Thursday, May 5, 2011

Caring for your Sourdough Starter

Whether you purchase a sourdough starter, get a starter from a friend, or capture your own, you'll need to know how to take care of it.

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.

Why refrigerate?

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.

Review

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!

Any questions?

17 comments :

  1. This has been really interesting! I had never thought about the amount the starter is fed depending on it's quantity. I liked the poodle vs. St. Bernard analogy. I'm taking this month off from gluten as a health experiment, but I think that if I should re-introduce grains I'm going to give sourdough another shot.

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  2. Like any good friendship, starter needs love, care and attention!

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  3. Still getting unpacked and resettled so I don't have time to read, but I'm copying these posts out to study later. Certainly appreciate your time and effort sharing what you learn. We hope to enjoy it just a little later!! Liz

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  4. so interesting! Good tip about the chlorinated water -we have city water, so I think I will be careful to use chlorine-free water from now on.

    I stir the hooch back into my starter. . .is that bad?

    My starter lives in the fridge all the time - but when I'm ready to bake, I make a sponge in the evening and by next morning, it is bubbly and smells good. So I put some of the sponge back in the starter to feed it and then proceed to bake.

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  5. Best guidance I have ever had. Thks great job.

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  6. I'm about to make my very first starter after thinking about it for a couple of weeks. This is absolutely the clearest and most logical set of "guidelines" that I have read after spending at least two hours trying to find good, uncomplicated instructions!
    So, thank you! :-)

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  7. Help? I covered my starter with plastic wrap and now it is lifeless. When I covered it with a towel it was bubbly but it got a thick kind of dryish crust on top. What should I do?

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    Replies
    1. Did you try feeding your starter? You can often bring to life a starter that appears dead.

      I have found plastic wrap better for covering a starter because it helps keep it from drying out. But I only cover it loosely so that it can still get air.

      Hope you can revive it!
      Gina

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  8. Thanks I will try that. I added milk kefir instead of water with my last feeding and it seems to be revived. Now to try one of your bread recipes :)

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  9. Can you make the starter with Prairie Gold flour? I understand that you can feed it with PG, but my daughter cannot eat anything with "white" flour and I so want her to have some of this delicious sourdough bread. I just don't want to waste the PG flour if the starter won't work with it.
    Thank you,
    Jeanne

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    Replies
    1. Yes, you can make a starter with Prairie Gold flour. Some sourdough experts say that whole wheat flour is better than white flour for a starter since it contains more enzymes to promote growth.
      Gina

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    2. Yay! Thank you! I will start it tonight.

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  10. Everything that I have read says you have to feed your starter twice a day if not refridgerated. I hate that, I never remember to do it in the morning when I am rushing around trying to get out of the house for work. Have you had continued success with feeding it only once a day?

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    Replies
    1. I know what you mean. It was hard for me to remember twice a day too. And once seems to work for me.
      Gina

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  11. I'm inspired ��. Day1 tomorrow...

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  12. Hello

    i had some starter in the freezer because i wasnt going to use it for awhile and the reinhart book says to do so. well, now i am trying to refresh it, but ive fed it twice and have had it out all day in my warm kitchen and no bubbles. you mention it could be revived. could you please help me? what should i do next? should i half and feed it again?

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    Replies
    1. Gillian-
      I have never frozen starter, but I have read that you can. I would just give it more time. I'd wait at least a day before you half it and feed it. It may just take some extra time for it to come out of dormancy.

      Happy Baking,
      Gina

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I'm still learning how to be a joyful homemaker and I'd love to hear from you!

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