Making a Sourdough Starter from Scratch

Image: Lucy Thomson

If there was ever a time to take up bread making, this is it. Find out how to cultivate and nurture your own sourdough starter.

One perhaps unexpected side effect of lockdown has been a renewed enthusiasm for flour-based kitchen activities – so much so, that only two weeks ago flour mills reported shortages as demand for the essential ingredient soared. If our Instagram feed is anything to go by, the trend developed like this: first, it was the humble banana bread. Next up, delicate curls of homemade tagliatelle. This week? It’s the turn of the sourdough loaf. 

Having welcomed a sourdough starter into our household recently, its daily feeding, growth and bubbliness have become a constant concern and, I’ll be honest, we’ve had a few near misses. A plea for tips on my social media had a mixed response, from ‘best of luck, I’ve killed three now’ to lengthy success stories and advice. The world of sourdough and starters is new to many of us, but the joys of mastering the skill are endlessly beneficial, as anyone who’s been upping their working from home lunch-game or curating Pinterest-worthy weekend brunch plates will know. So, how to begin your sourdough adventure? Get START-ed here:


Image: Lucy Thomson

Starting a Starter

The easiest way to begin is to ask a neighbour or baker for a splinter of their starter and feed it from there. However, you can also start from scratch and get your starter up and running in just seven days.

Before you begin, ensure you are equipped with kitchen scales (measurements.are.everything), a glass jar, flour and a tap. Bear in mind that the ratio of water to flour needs to be 1:1; we’ve gone with 50ml, but if you decide to up the amount of flour to 100g, be sure to do so for the water too! Set? Let’s go. 

Day 1: Thoroughly clean out a big glass jar. Boil water and leave to cool until lukewarm to touch – a filtered water also works. To the jar, add 50ml water and 50g wholemeal bread flour. Mix well and keep at room temperature.

Day 2: Add 50ml of water and 50g of wholemeal bread flour, and mix well.

Day 3: Remove half of the starter and discard, then repeat adding 50ml water, 50g flour.

Days 4, 5 and 6: Repeat day 3’s instructions.

Day 7: You should notice that the starter changes in volume and forms plenty of bubbles. A top tip to see how much your starter grows is using elastic bands stretched round the outside of the jar to mark its lowest and highest peak. Your starter is ready, set, good-to-GO! Use at its most ‘active’, when it’s at its peak volume.

Then, until your love of bread making subsides or you decide to open a bakery, continue feeding your starter as above. Once it’s developed, store the starter in the fridge and feed once a week.

Photographer Lucy Thomson, among other plea-for-help-respondents, has found that despite widespread advice that sticking to one type of flour is best, switching between grains doesn’t seem to have too detrimental an effect. “I started with wholemeal, switched to spelt, then went on to white!” she says. The possibilities, it seems, are endless – and in the interest of making the most of your store cupboard leftovers, we’d encourage being as resourceful and open-minded as possible!

Image: Bread I did not make. Picture on loan from a kind relative.

Baking with a starter

There’s no hard and fast rule for the best way to bake with a starter, though friends have warned me to put a time limit on researching methods and recipes to avoid an endless sourdough-scroll (worse things have happened, of course).The key, it seems, is experimentation. 

Zero-waste chef Max La Manna has been researching and testing his own loaf over the last six weeks – according to his wife Venetia, sourdough has become the third person in their marriage. So, what’s his advice? “Practice, practice, practice,” says Max, “the more you bake the better your loaves of bread will turn out. Give your loaf of bread away to friends and neighbours”. 

And, in his experience, preparation is key. “Each loaf of bread is going to be different – that’s just the way it is, so planning your bake will give you the time you need to make sure everything goes smoothly.”

Of course, bread is just one of the many bakes to experiment with – check out Max’s recipe for crumpets if you want to branch out further. 

Image: More bread I did not make. Picture kindly on loan from a friend.

Use Up, Don’t Discard

As your starter grows and develops, you’ll need to discard half of the dough mixture each time you feed it. This can be scooped out and disposed of – or in the interest of reducing food waste (and on the advice of my cousin’s girlfriend-turned-sourdough-specialist), turn it into a delicious dippable dough-form. “Add garlic powder and spring onions to the discard, mix it up and fry it in a thin layer of hot oil,” Annie recommends. Once cooked through and crisp, dunk it in a dipping sauce – she recommends a teriyaki option, but you could go for leftover veggie dips too.

“I’ve also tried mixing it with a little melted butter, spreading it on baking paper, adding herbs and salt and baking for about 40 minutes for easy crackers.” Keep a jar of discard stowed in the fridge for quick and savoury snacks, Annie recommends.

Got a taste for fermenting? Learn how to make your own fermented vegetables.

Try making Danielle Copperman’s tofu cream cheese to add to your sourdough toast.

Discover more creative activities to help pass the time at home