The first step to making delicious sourdough bread is feeding and maintaining an active sourdough starter. While it can seem intimidating at first, I hope that this tutorial on how to feed sourdough starter shows you just how simple it really is.
The number one objection I hear to making sourdough is that it takes so much time.
It’s true that my sourdough sandwich bread recipe is a two day process, it’s almost entirely hands off, with “proofing” taking the majority of it.
Feeding sourdough starter is no different.
You’ll spend under five minutes doing the actual feeding, and the rest is just a jar sitting on the countertop, growing bubbly, yeasty levain.
The second objection is that it’s complicated. I think the length of the process can make it seem complicated, and that’s why it’s important to break the process down into simple steps like this.
When I was a kid, we lived in an Amish community, and our whole community used the same starter. It wasn’t religious or anything like that, it’s just how it happened. You know how it is, “oops, I accidentally baked all my starter, can you save some for me next time you feed yours?”
Anyhow, our sourdough starter was potato fed, and that was a time consuming starter involving boiling and mashing potatoes.
What I didn’t know at the time was that a potato starter can be converted to a flour starter, and while that potato-fed starter made really good bread, so does flour, and it’s a whole lot easier to maintain.
Flour-only starter is all I do now, as a busy mom who needs something that doesn’t take a lot of time. If I want a potato-fed starter, I’ll double my current starter, take off half, and feed that potatoes so I don’t have to maintain it after I make whatever it is I want the potato starter for.
Why use sourdough?
There are many different reasons why you might want to bake sourdough bread, stemming from different motivations,
One is the nutrition aspect. Sourdough helps breakdown the gluten and other hard to digest nutrients in grains, and makes the bread easier to digest. Some sources also say sourdough bread has a lower glycemic index.
Other reasons are food independence (not relying on commercial yeast availability), connection to heritage, superior flavor, or a love of baking science. For me, it’s a combination of all of those things.
What is sourdough starter?
Sourdough starter is simply a live fermented culture of lactic acid bacteria, and wild yeasts. These bacteria feed on the carbohydrates in the flour when mixed with water. This starter culture is the foundation of your sourdough baked goods.
Why feeding sourdough starter matters.
Sourdough is a live culture. When it runs out of food to eat (the carbohydrates in your flour), it goes dormant. Between feedings, we usually put our starter in the refrigerator to slow down the bacteria growth so that it can go longer between feedings. (starter at room temperature will need to be fed every day, whereas starter in the fridge will well for a week, and less ideally, several weeks.)
To bring it out of dormancy, or wake it up, you need to add more carbohydrates for it to consume.
This is called “activating” your starter. And it’s this active starter that you want to bake with.
Feeding is very important for keeping your starter healthy, and multiplying it so that you’ll have more to feed for next time.
Where to get sourdough starter
If you don’t have sourdough starter already, there are a number of options to go with here.
- Try your Facebook friends. Odds are pretty good one of them will have some to share.
- Order dried starter from Zourdough on Etsy.
What you need for feeding sourdough starter.
- Sourdough starter
- Non-chlorinated water (this is important as the chlorine in tap water can kill starter bacteria).
- Kitchen scale
Another item that is nice to have is a sharpie, or a rubber band that will fit around your jar. You would use this to mark the level of your sourdough starter at the time of feeding, so you can easily see how much it has risen.
How to Feed Sourdough Starter
There are, not surprisingly, different schools of thought on the the “right way” to feed sourdough.
Should you use whole wheat flour? all purpose flour? Bread flour? What about rye flour?
Should you make your starter thinner, or thicker?
As you become an advanced sourdough baker, you may starter to experiment with different ingredients like this.
But there’s a basic standard that almost all bakers agree on: 1:1:1.
That is equal parts sourdough starter, flour, and water.
We use ratios rather than exact measures, because everybody has a different amount of starter they need to feed.
So for instance, if you have 100 grams of starter, feeding it would look like this:
- 100 grams of starter
- 100 grams of water
- 100 grams of flour
Mix together and let culture at room temperature for 2-4 hours (this varies depending on the temperature of the room, and how active your starter is when you feed it) until starter has about doubled in size. You should see at least some bubbles throughout the starter. You will know your starter has peaked and is ready to bake with when a spoonful will float in water.
These are measured by weight, not volume as the three have very different volume to weight ratios. This is why we need a kitchen scale. That said, I have often fed my sourdough starter by “eyeballing” it because I know how how thick the fed starter should feel when I have the correct ratios, and you will too after you’ve fed it a few times.
The Float Test
One of the main reasons you see a lot of recipes where water is added to the bowl, and then sourdough starter before other ingredients in sourdough recipe is “the float test”.
Very simply, the best indicator for your sourdough starter being at peak activity, is if it floats in water.
The floating is a result of the gasses trapped in the starter.
You don’t have to add your whole starter to know if it’s ready, just a teaspoon dropped in a cup of water will do.
What about removing the discard?
Many methods start by discarding half of the sourdough starter before feeding,
To be honest, I think this is a ridiculous waste. Why save more starter than you need to feed? It doesn’t really make sense.
Now if you bake with your discard, feel free to save extra, and do that. But otherwise, more and more bakers will agree that discarding is unnecessary.
For me, after I feed my starter and let it come to peak, I feed it again, then immediately take out 185-200 grams and store it in the fridge for next time.
That said, you may end up with more starter than you need for your recipe. If that’s the case, you can look into sourdough discard recipes to use it on (you can also store it in the fridge until you’re ready to make those discard recipes). Sourdough discard pancakes, crackers, banana bread, muffins, and tortillas are very popular sourdough discard recipes.
How to store sourdough starter
The whole point of sourdough starter is that you don’t use it all – you always take some out to feed again when you’re ready to do more baking.
After you’ve fed the starter and let it come to peak, you’re ready to bake. At this point, take out your sourdough starter for next time, feed it again, and immediately put it in a jar in the refrigerator where it will slowly consume the carbohydrates in the new feeing until you’re ready to take it out and reactivate it.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Do I have to feed my starter every time I use it?
Yes. You need active starter to bake with. If you use a dormant, unfed starter, the best case scenario is that your baked goods take a very long time to rise, but more likely, your starter will be overwhelmed and fail.
Can I use measuring cups if I don’t have a scale?
Yes and no. Water, flour, and starter do not have the same weight to volume ratio, so you can’t just add a cup of each and call it good. But you can estimate. Keep in mind that it’s really, really hard to kill sourdough starter. it’s very forgiving. So if you don’t have a scale, I definitely recommend getting one, but I also still recommend playing with sourdough. Just try to estimate using the same amount of flour as starter, and add enough water to make it stiff, but stirable.
How long can I refrigerate my starter between feedings?
I would recommend feeding it every week. However, it can go much longer. I keep a backup starter in my fridge (in case I forget to take starter out of my fed starter and bake it all up), and have gone up to two months between feeds with it. In that case, you’ll likely want to feed it at least twice before using to get it active, as well as tone down the acid.
Why does my starter have liquid on top?
This is called “hooch” and it means your starter is hungry. If the water has turned gray, I would recommend pouring it off, because it will taste extra strong. If you like that strong flavor though, you can just proceed with feeding as normal.
What is the best flour for feeding sourdough starter?
Probably the most versatile starter is a white flour starter. You can feed whole wheat, part whole wheat, or part rye if you want to, but all purpose white flour or bread flour is very good.
I should note that bread flour results in baked goods with more structure, which makes them chewier, while All purpose flour yields more tender breads.
Whether you use organic or not is up to you.
What is the best jar for feeding starter?
A lot of professional bakers use plastic tubs. Some folks use pretty jars.
I use a canning jar. Or a (cleaned out) salsa jar, which is nice because it has a wide mouth.
It’s a matter of preference.
The important thing is that you keep the lid loose to allow gas to escape.Print
How to Feed Sourdough starter
A simple tutorial for how to feed sourdough starter to keep it active and ready for baking.
- Sourdough starter
- Filtered/chlorine-free water
- Digital scale
- Weigh sourdough starter. I do this by weighing an empty quart jar, zeroing out my scale, and then putting my identical quart jar with the sourdough starter in it on the scale. This tells me how many grams of starter are in the jar
- Zero out scale again, and add equal amounts of flour and warm water. For instance, if you have 200 grams of starter, add 200 grams of flour, and 200 grams of water
- Stir together well, and scrape down sides of jar with a rubber spatula
- mark starter level with a sharpie or rubber band placed at the same level as the starter. This will allow you to see how much the starter rises
- Cover, either with a cloth, or loosely with the lid and let sit at room temperature for 2-4 hours
- Starter should become bubbly, and rise at least a little bit
- To test whether your starter is ready to bake with, test it by placing a teaspoon of starter in a bowl or cup of water. If it floats, it’s ready.
- Remove the amount you need for your recipe, and refeed the rest and place in the refrigerator for next time.
You can use all purpose flour, bread flour, whole wheat flour, rye flour, or a blend of your preferred flours. I usually use all purpose flour for my basic weekly needs.
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