A BASIC RUNDOWN OF A GLUTEN FREE SOURDOUGH STARTER
A gluten free sourdough starter is a simple mix of flour and water which is fed daily. Over the course of 6-10 or so days, this mixture, on a regular feeding schedule, grows in size and forms large bubbles which are capable of rising a loaf of bread. A sourdough starter is essentially a gloopy, living version of baking powder or baking soda, but way better for you and way better for your digestion.
If you’ve ever googled sourdough starters, you might have been turned off by the amount of technical feeding schedules and lingo. I know I was. However, I personally have found (on multiple occasions, so it’s not beginners luck) that the process can be a lot more free flowing than this. Once you get the hang of it and your starter is up and running, it can take a lot more than you’d expect.
To begin a gluten free sourdough starter, I use equal parts gluten free flour and water by weight. Sometimes you will see 100% hydration written, and this means that the starter has been made with equal parts flour and water. Personally I don’t feel I’m at the stage of fiddling with hydration levels on that advanced scale, so mine are always 100% hydration.
A growing starter is fed twice a day, once in the morning and once at night. Consider it your new pet that doesn’t crap on the carpet and doesn’t make any noise. I have found it useful to weigh out my flour and water, straight into the starter. You don’t have to be extremely precise, but I do think it helps, particularly in the cultivating stages.
We will go into this a little more below, but you will often read about discarding starter. Because you are adding 2 lots of 50g water and flour each day, a sourdough starter can quickly become unwieldy. It also requires even more food the larger it is, so discarding is a way of keeping your starter small. It also removes waste product from the fermentation process, keeping the starter nice and healthy.
Some people discard every day, although I personally found that a little excessive. During the initial few days, I don’t discard anything at all. I treat my starter like a fragile lil snowflake, and simply feed it twice a day. When I have started noticing strong-ish bubbles is when I discard for the first time. After that, I only discard every couple of days.
I am not super precise with my discarding – people say discard half, but I don’t measure by weight. Make sure you stir it up before discarding, just in case you accidentally discard the part with all the action.
An important note on discarding is that it is really only done to keep the volume in check. A starter can survive without discard, although it might have a little more tang, and be a little more susceptible to death by tipping the balance of growth waste product to healthy cultures. More in the Q and A section.
Discarding can also mean giving starter to someone else or using it to make any number of baked goods (pizza bases, waffles, brownies a-la Izy Hossack.) I think it’s important to make the connection (it took me a while) that discarding needn’t mean throwing in the bin. It simply means removing from the starter jar itself. If you’re baking and using your starter often, you probably won’t need to discard anything. Each use of the starter counts as a discard, as you’re removing some and adding fresh flour to re-feed.
As we will go into in the in depth section, the point at which you’ll see some action is dependent on many things. These include climate, water quality, flours, luck, and everything in between. Generally speaking, you might begin to see some bubbles around day 2 or 3. Keeping your starter in a decent sized glass jar is helpful, as you can see the bubbles around the edges. It is also a great idea to use a rubber band or tape to keep track of where the starter sits in the container. This is because the starter will eventually start to grow, and having a measure is a great way of seeing overnight growth progress.
Knowing when your starter is ready to bake bread is an art that I probably haven’t mastered. In regular sourdough baking, you can drop a little starter in a glass of water, and see if it floats. Floating indicates that the starter carries enough gas to raise a loaf of bread. I haven’t had any luck doing the float test with any of my bubbliest starters – they simply disintegrate into the water. I suspect that it may not work for gluten free sourdough starters.
If all has gone well, your starter is probably ready around the 7-10 day mark. When you stir it, it should feel thick with air and bubbles, and you should hear a pop rock kind of sound, as the little gas bubbles are shuffled.
Once your starter is bubbly and ready to roll, you need to keep it that way. To do so, you have a few options. Firstly, if you’re baking often, you can keep it on the counter, and continue feeding as you have been.
Secondly, if you’re only baking a loaf every week or so, you can store your starter in the fridge. This will slow fermentation considerably, meaning that you will only need to feed your starter around once a week. No point feeding and discarding a starter every day that isn’t being put to use. If you go down this road, make sure you bring your starter to room temperature a day or two before using. It will need to be fed at least twice, but there is no hard and fast rule for this – you need to pay attention to your starter and make sure it’s ready to make bread. This Youtube from Tartine’s founder was very helpful for me. It is not a gluten free starter or bread, but helpful nonetheless.
Finally, you can actually spread your starter into a thin layer on baking paper and dry it out. Once it’s dry, snap it into pieces and place it in an airtight container. When you want to use it, rehydrate it, feed it, and wait until it becomes it’s normal, bubbly self before using. This site is extremely helpful (although ignore anything that daunts you!)
All that inspirational stuff said, there are a few considerations to take in when starting up a gluten free sourdough starter. Don’t be frightened by them, but do pay a lil attention to them.
CLIMATE AND KITCHEN
My experiments with gluten free sourdough began in Australian winter, and have continued through to our sweltering summer. As a result, I have experienced first hand the affects of the climate on sourdough starters. Making a starter in winter tends to take a lot longer than making one in summer, which can be cause for panic as a newbie. But fear not (within reason!) be patient, be reasonably accurate, and be a good starter parent. You’ll be fine. The yeast in your starter thrives in warm temperatures, which is why it will take longer in cool climates.
In summer, you might notice that you have quite a bubbly sourdough starter in the first couple of days. That’s great! Continue feeding as usual until day 5 anyway, just to make sure you have a strong starter, and to make enough starter for bread.
I have trialled a couple of different gluten free flours for my starter. The number one recommendation on the internet is brown rice flour, which was the first flour I tried. Don’t get me wrong, it definitely ended up doing the job. However, I felt that oftentimes it created more of a watery sludge that was rather begrudging to make itself into a starter.
In my first attempt at making a gluten free sourdough starter, I used exclusively quinoa flour. I had read somewhere (backed up here, although the sourdough lingo is a bit above my pay grade) that starters benefit from a high protein flour, as it feeds the yeast nicely. I ground quinoa grains into a flour in my Nutribullet – this saved money and enabled me to create the quantity of flour I needed. Starters are hungry critters!
This time around, I have been using half quinoa flour and half sorghum flour, which can be found at health food stores. Personally, I have found that combination creates a fantastically bubbly sourdough starter that rises really well in the jar, more so than my original starter did. It is a cold winter here, so the fact that my starter was bubbly on day 3 or so is testament to this flour combo.
Whichever flour you use, I would highly suggest following a few of the basic flour storage suggestions in my gluten free flour guide. Namely, if you happen to be in a warm climate and have ever seen a small moth flying in your kitchen, freezing your flour. I recently had the very unfortunate experience of having to throw out an entire, mature quinoa flour starter. Why? Because it started sprouting weevils. A sight I will never forget.
Most sourdough starter tutorials suggest that you will need filtered or bottled water to create a sourdough starter. This is because tap water in urban areas often contains additives that can have an adverse effect on the growth of natural yeast.
Personally, I didn’t notice a difference between bottled and tap water. I hate using unnecessary plastic bottles, and I don’t have a water filter. I found that my starter using tap water here in Melbourne wasn’t adversely effected at all, so I’ll continue down that path. That said, I began my starter experiments using bottled water, so if you’re feeling cautious or if the water isn’t great where you live, you can definitely use bottled or filtered.
VESSEL OF CHOICE
Sourdough starter needs to be made in a glass jar or bowl, because it doesn’t play well with metal. A lot of people also suggest you use a wooden spoon to stir your starter, although I had forgotten this instruction until I was writing this post, and my starters have been fine with a metal spoon. As with most aspects of sourdough starter, I’d suggest starting cautiously (with a wooden spoon) and then doing whatever suits you best as you become more comfortable with the process.
If you are using a glass jar, make sure it is well cleaned and sterilized before use. Here are some instructions on how to sterilize a glass jar. This will ensure that there are no germs or general bits and bobs lurking around from the previous use that may negatively impact your starter. Make sure not to put any jar in the oven with any form of plastic attached to it.
I currently use a medium sized jar with a wooden lid. Jars are great because I can see the bubbles easily, and know my starter is in good shape. There is also only a small mouth to cover, meaning I have control over any potential bugs (read WEEVILS) getting in.
On that note: your sourdough starter should be covered. Most people suggest muslin cloth or something that will allow air to get in and circulate. I have gone through stages of being a bit lax with covering my starter, and I fear I invited weevils to populate as a result. Currently I keep the lid on the coffee jar that I keep my starter in, and all seems to be well. Every now and again I pop it open just a tiny weeny bit, and keep a nut milk bag over it while I do.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
WHICH GLUTEN FREE FLOURS HAVE YOU USED TO MAKE A STARTER?
I have used white rice flour, brown rice flour and quinoa flour. As I’ve mentioned, my personal favourite is a quinoa/ sorghum flour combo, and that’s what I’ll continue to use for now. If you can’t find sorghum, a combination and quinoa and white or brown rice flour could also work.
WHY DO I NEED TO DISCARD STARTER?
Personally, this was my biggest barrier to creating a starter. I couldn’t see a good reason as to why I would discard perfectly good sourdough starter. My research into the topic has been unsatisfactory in getting any damning conclusion against NOT discarding, particularly if food waste is a big concern for you (as it should be.) However, as mentioned in the intro, discard assists in keeping the starter healthy and small.
As the sourdough starter grows, it produces waste products (don’t we all?) that remain in the starter. They’re not bad for you, nor are the necessarily bad for the starter, but having too high a percentage of them can be detrimental to the good cultures. Essentially, the idea of discarding starter is to reintroduce fresh food for fermentation, while removing some waste byproduct. Here is a better explanation than I could ever muster.
Another more simple reason discarding is that if you don’t, your starter will soon become an unmanageable monster that requires vast amounts of flour to feed. The bigger the starter gets, the more flour it needs. Discarding assists in keeping a starter small and healthy.
MY PERSONAL APPROACH
Firstly, I’d like to point out that I’m not a sourdough expert. I would rather save on food waste than create a technically perfect loaf, as opposed to a good loaf. When it comes to discarding starter, I can concede that it is sometimes necessary. However, I don’t personally find that it is necessary on a daily basis, as many recipes suggest.
So, in the initial stages, I discarded approximately half my starter every couple of days. I waited until it was bubbly before doing so, and if it ever looked fragile or flat, I would refrain from discarding that day. Once the starter was up and running, I went full pelt into baking bread, so I was discarding every few days by baking (ie using half of the starter to make the bread.)
MY STARTER ISN’T DOING ANYTHING? HELP?
There are a few considerations to make when addressing this situation. First, how long has the starter been going? If it’s a new starter, and you’re in a cold climate, relax and give it time. You might want to up the feeding schedule a little bit to make sure your starter is getting enough food to grow.
However, if you’ve given the starter a very reasonable amount of time to grow (10+ days) and fed it consistently, it might be time to admit defeat. There is a fine balance between reviving a starter and wasting flour.
MY STARTER SMELLS LIKE ROTTEN EGGS OR NAIL POLISH REMOVER?
On eggs: Depending on how old your starter is, this is a good thing! If it is in it’s formative stages, a rotten egg or sulphuric smell is totally normal. When the starter has matured, however, you should have a pretty distinctive ‘sourdough’ smell. Give it time but also trust your gut – if you smell something totally out of the ordinary or rancid after about 5 days, consider starting afresh.
On nail polish remover: this is also normal, although less of a good thing. My research indicates that this means you’re starter is hungry, so you will need to up it’s feeding schedule a little. I feed mine around 75g flour and water instead of 50g if I get the nail polish smell.
HOW CAN I TELL IF MY STARTER IS ACTIVE?
Active starters generally have a strong smell and have plenty of bubbles. You should be able to hear bubbles popping as you stir the starter, and it should pour out of the jar as bubbly sludge. As mentioned earlier, be sure to give your sourdough starter some time before panicking, particularly in winter or cold climates.
CAN I GO ON HOLIDAYS OR AM I FOREVER BEHOLDEN TO MY STARTER?
Great news! You can actually leave your starter, and you have a few options for doing so. Firstly, you can refrigerate your starter for up to a week. This is often what people do if they don’t need the starter that often – keep it in the fridge, and feed it once a week. The night before you are using it, simply feed it, and bring it back to room temperature on the bench. It should be good to go by the next day.
Secondly, you can overfeed your starter with flour (give it double or triple what you normally would, but only a little water) and leave it in the fridge for the duration of your trip. I personally haven’t tried this method, but given the resilience of most of my starters, I can see how this would work well.
Thirdly, you can thinly spread your starter on a baking sheet or silpat, and allow it to dry out completely. From there, break it into pieces, and store it in an airtight container. When you next want to use it, rehydrate it and feed it, continuing to do so until it returns to it’s original bubbly form.
I HAVE A LOT OF STARTER. WHAT CAN I DO WITH IT ALL?
Make and eat a lot of bread? Just kidding. Kind of, but not really at all. If you have a lot of sourdough starter, you have a lot of options. Instead of discarding overflowing starter, try using it in pizza bases, loaves, waffles – basically anything that needs rising, or could benefit from the wonderful tang of sourdough. If you’re not that into baked goods? Dry the excess sourdough out and give it to friends. Find a local facebook group and ask if anyone wants from sourdough starter. I can guarantee someone will take you up on it.
If your starter is getting to an overwhelming bulk, though, consider that you either need to start baking, or put the starter in the fridge. Excessive bulk suggests that you’re feeding the live starter, but not actually doing anything with it. No point feeding something you’re not using, so see the point above on how to store your starter.
THERE’S PINK OR ORANGE MOULD ON MY STARTER?
Mould itself (which can be caused by any number of factors) is no cause for alarm. You can scoop it cleanly off, and continue as normal. However, pink or orange mould is apparently (according to my googling) cause for concern, and cause for you to discard said sourdough starter. This is because the starter has apparently lost it’s ability to fight off nasties, and it might be harbouring some within. Better safe than sorry.
If you want to dive really deep (too deep for me) into prevention of these types of issues, I stumbled across this pineapple juice method here. Worth a look, if you’re into research and very into sourdough, but not very into failing.
THE LIQUID ON MY STARTER IS BROWN/GREY/INSERT OTHER COLOUR?
According to Google (again, thanks Google) any colour of liquid on the surface (or hooch, as it’s known in the starter world) is fine. You can stir it back into your starter, and give it a little extra food and love. You can also pour it off the top of your starter, and feed as usual. If you have persistent hooch, that might be a sign that your sourdough needs more food than you are currently giving it. Time to up your feed amounts.
MY STARTER SMELLS LIKE ALCOHOL?
This is a normal part of the sourdough process. It should progress through this stage, and onto a stage of smelling yeasty, floral and generally like sourdough in the next couple of days. If it persists in smelling like alcohol, try feeding it more, or in more regular intervals. See the point on nail polish remover smells.
THERE’S A SKIN ON THE TOP OF MY STARTER?
I dealt with this a lot during my early sourdough starter making, and apparently it is because there is too much air reaching your starter. The skin can very easily be peeled off and discarded without any adverse affects on the starter, but consider transferring your starter to a vessel with a smaller opening, or with a lid, or both.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN REGULAR STARTER AND GLUTEN FREE STARTER?
As someone who has never made regular sourdough, and who has spent her whole baking career using gluten free flour, this is hard to answer. But imma try anyway.
While researching my first starter, I compared a lot of regular sourdough recipes to gluten free recipes. I found a few differences. Firstly, it would seem that regular starters are more prolific than gluten free ones, because many blog posts speak of discarding half the starter every day. That, to me, would indicate that they grow quite rapidly. I haven’t found this with my gluten free starter – it doesn’t grow exponentially every day.
In that vein, regular starters seem to give a lot more rise to bread, which means that gluten free sourdoughs will always look quite little and sad in comparison. Manage your expectations is the takeaway message here. You probably won’t (I haven’t) achieved those beautiful giant air bubbles in your loaf. That’s ok. It will still be that delicious, tangy bread you know and love.
People speak of dropping their regular sourdough starter in water to see if it floats – this has never worked for me with gluten free starter, even a very active one. I am currently unsure if this is something to do with my starter, or whether this just doesn’t happen for gluten free varieties. When I know more, you’ll know more.
Finally: gluten. Glutinous sourdough starters will always contain a lil bit of gluten. The gluten isn’t completely broken down. Have a read of this great article from Bon Appetit, about sourdough and FODMAPs. I’d recommend keeping the starter gluten free if you are coeliac, and personally I like to keep it gluten free too.
CAN I MIX UP THE FLOURS I FEED MY SOURDOUGH STARTER WITH?
Yes! Please do! But within reason. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend feeding the starter with a different gluten free flour every day, you can use different flours if you run out of your original flour. You can also combine two flours, like I do with sorghum and quinoa. Apparently, after a while, your sourdough will eat away the remnants of the old flour you were using, without a trace. So, for example, if you were to start feeding your quinoa flour starter brown rice flour, it would eventually become an entirely brown rice flour starter.
On that note, you could hypothetically transition a glutinous sourdough to a gluten free one. I haven’t done it and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it (particularly if you are coeliac) but science suggests it could be done, if you happen to be gifted a regular starter. I would do some Googling if you want to go down that path.
CAN I USE A GLUTEN FREE FLOUR BLEND FOR MY STARTER?
I would not recommend. Gluten free flour blends have additives such as gums and baking powder added. I haven’t even bothered to Google this to know it’s not a great idea. If you buy flour some a bulk store, it is FAR cheaper, and you’re not wasting your blend. I’m biased against gluten free flour mixes in the first place, but this seems like a terrible idea.
Another bad idea? Using a starch like tapioca flour or potato flour. Apparently the yeast will feed too quickly which can cause problems with your starter. A gluten free, wholegrain flour is best.
A recipe for this caprese toasted sandwich can be found RIGHT ERE
Gluten free sourdough starter
- Large glass jar with a lid
- Muslin cloth, to keep bugs out when 'airing' the starter
- A wooden spoon, or anything that isn't steel
- Kitchen scales, for weighing out the feeds
- An elastic band or tape, to measure starter growth (the funnest part!)
- 25g quinoa flour (see notes on flour)
- 25g sorghum flour (or another wholegrain gluten free flour, like brown rice flour)
- 50g water (see notes on water)
- Combine your water and flour in a sterile glass jar or clean glass bowl. Ideally, you'd do this in the morning, and then feed the starter the same amount again in the evening.
- Continue this pattern of feeding until the starter begins to bubble, and become active. It should be roughly the consistency of a thick pancake batter. After 2 or 3 days, or when there are considerable bubbles on the starter, discard around half of the starter (see intro on what to use discard for) and feed the starter as per usual. I like to use discard days as a chance to clean the starter jar - I just rinse it out and let it dry while the freshly fed starter hangs out in a glass bowl.
- To keep your starter alive, continue to feed it once or twice a day, with the same 50g flour and water measurements. Discard or use starter every couple of days, and feed after each discard. Most gluten free bread recipes I have seen ask for 1 cup of sourdough starter per loaf, so make sure you have enough to make a loaf and also keep the starter going.
- To store the starter, see notes and links in the introduction.
- Make sure the starter is fed and in it's peak 'rise' before you use it to make sourdough. See the links in the resources section for more information.
MORE (!!) NOTES AND INSTRUCTIONS
A recipe plugin is not the place for verbose instructions on sourdough, so I thought I’d discuss a feeding schedule here. This is a loose idea of what to expect on which day. I say loose, because climate, water, flours, and luck all have a lot to do with the speed at which your starter will progress.
DAY 1 – 5 (or up to 7-10, depending on your starter)
Begin your starter by adding 50g flour and 50g water to a clean glass vessel of choice. My recipe asks for 25g of quinoa and sorghum flours, but you can mix this up and experiment as you see fit. You can use all one variety of flour (i.e 100% quinoa or 100% brown rice flour) but as with most gluten free baking, I find a mix to work better.
Feed your new starter this 100% hydration (which just means equal water and flour) 2 times a day, ROUGHLY at the same time each day. A new starter is more vulnerable, so do try and make sure you stick to this for the first week, if you can. After that, you do you, boo.
Depending on the weather (starters are more prolific in warm temperatures) you should start to see some bubbles and activity within the 2-5 day mark. Don’t stress if you don’t – keep feeding it regularly and keep your eyes peeled. You may also experience a strong vinegar tang, a rotten egg smell, or just a general unpleasant odour. Persevere past this and continue feeding – this is normal, and it will dissipate. I promise!
Even if your starter is bubbly on day two, continue the feeding schedule until day 5. It needs to be mature before you use it, and you also need enough volume to not use the entire starter up when you bake bread.
By day 5, there should be lots of bubbles and they should pop when you stir the starter. It should be a living sludge. It should smell like a strong loaf of sourdough. There should be no liquid on the top – feed it well before using it if there is.
Personally, I like to wait until around day 7 to start using my starter. I want to give it the best chance possible
Congratulations! You’ve persevered through the most unpleasant stages of making a gluten free sourdough starter. Your starter should now be quite bubbly, and it should smell like sourdough. To maintain it, feed it twice a day as usual. Keep an eye on any hooch/vinegar smells and up the feeding quantity if these arise. Once you get in the groove, you’ll realise that you can often feed your starter by intuition. If it’s looking runny, I add flour but no water. Looking thick? Add a little extra water.
If you don’t plan to use your starter for the week, see the instructions about keeping it in the fridge. On that note, make sure your starter is well fed and at room temperature before you use it, so it is nice and active. Much like me before breakfast, you cannot ask a starter for a stellar performance while it is hungry.
Finally, a note of common sense: make sure you have enough starter to bake a loaf AND keep the starter going. If you use up your entire starter in a loaf, you will have to start from scratch again.
SOURDOUGH STARTER RESOURCES
Tbh, the best learning is by doing. However, here are some handy resources for making your own starter.
- A good video on the general gist of making a starter. There’s no mentions of discard but if you’re a visual learner, this might help.
- Whole Hearted Eats has both a starter guide (not gluten free) and a gluten free sourdough recipe.
- There is a sourdough website which is basically a chat forum of all things sourdough. If you have ever googled something sourdough related, chances are you ended up there.
- Not gluten free, but The Perfect Loaf has a great sourdough guide, and is an insane sourdough baker and specialist. I am a crazed Instagram fan.
- Don’t get bogged down percentages and fancy French terms and feeding schedules. Feed it twice a day, equal parts flour and water. Experiment and have fun! Personally I think the process is much more intuitive than people on the internet make it sound. My loaves are definitely not as good as theirs, but that’s fine! The bread is still 10,000 times better than the supermarket variety, and before for me to boot.
- Buy flours in bulk from a bulk food store. You will go through a lot of flour in this process, and that’s way too much packaging to go to landfill. Make sure you store your flours correctly.
- Starters are more prolific in summer and take a lot longer in winter. Be patient.
- Don’t bin your starter at the first sign of a weird smell or a dark liquid. Be chill! We’re fermenting!
- If all else fails, make it up as you go along. That’s what I did when I started, and I learnt a whole heap on the way.