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Sunset's Reliable Sourdough Starter

First Posted: 10/27/2011 4:55 pm Updated: 08/31/2012 10:48 am

Sunset's Reliable Sourdough Starter

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As with a classic starter, ours ferments flour and liquid—milk, in this case—with some yogurt, already packed with helpful bacteria to get things off to a good beginning. Yogurt also produces a very active, bubbly starter and gives a wonderful zesty flavor to the bread. After a few days’ incubation in a warm place, the bacteria multiply to break down sugars in the flourand milk and give the characteristic sour smell and tang, and the starter is ready to use. Despite its terrific souring qualities, yogurt-based starters don’t always have a reliable yeast component (their high levels of acidity can inhibit yeast’s gas production), so we add dry yeast when baking. For best results, use milk (nonfat or low-fat for tangiest flavor) and yogurt that are as fresh as possible (check the sell-by date) and use them right after opening.


  • 1 cup nonfat or low-fat milk
  • 3 tablespoons plain yogurt (any fat level; use a brand with live cultures and no gelatin)
  • cup all-purpose flour


  • In a 1-quart pan over medium heat, heat milk to 90° to 100° F. Remove from heat and stir in yogurt. Pour into a warm 3- to 6-cup container with a tight lid.
  • Cover and let stand in a warm (80° to 90°) place until mixture is the consistency of yogurt, a curd has formed, and mixture doesn’t flow readily when container is tilted. (It may also form smaller curds suspended in clear liquid.) The process takes 18 to 24 hours. If some clear liquid has risen to the top of the milk during this time, stir it back in. If liquid has turned light pink, discard batch and start again.
  • Once curd has formed, stir in flour until smooth. Cover tightly and let stand in a warm place until mixture is full of bubbles and has a good sour smell, 2 to 5 days. Again, if clear liquid forms during this time, stir it back into starter. If liquid turns pink, start over. To store, cover and refrigerate.
  • To keep bacteria and yeasts healthy, the yogurt starter must be fed occasionally with flour and milk.
  • When creating the starter, incubate it between 80° and 90°. Any hotter and the bacteria may die; any cooler and the starter may develop mold. Set it on top of your water heater, on a counter with a lamp warming it, or in an oven warmed with pans of boiling water. An established starter is stronger; after feeding, it can stand at room temperature.
  • For best results, try to feed the starter at least once a month, even if you’re not baking. To feed, add warm (90° to 100°) nonfat or low-fat milk and all-purpose flour to the starter each in quantities equal to what you’ll be using in the recipe. For example, if the recipe calls for 1 cup starter, add 1 cup milk and 1 cup flour. (This is also the right amount for a monthly feeding even if you’re not baking.) Cover tightly and let stand in a warm (80° to 90°) place until bubbly and sour-smelling and a clear liquid has formed on top, 12 to 24 hours. The clear liquid shows that the acid level has risen and is starting to break down milk protein, and high acid means sour flavor. Use at this point (just give it a stir first) or cover and chill. To increase the starter supply (for gift-giving or quantity baking), you can add up to 10 cups each of milk and flour to 1 cup of starter (use a large container). The mixture may need to stand up to 2 days before the clear liquid forms on top.
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