Sourdough

'Help—My Sourdough Starter Is Taking Over My Life!'

Food52's Resident Bread Baker, Maurizio Leo of The Perfect Loaf, shows us how to adjust our starter's schedule to our own lives—and not the other way around.

June 30, 2020
Photo by Maurizio Leo

The Perfect Loaf is a column from software engineer-turned-bread expert (and Food52's Resident Bread Baker), Maurizio Leo. Maurizio is here to show us all things naturally leavened, enriched, yeast-risen, you name it—basically, every vehicle to slather on a lot of butter. Today, a guide to making your sourdough starter's schedule work for you—and not the other way around.


So you have a sourdough starter bubbling away on your counter. You’ve made some delicious bread; perhaps you’ve even made some sourdough waffles or sourdough cinnamon rolls. And day after day, you refresh your tangy companion—the daily obligation that slowly becomes yet another chore on the to-do list. I’ve been there—I am there!—and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to waking up at least once in the middle of the night in worry, trying to remember if I refreshed my starter before bed.

But after maintaining the same starter for almost a decade, with countless loaves of sourdough bread cranked out of my oven, I’ve learned to relax some. I’ve learned an established starter is incredibly resilient: the beneficial bacteria and wild yeast that symbiotically inhabit a sourdough culture want to continue living—and they won’t give up easily.

It is important to maintain your starter with some regularity for its optimum health (and to make the most of its natural leavening), but the essential thing a baker quickly learns is to make their sourdough starter work for them, not the other way around. A crucial part of this is getting your starter on a refreshment schedule that revolves around yours, giving it fresh flour and water when you have time and are in the kitchen. And there are a few techniques we can use to keep your starter vigorous while also accommodating just about any work/life schedule (and even a little neglect).


Getting Your Starter on Track

How do I adjust my starter refreshments to my schedule?

Two powerful tools for adjusting a sourdough starter refreshment schedule are the amount of starter left in the jar each refreshment (also called the seed) and the temperature at which you keep your starter. Let’s take a look at each.

Adjust the starter seed amount

Varying the amount of seed left in the jar is my preferred way to sync my refreshments to my work/life schedule. When I leave more starter in the jar, it reduces the time between refreshments (speeds things up). If I leave less starter in the jar, it lengthens the time between refreshments (slows things down).

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Top Comment:
“Sourdough isn't difficult, but if you are only going to bake once or twice a month, or less frequently, I don't know that it makes practical sense to try and maintain a healthy starter--I'd use instant yeast in that case, which produces lovely baked goods with less maintenance. I bake with yeast, too, from time to time, and don't regard it as lesser, just different.”
— Alison
Comment

Let’s take my typical refreshment as an example: I leave 10 grams ripe starter in the jar (discarding the rest), and to that, I add 100 grams of fresh flour and 100 grams of water. I keep my starter at a warm temperature, and after about 12 hours it’s fully ripe: It’s broken down, loose, bubbly, and has a pungent, sour aroma. Because I bake almost every day, I refresh my starter twice a day so it’s ready to use at a moment’s notice, and I refresh it just after breakfast at 8:30 a.m. and then just after dinner at 8:30 p.m. If I wanted my starter to ripen earlier at night, I could increase that seed amount to 15 to 20g and speed things up, perhaps shifting that evening refreshment up to 6:00 p.m.

Adjust the starter’s temperature

Generally, warmer temperatures mean increased fermentation activity, and cooler temperatures mean decreased fermentation activity. Just like leaving less starter in the jar, using colder water to refresh your starter will slow the fermentation down, buying you more time before it needs another refreshment.

I usually keep my starter in a warm spot in my kitchen (or in a proofing box), but temperatures do fluctuate in my kitchen with the seasons. In the summer, when it’s swelteringly hot, I could use cold mixing water to help offset the warmer temperature in my kitchen, preserving my 12-hour refreshment cycle. And similarly, in the winter, I could warm the mixing water or keep it in a warmer spot in my kitchen to speed fermentation.

The essential thing a baker quickly learns is to make their sourdough starter work for them, not the other way around.

If you’ve maintained a sourdough starter for at least a year, you’ve surely seen this ebb and flow of fermentation activity through the seasons, speeding up in the summer and slowing down in the winter. Over time, your response to this might become instinctual, noticing how that first hot day of summer you naturally reduce the amount of starter left in your jar at the next refreshment or use colder water to offset the change in temperature.

How do I use the refrigerator to put a pause on things altogether?

Let’s not forget about the mighty refrigerator. Sometimes life interrupts baking completely, perhaps we have travel plans or don’t have time to mess with anything bread for the next week. To put a pause on your sourdough starter, refresh it as usual and let it sit on the counter for 1-2 hours, then pop it in the fridge. It will last in there without any problem for a week or two. When you want to bake, take out your starter, give it a refreshment as you would normally, and it should spring back and be ready for baking.


Sourdough Starter FAQs

I see a thin, transparent layer of liquid on top of my starter. What gives?

This layer usually forms when a starter is not refreshed frequently enough. The clear liquid (sometimes called “hooch”) isn’t harmful, but it’s a good indicator that you should try to refresh sooner or use one of the tools listed above to slow the fermentation down, increasing the time between refreshments.

What if I forget to refresh my starter for a whole day?

Don’t worry about it; pick back up with regular refreshments, and your starter will be fine. This only becomes an issue if neglected in this way for an extended period, especially during warmer weather conditions.

How often should I refresh my starter?

I’ve found my starter to work best when I refresh it at least once a day. I make the process quick and easy by keeping the flour, scale, and starter in the same spot in my kitchen. When it’s time for a refreshment, I discard, add flour and water, stir everything together, and go about my day. This refreshment process only takes me 5 minutes in total.

What’s the longest I can go without refreshing my starter?

Your starter would be totally fine not receiving a feeding for one or two days, but I wouldn’t make it a habit—eventually, you might see a decrease in performance. If I can’t refresh my starter once a day, I’ll typically use the refrigerator to store my starter until I’m ready to bake.

What’s the longest my starter can stay in the fridge?

I’m not particularly eager to go over a week without taking it out and giving it a refreshment. If I have no choice, two weeks will work, and in extreme cases, I’ve pushed it three to four weeks without issue.

The key to maintaining a healthy and robust sourdough starter is to be mindful of how it progresses through the day, knowing you can adjust the seed amount or its temperature to keep it on the schedule you want, not the other way around. And if you forget to feed it one night before bed, don’t worry, it’ll be just fine.


What to Make With Your Newly Low-Maintenance Starter

Do you have any other tips and tricks for adjusting your starter to fit your schedule? Let us know in the comments.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Linda J Grimaud
    Linda J Grimaud
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    Shelley Santrach
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    Susanna
  • Jacqui
    Jacqui
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    Nancy Lee
Comment
Maurizio is the software engineer-turned-baker behind the award-winning sourdough website, The Perfect Loaf. He grew up in an Italian household and spent many summers in the back kitchen of his family's Italian restaurant, learning the beauty of San Marzano tomatoes and the importance of well-proofed pizza dough. He went on to get a master's degree in computer science and co-create the stargazing app, SkyView, before eventually circling back to food and discovering the deep craft of baking sourdough bread. Since that first loaf of bread, he's been obsessed with adjusting the balance between yeast and bacteria, tinkering with dough strength and hydration, and exploring everything sourdough.

50 Comments

Linda J. August 18, 2020
I just started a new "starter" from stratch. I'm on day 4. There has been hooch on my starter every day. I understand the situation now, but the smell is like a strong parmesan
cheese, not sour but stinky. Is something wrong??
 
Author Comment
Maurizio L. August 18, 2020
Sounds ok to me, and this can happen. Keep with the process and it'll eventually go away! Usually, that extra liquid indicates your starter needs a refreshment sooner, but if you're just beginning it could be because it has a bit too much water in the mixture (which is okay). Keep with it!
 
Linda J. August 18, 2020
I just started a new "starter" from stratch. I'm on day 4. There has been going on my starter every day. I understand the situation now, but the smell is like a strong parmesan
cheese, not sour but stinky. Is something wrong??
 
Shelley S. August 9, 2020
The last time I had a sour dough starter until the pandemic was in the late 70's when I was in highschool. I used a even then vintage stoneware crock and when I left for college left it behind to putrefy, my mother was not pleased.
I started quite casually and have evolved not realizing most people now weigh and measure everything. I maintain a large starter and use about half of it each time I bake, about twice a week.
Basically 2 cups of starter 2 cups of flour 2 cups of water let it sit overnight add salt and 4 cups of flour. Makes 2 large loaves. I get good texture and flavor and depending on handling and if I am paying attention, nice big bubbles etc.
As I read these reviews and recipes realize that's not the way people do it. Thinking I may need to reconsider my method to take it to a new level. Any feedback? Thanks!
 
Author Comment
Maurizio L. August 9, 2020
I don't think your approach is wrong -- there is no wrong way! A starter is so adaptable it'll survive and perform in so many conditions, it is a living thing that wants to continue to survive, after all. It could be fun for you to experiment with a new approach to maintenance and use, but as long as you're enjoying your bread keep with what works for you (and your starter) :)
 
Shelley S. August 9, 2020
Thanks, as the pandemic continues so does my quest for perfection more time to play!
 
Seejanereed August 13, 2020
What happens after you add the salt and rest of flour? Knead, fold, tighten & proof?
 
Susanna July 12, 2020
Is it important for the leaven to float before mixing into the dough?
My leaven peaks at four hours but no floating, but floats at six hours though it has already begun deflating at that point. I follow the Tartine proportions for leaven: 1.5 tsp starter + 50g white bread flour + 50g whole wheat bread flour + 100g water.

I'm also envious of hearing about starters that triple in size. Mine doubles at its peak, but never more than that. I use the Tartine 50% whole wheat bread flour / 50% white bread flour mix for both my starter and leaven.

I've gotten good results, but never the enormous open crumb that I see in photos.
Wondering if I need to be using a starter that triples in a feed?
 
Alison July 12, 2020
I've never used the float test, but generally deploy the starter when it has started to deflate--the time it will take depends a lot on the temperature of the starter when mixed AND the temperature in the kitchen. In the summer, my starter is ready to use in five or six hours, but in the winter, it is closer to 8 (I have a cold kitchen). It does triple in size at the peak. I probably use closer to 125 g of flour when I feed the starter, and although I have used both whole wheat and rye starters from time to time, it was not worth it for me to maintain them separately because I didn't use them every week. I just maintain an AP flour starter and use the other flours in the levain for that week's recipe. I am sure the flour mix is not the issue, though. My recommendation is to just watch how your starter behaves, under the ambient conditions in your kitchen, and catch it when it is just past peak.
Also, I don't think the crumb in your loaves is necessarily a product of the starter's vigor--in my experience, a high hydration dough, with a longer ferment, and baked at very hot temperatures, will produce that result.
 
rhaven July 12, 2020
I use the same amounts of starter/water/flour. I only feed my starter AP Bread flour. A great way to give it a jumpstart to fluffiness is to put it in the oven with the light on for just a little warmth. I do this when I need it ready in a few hours.
 
Jacqui July 10, 2020
I am SOOOOO intrigued by all this and for months I have wanted to do a starter but I am intimidated by it. I just moved to Italy and now have the best reason to start a starter!!! Can some one guide me into a starter recipe? This is a whole new thing for me though I am very apt at cooking and baking...... I look forward to hearing from all you pros out there. VERY INSPIRATIONAL and I trust that the followers on Food 52 will help me through the first hump.
 
MacGuffin July 10, 2020
This just turned up in my in-box: https://www.kingarthurflour.com/blog/2020/06/10/10-tips-for-new-sourdough-bakers?go=EC200709_S1&trk_msg=SE3JS57CO4E4LETS6VQ9VLFKQ4&trk_contact=NSUQ7AAN32I3R0OAMTRQS8SGOG&trk_sid=5CO6Q7AG4NALMJP0A7QHA8MS48&utm_source=ltk_master&utm_medium=email&utm_term=Get+the+tips&utm_campaign=EC-200709&utm_content=content-collection-sourdough . Gotta love KAF.
 
Susan July 12, 2020
Great How-to instructions on Leo’s website. That’s how I got started.
 
rhaven July 12, 2020
You could ask your local bakery for 60g of their starter. Most bakers are happy to share.
 
Nancy L. July 6, 2020
Helpful article. I have very robust starter I feed daily. Often, it has more than doubled in 3 hours. I have been using equal parts starter, flour, water - I'm intrigued by the smaller amount of starter recommend here. Though my starter does a great job of raising (never lets me down) there isn't much of a sour smell and very little sourdough flavor. Any thoughts? thanks
 
Author Comment
Maurizio L. July 8, 2020
Hey, Nancy. You could try dropping the amount of starter you leave in the jar, this might bring more sourness to your starter as it ferments through the day. Additionally, adding whole grains to your starter will also build up more acidity/sourness if that's what you're looking for!
 
MacGuffin July 10, 2020
If I have any hooch on (it's on top) my maintained starter, I pour it off; however, if I get any while I'm increasing it, I stir it in.
 
Rosalind P. July 5, 2020
When I started on the sourdough path, I watched, read and listed to a zillion great bakers on how-to's, trouble-shooting, foolproof solutions, etc. and drove myself nuts. Eventually I realized that there are legitimately uncountable but valid ways to do sourdough, including this brilliant one. But the one that was my epiphany, that liberated me finally from the tyranny of the starter and showed me how to make great bread was here: https://breadtopia.com/demystifying-sourdough-bread-baking/
It is contrarian and iconoclastic about all the "rules" you've seen. I've used this approach (which includes ignoring your starter in the back of the fridge for months, if you have to), reviving a "dead" starter, etc. I'm not proposing this as the bible but do take a look and see if it doesn't both liberate you and help you make great breads.
 
MacGuffin July 5, 2020
Isn't sourdough fun?
Breadtopia is an excellent resource; they're also the U.S. distributors for all things Mock Mill in case anyone's inclined to grind their own flour.
I'm a moderator for an online group for stand mixer owners and I learned the technique I use from our list mom; she, however, only maintains a teaspoon or so of starter as backup. In fact, I got my bread culture from another member, who got it from yet another member, who got it from her uncle (who'd had it since the '50s, I think). It was popularized by a guy who called himself Sourdough Jack and it makes delicious bread. I passed some along several years ago to a friend and he has been making the family bread weekly ever since.
 
Author Comment
Maurizio L. July 8, 2020
So true, Rosalind. So, so many ways to care for a starter and get great bread!
 
rhaven July 5, 2020
I just started baking bread when we all began sheltering in place, so I’m very new to this. As a newby, this is what I have found to work well. I try to keep about 50g of starter at all times. The day before I want bread I feed it in the afternoon with equal parts AP flour and room temp water. It usually triples in size by 9:00pm. I make my dough per my no-knead recipe, pop the remainder starter back in the fridge, and after the 1hr fold over I go to bed. 9hrs later I have lovely fluffy dough that I fold and shape to bake. I bake a boule 2 or 3 times a week, but only feed the (room temperature) starter the day I’m going to use it. It’s been working great for months now. Beginner’s luck I guess. (I never discard, I just feed it in equal parts, bake an extra loaf, and give it to a neighbor)
 
Author Comment
Maurizio L. July 8, 2020
I wouldn't say Beginner's Luck, sounds like you've found a good method for baking delicious bread in your home kitchen -- nothing lucky about that! Happy baking.
 
Jenn July 12, 2020
rhaven, I'd love to see your recipe.
 
rhaven July 12, 2020
I use the Food 52 recipe No-Knead Sourdough Bread. It is simple, straightforward, and works every time.
 
Lisa A. July 5, 2020
I’ve been maintaining my sourdough starter for at least 5 years. I found if I feed it with whole rye flour I can keep it in the fridge for one month before I need to feed it again. I’ve also dried some of my starter (see tip from the King Arthur site) and have freshed it after 3 years.
 
Author Comment
Maurizio L. July 8, 2020
I, too, dry out my starter from time-to-time for long term storage. I do this not because I'm not baking for a while, but as a backup in case something happens to my starter, I can quickly get another going in no time.
 
hlsm July 5, 2020
I do wish the measurements were not in grams!! My starter originated in San Francisco in the 1800’s, given to me by an old baking friend many years ago. I have kept it going for forty-five years!
 
Hungry1 July 5, 2020
Re:
I do wish the measurements were not in grams!!

Me too.
Having used American measurements for almost 80 years, switching to foreign measurement isn't easy.
I convert recipes using "grams" into tsp-spoons, cups, ounces, etc.
It may not be 100% accurate but am not striving to be a perfectionist baker.
I've received compliments for my sourdough breads and that's good enough for me.
 
Author Comment
Maurizio L. July 8, 2020
Sorry about that! It's very difficult measuring in other units and especially volume (which can lead to consistency issues)!
 
Margie V. July 13, 2020
I finally broke down and bought a kitchen scale. There are a number of inexpensive ones out there. You won't regret it - makes life easier and recipes turn out better!
 
Seejanereed August 12, 2020
Don't know where you are, but if you have ALDI, they usually hava decent, affordable scales in their weekly ad about twice a year.
 
jpriddy July 5, 2020
Once a week or so, I make waffles with my sourdough starter. I keep the starter in a tall bowl with a lid on the counter and refresh daily with filtered water and flour. I never discard starter. When the bowl is about half full, I pour off a third cup or so, feed it, and make waffles with the rest. I add two eggs, oil, and small amount of flour mixed with salt and soda. Lovely.
 
Alison July 5, 2020
I LOVE sourdough waffles---if you have discard, you can use it in waffles, and they are so good. I use the recipe King Arthur had on their insert with my original order of sourdough starter two years ago--it's probably on their website, too.
Another easy and delicious thing to do with discard is make crackers--if you eat crackers, then you know that the fancy artisan ones are pretty pricey, but you can make the same thing at home with minimal effort. I've refined my approach over the past few years, but basically use the KA recipe for sourdough crackers as a starting point.
 
jpriddy July 5, 2020
Once a week or so, I make waffles with my sourdough starter. I keep the starter in a tall bowl with a lid on the counter and refresh daily with filtered water and flour. I never discard starter. When the bowl is about half full, I pour off a third cup or so, feed it, and make waffles with the rest. I add two eggs, oil, and small amount of flour mixed with salt and soda. Lovely.
 
MacGuffin July 5, 2020
You need only keep a Tbsp. or two of starter on hand and feed it once/week when you're not using it. I've had my older one for YEARS. I find that my starters (I have two--one for bread, one for crêpes) do well maintained on white flour (either bread or AP, respectively) because there are no oils to go rancid. Starters are easily transitioned to whichever flour your recipe calls for as long as you keep your white-flour-maintained "seed" in the fridge as backup. Mine are in wide-mouth Ball pint jars, even though they don't need that much room, and I swap out the jars once/month.
To maintain, dump half of your refrigerated starter, add back a similar amount of flour and maybe a bit less than an equal amount of water. I keep a bottle of Evian on hand just for my cultures because the chlorine in tap water might kill them; they seem to like the minerals. Stir, cover, set aside until it starts bubbling, then stir again and refrigerate (the lid should be a bit loose to allow gases to escape). DON'T dump your culture down the drain--put it in the garbage.
 
Seejanereed August 12, 2020
It can go in the compost and I have been told that chickens love it, if you have a chicken-owning friend (chickens like kombucha SCOBY, too).
 
Kelsea N. July 4, 2020
I'm about to move across the country, likely by flying. What do you recommend for taking my starter with me? I'm weighing dehydrating (with a dehydrator), stiffening it up pretty significantly... or are there other options? Mostly I'm curious how long a dehydrated or very stiff starter could go during a move.
 
steph July 5, 2020
I actually flew with my starter. Put a small amount (30gm?) into a baby food jar (taped lid on) and kept it in the fridge so it would be more firm. It made the cross country trip and is still nice and active!
 
Author Comment
Maurizio L. July 8, 2020
I've flown with my starter many times. What I typically do is give my ripe starter a refreshment with about 50% water to make it very stiff. Then take the mixture and place it inside two ziplock bags labeled "sourdough starter." You can also feed with your normal hydration and then check it in your bag!
 
Kelsea N. July 8, 2020
Thank you! How long do you think I could go between feedings with this method? It might be a day or two before I get settled and either have consistent access to a fridge or the ability to go back to my daily feeding schedule. I mean, hopefully not, but preparing for worst case.
 
HalfPint July 1, 2020
I bake bread weekly so "Rona" sits in the the fridge until Saturday morning, when I discard (make into breakfast biscuits or pancakes; King Arthur Flour discard recipes), then feed for sandwich bread baking later that day. It's a casual schedule that is a great fit for me. No stress. No hassle.
 
Author Comment
Maurizio L. July 1, 2020
That's what it's all about -- fitting it in and making it work for you!
 
seeabigail July 1, 2020
I drove home for a week from NYC to SC to visit family about a month or two ago. I meant to take Mrs. Bubbles (my starter) with me but forgot her out on the counter. We left at like 6am and I wasn't fully awake and didn't realize until we were well out of the city and there was no turning back. I was sure she'd be moldy and dead as we didn't leave the air on and she was out on the counter. When we finally got back she had a good bit of hooch on top but no mold to my shock and amazement! I went about feeding her and amazingly she was totally fine. I won't do that again but I was surprised at how resilient it was and that mold didn't grow. I've used it quite a few times since with no issues.
 
Author Comment
Maurizio L. July 1, 2020
Just goes to show how strong they can be! That acidity is a powerful thing -- glad it was fine in the end. Here's to many more wonderful loaves with Mrs. Bubbles :)
 
Alison June 30, 2020
excellent advice, as always, from Maurizio. I also bake weekly (primarily bread), mostly on the weekend, but refrigerate my starter for five days out of seven. I take the starter out of the frig about 36-48 hours before I plan to use it, and make sure I have fed it at least three times (generally every 12 hours, but could be more frequently in very warm weather) before I add to my dough. I don't find that this schedule has any negative impact on the vigor of my starter. If I baked more than once a week, I would probably leave it out, as Maurizio does, but you have to be realistic as to your actual habits! I have gone two weeks in the frig a few times in the last few years, but this is pretty rare. Sourdough isn't difficult, but if you are only going to bake once or twice a month, or less frequently, I don't know that it makes practical sense to try and maintain a healthy starter--I'd use instant yeast in that case, which produces lovely baked goods with less maintenance. I bake with yeast, too, from time to time, and don't regard it as lesser, just different.
 
Author Comment
Maurizio L. June 30, 2020
Great comments, Alison! If I use the fridge with my starter (which is rare because I bake so often!) I find it does need several timely refreshments to get back up to speed. And I agree, commercial yeast isn't lesser at all, it's just another tool in the toolkit and makes sense for some baked goods and schedules -- nothing wrong with it in the slightest. Happy baking!
 
Susanna July 5, 2020
I follow the same refresh schedule as you, and have seen good results. would love to hear about the discard biscuit recipe!
 
Ben P. June 30, 2020
This advice is all spot on! Thanks! If anyone needs a boost to get started with an active starter please visit me at kensingtonsourdough.ca
 
Smaug June 30, 2020
I don't bake much in the summer- I've reached a pretty good rhythm making English muffins every 6-7 days; I use about half the starter, refresh and leave on the counter for a few hours, and then refrigerate until next time.
 
Author Comment
Maurizio L. June 30, 2020
Great method!