigerator. 

Temperature and hydration affect the culture. The balance of the yeast and bacteria create a good sour culture and there are times when the  the two types of organisms will fall out of balance.  The flavor of the sour dough itself is affected by the temperature, hydration and bacterial colonies that inhabit the flour. The ambient temperature of the room or space where the culture is resting will affect the taste of the culture. Cooler, slower proofing will result in a more "sour taste."  Not all "sour dough" breads need to be sour, they will create a wonderful chewy textured bread or bread-type product anyway (think: pancakes, muffins and biscuits).

Recognize that this technique is thousands of years old; ancient bakers didn't have a degree in chemistry or food science when they discovered this cooking method. You too can make sour dough successfully - have fun and experiment (and keep giving away samples).

Starting a sour dough culture:

  • Day 1:  2.5 oz rye flour, mixed with 2.5 oz of room temperature water. I used the same weight of flour and water in the initial mix. My method uses a slight difference in later feedings. Mix the ingredients, place in a warm area (70-75 degree room) and allow to ferment for 24 hours. You can cover loosely with waxed paper laying on top of the container. After 24 hours the mixture may or may not have small bubbles. It may not look very active, but if you use rye flour, in all likelihood it will have bubbles along the surface.
  • NOTE: the mixture will be emitting gas and alcohol - do not seal- if you use a crock the top is not air tight, so don't worry, but if you use a jar do NOT screw on the top- you can use wax paper initially and plastic wrap when you store in the fridge. 
  • Day 2 - first "feeding" : You'll use the entire batch from day one. Add 2.5 oz of flour (you can use 1/2 rye, 1/2 unbleached all-purpose flour) and 2 oz water.Mix the combination of the day old mixture and the new flour and water. You might see some activity, with bubbles starting to form in the water as you stir.  Cover loosely with waxed paper, allow to stand for 12 hours. 
  • Day 2- second "feeding" : The mixture should look bubbly, but if it doesn't continue anyway. Divide culture in half, discard one half (if you don't discard it, you'll keep increasing the amount of sour mixture you have and it will become unmanageable) and use the remaining half of the culture. Add 2.5 oz flour (either rye or wheat or a combination of both) and  2.4 oz of water.  Adding slightly less water than flour has worked better in my kitchen. Most recipes you read will instruct you to use equal weights of both flour and water. This is something you can experiment with. Cover loosely and let stand 12 hours.
  • Day 3 : feed twice over 24 hours, dividing the dough in half, using half, adding 2.5oz new flour and 2.4 oz water. By day three you can use wheat flour entirely (all purpose or whole wheat), this is entirely up to you.  By day three the mixture should be actively bubbling. When you add the flour and water to feed and refresh the mixture the bubbles should increase. 
  • Day 4. 5 and 6: Repeat the pattern for 2 feedings (divide in half save half, add the flour and water) 12 hours apart. 
  • After the 2nd feeding on Day 6 you will have a mature starter. A healthy sour culture is actively bubbly, smells yeasty (but clean) and will almost double in bulk 4-5 hours after a feeding. If you are not going to use it, cover and place in the fridge. Chilling will help slow down the yeasts' activity and you can keep it viable by feeding (divide, add new flour and water) about once a week. Keep it covered or the culture will dry out (and die).  This mixture is very much like glue- I found it helpful to place a piece of waxed paper between the crock and lid so that the lid wasn't "sealed" by the bits of gluey culture that might have gotten onto the edge of the lid. This is your "mother" culture. 
  • Reactivating a chilled sour culture: Take the culture out of the fridge, feed it immediately and then divide and feed twice over 24 hours. The next feeding (12 hours later) should use the entire mother, add the new flour and water.  The starter will be ready to use after the third feeding/refreshing.  Again, the starter should look bubbly, smell yeasty and be roughly the color of oatmeal. 
  • Remove the amount of starter you need for the recipe you are using. Since your "mother starter" has been recently fed, you can take the remainder (which will be about a cups worth), cover and place it back in the refrigerator if you are not planning to bake again for a week or more. 
  • I have, on occasion forgotten to feed the chilled mother starter for a couple of weeks and have been able to salvage it by going through a divide and feed cycle for 2 days. I keep the container of starter in the back of my refrigerator, where it is less likely to be affected by temperature shifts caused by the door opening and closing. 
  •  Remember, if your ripe starter has separated, has turned grayish or any other off-color, and if it smells rotten - throw it out, and thoroughly wash the crock, jar or container you use before starting again. 
  • I recently read on another baking blog that if you are using anti-bacterial dish-washing liquid be extremely careful to thoroughly wash and rinse the container. 


  1. How interesting. . I have always loved sour dough... breads.... but I never realized all the work that went into preparing them. Kudos! very informative. .

  2. I have a very nice s.d coulture, using it for at least couple years.
    You have to feed it regularly.
    If you need some, I could share ..


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