I maintain two starts, one for wheat and one for rye. For both, I use lower hydration which makes them stiffer than other starts that use more water.
In the world of baking my start is most like a ‘biga,’ which is a type of preferment that usually uses baker’s yeast, but there is none of that in mine. Other sourdough starts are called poolish, culture, Pâte Fermentée (Chef or Old Dough), levain, sponge, Madre Bianca, or mother, to name a few of the many things preferments are called.
It seems in the world of sourdough these words are interchangeable for the word ‘starter.’ For ease in this post (and most others I’ll write), I will refer to my preferment as a ‘start’ or ‘starter.’
My wheat start is from Abigail’s Oven, which usually comes dehydrated. However, mine was live from a class that Martha Levie taught. Happily, in that class, Martha told us how to dehydrate some of this start by spreading a thin layer on plastic sheets or in plastic bowls to dry.
It was a good thing too since I neglected my starter twice and had it spoil. I lost it once to black mold and the second time it just got watery and would not activate with flour and water. However, using the dehydrated start, I was back in business in just a few days.
I’m sure the two times my start got in trouble was simply that I was not using it enough and didn’t put it in the fridge in between uses. In the fridge, it keeps for a week or more just fine. But these days I use it often enough it seldom finds its way into cold storage to hibernate.
The Basics of Starter Care
Usually, there is not much of a time commitment to caring for a start, but it must be ‘fed’ daily to be kept alive. This, of course, will lead to far too much sourdough starter being made unless you are baking every day.
For that reason, many bakers discard half of their active start before freshening it. This is an unnecessary waste since the discarded start is an excuse for making waffles or pancakes nearly any day. In fact, I cannot think of a thing I make with flour that could not use a cup of this discarded start.
But if it is too much for you to feed it every day, you can store it in the fridge. It will be good for up to a week or more. Longer than that it needs to be in the freezer. You can even dehydrate some for long-term storage.
Feeding Your Starter
There are two ways to feed your sourdough starter, weigh out the ingredients or measure them. Since most Americans have measuring cups, I will explain this method first.
“The goal of activation,” says Cultures for Health, “is to have a starter that peaks in activity and volume within 6-8 hours, indicating a high level of rise power for use as leavening.”
Activating Dry Starters
To begin you will need a clean container to rehydrate and wake up a dehydrated start. Make sure the jar you select can hold at least twice the volume you plan to grow. A quart mason jar is great in most cases.
- Select a jar or croc to grow your start, but remember it will double whenever you feed it after it is fully active.
- Combine dry start with a tablespoon each of flour and water in a glass quart jar and stir. Cover the jar with a cloth, a coffee filter or some other breathable material and set it a warm place for a day.
- The next day, feed the starter again, but this time increase the flour and water by two additional tablespoons each. Mix well to combine all ingredients into the consistency of pancake batter and cover again.
- On days 3–7 day, feed the starter with an additional 1/3 cup of flour and 1/4 cup water. Stir until all the flour is moist.
- Beginning day 4, discard 1/2 cup of starter and then feed the starter with1/3 cup of flour and 1/4 cup water each of the next three days.
Activating Wet Starters
Once your starter is bubbling regularly within a few hours of feeding you have an active start, which you may use anytime.
Every day and anytime you use the start from now on, it needs to be fed with 1/3 cup of flour and 1/4 cup water. Otherwise, put it in the fridge, but even then it needs weekly feeding.
Always remember your start needs at least four hours at room temperature before use. Also keep it in a spot that is free from contamination (ie. bugs, other cultures or food, etc).
Weighing Ingredients for Your Culture
If you are weighing your ingredients, on your scale begin with a tare-weight for your container. Then working with the scale, add equal parts of sourdough starter, water, and flour. For example, if you have 25 grams of sourdough starter, you would add 25 grams of water and 25 grams of flour.
Maintaining a Healthy Start
For a good start, make sure the sourdough is fully incorporated into the flour and the water. As you mix, make sure there isn’t any flour stuck to the bottom of the container. That is why I use clear glass or plastic containers. Just lift them up and look at the bottom to see if extra flour sitting there. If so stir some more until it is all well incorporated.
Remember to cover the jar, but not tightly. During the fermentation process, the sourdough starter creates carbon dioxide gas as it feeds on the flour and water. This gas needs to go somewhere and a tight lid is just not helpful to the process at all. So lightly set a lid on the container or throw a tea towel over the top to protect the content.
Sourdough likes temperatures generally between 70 and 85 degrees. It can do okay in a 65-degree range, but it slows fermentation. Personally I like the top of the refrigerator, which is a bit warmer in my home than the rest of the kitchen. Let the starter proof for eight to 12 hours or overnight.
The length of time needed is dependent on how active your starter is and how warm your home is. My start is extremely active. In fact, if you look at the picture at the top of this post, this is a bulk start that took only four hours to ripen, then it had to be fed again. So this is not a timed science, but a bit of an art form that you learn in time.
To keep sourdough starter healthy feed it regularly. Mine needs two feedings a day, otherwise, it is in the fridge. In case the start sits too long and a brown liquid layer forms on top, don’t panic. This liquid, known as hooch, can be poured off, but it then needs to be fed as soon as possible.
If you are using a sourdough starter daily or every few days during the week, it might be best for you to keep it on a counter where you can see it reminding you to feed it. But remember you do not have to be a slave to your start. If you are using it only once a week or once every few weeks, then keep it in the refrigerator. Even there, feed it at leaset once a week with 1/3 cup of flour and 1/4 cup water.
When you are ready to use it again, warm it to room temperate and feed it again with 1/3 cup of flour and 1/4 cup water. This all may sound more complicated than it really is, but after a few feedings and uses, it will just be a simple routine. I promise.
Using a Pâte Fermentée, Chef or Old Dough
One easy way to leaven bread is to use “old dough.” When I bake daily, this is my method. I simply get my start by leaving some dough in the bowl from the last batch.
Chef Jacob Burton explains:
“The basic concept is simple; up to 1/3 of bread dough is reserved after the bulk fermentation to levin the next batch of bread…After the bulk fermentation is complete, the dough is punched down, one third is reserved to levin the next batch of bread, while the rest of the dough… is baked.”
He says that old dough “can be stored for about 8-12 hours at room temperature or retarded in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.”
Remember, sourdough starter can be kept on the counter or in the fridge, but it needs to be fed regularly. When not in the fridge, it needs to be in a warm spot. If it’s kept in the refrigerator, make sure you’re feeding it at least once a week.
Tell us about your starter and how you keep it in the comment section below.
Author: Darryl Alder, retired Scouter and outdoorsman, who spent too many hours over a campfire using a dutch oven, and loves sharing recipes for the kitchen and the campfire. You can read many of his outdoor recipes here.