Feeding and Maintaining Your Sourdough Starter
I think it goes without saying that the most daunting part of having a sourdough starter is the thought of keeping the dang thing alive, right?! Who's with me?! When I first started my sourdough journey, I felt like I was paddling in dark seas. I had a million questions...looking back, I think I overcomplicated the whole process, which is easy to do with the emphasis that social media has put on the art of sourdough. Take my word- it's not complicated to feed and maintain your sourdough starter, not one bit!
What Technically Is Sourdough Starter?
At the bare minimum, sourdough starter is an active colony of wild yeast and lactic acid bacteria that's created by combining flour and water and allowing it to ferment over time. By continually feeding it, you will have a natural yeast culture that takes the place of commercial yeast in baking, acting as a leaven (raise) agent.
Why Not Use Commercial Yeast Instead?
Without getting too scientific, baked goods that are composed of sourdough go through a longer fermentation process than commercial yeast does, allowing the lactic acid in the sourdough to essentially unlock the nutrients that's within flour. Overall, sourdough bread is more easily digestible due to the wild range of wild bacteria and yeasts that the sourdough starter is composed of!
Why Feeding Your Sourdough Starter Matters
Essentially, you have to feed your sourdough starter, because it's a live culture! Since sourdough starter is composed of yeast and bacteria, which feeds off of the flour, eventually all of the "food" that it feeds off of will be gone and the yeast will begin to die off...**enter flour and water**
What Do I Feed My Starter With?
Simply put, sourdough starter is fed with just flour and water. Plain jane, baby!
Flour: Whole wheat, rye and unbleached all-purpose flour or a combination of either are all great choices. Both whole wheat and rye flour are more abundant in natural enzymes that are helpful in feeding the bacteria and wild yeast. That's why, when first creating my sourdough starter, I opt for whole-wheat flour on Day 1 to get my starter on the right track. After Day 1, my starter is then maintained with unbleached all-purpose flour.
Water: They say that filtered water is best, but if you have great tap water, then use it! Living in Central Oregon, I'm lucky in that I live right next to one of the leading springs used to bottle water...so I've always used tap water! But, if you have chlorinated or metallic-tasting water, then I'd suggest going the filtered or bottled-water route!
Water Temperature: Water temperature is crucial; make sure that your water is warm to touch when feeding your starter, around 75-80 degrees! Cold water will cause slower fermentation and isn't very useful for your starter...and you don't want that.
How Much Should I Feed My Starter?
When it comes to feeding your starter, I will say that it's a general rule of thumb to stick to the 1:1:1 ratio; equal parts starter, flour and water....but I do it a bit different: for example, if I have one cup of starter, then I'll add 3/4 cups of flour and 1/4 cup of water to equal the one cup of starter I already have; I know people who do half flour, half water, but in my climate, it just makes my starter too soupy! Nonetheless, the process still goes as follows: I discard some starter, then mix the starter, flour and water all together and let it rest (and rise!) for about 4-8 hours until I remove some for baking and start the feeding process over again.
**If you are opting to use whole-wheat or rye flour, you will have to add more water, due to the flours being composed of larger, more complex particles, in addition to having more protein, both of which cause it to absorb liquids much more significantly than all-purpose flour.
Feeding Your Starter: Instructions
Warm It Up: If you keep your sourdough starter in the fridge (more on that below!), you need to allow it to wake up and warm to room temperature before feeding it. I like to take mine out of the fridge the night before I intend to bake with it.
Discard Some Starter: Regardless if your starter has been sitting on the counter or stored in the fridge, you still need to discard a portion of your starter. How much you discard depends on how much you're going to feed it. In true transparency, I eyeball this by looking at how much starter I already have in the jar- as a made-up example, if I plan on feeding my starter by following the 1:1:1 ratio using 1/2 cup of starter, flour and water, but I have about 1 cup of starter, then I'd discard 1/2 cup of starter to get me to the 1/2 cup of starter needed for feeding.
To Discard: Place discard into reserved jar (more on how I store my discard below!) or throw away. After a portion of your sourdough starter is discarded, it's time to feed it with fresh flour and water.
How Do I Know When My Starter Is Ready To Be Used?
Once your sourdough starter is regularly doubling in size after you feed it (anywhere between 4-8 hours after feeding), it's a good sign that your starter is ready to be used in a recipe. This what you call a mature starter. A mature starter will be, like mentioned above, doubling or tripling in size between the 4-8 hour time frame after feeding it. Smell wise, it will have a yeasty, warm, bread-like scent. Appearance wise, the more bubbles the better! Lastly, texture-wise, your starter will take on a very fluffy, web-like look.
I Just Removed a Portion of My Starter to Bake With: Now What?
I read an old US Forest Service cookbook that had a basic sourdough starter recipe...there wasn't much context other than this tidbit: "...whatever you take out, you replace..." meaning that you should feed your starter again after using it...this time, just don't discard anything since you just did that for the recipe! From here, you can let it sit at room temperature until it's next feeding or let it sit for a couple of hours prior to putting it back in the fridge!
Storing Your Sourdough Starter
If you bake often like me, then you can keep your starter on the counter, loosely covered in a jar or bowl, in a warm spot and continually feed it every 12-24 hours. **You'll want to store your starter in a container that not only allows room for the starter, but for it to triple in size once fed!**
If you bake less frequently, you may keep your well-established, mature starter in the fridge in an air-tight container for a week (I know people who've gone longer!). A couple things to note if you go the fridge route: always feed it prior to putting it in the fridge; I like to feed it and let it sit for a couple hours prior to putting it in the fridge. Say that, after a week in the fridge, you still don't plan to use your starter; that's ok! Just take your starter out, feed it, let it sit at room temperature for a few hours and then put it back in the fridge. Now, if you do plan on baking with your starter that's been stored in the fridge, all you have to do is to let it come to room temperature and feed it approximately 2-3 times in a 4 hour window and you're ready to bake with it!
Do I Have To Throw Away My Mature Discard or Can I Save It? Can You Store It?
Unlike in the first week (or two!) when you first established your sourdough starter, you don't have to solely throw out your starter anymore...unless I guess you want to! The reason being for not keeping your discard in the beginning stages of creating your sourdough starter is that your starter isn't quite mature enough and developed yet to constitute keeping the discard.
Now that you have a mature starter, that doesn't mean that the discard is any less mature! Discard is essential in keeping your starter in balance...and not being left with gallons of starter! Sourdough discard is best stored in an air-tight container in the fridge, but it can be kept on the counter; it will become sour after 2-3 days due to it being unfed, though! That's why I like to keep a Mason Jar full of discard in the fridge for discard-specific recipes. **Just make make sure that you use your discard within one week; the discard will become too acidic and sour!** **you can use sourdough discard straight from the fridge!**
On Making Your Breads More "Sourdoughy-Tasting"
I remember when I first started baking with sourdough and the guys in the shop raised an eyebrow when I said that I was baking them chocolate sourdough muffins...an odd combo, right?! Tangy chocolate, YUM! Sourdough gets it name because it’s fermented, not because it's solely sour-tasting bread! Contrary to belief, your sourdough starter doesn't naturally produce very sour-tasting bread. It's actually somewhat challenging to make your bread taste sour!
A well-fed sourdough starter doesn't offer too much tanginess...but if tangy is the name of your game, there are a few things you CAN do to manipulate the taste:
1.) Stir in the hooch! I covered this in my first blog post, but hooch is essentially essentially alcohol that's given off in liquid form as the wild yeast ferments that presents itself when your starter needs to be fed. Typically your pour the hooch off, but you can just stir it right back in!
2.) Skip the all-purpose flour! Try whole-grain flours like whole-wheat and rye that inherently have a more tangy taste to them. **Whole grain flours do make your starter more dense, so you will have to adjust your feeding ratio**
3.) Ferment your dough longer! When baking, the longer you let your dough proof and ferment (think cinnamon rolls when you let them proof overnight in the fridge!), the more sour the dough will become. **be careful not to overproof your dough, doing so will result in a bread that fails to rise nicely!**
4.) Feed your starter less! If you feed your sourdough starter frequently, the acids that give it some sourness don’t have the opportunity to really build up. This idea ties into my first bullet point involving hooch; the longer it sits, the more acidity it builds up. Try going a day or so between feedings!
Hopefully I covered some of your questions on feeding and maintaining your sourdough starter! I hope this post was useful and informative for you, as I know that the world of sourdough is BIG and confusing...as you keep on with it, you'll develop your own routine that works for you- remember, sourdough starters are super resilient (there's a reason they can last thousands of years!), so don't be too hard on yourself if you mess up your measurements of accidently stick it in the fridge without feeding it. You've got this!