Starting a sourdough starter is actually quite easy. I used three different instructions to figure it out (I thought it'd be a lot more complicated than it really is) and am sharing the simplified summary of those based on other people's information and my experiences with creating a sourdough starter.
Some starter recipes can get kinda complicated using extra sweet juices such as pineapple or grape juice to help the starter grow but really, all you need is flour and water.
Because it ferments more easily, rye flour is known to be one of the best flours to start a starter with - it's pretty fool proof.
Making sourdough bread basically requires 4 steps:
1. Creating the starter.
2. Proofing the starter before using it in bread dough.
3. Mixing ingredients together to create bread dough.
4. Allowing the dough to sit for 8-12 hours.
5. Kneading the dough one more time and shaping into loaf.
Here are very basic instructions to make the starter. (Tips are in italics.)
1. Get a glass container your starter will live in (glass jar, glass bowl, etc.)
Using a metallic container can ruin your starter.
2. Place a cup of flour and 3/4 a cup of warm water in the glass jar and mix it thoroughly together.
Cold water will work too - warm water simply allows the fermenting process to begin at a slightly faster pace.
Simply remember that you want to feed it with approximately equal weights of flour and water. (About 3/4 cup of water to 1 cup of flour.)
3. Keep the starter at room temperature and feed it every 24 hours for the first couple of days (or until the starter has become bubbly / active).
Feed it every 12 hours (morning and night) thereafter.
Place a cover (saran wrap or such) lightly over it to keep out any debris or dust.
"Feeding it" instructions: Throw away half of the starter and add a half a cup of flour and a little less than half a cup of water. Mix together. Do this every 24 hours.
The only reason for throwing away the starter is so that you don't end up with way more than what you'll need. If you know you'll be needing a lot of starter don't throw any of it away - just give it a good feeding, add a bit of water to it (creating a consistency becomes similar to that of waffle or pancake dough) stir and let it sit.
Some people have said that the starter starts by using natural yeasts within the air, others have said that starters don't need "air" to start - the substances it needs are already prevalent in the wheat and water so, don't worry so much about exposing your starter to the air.
What you need for a good active starter is 1 part starter and enough flour to equal half of the starter plus a bit of water to create that waffle dough consistency.
Example: 1 cup of starter then 1/2 cup flour and a little less than half cup of water. But ... all in all, you'll get the feel for it as you go. It's quite simple. If there's anything you could do wrong it would be not feeding the starter enough of the flour.
Once your starter becomes bubbly and has a slightly sour smell it is done. You'll know if your starter hasn't worked if your starter smells rotten or has developed a pink or black color. All three of those results means that the starter has developed a bad bacteria and the bad bacteria is taking over. Throw away your starter if this happens.
1. Always use clean containers or utensils when handling the starter to prevent the risk of contaminating your starter with something foreign that will be detrimental to the life of the starter.
2. Rye flour is a great flour for creating starters, it ferments more easily than wheat flour. But once your starter is active simply convert your starter over to another flour-type by using another flour to feed the starter instead.
2. Because you only need one Tablespoon of the starter to create a starter you can decrease or increase the amount of starter you have. Throwing away half the starter isn't necessary - I have one bread recipe that makes four loaves of bread at once and for that recipe I use 3 cups of starter. When I know I'll be making that particular bread, I don't throw away any of the starter.
3. Once the starter has started it can be kept in the fridge and only needs to be fed once throughout the week. Simply feed the starter one more time before placing in the fridge. Place a lid that will allow some breathing space (holes in top of lid or such) and simply feed once a week.
There's something called "hooch", a layer of dark liquid, that may form at the top of your starter. Just pour it off or stir it back in. It won't hurt the starter. It just means that the starter isn't being fed as often as needed to fully thrive - but that's okay when refrigerating.
4. It's actually fairly hard to "kill" a starter. Just make sure that it's being fed often enough. When it begins to look flat and lifeless give it one more feeding.
5. A layer of light colored mold can develop on your starter. If this happens, it's safe to skim the mold off and give your starter an extra feeding. Usually this happens because the starter isn't being fed often enough.
6. Feeding the starter doesn't require exact measurements. Just give it about half the amount of flour than what the already created starter and a bit of water to create a texture that is similar to a pancake mixture.
7. A thicker mixture will ripen more quickly. A more liquidy mixture will take longer to ferment.
8. Once the dough has been formed for a sourdough bread, it will take at least 8-12 hours for it to rise. Therefore it is most convenient to make the dough before bed time, allow the dough to sit at room temp. throughout the night and then do the last two steps for the bread the following morning.
Making a sponge / proofing the starter:
Several hours before making your bread you need to make a sponge (an active starter which is at room temperature).
Some starters take longer to proof (become bubbly and active) so give yourself a decent amount of time to get the feel of your starter.
I feed my starter in the morning and may give it an extra feeding a couple hours or so before I use it for my evening bread making.
**If your starter has been sitting at room temp. simply give it a feeding several hours before you use it in your dough. Once the sponge is nice and bubbly/fluffy and it smells a little sour, it's ready to be used.
**If your starter has been in the fridge, simply:
1. Take it out of the fridge.
2. Place it in a bowl. (So it doesn't sit in a cold glass container.)
3. Add a cup of warm water and a cup of flour to the bowl, stir well.
4. When the sponge is nice and bubbly/fluffy and it smells a little sour, it's ready to be used.
After making your bread you should have leftover sponge - this will be your starter for next time. Simply place it in a glass jar/bowl and feed it one more time and either let it sit at room temp. or place it in the fridge.
(I keep my sponge at room temp. most of the time simply because I make a lot of bread and need a lot of starter for these breads. If you don't make bread that often, keep your starter in the fridge - making sure to feed it at least once a week.)
I know, lots of tips, lots of instructions but it really is quite simple. It's best to learn by simply jumping in and doing it! You'll get a feel for when that starter is really thriving and what will keep it thriving.