Bread

How to Maintain a Sourdough Starter

January  8, 2013

Inspired by conversations on the Food52 hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun. Today, we're discussing the best ways to maintain a sourdough starter.

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Sourdough starters have a reputation for being high-maintenance. There are many different feeding methods out there, and the multitude of options and schedules can overwhelm. However, once you've mastered your routine, a starter is a completely manageable addition to your kitchen. And we've highlighted a method that only requires a once-a-week feeding for maintenance purposes. Of course, there are other successful strategies, but we've found this one to be manageable as well as successful.

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What is it?
A sourdough starter has three components: flour, water, and wild yeast. Sourdough bread differs from other types of bread in that it contains no cultivated yeast or chemical leaveners. Rather, it gets its rise from wild yeast and Lactobacillus, a type of bacteria. The sour taste that it produces comes from lactic acid, a byproduct of the fermentation that occurs when lactobacillus metabolizes the sugars found in flour.

Like any living organism, a starter needs food in order to grow and survive. So, although it's quite resilient, it must be fed regularly in order to produce a quality product when used in baking. 

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Feeding your starter
The formula is simple: add equal parts water and all-purpose flour to four ounces of starter. Be sure to stir well before and after mixing -- you want to equally distribute all ingredients, gases, and liquids.

This creates a 100% hydration ratio, which means that you are using the same amount of flour and water. It is important not to feed your starter too much: it will be overwhelmed and unable to digest everything. Feeding it too little, on the other hand, can lead to an inactive starter.

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Countertop Maintenance
To maintain your starter at room temperature, feed it once daily using the following formula: combine four ounces of starter, four ounces of flour, and four ounces of water. 

The day before you plan to bake, feed it twice without discarding any of the starter. That is, add 4 ounces each of flour and water; you want to beef it up in both size and activity level before putting it into your dough. These two feedings should be at least six hours apart, and the second feeding should come 6-8 hours before you begin mixing your dough. This does require some planning ahead! 

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Refrigerator Maintenance
Here's the low-maintenance method: to maintain your starter in the fridge, simply feed it once a week: combine four ounces of starter with eight ounces each of flour and water. Then it's back into the fridge for 7 days. This is also a great method that will avoid over-fermentation if your kitchen is very hot (hello, New York City summers).

Three days before you bake, take the starter out of the fridge. Feed it once, and then let it sit at room temperature for 24 hours. The next day, feed it twice -- roughly 12 hours apart. On the third day, feed the starter about 6 hours before you mix your dough -- this will allow proper fermentation to maximize the rise and flavor of your loaves. Got that? Good. Now get baking!

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You probably didn't kill it.
You might neglect your starter. You might forget about it for weeks. But it's probably salvageable! If a sour- or astringent-smelling liquid has pooled at the top (that's the alcohol from fermentation), simply mix it back in -- don't dump it out! -- and then begin feeding it twice daily. Once you start seeing those fermentation bubbles again, you're clear to resume your regular schedule.

If your starter turns pink or red (or moldy), it has gone bad. Just throw it out and start anew.

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Storage Options
While a ceramic crock is the most traditional container for a starter, plastic will do just fine. Glass works, too; just be sure that your container has a wide mouth to make feeding and measuring easier.

Tell us: do you keep a sourdough starter? What are your best tips?

78 Comments

Kay F. June 4, 2018
My starter is named ‘second job’ because I spend so much time with it. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Love the results!
 
Linda B. October 18, 2017
Jess, no! Don't feed it, just stir it for 3 days, wooden spoon, glass or plastic container.
 
jessbair October 19, 2017
Oh! Ok! Glad I asked. Thank you! Will report back!
 
Linda B. October 18, 2017
jessbair, try equal parts starter, warm water and flour, by weight if you can, if not than the mixture you are already doing, let it sit out for 24 hours, stir it and let it sit out for another 24 hours. Do that for 3 days. You may have activity by then or not. If so feed it once more before using it. If there is no activity repeat the 3 day schedule. If you still have no action it is probably kaput.
 
jessbair October 18, 2017
Thanks for your reply! So to clarify, you are saying to feed it every day for three days, right? Not just stir every day after the initial feed? <br /><br />Also, today there are definitely bubbles on top but only 4-5, which doesn't seem as active as it has been in the past. I'm so stumped. <br /><br />
 
KThomas October 18, 2017
I have not had a problem with mine and it is many years old at this point. To freshen it I get it out of the fridge and let it get to room temp, usually overnight. Then I freshen it and cover with a paper towel and rubber band and sit it on the counter or outside if the weather is good and let it do it's thing for a day. I also use buttermilk or regular milk if I have it instead of water. I think it makes a thicker more consistent start. I found that secret in an old sourdough cookbook that was written in the early 1900's.
 
jessbair October 18, 2017
Thank you for replying! Buttermilk sounds really yummy, if I get it going I'll try that!
 
jessbair October 18, 2017
Hi sourdough friends! I need some help troubleshooting, please! I have a starter I've been feeding and maintaining for a year or so. The first 6-8 loaves were wonderful but every one since has been flat and not worth eating. I didn't change anything, so I'm not sure what's going on. Also I had the starter in the fridge for a few months after having a baby and just recently got it out and am tryi to revive it. The first day or two it was looking a little bubbly but now, a week later (feeding twice a day, 1/2 cup starter, 4 oz filtered water, 4 oz all purpose flour) it just looks like paste, few to no bubbles. What did I do wrong? And is it even still alive? Argh.
 
Linda B. October 15, 2017
Here's a tip for preserving your starter requiring no maintenance whatsoever. I've had friends ask me for some of my San Francisco starter that I captured on my back deck. I was faced with the dilemma of how to get it across country without it dying along the way or spending a fortune to overnight it and still risk having the recipient open the box only to find "The Blob" inside after it escaped its container en route so.....I tried dehydrating some. I simply spread some out on a piece of plastic wrap stretched over a cookie sheet and let it dry. Once it was completely dry I pulverized it with a rolling pin, put it in a plastic container for a month as a test and rehydrated it. I just added water to cover and let it sit for 24 hours. At that point it was soup. I added equal parts flour and water BY WEIGHT NOT VOLUME and again let it sit for 24 hours. It took 4 such feedings before it was back to a bubbly concoction and was ready to go.<br />I now keep a back up stash in case something dreadful happens and I lose my mother starter. I've rehydrated some that was 6 months old but it did require a few more feedings.<br />Of course this is only meant to be a way of preserving a bit of your starter should you not plan to bake for a while and don't want to bother with feedings or if, as in my case, you are afraid of losing your starter and want to have a back up.<br />I now just spoon out a bit of the dehydrated starter, place it in a plastic baggie and it's ready to go off to another happy baker.<br />I noticed a couple of comments about volume vs weight when measuring the feeding ingredients. You want weight. If you don't have a scale get one. You can't make consistently great bread, or I suppose consistently awful bread for that matter, without one.
 
abbyarnold March 26, 2017
Also know that you don't need to feed it so regularly---I have revived starter after months in the fridge.
 
abbyarnold March 26, 2017
Oh you have stumbled on the dilemma! Easiest thing is to mix some additional flour and salt, roll out flat, cut into crackers, and bake. Homemade crackers are fabulous and easy, and they use up the extra starter.
 
Lazyretirementgirl March 26, 2017
As. Sourdough neophyte, I have a practical question. What to do with all the discarded starter? I am afraid to put it down the garbage disposal, thinking about flour + water = glue. Also, as the daughter of a ninety something who grew up in the ozarks during the Great Depression, it pains me to throw it out. All suggestions most welcome.
 
Mary M. October 16, 2017
You probably have an answer by now, but, no pouring it down the drain is not a good idea. If your sink smells funky from the bits if starter washed down it, a cup or so of baking soda followed by very hot water works wonders. As for what else to do: as someone said, making crackers is an option. Me, I mix it into my compost. Hope you are enjoying your sourdough. <br />
 
Laura415 November 1, 2015
Just finished making a sprouted spelt flour sourdough starter. That was a mouthful:) <br />Maybe I'm weird but to maintain my starter I just measure 1/4 cup of the old starter and add 1/4 cup water and 2oz spelt flour into a fresh mason jar. Four oz. of flour each feeding seems like a lot of flour just to maintain. When I want to use the starter then I feed it daily with the 4 oz. flour and 4 oz water until it grows to the amount of starter needed.<br />I've been trying to figure out how to sub in sourdough starter in bread recipes calling for yeast. So far the best ratio for subbing starter for yeast is 1 cup starter for each teaspoon of yeast called for. Reduce the liquid called for by 1/2 cup for each cup of starter used. This works great for my favorite sandwich bread recipe that calls for yeast.
 
Decibel P. October 19, 2015
Back in the 70s I captured wild yeasts from the air for my own Providence, RI sourdough culture. My college roommate and I baked breads for our food co-op: sourdough, braided pumpernickel/wheat/unbleached white and more. We took over 5 or 6 ovens around town and baked 20-25 loaves, riding between ovens in a VW bus.
 
Christine M. February 22, 2015
I'm working on my first sourdough starter. I've done everything these instructions say. But rather than looking like a dough in these photos, it's more of a liquid. I've measured four ounces of flour and water every time. My first thought is to add more flour but this says not to. Any experience with this before? Thanks! :)
 
Jeff P. March 1, 2015
Make sure you're distinguishing between weight and fluid ounces. I've been confused about which measuring system to use in some recipes. In this case, fluid ounces for water, but weigh the flour on a kitchen scale. If you don't have one, it's roughly double the amount (e.g., 8 "fluid" ounces of flour) Good luck!
 
Christine M. March 4, 2015
Oh gosh... No wonder it's so runny! Hah! Thank you for this! :)
 
meet Y. July 19, 2014
Has anyone had trouble using tap water to feed a starter? I had a friend of mine who had trouble maintaining his and thought it may be due to the treated tap water in our area? Thoughts?
 
trampledbygeese July 19, 2014
Absolutely. Especially city water. To make the water system safe, some cities add antibacterial, antimicrobial, and other anti-blablabla stuff to the water. What's more, this often changes during the year, so water that worked in the winter, may kill the start in the summer. Every city is different, and given how large these water systems are, it's generally a good thing that they do this - even if it does play marry heck on one's fermented foods. One solution is to boil the water then leave out on the counter until cool. This gets rid of many of the chemicals that bother sourdough. A second choice would be to try distilled water, however, Sourdough doesn't always thrive on this as it seems to want minerals or something from normal water. Third choice would be to beg some water from a friend with a (tested) well. Some natural, agricultural, or industrial additives can seep into well water and also damage the starter, best to get the water tested every so often to find out if this is a problem in that area. Let us know what your friend tries and how it goes. Failing that, maybe it's the flour - sometimes things are added to flour to extend the shelf life or to substitute nutrition. Using whole grain (not just whole wheat) flour in the starter could make all the difference.
 
meet Y. March 27, 2017
Thanks! We keep distilled around for plants, so I am planning on experimenting... Will report back!
 
abbyarnold November 7, 2013
Jo, the proportions don't matter. The starter just needs some flour and water as nutrition. Try it and you will see! Whatever proportions you keep, and you don't need to be precise, will be absorbed when you make your bread, which is basically a giant starter with some salt. Trust me, starters are very hearty! Think about those explorers who hauled a bit of starter with them when they traveled by horse from Ohio to Oregon, or up to Alaska. My starter is a mix of my friend Melissa's family starter, some of the King Arthur, and whatever spores were picked up when the giant Pioneer Bakery was still operating two blocks from my house. I have at times ignored it for close to a year with no consequences--it is a real Rip Van Winkle. For me, the most difficult part of sourdough baking is getting a good crust. I am now experimenting with bricks on my gas BBQ to get a 500 degree oven with a humid environment.
 
Jo November 6, 2013
My starter came from King Arthur Flour Co and recommends 4 oz warm water and 1 c unbleached all purpose flour. Why the difference between this and 4 oz or 1c each in comments below? I am an amateur but would really like to make different artisan breads.
 
mayK August 28, 2013
I have rye-, whole wheat- and a white sourdoug always in the refrigirator and " feed" them once a week , usually when I'm baking a sourdough bread. It's almost a weekly ritual..<br />But really one of the best is making yeast-water of two green apples and water and made some really nice levain bread. It's an almost magical who easy it can be done... :)
 
Rachael July 8, 2013
There is something about sourdough bread that I just LOVE. Have you ever heard about Sourdough International's sourdough starter? I have a friend who bakes and she uses their starters but I kind of wanted some more reviews..
 
Darryle S. February 26, 2013
My starter has been in my family for generations. I primarily use it for flapjacks (pancakes), but I have used it to make bread, with excellent results. I maintain two starters from the original that I got from my mom, a plain white unbleached flour version, and a whole wheat. I usually only use it during the summer months, when I've finished with my post-winter-comfort-food binge diet, when it's warm enough to refresh nicely in the basement. I have let it go for months in the refrigerator without refreshing it, and several times I was sure I killed it...but it always seems to come back. I actually HAVE killed it before, and had to start over with a batch from my mom...but that was years ago. If anyone would like a recipe for flapjacks, just drop me a note at [email protected]
 
abbyarnold January 28, 2013
Sucrespice, sourdough starter starts with wild yeast from organic grapes or other source in the atmosphere. That's why it is usually obtained from a friend! Once you have your own starter you keep it alive but dormant, feeding occasionally if you are not using it regularly.
 
sucrespice January 28, 2013
What sort of yeast is used in the starter?
 
trampledbygeese January 28, 2013
A few recipes call for a pinch of commercial yeast to get a starter moving (for example, Nigella Lawson' sourdough recipe in How to be a Domestic Goddess) but the majority do not add any commercial yeast.<br /><br />In the air all around you is natural yeast. It's most common on fresh fruits and veg. You can see it as the dusty bloom on apples and grapes. This wild yeast is attracted to the flour/water mix and will make a home there. This is what becomes your starter.<br /><br />As to the specific species of yeast, there are literally thousands. It depends on where you are in the world, what time of year you begin your starter, if you live in a rural or urban environment, temperature, and stuff like that.