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.

Shop the Story

Do you have any sourdough starter tips? Share them in the comments!

Tags:

49 Comments

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!<br />Darlene<br />Nova Scotia<br />
 
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!
 
Maree June 29, 2018
I've rehydrated after a very generous 2 years and no drama at all.
 
Claudia June 16, 2018
This could be the answer to how I am going to transport my starter to our winter home in Sarasota. Our vehicle is shipped several weeks before we arrive and I was sure I would have to begin the process again when we arrived. This is a great alternative and I may give it a dry (pardon the pun) run this summer.
 
Mel April 10, 2018
I believe there’s magic involved in making sourdough starters...<br />I lost my first starter from neglect. After many starts and failures, the magic happened and my starter is happily resting in my fridge. I can wait to try your dry method.
 
Mel April 10, 2018
I CAN’T wait!
 
Stephanie B. February 3, 2018
I just revived my sourdough starter from the dried chips, and I'd like to add that it took a few days for mine to get going again. Considering I feed my active starter about once a week, I don't think "feeding as normal" would have worked for me. In the end, this method ended up being sort of a halfway between normal feeding and making a brand new starter. <br /><br />I let the chips sit overnight in water at room temp as mentioned above, but there was no activity. I fed the paste a little bit and added some fresh water, without removing any of the old stuff (there wasn't much volume) for 2 days. At this point there were little bubbles, and it smelled sour, but in a bacterial way (not that fruity, yeasty way). I dumped out half of this stuff on day 3, and then fed again with fresh flour and water - after a few hours I started getting bigger bubbles and the smell started to get fresher. Just to be safe, I let this sit out one more day. On the 4th day it smelled tart and fruity like I'm used to. I fed it again, without throwing out any old stuff because I'm trying to build up volume, and let it sit out for a few hours to let it ferment. Up to this point, everything has been out on the counter, at room temperature. Once I saw fermentation bubbles after this last feeding, I moved it to the fridge and I'm back to normal starter. <br /><br />So, not exactly as easy as re-hydrate and feed like normal. It took 4 days to get to normal for my starter. But it took a week and a half to get my starter going from scratch, so it's still significantly shorter than making brand new starter. <br /><br />As for the people getting in a huff about how other people fuss over their starters: it's a labor of love, just because you don't love it doesn't mean everyone else feels the same way. People aren't obsessing over individual yeast and bacteria cells, they're cherishing the memories and shared meals between friends and family, sometimes spanning generations. If that's "foodie silliness" then I'll own that any day.
 
Pat February 3, 2018
Great news! Glad the dehydrated starter came back to life. I always keep dehydrated flakes for a backup, especially after I reading the stories of woe when folks try to help by cleaning out the fridge and pitching a starter. I have now labeled my jar of starter "Masa Madre" ¡Nunca Botar! (mother dough in a Spanish speaking country), with feeding instructions and a caution to never throw out.
 
Stephanie B. February 4, 2018
Thanks Pat! It was like welcoming an old friend :) I have lots of dehydrated chips left, just in case an accident like you mentioned happens.
 
Ralph A. July 13, 2018
Stephanie B. No one is getting in a "Huff" . I hope you and others take my commnet as an appeal for some simple science. Love it if you will, but also know that there's more science than mystery in yeast and enzymes. I apologize if anyone took my message as pejorative.
 
karla T. December 29, 2017
I dehydrated mine by smearing it in a thin layer onto a silicon baking mat, and putting it into my old-fashioned oven-with-a-pilot light (about 85 degrees F). It took a couple of days. But it's easy to peel off, and then you can freeze it or put it into a water-tight jar.
 
Amy D. December 29, 2017
Do I need to actually dehydrate it in my dehydrator? Or in the oven? It’s a little rainy here so how do I make sure it’s dry enough? Thank you! Amy
 
Pat December 29, 2017
Amy, I just spread the starter on parchment paper and left it in my cold oven for several days. I think it took 4-5 days total.
 
Pat December 29, 2017
Dehydrating a sourdough starter into flakes like this definitely works. Eight years ago, preparing to permanently move to another country, I dehydrated a very active starter, broke it into flakes, and stored it in a vacuum sealed bag. <br /><br />Knowing it would be more than a year before I had an oven again. I hand carried my starter on the plane and through it in the freezer as soon as I got here. A year later I tried to re-activate it.<br /><br />Several attempts to re-activate the starter failed. Finally, I came up with a recipe that brought the starter back to life, and it is actually more robust now than it every was when I lived in the States. Here is my method:<br /><br />2 tablespoons of dehydrated starter flakes<br />1 tablespoon of flour<br />¼ cup water<br />1 teaspoon of fresh pineapple juice<br /><br />Mix ingredients and store at room temperature for 24 hours. The next day, give it a regular feeding of 1/2 cup of flour and 1/3 cup of water. Let it set at room temperature for a few hours and your starter should now be good for baking. The older, and more mature your starter is, the better bread baking results you will have.
 
Pat December 29, 2017
^^^^ threw, not through
 
Maja L. December 9, 2017
Can anyone explain me why undertake so much effort to keep your starter alive if you can easily make new one or simly use yeast? Don't get me wrong, please, I really admire what you people do, just need to know why you do it. And aren't you affraid of mold? It could be small, even invisible, or there is a way of preventing it?
 
Rebecca December 16, 2017
The older the starter is, the more developed the flavor becomes. Similar to how some wines it various liquors are more favored if they are aged a long time. And if your starter is healthy, the live (good) bacteria you are developing in the starter helps keep the bad ones at bay
 
Dennis H. December 26, 2017
Creating sourdough starter from scratch is actually difficult. I tried and failed several times before my wife brought me some commercial starter.<br /><br />Why not just use yeast? Sourdough bread is easier to digest, is more nutritious, tastes better, stays fresh longer, and is actually easier to make. Just a few ingredients -- water, flour, salt, and starter.<br /><br />The starter and bead is quite mold-resistant, probably due to the lactic and acetic acid and alcohol that is in the starter. I have never had starter or bread get any visible mold growth. <br /><br />Try it!
 
Ralph A. November 30, 2017
Good words of wisdom. Drying has been the way to preserve foods ong before anything else was used. That said, I'm amused at the comments here and elsewhere that speak of starters (and other foodie silliness) in hushed tones and religious fervor. Quotes like "I've had my starter for (fill in the blank) years. And "I treat it gently like a person" WTH ?? Come on, it's just simple cells that do reproduce just like most organisms. There's nothing sacred about yeast and lactobacillus. Like babies, you can almost always.. Make another. OK, maybe some strains have qualities you like, but the world won't end if you have to find another and just maybe, you'll prefer the new "Kid on the Block" better. Sheesh !
 
Amy D. December 18, 2017
Some starters are reflective of a cherished heritage. We have one from my hometown that is nearly a century old, a living tribute to women who have since passed away, who nurtured and mentored us in their kitchens. The starters were stuff of sourdough pancakes at community breakfasts and so very many wonderful childhood memories. As one reader noted, the older the starter the more nuanced the flavor.
 
Stephanie B. July 4, 2017
This is genius! I'm new to sourdough starter, but I've gotten my own going from yeast on wild black raspberries in my yard. But I'm moving soon and, along with minor things like where am I going to live, I really didn't want to lose my wild berry yeast infused starter! This seems like a simple fix.
 
Suz M. July 3, 2017
Man, I've got a starter that I've had for more than 40 years and I've shared with so many folks...I leave mine in a jar (probably the same jar) and have that sitting in a bowl for 'spillage'. When I need it, I pull it out to warm up to room temp, starting by spraying a fine mist of water over the dried out surface, then proceeding to feed it for use. I've actually gone a couple of years NOT using it and now I leave it out all winter long for lots of sourdough breakfast bread. It has moved with me several times over these years. It's an OLD FRIEND that NEVER requires fussiness!!!
 
Karl E. April 11, 2017
I was having some troubles getting started with the starter recently, so I added some juice from my lacto-fermented sauerkraut and it worked great. I used about 2 tablespoons of juice to a one pound starter.
 
Brown C. March 28, 2017
I live in the tropics, so that helps in getting my wet starter bubbling and ready to go when the breadmaking urge strikes. It sleeps in the fridge most of the time and has gone for months without being fed. I used to stir in the hooch at each feed, but now pour it away before feeding.
 
Scott March 26, 2017
My starter has been sitting in my cupboard for twenty five years. My friend, who has since past, taught me how to make sourdough. We came up with our own method of drying starter. His starter came from his family line all the way back to Missouri in 1847 on the Oregon Trail. It makes a wonderful tasting sourdough bread. Therefore, dried starter will last indefinitely if done correctly.
 
Pat April 11, 2018
Scott, you are so right. My 13 year old starter has been dried multiple time for moving. Hopefully, this is our last move and the starter I have now has been shared with more folks than I can count. Here's hoping my strain of sourdough outlive me in Costa Rica.<br />
 
NancyFromKona March 26, 2017
Please try making Sourdough with Fennel and Coriander with your starter, it is a wonderful bread. King Arthur has several outstanding recipes using unfed starter so when I am feeling guilty about not feeding my pets, I just make pizza dough or caramelized onion biscuits. My starter came from a snowbird-Lives in Hawaii in the winter, Alaska in the summer-and she told me she merely leaves the starter in the fridge for 6 months and only once did it fail to come back to life. She keeps freeze dried as a backup. Don't forget to use chlorine-free water when feeding, etc.
 
Pilar T. March 30, 2017
Nancy..can you please expand on tbe fennel coriander bit? Thanks.
 
NancyFromKona March 30, 2017
Merely search this site for the recipe using 'sourdough with fennel' and it comes right up.
 
OxfordComma April 3, 2017
https://food52.com/recipes/55851-sourdough-bread-with-fennel-and-coriander-seeds
 
bert March 26, 2017
I was generously given a bit of starter by one of the best bread bakeries in Berkeley, CA a couple of years ago. A bakery has a routine, refreshing their starter every day; so my guess is that a pro, somewhere, sometime,, consulted for a quote, figured - "we feed every day, and that works. Probably every three days would work as well." Realistically, though, as evidenced by most of the comments here, a starter will have enough live yeast and bacilli to rebuild the starter after a month or two in a fridge. In the freezer - even longer. I split the starter when we got home, froze half and built half, then stored it in the fridge for our every three month bread baking blitz. Nevertheless, drying sounds like a good idea, as a second backup! At one point, we lost the starter (left out at room temp for weeks) to serious mold, and used part of the frozen bit to restart. Worked great. Keep it in the fridge now. I do the same thing with a rye sour starter made from scratch as described in "Inside the Jewish Bakery" by Ginsberg and Berg.
 
JB March 26, 2017
I've had a starter culture in my fridge for 3 years. There's been periods where I've not used or fed it for quite a few months at a time. It gets a layer of hooch on top (grey water, which is dead year cells), but i just port these off, put the culture in a bowl and add 100g flour and water and off it goes again. Good as always. Feeding and wasting by pouring away mix every few days is a waste of time in my experience. My bread turns out fabulous every time.
 
deanna1001 March 26, 2017
Sourdough starter in fridge for months comes back to life. I've gifted friends with dehydrated starter (been doing that for years as a backup in case my regular starter died) prepared just as described here. Such a great thing to do!