Bread

How To Preserve Your Sourdough Starter for Months—Sans Freezer

March 21, 2017

Sourdough starter is basically a flour and water mixture that a bunch of wild yeasts and friendly lactobacilli bacteria call home. The yeasts produce the bubbles and work with the lactobacilli to give sourdough its distinct tang. The double-edged sword with the yeasts and lactobacilli is their constant need of food (equal parts flour and water), hence the need for regular feedings.

If you follow the rules laid out by many professional bread bakers, feeding your sourdough starter at least every three days is as important as filing your taxes. Acquiring a good starter means committing to an entirely new lifestyle. If you insist on being a bad parent, you can maybe put it in the refrigerator for about a week, but only if you promise feed it beforehand, and as soon as it reaches room temperature after. If a life event or vacation happens, you’re told by Zachary Golper in Bien Cuit to “think of your starter as you would a pet” and get a starter-sitter who will agree to a 3-day feeding schedule. The River Cottage Bread Handbook, though, lets you know you can make a starter dough to keep in the fridge that only needs feeding every couple of weeks. Some experts suggest freezing a bit of your starter—a trick The Bread Bible’s Rose Levy Berenbaum uses in real life—but that’s only if you’re really, truly, desperately in need of a break from making bread every few days.

I will proudly admit that I am the worst when it comes to my own starter. After dreaming about fresh loaves for years, I managed about two months of weekly baking before I got sick of it all. Granted, the lack of air conditioning in my kitchen, an impending move, and my tendency to forget things in the fridge might have had something to do with it. I needed another way and I found one, except it’s not mentioned in any of the big bread cookbooks: dehydrating your sourdough starter. In other words, if you want to properly neglect the yeasts and lactobacilli, you have to go all the way and force them into a fully dormant state.

Drying out your starter accomplishes the same thing as freezing, except without the worry about a random defrost or freezer burn. Take whatever is left of your starter after making bread. Spread it into a thin layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Let fully dry over the course of a few days. Once the starter is pale and hard as a rock, peel it away from the parchment and break by hand into small, irregular chips. Store in any way that will keep the pieces dry—I prefer a regular pint mason jar, but a strong plastic bag or container would do. When you want your starter to arise from the dead, add an ounce (about 1/3 cup) of the chips to two ounces (1/4 cup) of warm water. Stir and let sit for about a day to absorb the water. Then feed as you would before.

Easy to store in your pantry! Photo by Siobhan Wallace

But store for how long? The jury’s still out on that one. The King Arthur Flour blog, Flourish, is one of the few authorities to acknowledge this method, and their guess is years. Meanwhile, The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion doesn’t mention any method for long-term storage. But if dried yogurt cultures can stay alive indefinitely, it’s safe to assume that’s also the case for sourdough cultures. After surviving for six months dead as a doornail, my own starter came back to life as good as new.

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    Michael Seltzer
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82 Comments

Sourdough J. December 12, 2020
Well I did my first dehydration! I used discard, just a half of cup, parchment, cookie sheet over night on the counter and in the morning I decided to help it along and put it in the oven and bumped the oven a few time to warm it but at one point I forgot and it was on 350 for about 10 minutes and kinda cooked it. The little date pieces were a little damp still. I broke it all up and put in a peanut jar then took a big spoon and crushed it up some more, put the lid on tight and just put it in the pantry.
Today I pulled the discard jar out of fridge and let it warm up then I stirred it up well with a wooden spoon, smushing the remnants of the dried sweet sour cherries and the dates then I fed it one quater WW and AP White and h2o and stirred again. I let it set and it activated quick. Yes I always feed my discard a little to keep it happy then back in fridge. So today after it was jamming I stirred it up and took out a cup for the parchment and it's on the counter now and I froze a cup also which finished the discard. I then went back to my 1946 Willy's half and half took out one half cup and started a new jar for disc. I fed Willy's and dropped in 2 dates and He is a happy bubbler on the counter. I also restarted my 75 Chevy-all WW and my Leadville 79 all AP white with one quarter cup.
 
Sourdough J. December 9, 2020
I have frozen it and I know you can make a dough ball with it, one that will not take a speck of flour more and cut chunck's off it to use. I have thought of the drying method before or a dehydrator. My thought, is instead of putting discard in my gallon jar! I would try drying it, not like just once but before every feeding and get a whole gallon of dried discard or whole fresh starter. I think your article is for fresh starter though. Discard should work. I have put in raisins, and dried sweet sour cherries, makes nice bread and today I dropped in two whole dates, oh what a delightful smell, bubbles and froth.
 
Bill S. October 11, 2020
Hooey!
Friday night I had a small informal dinner party for some friends. One brought a wonderful sourdough loaf from a local bakery. Over the course of the evening, I looked at my starter jar several times. All I’ve managed to create is a world-class jar of kindergarten paste and nothing else. I’ve been trying to get a starter going since this “pandemic” took over and have had absolutely no success whatsoever. I would be hard-pressed to find a starter recipe on Pinterest that I haven’t tried. So, based on my experiences trying to capture wild yeast from thin air is hooey! Given the amount of money, time, effort, and frustration I have invested in this snake oil fantasy I’m going to cut my losses. My jars, bowls glasses, spatulas, measuring cups, and spoons are in the dishwasher. Tomorrow I’ll post them on the neighborhood Facebook group and give them to some other fool who actually believes this flight on fancy. As for me, I’m going to start a new hobby, Alchemy. I think I have a better chance of success.
 
Sourdough J. December 9, 2020
Now now don't loose your mind over this ancient art. You can do it!
My last one as I had to restart it because I went to Alaska for 3 months and it died a lonely cold death in the fridge. It looked like it could have cured covid all moldy and stuff.
I have made many starters and have not lost one but you did and many others have too. I had to make another one after getting back from Alaska and this one took exactly 21 days. I use half whole wheat and half whole wheat white.
1. Get your self a 5lb bag of each.
2. I use gallon jars, get two.
3. Wooden spoons, a good rubber spat and you have your measuring cups.
4. Get a good note book: a pen, masking tape, and flour sack towels.
5. Put one quarter cup of each flour in jar, and one half cup purified water in and mix with wooden spoon, it dosen't have to be smooth. I like a little thicker than a batter.
6. Scrape sides down to mix level.
7. Put a strip of tape on jar from below level to several inches high. Mark the level of your mix on the tape, time and date too. To see how it rises.
8. Leave it out on the counter or put outside on the porch etc. But not in the sun. This last one I did, a hurricane was coming so I got some hurricane yeast as it was on the balcony for awhile. You might want to keep a couple windows cracked a tiny bit as the yeasties are out and about.
9. You dont have to keep it uncovered all the time but keep it out and I cover mine with the flour sack towels and over night.
10. It will look like kids paste at times but it is your paste haha. You can stir it once a day. For about 3 days
11. Generally by the 3rd day it will seperate with liquid on the top, dont worry just stir it up. You may have seen it rise or not and you can mark your tape.
by the way you have to name your starter and put it on the tape. My starters name is 1946 Willy's and he is 62 days old.
Ok so stir your starter up and pour out one half cup and through this out as it is not ready to save as discard yet. Feed what is left in you starter and water, stir it up and scrape down. Done! leave it as before. You can do this everyday or every couple days but when it seperates liqiud and mass it is time to feed.
12. Write in your sourdough log times and what you did each time and your observations, Rose up or not and how it smels. At one point from 7 to 21 days and even longer it will have a good rise and smeel cant spell. also may have a hooch smel.
13. When enough wild yeast, you know their out there! have developed you will feel good and each new feeding will be fun to see it grow. Then you can start saving you discard.
14. I have had starters try my patience. You can jump start your starter and make your yeasties happy by adding a tbs of raisins or 3-4 dried sour cherries. this generally has good results. Today's feeding I added two whole dates. My wild yeasties like to eat more than just flour.
15. A good cook will take practice, my parents where into it. Different areas have different yeasts. For instance people will buy a starter like from Alaska or france or from a fancy place and get that flavor from that area, well my dear soon those non native yeasts will be replaced with your native yeasts. The cherries, raisins and dates have yeasts from where they came from and picked up along the way. I hope this helps and I did not ramble. Next time your friends come over you wont have to stare at your paste on the counter and feed them some of your grub.
By the way mine are always done at room temp and the AC is set at 67 at night.
 
Sourdough J. December 9, 2020
Sourdough Junkie
 
Teresa April 27, 2020
Great tip. I will definitely try this. How long after I rehydrate it can I use the starter for bread?
 
Sourdough J. December 9, 2020
A long time.
 
Elizabeth F. April 25, 2020
My mom grew up in rural Austria in the 1940’s, and they didn’t have a fridge (cellar only). They made bread every 10 days, and dehydrated left over dough. They mixed in regular yeast with the dehydrated dough for the next batch, and kept it going for years.
 
Rose L. April 25, 2020
that's lovely to know. reminds me of my grandmother in the mid-40's who called her small fridge an ice-box. i even remember the horse drawn cart that brought huge cubes of ice! but i never had home-baked bread until i was 17 at the U of Vt when boyfriend was given a loaf in thanks for mowing a woman's lawn! it was a game changer.
 
Michael S. April 16, 2020
Fellow fanatics - how about 3000 years! Archeologists found a jar in an Egyptian tomb. At the bottom was dried up starter. They carefully rehydrated it and it came to life. Using ancient grains, like Kamut, they made bread, successfully! Said it tasted great.
 
Retha April 15, 2020
I am definitely going to try this. I have a dehydrator and we love sourdough bread but I can't keep up the maintenance.
 
NancyFromKona April 16, 2020
A better way to maintain:
www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/a-smaller-sourdough-starter-recipe
 
Angel April 11, 2020
How do
I get some starter?
 
June October 20, 2019
The group http://carlsfriends.net/ has been passing around a starter that originated in 1847. They will send you a sample for the cost of postage.
 
Sue7 January 23, 2020
Hi Could you send me a sourdough starter please.
 
DoogerLinda April 7, 2020
Thanks, I’m going to the web site.
 
Sourdough J. December 9, 2020
1847 or kept in Grandpas shed it wont be the same or matter after you get it. All the yeasts that come with it will be replaced by the ones in your house or blows in the open window etc. Don't waste your money, make your own.
 
Linda S. October 20, 2019
i used some dried starter from breadtopia when my starter was looking sort of wimpy. i dumped most of it, add the dried flakes and BOOM! bubbling away after a couple of feeds. i think it was due to the chemicals in our water (more seem to be added in the summer) so i'm using bottled spring water now...just in case.
 
Sourdough J. December 9, 2020
I used tap water for years and got good results but only purified water with nothing added, hey its you baby so treat it well.
 
Sampson5 May 23, 2019
Has anybody ground/powdered the chips in a Vitamix for better rehydration?
 
Sandra A. May 2, 2019
I dried a starter like this a number of years ago and kept the dried pieces in a container in the frig. Just rehydrated it and fed it--so happy to see it bubbling away. I've had the starter 47 years, and this one was my backup.
 
Michelle April 7, 2019
Thank you! I am often away for several weeks once or twice a year. I tried leaving it in the refrigerator but three weeks is the max, after that the revival is sad.
 
Michael K. March 15, 2019
I kept a starter in the back of my fridge for 5 years. Once a month I fed it, if not used, then back to its corner. Called it my science experiment. Lost it when we moved but it always worked great.
 
JUDE January 28, 2019
When I moved back to rural Texas from sophisticated Seattle, I sorely missed the wonderful, fabulous, fantastic sourdough bread available fresh daily in most grocery chains. Googling I learned that local yeasts would quickly overtake imported starters. I tried anyway, and got some to raise bread, but could never get that wonderfully sharp sourdough taste. Why bother with sourdough & starters if it tastes like plain old store-bought yeast anyway. I'm still learning to live with the pitiful fact. Any Texans out there who can get good sourdough bread despite the pushy local yeasts?
 
Anita February 28, 2019
Jude, have you tried to cold proof your sourdough overnight before baking? The longer a bread proofs the more time there is for the tang to develop. When I want a more pronounced sourdough flavor I do the final proof in my fridge for anywhere from 12 to 36 hours. Also a starter that contains some rye flour (at least 50%) will get a more sourdough flavor than a white starter.
 
Sara January 26, 2019
Years of storage is right. I had a container in my fridge that I forgot about. It dehydrated and had been there for at least 4 years. I rehydrated and fed it, and it’s doing great.
 
Rick January 22, 2019
Thank you, Thank you !!! You have renewed my sourdough Life.
 
Darlene September 16, 2018
Well that is just brilliant. You have no idea how many sour dough starters got started in my kitchen and tossed never to live again. Thanks for this!
Darlene
Nova Scotia
 
bowensoap July 13, 2018
I'm kind of confused by the rehydration ratio: "When you want your starter to arise from the dead, add an ounce (about 1/3 cup) of the chips to two ounces (1/4 cup) of warm water. " Are you talking about 1 oz by weight (28g) of chips to 2 fl oz of water (59ml)? I really hate ounces, so confusing!
 
Alice K. February 6, 2019
I think it probably is not all that critical. Take a handful of dried starter and cover it with water. Is that better?
 
Miriam April 15, 2020
I'm not good at math, but as far as I can tell, it's clear they are talking about weight.

It says 1 ounce of dried starter & 2 ounces of water OR 1/3 cup & 1/4 cup. Not only is 1/3 not half of 1/4—it's more than 1/4! (I remember learning: Do you want 1/3 of the pie or 1/4?) It looks like they are using 1/3 cup, since you will have a lot of air in between the pieces.

I agree that it would have been nice if they had given the measurement in grams, though! And ounces are confusing—not only do you have weight vs. volume, there's also US vs. UK.
 
Maree June 29, 2018
I've rehydrated after a very generous 2 years and no drama at all.