Lesson 2: Caring for Your Sourdough Starter

Once you have a vibrant sourdough starter, you will need to feed it to maintain a strong, well-nourished population of microorganisms. This is an easy task to work into your weekly routine.

I like to think of feeding starter as an opportunity to cultivate something of an intimate relationship; your starter is, after all, the foundation of the breads and other foods you will bake. So, now and then, taste your starter. Smell it and touch it, too. Learn how to characterize its good health. This connection, along with your own observations, will help you maintain your starter in top form.

The ideal schedule for feeding starter is one or two days before you plan to bake. I prefer to feed and store my starter in a container I can see through. Glass is better than plastic because this will be the jar you use to store your starter over time and its non-porous surface will prevent the release of toxins into the starter.

The following feeding instructions will give you enough starter to bake one loaf of bread, with about one cup left over for making other sourdough baked goods. To get the best result, the water you use to feed your starter should be filtered or bottled.

Feeding Before Baking

Step 1: Stir in or pour off any gray liquid floating on top of your stored starter; then discard all but ½ cup of starter, which you can leave in your jar.

Step 2: Add ¼ cup white all-purpose flour and ¼ cup filtered water to the starter. What you are making is referred to as a “100% hydration starter because the quantity of water is 100% the quantity of flour. Mix the starter well and let it sit on the counter top, covered, for about 4 hours. Your aim is to have the starter resemble a thick milkshake or pancake batter, and to have it double in volume before you feed it again. So 4 hours is a general guide and the process is flexible. A little more time or a little less is not going to hinder the process.

Step 3: Add ½ cup white all-purpose flour and ½ cup filtered water to the starter. Again, mix the starter well and let it sit on the counter top, covered, for about 4 hours more.

Step 4: Add 1 cup white all-purpose flour and 1 cup water to the starter. This is the last step to feeding your starter. If you can, let the starter sit on the counter top, covered, for 1-2 hours before returning it to the refrigerator.

Some bread bakers leave starter on the countertop overnight, but refrigerating it and then bringing it back to room temperature has always worked better for me. In the ideal, you want to bake with starter that is at its maximum height and full of gas.

Feeding When You Are Not Baking

If you are taking time off from baking bread or other sourdough baked goods, you should ideally still feed your starter every 10-14 days. In this case, stir in or pour off any gray liquid floating on top of the starter. Then discard all but ½ cup of sourdough starter. Add ¼ cup flour and ¼ cup water to the starter. Mix it well, let it sit on the counter top for a few hours to allow the reactions to develop, and then return it to the refrigerator.

I have left my starter for two weeks when I have had to be away and have had no problems result. There are those who say starter can be successfully frozen, and I have had this work in the short-term. I am not sure if starter would remain viable, however, after being frozen for months.

To better understand the wisdom behind discarding starter, click on this link: The Wisdom of Discarding Starter

For instructions on making a smaller quantity of starter so there are no leftovers to discard, click on this link: The No-Discard Method of Feeding Starter

If you have questions, email me using the “contact” page of my website and I will do my best to help you.

Copyright 2014, Ellen Arian, Ellen’s Food & Soul

Next Up: A Recipe for Sourdough Wheat and Rye Bread