The Internet Times Supplement

How to make Sour Dough Starter for Bread or Pretzels

In Food & Drink on April 20, 2010 at 3:46 pm

One of my up and coming projects is to make some pretzels (soft and hard). Getting these where we live in southern Spain is not only difficult, it is nigh on impossible. In addition to this, we live in a wine growing region and, after many attempts at getting a good quality packet yeast to rise, we had all but given up – multiple attempts that follow a very similar pattern; temperature exact, all instructions followed to the letter, a few insipid bubbles, and then a total lack of any rising in the end product. trust me, I have tried.

I have looked extensively on the interwebtubenets for an appropriate sour dough recipe with little success. People seem to have forgotten the ‘ancient’ art of keeping a yeast starter in the house for baking purposes. Seriously speaking, most people opt for the convenience of a trip to their local supermarket or bread shop (and, who would not actually). Around here we were able to get good quality breads in some of the original bakeries but, with the advent of competition and economic necessity (greed ?), many bakers now buy in the base breads from an industrial unit specialising in the preparation of ‘traditional style’ part-baked loaves. We do have an excellent Swiss baker who produces some rather good breads in the style I particularly like (I lived in Germany for 5 years) but he does not do bagels and his ‘brezl‘ are somewhat disappointing. Hence my efforts to make these. My most recent attempt was OK’ish, the bagels tasted a little yeasty but did not really amount to much. With that in mind I have been doing some research and preparation for the next attempt.

In order to make bagels and both soft or hard pretzels you really do need to revert back to true, tried and tested, traditional methods. For this I had to get some trusty ‘Dutchie‘ information from recipe books we have and she who must be obeyed is of Penn-Dutch stock. The recipe for sour dough starter could not be simpler and the method and time required to make it equally so. This is another of those ‘Duh!’ moments I have had of late while I have been cooking, gardening, and so on. This is so easy it truly is a no-brainer beyond belief. Many people will no doubt say “I do not have time for this.” or “My life is too busy.” and so on. I got to thinking of that and quickly realised that when people had no alternative but to make their own bread neither did they have the time – if anything, there was less time available as there were not automatic dishwashers, washing machines, and convenience foods. It had to be quick, easy, and simple. So here is the recipe for my sour dough starter.


1 cup of flour (plain, unbleached or even wholewheat)
1 cup of warm water


Mix the ingredients in a wide mouthed jar or plastic container. Stir with none metallic implement (I use a wooden chopstick). Set to one side and wait. ‘Feed’ the mixture every 24 hours or so as per the details below.

Essentially, that should be it but…… a little forethought is necessary. Here is more information to ensure a successful sour dough starter:

1. Any container that is NOT metallic will do.
2. When stirring the starter avoid metal utensils.
3. Keep the starter in a warm place (70-80F 0r 21-26C). Note that if you are lucky enough to go over 100F (37C) then things go somewhat astray. See below.
4. Every 24 hours pour away half of the mixture (I actually started a second batch in another container) and top this up with equal amounts to replace i.e., 1/4 cup flour, 1/4 cup warm water.
5. Stir this in.
6. What you are aiming for is to have the mix form bubbles IN the mix rather than just on top (see the photo above); while not essential, it ensures the mix is active throughout. Intermittent stirring will help this a little but it is better to let nature take its course.

After about three days you will (should) get a rather pleasant sour beer smell. At this point you now have the active sour dough. This can now be used or stored in the refrigerator (put a lid loosely on the container – if it is a jar leave the lid slightly loosened or punch a small hole in this) until needed. From this point onward it may be necessary to feed the mix once every week or so. Normally, the mix is a fairly ‘self-sufficient’ and robust mixture that requires little attention. You may note the formation of a thin layer of darkish liquid on the surface of your mix; this is perfectly normal. There are two approaches to this; either pour off the liquid or stir it back in. Personally, I am of the mind that this is part of the overall mix so will stir it back in. Note it is NOT harmful but you may want to check to see if the mix is wet or looking dry and, if the latter, mix it back in or pour off.

Using a sour dough mix

As can be seen from the pictures, I have an active mix. I have now stored it in the refrigerator and intend to use it in a few days time. Regular readers will recall I have jars of whey from my paneer making. I will also use some of this in the process to get a truly natural and traditional dough (incidentally I will shortly be posting my Paneer Pizza recipe where I used some of the whey in the dough making process to great success).

Prior to making your sour dough it is necessary to prepare a ‘sponge’ using the prepared yeast mix. This can be done overnight or (preferably) a few hours before you intend to bake. This all depends on how active your mix is, how warm the environment is and so on. The sponge can be ready in about an hour or so but can take up to eight hours. Given my past experiences I intend to prepare this in the morning and aim to bake at some point throughout the day. Once I am more comfortable with this I will do a mix overnight and, with warmer weather on the way (theoretically), may even try a same day experiment.


1. Remove the mix from the fridge and pour it into a clean mixing bowl. Rinse out / wash the container in hot water to make it ready for the next batch – see important notes below.
2. Add 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of warm water to the mix and stir in. It should look a bit like a pancake batter mix (slightly runny but not quite and creamy in texture).
3. Put in a warm place and leave to allow the mix to ‘proof’ (as the technical term for this is with bakers – apparently). Lightly cover with a clean cloth.
4. Once the mixture forms a white froth and is bubbling slightly you should also note the slightly sour smell. At this point your mix is ready for use but, if you are looking for a sourer taste then leave the mixer longer. Simply put, the longer you leave it, the more sour the taste.

Important Notes

1. For most sour dough recipes you will require about 2-3 cups of the sponge mix.
2. In theory, there should be sufficient left over to add back into the cleaned container from previous use. If not, you will need to stat a new mix as per the above instructions.

Preparing a new mix from the Sponge

1. Add the leftover sponge back to the clean jar.
2. Add 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of warm water to the mix and stir it in.
3. Place jar back in the refrigerator and feed as before (about once a week).

… and that is it. I intend to post some recipes and photos from my baking attempt in a few days. Enjoy


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