Why and How to Make Sourdough Starter from Scratch – (Spelt Sourdough Starter Recipe)
May 18, 2021
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Pizza. Pasta. Flatbreads. Yorkshire puddings. Crackers. BREAD. They’re all evil gut-busting carbs, right? Not anymore – Here’s WHY and HOW to make sourdough starter from scratch (plus a spelt sourdough starter recipe to get you going)… Nutritious baking is 2 ingredients and a few simple steps away!
I have a confession. Although I LOVE the way I eat and how it makes me feel, many baked goods and grain-based foods hold a special place in my heart. Delectable delights like “soldier toast” and pizza bring back childhood memories, and we all know they taste good.
But for a long time, I cut them out completely. This included pasta, bread, crackers, and so on.
The simple truth is that most of the versions we see in the store (even the “healthier, wholegrain, etc. etc.” versions) are still bad for us.
But sourdough has been a breakthrough. You see, I’ve been more creative recently… Fermented oats have become a long-term staple in my diet, and one of the top recipes of the website. It’s no wonder why with the blissful ease, fascinating flavours, and nutritious creations of simple home fermenting. (Check out the recipe – How to Ferment Oats :)).
Following on from this, I’ve fermented traditional homemade pickles, yoghurts, wholegrain rice, dried legumes, nuts and seeds, barley risotto, and more… The natural progression was sourdough, but I haven’t written about it until now.
After several of my own failures and successes, I got the process down. This post is my way of sharing with you all how I can now enjoy homemade:
- Pizzas (Below)
- Bread (Below)
- Savoury pancakes
- And so on
… All in a guilt-free and healthy way! I’ll be sure to share the above recipes in future posts, but for now, this sourdough is the base of them all. There are fantastic recipes out there on the web to follow for specific foods…
This post teaches you how to make sourdough starter from scratch, so you can go and have some fun. ENJOY!
- Why Make Sourdough? Sourdough Health Benefits Versus Commercial Baked Goods and Pastries:
- 1. Sourdough As a Form of Food Prep
- 2. Antinutrients
- 3. Increased Levels of Nutrients
- 4. Improved Digestive Health and Reduced Intolerances
- 5. Lower Insulin
- What Are the Best Flours to Use for Sourdough Starter?
- 1. Gluten-free Options
- 2. Spelt Versus Wheat
- What Are the Best Flours to Use for Sourdough Starter?
- Quick Tips – Learn from My Mistakes
- 1. Using Enough Flour
- 2. Waiting for the “Rise”
- 3. The Cold Water Test
- 4. How to Maintain and Feed a Starter
- My Sourdough Spelt Starter Recipe!
- Post Summary and Outro Message
Why Make Sourdough? What’s Wrong with Normal Baked Goods and Pastries?
Knowing how to make sourdough starter from scratch isn’t just an experiment in the kitchen or a tradition passed down throughout the ages…
Whilst the bubbling colonies of bacteria and yeasts and enzymes become like family with you feeding them every day, and every sourdough is special in its own way with a unique smell, taste, and behaviours, we’re not fermenting flours for the fun of it alone…
Sourdough is important because it has nourished civilisation for a very long time… As in, wayyyy before commercial bakeries and factories. So, those “normal” breads and “normal” bran flakes, well, they’re actually not “normal” at all for our species.
We’ve all heard how “bread is bad” and “carbs are the devil” etc. etc. But the truth is, it is refined carbohydrates that are the most harmful, and the fact that we no longer actually prepare foods as they should be before eating them!
Sourdough Is REAL Food Prep
In short, sourdough is food preparation done right. It is natural and has survived in traditional cultures for many reasons. Sourdough allows us to avoid the unwanted side effects like excessive insulin spikes, digestibility issues, lethargy, inflammation, and lack of nutrient intake associated with improperly prepared grains (like those found in modern breads, pastries, and baked foods).
Sourdough is simply fermented dough made from wild bacteria and yeasts. This ancestral method of food preparation has sustained human life and influenced our biology right down to the genetics.
On the other hand, when we skip natural and necessary food prep, we end up with foods that don’t sustain us optimally at all, and even have adverse effects.
And that is because modern versions are not made in ways that our human digestive and immune systems can handle… Instead, people now pick the grain, dry it, store it, grind it, or simply throw it into products and recipes with no steps in between.
The problem is that we didn’t evolve to handle that, as we’ll soon learn… Overall, below are the key points and health benefits of making sourdough, and the risks of “normal” grain-based products.
Reduced Antinutrients (Phytates and Lectins)
So, we know that spelt is a grain, much like the wheat, barley, rye, and other such staples. Grains are part of the seed family, alongside legumes and of course seeds like sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and so on.
But as seeds, grains contain concentrated amounts of antinutrients. As you learned in previous posts like the brown rice, fermented oatmeal, and nuts and seeds articles above, these chemical compounds essentially protect the seed and its nutrients. Plants don’t want to be eaten; they do a good job of keeping their valuable resources to themselves!
By fermenting the grains first (in this case for our sourdough spelt recipe), we greatly reduce and neutralise these antinutrients. And we thank natural enzymes and microbes like probiotic bacteria and yeasts for doing so (^)(^)(^)(^).
Therefore, we retain the ability to absorb our food’s nutrients and can get all of the nutritious goodness out of the grains (^).
At the same time, the fermentation process essentially “pre-digests” food. This plays an important role in making the human digestive system’s job easier. By design, our digestive system is not like those of other mammals which freely consume seeds in their natural environment.
So if you know how to make sourdough starter from scratch, you know how to take care of your digestive system when using grains!
Now let’s get our lab coats on, because it’s time for science class! We’re going to pull out the studies and science on antinutrients and amazing health benefits of sourdough.
Phytates like ‘phytic acid’ are mostly found in the outer layers of nuts and seeds. These chemicals “lock up” the seed’s minerals and nutrients until it sprouts. After this, they degrade and release nutrients to fuel growth.
However, when we consume phytates, they make chemical bonds to minerals in our digestive tract, including from other foods we eat alongside them. So phytates basically stop us from absorbing minerals.
These include iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, and chromium.
Fortunately, when we know how to make sourdough starter from scratch, we know how to get rid of them.
Why is that? Well, sourdough depends on a process we call ‘lacto-fermentation’. We call it lacto-fermentation after ‘Lactobacillus’ (the family of strains of bacteria that the process relies on).
Lacto-fermentation creates an acidic environment for desired bacteria and enzymes to thrive in. Moreover, the acidity helps to keep harmful bacteria and mould at bay. (This is also one of the oldest forms of food preservation in the world).
Next, this acidic environment activates ‘phytase’, which is the enzyme found in seeds whose purpose is to break down phytates into phosphorous. As a result, the seeds’ growth-promoting nutrients are free for the seedling to use. In fact, it’s much like how eggs contain nutrients for animals to develop!
Now, the same effect occurs during soaking and sprouting of seeds. But overall, the extended duration of lacto-fermentation amplifies phytate reduction and introduces a host of other health benefits, too.
Lectins, on the other hand, are a type of protein that binds to carbohydrates. We cannot digest them well at all, some are toxic, and large amounts pose risks – especially to people with existing digestive or immune disorders.
These risks come from the fact that lectins impair our small intestine’s ability to repair its walls at a normal rate (to make up for wear and tear from our everyday eating). Furthermore, lectins have been shown to exhibit inflammatory responses, cause auto-immune activity, and interfere with protein and carbohydrate metabolism (^).
Recommended Reading (Book): ‘The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in “Healthy” Foods That Cause Disease and Weight Gain’ by Dr. Steven R Gundry MD
Now, they’re often not as scary as that makes them sound, because effective food preparation and cooking and the avoidance of eating raw beans / legumes and grains greatly minimises the effects they have. At the same time, we actually use small amounts of certain lectins for normal bodily processes.
Some people are more sensitive than others, too, and have difficulty digesting seeds, grains, legumes, some vegetables, and the products made from them (even bread). Therefore, if you have an autoimmune disorder, digestive issues like IBS or Crohn’s, or any form of chronic inflammation, you are best off taking the extra steps to eliminate lectins from your diet where possible – and this spelt sourdough recipe helps to do just that. 🙂
Plus, fermentation reduces more kinds of antinutrients such as phytoestrogens and enzyme disruptors. These have different effects that we will shortly touch upon, but won’t go into full detail here.
Increased Nutrient Content and Nutrient Density
Related to the point above about freeing up minerals when we make sourdough, we also actually increase other nutrients!
… But we can’t take credit for that ourselves – it’s the little guys that do it for us. 🙂
Studies show that during fermentation, including for sourdough, beneficial bacteria and yeasts produce an abundance nutrients (^).
Firstly, vitamin content goes up by significant amounts. Specifically, this applies to vitamin A, a range of B Vitamins (B2, B9, B12), Vitamin C, and Vitamin E. Although, the amounts will vary depending on the exact bacteria present.
In addition, this natural preparation of grains greatly increases the amount of some polyphenolic compounds like flavonoids, and decreases others (^)(^). By breaking down cell walls, fermentation can increase the bioavailability of a wide range of these chemicals.
What Do these Polyphenols Do?
Some of these polyphenols actually act as antinutrients themselves, but this doesn’t offset the benefits achieved by increasing some of their amounts and decreasing other antinutrients. Overall, the increase is a positive outcome, as these natural plant compounds are also responsible for antioxidative, anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory, system-supportive, anti-carcinogenic, hepatoprotective (liver-protecting) and many other types of health benefits (^)(^).
The publications linked above demonstrate this, and we know that sourdough breads actually have higher antioxidant activity than commercial breads.
The chemical processes also alter the protein and carbohydrate molecules, which improves digestibility and aids in efficient metabolism. There are a growing number of studies on the subject, so let’s take a quick look at some fascinating findings so far…
Improved Digestion – The Links Between Sourdough, Mild Gluten Sensitivity, Intolerances (Coeliac), Immunity, FODMAPS, and IBS
It’s no secret that a lot of people experience side effects after eating raw wheat and other grains, such as:
- Poor mood
Aside from intolerances and allergies, causes of this can be attributed to aforementioned antinutrients and the fact that the human digestive system is not designed to break down large quantities of raw seeds…
We simply don’t produce the enzymes to sufficiently neutralise antinutrients and metabolise the complex starches and proteins that exist in seeds like grains.
That is why our wise ancestors and traditional cultures today would ferment, sprout, or soak these types foods. The alternative is to remove the bran and germ, which gives us gives the white starch stores of the plant only – a.k.a. the endosperm.
As a result, the endosperm is considered a “refined” grain. This is the difference between white rice and brown rice, white flour and whole-grain flour, and so on.
Are Refined Grains Unhealthy?
Overall, in the context of a healthy lifestyle, diet, and in appropriate portions, refined grains aren’t necessarily bad. We need only look at areas of Japan, Italy, and Greece, for example. In these places we find healthy long-lived populations who enjoy these refined carbohydrates.
Although, I should note the key differences:
- Portion sizes are smaller than many of us would expect;
- They are combined with foods that mitigate negative effects;
- And they are consumed in the context of social, healthy, and active lifestyles.
And even in these areas, there are also long-standing practices of fermentation and soaking of ingredients like white rice, grains, and flours. This has health benefits, preserves foods, and creates cultural wonders like sake, homemade probiotics, and yes, sourdough.
Refined Grains in the Modern Context Are an Issue
However, in modern societies where inactivity is a health pandemic, the average diet is chock-full of insulin-spiking super calorific ultra-processed foods high in fat and sugar, and portion sizes are way out of whack, the problems arise. (We explore how sourdough mitigates this below).
That’s why most people without intolerances / allergies to grains could benefit from emphasising properly prepared whole-grains with over refined grains. Furthermore, the glycaemic index is significantly lower, preventing and benefiting those with insulin sensitivity and type 2 diabetes.
Not only that, but refined grains pose digestive problems, and not only due to the possible inflammatory response. This is especially true large quantities, and some people struggle to digest them because of the complexity of the carbohydrates and proteins.
We call these complex carbs ‘FODMAP’s’, and anyone with IBS will know to follow a diet low in FODMAP’s to improve their symptoms. Fortunately, fermentation is wonderful at breaking these down for us, turning high-FODMAP foods into low-FODMAP foods!
The Sciencey Stuff
A scientific collaboration based in Greece (P. Tsafrakidou et. al.) published a meta-analysis in The Food Journal in 2020. Their aim was to explore and summarise the findings of 139 studies related to the topic of cereal grain fermentation and its potential nutritive and digestive effects.
Therefore, I decided to take some key findings from their work when researching for this article. The study results included in Tsafakidou et. al.’s work demonstrate just how effective fermentation can be in aiding digestion and potentially benefiting those with pre-existing or developing conditions, as concluded by the analysis.
Below I’ll also summarise some of the specific benefits and link to appropriate studies.
Coeliac Disease and Sourdough
The first study of interest contained 17 Coeliac Disease (CD) patients. Throughout the tests, they were given 24h fermented sourdough bread and yeast-risen bread, each made from flour containing the equivalent of 2g of gluten. Normally, gluten will exhibit effects of increased gut permeability in sufferers of CD, leading to symptoms and long-term health risks if maintained. In these cases, dietary sugars known as rhamnose and lactulose are excreted in significant amounts.
It was found that 4 of the patients didn’t respond negatively to either. But of the 13 that saw a reaction to the yeast-risen bread, all of them showed no significant reaction to the sourdough bread as indicated by maintaining basline levels of rhamnose and lactulose (^).
Another study on CD contained 8 patients, and this time the researchers monitored how gluten proteins changed during sourdough preparation. What they found was that the bacteria and fungi actually degraded the complex gluten proteins into free amino acids and easily-absorbed peptides.
Over 60 days, the researchers instructed 8 patients to eat 200g of sweet baked goods made with the fermented flour, averaging the approximate equivalent of 10g gluten per day. 2 patients pulled out of the study early due to compliance difficulties. The results indicated no toxic effects in any of the other 6, however (^).
Other studies support the findings of these two small scale ones, such as these two:
- A 2006 scientific analysis based in Bari, Italy conducted by microbiologists De Angelis M et. al. demonstrated how fermentation of wheat actually degrades gluten proteins, decreases CD immune response, and increases palatability (^).
- Ramedani N et. al. explored this topic in 2020, and found that probiotic fermentation can potentially completely degrade gluten proteins (^).
Nonetheless, individual, professional health analysis should always be conducted before consuming products from gluten-containing grains if you do suffer with CD.
Other Intolerances and Immune Responses
Apart from CD, other allergies to grain proteins also result from ‘IgE-binding proteins’. These contain antibodies which can bind to numerous cells and antigens in the immune system, leading to toxic reactions and inflammation. This is the underlying process expressed in the wide variety clinical allergies.
When researchers investigated how these proteins change during fermentation, they found similar effects as those on gluten!
In short, the bacteria, fungi, and enzymes involved in sourdough fermentation degrade these proteins (^)(^). We hope that these benefits could help those with mild allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances. For now, though, further studies are needed.
On the contrary, one study explored how a decrease in enzyme inhibitors (another type of antinutrient) in sourdough affected IBS sufferers (^). Their results suggested no increase in systemic inflammation after eating sourdough bread, compared to yeast-risen wheat bread. And yet, the patients reported similar non-digestive symptoms (tiredness, joint pain, reduced alertness)…
Despite biological markers not supporting these results, the conclusion was that the “nocebo” effect had a significant impact. In short, the belief that all wheat-based products produce symptoms may have led to symptoms being interpreted by the patients. This mental aspect of health is very real and important to consider.
Interestingly, another 2020 Foods Journal publication actually discussed this study. The international meta-analysis showed that ATI’s (enzyme inhibitors) and inflammatory responses are significantly lower in sourdough breads. However, the previous study cannot be dismissed.
DISCLAIMER: Some people say they have no issues or greatly reduced symptoms with sourdough compared to normal bread, and this is likely variable on a case-by-case basis. You may find the same, or you may not. However, always check with your health practitioner first, and understand that there are several mechanisms by which grains can cause irritation. The science will always find a conclusion eventually, but for now, exercise caution.
Decreased Insulin Response
Insulin spikes are the top risk factor associated with consuming excessive refined carbohydrates and sugars. This food group includes common commercial breads, pastries, and baked goods.
What’s more, the adverse health effects of insulin spikes are significantly higher in people that are inactive, metabolically slow or damaged, or have any existing health conditions – especially metabolic disorders.
Why Insulin Is Important and When It Becomes a Problem
Insulin’s role is to regulate carbohydrate and fat metabolism and storage and the release of glucose as energy for our cells to use (^)(^). For this reason, it is a vital hormone for human health… We couldn’t live without it! However, consider the modern contexts in which many live today…
Processed foods we wouldn’t find in nature lead to excessive spikes in insulin, and then inactive lifestyles are the norm and reallllly don’t need the unsustainable glucose pumps.
So not only are our hormones being manipulated to act against our daily biological and functional demands, but the excess glucose is stored as body fat instead of being actively used up… It’s a proven recipe for disaster.
In the end, this leads to unstable blood sugar levels, stresses on the liver, insulin resistance, AGE production, fat storage, hormonal imbalances, and associated metabolic disorders, etc.
- Systemic inflammation
- Type 2 diabetes
- Alzheimer’s (a.k.a. “diabetes of the brain”)
- Cardiovascular disease (CVD)
Really, my brief explanation only scratches the surface, but I hope it helps you understand the basics.
Why Is Sourdough Any Different?
So, where does sourdough fit into the equation? Well, on a much, much better side than processed foods and modern breads!
Studies show that sourdough fermentation increases resistant starch, slows digestion of carbohydrates (such as via increased bioavailability of fibre and reduced starch), and reduces glycaemic index (^)(^)(^)(^).
As we touched on in my top recipe post: ‘How to Ferment Oats’, resistant starch is amazing for your health. In appropriate quantities, it provides a superb prebiotic boost to your natural gut flora / microbiome, which digest the starch and produce beneficial short-chain fatty acids. These fatty acids include butyrate, which has been shown to immensely support health (for those on non-ketogenic diets) by:
- Feeding colon cells and literally strengthening the gut barrier, which aids digestion, hosts digestive bacteria, and “blocks” invasive micro-organisms from passing through the body;
- Regulating genes associated with anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, immuno-supportive, anti-carinogenic, and appetite-controlling effects;
- Increasing glutathione, which is a powerful antioxidant.
- So much more (^)…
So, knowing how to make sourdough starter from scratch instantly gives you even more access to these benefits.
Furthermore, a slower digestion of sourdough goods and lower glycaemic index directly correlate to reduced insulin spikes! This means in short, that sourdough has a much more favourable effect on helping with insulin sensitivity, optimal metabolism, and overall health. WIN-WIN-WIN.
A Note on Avoiding Unhealthy Refined Flours
There’s another reason why I choose whole-grain over white flours. Beyond the fact that the flavours, aromas, and nutrition are so much richer, they’re also less refined, higher in fibre, and naturally slow-digesting.
Conversely, most white flours lack ‘cellular’ carbohydrates (in other words, carbohydrates still in their natural forms as whole cells). This is because fibre is removed and the grain’s endosperm’s starches are broken down during grinding.
This breaking down produces ‘acellular’ carbohydrates that are much more rapidly digested, thus spiking insulin and blood sugar easily. Then, we metabolise extra sugar in the body, and this leads to more formation of ‘Advanced Glycation End-Products’ (AGE’s). Aptly named, AGE’s literally age the body by creating free radical cascades which can damage our cells en mass.
For the most part, however, worrying about this isn’t a major concern for those following an overall healthy lifestyle and diet. Plus, these negative effects may be positively mitigated by fermentation (at least to some extent). Yes, wholegrain is better, but it isn’t a must…
Nonetheless, if you’re going to learn how to make sourdough starter from scratch, why not go all-in? You can experience more nutrition and flavour with an easy choice of ingredients.
What Is the Best Flour for Sourdough Starter?
I use organic wholegrain spelt flour in this recipe, but you can use absolutely any type out there, depending on what you plan to make!
As a beginner, I started off with wholegrain rye to make rustic bread and crackers, with which I also failed to make muffins (my starter was immature and I didn’t add enough flour before baking – oops)!
For many baked goods like pasta, pizza, bread, and so on, you may want a grain containing gluten, so long as you can digest it well. I choose spelt or rye because they are considered ancient grains. Ancient grains are less genetically modified than modern wheat and may have several other health benefits, too. Besides, I much prefer the nuttiness and boldness they can offer to recipes.
All in all, the best flour for sourdough starter is the flour you want to bake with! Good quality flour = good quality sourdough.
What About Gluten-Free Flours?
For some other recipes like tortillas, flatbreads, some cakes (for example, the Indian ‘idli’), crackers, taco shells, and other foods which don’t always require the strong bonds of gluten, you can try flours such as:
- Gram / chickpea flour
- Corn flour
- Rice flour
- Teff flour (often used to make the spongey African ‘Injera’)
- Millet flour
- Amaranth flour
- Buckwheat flour
Not all flours require soaking, sprouting, or fermenting at all, however! For the most part, it is only those made from grains (cereals), legumes, and other seeds (including pseudo-cereals like millet), that do require these traditional preparations like fermentation, because of the anti-nutrients and other chemical compounds like thyroid and enzyme inhibitors they contain.
So coconut flour, arrowroot flour, yam flour, and blanched* almond flour are good-to-go as you buy them! So it’s up to you whether to try and make sourdough with those ones…
*Blanched means the skin is removed, which is where many of the antinutrients in almonds are found.
The great thing about sharing this post on how to make sourdough starter from scratch, is that you really can make the recipe your own.
Spelt Versus Wheat
Spelt is an ancient relative of wheat, first cultivated around 5,000 BC! It has phased in and out of common use throughout the ages, and nowadays wheat has become the dominant grain.
For the most part, these two grains have very similar nutrient composition. According to NutritionData, 100g of cooked spelt provides a considerable amount of the following nutrients (in terms of USDA Daily Values):
- Calories: 127
- Protein: 5.5g
- Total Carbohydrates: 26.4g
- Fibre: 3.9g
- Fat: 0.9g
- Iron: 1.7mg (12% DV)
- Copper: 0.2mg (11% DV)
- Zinc: 1.3mg (8% DV)
- Phosphorus: 150mg (15% DV)
- Magnesium: 49mg (12% DV)
- Manganese: 1.1mg (55% DV)
- Vitamin B1 (Thiamine): 2.6mg (13% DV)
- Vitamin B3 (Niacin): 0.1mg (7% DV)
Spelt Versus Wheat: Gluten
Also, spelt does contain gluten, so in its raw form particularly is not suitable for those who react negatively to gluten.
Despite some claims that spelt has less gluten than common wheat, studies do not support this. Interestingly, this may depend on the exact cultivar and growing conditions of the spelt grain. Overall, though, research shows that spelt has higher gluten content and less favourable gluten protein ratios for those with coeliac (^)(^)(^)(^)(^).
We can explain this by understanding that gluten consists of two protein types: ‘gliadin’ and ‘glutenins’. Spelt has more gliadins and less glutenins when compared to wheat. Here’s a brief explanation of the two proteins:
- Gliadins give dough its sticky properties when mixed with water, and are the main cause of coeliac inflammatory responses.
- Glutenins provide strength and elasticity, and are also involved numerous allergies and reactions.
Recommended Reading (Online Article): ‘Spelt and the Many Shades of Gluten Sensitivity’ by Romilly Hodges, MS CNS. (A fascinating deep-dive into spelt glutens, FODMAP’s, why sourdough could get the “green light”, and how to prepare spelt berries).
Other Minor Differences between Spelt and Wheat
At the same time, spelt generally has a higher fibre content than wheat, which supports a healthy digestive system and encourages regularity. Make sure to use wholegrain spelt, as the outer layers of the grain are where this fibre is found (e.g. the bran and germ).
I also personally prefer the flavour of spelt, and have read others saying the same. It is generally more nutty and lends itself to rustic or bold recipes, but is still tame and makes a wonderful savoury pairing with any food that wheat does.
So for those without sensitivities or allergies, I’d argue that spelt is a better choice overall. Plus, if you’re concerned about GMO’s, go for spelt over wheat.
Also, as a side note, enjoying a more diverse diet often correlates to impressive health benefits.
Quick Tips (Learn from My Mistakes)!
Be Liberal with the Flour when Making Dough
My biggest mistake when it has come to actually using sourdough has been getting the recipes all wrong… I’d not add enough flour to the starter, and end up with sticky dough that did not bake well at all.
To easily remedy this mistake (apart from by adding more flour and testing for the dough’s desired texture in the first place), just add more flour after the initial proofing, and let it proof for longer.
Wait for the Rise Before Using (the First Test)
A mature starter has to be fed, as we’ll learn about shortly. After feeding, it should rise and go bubbly, approximately doubling in size.
This rise is the number one tell-tale sign that your sourdough starter is ready… It is very important, as it lets us know that the bacteria, yeasts, and enzymes, are doing the job that we’re asking them to do.
After all, our goal is to get them to digest the flour. When they do this, their “waste produce” is CO2, which naturally creates bubbles and trapped gasses in the starter.
Knowing how to make sourdough starter from scratch isn’t very useful if we don’t know how when it’s ready. So, always wait for the rise.
Test in Cold Water (the Second Test)
The cold water test is the number two sign that your sourdough starter is ready…
When I was first learning how to make sourdough starter from scratch, I had no clue about this test, but it made all the difference later on.
Once your starter is showing all the good signs – the smells, the gasses, the rise, no mould, etc., the final test is to put a tablespoon of the stuff in cold water.
If we’ve done everything right and the little microorganisms are busy, the starter should be light and fluffy. In that case, it won’t be dense, and won’t sink in water.
- If it sinks, give the starter a refeed and another rise.
- If it floats, you’re good to get cooking and can let out a cheer of success to your new invisible-to-the-naked-eye kitchen friends!
“Feed It or Lose It”
You have to treat sourdough like a baby… Or a pet… 🙂 No, I don’t mean sing songs to your glass jar in your slippers every morning like a maniac and wrap it in fluffy cotton garments… But hey, no one’s judging!
I’m talking about feeding it! Sourdough starter is the result of trillions of live bacteria and yeasts in unique colonies that you’ve nurtured. Yep, your very own living creation (aren’t you proud)!
However, like us, these little guys can eventually run out of food, so you need to keep them healthy and happy by adding more flour and water for them to feed on. This keeps your starter active and ready to use and maintains an acidic medium in order to prevent mould.
P.S. The online sourdough / fermentation community frequently name their sourdoughs with a little label. They’re like family if you want them to be!
How to Feed Sourdough Starter (Guidelines)
Typically, you should feed sourdough starter daily, and it only takes a couple of minutes. With a mature starter at an amount you’re comfortable with, simply remove and either use or discard some starter, and mix into the batch the same total amount of water and flour. This way, the starter stays alive, and the amount remains manageable.
For example, when I store a starter at room temperature, I might have 250g. I’ll discard 100g of the starter (or however much I need), and stir in 50g water and 50g flour.
A good general guideline for maintenance is to discard and replenish half of your total sourdough each time, unless you’re trying to grow it even more.
Maintain by feeding once every 12-24 hours if kept at room temperature, or once every week (or up to two weeks) if kept in the fridge. Whether you keep it in the fridge or not depends on how often you plan to use the sourdough.
If you do keep sourdough refrigerated once it is mature, you can get it ready to use very easily. Simply remove from the fridge, let it warm close to room temperature, and then feed and let it rise as above before using in recipes.
The Almost-Super-Simple Spelt Sourdough Starter Recipe (Wholegrain):
Simple Spelt Sourdough Starter Recipe
- Mason Jar or substitute – see notes
- Wooden Spoon
- Measuring Jug
- 250 g Spelt Flour Organic, wholegrain (I Use 'Doves Farm' Brand here in the UK)
- 250 g Tepid Water Dechlorinated (See Notes)
- First, measure out 25 g of flour into a measuring jug on your weighing scales, and add this into a clean sterilised jar (see recipe notes for alternatives). Do the same with 25g of water (25ml) and stir until the mixture has reached an even consistency. Seal the lid and set aside for the next day, preferably somewhere warm.
- After 24-hours have passed since step 1, repeat the exact same process. By now you should have 100g immature starter in the jar.
- After another 24-hours, it is time to feed your starter again. If conditions are optimal, fermentation may have started already and you will begin and notice bubbles forming in the starter, gasses being released, and a distinct smell. At all stages hereon, we will be checking the smell and appearance each day. See the recipe notes below for safety advice and tips on recognising "good smells" vs "bad smells" and spotting mould.
- Continue this process until day 5, which will provide you with a total of 250g starter. This is plenty for many recipes and uses, with enough left-over to keep the batch going. But, should you require more, now start to add 100g water and 100g flour each day for a couple of days or so until you're happy with the amount.
- A starter is "mature" when the microorganisms and enzymes are established and active enough for us to use in recipes. This is evident from what is called the "rise" after feeding, described below and shown in this image from my Twitter feed when I made a massive loaf – this is the 2nd "proof" after 12 hours!).
- Each day discard half of your starter, and replace it with fresh flour and (dechlorinated) water. For 250g, that means taking out 125g and adding 62(.5)g of each ingredient.You should dilute discard and pour it down the drain or compost it, for example, but it isn't ready for use until you the next step…
- Discard and feed like this until you notice the starter bubbling and rising within 8-24h after feeding – it should approximately double in size, and will flatten out afterwards or if handled. Once this happens, it is officially mature!
- Now you can use the starter in recipes, and can even use the discard each day (a lot of people use discard for pancakes, flatbreads, or crackers)! A bubbly, freshly risen – and therefore highly active – starter is often called for in most other sourdough recipes like breads, doughs, and pastries for optimal results.
- To maintain the starter at room temperature: Discard and feed every 12-24h, depending on how active it is.
- To maintain the starter at room temperature: Discard and feed every 12-24h, depending on how active it is.
- To "revive" a refrigerated starter: As described in the post above, remove from the fridge, let it warm at least close to room temperature, and feed. Use it after it rises.
To dechlorinate water:You can use a Water Filter (See Recommendations) or simply boil the water to remove the chlorine. Make sure you let it cool to a lukewarm temperature before you use it, otherwise the heat will kill the beneficial bacteria, yeasts, and denature the phytase.
For the container:
SAFETY FIRST – Monitoring the smell and keeping an eye out for mould:
- Slightly vinegary
- Or even resemble “slightly old socks”…
Go and Get Sourdough Started!
So, in short, sourdough starter is fermented flour. This fermented flour can – and should – be used in baking, pastry-making, and much more.
Traditionally, many cultures ferment(ed) seeds, grains, and their flours in order to reap the benefits of:
- Increased nutrition
- Cultural creation
- Minimised adverse effects and symptoms of eating raw grains, seeds, nuts, and even different vegetable-based flours.
It’s a super-simple process when it comes down to it. The longest part is waiting for Mother Nature’s bacteria, yeasts, and enzymes to do their jobs! 🙂
And apart from that, this article explains just some of the major health benefits that really make it all worth it. Whether you’re looking to eat a more natural and ancestral diet, or to improve your digestive symptoms, or simply try something fun in the kitchen that’s good for you… Sourdough is an awesome choice.
The recipe above for how to make sourdough starter from scratch uses wholegrain, organic spelt. However, you can theoretically use any type of flour, and should ferment any flour from raw seed-based foods (grains, pseudo-grains, and legumes).
But, you’ll still get some brilliant results from non-grain flour sourdoughs (like coconut or almond) and I encourage you to experiment and see what you can come up with.
Cooking is fun, and health is the reward of taking doing things naturally, with care, and with a smile.
If you liked this recipe, you’ll love to read our other fermenting recipes and posts!
Please share this recipe with anyone who might benefit from sourdough or enjoys getting creative in the kitchen! Every share supports this website and really means a lot. Thank you for reading!
Until next time, stay healthy
Frequently Asked Questions:
You ideally shouldn’t add yeast to sourdough starter, and it shouldn’t be needed. This is because we’re cultivating natural wild yeasts and bacteria already, and adding commercial yeast could disrupt this process and won’t provide the same benefits. However, if a sourdough starter isn’t quite providing enough of a rise for specific recipes, adding a little extra yeast could occasionally help in baking, as long as the starter is mature.
Kept at room temperature, a starter ideally shouldn’t go for more than a couple of days without feeding, or it will lose activity. Too much longer, and it could start to die out, possibly inviting mould. If you refrigerate the starter, a weekly feeding is ideal, but if absolutely necessary it will likely survive well for a couple of months before activity is significantly lost. Should you “kill” a starter and it ceases most or all activity, however, the good news is that 1 or 2 feedings will usually revive it! (In the latter case, move to a clean container for food safety).
In a word, nope! Sourdough starters do not need to be airtight, and it is perfectly fine (even encouraged) for a little airflow in a sanitary environment. However, you should keep it covered with at least a cloth or cheesecloth to prevent large particles or anything unwanted from getting in.
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