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How to make your own sourdough starter

No yeast? No problem.

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karma_pema / E+ / Getty Images
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Sourdough is having a moment -- during the coronavirus pandemic, while practicing social distancing at home, many people are embarking on new projects, including baking homemade bread. Using store-bought yeast is one option if you can find it, but making a sourdough starter is more exciting. It utilizes the wild yeasts in its environment (i.e., your kitchen) and ferments like magic. But in fact it's really just science -- and can be fun to try with your kids while they're out of school. Your starter becomes a living thing with a totally unique identity, almost like a pet, or at least a houseplant: You care for it and, in a sense, it cares for you. These sourdough starter tips will help you get the hang of it.

Creating a sourdough starter is not a complicated process -- you just mix flour and water together and wait -- but then what? It's time to start the feeding and maintenance process. There are a few tips and tricks to help you maintain a long and healthy relationship with your starter.

Feeding sourdough starter

There are many schools of thought regarding how and what to feed your starter. The truth is that there's no wrong answer, and it's purely a matter of preference. Starter is fed with a ratio of the original ferment to water and flour.

I maintain what's considered a thick starter. It's a forgiving and sturdy ferment (her name is Rose) that has a medium-to-strong sourness. The ratio for mine is 1:2:3, which translates to one part starter, two parts water and three parts flour, by volume. I use room-temperature starter, just slightly warm filtered (tap) water and unbleached, all-purpose flour.

For a typical feeding, I mix 100 grams of starter, 200 grams of water and 300 grams of flour. I let the ferment sit at room temperature for 4 to 6 hours (or until it's tripled in volume) before I put it to work. If I'm not going to bake until the next day or after that, I let her sit out for 3 to 4 hours and then refrigerate. When I'm ready to rock, I bring her out and let her come to room temperature again (about an hour) before baking.

Another popular ratio is 1:1:1, which means if you start with 100 grams of starter, you add 100 grams of water and 100 grams of flour. This creates a ferment that's thinner (more like pancake batter), but it's also quite versatile and easy to convert to other types of flour if you want.

If your starter is healthy, you should notice that it's bubbly and fragrant and should double/triple in volume after a few hours.

Read more: The best meal kit delivery services of 2020: Home Chef, Blue Apron, HelloFresh and more

Can you feed sourdough starter with other types of flour?

As I mentioned, I use unbleached all-purpose flour, but you can use whatever you prefer. Whole-wheat, barley, einkorn, spelt, rye, even rice flour all work well and create distinct flavor profiles that will transfer into your bread or other baked goods.

Avoid buckwheat because it's actually not a grain, but rather a seed that's related to rhubarb. There are methods to making a gluten-free buckwheat starter that involve a more complicated fermentation process, but adding it raw won't work for your starter.

Having trouble finding flour in stores (in-person and online) right now? It might be worth reaching out to a local bakery.

A special note about rye

Rye flour is a (not so) secret weapon for sourdough bakers! If your starter is taking a long time to double, it may be lacking some of the microbial strength it needs to do its job in your baking. I regularly substitute about 10% of my AP flour when feeding for rye flour. I think it supercharges my starter and adds a sweet and nutty flavor.

What happens if you forget to feed your starter?

The general rule is not to let your starter go longer than two weeks without being fed, but we all know that it happens.

If you come across a starter that you've ignored for a bit too long, you may not be out of luck. Check the starter carefully: If there is any mold or fuzz growing on it, throw it out. If it's been sitting unfed for a while, you probably will see some grayish liquid on the top. This is called the "hooch," a naturally occurring alcohol that's part of the sourdough fermentation process. Pour it off and discard that liquid. Feed the desired quantity of the remaining starter, and feed it more often than usual over the next few days (every 6 to 12 hours) to revive your old friend. Keep in mind that the volume will triple each time, so you don't have to start with a large quantity of ferment.

For example, if you use a 1:1:1 ratio for your feeding, and you feed 20 grams of starter, you'll have 60 grams after the first feeding, 180 after the second, 360 after the third and so forth. So don't despair if you're starting with a small quantity. With a few feeds, your starter will be back in action: bubbly, happy and ready for your next baking adventure.

How to use sourdough starter

There are near infinite variations on sourdough bread, but your sourdough starter is also good for lots of other baking projects! Here are just a handful to get you started:

Extra tangy sourdough loaf

This classic loaf has a mellow tang, for those who want to taste a little sour in their sourdough bread. Get the extra tangy sourdough loaf recipe.

Sourdough pancakes

Sourdough starter makes these pancakes fluffy and light -- they'll be a family favorite! Get the sourdough pancakes recipe.

Sourdough skillet pizza

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Chowhound

This thick and crunchy pizza crust calls for using sourdough starter in a pre-ferment, which adds volume and a distinctive flavor to this easy, delicious pizza baked in a skillet. Get the sourdough skillet pizza recipe.

Pumpkin sourdough focaccia

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Chowhound

Rich and fragrant pumpkin sourdough focaccia is the perfect comfort food to accompany all your soups and stews. Get the pumpkin sourdough focaccia recipe.

Sourdough biscuits

Put that sourdough discard to decadent use in these flaky, yeasty biscuits, which are baked in a traditional cast-iron skillet. Get the sourdough biscuits recipe.

Sourdough soft pretzels

These chewy pretzels take a little time (mostly hands off) but they are worth the effort! Get the sourdough soft pretzels recipe.

Sourdough carrot cake

This luscious, modern approach to carrot cake uses discarded starter and chai spice -- it's even better when baked in advance, so it's perfect for a celebration. Get the sourdough carrot cake recipe.

See Chowhound's community tips for additional guidance on your sourdough journey, and stay tuned for more.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.