Gluten-Free Sourdough Starter and Fun With Grain Mills

How to make a gluten-free sourdough starter and why you may want to grind your own flour for it

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My family is neither celiac nor gluten-sensitive. But like everyone, we do benefit from eating a variety of foods, including grains other than ubiquitous wheat. Not only does eating a varied diet provide a range of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, it also makes cooking more fun and meals less repetitive (although I personally don’t mind eating my favorite dishes over and over).

So, earlier this year, I started, gestated and delivered a new teff sourdough starter sister for Eleanor, my gluten-full sourdough starter. My Instagram audience offered many fabulous names for my newborn—Teffany, Steff, Teff Goldblum, Jeff, Eshe (Swahili for life), Celia, Rigby and more. I finally settled on Teffleanor.

A few notes on grains: Expensive teff can be a bit difficult to work with. You may find economical buckwheat flour (also gluten-free) easier to work with. Also, please note that Teffleanor requires more time to digest her meals. Eleanor scarfs hers down quickly and sometimes requires two meals a day in hot weather. Teffleanor rises much more slowly. I’m not trying to talk you out of using teff. I love it. It renders a mouthwateringly delicious and strong sour flavor that you may also love. You can also experiment with a combination of grains for your starter.

Freshly milled flour

“You expect me to grind what?”

Don’t worry! You don’t have to go all Little Red Hen and plant the seed, to grow the crop, to harvest the grain, to grind the flour, to bake the bread. If you’d like to make a teff (or buckwheat) starter, you can buy teff (or buckwheat) flour. But, if you get serious about baking sourdough bread (or baking in general), I highly recommend you get your hands on a grain mill. The fresh, nutritious flour you grind up yourself tastes delicious. In my hand-cranked grain mill that sits clamped to the edge of my counter at all times, I grind up small amounts of flour—a few hundred grams at a time. My daughter MK picked out this model about 10 years ago.

I would love to have a grain mill like this one from Lehman’s. I dream (big) of hooking that mill up to a stationary bike and working up an appetite while grinding my grain. You can view several examples of that bike setup here.

Hand-cranked grain mill in action (I sped up this video 4X)

To make Teffleanor, I followed the same method I used for Eleanor (which I’ve outlined in the recipe card down below). She was born on January 3rd, 2021, when I combined 50 grams of brown teff flour with 50 grams of water. There is much debate about when starter life begins…well okay, maybe not. I’ve chosen conception for my starters’ birthdates but really gestation lasts from about one to two weeks.

An electric grain mill

After Teffleanor started bubbling away and looked like she’d stick around for the long haul, I decided to finish grinding all of my teff for hungry Teffleanor’s feedings. To do that, I plugged in my electric grain mill.

For several years, I had coveted a wood-encased electric grain mill but couldn’t bring myself to buy one new—the KoMo grain mill I had my eye on costs about $800. Then one day, my neighbor gave me hers. She had baked bread when her kids were young—they now have kids of their own—and had stopped eating bread altogether so she no longer needed the beautiful, sturdy and well-made mill.

If I’ve convinced you to grind your own flour, you may find a secondhand grain mill through your Buy Nothing Group, Facebook Marketplace, Nextdoor, Craigslist, at a thrift shop and so on. Like other niche appliances, grain mills can easily go unused and collect dust—and not the flour dust that electric mills send billowing out in clouds.

A jar of gluten-free sourdough starter made with teff is injera waiting to happen

This post covers the gluten-free sourdough starter only. Teffleanor hasn’t made gluten-free bread. She mostly makes injera, the sour and spongy Ethiopian flatbread that soaks up all the delicious sauces and flavors of the Ethiopian food it is served with, or rather, served on. Many restaurants in North America that serve injera will add wheat flour to the batter. According to this article in Epicurious, teff ferments differently here than in Ethiopia and the lower altitude also affects the baking. My injera—which I make with 100 percent teff—does not have the soft texture of the injera I’ve eaten in restaurants. Mine also tastes very sour.

To make my injera, I thin out the starter with hot water to make a thin batter similar to pancake batter. I add a bit of salt and pour the batter in a hot, oiled, well-seasoned cast-iron pan (set on medium heat), wait for bubbles to appear and burst across the entire surface of the thin crepe-like disk (which takes two or three minutes), cover it with a lid and cook for a couple more minutes. You have to use the starter while it’s fairly active for injera. The discard doesn’t bubble up enough. I have used this discard, however, to make sourdough pancakes and sourdough crackers. For the crackers, I use a combination of teff starter discard and wheat starter discard. When I made the crackers with the teff starter only, the impossibly crumbly dough that I couldn’t roll out made very hard crackers that I had trouble chewing. Maybe some of this teff gluten-free sourdough starter discard will find its way into biscotti.

Teffleanor (left) and Eleanor (right)
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Gluten-Free Sourdough Starter

Ingredients

  • 50 grams teff flour or buckwheat flour plus 50 grams for each daily feeding
  • 50 grams water plus 50 grams for each daily feeding

Instructions

  • Combine the teff or buckwheat flour and water in a clean jar or non-reactive bowl, using a fork or your fingers. The starter will have the consistency of stiff batter. Cover tightly with a cloth, plate or lid. Set aside in a warm, but not hot, spot.
  • Stir daily. After a few days, you will likely notice some bubbles in the jar. The starter will also develop a strong aroma. When you observe both of these changes, feed the starter. Until you notice both bubbles and a strong aroma, be patient and continue to stir daily. If you feed the starter too early, you'll remove most of the bacteria and yeast just establishing themselves in the jar.
  • To feed your starter, stir it down to remove the bubbles and transfer all but 1 tablespoon of it to a second clean glass jar or dish. Set this aside. This is your discard jar. You'll continue to add starter to it from subsequent feedings. After a couple of days of souring on the counter, move this discard jar to the refrigerator and keep it there, pulling it out to top it up with discard from daily feedings.
  • The jar or bowl you started with now contains about 1 tablespoon of starter. Stir in its feeding of 50 grams flour and 50 grams water. Cover with a cloth, plate or lid and set aside undisturbed until you feed it the next day around the same time.
  • Continue to feed your starter daily as described, removing most of the starter and leaving 1 tablespoon in the jar. Stir in 50 grams of flour and 50 grams of water daily. After its first feedings, the starter will grow a small amount in volume within several hours. After about a week of daily feedings, it should nearly double in size within perhaps 6 to 8 hours after each feeding, before slowly falling back down. At this point, your starter has matured and is ready for baking.

Notes

If you are accustomed to working with a wheat flour sourdough starter, be aware that a teff sourdough starter takes longer to ferment. It rises and falls more slowly than a wheat flour sourdough starter.

Have questions about sourdough starters? I’m teaching a free Zoom class on Tuesday, July 27th at 4pm PT/7pm ET. Register here for that. You may also find the answer to your dilemma on my sourdough starter FAQ page here.


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2 Replies to “Gluten-Free Sourdough Starter and Fun With Grain Mills”

    1. Thank you, Dorothy.
      ~ Anne-Marie

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