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Tuesday, April 21, 2020

This Was an Exciting Experiment: Making Sourdough Starter Using Only Flour and Water

You all know that I love a good kitchen experiment. In my quest to use less and less yeast in my home-baked bread, I thought of baking sourdough bread again. I've made sourdoughs before, using flour, water, and a bit of yeast. But you know, the old-time way to make a sourdough starter uses only water and flour. I was really curious just how difficult it is to get a starter going the old-fashioned way. And with the current situation of limited yeast availability, it seemed like a good time to try this out.

I didn't want to waste a lot of flour, so I began with a very small amount of good, unbleached flour (I used King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour). Filtered water would have been preferable, as chlorine might inhibit some fermentation activity. However, using what I had at home suited the nature of this experiment. So, tap water it was.

In a small glass bowl, I stirred about 1/4 cup of flour into lukewarm water, enough to make a thick pancake batter consistency. Then I placed the bowl in the oven with the door closed and the light on. I left it like this for 24 hours, without removing it from the oven or turning off the light. The electric light in the oven keeps it quite warm, without being too hot for the fermentation.

By the following morning, the top of the batter looked crusted over. I removed the bowl from the oven and could see through cracks in the dried top layer that there were bubbles underneath. 

The batter also smelled sour! I lifted the crusted surface and could see lots of bubbly activity going on below! How exciting -- a real sourdough starter without relying on commercial yeast to get it going.

I warmed a bit more water (about 1/4 cup) to just slightly warmer than room temperature and stirred this into my baby starter along with more flour (another 1/4 cup) and placed the bowl back in the oven with its light on. I checked on it about 10 hours later. It looked flat with layer of liquid on top. I stirred it up and could see bubbles forming right away. I fed it a little more flour and water and placed it back in the oven. Within an hour, it was bubbly. I suspect that I'll need to feed my starter twice per day for about 6 to 8 more days before it will be ready for a batch of bread. When the starter has grown sufficiently and is very active (sometime next week), I'll be baking a batch of San Francisco sourdough bread, using the recipe in this post

No need to buy that overpriced yeast on ebay or Amazon. I can bake bread without any commercial yeast at all.


  1. You have done an experiment I've thought about doing in several different ways--trying to use natural yeast found the air. Looks like you have had a great success!

    Hope you had a relaxing birthday weekend.

  2. Lynn from NC Outer BanksApril 21, 2020 at 6:58 AM

    Welcome back Lili! Hope you had a lovely birthday.

    My mother used to make sourdough bread, but I thought I remembered her feeding it instant mashed potatoes, which I don't have and really wasn't interested in having to keep on hand. Since the pandemic, I'd been reading up on sourdough starters and had learned that it could be made with just flour and water. Amazing! I've still got a bit of yeast, but had decided that I might give this a go. Thanks to your (always) instructive pictures and explanation, I'm definitely going to put this on the list of things to do. Meanwhile, I've got the low yeast, no knead bread going right now that was discussed in the comments last week. Going to put it in my 60+ year old covered Dutch oven soon! Thanks again for your helpful, detailed instructions. I see sourdough pizza dough in my future :)

  3. Water from boiled potatoes works very well as a base.

  4. I'll be interested to see how this works! I'm hesitant to try it as the recipes I've seen call for more flour than I'm willing to part with at this time of unpredictable shortages. I tried to find yeast at Gordon foods yesterday but their shipment wasn't in yet. I still have enough yeast for awhile yet. I'll make biscuits for dinner tonight to go with soup on a cold day.

  5. Hi Live and Learn,
    Thank you - I did have a nice birthday.

    I was so tickled that this worked for me. When I started it, I really wasn't sure if this would work, and I had reservations that it would work on the first try. But it did. A couple of things that I read -- people who baked bread often have more yeasts in the kitchen environment, so sourdoughs tend to do well. And the other thing -- some/most/(depending who you talk with) the yeast is found in the flour. Some suggest making a starter with high-quality whole wheat flour, or part whole wheat flour, others say to use high-protein, unbleached white flour -- unbleached being really important. My guess is success is highly influenced by using unbleached flour and keeping it at a warm-ish temperature (75 degrees, or so). I do enjoy a good kitchen experiment.

  6. Hi Lynn,
    I was surprised that this worked so easily for me. My one suggestion, since everyone's supplies are so limited right now, if you try this, just start with a small amount of flour and water. If it doesn't begin to ferment within 3 days, you're not out much and could still salvage the flour and water by adding to another bread dough.
    Oh yes, sourdough pizza crust is on my menu, too! I have just enough cheese for 2 more large pizzas and I'm keeping that cheese well-guarded.
    Enjoy that low-yeast bread!

  7. Thank you, Frugal in the USA. That's really helpful!

  8. Hi Kris,
    There's another way to make sourdough starter that uses a small amount of commercial yeast, if you're afraid to risk some of your flour. I was hesitant, so just started with a very small amount of flour/water for this starter. Some recipes for starter have you discard some of the starter as you grow and nurture it. I don't throw away any of it. When I've reached the point of having too much starter, I use the excess in sourdough pancakes. I use the recipe in this post --
    This way, nothing is wasted.

    Mmm, biscuits are a favorite of mine. They will go well with your soup.

  9. I'm glad you brought this up. I've been wanting to try sourdough. I'm going to go right now and mix up some flour and water. I'll be interested hear all the different ways to use it up. Thanks once again!

  10. My husband who is the cook and baker in our household flatly refuses to use a sourdough starter for his bread making. He thinks it is dangerous to grow microorganisms, yet think nothing of eating fermented foods in our diet. So I will brave the kitchen and do the experiment myself, and possibly bake my first ever bread. Funny, I have no qualms learning about foods and nutritional science (my undergraduate degree), but will never choose to spend time in the kitchen. I think partly because as a child I was forbidden to be in the kitchen and scolded whenever I opened any cupboards or fridge, and this went on through high school, I can't remember exactly when the rules relaxed but I do recall opening the fridge in college. When I got married I didn't know how to cook rice or run the washing machine. I can go on, but this is what happens every day. I am reminded of my past, that my upbringing was sterile like growing in a petri dish, and I am the only contaminant, and reminded so, never praised. Being an only child, who knew? Lili, you can void this comment.


  11. Hi Ruthie,
    good luck with your starter. I hope you have the same success that I did!

  12. Hi YHF,
    oh that's an interesting perspective that your husband has. The danger of microorganisms never occurred to me.
    I'm so sorry that as a child you didn't get to enjoy the fun of many kitchen activities. Use the opportunity you have now to mess around in the kitchen a little. Sending good thought for your sourdough starter!


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