Ah, the extraordinary sourdough starter. That hungry, bubbly, burping little beast that lives in your kitchen. Your new pet. And as with any living pet, you need to feed your sourdough starter for it to survive! Thankfully, a sourdough starter feeding and care routine can be as simple or as involved as you desire, depending on how you store your starter and how often you bake. And unlike other pets, a sourdough starter will reward you for your love and care – by providing delicious, crusty, fluffy homemade sourdough bread! Worth it.
Read along to learn how to feed your sourdough starter to keep it healthy and happy! We’ll go over instructions to feed it by weight, or by volume measurements. Other factors to consider are what type of flour to feed the starter, and where to store it – such as in the refrigerator or at room temperature – which will dictate how frequently the sourdough starter must be fed. Finally, we’ll discuss how to prepare a sourdough starter for baking a loaf of bread, and other FAQs about sourdough starter health.
If you don’t yet have one, check out this article to learn how to easily make your own organic sourdough starter from scratch using only 3 ingredients! For you gluten-free folks, be sure to check out our tutorial on how to create a gluten-free sourdough starter.
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FEEDING A SOURDOUGH STARTER: BACKGROUND
What is “Feeding” a Sourdough Starter?
Within your sourdough starter culture are living colonies of yeast and lactic acid bacteria. As those beneficial microbes consume their “food” (in this case, carbohydrates in the flour), they ferment and convert those starches into CO2. This is what provides the natural airy rise in sourdough bread! Yet when they run out of food, the microbes get hungry, decrease in activity, and the sourdough starter becomes ineffective at providing rise. If left unfed and starving for too long, the colony of microbes may die completely.
While bakers just say “feeding”, it is more than mixing in fresh food. The process of feeding a sourdough starter almost always involves discarding some of the existing starter before adding more flour and water. Removing some of their colony (and metabolic waste) while also providing a new food source helps keep things in balance. It also prevents you from collecting more starter than the storage container can handle!
How Much Sourdough Starter to Maintain
The volume or amount of sourdough starter you choose to keep and feed depends on how much you intend to bake. For example, if you wish to bake two or more loaves of bread at a time each weekend, each of those loaves will require a certain amount of starter.
Our basic sourdough bread recipe calls for about 100 grams of active starter. Therefore, you would need at least 200 grams, plus some left over to feed and keep the starter going. Never use all of your starter in a recipe! On the other hand, we only bake one loaf at a time. Thus, we can maintain a smaller amount of starter.
Storage Container & Size
Store your sourdough starter in a container that has enough space for the starter itself, plus room for at least tripling in size while it is active. A glass container is a great choice. There are mixed opinions about whether or not it should have an air tight lid. The conclusion we’ve come to is this: it works both ways. However, you never want to leave your container completely open without some type of cover to prevent debris, dust, or fruit flies from getting in! Therefore, either keep a lid sitting loosely on top, or cover it with a coffee filter or lint-free, tight woven cloth.
We keep our starter in a 1 liter (about 1 quart) flip-top glass container like this one. The seal is not perfectly air tight even when clamped closed, so it does allow for some gasses (and starter) to escape. If you want to maintain a larger starter, consider using a 2 liter or half-gallon container.
Where to Store Your Sourdough Starter: Room Temperature or Refrigerator
When your are preparing your starter for baking, the ideal temperature to reach peak activity is around 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. But that doesn’t mean you have to keep it there all the time! Healthy sourdough starters can be stored either at room temperature, or in the refrigerator. Refrigerating a starter is a great choice for folks with busy schedules. It is also a perfect solution for vacation time away from home! For periods longer than a couple of weeks, a starter can be frozen. It will remain totally dormant until you thaw and feed it again.
Here are a few notable differences between a refrigerated and room temperature sourdough starter:
I was listening to “Science Friday” on NPR the other day, and the guest happened to be a master sourdough baker. I heard so many fascinating facts! One being, that sourdough starters will take on different flavor profiles depending on where they are stored – due to the types of yeast and lactic acid bacteria strains present in various environments. I knew this was true from home to home and city to city, but learned that it also depends on their storage temperature.
Apparently, a sourdough starter stored at room temperature will develop a more sharp, acidic “sour” flavor profile, while those stored in cooler conditions will give a more yogurt-like tangy taste.
Another interesting tip this master baker suggested was to try to develop a consistent feeding schedule. For example, feeding at the same time each day or week. It seems that the yeast and lactic acid bacteria will become accustomed to their routine and even “know” how much time and food they have to live on before the next feeding – and naturally pace themselves accordingly. Smart little buggers!
If you bake frequently or have the free time to tend to your starter daily, you can store the starter on your countertop. Yet when stored at room temperature, the sourdough starter will remain very active, and will need to be fed DAILY. Some serious bakers feed theirs twice per day! For us, that’s a bit much. We only bake on the weekends, sometimes every-other weekend.
Instead, we store our sourdough starter in the fridge. This keeps the microbes alive but less active. That means they eat less, and don’t need to be fed as often. Sourdough starters that are kept in the fridge only need to be fed once per week. Sometimes we skip a week and it does okay being fed once every two weeks. Yet I wouldn’t let it go much longer than that! It will become overly hungry and unhappy – which we’ll discuss more below.
Okay, now that we have gotten all that feeding foreplay out of the way… the big moment has arrived. Let’s get ready to feed that damn thing!
FEEDING A SOURDOUGH STARTER: INSTRUCTIONS
Preparing to Feed
Warm up: If you choose to keep your sourdough starter in the refrigerator, allow it to wake up and warm to room temperature before feeding. We generally take ours out of the fridge the night before we start a day of feeding and baking, or in the morning and begin feeding later that day.
Discard a portion: Whether your starter has been out on the counter, bubbling and active, or stored in the refrigerator in a more dormant state, you need to discard a portion of the active sourdough starter before feeding. How much you discard depends on how much you are going to feed it, as explained below.
To discard, first stir the starter to knock out any air. Then slowly remove little by little from the container until the desired amount is left behind. We simply scoop globs out into a separate bowl to either feed to the chickens, make discarded sourdough starter crackers, or to compost.
After a portion is discarded, it is time to stir in fresh flour and water!
How to Feed a Sourdough Starter Using Weight:
Some bakers prefer to feed the starter by weight. Some even swear it is the only way to go! Admittedly, it is the most precise and consistent way to feed a sourdough starter, since various flours have different weights and volumes. To feed a sourdough starter using weight, simply combine equal parts starter, flour, and water. For example, 100 grams of each. Or for a larger starter, 200 grams of each.
With this method, it is very helpful to know the empty weight of your starter storage container. That makes it easy to determine how much starter you have left after discarding. Obviously, you’ll also need a kitchen scale.
To be honest, we don’t weigh ingredients when we feed anymore. It is important to weigh things when you’re first creating your sourdough starter. Or, when you are combining flour and water to make the dough for a loaf of bread. Yet on an ongoing basis, we found it too much of a hassle to get out the scale every time we had to feed. Instead, we use a combination of traditional cup measurements and a pinch of good old “eyeballing it”.
How to Feed a Sourdough Starter Using Volume Measurements:
To feed a sourdough starter using conventional volume measurements, simply combine 1 part leftover sourdough starter, 1 part part water, and just under 2 parts flour. For example, 1 cup starter, 1 cup water, and nearly 2 cups of flour. In our kitchen, we add 1 scant cup flour and 1/2 cup of filtered water to the approximately ½ cup to ¾ cup starter that is left in its storage container after discarding. Again, we only ever bake one loaf at a time, so this modest amount is perfect for us.
If you like this method, try this nifty trick: measure the exact amount of starter one time, and take visual note of how much that fills your starter storage container. Our usual half to three-quarter cup starter fills its container up to about a knuckle or inch deep. Nowadays, I just eyeball the volume of starter, eliminating one extra step in measuring.
Add the appropriate amount of flour and water in with your starter and stir thoroughly, eliminating flour clumps. We do this right in the starter storage container. However, some bakers choose to take everything out into a separate bowl, mix it together, and then put it back or into a fresh container. That’s your call!
What Type of Flour & Water to Feed Sourdough Starter
When feeding a sourdough starter, it is ideal to use room temperature to slightly warm water. This is particularly true if your household is on the cool side, and you’re trying to ready the starter for baking soon. If cold water is added to the mixture, it will slow down the activity of the microbes and take longer to get active. We sometimes microwave the water for a quick 30 seconds when we don’t have time to let it sit out. Don’t add hot water though! Just lukewarm.
Additionally, use filtered or otherwise non-chlorinated water for all of your sourdough (and other fermenting!) adventures when possible. Chlorine may inhibit the growth of our friendly bacteria and generally throw things off. We simply run our water through a basic carbon filter (the fridge dispenser) and everything turns out just fine. Another option is to let a container of water sit out on the counter for 12 to 24 hours and allow the chlorine to dissipate.
The type of flour you use to feed your sourdough starter is up to you! There are many options available. Experiment and see what types of results you get. One popular choice is white-all purpose flour. We prefer to use organic bread flour for the “white” flour portion of our starter and dough. Bread flour has a slightly higher protein content than white flour and therefore stronger structure.
When feeding our starter, we oftentimes use half bread flour and either whole wheat or rye flour for the other half. Whole wheat and rye are known to quickly increase the activity and rise of the starter due to their higher nutrient content. It is also possible to maintain a sourdough starter using einkorn flour, or non-wheat flours like brown rice flour.
Gluten-Free Sourdough Starter Flours
If you’re here from our gluten-free sourdough starter tutorial – don’t worry, I didn’t forget about you! We created our original gluten-free sourdough starter using brown rice flour. Most often, that is what we feed it. However, feel free to experiment with feeding your gluten-free starter with any combination of brown rice, white rice, sweet rice, or buckwheat flours. They all do very well at keeping a starter active and happy! However, I do not suggest using a GF 1-1 baking or all-purpose flour to maintain your starter. I find the extra additives found in those flour mixes make the starter a little funky, and not in a good way…
Getting Your Starter Ready for Baking
Most sourdough recipes call for sourdough starter to be “active” or added at “peak activity”. So what does that mean exactly? A sourdough starter is considered at peak activity when it is super expanded and bubbly. It has at least doubled in size or more, is no longer growing, but has not yet started to fall back down or deflate.
The time it takes your starter to reach peak activity after feeding depends on numerous factors. These include: what and how it was fed, the ambient temperature it is being stored at, and how vigorous and established the starter is in general. Warmer temperatures will increase activity, and cooler temperatures will slow it.
If your starter has been stored at room temperature, reaching peak activity should be a breeze. It peaks every day. For those of us that store our starters in the refrigerator, it takes some planning in advance to get ready for baking. When we intend to bake in the next day or two, we pull the resting sourdough starter out of the fridge and put it on the counter, allowing it to warm up. Then we feed it at least twice prior to using it in a recipe to achieve peak activity.
For gluten-free sourdough starters, I find that they peak and fall more quickly than our wheat starter. Therefore, keep a closer eye on it and be ready to use it right before or as it starts to deflate!
You will develop your own feeding and baking schedule with time.
Here is a summary of our usual routine: Say we want to bake a loaf on Saturday morning. We take the starter out of the fridge on Thursday evening, let it sit overnight to warm up, then feed it once on Friday morning and again early Friday afternoon. Ideally, it should get its last feeding at least three to four hours before you want to start making dough. We make dough that evening, proof overnight in the fridge, and bake Saturday morning.
What is that dark liquid on the top of my sourdough starter?
This, my friends, is a sign that you haven’t been keeping up with your starters feeding schedule to its liking. The thin layer of dark liquid that sometimes forms on top of sourdough starter is called hooch. It is an indication that your starter is more active than you’ve been feeding it, has run out of food, and is hungry for more. More than hungry… It is Hangry.
But don’t worry, it is an easy fix and not at all harmful! Hooch is a naturally-occurring alcohol created by the hungry yeast. When encountered, you can either pour the hooch off the top, or simply mix it back in, then discard and feed as usual. But do take it as a sign that your feeding schedule may need to be modified. Our starter sometimes develops hooch when we accidentally skip a week of feeding.
Now you know how to feed your sourdough starter. Don’t make it hangry!
I hope you found this article useful and interesting. Now that you know how to maintain your sourdough stater, get to baking! Nothing beats crusty, chewy, homemade sourdough bread. Check out our simple sourdough recipes:
- Simple No-Knead Sourdough Bread Recipe
- Discarded Sourdough Starter Crackers
- Homemade Sourdough Focaccia Recipe
- Sourdough Cornbread Recipe
- Cast Iron Whole Wheat & Herb Sourdough Pizza Crust Recipe
Stay tuned for more sourdough recipes to come! Thank you for reading. Please feel free to ask questions, and spread the sourdough love by sharing this post.