Learning how to feed a sourdough starter takes time. The more you work with a starter, the better you’ll understand how to nurture and maintain it. I have been maintaining my personal sourdough starter since 2007—hard to believe it’s been 16 years—and in that time I’ve fed my starter in hotels, cars, airports, backyards, hotels and at friends’ houses.
The subject of sourdough maintenance is often misunderstood, and developing a deep, intuitive understanding of the process can take years of repetition. The good news is, the more you understand how and when to feed your starter, the better and more consistent your bread will be.
It can be helpful to use a logbook and regularly take notes on your starter feedings. You can be super detail-oriented and track times, water and room temperatures, or you can keep it nice and simple, just recording the feeding time and the inoculation. Both approaches are worthwhile as the data will help you determine what works best for your own sourdough starter.
If you plan to bake often, you should feed your starter daily. Many professional bakers feed their starter 2 to 3 times each day, but that’s typically unnecessary at home. If you do not bake often you can store your starter in the fridge, which will slow down the fermentation (more on this in the following sections).
Creating Your Sourdough Starter
The first step in learning how to feed a sourdough starter is, well, having a starter to feed! You can create your own starter from scratch or get some from a friend or local bakery. If you do not already have a starter, I recommend you check out my guide to creating a new sourdough starter WITHOUT any discard.
The process only takes about a week and there’s minimal hands-on time. In my experience, bakers who create their own sourdough starter from flour and water—as opposed to starting with discard from a friend or bakery—learn more about the process and a develop a better understanding of how to maintain their sourdough starter. There’s also just something magical about seeing the process from the get-go. I recommend all bakers try it at least once!
My number one tip? Use a scale and digital thermometer! I have been making and feeding starters for almost two decades and I still use a scale 99% of the time. It will help you be more accurate, in turn letting your sourdough culture thrive. A digital thermometer will help you be consistent and accurate with your feeds. It will also help you better understand your environment, allowing let you take good care of your starter.
Flour and Water Selection
Throughout my career, I’ve tried a wide variety of flours and flour combinations for managing and maintaining a healthy starter. I’ve consistently found that the best activity comes from a starter that is 90% high-protein organic bread flour and 10% whole rye, so that is what I use. The addition of rye really kicks up the enzymatic activity and provides extra sugars to be consumed during fermentation.
The exception to that is if you bake mostly 100% whole-grain bread. In that case, you might consider keeping a 100% rye starter. This can be used in bread like my 100% whole wheat sourdough or any other whole-grain dominant bread.
Regardless of what grains you use, I always recommend opting for high-quality flour. Organic, untreated and wholemeal flours are especially nutrient dense, meaning that they will help your wild yeast culture flourish.
As for water, the main variable to consider is that it’s clean. Lots of city water contains chlorine and chloramine. While this will work fine for baking with a healthy culture, it can slow down your wild yeast bacteria colony and inhibit growth.
Where to Store Your Starter
Over time and with regular maintenance, you will begin to really understand your environment. When storing your starter, the easiest place is on the counter in the kitchen. Seeing your starter is a great reminder that you need to feed it. You’ll also be able to notice changes in its activity and growth as you go about your day, which is a great way to enhance your understanding of fermentation.
Most kitchens have a warm place on top of the fridge, beside the stove or near a toaster. If none of these options work for you, take a look around your house and try to find a consistently warm place to leave your starter. A hygrometer can be handy in trying to figure out the best place to store it; they track a room’s humidity and temperature and can help you quickly understand your environment.
When I am planning to bake, I’ll often put the starter in my proofing box **INSERT AFFILATE LINK TO PROOFER**. This is another option to ensure it’s in an environment with consistent heat and humidity, introducing as few outside variables as possible.
If you don’t plan on baking often, you can store your sourdough starter in the fridge. This way, you’re not investing time and resources on keeping it active on a day-to-day basis. Here are some different situations in which you might want to store your sourdough starter in the fridge:
- If you only bake on weekends or bi-weekly.
- If you will be on vacation for more than 5 days.
- If you’re saving discard for sourdough discard baking. This is also a good way to back up your sourdough starter, just in case you forget to reserve some for the next bake.
If you’d like to store your sourdough starter in the fridge, simply feed it as normal and leave it out for 1 to 2 hours before putting it into the fridge. This helps the yeast to get a head start metabolizing sugars before things slow down significantly in the cold temperature. When you’d like to bake again, take the starter out of the fridge and leave it at room temperature for a few hours to warm up. Feed the starter 2 to 4 times before making your bread. This will ensure its activity is stable. mature and strong enough to leaven your dough.
When to Feed Your Starter
With time and practice, you will learn exactly what your starter needs and wants. Using an elastic band or tape to mark where your starter is on the jar is a great way to see how much rise you get. A healthy starter should double in volume before the next feed; a thriving starter should triple. When we get into more advanced sourdough breads like panettone, it is crucial to have a starter that can triple in a controlled time period.
Here are some tips on feeding your starter:
- Smell your starter after feeding and before mixing. As it develops, it will start to give off more acidic notes.
- Look for bubbles on the sides of the jar and the top of the starter. You may see large or small bubbles.
- When using glass, you will be able to see the “snail trail” of starter left on the sides of the jar as it becomes hungry (created as it slowly falls down and loses volume).
- When your starter is ready to bake with, it should have enough gas to allow it to float in water. Using wet fingers, pinch off a small piece of starter and drop it into a glass of water. If it floats it is ready and if it sinks it needs more time. However, some starters, especially those made with high percentages of whole grains, will not float, so keep that in mind especially if you’re working with a 100% whole-grain starter.
- Taste your starter or test the pH. Just touching a small amount of starter to your tongue will allow you to taste the acidity and determine when it is ready to be used or fed. It most not be the most delicious thing in the world, but your baking will be better for it.
- When I really push my starter to its peak with a warm temperature, I find it smells faintly of eggs with a lactic (sort of like yogurt) undertone. This is when I know I will get the most activity out of the starter and often when I bake my best loaves.
When to Use Your Starter
The point at which you incorporate your starter into a dough has a significant affect on the flavour of your bread. A ripe, ready-to-use sourdough starter will smell acidic, have a bit of a shine, be light and airy and have a texture somewhat similar to whipped cream.
When you first start baking sourdough breads, I recommend using the same schedule and the same mixing times to get a good understanding of your sourdough starter. Once you have been baking and working with the starter for a while you can start to adjust your schedules to achieve various outcomes in the final loaf.
For example, when visiting Tartine Bakery, I learned that they use a slightly underripe starter in an attempt to “catch” it on the way up. The outcome is a sweeter tasting bread. When using a starter slightly before its peak you may need to do a longer fermentation or use a warmer bulk fermentation temperature to compensate.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you would like more sourness in your bread you can let your starter ferment longer, but be careful not to let it over ferment and begin to fall on the sides. If you develop too much acidity in your starter, this will start to break down your doughs, creating a very sour bread.