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