Starting from scratch
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.
I 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, I have found that brown rice flour gives the most stable, supportive and economical gluten-free environment to grow in. My brown rice starters seem to find a healthy balance of yeast and bacteria more quickly, and consistently out-last the others grains I 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, I 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.
I prefer a very liquid starter – 120% hydration. This means that if I have 50g of flour, I would add 60g of water: 60 is 120% of 50. I prefer liquid starters because they impart less acidity (sourness) to the final dough, and I don’t like making very sour bread. If you like more sour bread, feel free to make a firmer starter. To begin a new starter, though, it’s easiest to just 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 from scratch, you will need:
-brown rice flour, ideally organic
-filtered room temperature 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
2 – Add 20g of water, stirring well
3 – Place in a warm place, 75-90f, for 4-8 hours.
4 – After 4-8 hours, add 20g of water and 20g of flour. Mix well, and return to it’s warm place.
5 – After 4-8 hours, add 40g of water and 40g of flour. Mix well, and return to it’s 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 12 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 12 hours…just wait longer, or move it to a warmer place. Sometimes it can take 12, 24, or 36 hours before you see things really start moving.
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 it’s 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.
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 tangy, 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.
2 – Repeat this process of removing all but 10g, feeding, rising and falling for at least a week. This will continue to support the growth of beneficial yeasts and bacteria, and give your starter time to work out any off-smells and other unwanted inhabitants. My starter took about 30 days to balance out and taste really great.
You don’t need to feed as often during this phase, but at least once a day. I like to feed my starter in the evening, and check it again in the morning. If it looks like it has gone through it’s full lifecycle (especially during the warmer months), I’ll give it another 1:5:5 feeding. If you don’t have time, don’t worry, just make sure you feed it at least once a day, preferably at regular intervals. Sourdough starters are very resilient!
Phase 3 – baking and long-term maintenance
After a week of strengthening your starter, it should be ready for baking, long-term maintenance, and cold storage. And, while it may be ready for baking now, it will continue to develop better flavors over time.
Your goal for baking and long term maintenance is to end up with no wasted starter, and to keep your starter healthy with as little time and energy as possible. To accomplish this, this long-term maintenance method only requires that you keep 165g of starter on hand, stored in the fridge for most of the time. Once a month, or whenever you only have 5-10g left, you will build it back up to 165g again.
I tend to favor recipes that only call for a very small amount of starter (2-10g), straight from the fridge, 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 8-12 hours of fermentation. Prefermenting a portion of your final dough adds depth, flavor, and more control over the end result.
1 – When you are ready for this phase, or you only have 5-10g of starter left, remove all but 5g and give it a feeding of 1:5:5 as described above. That would be 5g of starter added to 25g of flour and 25g of water.
2 – You now have 55g. When it has risen, peaked and fallen, add another 55g of water and 55g of flour.
4 – You now have 165g of starter. Give it 30 – 60 minutes to start feeding, then put it straight in the fridge.
In the cold refrigerator environment, your starter’s lifecycle will slow down to a crawl. Freshly fed, it will last 30 days before it needs to be taken out and refreshed.
5 – When you have used all but 5g of starter, or a month has passed, follow steps 1-4 to refresh and rebuild your starter. Take it out from the fridge, and let it go through as much of it’s lifecycle as it has left before you start building it up again.
If you do notice your starter is losing power, has off-smells or tastes, repeat phase 2 (strengthening) to give it a boost.
Enjoy, and let us know if you have any questions!