When I first started using sourdough, I was frustrated at the care it took. Not that it was difficult but a sourdough starter is not just an ingredient that could be placed on the pantry shelf until needed.
It actually helped me to think of my sourdough starter as a pet. Like a dog or cat, sourdough needs food, water, a safe environment, and oxygen. It even benefits from exercise. But I'm not a dog or cat lover, so I'd rather compare my sourdough to my chickens, who with very little care will continually bless me with great food and never climb onto the couch with muddy paws. Some bakers actually name their sourdough starter, but I haven't went that far. Yet!
Let's go over the basic needs of a sourdough starter.
- Food - Sourdough is fed with flour. I use freshly ground Prairie Gold wheat flour but you may use white or rye flour if your prefer.
- Water - I use my tap water which is from a well. I understand that heavily chlorinated water may kill a starter and should be set out for 24 hours before using in a starter. Bottled water is great but not distilled water which doesn't contain needed minerals.
- Environment - I keep my starter in a glass quart measuring cup. I like that I can easily see how much starter I have. Any plastic or glass container is fine. Avoid metal.
- Oxygen - When feeding my starter, I stir it vigorously to incorporate some air. I cover my bowl loosely with a piece of plastic wrap to allow room to expand but also keep out flying creatures and dust.
- Exercise - A starter that is fed and used regularly will be more healthy and active than a starter that is abandoned in the fridge for long periods of time. In the summer, I rarely bake bread but by making waffles and pizza crust weekly, my starter stayed quite robust. But it is possible to forget a starter in the fridge for several weeks (possibly even months) and bring it back to life.
Now for the details of feeding -
How often to feed?
If my sourdough starter is at room temperature, I feed it every day. I find that evening works best for me because I'm cleaning up the kitchen, preparing for the next day, and often clearer in the head than at any other time of day. But morning, noon, or night is fine.
If I am trying to build up my starter quickly, I'll feed it morning and night or every twelve hours. I've had times of real emergency that I've fed it three times a day or every eight hours.
If the starter is refrigerated, it should still be fed every week. But I have sometimes forgotten it for longer than a week and it has survived.
You want your starter to be active, healthy and bubbling when you go to bake, so the night before a baking day, is a great time to feed your starter, whether it has been at room temperature, or is coming from the fridge. If you have struggled to make good bread, try feeding your starter two or three times before baking.
How much to feed?
When I started using sourdough, I always fed the starter the same amount, no matter how much starter was in the bowl. When someone pointed out to me it was like feeding a tiny poodle and a huge St. Bernard the same amount of food, I began adjusting my food for the amount of starter.
My method of feeding is simple, uncomplicated, and has worked well for me. Whatever amount of starter I have, I add the same amount of flour and 2/3 the amount of water.
For example, if I have one cup of starter left, I dump in one cup of flour. Then I take my cup measure and fill it 2/3 full of water and add it to the bowl. Give a quick stir until all the flour is thoroughly mixed in and I'm done.
Whether I had a quarter cup of starter, or four cups, the method is still the same. Add the same amount of flour as starter, and 2/3 the amount of water. Another way to say it would be add three parts flour to two parts water.
I don't want to overwhelm a beginner but if you read sourdough recipes you'll find reference to sourdough starters at a certain hydration - 100% or 166% are two common hydrations often found in recipes. I was confused at what this meant for a long time.
The hydration of the starter is a way of describing how moist your starter is. Hydration levels compare the weight of the flour to the weight of the water. (Note, this isn't volume but weight.) I don't bother weighing my ingredients every time I feed my starter but since water is heavier then flour, feeding a starter with three parts flour to two parts water results in a starter at 100% hydration. I've experimented with both higher and lower hydration starters but 100% hydration starter does best for me, especially when using whole wheat flour.
Feeding your starter every day will result in twice as much starter as the day before. If you are not baking for several days, you'll soon have an abundance of starter. If you are aware of the law of doubling, you know that after a week of doubling, you'll have an unreasonable amount of starter. It won't take long before you'll have a bathtub full of starter. And the next day, you'll have two bathtubs full of starter! Don't let it get out of hand!
Depending on how much you like to bake, your family size or how much time you have, you'll soon figure out how much starter you'll like to keep on hand. Unless I'm baking for gifts or a large gathering, I don't want more then two to four cups of starter. Once my bowl contains this amount of starter, and if I'm not planning to bake the next day, I place the bowl in the fridge. There the starter will go dormant and stop growing.
Depending on how wet your starter is and how long it is in the fridge, you may find a layer of dirty looking water on top of your starter. This is called the "hooch". This is normal. I pour it off and feed the starter with slightly more water the next feeding. Mold or strange colors on your starter is not normal - but I've never had this problem or expect you to with proper feeding of your starter.
When getting your starter out of the fridge, it will be slower and less active but should quickly perk up and behave normally. I have used a starter straight out of the fridge but not always with the best results. Ideally, a starter should be taken out and fed the night before using it in baking.
In a nutshell, every day when at room temperature, or every week when refrigerated, feed your starter with the same amount of flour as starter and 2/3 amount of water. After briskly stirring, cover the bowl loosely. A healthy starter will begin bubbling immediately and sometime in the next 2-8 hours, the starter will be full of bubbles and expand to double it's size.
Then you know it is time to bake some bread. We'll start that next!