Sourdough Starters and Recipes

How to Make Old-Fashioned Yeast Batters

By Judy Gorman
February 14, 2020
Barbara Dudzinska/shutterstock

The early pioneers used yeast batters to make their distinctive sourdough, and the “tang” of their baked goods can now be re-created with these sourdough starters and delicious recipes.

In the days before packaged yeast was sold in grocery stores, cooks who wanted yeast-leavened baked goods were forced to rely on various techniques for collecting wild yeasts from the air. Concoctions of potato water and flour were left at room temperature covered with a porous cloth for as long as necessary to attract local yeasts. After some time, bubbles appeared, indicating that wild yeasts were feeding on the flour and converting natural sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide (the process of fermentation).

It was hard to develop a good yeast batter. Some yeast strains were weak, leading to unreliable baking results. Mold and unwanted bacteria could contaminate a yeast batter. A good batter was therefore highly valued. Cooks guarded their containers of yeast, carefully nurturing the contents. A batter was never depleted, but perpetually replenished after each use with equal amounts of flour and water. If a loss did occur, the custom was to borrow a portion of yeast batter from a neighbor rather than to start all over again.

A yeast batter kept at cool room temperatures, as was the practice, develops a distinctive sour tang, so quite naturally the mixture became known as sourdough. Early settlers—and especially prospectors in the American and Canadian West—often were called “sourdoughs” because of their reliance on their precious canisters of yeast batter. Because they dipped into the batter and replenished it daily to make pancakes, biscuits, and breads, refrigeration was unnecessary.

Although dependable dry yeast is readily available today, people still crave the delectable flavor and tantalizing aroma of sourdough breads, and many cooks are tending pots of fermented starter. If you would like to try your hand at a batch of sourdough, the following directions and recipes can serve as a guide. Commercial yeast is recommended in both starter recipes; although it is not traditional, it produces reliable results.

The water-based sourdough is an excellent foundation for crusty bread, dinner rolls, biscuits, or pancakes. The milk-based starter contains a significant amount of sugar and is best used in coffee cakes, quick breads, and other sweet baked goods. (Although you can interchange the two types of starter in a pinch, results will not be the same.)


Both starters will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator if stored tightly covered in a glass or plastic container. Should the mixture develop spots of pink or orange, that means unwanted molds have taken up residence. You’ll have to discard the starter and begin again. Green, blue, or black molds are harmless. Just skim them off with a nonmetal spoon. The clear liquid that forms on the surface may be stirred in.

Although the pioneers used their starters daily, you will probably not be that devoted to yours, and refrigeration is therefore necessary. For maximum taste, however, let the starter come to room temperature before using. You may set the whole container on the kitchen counter the night before using it or measure out what you need a few hours ahead. And every time you remove a portion, be sure to replenish what you take. Stir the starter once a week. And if you use it less than once every two weeks, take some out and give it to a friend, then replenish with fresh ingredients in order to maintain a strong, vital taste.

How to Make Sourdough Starters

Water-based Sourdough:

This is the old-time sourdough made famous during the Gold Rush. It is based on water enriched with potatoes, a particularly hospitable medium for wild yeasts. Milk was never used in old-fashioned sourdough because it wasn’t available on the trail or in mining camps.

  • 2 large mealy potatoes, peeled and cut in half
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 package dry yeast, dissolved in ¼ cup warm water
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour, scoop measured
  • 1 cup warm water

Place potatoes in a large saucepan with enough water to cover. Boil gently until the potatoes fall apart. Do not drain. Force through a sieve, liquid and all, and allow to cool to room temperature. Add water to the potatoes if necessary to make 3 cups. Pour into a large glass or ceramic bowl. Using a nonmetal spoon, stir in the sugar, dissolved yeast, and 2 cups flour. Beat until smooth and creamy. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and set in a moderately warm spot (about 70ºF). Allow to stand for 24 hours, at which point the batter should smell pleasantly sour.

Stir in the remaining cup of flour and 1 cup warm water. Cover with a towl and allow to stand at room temperature for 2 to 3 days. The longer it stands, the more assertive the flavor. Transfer the starter to a tightly covered glass or plastic container and store in the refrigerator. To use the starter, stir in any liquid sitting on the surface, measure out what you need, and allow it to come to room temperature. Replenish what you remove by stirring in equal parts of flour and water. (For example, if you remove 1 cup of batter, stir in ½ cup flour and ½ cup water.)

Milk-based Sourdough:

This starter is sweeter than water-based sourdough and contains lactic acid, a by-product of fermentation on milk sugar. Because lactic acid weakens gluten strands, it helps to create an exceptionally tender crumb structure.

  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, scoop measured
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 package dry yeast, dissolved in ¼ cup warm water

In a large glass or ceramic bowl, combine 1 cup of milk, 1 cup of flour, the sugar, and the dissolved yeast. Using a nonmetal spoon, beat until smooth and creamy. Stir in the remaining 1 cup milk and 1 cup flour. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and set in a moderately warm spot (about 70ºF). Allow to stand for 24 hours, at which point the batter should smell pleasantly sour.

Transfer to a tightly covered glass or plastic container and place in the refrigerator. Stir with a nonmetal spoon once a day for 5 days. To use the starter, stir in any liquid sitting on the surface, measure out what you need, and allow it to come to room temperature. Replenish with equal parts of flour and milk, plus ½ part sugar. (For example, if you remove 1 cup of batter, stir in ½ cup flour, ½ cup milk, and ¼ cup sugar.)

Crusty White Bread

The aroma of these loaves as they bake is irresistible, so go ahead and ignore the traditional advice to cool before slicing. Tear off a crusty piece straight from the oven and enjoy the incomparable taste of hot sourdough bread. Makes two 15-inch loaves or three to four smaller ones.


  • 1 cup warm water
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 package dry yeast
  • 2 cups water-based sourdough, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 to 5 cups bread flour, scoop measured

In a large mixing bowl, combine the water, sugar, and yeast. Stir to dissolve the yeast. Add the sourdough, salt, and 2 cups of the flour. Beat vigorously until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl in ropy strands. Measure out 1 cup of the flour. Scatter some over a work surface and turn out the dough. Knead the dough, sprinkling on flour until the cup of flour has been absorbed. Knead in enough additional flour to form a smooth, nonsticky dough. The dough should spring back when you poke it with your finger. Place in a greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Set in a draft-free spot and allow to rise until doubled.

Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead again until smooth and satiny. Return the dough to the greased bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Set in a draft-free spot and allow to rise until doubled. Generously grease 2 baguette pans (or 4 smaller pans) and sprinkle with cornmeal. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and shape into 2 long loaves. Dust lightly with sifted flour and transfer to the prepared pans. Cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled. Make 3 diagonal slashes down each loaf with a razor blade. Dust again with sifted flour and bake in a preheated 450ºF oven for 25 to 35 minutes or until nicely browned.

Sourdough Pancakes

Serve with plenty of warmed maple syrup. Makes 12 large pancakes.

  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour, scoop measured
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 1 ½ cups milk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 3 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 cup water-based sourdough, at room temperature

Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, soda, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Whisk to blend. In a separate bowl, whisk together the milk, eggs, and butter. Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in the sourdough. Then add the egg mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until well moistened. The batter will contain some lumps.

Place a griddle over medium-high heat. Brush the surface with vegetable oil or rub with a strip of uncooked bacon as the griddle warms. When the griddle is hot, stir the batter and add more milk if necessary to create a consistency like heavy cream. Ladle scant ¼ cupfuls onto the hot griddle. Cook until the bubbles around the outside edge are broken. Turn pancakes and cook the other side. Repeat with remaining batter, adding additional milk if needed to maintain proper consistency. Keep cooked pancakes warm until all are ready.

Try some of our other best pancake recipes!


Streusel Coffee Cake

A cinnamon-flavored crumb topping complements this sourdough cake. Fold in a cup of fresh blueberries or chopped fresh apple if you like. If you want an even more fruity taste, try these recipes for blueberry streusel coffee cake and apricot streusel coffee cake. Makes a 9”x13” cake.

  • 2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour, scoop measured
  • ½ cup light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
  • 2 cups milk-based sourdough, at room temperature
  • ¾ cup milk
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • ⅔ cup vegetable oil
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Generously grease a 9”x13” baking pan. In a small bowl, combine ¼ cup of the flour, the brown sugar, butter, and 1 teaspoon of the cinnamon. Cut in with a knife until crumbly, and set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the sourdough, milk, and granulated sugar, and blend well. Beat in the eggs and vegetable oil.

In a separate bowl, combine the remaining 2 cups of flour, baking powder, soda, salt, and the remaining 1 ½ teaspoons of cinnamon. Whisk to blend thoroughly. With the mixer set at low speed, gradually mix in the dry ingredients. Pour into the prepared pan. Sprinkle with the crumb mixture and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until a wooden pick inserted into the center comes out clean. Place pan on rack to cool.

Applesauce Walnut Bread

Studded with walnuts, this spicy sourdough bread makes a wonderful after-school snack. Makes 1 loaf.


  • 1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour, scoop measured
  • ½ cup light brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon allspice
  • 1 large egg
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil
  • 1 cup applesauce
  • 1 cup milk-based sourdough, at room temperature
  • ½ cup coarsely chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Generously grease a 9”x5” loaf pan. Sift the flour, sugar, baking powder, soda, and salt into the bowl of an electric mixer. Add the cinnamon and allspice, and run the mixer briefly on low speed to blend the dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg and vegetable oil. Stir in the applesauce. With the mixture set at low speed, gradually pour the egg mixture into the dry ingredients. Add the sourdough and beat until thoroughly moistened. Stir in the walnuts.

Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, covering the loaf with foil during the last 10 minutes if necessary to prevent overbrowning. Loaf is done when a wooden pick insterted into the center comes out clean. Place pan on cooling rack; after 10 minutes, turn out loaf and cool completely on rack before slicing.

Can’t get enough of this delciious sourdough taste? Get a little more creative and try out our recipe for sourdough onion-potato rye bread!


The 1988 Old Farmer's Almanac

Reader Comments

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Deceptive article

These are OBVIOUSLY not old time recipes!

Dry yeast should not even be mentioned in ANY sourdough recipes, as it was NEVER used in old time recipes, nor old fashioned recipes!

Very disappointing article!!!

Milk vs water starter

Hello, Thank you for explaining the difference between a milk based and water based starter. I received a milk based starter and I want to make savory bread. Can I starting adding flour and water to feed it and convert it?

milk based vs water based starter

Yes you can, Lori. The results will be different than if you had a water based starter, but certainly not in a bad way.

Rather amusing instructions on replenishing

The author is hilariously under the impression that mixing 1/2 cup flour, 1/2 cup water, and 1/4 cup sugar will make 1 cup. Not even close. It will make closer to 1 cup. I have also never heard of constantly mixing in sugar, not to even mention such a huge amount of sugar. When I remove a cup of starter, I replace with 1 cup water or milk plus 1 cup flour, because when mixed in, the volume is not 2 cups but barely over 1 cup and the small "barely over" portion ends up balancing out with the small amounts lost on the fork at each stirring etc.

Volumes are not additive when things are mixed. Masses are, but volumes are not. In fact, dissolving some salt into pure water can actual reduce the volume of the water by a process termed electostriction.

If you replace 1 cup of used starter as the author instructs, you will run out of starter in short

Sourdough bread w/o yeast

I use a sourdough starter that I made with kombucha a year or so ago. I never add yeast when I make bread. Do you recommend I use yeast in my bread recipes?

kombucha bread

Hi, Patty. If you are using a kombucha starter, there is no need for adding yeast.

different starter

I use a potato flake starter - can it be used in the recipes?

potato starter for bread

The Editors's picture

Yes, you can.


I've always wondered why if you're using a starter anyway, that you need to add a packet of dry yeast. Isn't the starter acting as the leavening agent?

why use yeast starter

The Editors's picture

The yeast starter provides a different (and some say better) taste and texture than if you just used dry yeast in the bread.

Dry yeast

I am interpreting Denise's question differently than the answer provided.

Shouldn't the starter, which is initially developed with yeast, be sufficient to rise the final dough without additional yeast?

Share recipes

Can't figure out to save recipes or other items you have that interest me

Saving recipes

Hi Barbara. I just do a cut and paste then send myself an email that I save to a "recipes" folder. I suppose one could do that using 'Word' or some such application if they were cleverer than I am. ;)

High altitude

I would love to be able to make these. All of these recipe sound wonderful. However I live at 8200 feet here in Colorado and it's almost next to impossible to get anything to bake correctly. I have managed luck with cornbread, different styles of cookies and some cake recipes but bread is simply something I can't get right. Do you have any recipes for high altitude or suggestions?

high-altitude baking

Hi, Marie, At altitude 3,000 feet and above, yeast rises faster and flour is drier. To work with this,

• use about ⅓ less yeast. If one package of active dry yeast equals 2 - ¼ teaspoons, you should use about 1 / ½ teaspoons.

• add flour slowly, and add only enough to make the dough easy to handle. If the dough is sticky, do not flour our hands to knead it, grease them.

• check rising dough about halfway through the rise period; if it has risen or over-risen, punch it down and let it rise again.

• if the dough is waiting to be shaped, smear it with oil and cover it with grease plastic wrap.

• check the bread in the oven a few minutes before the predicted baking time is done—or when you smell it! If it is browning too quickly, cover it with a tent of foil.

We hope this helps!