Alternative Sourdough Starters

by Catherine Haug, April 15, 2011

Traditional sourdough was discussed in my post on Sourdough, and will be the topic of our May 2011 gathering. While alternative sourdough starters will not be a presentation topic at that event, several members of our community are interested in alternative starters including:

  • gluten-free
  • other cultures such as kefir (rather than traditional wild culture)

Gluten-Free Sourdough

Brown Rice Starter

Consider starting with the Boosted Brown Rice Starter (1) from the gluten free sourdough blog. This uses brown rice flour, water, and water kefir for the starter (see The EssentiaList: Using Kefir Grains (2), pages 5-6, for water kefir instructions).

When feeding this starter, you need to feed it more than for traditional sourdough. Basically, you want to double it, so for 1 cup starter, add 1 cup brown rice flour and a little less than 1 cup pure water. And feed it once daily, whether using it or not.

“Unlike starters with gluten flour that improve with age, gluten-free starter tends to decrease in effectiveness with age, and can even begin to smell “off.” It should smell yeasty and fresh. If it starts to smell offensive or moldy or gets an orange color to it, throw it away and start over. A new one will be ready in just three or four days!” (3)

Using the brown rice starter

“Once I became familiar with using a starter, converting other sourdough recipes became fairly easy. There are just a few general rules of thumb to keep in mind when using a gluten-free starter.

No kneading is necessary [may not be possible to knead this dough]. Gluten-free dough is sticky and fragile.

Flour: As in any gluten-free baking, the key to good texture and flavor is flour combination. The combination [recomended by] is a base, neutral flavor flour like brown rice; a small amount of buckwheat flour for weight, flavor and nutrients; and one or more starchy flours like sweet rice, tapioca or arrowroot so the product is less crumbly.

We also enjoy the flavor and texture of millet flour, particularly in anything that needs to be crispy on the edges, like cookies. We do not use sorghum flour because it hurts stomachs around here, and we dislike the flavor and aftertaste of bean flours.

Gluten-Free flours soak up different amounts of moisture, and this can cause the texture of dough to be too moist or too dry. Pay attention to the texture when adding liquids, and add more or less liquid to correct it. If a dough comes out way too wet, adding a tablespoon or two of white rice flour will thicken it slightly without adding phytates or weight.

Grind your own: Obtaining a grain grinder opened up a whole new world with gluten-free flours. Freshly ground brown rice flour smells wonderful! I highly recommend going with freshly ground flour.” (3)

Other Cultures

To be truly sustainable, and also produce the strongest, most health-giving starter, most experts agree that your best bet is to allow local & wild yeasts and lacto-bacteria to culture your starter. These wild microbes are present everywhere, on everything, and in the air; they are visibly present as the ‘bloom’ on the surface of certain fruits such as plums, grapes and berries. Local wild microbes are what turn cabbage into sauerkraut.

However, some adventurist bakers like the idea of specialized cultures, and kefir seems to be a favorite. Yogurt isn’t as easy to work with because it requires higher temperatures than room temp, to sustain growth (116° F is optimal).

Kefir culture

Kefir originated in the Caucasus mountains, from carrying fresh milk in leather pouches. Today, true kefir is made from gelatinous ‘grains’ (not a grain) which, like kombucha and sourdough cultures, are a symbiotic colony of yeasts and lactic bacteria. See Dom’s Kefir In-Site (4) for lots more on kefir.

There are many recipes for making/using kefir sourdough starter. You might start with Dom’s Kefir Sourdough Starter (4); you can view a video of using Dom’s starter to make bread on YouTube: Kefir Sourdough Bread (video) (5).

Here’s another idea from Lawana McGuffey (CounterCulture blog) (6). This works both with traditional starter and gluten-free starter:

“My friend says just make sourdough starter as you conventionally would using kefir whey for the liquid instead of water. Feed it daily as you would usually, with fresh flour and water. When it is acting like sourdough, make your bread. It is best to use a recipe which requires a sponge.”

Sources & References

  1. Boosted Brown Rice Starter (
  2. The EssentiaList: Using Kefir Grains ( ) and Making Yogurt, Kefir & Whey at Home (
  4. Dom’s sites: Links contain malware so have been deactivated>> Kefir In-Site ( au/~dna/kefirpage.html and Kefir Sourdough ( au/~dna/kefir_cheese.html#cry-zee)
  5. Dom’s Kefir Sourdough Bread (video) (
  6. CounterCulture blog (



One Response to “Alternative Sourdough Starters”

  1. I can’t wait to try some of these ideas, especially the brown rice starter. Good post.