The Team at Bob's Red Mill

Your Sourdough Starter: What Kind of Flour?

A while back, I was reading an online bulletin where people were discussing the pros and cons of using different types of flour in their sourdough starter. Someone was agonizing because they realized the starter they just brought home was a white-flour starter. What they hadn’t realized is that white flour is enriched with who knows what, and bleached, it’s devoid of nutrients, it turns straight to sugar in your stomach and brings the plague on your house when you eat it.

  • I said I don’t think white flour is the devil.
  • I said if you don’t like the flour in your starter, it’s okay, you’re not stuck with it.*
  • I didn’t say, why did you buy it? Cheaper to make your own.

* You can change the composition of your starter any time you want. Each time you feed it, you remove half, either discarding it or baking with it, and replace it with the same amount of flour and water, fresh. If you want to change what the starter is made of, change what you feed it. It won’t take many feedings to replace the original at that rate.

Anyway, the white flour thing is funny to me. I mean I get it. Highly-processed, bleached flour isn’t great. But neither is highly-processed, bleached salt. That doesn’t mean white flour is bad, any more than it means salt is bad. It just means you should steer toward a non-bleached, quality version whenever you can. My grocery happens to sell Bob’s Red Mill. No complaints.

That said, I often prefer to use a big percentage of whole wheat when I bake, because it’s more nutritious and creates heartier, more complex flavors. But sometimes I use white too. True, the bran’s been removed. And true, what’s left is less nutritious. And yeah, it transforms to sugar when you eat it: good to know.* Still doesn’t mean white flour will defile you if you touch it.

* I read recently that the glycemic index of sourdough is lower than that of bread made with active dry yeast. If so, maybe, to some extent, the fact that you’re making slow bread makes white flour’s transformation to glycogen in your blood a little slower too. Look it up if you’re interested — then come back and tell me what you learned in a comment.

The trick is to know what a given flour offers, so you can get what you want from it. Which brings us to your sourdough: what will you feed your starter? Here are the flours I’ve tried, and what I think of them.

White flour starter

I find the texture of a white flour starter to be stretchy and soupy, not interested in holding its shape or making much of a statement. Flabby is the word. Also, the cultures work through it pretty quickly; I wonder if that’s because the sugar is more available, or more highly concentrated, something like that. This can be a bonus if you want to jumpstart your starter for some reason: revive it in fast-forward. Or if you’re out of your regular flour, and the culture needs to eat. Otherwise this option doesn’t interest me. White flour is great for baking certain things; not so great as a starter.

Whole-wheat flour starter

Whole wheat is my go-to. It’s a workhorse. When fed whole wheat, my starter is soft but dense, elastic but substantive. It’s easy to stir, but it doesn’t pour or spill about.

As mentioned above, it’s also more nutritious than white, but seriously, your starter is such a small portion of the finished food, is there really enough bran in there to matter? Its job is to introduce tons of microcultures to your food, not tons of bran. If you really want to eat some bran, your choice of baking flour matters much more than your choice of starter flour.

Next observation, whole wheat is a little slower to ferment; the cultures take longer to work through it. I appreciate this. I want my culture to be able to play by itself a while.

Finally — this can be good or bad — a whole-wheat starter imparts a whole-wheat flavor. This is fine most of the time, but there are times I don’t want the statement. And although the starter represents a small portion of the total ingredients, the strength of that flavor can come through.

Rye flour starter

Whole-rye flour brings all the benefits of whole wheat, plus one additional benefit and one additional drawback.

Its perfume is delicious. Delicious. When I was using rye flour all the time, its aroma was just … if they made a perfume with that fragrance, I’d be wearing it now.

On the downside, its texture is cakier than wheat. This is not a problem if you’re just using it to feed your starter, but when I was baking whole loaves with nothing but rye flour, I found the dough was chunkier and less elastic. Later, the finished loaf was less amenable to slicing.

I don’t use rye in my starter anymore, but it’s still my favorite choice. So, why don’t I use it? I don’t have counter space right now for an extra flour jar.

Have you tried other flours in your starter? If so, share what you tried and what you thought about it.

  • Alex Lockhart

    Oh, no. You had to ask.

    I buy hard red spring wheat berries (which I think is the highest protein – thus gluten – content of the common wheat varieties and great for bread) in a big 25lb bag at Bob’s Red Mill. Yes, the big red building in Milwaukie with a fake waterwheel. Organic, of course. I can get the exact same stuff in the bulk bin at Fred Meyer, but it’s cheaper when I buy it from Bob, and I avoid sending the markup to Cincinnati.

    Then, I sprout it in batches of 14 cups of berries. First I soak the berries 6-8 hours or overnight, and they swell up and spring to life. If I wait too long – I admit to leaving them underwater for 24 hours – the natural yeasts on the berries really start going to work and the stuff gets a little bubbly. I keep the water and give it to the houseplants, since I’m told that they love the nutrients. Sometimes some wheat berries get in there, and I find little wheatgrasses growing in my houseplants. But I digress.

    I put the soaked berries in our two colanders, wrapped in kitchen towels, and run some water over them morning and night. Well, sometimes I forget, but they seem to be fine inside the wet towel for 24 hours. They sprout vigorously, sending out three little roots and one thick sprout, looking for soil and light. At this point, they taste delicious – sprouting grains turns the starches to maltose, and thus they’re naturally sweet, and they also acquire a nutty flavor – probably something to do with the vitamins and minerals becoming more bioavailable. But I’m just getting started with them. After 2-3 days, I spread them on the dehydrator trays (14 cups dry is about all I can fit once they’re brimming with life) and run them at about 130 degrees, again for 6-8 hours or overnight.

    Then, I store the dry berries until I need some flour. They get all tiny in the dehydrator again, and look just like they did before I soaked them, except for the little hairlike roots and sprouts. When I need flour, I grind the sprouted, dried wheat berries in my NutriMill, which whirrs around at 45,000rpm and explodes the little berries into fine flour. I always keep a little on hand to feed the starter and as our general whole wheat flour for baking, but anytime I bake bread, I grind all the flour that goes into the bread right then.

    I’ve been baking bread for a while with this 100% whole wheat flour, but recently started adding in about a quarter white flour (again, Bob’s Red Mill organic, but this time from the bulk bin) and it seems to give a little better texture and rise. It’s not a big difference and the bread is certainly no less dense, spongy, brown, and hearty when baked. If I had a good seive, I could just sift out some of my bran.

    This all sounds incredibly complex and time consuming – don’t I know that the store sells flour already ground?! Yes, but it’s not the same. Also, it’s really not much work. Getting 14 cups of berries through the sprouting, drying, and grinding process takes under 45 minutes total hands-on time, and that’s over five loaves’ worth of bread – about a month’s worth. The process is not exact and very forgiving. I get to work with lots of living things, and in the end I get the most nutritious, best-tasting bread I’ve ever had. Why would I short-change all that with a bag of dead flour?

    • That’s cool. Glad to read this!

      I know, everything sounds complex and time-consuming but it’s really not a big deal. That’s one of the things I want to communicate with this section of this blog in general. I mean, you could say that baking homemade bread at all was way too complex and time-consuming for the average busy person, but seriously, even when you’re baking slow bread from your own starter it’s only 10 minutes’ working time total. Ten minutes! That’s comparable to cooking boxed macaroni and cheese.

      So I have no trouble believing you could get into an easy rhythm sprouting and grinding everything from scratch. I definitely see myself doing that; one of those things I’ll make happen someday. I’m not in a rush, and never have been, but that’s within the overall the direction I’m moving. Like you said, there are all these wonderful benefits you get when you do things slow and hands-on, not the least of which is getting to work with lots of living things.

      I can’t remember if your flour mill is a blade grinder, or an actual mill with burrs. What is it?

      Oh, and I agree about baking with white flour. I was a radical there for a while, trying to figure out how to make a 100% whole-wheat loaf that performed exactly the way I wanted it to – and I succeeded! – but afterward I decided I preferred just to throw in some white. You’re right, you can get great results either way, and it doesn’t make a huge difference. But with a little white, it’s just a little easier, the results are a little nicer, and the hearty flavor remains. So why not?

      My only hesitation about white flour has been: “Yeah, but someday when I’m growing all my own wheat berries (or buying them from a friend who does) and grinding them myself, would I really be able to separate the white out myself, or is that something you can only do in a modern industrial society?” (See number one.) But you just said that all it takes is a fine sieve. Kind of obvious, now that I think about it.

  • Alex Lockhart

    I felt the same way about doing sourdough. I knew I’d get there before long, but I had a system using commercial yeast, and just wasn’t in a hurry. Your transition is more difficult; you’ll need a dehydrator and flour mill. You can use the oven or build a solar dehydrator, but the first is tremendously inefficient and has a low capacity, and the second really only works in summer around here. The flour mill isn’t really something you can substitute something else for, and it’s a few hundred dollars of dedicated use machine, so you have to really know you need it.

    I used to grind grain in the Vitamix (which is a few hundred dollars of extremely versatile machine) and it did OK. It’s basically a giant blender or blade grinder on steroids, so it has all the blade grinder problems: small batches, inconsistent particle size, and very little of the “dust” kind of flour that’s best for baking. It worked, but it made very dense, hard loaves.

    The Nutrimill is an impact mill, a technology invented for use on a huge scale in crushing rocks. You can see a picture of the milling heads here: and read some about it. It’s fast, is not limited to running in batches, and produces flour that’s just as even and fine as commercial stuff. That’s because it’s basically a scaled down version of the standard for commercial flour grinders. You can get similar results with large wheel grinders (Bob’s stone mills are a type of this, but I would get this one, but they’re much more expensive, slow, and need precise adjustment and frequent cleaning. Burr grinders like the Family Grain Mill are even slower, can’t produce flour as even and fine (even with running it through twice as many people do) and tend to burn themselves up if you’re not careful. In my opinion, an impact mill is what to use if you assume that you’ll have electricity, and a wheel grinder is what to use if you assume you won’t.

    Yes, of course you can sift the bran out of your flour. That’s how they did it centuries ago. Not with a typical seive or flour sifter; you’d need a really fine mesh screen. If I wanted to do this, I’d find somewhere that sells screens, buy some of their finer sizes, experiment a little, then build a nice frame to hold the size I like. The bran particles are usually 5-10 times the size of the white flour particles, so it’s an easy thing to separate. I don’t use much white flour – anytime a recipe calls for it, I use half white and half whole wheat – so I’m perfectly comfortable just buying some from the store. Plus, white flour doesn’t go rancid quickly after grinding the way whole wheat does, so I don’t mind the storage time.

    • Oh I’ve got a dehydrator, I just never use it. Well, we dried rose hips with it last fall. I also have visions of an outdoor sun/breeze-dryer that I’d like to build at some point…

      Good to know, what you said about impact v. wheel grinders where electricity is concerned. But yeah. For now I’m totally happy to do it all store-bought. One thing at a time, as they say.