Starting your starter
Before you dive in, here are a few helpful things to know about starting and maintaining a starter:
The temperature that you culture your starter at will determine two things. First, the warmer the temperature, the faster your culture will ferment. Second, there are many different yeasts and bacteria present in a sourdough culture, and the temperature that you culture your starter at will determine, to some degree, which yeasts and bacteria thrive.
Generally, sourdough starters prefer 70f to 80f, which is usually room-temperature in most kitchens. When beginning a culture, it can be helpful to keep it a little warmer – 75f to 90f – to speed up the process a bit. If you can find or create a warm place to let your starter sit, like on top of the fridge or near the oven (not ON the oven), or in the oven with only the light on, you will see results much faster. If you don’t have a decent warm spot, use warmer water, 80f to 90f when you feed your starter.
We have noticed that gluten-free sourdough starters are more finicky and less stable than their glutenous counterparts. Sourdough cultures needs flour to eat and grow in, and they behave differently depending on what you feed them. After many trials and errors, we have found that brown rice flour gives the most stable, supportive and economical gluten-free environment to grow in. Our brown rice starters seem to find a healthy balance of yeast and bacteria more quickly, and consistently out-last the others grains we have tried. Plus, brown rice flour is more widely available, and less expensive, than many other flours. This guide uses brown rice flour, but feel free to experiment with what you have on hand. If you have trouble with other flours, try brown rice and see how it goes.
If you don’t yet have one, now may be the time to get one. Baking bread, especially sourdough, is as much of a science as it is an art. A scale will help you make great bread every time, either following a recipe or developing your own. This guide makes use of one, and, while you can probably get on without it, we highly recommend one.
The hydration level of a sourdough starter is the ratio of water to flour. A 100% hydration starter would be, for example, 50g water and 50g flour, or equal parts flour and water.
Starters can range from liquid (100% hydration and up) to firm (75% hydration and lower), and each will impart different flavor profiles and culture behaviors. Also, each kind of flour absorbs water differently, which effects the overall consistency and character of your starter.
To begin a new starter, it’s best to make a 100% hydration starter – equal parts flour and water – to help with ease and consistency. You can adapt the starter to your needs once it is up and running.
The 3 phases of your new culture
There are 3 phases your new starter will go through – initial activation, strengthening, and long-term maintenance. To begin making your gluten-free sourdough starter, you will need:
-brown rice flour, ideally organic
–optional: a small amount of mature starter (you can purchase ours here)
-filtered room temperature, or warm, water
-a small glass jar with lid
-a warm place, 75-90f
Phase 1 – initial activation
In this first phase, you will be activating and building up the beneficial yeasts and bacteria in your new starter.
1 – Place 20g of brown rice flour in the jar, or 10g of dehydrated mature starter + 10g of brown rice flour.
2 – Add 20g of water, stirring well
3 – Place in a warm area, 75-90f, for 8-10 hours. The timing does not need to be exact – come back to your starter whenever it is convienient within that time frame. The same goes for the following steps.
4 – After 8-10 hours, add 20g of water and 20g of flour. Mix well, and return it to its warm place.
5 – After 8-10 hours, add 40g of water and 40g of flour. Mix well, and return it to its warm place.
6 – You can now let your starter rest until it gets active and bubbly. Depending on the ambient temperature and local microflora, this usually takes anywhere from 1 to 24 hours.
Generally, if you are making a new starter, it helps to let it culture a little longer for the first few feedings. The beneficial yeasts and bacteria are just starting to wake up, and giving them more time to activate will increase the likelihood of success. If you don’t see anything after 24 hours…just wait longer, or move it to a warmer place. Sometimes it can take 24, 36 or 48 hours before you see things really start moving.
If you are starting with dehydrated mature starter, you will significantly speed up this process, as well as improve the likelihood of success. Starting with dehydrated starter is by no means necessary, though it may save you quite a bit of time and disappointment. You will end up baking great bread either way! Our trusty sourdough starter is available here, if you are interested: Gluten-free Sourdough Starter
Phase 2 – strengthening
The yeasts and bacteria in your culture should now be active. You may have already seen some activity or bubbling (if not, don’t worry). This phase will create a more supportive environment for the beneficial yeast and bacteria to thrive.
1 – After the last feeding, let your starter rest in it’s warm place until it is active and bubbling. When your starter is active and bubbling, remove all but 10g. Add 50g of water and 50g of flour and mix well. Let your starter rest in it’s warm place. This is a 1:5:5 feeding ratio, or 1 part starter, 5 parts water and 5 parts flour.
Now that your starter is on its way, you can let it rest until it has gone through it’s entire lifecycle – newly fed, active and rising, peaking, and falling. The yeasts and bacteria you want thrive in an acidic environment, and your culture will get more acidic as it goes though it’s entire lifecycle.
We suggest getting into a once-a-day feeding rhythm. Choose a regular time of day, and follow step one above at that time. Let your starter go through its lifecycle for 24hrs, and refresh again at your chosen time.
Also, it is helpful to taste a little bit of the starter at each part of it’s lifecycle. Flavors will range from flat, bitter, and lifeless, to tart, sour, sweet, and active. Get familiar with the smell of your starter as well – especially when you stir it up before feeding.
You may notice ‘off’ smells – acetone, rotten eggs, vinegar, etc. – but don’t worry. It does take some time for the right yeasts and bacteria to dominate the culture. Black or green spots are mold, however – throw it out and start over.
You can save the discarded mature starter in the fridge, and use it for so-called ‘discard recipes’ when you’ve got enough, or just toss it.
2 – Repeat this process of once-a-day feeding for at least a month. This will continue to support the growth of beneficial yeasts and bacteria, and give your starter time to work out any unwanted inhabitants.
Phase 3 – baking and long-term maintenance
After about a week (or 3 days if you used mature starter) of strengthening your starter, it should be ready for baking. And, while it may be ready for baking now, it will continue to develop better flavors over time.
After the first 30 days, you can continue this once-a-day feeding schedule for the long term, or switch over to cold storage if feeding once a day is too stressful (or if you will be away from your starter for a few days or more).
In the refrigerator, your starter will take much longer to go through it’s lifecycle, and only needs to be fed once a month. A larger feeding ratio is recommended for cold storage, such as 1:2:2, or 1:1:1. While cold-storage does keep your starter alive and decreases maintenance, it can decrease in vibrancy and consistency over time. When you are running low on starter, or you notice off smells, tastes, or decreased rising power, take it out of the fridge and give it a few days of ambient temperature feeding with a 1:5:5 ratio.
We tend to favor recipes that only call for a very small amount of mature starter (2g-10g), mixed with a larger portion of flour and water. This mixture is called a sponge, or preferment, which will be used to leaven your dough after it goes through 8-12 hours of fermentation. Prefermenting a portion of your final dough adds depth, flavor, and more control over the end result.
With this baking technique, you will never need a large amount of starter on-hand. We find this to be the most economical and effective approach to sourdough baking. If you need more starter for a recipe, however, just make as much as you need.
Enjoy, and let us know if you have any questions!