Fast Track to Sourdough
How To Maintain A Starter
At this point you should have a sourdough starter from a reliable source, one that is ready to be used according to the instructions that came with the starter. A good test to show that a starter is ready for use is that it will double in size between feedings. In this page, we'll talk about how to store it and how to maintain it. This page is part of our "Fast Track to Sourdough" series of posts.
Please note - for future reference, there is a more in-depth look at maintaining your starter in the Sourdough Starter Primer, and we have worked on a more efficient way of maintaining a starter that doesn't produce discarded starter. We talk about it in our blog.
Ideally, you should feed your starter twice a day. However, this is a bit of a bother for most of us who don't bake every day. So, let's store, or preserve, your active starter. Pour about a cup (about 280 grams) of your starter into a one-quart canning jar. Stir in 1/2 cup (about 120 grams) of water and then 1 cup (about 120 grams) of flour. If you are measuring by volume, the flour should be sifted and then spooned into the measuring cup. Next you should scrape off any excess with a straight edge. Loosely cover the jar and put it into the refrigerator at once. Several studies suggest a freshly fed starter survives refrigeration and freezing better than one that has risen for a while. We'll talk more about this jar of starter later in this web page, as well as in the sourdough starter primer page on maintaining a starter, but now it's time to feed up the starter so you have enough for the first recipe.
Pour 1/4 cup (about 70 grams) of your starter into a quart sized container. A canning jar will do, as will a plastic, glass or stainless steel mixing bowl. Whisk in 1/4 cup (about 60 grams) of water and then whisk in 1/2 cup (60 grams) of flour. Loosely cover the container and set it aside at room temperature. The feeding should double the amount of starter you began with, and the feeding was about 1 part of water to 1 part of flour by weight, or 1 part of water to 2 parts of flour by volume. These feeding ratios are good for most sourdough uses.
About twelve hours later, add 1/2 cup of water (about 120 grams) to the starter and whisk it in. Then add 1 cup of flour (about 120 grams) and whisk that in also. Cover the container loosely, and set it aside.
About twelve hours later we'll do our final feeding before using the starter. Whisk in 1 cup (about 240 grams) of water, then whisk in about 2 cups (240 grams) of flour. Cover again, and set the starter aside. In 12 more hours, you should be ready to make our Sourdough English Muffin Bread. However, I hope you'll keep reading this page.
Between each of the feedings you performed above, the starter should have doubled in size due to the action of the yeast and bacteria in the starter. In short, it should have risen to at least twice its size. Sometimes when we walk away and return twelve hours later we think the starter hasn't done anything. Often, the starter has risen to a peak and collapsed. If you think the starter isn't rising, you can pour the starter into a clean container after you feed it. Even if the starter rises and collapses, it will leave residue on the side of the container that will tell you how high the starter rose.
If your starter doesn't rise to at least twice its height, it's unlikely that it will be able to raise your bread. If your starter isn't rising as expected, you might try putting it into a warmer location - 80 to 85F (26 to 30C) is good. If it still doesn't rise, take 1/4 cup (70 grams) of your starter and begin this process again.
Maintaining a starter - To maintain a starter at optimum health, it needs to be fed twice a day as long as it is at room temperature. Each feeding should be enough to double the amount of starter, and each starter should be 1 part of water to 1 part of flour by weight or 1 part of water to 2 parts of flour by volume. It doesn't take a math degree to see that in short order you'll have a swimming pool full of starter, and that 12 hours after that you'll have two swimming pools full of starter. And that way lies madness. While a starter does mature and develop for some time, we don't need that sort of quantity of starter. Your main choices are to bake with the starter every day or so, or to discard part of your starter before feeding it. You can save the starter you discarded in the refrigerator and use it to make muffins, pancakes and other goodies.
After a while - some say a month, others say 3 months - your starter will be fully developed. And somewhere in that time frame, you will be sick of feeding the starter every day. There has to be a better way to maintain your starter! And that brings us back to the bottle of starter you put in the refrigerator. You can refrigerate starters, and they will maintain their vitality for some time. While the refrigerator slows the starter, it does not stop it, so you will still need to feed your starter, just not nearly as often.
When you think your starter is as developed as its going to get, or you are sick of feeding it twice a day, feed it one more time and put it into a canning jar, loosely seal the jar and put it into the refrigerator.
Maintaining your refrigerated starter - you should feed your starter about once a week to maintain its health. In some forums you'll hear about people who have left starter in the fridge for much longer periods, but that is asking for trouble. If your starter has a layer of liquid on it when you remove it from the fridge, the liquid is called hooch. As the name suggests, it has alcohol in it. Low-grade alcohol. Hooch is usually seen as a sign that the starter hasn't been fed enough. If you have less than an inch of hooch on your starter, stir it back into the starter and continue with this process. If you have more than an inch of hooch, pour it off and replace it with about the same amount of water. If your starter doesn't revive, we have a page about how to revive a starter which includes techniques for long neglected starters.
Some writers suggest feeding the starter once and putting it back into the fridge. This continues a slow death for the starter. I prefer to know that the starter I am putting back into the fridge is lively and healthy.
Put about 1/4 cup (about 70 grams) of the starter in a mixing bowl and whisk in 1/4 cup (60 grams) of water and 1/2 cup (60 grams) of flour. Loosely cover the bowl and set it aside.
Twelve hours later, add 1/2 cup (120 grams) of water and 1 cup (120 grams) of flour. Twelve hours later, discard half the starter and again add 1/2 cup (120 grams) of water and 1 cup (120 grams) of flour. Again cover loosely and set aside. Repeat this last step until the starter doubles in size between feedings. When you are there, repeat the feeding one more time and then put the starter into a canning jar immediately after the feeding.
What about vacations? If you are going on a short vacation, let's say less than a month, you can just leave the starter in the fridge. Beyond that, ask a friend to feed the starter for you every two weeks or so. Of course, you CAN take your starter with you and bake wherever you go. A friend was broken hearted when he realized he'd packed all his baking gear except his starter! He tends to bake wherever he goes, and you can too!
Using your refrigerated starter - To use your refrigerated starter, pull the jar out of the fridge, remove 1/4 cup (70 grams) of starter from the jar and put it into a mixing bowl. Cover the jar and put it back into the refrigerator. Then feed your starter twice a day, doubling its size with each feeding until the starter will rise to twice its size between feedings and you have enough starter to make the bread you are going to make. Since you are trying to increase the amount of starter you have, you don't want to discard any at the start of a feeding cycle. If you are mathematically inclined, you can calculate the amount of starter you will need, and how much starter to begin with to have the exact amount you need after four to six feedings (or two to three days).
Now, you should be ready to make our Sourdough English Muffin Bread.