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Sourdough Starter Primer

In this page, and its associated pages - our sourdough starter primer - I'll try to give a complete overview of starting, maintaining, using, storing and reviving sourdough starters. These pages are largely based on the most frequent questions I receive through these web pages.

A good bit of the material here is recycled from other pages on this site, but rearranged, reedited, and re-purposed with the goal of making it more accessible. So, if you think you've read this before, you probably have.

Sourdough starter is, of course, at the heart of sourdough baking. Because of that, there is more folklore, misinformation, and anxiety surrounding sourdough starter than almost any other topic I can think of. Some people get so carried away with their starter you'd think the starter was the point of sourdough instead of just being a tool you need to make sourdough bread. Remember, the bread is the goal, the starter is just the way there.

With these pages, I hope that many of the questions I receive often will be laid to rest.

Long ago and far away, my son David, was taking martial arts classes. It was finally time for David to spar and a student who wasn't nearly David's mopped the floor with him.  His teacher, Sensei John, noticed David was so worked up he forgot to breathe, or held his breath the whole time.  Sensei John was a very wise person, and counseled David to "Remember to breathe."

It was good advice. When we obsess, we forget other things. Like, well, breathing. Not breathing produces its own stress.  And then we make mistakes. The point I'm trying to make is that sourdough shouldn't be an anxiety producing experience. It IS easy. Preliterate people made sourdough. People have been using sourdough for between six and ten thousand years without having any understanding of what sourdough is or how it works. You have so much going for you that they didn't that there is no doubt in my mind that you can use sourdough also. So, calm down, remember to breathe and have a good time.

I suggest you go through the different sub pages in order. Each covers a separate phase in the life cycle of sourdough starter - starting a starter, maintaining a starter, storing a starter, reviving a starter and - most important of all - using a starter.

In each of these pages my goal is to offer a very focused look at one phase in the life cycle of sourdough starters. These pages are as focused as I can make them. They have been molded by the problems I've had, the problems baker friends have had and the problems that people who visited the site have had. They answer the questions that I am most often asked. The intended audience is the practical baker rather than a graduate student in microbiology. Please let me know how you like these new pages!

There are as many ways of handling sourdough as there are sourdough bakers. How you handle sourdough depends on the results you want. I find that the rules below are great starting points for new sourdough bakers, and they express the underlying theme that relates to how I usually handle sourdough starter. In the past few days I've finally codified them into three guidelines, with minor explanations, and have printed them here so there will be no doubt about how I use sourdough. Just about every question I receive about sourdough starters can be traced to not understanding these three guidelines. Really. No, REALLY!

  1. Sourdough starter at room temperature must be fed no less than twice a day. If you feed it less than twice a day, it will lose vitality and eventually become useless and die.
  2. Each feeding of the starter should be enough to double its size.
    1. Some people keep feeding the starter the same amount each time they feed it. That's like feeding a puppy 1/2 cup of dog food a day. Even when he's grown to become a 120 pound Great Dane. How much organisms should eat depends, in part, on their size. That is why you discard starter while you're maintaining it - to keep the volume of starter manageable.
    2. If you keep doubling the size of your starter, in 10 days you'll have enough to fill a swimming pool. And 12 hours later, you'll have enough to fill two swimming pools. So, before you feed the starter, take half of your starter and set it aside. You may discard it, or you may save it for other projects like making biscuits, pancakes, cakes, pizza shells. But even throwing it away is less wasteful than continuing to double the size of your starter.
  3. Each feeding should be equal amounts of water and flour, by weight. You can use about 1 part of water to 2 parts of flour by volume as an approximation.

Now go and read some more and then go make some sourdough starter!