How to Acquire a Sourdough Starter

There are basically three ways to get your own sourdough starter.

  • From a friend. If possible, this is surely the easiest. And since most sourdough bakers take some measure of pride in their cherished starter, they will likely go out of their way to see you on a shared path to the sourdough promise land.
  • Free on-line. A Google search on “free sourdough starter” will probably turn up something. But let me save you the time. There’s a group known as “Friends of Carl” who will mail you Carl Griffith’s 1847 Oregon Trail Sourdough Starter in dried form for the cost of a self addressed stamped envelope. For all the details visit http://www.carlsfriends.org.
  • Buy it. There are any number of purveyors of sourdough starter who would be happy to exchange their product for some of your dough. One who comes immediately to mind is, well, me! Of course my sourdough starter is the best on the planet for sure and is available from the Breadtopia Marketplace, to be shipped to you dried (dormant) or in the actual living form.
Note: My sourdough starter was actually started by a friend of mine in San Francisco years ago, which I think is fitting since I was also started in San Francisco years ago. However, while you might logically think this would make it “genuine” San Francisco sourdough starter, many sourdough experts would argue that regardless of where your starter originates, sooner or later it becomes “genuine” to the locale where it resides. The theory being that the yeast spores and bacteria indigenous to your locale will infiltrate your prized culture and become its dominant strain. Others, especially the ones who sell starter from Zanzibar, Giza or wherever, hold a different opinion. Either way, my genuine SF/Iowa sourdough starter is the best on the planet for sure .

{ 115 comments… read them below or add one }

Cathie AKA Missouri Mule January 23, 2009 at 4:03 pm

I have a starter that has been in my family from Missouri since the wagon train days. It is hard to kill. When my folks married in 1932, they did not have electricity. They kept the starter in a jar in a bucket and hung in down into the well to keep it cool. They baked every 1-2 days. I was taught that if you have not baked in a while, to boil a small potatoe, mash it and add water and all to your starter. Kind of a kick start. Well I traveled in a motor home for over 3 years and the starter did not like it at all, so I froze it. That starter was looking pretty bad and I thought it was surely dead. But this starter contains DNA from all of my baking ancestors and I am the only one that has kept it. So, last weekend I did the potatoe water thing and guess what??? I made sourdough bread, the first time in nearly 5 years! It was not as sour, but I will continue to bake. A blessed miiracle! I need to learn to dry it, just in case. I don’t want to every kill it. How do you dry it? Also, this whole thing with San Francisco sour dough bread is funny to me, because after all, it went thru Missouri first to get to SF.
Keep Baking!
Cathie

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Dave the Novice January 20, 2009 at 2:14 pm

For all of you who are interested in the science behind sourdough, as I am, Debra Wink has recently begun posting regularly on thefreshloaf. Here’s a link to her post yesterday:
http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/10375/lactic-acid-fermentation-sourdough

Enjoy.

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Chadman January 19, 2009 at 10:58 pm

I too am intrigued by armgards comments regarding the affects of temperature on the bacterial component of a starter. I’ve been playing around for about a month now, trying various ways of creating a good reliable (in taste) starter. I’ve had decent luck, but my first batch really developed a bad taste, and I suspect it could have been the ambient temp. That attempt was a countertop (no refridgeration) method, and I turn my furnace down to 62 at night. The other attempts produced a better result, but I realized that I would refrigerate them and warm/feed them during the day while the furnace was at 72. Maybe coincidence, but I’m going to pursue this line of reasoning.

Love the info on this site, thank you Eric!

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Bob Packer January 12, 2009 at 2:56 pm

Would one made by Billie The Kid’s grave be a “killer” bread??

Sorrry, couldn’t resist!

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Breadtopia January 12, 2009 at 11:07 am

Or how about if you made sourdough near a headstone of someone who had a reputation of being mean. Would that make a more sour sourdough?

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Dave Womack January 12, 2009 at 10:55 am

I must admit I am intrigued by the whole headstone concept. Would sourdough made from proximity to a 1800s headstone taste different from one that was close to a headstone from say 1972? Inquiring minds want to know.

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David Parker January 11, 2009 at 11:24 pm

I haven’t made sourdough in many years. My mom had a great starter she made from potato water. She used a plastic cup full of that water and covered it with cheese cloth. She then took it to the local cemetary and placed it next to an old head stone, from the early 1800’s, covered with lichens and fungus overnight. The spores fell into the potato water and it made the best sourdough I’ve ever had.

I recently got a starter of “Amish friendship bread” which is like sourdough but has milk. I’m adding just flour and water to it now and it’s getting a bit strong. I love to bite into sourdough that bites me back! So nice to find this group!!!

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Lee Smith December 30, 2008 at 1:13 pm

Question for Armgard:
Can you give us some more detail about how the 3 days are divided up between the sponge, main dough, and final fermentation stage? Is the 3 day cycle necessary. I guess I’d bite the bullet if that’s what it takes, but maybe parts of it can be shortened, or perhaps the three days is the big item.

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hipkip December 6, 2008 at 3:54 pm

Thanks so much for this site and videos. I have taken a bit of time off from baking after moving from the pacific northwest to New Orleans. But I am now back in the PNW and was excited to find your site to jump start me back into baking. I just started my own sourdough starter today and later today will making the almost no knead bread…..thanks!

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Breadtopia December 2, 2008 at 4:28 pm

Thanks a lot, armgard.

This is great information. Maybe the best clue for people desirous of producing a sour tasting bread consistently. And the best explanation for why results can seem random, or at least elusive.

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armgard November 18, 2008 at 6:38 pm

Sour comes from acetic and lactic acid formed during fermentation. at low T (18-20 deg C = 65-68 F) mostly acetic acid forms, which evaporates on baking. At higher T, lactic acid forms to a higher degree. This does not bake out and gives the bread the sour taste. I once made rye bread in the summer in an over hot kitchen and had a hard time eating the result. At ~ 27 deg (80.6 F) and above, mostly lactic acid forms and you get more sour than you want. Got this from a German site. They recommend starting the 3-day process at 18-20 C, sponge and main dough at 20-22 C and final fermentation and rise at ~24 C. Have done this and had much admired German rye bread. This is definitely a winter undertaking if you live in the south!

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Breadtopia October 7, 2008 at 2:25 pm

They’ll live forever if taken care of. I’ve heard of people reviving their starter after weeks of being unattended in the fridge. Don’t know about 2 years though, that would be a major stretch.

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B Ceccanti October 6, 2008 at 6:51 pm

Breadtopia,

I have heard about people having starters back from generations ago….how do they keep them alive that long? How long will one that’s not being used “keep” in the refrigerator if its not being used? And can one that’s been sitting refrigerated for two years still be reactivated?

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patti September 27, 2008 at 7:56 am

Hello
Thanks for the descriptive info on the sour dough bacteria. I have already dusted off my chemistry books and am delving into this with increased enthusiasm. I definitely will google more on Debra Wink.
I just wanted to share that I used the grape starter also with milk and have created a ‘cheese’ consistency with it after 24hours. I am hesitant to taste unless I have it tested but the texture, smell and look of it feels like a creamy ricotta. I use the whey for non-food purposes. I have also created some probiotic cultures and now this will also add to my journal.
Hey…what’s better than putting asiago or feta in your sour dough bread recipe…..move over Panera!!!!
Thanks for a lively and informational website. :) P

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Breadtopia September 27, 2008 at 6:11 am

Here’s my take on your question about sourdough starter differences;

There are numerous strains of beneficial bacteria and yeast that can be captured each time you create your own starter. It’s the lactobacilli (bacteria) that’s responsible for imparting flavor. According to Sourdoughs International (www.sourdo.com), “In addition to the many wild yeast strains in sourdough cultures, lactic acid bacteria generate 45 flavor producing ingredients.”

Since it’s entirely possible to end up with a different set of ingredients with each batch of starter generated, you may also end up with a different flavor and texture of bread. But unless you have your starter lab tested, you only have your own subjective experience to go by.

Also from Sourdoughs International: “… the primary flavor does not come from the yeast, but instead from lactobacilli present in symbiosis with the strain or strains of wild yeast in the culture. There can be one strain of wild yeast and one strain of lactobacilli, but there also can be several strains of each in a sourdough culture. In most cultures these strains have not been scientifically identified.” From what I’ve read, the famous San Francisco sourdough bread flavor allegedly comes from lactobacilli sanfrancisco, an actual unique strain of bacteria that may only exist naturally in that region.

I’ve started and maintained several sourdough starters over the years and have also acquired starters from other sources (King Arthur Flour, Sourdoughs International and Carl Griffith’s starter). While I have found differences between them and with the results I get, I’ve also found that the differences faded over time. Others (like Sourdoughs International) contend that each cultures differences can be maintained over time.

It’s a fascinating subject for sure and provides endless opportunity for experimenting and just having fun with it.

By the way, while the grape skins may harbor different strains and produce a different starter, any grape flavor that might initially be present will fade to non-existent after a refreshment or two. The same would be true of any other medium used to start the starter, like potatoes or whatever.

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patti September 26, 2008 at 7:27 pm

Hello,
I am finding these posts very fascinating and am learning alot from your sharing. I have been ‘toying’ around with fermenting foods for about a year and watching the videos got me hooked to try the sour dough starters. I posted earlier that my husband was making wine a few weeks ago with some homegrown concord crushed grapes, skins and all. I skimmed off the top part of his already fermenting wine ( it had bubbled over the counter accidently and knew it was ‘good’ stuff) and then put it w. some ww. flour and water. It started almost immediately. So far I have made three batches of what I consider to be very good bread. I am new at this method, but what would be the difference between the pineapple starter versus the grapes? Would I get a sweeter bread? My sour dough recipe has that ‘sour’ taste through-out. I also tried the wheat sprouting method in water and that gave me the same results that you talk about in the above posts ? Thanks. P

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Breadtopia September 15, 2008 at 11:09 am

Hi Jaime. Thanks for the nice feedback and, sure, link up all you want!

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Jaime September 13, 2008 at 7:01 pm

Wow, this is cool. I’ve googled sour dough starter a bunch of times but never found anything as helpful as your blog. Do you mind if I link you up on my blog?

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breadtopia July 14, 2008 at 8:45 pm

Hooch forms when the starter has been sitting around too long without feeding. Almost everybody says it’s not a problem and either pour it out or mix it back in (if the starter is dry to start with for example). On the other hand, Hooch never forms on my starter as long as it’s fairly vigorous and fed fairly often so it doesn’t seem like a particularly good sign either.

As to the hooch forming on the bottom instead of the top, I’ve seen that and always assumed that it was just forming somewhere and getting trapped if the starter mixture was fairly stiff. But that’s just a guess.

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Art Dilley July 13, 2008 at 9:34 pm

When attempting to make wild yeast sourdough starter, the liquid (Hooch) or alcohol seems to form on the bottom of the jar instead of the top. Can you tell me what causes this?

Art

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breadtopia June 21, 2008 at 8:52 am

How’s this for a belated reply?

I really need to put together a whole dedicated section on this topic and encourage contributions from others. Adjusting the degree of sour is a popular question. Many people want to know how to increase the sour. Not quite as many want to know how to decrease the sour.

For the life of me, I have yet to come up with advise that works for everyone all the time. Generally speaking, the longer the dough ferments, the more sour it becomes. But you don’t want to over proof the dough either. So one thing that many bakers try to do is let their bread rise in a cool place to rise slowly. Bakeries may have temperature controlled rooms for just this. For the home baker, you can retard the proofing process by refrigerating the dough for several hours or overnight then resuming the process at room temp until the dough is ready to bake.

This is something you have to experiment with with each recipe to find what works, if it works at all.

Allowing the sourdough starter to get “really ripe” by not feeding for a few days before baking can contribute to a more sour bread. A baker at King Arthur Flour once told me she “abuses” her starter to achieve more sour.

If anybody reading this has any reliable and repeatable suggestions, please add them below and I’ll start collecting info to aggregate in one place later.

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Gerri Lawson May 26, 2008 at 10:11 pm

I know I saw on your website how to make your sour dough “more sour” but for the life of me I can’t locate it! Please let me know where it is, or how to do it.

I received my starter last week and am getting ready to try it for the first time tomorrow I’m really excited to taste it!

Thanks, Eric

Gerri

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Judy, Pollock Pines CA March 22, 2008 at 5:47 pm

Hi, Just made my first loaf today. Tastes wonderful. It was a bit underdone in the center. I live at 3,500 ft and wonder if I need to bake it more. The loaf was very dark on the outside. Can I somehow lighten it up a bit? Any ideas are welcome as I am a novice.

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breadtopia March 22, 2008 at 9:52 am

I’m not sure what the advantages are of using her technique. I tried it once a couple years ago with similar results to yours and ended up tossing it. To be fair, this can (and does) happen with any technique for making starter, but now I just recommend Debra Wink’s method since it’s much easier and has a higher probability of succeeding.

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Andrew Ward March 21, 2008 at 11:21 pm

I have been attempting to make nancy silvertons sourdough starter (grapes, flower water) for a week now. what has happened is that there is a complete separation between the flour and water / grape juice with no foaming activity. Is this an inactive starter or just a complete failure. I tossed the grapes in the cheese cloth this evening and added flour and water in an attempt to kick start it.

Any help would be appreciated!

thanks

Andrew Ward
LA, CA

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breadtopia March 21, 2008 at 8:08 am

Hi David.

You definitely want to keep in the fridge and vent the lid. Just a tiny vent is sufficient.

For once a week baking, you could probably get by with feeding it once a week. After a while you’ll get a feel for the best way to manage it. There’s a pretty wide range of workable options.

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David Soza March 20, 2008 at 10:53 pm

Eric,
I just ordered your live starter. What is the best way to manage the starter for the long haul if you only use it maybe once a week? Would keeping it in the fridge be a good idea, or does it need to stay at room temp? Does the lid always need to be vented?

David

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Fred March 19, 2008 at 10:41 am

Hi Eric.. Enjoy your web pages.

The way I’ve been using to make my sourdough starter is with KEFIR (fermented milk) bacteria, which makes a simple, vigorous, & repeatable starter.

Typically, I add KEFIR whey (the clear non-milky part of “kefirized milk” which separates from the milk curd ) to equal parts of apple cider & flour (usually a combination of wheat berries, rye berries, hull-less barley & flax seed ground in a coffee grinder). Then after 12 – 24 hours I add double the flour & apple cider to it every 12 hours for 2 days or so. Makes a reliable starter, which if left in a jar for several days can develop a strong sourdough taste.

Anyone interested in learning about KEFIR can find lots of info at following web site.

http://users.chariot.net.au/~dna/kefirpage.html

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David Soza March 12, 2008 at 9:55 am

Thanks for the info, I’ll have a look. Back in the late 80’s I was driving through Jackson Hole, Wyoming and stopped in at a place called “Sourdough Jacks” for breakfast. The place was packed and a line way out the door. The pancakes were the best I ever had! I didn’t make it back that way until 2000. The place had changed hands, the crowds were gone, and the pancakes were horrible! No amount of butter or syrup could make me finish them. The originals were pretty strong but in a good way. The latest ones were just nasty. There is a place here in town that makes sourdough cakes that are very mild. They are almost too mild, but still great. It just had me wondering how that happens. Obviously not all sourdough is created equal. I guess it will be fun finding that “sweet” spot.

David

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breadtopia March 12, 2008 at 8:40 am

Hi David,

There are lots of ways you can try to control the flavor. I say “try” because it’s not always easy. In fact, I find it’s mostly not easy.

Although one thing that seems to hold true on a fairly consistent basis, is if you want a milder starter then feed it more frequently and feed it as close to the time you use it as practical.

You can find some conversation about controlling sour in the comments over at http://www.breadtopia.com/make-your-own-sourdough-starter, if you can handle scrolling through to find them.

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David Soza March 11, 2008 at 10:54 pm

Hi,
Are there ways to control the flavor that the sourdough imparts to the bread? I’ve had some that were so strong I could hardly eat it, and many others that were like heaven. I don’t know if the problem was the starter or the cook. I plan to mainly use mine for bisquits and pancakes. I’ve been wanting to do this for years, so here goes.

David

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breadtopia February 18, 2008 at 8:28 am

It should be better than nothing but there’s something about the heat transfer properties of a high thermal mass container like a cast iron Dutch oven or a ceramic baker that works particularly well.

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susan hamel February 18, 2008 at 8:22 am

Hi. I have a large covered enamel pot that I use for boiling up jars when I do preserves. Will that serve as a dutch oven for my bread baking? Thanks. Susan.

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breadtopia February 8, 2008 at 9:55 am

I just feed it really well right before I mail it, adding enough flour to create a pretty doughy ball. Then double bag it in a zip lock bag like it came to you. I’ve had almost no problems with this method as it seems to travel well.

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Nate February 8, 2008 at 9:44 am

Eric –

I have a question for you. I want to mail my father-in-law some of my starter. I received live starter from you a few months ago. How do you prep your starter so that a live starter can travel via USPS for up to 4 days and be a viable starter on the other end?

thanks

nate

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breadtopia February 6, 2008 at 7:37 pm

To create a really healthy starter, ideally you want to at least double the volume of starter you’re feeding. If you have a cup of starter, feed it a cup of flour and about 2/3 – 3/4 cup of water. Otherwise, you can just keep it alive and reasonably healthy just by feeding it some amount of flour and water every few days or so.

But this isn’t exactly a hard science. If you’re not baking much for a period of time, you can cut back on maintenance. Then when you’re ready to bake again, take a 1/4 cup of your old starter and feed it 1 cup flour and some water. Do this a couple times and your neglected starter is strong again.

This whole SD maintenance thing is just something you get a feel for over time. Learning as you go from experience is the best way. There’s a wide range of care/feeding/maintenance options that work and are perfectly valid.

Of course you can give away all you want and start as many containers as you want, rather than toss it.

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Ldy12 February 6, 2008 at 7:03 pm

Hi Eric! I just received your starter in the mail. Thank you for shipping it out so quickly!

I will follow your instructions but of course, I have a few questions that I hope you will answer for me.

In your directions, you say that we can build up our starter to the quantity we desire. We, your little dough grasshoppers are then to feed our stater once or twice daily. Please, just how much am I to feed my one or two cups of stater for those one or two daily feedings? My goal is to create enough starter on my first batch to not only use two times a week for baking but to give some away to friends who also like to bake.

My second question is about throwing away excess starter while in the feeding process of the starter that I’m going to use for baking bread. You poured yours down the sink. May I give that away to others to use instead of throwing it away? Can’t I just add that extra cup or two to another container and start another starter from that? I hate to waste something as precious as sourdough starter since I have been without it for years.

That’s all I had to ask you, Eric. I will start your starter tomorrow with great pleasure! I can’t wait to see what is created by a San Francisco/Iowa starter. I look forward to years of great bread! Wish me luck!

Best wishes,

Andee S.
Los Angeles, CA.

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Ldy12 February 2, 2008 at 2:31 pm

I was wondering if you were successful with your new batch of starter. Someone sent me a slice of bread from the Boudin Bakery in San Francisco. I’d love to be able to experiment with that and make a starter out of it. Please let me know if your sourdough bread starter was successful.

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breadtopia February 2, 2008 at 5:52 am

Hi Joe,

It’s really a toss up which one you choose. The live is much faster to resuscitate and build up to a usable quantity. They both come with instructions.

Not really sure about the garlic once it’s diced. I know you’re not supposed to store it in oil at room temp. I have a feeling it will be fine and worst case I would think baking at 450 – 500 would wipe out anything harmful. Maybe someone else here knows that answer.

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Joe Detrano January 31, 2008 at 1:42 pm

erik,

two questions;

which of your starters do you place in the # 1 position? it would seem you would choose one over the other. and do they come with directions?

second, someone wrote you about putting diced garlic in the bread at the beginning, meaning before the 18 hour rise period. do you think there is any chance the garlic would go bad after a8 hours plus a few hours for the second rise? i have made olive bread that way but the olive have been cured.

thanks! whatever starter you recommend i’ll order!

joe detrano

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Dave January 24, 2008 at 5:50 pm

Eric,

I’m sure glad I came across your website while looking for information on sourdough bread. Since finding your site I have requested and recieved a dry sourdough starter from the freinds of Carl’s at http://www.carlsfriends.org that you mentioned on your site.

As a lover of all things scientific I am having great fun reviving the starter and watching it come back to life. I would say it is “almost” as fun as baking a loaf. Now that I have my starter and hope to be able to use it this weekend I am back on Breadtopia to search for a great recipe and review some of the videos you have here.

Thanks much for the wealth of information you have here. I’ll be heating up the baking stone again any day now and making my first loaf of sourdough.

Dave M.
Fresno, Ca

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Pat Gleason January 24, 2008 at 3:51 pm

The idea or concept of soaking a piece of bread from the center of a loaf of bread to obtain a starter is a nice experimental idea, however, anything that has been baked at a temperature of over I believe 145 degrees is when yeast cells die. So, apparently, although it may have been a good base for a starter (??) it was probably the actual capturing of wild yeast in your environment that actually came to life as an active starter. There is a lot of info on starters in Prof. Raymond Calvel’s book – The Taste of Bread, which has been translated from French into English within the past several years, and can be found on Amazon on-line. May your dough rise faithfully!

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jacqueg January 9, 2008 at 11:19 pm

There’s a restaurant near me that has their own brick oven and makes great pizza. Bought some pizza dough from them, and used some of it for a starter. It’s one of the stronger starters I’ve ever had!

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Richard L Walker January 6, 2008 at 3:43 pm

I liked the idea of using yeast from an actual product, but I wonder if bread yeast could survive the baking process. On the other hand, I have done exactly the same thing to get a yeast culture from beer (think hospital level sterilization) … and then make my own.

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breadtopia December 12, 2007 at 4:58 am

That was creative. I’ve read that yeast dies at a relatively low temperature when baked, so it would be interesting to know if the starter you created came from the air and/or flour you added or the bread you soaked. If it was from the soaked bread, it would sure be easy to capture some of the prized cultures from the famous San Francisco sourdough breads, for example.

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CMpal December 12, 2007 at 1:30 am

Eric, there’s a fourth way to get a sourdough starter. I loved the flavor of a bread from a coastal bakery. I purchased a fresh loaf and took a slice from the middle of the loaf. Took the soft center of the slice and soaked it in a cup of filtered water to soften. When softened, I added some flour and placed in the oven with the light on overnight. There were a few bubbles in the AM and removed about a 1/4 cup of that and refreshed it with half cup each of water and flour. Before long I had a fairly active starter. This took just a couple of days. Although I have yet to use it with the long fermentation to increase the sourness which is what I liked about the bread.

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Milo Blakely February 21, 2007 at 2:56 am

Marie: First, the type of dutch oven. I assume you are speaking of the type that has a lip around the lid and stands on three short legs. The other types are just glorified cast iron pots. They can be used as ovens, I suppose, but not as easily.

Given the above, and assuming it is properly seasoned as any cast iron should be, it is ridiculously simple to use over a fire. It is easiest with charcoal although campfire coals may be used. They are just not as controllable as charcoal and usually have to be replaced a time or two during baking. For a 12 inch diameter oven put 12-13 coals on top (the lip on the lid keeps them from falling off) and another 12-13 underneath. That gives you a 350-375 degree oven and you can bake anything you can in your oven at home. Size is the only limitation. Dutch ovens can be stacked so the coals on top become the coals on the bottom for the next oven. That is a bit difficult to do with your normal oven at home unless you have really high ceilings and a very, very tall ladder.

One further recommendation: when baking it is best to use a baking pan/sheet for most things just as at home. Put three or four small stones or other objects under the pan so it does not actually contact the bottom of the dutch oven. That becomes your oven rack so you are baking with the hot air all around instead of being in direct contact with the heat source and likely burning on the bottom.

Hope this helps.

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Marie Scovell February 9, 2007 at 4:07 pm

Hi, I received my starter from my mom in 1972 (who knows how long she’d had it) and have, over the years, made just about everything you can imagine with sourdough, including bagels and doughnuts. My favorites are english muffins, chocolate cake, and waffles. One thing I’d like to learn more about is how to cook bread in a heavy, cast-iron dutch oven on the stove top and also in the coals of a campfire. I wonder if any of your viewers (readers?) have experience with this kind of cooking? Marie

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breadtopia February 7, 2007 at 9:43 am

Hi Ann. It’s $5.76 total when I mail it within the US. Eric

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ann smaston February 7, 2007 at 9:25 am

What does it cost to receive a dry starter?

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