The Tivoli Road Baker
Bonnie Savage and Alan Benson

One of the most important jobs at our bakery is feeding our sourdough starters. We do it twice a day; it is the first and last job, every day. We use two starters at the bakery – one wheat and one rye, which we use for different bread formulae. It is very easy to make a starter (also known as the mother, levain or biga): simply mix together flour and water, and give it time. I recommend using organic wholegrain rye or whole-wheat flour. They contain more wild yeast and bacteria than processed flour, which helps to accelerate the fermentation process.

Your choice of flour is important. While researching for this book I experimented with several different flours, including a supermarket brand ‘wholemeal’ flour. This flour produced no aroma or flavour, and the starter oxidised before it was able to ferment, with black spots appearing throughout the mixture. Eventually it started to ferment, but the aroma was almost non-existent, and the flavour was flat and bland.

A healthy sourdough starter contains two types of organisms: yeast and lactic-acid bacteria. The single most important factor when building or maintaining a starter, and when mixing your bread dough, is temperature. The yeast and lactic-acid bacteria are most active between 22˚C and 30°C (72˚F and 86°F), and the ideal temperature is around 26°C (79°F).

To achieve the desired temperature for your starter or dough, multiply your ideal temperature by two and then subtract the air temperature. The resulting number will be the temperature your water needs to be. The water temperature balances out the difference between the flour temperature (which tends to be the same as the air temperature) and your desired starter or dough temperature.

Let’s say the temperature in your kitchen is 19°C (66°F). To achieve a starter or dough temperature of 26°C (79°F), do the following calculation: 26°C (desired temperature) × 2 = 52 – 19°C (current air temperature in your kitchen) = 33°C (the temperature of the water needed for your starter, or dough)

To achieve the required water temperature, just run the hot tap and collect some warm water, then check the temperature and adjust as necessary by adding more cold or hot water.

It takes five to seven days to make an active starter full of good bacteria and wild yeast. You want a starter that’s full of bubbles and has the characteristic smell of fermentation. That’s how you know you’ve got a good balance of yeast and bacteria, and that they are very active. Keep your starter covered as it ferments, to allow the good bacteria and wild yeasts present in the grain to do their work without external interference.

It is a myth that using a very ancient starter is better than starting from fresh. A one-month-old starter will be very similar in character to a much older one. The main difference between any two starters will be the strains of wild yeast and bacteria present. Bread made with a hundred-year-old starter will perform and taste the same as bread made with a one-month-old starter, if they have the same feed schedule, using the same flour. But a starter made in San Francisco can never be the same as a starter made in Melbourne. The differences in the flours and environment mean that they will each contain different strains of bacteria, in effect giving bread a sense of ‘terroir’.

What matters is not the amount of time the starter lasts, but how well it’s taken care of. A newer starter, if properly established, will produce similar results to an older one that’s been well maintained. A newer one that’s been well maintained will produce better bread than an old one that’s been poorly maintained.

Below, I have outlined the process for establishing your starter from scratch, and have made some notes about some of the smells you may notice as the starter gets going. These are useful to have as a guide, but are not key to describing the healthy development of a ‘good’ starter. You may notice ‘off’ smells, but don’t worry. This can occur if the temperature is too low, and as you continue your feeding schedule the bacteria and yeast present will eventually balance out into a nice, healthy starter. You may find it simpler just to focus on the appearance, and get familiar with the fermentation process before trying to read too much into the characteristics of your starter.


Quantity Ingredient
3 tablespoons wholegrain flour
4 tablespoons flour of your choice


  1. Day 1: In a jar with a capacity of at least 330 ml (11 floz), mix 1 tablespoon of water at 26°C (79°F) with 1 tablespoon of wholegrain flour, then cover and leave in a warm place for 24 hours.
  2. Day 2: When you open your jar there may be a bubble or two, but don’t worry if there aren’t any – they will come. You may also notice a slightly tangy smell. Add 1 tablespoon of water at 26°C (79°F) and 1 tablespoon of wholegrain flour, and stir it in until thoroughly combined. Cover and leave in a warm place for 24 hours.
  3. Day 3: When you open the jar you should see some tiny bubbles starting to appear. You may notice a slightly grassy or sweet tangy smell, as well as a more acidic smell, like vinegar. These are good signs, and an indicator that you’re on the right track. Add 1 tablespoon of water at 26°C (79°F) and 1 tablespoon of wholegrain flour, and stir to combine. Cover and leave in a warm place for 24 hours.
  4. Day 4: By now you should have more tiny bubbles and the fermentation should be well and truly happening. You may notice stronger smells, such as bananas and wheat beer. Add 1 tablespoon of water at 26°C (79°F) and 1 tablespoon of flour, and stir to combine. (If you want to switch to a wheat or spelt starter, this is a good time to start feeding with your preferred flour.) Cover and leave in a warm place for 24 hours.
  5. Day 5: You should see lots of tiny bubbles on the surface of your starter, and may notice quite a strong acidic scent, like vinegar, when you open the lid. The smell will be quite sweet and slightly tangy, and will disappear when you feed the starter. Add 1 tablespoon of water at 26°C (79°F) and 1 tablespoon of flour, and stir to combine. Your starter may even be ready by now or Day 6. Cover and leave in a warm place for 24 hours.
  6. Day 6: The starter should be very bubbly and active by now, with a strong, slightly alcoholic smell of fermentation. It should be ready to use by this day; if not, add 1 tablespoon of water at 26°C (79°F) and 1 tablespoon of flour, and stir to combine. Cover and leave in a warm place for at least 12 hours. If you want to accelerate the whole process, you can feed every 12 hours instead of every 24 hours.
  7. Day 7 onwards: The starter is now ready to use, and should have lots of tiny bubbles on the surface and throughout. And if you’re not using it immediately, you can discard all but 1 tablespoon for maintenance. Feed this with 1 tablespoon of water at 26°C (79°F) and 1 tablespoon of flour, and stir to combine.


  • Proper maintenance of your starter is as important as creating one, if not more so. If you consistently refresh your starter, maintaining a temperature of around 26°C (79°F), you will always make good bread. When using your ripe starter for baking, always be sure to leave some behind to maintain a continuous fermentation cycle. Replace what you’ve used by feeding what’s left with an equal combined weight of flour and water. This way you avoid having to start again every time you make bread.

    Yeast and bacteria like a good, clean environment. Once a week, clean the container and discard all but 1 tablespoon of your starter before feeding it, as above. If you’re not making bread every day, you will find that your starter grows too quickly with a daily feed. In this case, it’s best to store it in the fridge, in an airtight container. It will store safely for up to a month, but if you can, refresh or feed it once a week. Before you put your starter into cold storage, give it a feed of 100% hydration. That means if your starter weight is 50 g (13/4 oz), add 50 g (13/4 oz) water and 50 g (13/4 oz) of flour, and mix it through. Leave it at room temperature for 4–6 hours to allow the yeast and bacteria to build up before transferring it to the fridge.

    If storing your starter at room temperature it’s better not leave it for more than 7 days between feeds. If you do, when you come to use it again it may be highly acidic and a bit mouldy. It can still be resurrected, though. Just scrape any discoloured bits off the top and take a tablespoon of clean starter from underneath. Start the fermentation process again from Day 4, and it will be good to go after being refreshed 3–4 times.

    It’s better not to store your starter in the freezer, as the temperature kills off too many wild yeast and bacteria. Either store it in the fridge and refresh it once in a while, or make a new starter after your baking hiatus.

    To turn your existing starter into a different grain starter (rye, emmer, khorosan or spelt, for example), remove all but 1 tablespoon of the starter. Refresh it by adding 1 tablespoon of your preferred flour and 1 tablespoon of water. It will need to be refreshed about eight times before it is truly a starter of the new flour. You can refresh twice a day if you want to speed this process up.

Why an active starter is important

  • A healthy, active starter is the most crucial element to making good bread. No recipe, no matter how great, will make up for an underactive starter. A good, bubbly starter will result in wellfermented loaves, whereas an underactive starter will result in gummy, dense loaves. The starter that you use or create will take on whatever bacteria or wild yeast is around your environment, and will develop and change accordingly. You will get locally dominant strains of wild yeast and bacteria that will subtly alter its taste and smell.

    At the bakery, we feed our wheat and rye starters twice a day with a combination of bakers flour and whole-wheat flour. The whole-wheat helps to nourish and maintain a good healthy yeast population, as well as good bacteria for flavour. Wholegrain flour, particularly when freshly milled, contains a lot of wild yeast and good bacteria, so it’s very beneficial to making and maintaining a healthy starter.

Preparing the starter build

  • The starter build refers to the feeds you do before you mix your dough, so you have the right quantity for the recipe, and still some left over for maintenance. If your starter has been stored for a while, you’ll need to feed it three times before using it in order to achieve good results and active fermentation in your dough. This is because extended cold storage below 4°C (39°F) kills off significant numbers of yeast and bacterial cells. While the remaining cells are kept in a dormant state and are still completely viable, their numbers will need to be built back up to ensure an active fermentation.

    Likewise, if you’re multiplying our recipes, you’ll need to make 2–3 feeds over a couple of days prior to mixing, to ensure that you have enough to mix as well as some left over to maintain. If using a wheat starter and making one loaf of bread, 4–6 hours before mixing the dough, take 50 g (13/4 oz) of active starter and feed it with 50 g (13/4 oz) of water, 25 g (1 oz) bakers flour and 25 g (1 oz) whole-wheat flour. This is a 100% hydration feed; it will get the starter nice and active, and ensure that you have enough for your dough as well as for maintaining the starter.

    If using a rye starter you will need a bit more, as it’s not as active. Take 100 g (31/2 oz) of starter and feed it with 100 g (31/2 oz) of rye flour and 100 g (31/2 oz) of water.

    To test if the starter is ready for mixing, drop a little into a bowl of water; if it floats, it is ready to use.
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