Maintaining a Sourdough Starter

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So, now you have a sourdough starter you need to maintain it. You do this through regular ‘feedings’ or ‘refreshings’, where you get rid of some of your old starter, and mix in new flour and water for the wild yeasts to feed on and ferment. There is ultimately no ‘correct’ way to do this, and as you learn more about your personal baking patterns, you will be able to tailor your maintenance schedule so that it suits you. This is what works for me, and so will hopefully be a useful guide to help you get started.


How to feed your starter

If you followed my previous blog post on making your sourdough starter, you should have 240g of white sourdough starter. You can then maintain this through regular, 12-hourly feedings through the same process:

  • Empty your starter into a bowl and wash out your jar or container (or have a second, clean one to hand).
  • Weigh out 40g of your starter and dissolve in 100g warm water (this should be anywhere between 26 and 32°C) .
  • Then, add 100g flour (preferably the same strong white flour that you used to build your starter – this keeps things simple).
  • Put back in your jar and leave for 12 hours until feeding again.

The remainder of you starter (about 200g) is now your discard – you can throw this away, but I prefer to use in recipes.

Strong white flour, on average, takes 12 hours to ferment. This essentially means that after about 12 hours, you can either use your starter in your bread, or you can feed it again. Whilst beginning, keep things simple by following this rule.

Tip: If you want to reduce the amount of discard, you can simply reduce how much starter you keep. I like to keep 240g as it’s easy to maintain and means that you always have enough of your starter to use as a levain in your bread, as well as enough to then feed. However, there are ways to reduce how much you keep, and some bakers keep a tiny amount. I have tried doing this in the past and found it worked well. You just have to bear in mind that you will need to build up your starter with your feeds to ensure you have enough to bake with, which can be confusing at first. If you want to look into this more, King Arthur Flour have a very helpful guide here.


Storing your starter

You can keep your starter at room temperature or in the fridge depending on how often you bake. It’s up to you how you store it, and as you get to grips with feeding your starter, you’ll come to know what works for you.

Storing at room temperature

If you are baking bread regularly (practically every other day), it’s best to maintain your starter at room temperature. As I will go on to explain below, your starter needs regular feeds to ensure it produces the best bread. So, if you are baking regularly, keeping your ferment in the fridge will simply slow down your ability to make bread, or you will end up using sourdough starter that isn’t at it’s best. If you are keeping a white sourdough starter at room temperature, you will need to feed/refresh it every twelve hours to keep it happy.

Storing in the fridge

Storing your starter in the fridge is better if you are baking less frequently. The process of cooling your starter down basically retards the process of fermentation, meaning a feed that would have kept your starter going for about 12 hours at room temperature will keep your starter going for about a week in the fridge. In order to store it in the fridge, you should feed/refresh your starter as normal, leave it for about 1-2 hours at room temperature so it can begin the process of fermentation, then put in the fridge. You will then need to refresh it just once a week until you are ready to bake.

When you want to bake, you will need to take your starter out of the fridge and feed twice before using. At a stretch, you can use it after just one feed, but from personal experience I have found a minimum of two feeds produces better, tastier bread. This might all seem a little confusing, so I have laid out my typical feeding schedule below:

Feeding schedule for sourdough starter kept in the fridge:

9am (the day before I want to use my starter) – Take the starter out of the fridge. Leave to come up to room temperature for one hour, then feed using the usual method (40g starter, 100g flour, 100g water). Leave at room temperature for 12 hours.

9pm (the same day) – Feed the starter again using the same method, and leave to ferment at room temperature overnight.

9am (the day of using the starter) – Your starter should be bubbly and doubled in size. It’s worth doing a float test here: drop a spoonful of starter into cold water, if it floats, it’s ready. If it doesn’t float, the best solution is to wait another day before you bake, as it may not quite be ready to use. Repeat the feeding schedule and test the following day.

If you have success and it floats, you can then put this to one side until you bake. I normally start making my bread at about 1pm, so I leave my starter on the side until I’m ready.

When you are ready to bake, take out the required quantity and set to one side. This will be your levain – the bit of starter you use in your bread to make it rise. Of your remaining starter, repeat the feeding process by taking 40g starter and dissolving in 100g water and adding 100g flour. Leave to sit at room temperature for 1-2 hours before putting back in the fridge. The rest will be discard.

Don’t panic!

When you get into a regular feeding pattern, you will begin to see a fairly regular rise and fall of your starter, and can learn to work with this. But you also need to remember not to panic if you forget to feed it. The most important thing I have learned is that sourdough starter is robust. It won’t simply die if you forget to feed it exactly 12 hours after the last feed, and leaving it on the side an extra few hours before you use it to make bread will cause no harm whatsoever.

Provided you don’t neglect your starter for long periods of time, it will be incredibly hard to kill. If it is looking a little dormant after forgetting to feed it, you can resuscitate a starter fairly easily with regular feedings. The same goes for keeping it in the fridge – to keep an easy, regular feeding pattern, about once a week is ideal, but if you have gone away for the weekend and forgot to feed it, it will be absolutely fine for an extra few days.

These are the basics that I hope will be useful in getting to know your starter. It’s easy to confuse yourself through reading the vast swathes of information online. Instead, I’d recommend sticking to this and simply playing around with the flours you use in your bread for a while.

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