Easy Care for a Sourdough Starter

I’m relatively new to baking, and sourdough bread is what got me to start.  As with so many of my endeavors, I was inspired by Basic Brewing Radio, this time a 10 January 2008 episode with home baker John Owen.  So right to it: the first thing you need for sourdough bread is a starter- a culture with wild yeast and bacteria to raise and flavor the bread.  Its impractical to order one online every time you want to bake, so its fortunate taking care of them is so easy.I won’t go into how to raise a starter from scratch- there are many great resources for this online, and its not what I did anyways.  Starting from scratch is a fair bit of work for two weeks or so until the starter gets healthy.  Instead, I got a starter for my starter from http://carlsfriends.net/.  They are a network of sourdough lovers who will ship anyone a starter for the price of a pre-stamped envelope; there are a number of online sources perfectly willing to charge you money as well.  This will provide a healthy dose of microbes to get the starter going so you can skip the initial build-up period; otherwise, the starter would require twice daily “feedings,” is susceptible to infection, and is generally kind of a pain.

sourdough starter

Sourdough starter in 1 quart pickle jar.

So once you have your starter, whether you raise one up, get one from a friend, or have one delivered, taking care of it is pretty simple.  I keep mine in a quart-sized pickle jar- you’ll want something two or three times larger than the size of the starter to allow for expansion as it rises, and the wide mouth is a plus for stirring and getting your starter in and out.  You’ll want a cap to keep things out, but it should just be set on top, not tightened, so the gas byproducts can escape.

At this point, you have two options: you can either keep it out at room temperature and feed it once a day or so, or you can put it in the fridge.  Kept in a refrigerator, you only need to feed it once a week to maintain health, though if you go two weeks all is not lost- it should come back easily with feeding.  You may notice a slick clear liquid on the surface; this is alcohol produced by the yeast, which should be discarded when feeding. If it doesn’t seem to be rising as quickly as before, you may wish to keep it out at room temperature for a few days, feeding every day until it can double in size in a day before feeding again and putting it back in the refrigerator.

To feed, remove all but a tablespoon or few and replace with fresh ingredients.  Use what you remove to bake with, or discard.  This will give the starter something new to feed on, and keep waste products toxic to the yeast from building up.  I bake once a week, so this schedule is perfect- I use what I take out during feedings to bake.  Its better to use right when it doubles in size (3 or 4 days-ish in the refrigerator) because this is when it is most active, but I never have any trouble after a week, it just takes a little longer to rise.

When I feed my starter, I like to use 100 g of all-purpose flour, 100 g of water, and 10 g of DME (dry malt extract, consisting primarily of the sugar maltose).  At any given time, I probably have about 220-240 g of starter in my jar so I can use 200 g for baking and have just enough left to keep my starter going.  This mix makes it very easy to incorporate into any recipe: I measure out some amount starter, say 200 g, and I know that its half flour and half water by weight (I ignore the weight of the sugar, which I assume mostly ferments out).  I measure all of my baking ingredients with a scale, so I can use the starter for just about any recipe by substituting out the weight of the water and flour in the starter for the same amount in the recipe.  So, if a recipe calls for 1000 g of flour and and 600 g of water, I might use 200 g starter, 900 g flour, and 500 g water.  There are conversions for weight to volume online if you don’t have a scale, but they are always a little dubious.

The starter can be made thicker or thinner, but be aware that a thinner mixture will need to be fed much more often, while mixtures too think will not promote a healthy culture (they need plenty of water to survive, too!).  I find a 1:1 flour to water mixture by weight to be quite convenient.

You can use sucrose (table sugar) instead of maltose in the starter if you like (I did for a while with success), but when brewing, yeast can loose the ability to process maltose if fed too much sucrose, so I did not want to breed my starter this way.  The starch in the flour naturally will break down into maltose with the help of enzymes in the flour if given enough time after mixing with water, so I wanted my yeast to be able to feed on it.  This is useful, for example, if you retard the dough from raising overnight in the refrigerator; you can actually avoid adding sugar altogether to a bread recipe by giving the enzymes enough time to form maltose.  This is roughly equivalent to the mashing process in brewing (think of it as a really thick, cold mash).   Additionally, the DME will provide nutrients to keep the yeast in the starter happy.  Alternately, you can feed the starter with a good bread flour like King Arther, as they include a small percentage of barley flour as a nutrient.

A last note on storage temperatures: there seems to be some talk of cold storage limiting a starter’s ability to sour in a timely manner.  Though I haven’t seen any hard evidence, I might believe this; my bread takes at least 10-12 hours at room temperature before the slightest souring, and usually takes two or three full rise cycles to reach truly sour.  The cold may favor the yeast vitality over the various souring bacterias, but this is just my speculation.  I actually like this attribute- if I want some sour bread, I know I need to mix the dough ahead of time; if I want a more standard loaf, I can let it rise fully once without any perceptible souring.  This enables me to use my starter in place of yeast in just about any bread recipe.

[2014.01.13 UPDATE: I have am now feeding my starter twice a week for my once a week baking.  On Sunday, after I bake my bread, I will feed the starter and put it back in the refridgerator.  Then, late Saturday night, I will take it out and feed it again, leaving it out at room temperature.  I find that this gives a highly active culture right when I want to bake (8-12 hours later).  This is a nice compromise for me between having to feed constantly and having an active baking culture.]

– Dennis,
Life, Fermented

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About Dennis
Home brewer, home chef, garage tinkerer. Author of Life Fermented blog.

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