Okay, so you’ve made or acquired a sourdough starter. “Now what?! Do I really have to keep feeding it forever??!! What do I do with it now? Help!!” These are thoughts that many of us have when we are new to baking with sourdough. I hope to set your mind at ease and answer a few sourdough starter questions for a sourdough “newbie.”
Feeding Your Starter
If you keep feeding your starter at the same time every day, it will be active, happy and ready to bake when you are. The proportion I like best is:
- 30 grams starter
- 100 grams flour (you can use all purpose, or a 50/50 blend of whole wheat and white – it’s your personal preference, but it is best to include at least some white flour in the blend)
- 100 grams water, room temperature
Start by stirring it down. Usually by the time 24 hours is up and my starter is ready to be fed, it looks a little more runny than it does right after feeding. This is because the bacteria/yeast is hungry again and wants to feed on fresh flour. Discard all but 30 grams of your starter. To the 30 grams, add 100 grams of water and 100 grams of flour. If you do not have a kitchen scale, do yourself a favor and get one now. Almost all sourdough recipes use the metric system to measure all the ingredients, so a scale that can display metric units is ideal. If you don’t have one yet, you can take about 2-3 Tablespoons of starter and add 1 cup of flour and ½ cup water to the starter for feeding.
Mark the top level of your starter (I use a rubber band to do this) and then watch as it rises throughout the day and falls. Feed it again 24 hours later. Choose a time when you are reasonably confident you will be able to feed your starter daily. I like feeding it either in the morning or the evening, pick whatever works best for you. If you are off by a couple of hours, it’s okay. Just feed the starter when you can.
I like to feed my starter every 24 hours because it fits better into the rhythm of my life. There are times when you may want to increase the daily feedings to two or three times a day, for example if you are trying to revive a starter or want to bake a lot of sourdough bread in a day. If you feed your starter twice a day (once in the morning and once at night), your starter will become more active and learn to rise and fall every 12 hours, doubling or tripling in size while rising. If you feed your starter 3 times a day (every 6-8 hours) it will be even more active.
“But, Amy”, you say…“Do I really have to feed this starter daily for the rest of my life??!!” The answer is, “No!” One of the beautiful things about modern technology and baking is that we can use the refrigerator to our advantage.
Refrigerating sourdough starter significantly slows down the fermentation process, which means you only have to feed it weekly. This is really nice for a home-baker who doesn’t make sourdough bread every day. You may only want to make bread once every week or two or even once a month. Many home-bakers who keep sourdough in their fridge keep it in a crock in the back of their fridge. Others use a covered mason jar or small tupperware. It doesn’t really matter what you use. What matters is that you continue feeding your starter regularly – once a week.
When you are doing a maintenance feed to a refrigerated starter, pull it out of the fridge. Often the starter will have some liquid on the top that smells strong. This is called “hooch.” You can stir that back in to your starter if you want a strong-tasting sourdough. Alternatively (and what I recommend) is to get rid of the hooch by pouring it into the sink (when the starter has been kept refrigerated, the hooch should easily pour off while the starter will remain in the container). Once the hooch is poured off, stir down your starter. In your jar mix the following (the proportion is the same as above):
- 30 grams of the stirred down starter (discard the rest of the starter)
- 100 grams water, room temperature
- 100 grams flour
Cover your starter and let it sit on the counter for 1-4 hours. Then put it back in the fridge for another week or until you are ready to use it. If you continue this process feeding it weekly, you will always have the key to sourdough bread at your fingertips. You can watch this process here.
When you want to bake with a refrigerated starter, pull your starter out of the fridge a day or two before you need to mix your leaven. Feed your starter twice that day (once in the morning and once in the evening). This will help revive your starter and re-activate the yeast back to its robust self. If you don’t do this your bread may not rise as well.
If you end up forgetting about your starter in the back of the fridge for awhile, don’t panic. Lift the lid and check it out. It may be possible to revive your starter. Pull back any dark discard/skin and look at the starter underneath it. Get rid of the gray/dark colored part and use the starter at the bottom (that is not discolored) to feed and try to revive. You may want to feed it two or three times a day to try and revive a starter that has been sitting in the fridge for a month or two without feeding.
Discard: The nitty gritty
What’s the deal with the discard? Discard is actually a pretty beautiful by-product of sourdough. It is the part of the starter that you don’t feed and that you can throw away, but I wouldn’t. Once you have a strong, active and healthy sourdough starter, the “discard” or the part of the starter that you get rid of every time you feed the starter can be stored in the refrigerator. I keep a tupperware in my fridge specifically for my sourdough discard. Every time I go to feed my starter, I take out the 30 grams I need to feed. Then I pour all of my unused starter into my discard tupperware and put it back in the fridge. I continue adding discard to this same tupperware throughout my week of baking with sourdough.
I use the discard to bake with. Typically discard is used in a specific “discard recipe.” You can “google” discard recipes or check out some that I have on my blog. Discard is often found in recipes for pancakes, waffles, muffins, scones, white bread, biscuits, banana bread, homemade pasta, etc… Sourdough discard enhances the flavor of recipes. It does not act as the rising agent in the recipes but instead adds some acidity and can keep your baked goods very tender. So don’t throw away your discard. Keep it in your fridge and bake with it. I feel comfortable using my discard for up to about 2 weeks in the fridge.
Time to Make Bread
So now that my starter is active and I’m feeding it regularly, how do I actually use it in a recipe? That’s a great question and it kind of depends on the recipe itself. Typically you want to choose a recipe that is written for sourdough bread and starter. These recipes are formulated to the measurements needed for leaven instead of commercial yeast. I wouldn’t take a recipe for commercial yeast and sub in leaven…it most likely won’t work well. Almost every sourdough recipe is going to have you build a leaven before making the actual bread. This is an extra step that you wouldn’t necessarily take when baking with commercial yeast.
To build your leaven you usually take a small amount of your sourdough starter and add flour and water to it in a separate bowl. The required amounts depend on the recipe. Often you will mix your leaven the night before you mix your bread. Sometimes you can mix your leaven the day of (it depends on the recipe). The leaven is kept separate from your starter, even though the process of creating leaven is very similar to feeding starter.
After you have mixed your leaven you will need to wait until it is ready to use for your recipe. To test for the readiness of your leaven you can perform the float test. The float test tells you if there is enough carbon dioxide to raise bread. Usually your leaven will pass the float test when it reaches its peak height (doubled in size).
Float test: Fill a clear cup with some room temperature water. Take a little drop of your leaven and plop it in the cup. If it floats, you are ready to proceed with the recipe. If it sinks, give it a bit more time and test again in another hour. However, leaven that has risen too much will not float. You can still use this leaven, but your bread may end up with more “sour” notes (not necessarily bad). You can watch an example of the float test here.
After your leaven passes the float test, you are ready to mix the dough for your sourdough bread.
Here are a few of my favorite recipes:
Basic Country White Bread (the crispy crust sourdough bread that dreams are made of)
Sourdough Sandwich Bread (soft, white sandwich bread that has a beautiful flavor and crumb)
I hope that this was a helpful introduction to maintaining a sourdough starter. You can do this! If you can’t find commercial yeast right now, you can still make your own home-made bread. Make your own sourdough starter using my guide, or find someone who will share some of theirs with you. If you are local to Kentucky, I’m happy to give you some 🙂
One more note: Sourdough will take longer to rise than traditional commercial yeast. This is normal. Be prepared for long rise times with the reward of delicious bread.
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