Read any number of baking forums that discuss baking sourdough bread and you might get the idea that keeping a sourdough starter is rather like keeping a pet. Granted, it takes far less care than a cat, and far more than a pet rock. A gold fish, perhaps. A gold fish that, inevitably, once you’ve fed and tended it for awhile, you’ll eventually bake up and eat. Disturbing as that may seem, it still doesn’t change the fact that plenty of bakers actually refer to their starters with pet names. Maybe we’ve just been inhaling too much flour.

The pet metaphor really isn’t such a far stretch. Sourdough starter is comprised of yeast, which actually belongs to the fungi family, and lactobacillus bacteria. The lactobacillus provides the sour tang while the gasses given off by yeast as they digest the carbohydrates in flour provide the leavening action for bread. Both are living organisms that require fresh food and water on a regular basis. How often they require these things depends upon temperature and your personal collection of little beasties. Typically a starter that is kept on the counter will need to be fed daily, if not twice daily. Some bakers really go wild and feed their starter three times a day. A starter kept in the fridge can go a week or more, and one that has been frozen can go for a long time without care, indeed.

I keep my starter in the refrigerator when I am not planning to bake for a week or more. I feed it, give it a short rest of an hour or so on the counter, and then toss it in. I take it out about two days before I’m ready to bake and feed it once. Half goes back in the refrigerator for safe keeping and half remains on the counter to be built up into the amount of starter that I need for whatever I’m baking.
The starter to the left was fed about 12 hours ago. It is full of bubbles and has risen in its container. This means it is starting to run out of food, and it is time to feed it. If I had wanted to use it, it would have been best used at about the 8 hour mark, when it was at the peak of activity.

Whenever you feed your starter you want to double the amount that you currently have. In the case of a liquid, 100% hydration starter, that means combining old starter, flour, and water in equal amounts. The best way to do this is to weigh your ingredients. To avoid ending up with exponentially larger amounts of starter you can keep a portion and either discard the rest or give it to a friend. Here, I kept 3 ounces of my ripe starter.

To my starter I added 3oz of water and 3oz of flour. It is important to weigh your ingredients in order to maintain the proper percentage of hydration. If you add 1 cup of water and 1 cup of flour, you are actually making a roughly 50% hydration starter, which is much thicker and which will act differently in recipes. Some recipes do start with a lower-hydration “firm” starter, but I find that the liquid starter is easier for me, personally, to work with and I can always change the hydration as I elaborate (feed and increase its volume) it before using.

As an important note, make sure you use a big enough container for your starter. You want a container that is at least three, and preferably four, times the volume of the starter you wish to maintain. As a starter ripens it will double, and sometimes triple in size. I have had my starter crest the top of my container once, and on another occasion it was particularly active and pushed its lid off before oozing all over the counter. Speaking of lids, be sure to vent your lid if you are leaving it on the counter. I usually just rest my lid loosely on top, but you can also cover your container with cheesecloth and a rubber band or a loose covering of plastic film wrap. You want it to be able to vent the gasses it is releasing while at the same time keeping it from drying out too much or having things fall in. Scrape down the sides of your container after mixing to keep smeared portions from drying out.

Most importantly, keep in mind that you are creating a choice environment for bacteria – make sure everything you are using is in pristinely clean condition so as to not inoculate your starter with something you don’t want. A healthy, uncontaminated starter should smell sour, with a hint of beer-like odor. The smell will be considerably stronger with a rye starter. It is not unusual for starter to separate into a flour paste and a liquid “hooch” if it hasn’t been fed recently, don’t worry. Just stir it all together, discard half and feed the other half.

As you can see a freshly fed starter has a distinctly different texture than ripe starter. It is somewhat more past-like. This is even pronounced with a rye starter. As a white flour starter ripens it changes texture. It becomes more glossy looking and thins out. The gluten strands form, even without kneading, and it becomes stretchy. The texture of a rye starter is different. Due to its density the bubbles may not reach the top, which does smooth out some, but not as much as a white flour starter. Rather than becoming more elastic, my rye starter tends to become “fluffy” and you can hear bubbles popping when it is stirred.

In addition to being kept on the counter, in the refrigerator, or frozen starter can also be dried. You can buy packets of dried starter from many retailers. Eric over at Breadtopia.com has an excellent video on how to dry your starter.

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8 Comments on My Starter, My Pet

  1. Chris says:

    Where did you get your starter – did you do it from scratch? I had a fab starter years ago (given to me) and made the mistake of ditching it during a move. I’ve never been able to get a starter going since then – it always smells like rotten cheese. I’ve noticed that filtered water seems to be best for it. I will have to check out the packets of dried starter to get going again.

    Great post!

    • SulaBlue says:

      I have two starters.

      One is a rye starter that I got going from scratch. Like yourself, up until then I’d never had the best of luck with getting one going. The method I finally found that work is to use citrus juice (I used orange, rather than pineapple) per “The Pineapple Juice Solution” that is mentioned in my post “Getting ‘Started’” I haven’t really noticed a difference between filtered water and tap water. I alternate, somewhat randomly, between the two. I have heard that rye is easier to get going because it has more of the “wild yeast” on its surface as well as a different carbohydrate mixture.

      My other starter, which I use more often, is a white flour starter. I bought this one from the bakery at Whole Foods of all places. It’s not something they advertise, but many bakeries have such a large quantity of liquid starter around that they would be happy to sell you a cup or so for a couple of dollars. It certainly beat the price that King Arthur Four wanted, which was $6.95 plus shipping and, as I knew it had just been fed that morning, it was ready to go the next day.

      • Chris says:

        Never even thought about hitting up a bakery – great idea! Thanks!

        • SulaBlue says:

          Just be sure to take a big container. When I went to WF they had fed their starter a few hours before I got there. They filled up one of their bulk food containers for me, rather than using the container I’d brought with me. I, not thinking about this, simply wrapped a rubber band around it for extra security and dropped it in a plastic bag.

          By time I got home, the lid was bulging. Ooooopsie! Thankfully I’d had the sense not to make any other stops on the way home, even though I’d gotten my starter first thing in the door and then continued shopping. You know how it is at Whole Foods. You go in, they’re sampling every cheese in the cheese section. It’s a sale day. An hour and a half later you finally emerge wondering where your day’s gone…

  2. MsBlue's Man says:

    For the record, she calls her starter ‘Mr. Yeasty’.

  3. Noni says:

    I have been a silent reader of The Fresh Loaf for several months now and your posts always seemed to get my attention. I came to this site to see your Chritmas bread and had to read about your starter.
    I made mine from russet potato, KA unbleached flour,sugar, and well water last October 11th.
    I make bread, various cakes, cookies, brownies, biscuits, waffles, and pancakes so far and they have all turned out great!
    This old senior citizen is having a blast with my new “friend”.
    I haven’t read of anyone else trying the same starter recipe as mine.
    Mine sets on the counter and I did feed it once a day, but recently started feeding it two times and it has really perked up.
    I did take a small amount and refrigerated it and tend it once a week. I did this just to see if my starter would still work doing so and it is doing fine.
    Your postings are informative without going too scientific for me. For that I thank you. I’m just an old country cook and baker but fairly new to working with sourdough.

    • SulaBlue says:

      Noni,

      Thank you for your comments! I’m glad you enjoy my posts.

      Your starter sounds really interesting. I bet the potato gave it a real bit of push when it was first starting. Do you continue to give it any potato, or do you just feed it flour and water now?

      Keeping some of your starter separate in the fridge is a great idea. It’s always good to have a “backup” just in case something happens to the starter you have on the counter. One just never knows what can happen with other people living in the house, for example!

      Speaking of waffles, I think I might make some sourdough gingerbread waffles again this weekend! As usual, I’m one ingredient short though as I’m out of crystalized ginger!

  4. Noni says:

    I got the starter recipe from the internet.
    Once a day I feed it flour, water, and a pinch of sugar. The other feed is just flour and water. I still use cup and spoon measures but it is like a thick but kind of bubbly creamy texture.
    I use the King Arthur Flour belguim waffle recipe and add vanilla and cinnamon. Since there is just 2 of us I bake all of the batter off and freeze it. When we want some in a hurry I just warm them in the waffle iron. They taste just like when first baked.
    We just had cheddar/garlic biscuits that my son said topped his favorites from Red Lobster. I made a tomato gravy to put over them one time and sloppy joes another time.
    Our shih tzus’ beg for anything sourdough.
    The brownies are so fudgy and wonderful and then again the peanut butter cookies are nice and crunchy and very light and melt in your mouth.
    You can tell that I’m having a ball with my sourdough!

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