Introducing myself and presenting a safe way to make a sourdough starter – guaranteed no D.O.!

akkuyes's picture


I'm much impressed with the seriousness of this forum, and the keen interest in coming to grips with this elusive phenomenon that we call sourdough. My experience with sourdough bread baking started out with impressive defeats, most of them due to not understanding basic facts. The reason I kept going has much to do with the grace of my wife and my two children who always ate what I hauled out of the oven. – In the meantime I've learned many things about baking, and I would like to pass on what I feel could help others to steer a more direct course to success in the art we all love. And I have already found out, of course, that there are lots of people out there who can teach me a thing or two as well! So, I'm looking forward to interesting exchanges to come.

I live in Germany, where I was born and raised, but I have also spent several years in the US and in Canada. So my English is working okay, I guess, though I must say that the specialized terminology used in discussions on baking in the US is a bit of a challenge for me. It took me a while to realize that "proofing/proving" can mean ANY type of rising (so Wikipedia tells me), - while in Germany we distinguish (using different terms respectively) between the rising of the starter + flour and water, the rising of the sourdough, and the rising of the final dough. I realize, of course, that any kind of rising is "proof" of the vitality of the dough, so I'll add the term to my vocabulary! We also never use an indication equivalent to "hydration". --- well, SOURDOUGH is a theme that tolerates all kinds of approaches.

Let me start off with a sure and simple way to make a sourdough starter. Since I mostly bake rye bread I use rye for the process, whole grains ground finely; but you may just as well use wheat. The difference is mainly that a rye starter can be stored for a longer period of time in the fridge.

Here is what you need:

  • 150 grams of (fresh) lukewarm buttermilk
  • 125 grams of organic rye or wheat flour
  • a table spoon of mild honey

Mix the ingredients thoroughly, and put the mix in a big enough transparent glass jar so the starter can double its volume or more, and cover the content with a thin layer of flour – that will help you determine when the process is finished. Through the glass you will be able to observe what's happening, and when the flour on top of the dough turns into a torn up convex surface with lots of dark cracks in it, you will be done. The jar should be placed somewhere where you can maintain a temperature of 30 – 35 degrees Celsius for a couple of days (see hints down below). Contrary to common belief lactic acid bacteria need no oxygen to proliferate, so you should put a tight lid on your jar. You will add NOTHING to this mixture during the maturing of the starter, but you need to stir it (thoroughly again) once a day. After two to three days you will see lots of bubbles and your starter is complete when you see bubbles all over AND the cracked surface has become rounded (it's actually real sourdough already and you could bake a small loaf of bread with it, - adding flour, water, and salt, of course), - Be sure to smell your new darling, it will have a very fruity flavour and taste. My guess is: Due to the lack of oxygen there will be no Escherichia coli generating the vomiting smell, or worse.

It is a very convenient procedure with one hitch: it's necessary to maintain these 30+ degrees Celsius (~ 90-100 degrees Fahrenheit) fairly constantly,

Here are some methods that for the most part do not require much technical gear, except a decent thermometer that you can read well.

  • Turn on the light in your stove and see what temperature you have after 1 hour, after 2 hours, after 3 hours. The chances that you will be within the desired range are not bad. Quite often however, when all the metal parts have picked up the heat of the lamp(s) the temperature will be too high. – Keeping an eye on the thermometer you can turn off the lights for a while. When the lights are off overnight give your jar a nice warm jacket of some sort, that'll work fine. Your starter is not really a patient in critical condition.
  • There are  warming trays to keep your food warm for late guests. You may want to stick your thermometer into a second jar filled with water to see how things work out.
  • You can operate a small table lamp hooked up to a thermostat in your (dark!) stove. This set-up could have a 25 or 40 watt conventional bulb. Or maybe a 15 or 25 watt bulb with no thermostat will be just right.
  • A timer / time switch could be useful in order to toggle between light on / light off. That way you would not need a thermostat if you experiment with the intervals a little.
  • If you need the oven while fondling your starter you can do with your baby what my grandmother used to do with the potatoes to keep them warm till grandpa came home late from work: put the jar in your bed and cover it well …
  • You may feel that all these strategies and contraptions are a bit of a hassle for someone who just wants to bake and eat yummy bread. Well, I don't see you in the league of amateurs, we are dealing with sourdough! In order to become a successful sourdough baker you will quite often need those famous 30° Celsius. Even though sourdough flourishes quite well at lower temperatures, even in a refrigerator, the maturing phase should take place in warm surrounding. The reason being that there are several sorts of lactic acid bacteria mainly differing in the share of those acetic bacteria that we know from vinegar – too many of these in the dough generate a rather sour taste. A sourdough rich in flavour contains the whole gamut of our bacteria. And this means that at some point the dough will need to thrive in a 30° C surrounding! In short: making a starter is just ONE of many situations in which you will need this crucial temperature.
  • Any ideas to share??


320 users have voted.


Graham's picture
Graham 2012 August 24

Nice starter method akkuyes. I also add nothing to the starter unless it shows signs of fermentation. If it is not hungry, why feed it?

Stiring a brand new starter daily makes sense, as enzymes are still active when fermentation is not. There are probably other reasons to stir a non-fermenting starter.

Sometimes I don't stir for a few days because the flour and water mix is left in the wilderness somewhere and is hard to access. It usually still works but I suspect their is a higher chance of my mix going putrid.

Most folks in this forum use water to get their starter going. What is the advantage of buttermilk? Is it an acidity thing?


akkuyes's picture
akkuyes 2012 August 24

Hi Graham,

you would normally rely on the yeast in the air and the flour toget the process going. But the microorganisms in buttermilk (and surely in yoghurt as well) are the same family as the ones in sourdough. - So using buttermilk you have lots of them right from the start, and those bad smelling bacteria (vomit etc, etc.) are in the minority and don't stand much of a chance. This is why one should have a tight lid on the jar.


esbkk 2012 October 21

Hi akkuyes -

Why do you want to confuse things?

There really is only one way to start a sourdough culture and that is using equal amounts of flour and water, ideally using rye flour and a temperature of about 25 - 28C., which will grow the starter without any problems, and once established can rarely be killed off.

What you do with your starter once established is another matter.

The lactic acid bacteria in cultured buttermilk is generally L.bulgaricus (same as in yogurts), whereas the lactic acid bacteria found in a sourdough starter, created from flour and water are L. casei, L. delbrückii, L. leichmannii, and L. plantarum. These acid bacterias are responsible for the mild taste of the bread and drive in a temperature between 30 and 35C.

L. brevis, L. büchneri, L. fermenti and L. pastorianus are responsible for a more sour taste of the bread and drive in a temperature between 20 and 25C.

Hydration in Germany is expressed as TA (Teigausbeute). A TA150 – 160% is generally for wheat bread and means 100% of flour and 50 to 60% of water whereas a TA170 – 180%% is generally for bread containing rye flour and means 100% flour and 70 – 80% water.

… from Martin Pöt Stoldt book – Der Sauerteig – das unbekannte Wesen: Never use buttermilk or other acid ingredients to give acidity to a starter as they are usually commercially sterilised containing no longer any useful bacteria. Even if they still contain some living bacteria, they are the wrong kind, which will die eventually, but will have prevented our needed bacteria from growing successfully …  


HopesHope 2012 October 21

I don't think you confused anyone, I think you added some spice to the mix.   


I copied your instructions and will try it your way and see how it fairs out.   The last time I started a rye starter it molded on me in the fridge and I have no idea why.


Thanks for the idea...






RobCollier 2012 October 22

Interesting stuff, Akkuyes. I start my leavens usually from just flour & water, sometimes from wild grains that I pick fresh in the fields. But I always like to try new techniques. I don't have a girlfriend, as you might imagine.

I've found the ideal place to keep a leaven at a constant temperature is sat on top of my internet router. It's always on, and provided it's not in sunlight or a draught should be a constant temp. I just sat it on top for a few hours and monitered the temp, then made a buffer (an old fishing line spool) to bring the temp down a little.

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