Sourdough Starter 101

A sourdough starter is a live fermented culture of flour and water. Once it’s “fed” with additional flour and water, it becomes bubbly and active. A small portion is used to make bread dough rise, meaning that instant yeast is not required. From a health standpoint, it dominates when compared to supermarket loaves. The naturally occurring acids and long fermentation help to break down the gluten, making it more digestible and easy for the body to absorb. And it tastes darn good!

Sourdough Starter 101

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Enemies of the wild yeast and the Solution:
Pesticides: Use organic flour
Bleach: Use unbleached flour
Chlorine: Use unchlorinated natural spring water
Old flour: Home milled or freshly milled is ideal
Processed flours: Whole grained flours like rye, spelt, whole wheat will make your starter grow much faster
Cold temperatures: Starters love temps between 70°-80° F
Too much heat: Temperatures over 140°F will kill your starter (be careful of proofing ovens)
Starvation: Don’t forget to feed her!
Dirty environment: Keep hands, bowl, utensils clean when feeding
Metal bowls: Can cause a reaction sometimes

Pro Tip:
Invest in and use a digital scale (available starting at $12 online). Your feeding ratio is based on weight rather than volume, so a scale will make this process much easier.

What to expect when you start a Starter:
A five-minute daily feeding every day for up to two weeks (twice a day after Day 3), up to or until the starter is active and ready. No refrigeration at this point.

First day
Measure 113 g of your whole grain flour of choice (people often do a mix of 30% rye*/70% whole wheat, as the rye* flour serves to accelerate activation).
Add 113 g of unchlorinated water at room temperature OR 113 g of organic pineapple juice (the acidic nature of pineapple juice is great for getting it going, but should not be used in subsequent days)
Stir until all flour is incorporated
Cover with glass top or plastic wrap
Establish a warm environment for it to hang out (70°-80° F) for the next few weeks

*The benefits of using rye flour in a starter
Whole grain rye flour increases fermentation activity and leads to a lively and strong starter. It’s not mandatory, but it results in a starter that has fermentation performance and great flavor characteristics.

The feeding routine is the same every day
The Feeding ratio for this stage is a 1:1:1 ratio of starter : flour : water.
Measure out 113 g of starter from the starter you made yesterday.
(Put your discard in a designated discard jar, cover and refrigerate for future use; see Discard Ideas)
To your starter, add 113 g flour (pick a flour or flour combination and be consistent with that throughout)
Add 113 g room temperature unchlorinated water
Give it a thorough mix with a fork, cover the jar with its glass lid or plastic wrap.
Set in a warm environment (70°-80° F)

What container should I use for my starter?
Weck jars are fantastic since they come with glass lids. A wide-mouthed quart mason jar or an Anchor glass storage container is also useful. (Glass allows you to see the progress of your Starter).

Whatever you use, be sure to store your starter in a container that’s not quite airtight to allow for some expansion by the fermentation gases. If you’re using a wire bail jar to store your starter, just don’t use the rubber gasket that comes with them. Plastic wrap also works well.
How about metal containers?
As a general rule, it’s a good idea to avoid metal when working with sourdough. Brief contact with a metal spoon when stirring it is fine. However, since your starter is acidic, it can corrode metal. Don’t use a metal lid to store your starter. Opt for plastic or glass instead.

About the 1:1:1 ratio
Equal parts starter, flour, and water twice a day is a frequently touted feeding method. Using this much starter make the whole thing develop very quickly and carries over a lot of the Lactic Acid from feeding to feeding which lends the sour flavor to bread.

Starter Feeding Schedule
Day 2 and Day 3, ONE feeding
(Btw: it’s normal to see a surge of activity in Day 1 and 2 which usually subsides by Day 3)
Day 4 to Day 14, TWO feedings (12 hours apart)

What should Sourdough Starter look like after it’s been fed?
A healthy starter should look nice and bubbly after it’s been fed. It will have the consistency of thick pancake batter. It should be able to be poured out of your container, but it won’t just fall out readily. You’re looking for a slow pour.

What should a healthy Sourdough Starter smell like?
Your starter should smell pleasantly sour with a hint of yeastiness. If you have to pull back your nose in disgust when you smell your starter, you’ll need to refer to the troubleshooting tips below.

How long does it take to mature?
How long it takes depends on how active your starter is. Since every Starter is different, your mixture may present different signs. Don’t fret, stick to the schedule.

Things you can do to help speed things along
If it’s cold in your kitchen warm your water to 80°F (26°C)
If not using already, try including 25% rye flour occasionally in your feeding. Whole grain flour makes a starter more active, so it will eat through what you feed it more quickly.
Establish a regular feeding time. Morning or evening; the time itself doesn’t matter. What does matter is consistency. Feeding your starter at roughly the same time each day will train it to rise and fall predictably.

How do I know when my Starter has matured and is ready to use?
If it doubles after you feed it, small and large bubbles appear, it has a spongey or fluffy texture, a pleasant aroma, and passes the float test, it’s ready. This can take anywhere from 2 to 10 hours after feeding, depending how cold your house is.
Float Test: Drop a small amount, about 1 tsp, into a glass of water when the starter is a peak height (before it collapses). If it floats to the top, it’s ready to use. If it sinks, your starter should be fed again.

TROUBLESHOOTING (Possible Problems)
Smells like alcohol/beer/vinegar/nail polish remover
If your sourdough starter stinks like alcohol, vinegar, or nail polish remover, it means that it’s really hungry and has produced lots of acetic acid. The good bacteria have eaten up all the nutrients in the flour and are desperate to be fed.
If your starter is constantly smelling really sour, try increasing how often you feed it. So if you usually feed it once a day, try bumping it up to twice a day.

Too Sour!
All of the above principles apply here too. Make sure to feed your starter when it’s hungry and use all-purpose flour.

Not Sour Enough
On the other hand, you might have a starter that isn’t sour enough. This usually happens if your starter isn’t as active or if you use it when it isn’t mature enough.

Starter is too runny
You may be using too much water. Try adding a little more flour.
Note: This can also happen once a starter has matured. If you let your starter sit too long after feeding it, it becomes runny. This most likely occurs because the gluten gets more broken down the longer sourdough ferments. To fix a wet sourdough starter, make sure to use it just after it reaches peak fermentation, or after it doubles and passes the float test.

Mold in the Starter
Usually a sourdough starter will grow mold if you neglect it too long, if you don’t clean your container often enough, or if you use dirty hands or utensils when feeding your starter.
If there’s only a little bit of mold on top or on the sides of the jar, you may be able to save your starter. Carefully scrape off the mold and, with a clean spoon, scoop out a tiny bit of starter that doesn’t have any mold on it. Put it in a new jar and feed it several times before baking with it.

Signs of a bad Starter
If your starter has mold growing throughout it (not just a little on top), or if it smells really foul (not just super sour), or if it turns an odd color (not just gray, which is normal, but pink or orange or green), it is time to start over.

My Starter isn’t very active
If your starter isn’t rising or bubbling and is sluggish, that means it isn’t active enough to raise bread properly. There are several factors that contribute to how active your starter is. However, these are the most common:

1. Frequency of feedings:
If you don’t eat often enough, you start to get sluggish. In the same way, your starter will be more active if you feed it more often. Regular feedings = a stronger starter. Also, if you feed it by carrying over a large percentage of ripe sourdough starter, it will be ready earlier. On the other hand, less carryover means it will take longer to ripen, assuming it’s kept at the same temperature.

2. Type of Flour:
Sourdough really likes all the nutrients in whole grains. So if your starter doesn’t want to double very often, try switching to a different flour (such as 100% whole wheat flour) for a few feedings. You could also try feeding it rye flour since the yeast and bacteria in sourdough seem to particularly like rye flour.

And as a reminder:
Never use bleached flour since the bleach can be too harsh on your starter.
And if you can, use organic flour since the pesticides can also harm your starter.
Double check that you’re using fresh flour.

What is this weird liquid on top of my starter?
That liquid or grey “hooch” on top of your starter is simply an indication that your starter is way past ready to be fed. You can pour off the liquid or hooch if you like, or just stir it in. Your starter will be less sour if you pour it off.

I have too much Starter!
If you find that you’re drowning in sourdough starter, perhaps it’s time to switch to the No Waste Sourdough Method.
With this method, you’re basically only feeding your starter what you need for your recipe, plus a little extra for next time.
For example, if your recipe calls for 240 grams of sourdough starter, and you’re starting with 80 grams of starter, feed your starter 120 grams of flour and 120 grams of water. This will give you 320 grams of starter total. Then when you use 240 grams in your recipe, this will leave you with 80 grams of starter for next time.
The formula is: Take the amount of starter your recipe calls for, and add the amount of starter you want left over. Feed your starter so that you end up with the amount of starter you need for your recipe plus a little left over.

Keep in mind that the ideal feeding ratio is 1:1:1 most of the time. So you would want to feed 100 grams of starter 100 grams of flour and 100 grams of water. However, it’s okay to “over feed” your starter a bit, as in the 80 grams of starter and 120 grams each of flour and water. Just make sure that you don’t “underfeed” your starter!
You can also store your starter in the refrigerator to cut back on how often you have to feed it and use it.

Should the Starter be thick or thin?
That’s a trick question: it should be neither! If you keep a 100% hydration starter (1:1:1), your sourdough starter should be the consistency of thick pancake batter.
If it’s super runny, you either fed it too much water or let it ferment too long.
If it’s too thick, you either fed it too much flour or didn’t let it ferment long enough.

Keep your Starter jar clean
You can keep using your sourdough starter container for quite some time before you need to clean it, but once the jar becomes really crusty, it’s a good idea to clean it. Move your starter to a new, clean jar or bowl and then clean the old one.
Soak the container in warm water for about 15 minutes. The starter can get glued on, so you’ll almost certainly have to soak it to get it off. Use a mild soap to do the final washing and make sure to rinse all of the soap off very well since you don’t want any of that in your starter. After the jar is cleaned and rinsed, you can safely transfer your starter back to the jar.

Peak fermentation: the perfect time to bake bread
Once your starter doubles and passes the float test after a feeding (this happens between 2-12 hours), don’t let your starter ferment too long before using.
Using it at its peak will help there to be a better balance between the acetic acid and lactic acid from the bacteria.
If your starter collapses and gets runny, that means it’s past its peak fermentation. For the best results, feed your starter again and wait just until it doubles and passes the float test to use it.

What is the Float Test?
Drop 1 tsp. of starter into a glass of water; if it floats to the top, it’s ready to use. Do the test only when your starter has doubled (not after it has collapsed and lost strength).

Why such a long time to get to peak fermentation after feeding?
The activation process not instant and is greatly dependent upon room temperature. The peak period takes a much shorter amount of time in a warm environment. (Closer to two hours).
To monitor its progress, place a rubber band around the base of the jar to measure the growth as it continues to rise.

How much time do I have to use it once it’s peaked?
Once your starter is active, it won’t stay double in size forever. You have a 1-2 hr. window before it falls back down. Do the float test to check for readiness.

The importance of feeding your Starter before a bake …
If you really want to be sure your starter is in optimum shape, feed your starter a couple of times in the 12-24 hours before starting your recipe. A healthy starter rises well in its container and becomes bubbly and spongy after a good feeding. Spongy is the best word to describe what a starter should look like a few hours after feeding. If your starter rises well after feeding, there’s a good chance your bread will too. And vice versa.

How long do Starters last? Do they get better with age?
Once you have a viable sourdough culture, it really isn’t hard to keep it alive and healthy. A good starter is naturally very hearty and robust. At a minimum, all you have to do is mix in some flour and water once in a while to keep it alive during periods when you’re baking infrequently. To keep it near optimum health, feed it once a week or so and keep it refrigerated.
Starters change and develop based on how they are fed and where they are kept, so even using a 165-year old starter from the most popular bakery in your favorite town in France will eventually develop into the same starter you would have if you started your own at your house in Kingston, Washington.
If you treat your starter properly, it will gain strength and become more resilient. But if you neglect your starter, it definitely will not improve with age. It will only get weaker and weaker.

Keeping the Starter going
After you’ve taken what you need for your bread recipe, you’ll need to feed the jar of starter again with fresh flour and water to keep the cycle going. Let it sit at room temperature for a few hours and then put it in the fridge. (Or if baking again soon, you can leave covered at room temperature).

Do I have to feed my sourdough starter twice a day?
No. Once your starter has matured, once a day is enough to keep it strong and ready for baking.
Additionally, if you aren’t baking for a while, you can store your starter, covered, in the fridge. Use some freezer tape to mark the date you last fed it. Try and feed it once a week at that point.

Can my Starter be refrigerated?
Yes! If you plan on feeding and using your starter daily, you can safely store it at room temperature. But if you don’t want to feed it every day, store it in the fridge.
Remember, you can’t store a new sourdough starter in the fridge. You don’t want to begin storing it in the refrigerator until it is well established, about 2 weeks old.

Once your Starter has matured, you can change the ratios of Starter : Flour : Water
A common artisan bakery strategy is to feed starters once a day with a 1 : 4 : 4 or 1: 5 : 5 ratio of starter to flour to water. This small amount of reused starter makes it so it only needs to be fed once a day. The breads that are made from this are not necessarily sour though.
Alternatively, making stiffer starter and keeping it cooler will develop more sour flavors compared to warm looser starters. Maintenance of the starter will depend in part on what flavor profile you want from your bread.

Strategies for infrequent bakers:
A particularly useful tip for infrequent bakers is to try and keep a somewhat small portion of starter on hand so that you can feed it a few times in succession without ending up with a ton of it.
If it has been a long time since you’ve fed your starter and you don’t plan on baking for a while, don’t feel like you have to go through a big rigamarole to keep it happy, just stir in a 1/2 cup of flour and about the same amount of water and forget about it. That will at least buy you some more time before you have to worry about it again.

Converting your Starter flour to a different flour
If you need a whole wheat or rye starter, it’s easy to convert your white flour starter by just a few successive feedings with the flour you want. You may have to adjust the water as some flours are thirstier than others.

Starters love to rest at room temperature before and after a feeding
After you feed your starter, (assuming you’re not using it in a bake), let it sit out for a few hours before returning it to the fridge. This will give it a chance to rise and get spongy which makes it stronger.

Do I have to discard my sourdough starter?
While it might feel wasteful, it’s done to refresh the acidity levels and to control the starter’s growth in size.
It would be best if you discarded some portion of your starter each time you feed it unless you want to continue to let it grow. Eventually, you need to discard the used “food” (flour and water) that’s been used to sustain your starter during the last fermentation period. This discard can be used to make sourdough waffles, pancakes, or many other things!

Discard Ideas
Sourdough starter discard is fantastic in a variety of bakes such as:
English muffins, pancakes, waffles, pizza dough, crackers, breads, biscuits, pretzels or tortillas. I tried substituting it in my Blueberry Mango Pancake recipe just this morning to great success!

Other Creative Uses:
Added to natural yogurt and honey for a facial   Great for your compost heap
Crispy tempura batter
As a sauce thickener for gravies, bechamels or cheese sauces
Popovers/Yorkshire Puddings
Brownies, cakes
Homemade granola

Another alternative: keep a tiny amount
If you only keep a tiny amount of starter, you’ll only need to feed it a small amount. What is tiny? 20 g for instance. Then, whenever you need to use it, simply feed it the amount you will need, nothing more. That way, you will only have a small amount at any given time.
With this method, the only way you will have excess sourdough starter, is when you planned to bake but didn’t end up baking. It will only be an occasional discard that you have to worry about, rather than a regular concern

That’s it! It may sound complicated, but it really is fun once you have her going! May you all enjoy the ride!

Many thanks to the instructors at King Arthur Flour, Escoffier Culinary Arts School and Sourdough Masterclass with Patrick Ryan.

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