I have long considered bread-making as the stuff of industrious souls, people who are semi-survivalist, capable of living like kings in a cave. Imagine my surprise when I not only started, but successfully made a bread from scratch! And not just any bread, ladies and gentlemen. It was a crusty, soft, and delicious sourdough bread. And the best part? My sourdough starter, which I made from scratch. To those doubtful souls (and my former self) the starter is incredibly easy to get going. You don’t have to depend on little sachets of yeast for a leavening agent. The bread itself is miles ahead of anything you will get from a commercially available yeast packet.
You can keep your sourdough starter for decades and use it for any occasion, from daily bread to dinner rolls. You can use it in place of yeast in almost any bread recipe, including pita breads for Ramadan or pancakes for a special breakfast.
What is a Sourdough Starter?
A sourdough starter is a leavening agent that is used primarily in making sourdough bread. It is made by mixing just two ingredients, water and flour. It uses wild yeast, present all around us, to activate and ferment the dough. But that cut-and-dry definition robs the starter of all its magic and science. Indeed, the sourdough starter is a little world of its own, a story of microorganisms that live in your food and the air all around us.
No one quite knows just where the story of the starter starts. All we know is how it works. When we mix flour and water, we bring to life the wild yeast and bacteria. The microorganisms feed on the flour, exhaling carbon dioxide. These are the little bubbles that appear in your starter. The microorganisms will multiply and thrive, becoming stable over time. When added to the bread dough, the fermentation process will produce gas, which will raise your bread. 
That’s the science. The magic of the dough is in its living culture. It is an alchemy of wild yeast and bacteria that come alive to lift your bread and give it character. Unlike commercially-available yeast, the starter takes a little time to get going. But once you have it, you can keep it alive for decades. In fact, there are starters which are more than a century old! The living character also makes each starter unique.
How to Make Sourdough Starter?
Apart from the flour and the water, you will need patience when making sourdough starter. It’s a living organism that you have to tend to and feed so that it can grow and survive. It may be more painstaking than opening a packet of yeast, but the rewards are well worth it. The process is as simple as can be. Just mix equal amounts of flour and water and keep feeding it the same quantity every day.
Sourdough Starter Recipe
- 4 oz wholewheat flour
- 4 oz water
To feed the starter
- 4 oz all purpose flour 
- 4 oz water
- You will start with equal amounts of water and flour, feeding the starter daily. You will need a kitchen scale and a glass jar with a loose lid. Alternatively, use a glass jar and cover it loosely with a kitchen towel. I have included a 6-day schedule which is the time it took me. But a colder environment can take longer. So, don't worry if your progress is a little slower than mine.
- Day 1: Mix the flour and the water in a glass jar. Stir vigorously with a spoon to ensure that all the flour is incorporated. Cover it loosely with the lid. It will look and feel thick and sticky. Keep the jar in a warm, dry place.
- Day2: Now you start feeding the sourdough starter. You should be able to see one or two bubbles. If you cannot see any, don't worry. Depending on the conditions of your kitchen, it may take a bit more time.
- Weigh the jar and discard half the batter. Now add in the equal amounts of flour and water (4 ounces each) for today and give it a thorough mix. It should be thick and sticky. Cover it and keep it aside.
- Day 3: Your starter should start showing signs of life with bubbles. It should also be visibly larger in volume with a slightly sour and musty smell. Now it's all about the same story. Weigh your jar, discard half the starter and feed it flour and water for today (4 ounces each). Again, make sure all the flour and water is mixed thoroughly. You may hear the bubbles popping.
- Day 4: Your starter will start to expand more and more as you get ready to feed it. By now you've got the drift. Weigh the jar, discard half the starter, feed it the assigned flour and water for today and leave it.
- Day 5: Need we say it? Weigh and repeat.
- Day 6: By now your starter must have doubled in size since yesterday. It should look bubbly, frothy with that trademark sour aroma. When you move your spoon through the batter, it will feel less gloopy. Your starter is ready to use!
- I used wholewheat flour because it is rich in microorganisms. But you can use all-purpose, rye flour, or any flour that you want. Go ahead and use a mix for a multigrain bread.
- I have laid down a 6-days schedule. But this can take as much as three weeks. Keep discarding and feeding the starter. You will eventually get there. The key is to look for the bubbles and the rise in volume.
- This starter should be used within 2-3 days. You can maintain this starter for as long as you want by feeding it everyday. But, if you are not feeding it, refrigerate it to keep it alive. It should be all right for years, provided you feed it at least once in two months.
How to store the starter?
- On the counter: You can keep your starter on the kitchen counter indefinitely, provided you feed it regularly.
- In the fridge: If you intend to use it only once in a few weeks, I recommend that you put it in the fridge. This way the starter can survive years. Just remember to label the date and feed it once every 2 months. When stored in the fridge, the starter will go to ‘sleep’. The quantity may be a problem. So about a tablespoon of mature starter should be enough for storage. To revive the starter before using it, take it out the day before. Feed it a tablespoon each of water and flour and let it work its magic overnight. The time it will take to revive will depend on how long it was in the fridge.
- Dehydrating: The easiest way to store it is in dry form. Smear the starter on a silicon baking mat or a parchment paper and let it dry. Break it up in chunks and store in an airtight container. It should be okay for months. To revive it, dissolve 1/4 cup of the dried starter flakes in 4 ounces of water and 4 ounces of flour in a glass jar. You may need to feed this for a couple of days to restart.
Why discard the starter?
Throwing away about half a cup starter everyday seems incredibly wasteful. But unless you do so, you will end up with a large container of starter, most of which you will not need. The lesser volume also helps the yeast in its feeding.
Can you use the discarded starter?
You absolutely can. You can use the starter as a leavening agent in pizza crust, pancakes, pretzels, and waffles. You can find many recipes on the web with discarded starter. A mature starter will also make a wonderful gift.
Why does it take some starters longer and some lesser time to mature?
The reason behind some starters coming to life in 4 days and some taking as many as three weeks is temperature. To thrive, it needs warm temperature. It will take longer in a cold kitchen.
Can you get a starter without all this hassle?
Of course you can. Many bakeries will give you a little starter if you ask. As a mature starter, you can use it right away. Keep feeding the leftovers and you have sourdough starter for life.
Why are people suddenly advocating against it?
Sourdough bread has suddenly acquired fame and as with any other trend, there is also a pushback. Although, the process is simple, many people may not find it as easy. But remember, this is not a recent recipe. In fact, it is perhaps one of the oldest ways of making bread, predating commercial yeasts. However, beginner bakers may find easier recipes to start with, such as Irish soda bread. The other more valid concern is the wastage involved. It seems criminal to throw away the starter everyday, especially when resources may be limited. But there are ways you can use the starter as I’ve answered above. Keep in mind that this is just a one-time thing. Once you have the mature starter, your wastage will come down dramatically.