Sourdough is a delicious and surprisingly nutritious treat of bread. Although it takes a good deal of patience to make from start to finish, if you’re a bread lover or dedicated baker, it’s well worth the time and effort.
The perfect sourdough begins with a great sourdough starter. In order to achieve a stable, lively starter, you need to use the right flour and apply a healthy dose of patience.
If you’re ready to give this adventure a shot and wondering what the best flours for making a sourdough starter might be, you’re in the right place.
The quick and easy answer is whole wheat, organic flour will have the best chance of developing into a high-quality sourdough starter that you can nurture until the end of time.
There is a lot more to the sourdough story though, and we’re excited to answer all your starter questions and more.
What Is a Sourdough Starter
First off, let’s all get on the same page about what a sourdough starter even is.
In simple terms, it is a leavening agent—the component in your recipe that will make your bread rise. It’s the equivalent to using baking soda and baking powder or baker’s yeast in other types of bread recipes. Sourdough starter has one massive benefit over the other options, aside from the delicious flavor of course: it’s completely natural.
On the surface, a sourdough starter is nothing more than flour and water, but when you expose it to the air and look more closely at the biological processes at work, you’ll see that the entire process depends on the community of wild yeast and lactic acid bacteria that colonize inside your flour mixture.
Now that you know what sourdough starter is, let’s talk about the flours that will give you the best results every time.
Choosing the Right Flour for Your Sourdough Starter
Organic flours that haven’t been chemically treated are more likely to contain naturally occurring wild yeast and bacteria, so this is a great place to start.
Whole wheat flour is also more likely to play host to the yeast and bacteria needed to create a great sourdough starter because it hasn’t been stripped and processed as white flour has.
You can also use other types of ancient grain or whole flours, such as Rye, Spelt, or Barley.
The final consideration you should think about actually has nothing to do with the flour but, instead, the water. Chlorinated tap water can destroy your efforts to cultivate a great yeast community, so it’s important that you use filtered water for your starter.
Nurturing Your Sourdough Starter
Sourdough starter takes a few days to cultivate, so it does require some patience. It’s a cyclical rise and fall process that requires some of your attention every day or at the very least every few days.
You start with a small amount of flour and water, 20g of each, in a clean container. A glass jar with a twist on lid works great for starters because you can watch the mixture bubble, rise and fall like a living organism. Just make sure you use a jar big enough to give your mixture plenty of room to grow.
Loosely cover your mixture and let it sit in a warm, dark location for 1 – 3 days. When you check it, you should see some bubbles forming.
This is a good sign! It’s basically showing you that your bacteria is breathing. It should smell mostly like flour; you don’t want it to smell sour at this point.
It’s time to grow your starter by adding 40g each of flour and water and mixing it up well. Wait for another day and then give it one more round of additional flour and water, using 80g each this time. Whisk it up well.
The action should be happening quickly now, and if you check it in half a day or so you should see a noticeable rise in your starter and plenty of bubbles. It might have a light vinegar or fermented smell at this point, which is perfectly fine.
It shouldn’t smell rotten in any way or have any fuzzy growths. If this happens, you’ll want to start over.
Congratulations, you should now have yourself some lovely sourdough starter.
However, always keep in mind the time-honored saying: if at first, you don’t succeed, try and try again. Sourdough starter might take a little practice to get right, but don’t give up, it’s worth the effort!
Feeding Mixed Flours to a Sourdough Starter
For the initial process of developing your sourdough starter, we recommended using organic, whole-wheat flour.
Once you have a lively starter, your job is not over. You now have the fun responsibility of stabilizing it.
Each day for the next week or so, you’ll want to discard most of your starter (I know, it will feel like such a waste, but it’s how the true French bakers do it, so you know it has to be right!), saving only about 2 tablespoons.
Now we’re going to add a special flour mix to your starter. This part of the process is called “feeding” your sourdough starter. You can use plain flour for this stage since you’re no longer counting so heavily on the naturally occurring bacteria and yeast. Mix it 50/50 with your original organic whole wheat.
Each day for about a week, add 2 tablespoons of your new flour mix as well as 2 tablespoons of water. It is normal to have a thin layer of fermented water form in your starter. This is called “hooch” and it will add a lot of depth and flavor to your starter, so don’t be scared to mix it in each day.
After a week of this maintenance, your starter will be considered stable!
This means that it will keep almost indefinitely if you take care of it, feeding it with a tablespoon of your flour mix and water each day and keeping away from drafts.
You don’t need much to keep your starter alive for baking sourdough on demand, so as the amount grows you can discard what you don’t need. Just make sure you always keep at least a few tablespoons of the mother starter so you know your active cultures are alive and thriving.
Gluten-Free Sourdough Starter Flour
There are many people in the world today who are avoiding gluten for various reasons. Does that mean they should be forever deprived of the wonder that is sourdough? We don’t think so!
If you can’t or won’t have gluten in your diet, it’s possible to swap regular flours for brown rice flour, buckwheat flour, quinoa flour, or amaranth flour.
One gluten-free sourdough recipe that we found uses water kefir as a base, which sounds delightfully rebellious inside the world of traditionalist bakers.
When you’re working gluten-free, there are a few sticky points that you’ll need to be careful to pay attention to.
- Some gluten-free starters sour quickly, so you need to feed them frequently, up to 3 times per day. Keep an eye on your starter and just cater to its demands.
- Avoid really starchy gluten-free flours like tapioca or sweet rice because the high sugar content will really throw off the fermentation process and you’ll end up with a bubbly, moldy mess.
- Each of the flours listed above react quite different, so you will most likely have to play with the ratios of starter to water and flour when you get to the baking process.
3 Best Flours for a Sourdough Starter
Sourdough starter can be made deliciously with just about any whole grain, or organic flour, and every different variety will produce a slightly different flavor and texture. For that reason, we encourage you to experiment with your flours!
We’re still quite opinionated over here though, so we had to give you a list of our favorite something. Instead of choosing individual flours that hold up best in a starter, we’ve found the most reliable brands for you to shop from.
|1.||Palouse Brand Stone Ground White Bread Flour||Unbleached, non-GMO, USA grown|
|2.||Bob’s Red Mill||Whole grain flour, gluten-free options|
|3.||King Arthur||Unbleached organic flours|
|Bonus||Hearthy Foods Banana Flour||Banana flour (gluten-free), vitamin-rich|
We picked three brands that all have a great selection of high-quality, organic flours and are relatively easy to find. We’ve also got a bonus flour for you to try and, when you do, please let us know how it turns out!
1. Palouse Brand Stone Ground White Bread Flour
After trying dozens of different bread flours, I finally found my absolute favorite, not just for sourdough, but for many bread products.
Here are a few things that I really love about this flour:
- The flour is unbleached, unbromated, and non-irradiated with no additives.
- Verified Non-GMO and USA grown
- Each bag comes with a code that you can input on their website, and see the exact field that they grew the wheat in and when it was harvested!
- They use wheat berries and an old stone mill to make amazingly fresh flour.
There is quite a bit more I could tell you about it, but suffice it to say this is an amazing flour for making sourdough starters or literally anything else.
I now always make sure I have some Palouse bread flour in my cabinet. I promise you’ll taste a difference.
2. Bob’s Red Mill
Bob’s Red Mill is not just a cute branded company. Bob is a real guy with a real passion for health and high-quality products.
The flours you’ll get from this company are not only top-notch, but they’re milled using old-school quartz millstones, which take their time with the grinding in order to make sure that all the most nutritious components of the grain become part of the final product.
This brand is one of the leading health food providers in North America, so it’s easy to access both online and in person.
- This company definitely uses whole grain in all of their products, so your sourdough starter will have a head start with loads of healthy wild yeast ready to activate
- There are multiple options for you to choose from, ranging from straight-up whole wheat to spelt or millet flour
- There’s also a nice range of gluten-free options available, including buckwheat, quinoa, brown rice and more
3. King Arthur
King Arthur products are a common choice for professional and committed hobby bakers because their quality is very consistent.
Their selection isn’t as vast as Bob’s Red Mill, but if you’re looking for organic flour to use for your main bread base, you can’t go wrong with King Arthur’s organic bread flour or white whole wheat. Their bulk pricing on Amazon really can’t be beat.
- They have unbleached, organic, high protein bread flour which would make a lovely chewy loaf if used for your main dough requirements
- The white whole wheat flour is a lighter option than some of the options from Bob’s Red Mill and would be worth experimenting with in your starter and main dough, especially if you prefer your sourdough a bit less dense
- Everything about the company should make you feel good about buying from them, from the high quality, American sourced products, to the employee-owned company and most definitely the great pricing they offer.
Bonus: Hearthy Foods Banana Flour
Sourdough is often thought to be a healthier bread option, partly due to the quality ingredients required to make a great starter, but also because the fermentation process of the starter turns the bread into a prebiotic.
Flour made from organic green bananas or plantains adds a premium collection of vitamins, minerals, and even more prebiotics.
Making sourdough with this flour won’t give you a banana bread flavor, but it will be uniquely flavorful every time.
- Banana flour is made from resistant starch, which is great for digestive health
- The vitamins and minerals in this flour, like potassium and magnesium, are essential for heart health
- The brand also makes other exciting and unusual flours that would be fun to try, such as yam or mango flour
How to Make Sourdough Bread With Homemade Starter
Now that you’ve gone through the process of making your very own sourdough starter, making the dough and baking the bread will seem easy.
Making the Dough
Start by using 2 tablespoons of your starter, adding to it 100 g each of bread flour and water and mix it well. Let it rest in a warm, draft-free space until it doubles in size and is warm and bubbly.
A fun way to tell if your mixture is ready is affectionally dubbed the floating test. To try this out for yourself just take a small amount of your now-foamy mixture and drop it into a container of water. If it floats, it’s ready!
The amount of time required will vary greatly depending on both your mixture and the-space your starter is resting in. On average you’re probably looking at 4 – 5 hours.
When you’re ready to turn the mixture into a dough, get yourself a very large bowl and mix 200 g of the starter you just built up into 400 g of water. Add 600 g of bread flour and use your hands to mix it all together. This is a ratio of 1 part starter, 2 parts water, and 3 parts bread flour.
Make sure you don’t leave any lumps or pockets of either flour or water.
Let it rest in the bowl for 30 minutes to an hour, but make sure it’s covered and airtight. This resting period is where the magic happens, so don’t let your impatience get the better of you.
Next, add a dash of salt (12 g) and a splash of water and combine it well with your hands, making sure the salt is well dissolved.
Kneading, Proofing, and Folding Your Dough
Your dough will still feel quite sticky and a bit sloppy at this point, but it’s time to knead it on a hard, non-porous surface. If you stretch, pull and roll it long enough – at least 10 minutes – the dough will get nice and smooth. It should still feel somewhat tacky, but not to the point of sticky.
Let it proof in a warm, covered environment for 4 hours.
Plop your dough back out onto your surface and cover it with a light dusting of flour. Flip it over and dust the other side. Now fold the edges into the middle over and over until you get a nice ball of dough. Cover it up and let it rest for 30 more minutes. It will relax into a kind of pancake-like shape.
When the time is up, dust it with flour on both sides again and fold it over again. There is an art to folding sourdough, and it’s easier shown than told, so I recommend watching this video from Alex, a French guy cooking. You can skip to about minute 5 to watch his clever folding technique.
It’s time for your last proofing. If you don’t have a proofing basket you can lay a towel inside a basket or large bowl and dust it with flour.
Transfer your dough to the basket so that the seam is facing upwards and dust the top of the bread as well. Cool it overnight in your fridge.
Baking Your Sourdough Bread
The next day, take your dough out of the fridge at least 2 hours before you’re ready to bake it. Sourdough bakes best in a Dutch oven or a big heavy pot with a lid.
It’s crucial to keep your bread covered tightly while it bakes because the steam that forms inside the dish is what gives sourdough it’s signature crunchy crust and airy, light center.
Preheat your Dutch oven or pot until its scorching hot. 30 minutes to an hour at 500 degrees is sufficient.
While this is happening, gently flip your dough onto a floured plate.
With extreme care, take your hot, hot, hot pot out of the oven and gently place your dough inside. Score the top with a razor, again being very careful not to burn yourself.
Spray the inside of your pot or Dutch oven with water for some added moisture to ensure you get the beautiful crust you’ve been dreaming of, and then put the lid on, making sure it’s a tight fit.
Turn your oven temperature down to 430F and bake for 25 minutes covered, without taking the lid off for any reason whatsoever.
Once that timer rings, carefully take the lid off and bake for another 25 minutes.
The perfect loaf of sourdough will sound hollow when you tap it, so that’s a fun test to try once it’s out of the oven and safe to handle.
Let it cool completely on a rack before you try to slice so that you don’t end up crushing your work of art. This wait will probably be the most difficult part of the entire process.
What Is the Best Container to Keep Sourdough Starter in?
In all honesty, you can use just about any container for your sourdough starter, but a transparent glass container with a twist-on lid and plenty of space for your starter to grow in is ideal.
How Long Can You Keep Sourdough Starter?
A stable sourdough starter will keep more or less indefinitely as long as you care for it. This means feeding is consistently and making sure it’s kept warm and dry. Sounds a bit like raising a baby, doesn’t it?
Can I Make My Sourdough More Sour?
The sourness of your final bread all begins with your starter. If you prefer a more sour output, you can try using a slightly higher flour-to-water ratio in your starter, and make sure you’re using a high-quality, organic whole-grain flour.
While you’re brewing your starter over the first few weeks, make sure to regularly incorporate the “hooch” or the liquid that forms on top of the starter instead of pouring it off.
Do I Need a Proofing Basket to Make Sourdough?
It’s fun to say you have a proofing basket, and some might build in some gorgeous swirls and texture to your final loaf, but they’re far from necessary. Dusting flour over a tea towel and laying it in any basket, bowl or pot big enough to allow your bread to expand will be just fine.
How Do You Make Sourdough Lighter?
The simplest way to get a lighter sourdough is to adjust the flour you use to build the dough. If you’re keen on sticking to whole grains, spelt is a nice light option. You can also sift your flour for better results. Be sure that you’re baking it in a very hot oven.
If the above recipe makes your loaf too dense, try baking your bread at 450 degrees for only 15 – 20 minutes before taking the lid off, and reducing the temperature to 430F for the remaining 25 minutes.
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