Sourdough starter is a living colony of natural good bacteria and yeast that is used to leaven sourdough bread and other baked goods. Because it is essentially a living thing, you have to take care of it to maintain a healthy sourdough starter. 🤍
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First, learn how to make your sourdough starter using nothing but water, flour and time!
Caring For Sourdough Starter
After you have made your sourdough starter, you have to care for your little colony of natural yeast and bacteria so that it stays happy and healthy. Generally speaking, the older your starter gets, the more healthy and strong it will be as long as you take care of it regularly. If you properly take care of your little fridge pet, you can keep sourdough starter alive and well for years.
WHAT TO FEED
To keep your sourdough starter healthy, you must feed it. Feeding flour and water allows the bacteria to feed off of and ferment the carbs in the flour, creating the bubbles and alcohol present in the healthy active starter. This is what makes the starter sour and gives your baked goods the token sourdough flavor.
Water - Use filtered or distilled water when you can so you do not introduce other compounds that can harm the bacteria in the starter.
Flour - The flour you use can vary. Just because you used a certain type to make the starter or feed last week, does not mean that you cannot use another flour later. NOTE: a lot of people opt to feed whole wheat flour because of its higher natural enzyme content.
How much flour and water you feed will depend on the amount of starter you have. 1:1:1 is a good place to start (meaning if you have 1/2 cup of starter, feed 1/2 cup of flour AND 1/2 cup water. If you find your starter is a bit runny or dry after feeding this, adjust the amount of water added. The starter should be the consistency of a thick pancake batter after feeding. I know this sounds very variable, but trust me, you will quickly learn how to feed your sourdough and what the consistency should be. 😊
Because your sourdough starter is alive, you will need to feed it when it is hungry. You can tell it is hungry when liquid starts to gather on the surface. The liquid will smell like alcohol and is the byproduct of the bacteria fermenting the flour. Once your starter is established and at least 2 weeks old, if you are not baking everyday (like most of us), you can keep your mature starter in the fridge in an airtight container. The cold temperatures slow down the bacteria's activity so it will take longer for them to ferment the last feeding meaning you can wait longer between feedings.
There is no strict schedule of when to you must feed, because it is depends on how hungry and active your starter is, but a good rule is to feed sourdough starter that has been in the fridge once a week to make sure it stays healthy. Feeding this often and keeping it in the fridge may mean that you don't ever really see the alcohol film on the surface -- that is fine! You can't really over-feed on this schedule -- you mainly want to worry about underfeeding so that the bacteria doesn't die.
HOW TO FEED
For starter that has been in the fridge, remove it from the refrigerator and allow it to warm up to room temperature before feeding. I take mine out in the morning and feed in the evening just before bed.
When your starter is at room temperature, feed your starter as noted above with flour and water. Stir the flour and water into the starter until smooth, cover with a tea towel or cheese cloth and leave out on the counter until it is active and ready to bake with. If you are not going to bake, simply feed, stir and return to the fridge.
GETTING READY TO BAKE
About 12-24 hours after feeding your starter, the starter should be healthy and active. There should be lots of bubbles throughout and it should have doubled (or more) in size from right after you fed. An easy test to see if your starter is active and ready for baking is to do the "float test"-- take a small amount of your starter out and place into a cup of water, if it sinks, it is not quite ready; if it floats, it is active and ready!
I make some kind of sourdough recipe every weekend so my routine is to take Sergio (my sourdough starter) out of the fridge Friday morning so he gets all warmed up and bubbly. Then I feed him Friday evening and leave him covered with a tea towel overnight. By Saturday morning he is all active and ready to use. Try my Sourdough English Muffins or Sourdough Loaf recipes!
After using your starter to make your dough, you can feed it again and leave it on the counter, or put it back in the fridge for a week before the next feeding. Remember to close the airtight lid to your jar before placing back in the fridge.
OTHER TIPS FOR TAKING CARE OF SOURDOUGH STARTER
In general, it is a good idea to use only ceramic, glass and wooden bowls, containers and stirring utensils with starter. Metal and plastic containers have been known to harm the bacteria in the starter.
If it is winter or chilly in your house, feed using warm water to kickstart the fermentation process.
If you need to leave your starter unfed for a longer period of time, you can dehydrate your starter and leave it in an airtight container at room temperature pretty much indefinitely. Simply spread active starter out on parchment paper for a few days until it is totally dry. To rehydrate, powder the dehydrated starter and feed with equal parts water and flour. Repeat a few times until the starter is active again.
If you are getting too much sourdough starter and/or just want to be feeding less flour each week, you can use the un-fed or "discard" starter to make recipes that do not require a rise -- like this Sourdough Flatbread Pizza or these Sourdough Discard Crackers!
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Find sourdough recipes in the Food & Drink blog section.
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What did you name your sourdough starter? Tell me in the comments!