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What is a Bread Starter?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A bread starter is the base for many artisan breads, including sourdough and Amish Friendship Bread. It uses naturally occurring wild yeast as a leavening agent, lending a distinct flavor and texture to the bread that cannot be replicated by commercially harvested yeast. Some bread companies use starters that are over 100 years old to create dependably flavored bread every time. Many home bakers make their own starter as they explore the varied world of bread baking.

To make a bread starter, a baker begins with a mixture of flour and warm water that is set out in the open air to collect yeast. Sometimes, it takes several rounds of trial and error before yeast will appear. Bakers blend 1 cup (125 g) of flour with 1 cup (236.5 ml) of water to make a starter, setting it out in a warm place and covering it with a damp towel to keep it moist. Every 24 hours, the mixture is fed by the baker, who throws half of it away and mixes in 0.5 cup (62.5 g) of flour and 0.5 cup (118.2 ml) of water. Within a few days, the starter will begin to form a bubbly froth, which means that yeast is present and it can be used.

Once a starter has taken, it is usually refrigerated, which slows the growth of the yeast. When the baker is ready to use it, it is taken out of the cold and proofed. Proofing involves adding another cup (236.5 ml) of warm water and a cup (125 g) of flour to the starter to "wake up" the yeast and begin the fermentation process, which will result in bread. Depending on the yeast present in the bread starter, this proofed “sponge” may take two to 24 hours to become bubbly and edged with a white froth, indicating that it is ready.

To make bread, a small amount of the sponge is set aside and stored so that the baker has starter for next time. Then the ingredients of the bread, which can be as simple as water, flour, and salt, are mixed together to create dough. The dough is kneaded, allowed to rise, and baked. Most breads made from a starter rather than yeast have a more complex, slightly fermented flavor that many diners greatly appreciate.

It is easy to make bread starter and care for it. Some groups of friends or organizations exchange starter, as is the case with Amish Friendship Bread. Exchanging starters all over the world can allow bakers access to a wide variety of new flavors for their breads. Making a starter is also a fun way for children to learn about chemistry and baking.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon126871 — On Nov 14, 2010

yeast feeds off of carbohydrates which flour and sugar are both a carbohydrate, it would help feed the yeast.

About the splenda, being a pastry chef i would never use splenda. in class we tried making banana bread with different artificial sweeteners and they were gross. any form of artificial sweeteners are similar to sugar. They are just meant to sweeten, but you won't get the color, texture, keeping time will decrease, and the flavor really isn't that good.

i don't know what effect it would have on yeast, but I'm assuming a bad one.

By anon111306 — On Sep 15, 2010

Whole wheat? Yes, but whole wheat flour is less stable than white, so you have to be careful about it going bad. I'd just make a white flour starter and add WW to it for a whole wheat loaf.

Splenda? Why would you want to? Splenda is chlorinated sugar. I'm not saying that it will kill the yeast, but the point of adding a little sugar to bread is to give the yeast a kick in the butt. I assume Splenda will just sweeten and most likely do the opposite.

By ClanceGee477 — On Sep 02, 2009

Can I use Splenda instead of sugar?

By anon40987 — On Aug 12, 2009

Can I use whole wheat flour? Can I use Splenda instead of sugar?

By DannyCharles — On Mar 03, 2009

What is the difference, if any, between starter made with flour and water and starter with flour, *sugar*, and water?

I am making cinnamon rolls from scratch and I want to use a starter instead of packaged yeast.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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