By Cat, May 2011 (Crock, right, by Ronny H.; Photo by Cat)
Includes: 1. Storing your Starter; 2. Maintaining your Starter; 3. Readying your starter for Bread Making
Although making a new starter is fairly easy, it gets better with age and it behooves you to keep it alive and healthy. I must admit that I’ve had a rough time with my starters, mostly because I only have me to feed, so I make bread only once a month. That’s a lot of feeding without using. And I’m still learning.
[2013 update: I have embarked on a low-carb eating program called a ketogenic diet, that will eventually turn into a paleo diet, and that means no grains or legumes. I have not made or used a starter since early this year.]
Storing your starter
I use a mason jar while making my starter, but once it is working well, I want to transfer it to something better. My friend Ronny H gave me a great ceramic sourdough starter crock that she made herself (see photo, above), and I use it to keep my starter. I store it in the fridge most of the time, but remove it to the counter to warm before I intend to use some of the starter. Then back to the fridge after using and feeding.
Your storage container should be glass or ceramic only. Do not use metal. And I don’t recommend plastic, because toxins in the plastic will leach into the acidic starter.
You want a container that will allow your starter to breathe. Like any living creature, it ‘exhales’ waste gasses. A ceramic crock with a loose-fitting lid, like the one shown above, is perfect. Or you can use a glass jar with cheesecloth over the top, held in place with a rubber band.
If you use a jar, you can use a plastic lid as a temporary cover for transporting the starter, or for sharing some starter with a friend. But the plastic lid should be replaced with cheesecloth, or the starter transferred to a crock as soon as possible.
Maintaining your starter
At ESP’s Sourdough event (6) we learned to feed it frequently (every day or 2, or every few days if kept in the fridge) with 1 Tbsp flour and 1 Tbsp water. But I wanted more starter to try a loaf of bread, so I decided to feed it a lot more, all at once. In retrospect, I think this was not a good idea….
The wrong way to feed a starter: to ¼ cup starter, I added 1 cup water, stirred that a bit, then stirred in 1 cup whole wheat flour. After sitting on the counter overnight, it was nice and bubbly, and had made a bit of hooch, that alcohol-ish, brownish fluid on top that you stir back into the starter before removing some for a recipe.
The right way: I’ve since learned that I should not have fed it that much all at once – overfeeding can be destructive (but is not a death sentence). Instead, to increase the amount of starter, you feed it enough to double the bulk. If you have ¼ cup starter, you add ¼ cup each flour and water, to make ½ cup total volume. The next feeding, if you don’t remove some of it, you would feed it ½ cup each flour and water to make 1 cup total. You can see that it quickly becomes a lot of starter if you don’t use it.
The simplest maintenance plan is to feed 1 cup (or less) starter with 1 Tbsp each water and flour, every few days while keeping it in the fridge, if you don’t use it very often. Then do a more aggressive feeding at room temperature (see below) for 2 or more days prior to baking bread, starting with 1 Tbsp starter and building up. See Frazgo Feasting: Hooch, and Keeping Your Starter Alive (5) for a great discussion of this method.
From time to time, if not being used much, you must cast-off some of the starter to keep it from struggling under its own weight. Either use the cast-off (to make, for example, pancakes, chapatis, or bread), or add it to your compost.
If you use it more frequently, the best plan is to keep it at room temperature, and remove enough before feeding, so that only about ¼ cup starter remains. The part that is removed can be used to make something, or added to the compost. To the remaining ¼ cup starter, add ¼ cup water, stir to a slurry, then stir in ¼ cup flour and stir again.
NOTE: if you make a large batch of bread (several loaves) at one time, you will need to make a greater amount of starter than ¼ cup.
See Bread Baker’s Forum: Maintaining your Starter (1), Sourdough Home: Maintaining a Starter (3), and The Fresh Loaf: Managing Sourdough Starter Properly (4), and also my post on The EssentiaList for lots of good info on feeding & maintaining your starter.
Resurrecting a sick starter
I’ve not had to do this yet, but The Sourdough Baker has a good discussion of healing a starter (8). A starter can go ‘off’ from overfeeding as well as underfeeding or neglect. How do you know when it is ‘off?’ What can you do about it? This is all discussed in the referenced article.
Basically, the ‘cure’ is to restore proper acid-alkaline balance for your starter, first by removing the ‘bad’ part, and then using a special feeding technique described in the article.
My first starter got weaker and weaker and I tried to resurrect it, but it got a bad smell and I decided to compost it. However, I was able to resurrect a later starter by catching it when it first started to go ‘off.’
Readying your starter for bread making
At least one day before you want to make bread, you must ready your starter for the task of rising bread.
Aggressive Feeding to make bread
You start with a small amount of starter and feed it to double the bulk each time, feeding it twice a day and keeping it on the counter, until you have the desired amount of starter. Here’s what I do to get a really active starter for bread:
- 1st feeding (Day 1, AM): Remove 1 Tbsp of your starter to a pint wide-mouth jar. Add 1 Tbsp warm water and stir. Then stir in 1 Tbsp flour. Cover jar with cheesecloth and secure the cloth with a rubber band. Total volume: 2 Tbsp.
- 2nd feeding (Day 1, PM): Remove cover. Add 2 Tbsp warm water, stir, then add 2 Tbsp flour and stir again. Replace cloth. Total volume: 4 Tbsp or ¼ cup.
- 3rd feeding (Day 2, AM): Add ¼ cup warm water, stir, then add ¼ cup flour and stir again. Total volume: ½ cup.
- If this is all you need, let it rest 12 hours and then use to make the bread. Otherwise, keep the pattern going:
- 4th feeding (Day 2, PM): Add ½ cup warm water, stir, then add ½ cup flour and stir again. Total volume: 1 cup.
- Continue in this pattern until you have as much starter as you need. Then remove 1 Tbsp to your crock in the fridge to maintain.
See 100% Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread for a good example of this method of aggressively feeding your starter before making up the bread dough. (or see the original recipe at Sourdough Home: 100% whole wheat sourdough bread (9)).
See also: Sourdough Home: A Starter Primer (2);includes feeding a starter, or Frazgo Feasting blog: Hooch and Keeping your Sourdough (5). See also my recent ESP post, Feeding Sourdough Starter:
The Sponge: an alternate feeding method for bread making:
An alternative method for ensuring a good strong starter for bread is to make a sponge the night (or so) before baking. The sponge is a mixture of starter, all of the water, and half of the flour. After mixing well, it is allowed to rest, covered, on the counter overnight. The next day, add remaining flour and salt (if using), then shape and rise before baking.
See Sponge Methods for Sourdough Bread, an Overview for more detail.
- Bread Baker’s Forum: angelfire.com/ab/bethsbread/sdMaint.html
- Sourdough Home, A Starter Primer: sourdoughhome.com/starterprimer.html
- Sourdough Home, Maintaining Starter: sourdoughhome.com/maintainingastarter.html
- The Fresh Loaf: thefreshloaf.com/node/13031/managing-sourdough-starter-properly
- FrazgoFeasting blog: frazgofeasting.blogspot.com/2009/03/hooch-and-keeping-your-sourdough.html
- ESP, Sourdough Panel Presentation (essentialstuff.org/index.php/2011/05/29/Cat/gathering-summary-sourdough-a-panel-presentation-may-18-2011)
- ESP, Feeding your Sourdough Starter (essentialstuff.org/index.php/2011/06/21/Cat/feeding-sourdough-starter)
- Sourdough Baker: sourdoughbaker.com.au/starters/healing-your-starter.html
- Sourdough Home, 100% whole wheat sourdough (sourdoughhome.com/100percentwholewheat.html