In this blog post, I break down how to make an old-fashioned rye starter to bake 100% rye sourdough. Give your other sourdough starter a day off & bake rye bread from scratch. The step-by-step instructions and photos give you a good reference on the starter maturity when you make a new starter and the type of whole-grain rye flour used.
There are many ways to make rye bread & rye sourdough starters. This way I’m sharing here is a classic Finnish version of rye sourdough baking (hapanleipä in Finnish). The whole of the starter you create with this recipe is used to bake two rye loaves, no discard. After making the rye starter, you are all set to bake with the 1940s rye sourdough recipe.
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What is the difference between rye sourdough starter vs. wheat-based starter?
The main difference is of course taste but also hydration rate. When making this rye starter, you notice that it has a runny porridge-like appearance. Rye needs more water to absorb and rye also enjoys warmer water in comparison to a wheat starter.
It takes approximately 24-36 hours to get the first baking-ready starter. Your timeline may differ from this depending on the room temperature where the starter is kept. Use my timeline as a reference, the key is to achieve bubbling activity.
As I mentioned, you can use all of the starter as a sponge to bake 100% rye bread with the recipe I linked above. No need to discard any of it but do save a couple of spoonfuls to make a dry copy of the starter for next time or take a piece of the 100% rye dough before adding salt and store it in the fridge (up to 2 weeks).
Checklist for ingredients & tools to make rye starter
- 180g organic dark rye flour + 300ml (1,27cups) room temperature water
- a medium-sized (wide) bowl + a whisk
- tea towel + plate to cover the bowl
Provided that rye flour standards, as well as the milling, differ across continents, I want to say that many US readers have used Bob’s Red Mill Organic Rye* flour as a combination with another type of rye flour from some other brand. Also, Great River Organic Milling has organic stone ground medium-dark rye Flour* and it’s available in a 25-pounds sack. Here’s a listing of millers who are using New American Stonemills.
Among UK bakers, I’ve noticed that Shipton Mill is a trusted rye flour source. To point out another organic option, Doves Farm sells 2 X 1Kg bag of wholegrain organic rye flour*, which is just the perfect amount to start your rye baking adventure. After all, we want to always use fresh rye flour every time and not buy too big of a bag to sit in your pantry for months.
Do share in the comments if you have a good rye brand you would like to recommend to others. I recommend using fresh wholegrain dark rye, preferably stoneground.
Rye Sourdough Starter | Step by Step
Take this timeline as a reference. If your kitchen is cold, do use warmer water (up to 30°C/ 86°F) to feed the starter and keep it in a warm spot to support the activity. To summarize, you start the rye starter in the evening, feed it twice during the second day and you should be ready to bake bread on the third day.
DAY 1 @4PM | Mixing 60g rye flour + 100ml room temperature water. Whisk the mix into a slurry porridge. Give the mix extra whisking a couple of times during the course of the evening. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and a plate, leave it at room temperature or a warm spot overnight.
DAY 2 @8-12AM | Whisk the starter porridge while having your morning coffee. Then, add another 60g rye flour + 100ml of room temperature water into the mix before noon. Whisk air into the porridge couple of minutes more. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and a plate, leave it at room temperature or a warm spot.
DAY 2 @7PM | Adding 60g rye flour + 100 ml room temperature water. Whisk the starter porridge. Give the mix an extra whisking a couple of hours later before you go to bed. Keep the bowl covered in room temperature or a warmer spot overnight.
DAY 3 @MORNING | Ready to make the bread! The temperature of my ready bubbly starter was 28°C (82,4°F) at this stage. The starter should now be full of bubbles without any extra whisking as is in the photo below. The scent is somewhat sour, full, and a bit sweet. If your starter does not meet these requirements, give it one more feeding and you should be ready by the afternoon.
Check these visuals
The first photo below shows the rye starter consistency after whisking the first initial feeding. In the second photo, you’ll see the texture of the dark rye flour I used to create the new starter. In the third photo, you can see the amount of activity and bubbles of the first starter before making the dough. An older rye starter will develop a sponge like consistency and have more bubbles as it gets stronger.
My runny starter is now mature, what’s next?
All set to bake fiber-rich and healthy 100% rye sourdough? You can start working on the dough by adding more flour and water but not all flour at once. Finnish classic rye sourdough (hapanleipä) is made only with rye flour, water, and salt. Please follow the recipe here to make your wonderful rye bread.
How do I keep a copy of the rye starter?
You just made a new starter so there’s no point in wasting the efforts. Instead of keeping and feeding a runny starter in the fridge in a glass jar, the old fashioned way is saving a piece of the actual dough before adding the salt in the final stage of dough kneading.
I guess you could refer to this firmer piece of “starter dough” as “mother starter”. However, it is not really accurate as all of the dough is used for the next rye bake from which you again take a new, fresh piece of rye dough starter. Baking 100% rye sourdough and keeping a rye starter the old-fashioned way creates a chain of sister loaves.
When you want to bake rye bread again, the dough piece is dissolved into water. How much water? Well, enough water that the dough starts to resemble the porridge-like consistency. Once dissolved, the rye starter is fed into a sponge following the process given here and when it’s happy bubbly for baking, you build the final rye dough. All in all, it’s a good idea to use the dough piece within a week or max two when stored airtight in a cold fridge.
You can also store a dry copy of rye starter
The historical way, however, is to leave the rye dough dry in the bowl you used to make the dough. In Finland we have taikinatiinu, a wooden pail specifically used for making rye sourdough only. You can see this instrument in the black and white photo below. The dry form of rye starter is conveniently always ready in the wooden bowl which is kept dry, upside down in a cool place.
You can mimic this age-old method by spreading a thin layer of the bubbly starter on a plate or parchment paper and then leaving it to dry at room temperature. When completely dry, scrape it and store in a jar.
Alternatively, you can leave the dough dry in the bowl or the whisk which you used in baking (like I have done here). Just gently scrape the dry starter. The dry starter is kept in an airtight container & when baking rye sourdough again, just dissolve the dry starter into warm water and continue feeding as instructed here.
I recommend keeping a dry backup of your sourdough starter for emergencies. You can use the rye starter to bake all different kinds of bread and the starter will build complexity, strength, and more flavor by every time when it’s used. By the way, this article shows a nice variety of rye sourdough shapes whilst talking about the rye traditions in Finland.
Useful tips when making the starter
I know that there can be a lot to digest here as the porridge-like rye sourdough starter is quite a different concept from the 50/50 fed wheat starter. The rye starter has higher hydration, warmer feeding, and longer fermentation so that the starter can build up the beautiful distinctive flavors and texture that the 100% rye bread has. Here’s what you need to remember when making the rye sourdough starter:
- use fresh whole-grain rye flour
- don’t forget to whisk air into the runny starter multiple times between the feedings
- use a wide ceramic or wooden dish, these materials keep the temperature steady (beware of lead in ceramics)
- if your kitchen is cold especially during winter, (≤24C), wrap a warm towel around the bowl or keep the starter in a warmer spot, e.g. a cold oven with the only the light on.
- keeping an eye on the temperature is useful especially during winter as warmer and runnier starter results in rounder sourdough taste thanks to lactic acid bacteria whereas a colder starter will have more vinegary notes. If you like the latter profile more, it’s okay to let the starter bubble another day with longer feeding times.