How to Make Sourdough Bread, Part 1: The Starter


There’s nothing like the smell of fresh baking bread. Make that bread sourdough, and I’m in heaven.

The sourdough recipe that I start below produces a moist, flavorful, and chewy bread that can stand toe-to-toe with some of the best loaves out there.

Tonight, I’ll talk a little bit about sourdough starter and how to make a sponge. Tomorrow, Part 2 of this article will show you how to turn that sponge into bread.

How to Make Sourdough Bread, Part 1: It all starts with the starter

So, what gives sourdough bread its fabulous and unmistakable flavor? At the risk of oversimplifying, good sourdough bread starts with, well, a good starter. Literally.

A great sourdough starter is something to be coveted, protected, and shared with particularly deserving and baker-ly friends.

How to Make Sourdough Bread, Part 1: OK, so what exactly is a sourdough starter?

A sourdough starter is a wild yeast that’s made a comfortable home for itself in a mixture of flour and water. As it ages, it ferments and develops a rich, complex flavor.

You use a little bit of this “starter”—in place of, or in addition to, conventional yeast—as a base for your sourdough bread dough. It makes your bread rise and gives it that great flavor.

How to Make Sourdough Bread, Part 1: Wait, wild yeast?

Yep, wild yeast. You can’t see it, but yeast is all around us. In the air. On the surfaces of things we use every day.

Think about it. People have been baking leavened bread for, what? Six thousand years, maybe?

Before packaged yeast was available, folks would attract wild yeast with a mixture of flour and water, and keep it alive in that small bit of dough.

They’d use a little bit to make their loaves rise, then replace what they took with flour and water to keep their starter going.

How to Make Sourdough Bread, Part 1: Where did you get yours?

My mom gave me a little jar of her sourdough starter—which she bought from King Arthur Flour years earlier—for Christmas in 2001.

According to King Arthur, this starter is a mixture of three different starters, one of which originated in New England about 250 years ago.

I’ve managed to keep it happy and alive all this time. I keep it in a large screw-top glass jar in the back of my fridge.

How to Make Sourdough Bread, Part 1: Wait, that looks poisonous. What’s that brown stuff?

The dark layer on top is alcohol that’s a byproduct of the fermentation process. (Basically, the yeast eats the flour and gives off alcohol.)

This is just fine and gets stirred back in. In fact, it’s one of the things responsible for creating that great sour flavor.

How to Make Sourdough Bread, Part 1: Starters can be regional

Different areas of the world are home to different strains of wild yeast with their own distinct flavors. This is part of the reason why San Francisco is famous for its inimitable sourdough bread.

While my starter came from my mother’s, I’m sure that mine has developed its own flavor over the years, as I’ve added my own flour and local water to the mix.

I’d wager that, even if we used the same recipe, sourdough bread made with my starter would taste distinctly different from bread made with my mom’s.

How to Make Sourdough Bread, Part 1: OK, I’m sold. Where do I get some of this sourdough starter stuff?

I highly recommend King Arthur Flour’s sourdough starter. It’s $6.95 for one ounce. They also have a ton of good information on sourdough care and feeding.

Or of course, you could try to make your own.

I’m feeling brave. How do I go on a wild yeast hunt?

If you bake a fair amount—or if you’re just feeling intrepid—you can try your hand at catching and taming your very own wild yeast.

How to make your own sourdough starter

  • Start with a very clean bowl. (Scald a ceramic bowl with boiling water to remove any traces of potentially harmful bacteria.)
  • Add 1 cup of lukewarm water and 1 cup of flour.
  • Cover the bowl with a clean dishtowel and set it aside on your counter.
  • Check it in a day or two for bubbles, which are the telltale signs of life for a starter.
  • If you see bubbles, it worked! Give the bowl a stir (again, with a very clean spoon), and cover it back up.
  • Let it sit on the counter like this for a few days, until it develops a pleasant, sour smell.
  • When it smells good, transfer it to a clean bowl or jar and stick it in the fridge til you’re ready to bake.
  • To keep your starter happy, feed it periodically with equal parts flour and water (see notes on this at the end), and keep it cold and covered.

If you try this but it doesn’t work, you could give your pet a boost with a quarter teaspoon of conventional yeast.

If your starter starts to smell funky or look moldy or questionable in any way, chances are that something else found its way into your trap. Just toss the dough and try again.

How to use your starter to make sourdough bread

Now that I’ve explained a little bit about sourdough starter, here’s how I use mine to make bread. Start this the day before you want to bake.

Sponge for Sourdough Bread

1 cup of sourdough starter
1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
3 cups of flour

If your sourdough starter has been sitting in the fridge for a while, it will have a layer of liquid on top of it. This can range in color from grayish to dark brown. That’s just fine.

Dip a very clean spoon or whisk into your starter and stir it slowly. The solid dough at the bottom should be creamy, like this:

When you’ve recombined the solids with the liquid, it should be about the consistency of pancake batter, like this:

Measure out one cup of starter.

Pour it into a medium-sized clean bowl.

Add the water.

Whisk them together til well combined.

Add the flour and stir well.

Your sponge will come together as a sticky, wet dough.

Cover your sponge with plastic wrap. Set it on the counter and let it stay there overnight.

How to Make Sourdough Bread, Part 1: Don’t forget to feed your starter

Whenever you use some of your starter, you need to replace what you took. This is commonly referred to as “feeding” your starter.

For every cup of starter you use, add 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water back to the jar.

Stir until the mixture is once again uniform.

Cover it loosely with plastic wrap and let it sit on the counter overnight, along with your sponge.

After a few hours, you’ll notice that the surface of the sponge will be pretty level, and dappled with small air holes. That’s a sure sign that your sourdough starter is hard at work.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of my sourdough series tomorrow, when I use this sponge to bake a few loaves of bread.

Copyright 2008 The Hungry Mouse/Jessica B. Konopa. All rights reserved.

Stonewall Kitchen, LLC

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Jessie Cross is a cookbook author and creator of The Hungry Mouse, a monster online food blog w/500+ recipes. When she's not shopping for cheese or baking pies, Jessie serves as an Associate Creative Director at PARTNERS+simons, a boutique ad agency in Boston. She lives in Salem, Massachusetts with her husband and two small, fluffy wolves.


  1. Oh Thanks for this! Believe it or not, I have never made sourdough bread but I have always wanted to. With such painstakingly detailed instruction, I no longer have any excuse not to try. I will let you know how it turns out when I tackle your recipe. Thanks!!!

  2. Thanks, guys! Definitely let me know how it turns out if you give it a shot. It’s a lot of fun, and honestly, you can’t beat the flavor of the bread. 😀


  3. I really admire your ‘hardworking’ attitude in taking painstaking steps into making this. I think I probably won’t try this just yet…until maybe a point of time in future when I feel up to it. heheheh…

  4. I always wondered what a sourdough starter was. Thanks for the great explanation. It’s kind of amazing when you think of old it can be and still be edible.

  5. Thanks for mentioning King Arthur Flour sourdough starter. We now have several sourdough recipes on our web site and blog. Just think a sourdough chocolate cake! Joan from KAF

  6. This is great recipe for sour dough bread which I will atempt to make. What Iam looking for is a recipe for sourdough sweet loaves(like a Amish sweet loaf) any ideas. Last week I started to make a starter with 1cup each of milk, flour – I used whole wheat mixed with white, & sugar. It went mouldy. I think it was the whole wheat flour, any ideas??

  7. Hey Joe!

    Thanks for stopping by. I think I do have a recipe for a sweet starter. Let me see if I can find it tonight and I’ll e-mail it to you. 😀

    Not sure why it went moldy on you. Sometimes you can do everything right and they’ll still go off. Something unsavory could have gotten into it…I feel like sweet starters can be a little stickier to work with in general (b/c of the milk, etc.).

    Let me see what I can find for you. 😀


  8. “How to make your own sourdough starter
    Start with a very clean bowl. (Scald a ceramic bowl with boiling water to remove any traces of potentially harmful bacteria.)”

    Thanks for the tip. Even though I have 10 years experience with starters mine recently died. Fortunately I had frozen some of it previously (recommended) but I could not get it started until I proceeded as you suggest.

  9. Can this starter be used for other recipes… like perhaps sourdough waffles, or anything else?

    So excited to start my own.

    Feeling adventurous!


  10. A couple of days ago I began the sourdough process following your instructions, and I have two questions:

    1. The alcohol in my starter seems to be settling just below the surface. What’s up with that?

    2. When I looked at it this morning, there were a few spots of yellow bubbles that stood out just a little bit from the rest of it. Should I be concerned?

    • Hmmm, just below the surface. That could be OK. After all, it’s a living thing, so maybe yours is going to act a little different than mine.

      I’m more concerned about the yellow bubbles. It’s hard to say without seeing. If you have a digital camera, want to e-mail me a well-lit picture and I’ll see if I can help you figure it out? How does it smell? Anything else funky going on with it?


  11. Hi Found you on stumble, what a great find. Could you tell me what type of flour to use for the starter please, I am located in Wales in the UK. Thanks, Bryan

  12. Found you site thru stumbleupon also- I’m delighted. I’ve searched many a sight and between yours and King Arthur thats all a beginner or seriouis baker needs. I was just wondering if you or any of your fans have a recipe for the cafeteria rolls that we used to get for lunch at school?
    Thank You

  13. I tried making a starter and when I looked at it the next day, I had tiny bubbles, liquid floating on top, sour smell and looked like some green spots and a couple of pink dots in it. I threw it out. Afraid of it!