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I am about to share with you my observations over the past 3 years, since I have started making my own sourdough bread at home.
Every starter is unique, so my advice is to treat the information that follows with a pinch of salt. Some aspects might slightly vary in your case.
This could happen due to a number of factors. You use different flours, your kitchen temperature is different to mine or the type of climate in your area is different. Ultimately the wild yeasts and bacteria in your home and on your hands are unique to you.
MY SOURDOUGH STARTER MAINTENANCE ROUTINE
My sourdough starter is a white wheat, fed exclusively with strong white flour, the equivalent of bread flour in other parts of the world.
I am not baking every day, maybe every 2nd or 3rd day. I store my starter in the fridge and only take it out for feeding before preparing a new dough.
My fridge temperature is set at 6°C/42.8°F.
🌾I would typically remove the starter from the fridge 1-2h before feeding, let it come at room temperature first. But it also happens that I sometimes forget and that’s ok. It can also be fed straight from the fridge.
🌾The feeding ratio I use most of the time is 1:4:4, which would peak in 6-8h, at 22-24°C the average temperature in my kitchen.
This is what works best for my baking schedule, but at the same time, it gives me the sourness I prefer in both the starter, but also the bread I make.
During SUMMER when the temperature in my kitchen would go beyond 26°C/ 79°F, the starter peaks much faster, in around 4-5h.
To cope with the high temperature and stick to more or less the same baking schedule, I delay the starter feeding.
In WINTER the temperature in my kitchen would stay around 21°C / 70°F, maybe 1-2° less at night time.
In this instance, I would use warm water for feeding, at 36°C / 96.8°F for feedings. Same 1:4:4 ratio.
The other thing that helps me on really cold days, is keeping the ratio lower and carrying more starter to the feeding, a 1:2:2 ratio instead.
I can only advise you to try it yourself with your own starter to find the right balance – there is no wrong or right as long as you use it at the right time.
MY TYPICAL FEEDING SCHEDULE
🌾I feed the starter at night, which means it will be ripe by the morning. I make the dough first thing in the day. In this case, the dough will proof ambient for 2-3hours, on the counter and be baked the same day.
This feeding ratio won’t work in summer as temperature goes up and fermentation will happen much quicker.
🌾I feed the starter in the morning, and will be ready late afternoon (around 4/5pm) to make the dough. In this case the dough will proof overnight in the fridge and be baked the next morning. During summer I would probably feed my starter around 10 – 11 AM instead, as it will peak much faster.
In both scenarios bulk fermentation happens at room temperature, before the final proofing above mentioned.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
🌾Can I keep the starter on the counter?
Yes you can, but this means regular daily feedings.
If you bake daily, keeping the starter on the counter makes sense, just make sure you feed it often enough. Especially in warm environments it can over ferment and become more sour than you might like it to be.
If you bake couple of times a week or once a week, best to move the starter in the fridge. You would only take it out when you want to make bread.
🌾If I keep the starter in the fridge, do I need to feed it before returning it to the fridge?
No, that should not be needed. You can just return to the fridge what’s left after you’ve used the amount you needed to prepare the dough.
Say you had 150g of starter in your jar at the fermentation peak, and you have used 100g to make the dough. You can just return the 50g back to the fridge.
However, if you have very little left, say 10-15g and you plan it to leave it unfed for longer than a week, I would advise to give it another feed, let it ferment on the counter, before returning it to the fridge. 10-15g leftover should be fine if you feed it every couple of days.
🌾What does the feeding ratio mean?
This is the ratio between the starter you carryover and the water and flour you use for feeding.
1:1:1 = 1 quantity of starter to 1 quantity of water to 1 quantity of flour = equal quantities of each
1. What is the best feeding ratio?
There is no such thing as the best feeding ratio, it’s what works best for your schedule. Couple of rules for guidance though
2. The lower the feeding ratio, the quicker it will ferment. A feeding ratio of 1:1:1 (equal quantities of starter, water & flour) is a lower ratio to 1:4:4 (1 qty starter to 4 quantities of water to 4 quantities of flour). Keep this in mind when planning. In essence the less starter you use compared to the amount of ‘food’ you give it, the longer it will take to finish it.
3.The warmer in your kitchen, the quicker it will ferment (yeast loves warm environments). And the other way around. With the same feeding ratio, let’s say a 1:4:4, your starter can peak in 4-5h in summertime or in 7-8h in winter time.
4.The type of flour you feed your starter with will also impact fermentation speed – the richer in enzymes (e.g wholemeal vs bread / strong white flour), the faster it will ferment.
5.Good to know as well. The higher the ratio and the longer the fermentation of your starter, the more of a sour profile this will have. And the more sour your bread will be too.
6. If you feed your starter with less water to the amount of flour, which will result in a stiffer starter, the fermentation will be slower than when it’s fed to the same quantity of water and flour. Yeasts and bacteria don’t only love warm, but also humid environments.
7. If you want to keep your starter on the counter, I advise you feed it every 12h, possibly in a ratio of 1:5:5 (in winter), higher than that in summer when fermentation speed will be increased by the temperature. If you want to feed it once a day or more times a day, it’s a matter of changing the feeding ratio. However if you don’t bake daily, I would advise to store the starter in the fridge to avoid as much as you can waste.
🌾How do I recognise the starter has reached its peak?
It’s the moment when your starter stops rising in volume, and you can see it starts going backwards. It’s collapsing / sinking down. Not all starters will show this sign, but most will do. This video will help you visualise it.
Why is that?
Couple of things happen during fermentation:
– the gluten network develops
– yeast produces CO2, which will then be trapped in the gluten network, giving the visible bubbles in your starter and the increase in volume
– bacteria does its magic too, producing the lactic acid which gives the flavour and the odour of both your starter, and ultimately your bread
However, there is one point, which is the fermentation peak, when the dome will *most likely* start disappearing
– the yeast would have finished its food and won’t produce any more CO2. This is the moment when the increase in volume will stop.
– the gluten network starts weakening too, and the starter/dough will start losing its shape
Once the peak has passed, the starter will then start collapsing and losing volume (this is the point is getting hungry again and it’s suitable to make the dough with).
That is the best moment to use it, or within 1-2h of that proved to be my sweet spot (while still on the counter). Sometimes even more, if you have a rather cool kitchen. If you can’t use it at its peak, you can move it in the fridge, it will still be ok to use it within 24-48h.
🌾What if I don’t bake that often or I go on holiday?
If you bake once a week or every now & then, make sure you store your starter in the fridge. In this instance, you might want to give your starter 2 feeds in a row before using it.
If you go on holiday, give it a feed right before you go. Leave it on the counter until it starts to increase in volume, when you can move it to the fridge. I do give it a bit more flour than water (20g starter, 70g water, 80g flour) as this will slow down fermentation.
Your starter can be left in the fridge without being fed for a long time, and will come back to life after a couple of feeds. However, if your starter is rather young, say a couple of weeks old, try to give it regular feedings until the culture establishes.
When left in the fridge unfed for a longer period of time, a watery layer called ‘hooch’ will appear on its surface. Do not panic, this is a sign that your starter has over fermented and it’s now hungry. Just remove/drain it before you feed your starter again. You can also stir it in, but your starter will be more acidic & your dough/bread will be more sour. Check this video to see how the hooch can look like
🌾Do I have to discard?
Yes, otherwise you will end up with an unmanageable amount of starter. Not only this, but also the starter will start becoming more and more acidic. The discard should not be fed again.
🌾How to avoid discard and minimise waste?
Good planning is key. I always work out backwards the quantities at feeding, based on two things.
- The feeding ratio (which will give the fermentation speed and profile of the starter)
- The final amount of ripe starter I need to make the dough
Let’s say I want to go for a 1:4:4 feeding ratio and I need 100g of ripe starter.
I then do: 15g starter +60g water +60g flour = 135g.
I use 100g to make the dough, the rest will go back to the fridge unfed.
🌾How can I use the sourdough starter discard if I end up with some?
There are lots of recipes available on Google, I will post some of mine here too at some point. Some examples though: sourdough pancakes, sourdough focaccia, sourdough bread sticks, crumpets, waffles. Basically anything 🙂
🌾How to dry my starter?
Using a spatula, spread thinly on parchment paper and let it dry at room temperature for anything between 24-72h. How quickly it dries depends entirely on the room temperature and humidity. Video here.
🌾Can I use a different flour for feeding?
Absolutely yes, this won’t be a problem. Any flour that you would use for baking, it can also be used to feed your starter. You can go back to your flour as soon as you get some of it. Or you might actually notice your starter is much happier with the new one. You can never know.
🌾My starter does not pass the float test, should I be worried?
While the float test is widely used to test sourdough starter readiness, it’s not 100% the case that it will float. A rye starter which doesn’t trap as much gas as a white wheat starter, may never float. And this doesn’t mean it can’t be used and you won’t make great loaves with it.
The same for a young starter. It may not float, but be super bubbly and rise in volume for 3-4 consecutive feeds. Be confident, and give it a go. Other than the float test, there are other signs that your starter is healthy. Lots of bubbles, increase in volume, sour smell and flavour, aerated consistency.
🌾Can a starter be gluten free?
Yes, it can be gluten free. However I have never tried making one and I won’t be able to advise on how to do it.
🌾How do I know I’ve killed my starter?
If you discover mold on your starter, there is no way around it and you’ll have to bin it. Consuming mouldy food can cause illnesses, and you don’t want to mess around with these things. I am no expert in the consequences of this, but I would not advise trying to revive your starter. Once it’s contaminated, there is no turn around.
Mold can show up in different colours (green, grey, black), usually fuzzy in appearance. Pinkish streaks are the signs of bad bacteria that has contaminated your starter.
Young starters are more likely to develop mould if unfed for a longer period of time. Their defence system is not yet fully developed as it is for a mature healthy starter. The good bacteria which is more resistant to contamination is not yet fully developed. If your starter is young, try to not leave it for too long unfed.
🌾Why does mould appear on my starter?
It can happen for a couple of reason:
- Dishwashing liquid or food residues on the utensils or jar, which has not been cleaned properly
- It might sound rough, but dirty hands can be a source for mold development
- Proximity to fruit, vegetables that get mold on
- Contaminated flour or water that has been contaminated from the container it’s been sat before using it
- Applicable to a young starter – when it has been left unfed for too long
🌾How do I clean your sourdough starter jar?
Where I can, I avoid putting it in the dishwasher or use dishwashing liquid to clean it. I soak it in water first and then gently clean it with water only.
🌾I don’t have a sourdough starter
You can make one from scratch, check this article of mine.