Sourdough Starters – How Do you Care For Yours?

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Ask a dozen bakers how they look after their sourdough starter (or leaven), you’ll probably get a baker’s dozen replies. Everyone starts by avidly following guides to get started – Dan Lepard’s method in his excellent The Handmade Loaf is how I started mine, several years ago now.

After a little while, and probably with too much confidence and too little experience with a healthy touch of laziness, I wondered about just keeping the starter in the ‘fridge and just “feeding” it every-so-often rather than following the strict tending routines as some guides suggest? What would happen? Is there an easier way?

Well, I think there is and it is what I do. Some suggest tipping away the excess starter when feeding it to keep the culture vitalised. I’m a bit too mean for that – even though I’d give it to the chickens rather than the kitchen sink. So, I don’t throw any away, and only feed the starter when I need to bulk it up for a bake…unless it is going to be a long time until the next one, in which case I treat it with a bit of flour and water once in a while, when I remember.

So, now I live with a couple of starters in small Kilner pots (the plastic ones, 250ml, with clip-on lids – better than glass and metal), one white and one wholemeal. They sit in the ‘fridge from one week to the next, undisturbed and apparently happy. They have been left for a good 3 weeks – probably more if I am honest – with no ill effects that I can detect. They don’t look pretty, but they don’t need to win beauty contests.

When I want to do a bake, I take the starter from the ‘fridge and empty all of it into a bowl and add the flour and water that I need for the recipe I am to follow. I add in the ratio of about 5:4, that is for every 100g of flour I add 80g water, stir it up and leave covered at room temperature for about 24 hours – 48 makes it more lively.

When I come to bake, I put a dollop – to about 1/2 full – of the starter back into the Kilner pot and put it safely back into the ‘fridge before I forget and bake the lot. With the rest, I follow a recipe and proceed as usual.

It isn’t the most scientific method, but is really easy with no waste and little effort. For me that is perfect!

In a nutshell:

  1. Get your starter going – follow Dan Lepard’s method or get a sachet
  2. Keep your starter in the ‘fridge in a plastic Kilner pot
  3. A day or two before you need to bake, then remove it from the ‘fridge.
  4. Add flour:water in the ratio 5:4, stir, cover and leave at room temp 24-48 hours. It’ll begin to bubble away in a few hours.
  5. Just before you bake, put some starter back into the pot (I half-fill a 250ml Kilner) and return the pot to the ‘fridge.
  6. With the remainder, follow your favourite recipe.

How do you care for yours? Maybe you’d like to comment about my method or tell about yours? Just click on the comments button at the bottom of this article.

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47 Comments

  1. Well, it will smell yeasty so I suppose could be described that way – the smell should be slightly acidic and mild. It shouldn’t be unpleasant or strong (which is relative I suppose). Keep going with it.

  2. Spent the last day starting my California starter,it has quite a strong smell reminiscent of cheese! Is this normal?

  3. I’m just a few days in to making my first starter using the Goldrush Sourdough Starter from BakeryBits. Unfortunately, yesterday I accidentally put too much water in to the feed (it should be 50g flour/40g water), and now I’m concerned that I might have spoilt it. The current consistency is like a thick pancake batter. Is this consistency OK, or do I need to do something else?

    Also, I’m keeping the dough in a loosely covered glass bowl on a heated platform used for winemaking – i.e. the kind that will take two demijohns. But to ensure that the bowl doesn’t get too warm, I’ve put a wooden pan rest in between the heater and the bowl. So far, the dough is bubbling very slowly and is smelling sour, so is this OK as well?

  4. I’ve been following the instructions from Bakery Bits for the San Fran starter kit. I left it in the oven with light on overnight (drafty cold kitchen), did the second 50gm flour/40gm warm water feed and when came to do the third it was VERY active (but nice yeasty smell) – apart from clear bubbles, had a little beard of froth in center, but no dark liquid. Do you think it’s OK? Will continue to feed as instructed over next 3 days but would like some advice.

  5. It sounds as though you are doing everything correctly but it may be that you aren’t allowing the dough sufficient time to develop flavour – it takes much longer than a conventionally yeasted loaf, at least 8 hours or overnight. Maybe that is the problem? It may be that you are proving at too high a temperature too: the sourdough bacteria prefer a cooler environment than yeast, so prove at 25-30C rather than 35-40C.

  6. Mine starter is nearly 10 years old now. I used to keep it as a dough and use the entire starter every bake, prove over night and save a 1lb for the next batch, keeping it in the fridge between. I even took a baking holiday for a year and kept it in the freezer in this way. On the plus side your starter is quite robust this way and forgives some neglect but if your starter over ferments it can make your bread quite sour and heavy for a while before you get it back.

    I am currently keeping my starter as a batter and making an overnight sponge with a ladle full, I’m quite happy with the end results especially if you knock back the dough a few times over the day, while it does take a full day to prove the restls are worth it. My kitchen has no heating at the moment so It lives in a Kilner Jar on the surface but will move into the pantry once its been built.

  7. Shirley Walke on

    I have made four sourdough loaves so far using the Sanfrancisco starter mix. I feed it once a day and use 150 gsm of the starter with 500gsm flour and 300 gsm water with 1 teasp salt to make a loaf. Although the texture is lovely and the crust nice and chewy it does not have the real sour taste. So what am I doing wrong?

  8. Panic’s over! It looks bubbly. Now I am going to feed it for three days and then, I will try to bake. Thank you once again for the reply.

  9. Thank you Patrick :-) I suspect it could be the water I have used. I left it in the jug overnight but who knows? Now it looks like there are few bubbles but I don’t know if that means it finally works. Should I add more flour and water or just leave it till tomorrow? I’m so confused!
    Thank you in advance for advice.

  10. Hello, no, you can use wheat or rye flour and probably some others. Provided that you are following the instructions, either the ones by the manufacturer or those included from us then there should be no problem. Slowness can be due to the incorrect temperature (not warm enough) or using chlorinated water (chlorine is present to kill bacteria, which is the opposite of what you need).

  11. Hello, does the kind of flour matter? I used strong brown wheat flour, it’s 24 hours already and nothing is happening. Frustrating :-/

  12. Great advice on caring for a sourdough starter, thanks to everyone. I am just getting started with sourdough baking and have had my starter up and running for a couple of months (I used the advice of Dan Lepard god of bread) but I don’t seem to ever be able to have a container big enough for “animal”. I’ve been putting it in the fridge after feeding it because if I don’t it runs all over my work surface by morning despite having moved it to a larger kilner jar and I am throwing away alot of flour by “refreshing” it for 2 days before baking – am I making it harder than I need to be?

  13. Thanks Patrick, missed those alternative instructions completely going fine now

  14. Steve, have you tried using the BakeryBits instructions that we supply with the sachet in place of the ones that come from the manufacturer? You can download them from our site too from here. A step-by-step is also here.

  15. Anyone used the sourdough starter sachets? I’m just reading the starting instructions 3 cups flour 3 cups water this will make about a kilo of starter!

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  17. Thanks Patrick. I use a 500ml Kilner jar, so there’s plenty of space for the starter to do it’s thing, and of course, without the rubber ring, gases can escape.

  18. Hi Masood – simply that plastic bounces rather than shattering on impact and is a better idea if enclosing an active starter in a plastic rather than a glass vessel – as there can be a pressure build-up. Of course a purpose-made glass container should be fine.

  19. Hi Patrick,

    I’m curious as to your comment that plastic tubs are better than glass jars for storing sourdough starter – why is that? Just wondering!

    Cheers,
    Masood

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  21. I have read all comments and am wondering why no-one has mentioned drying the leaven in the oven, as my cook book instructed then whizzing it in a food processor then placing in a Kilner jar. That way you do not have to worry about length of time you have abandoned it. I have done this and will try to reconstitute it within a week or two but in the meantime perhaps someone with more experience/success at sourdough bread can advise?

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  23. Mine is called ‘the beast’ and lives in the fridge in a large plastic container and is used for my wheat sourdough. I feed it at least once a week when not baking to keep it healthy, and if I’m away for longer I freeze it then thaw and feed as usual on my return. The Beast is fed with one third wholemeal and two thirds stoneground white in the ratio 1:1 with leaven and water added to 5/8 the weight of leaven. I maintain over a kg of leaven and feed and leave for 2 days before baking otherwise the yeast is too weak to prove the sourdough.

  24. I didn’t realise it was meant to be complicated! I do pretty much the same as you. I generally bake once a week but often leave it a couple of weeks or three. My starter lives in a glass pot in the fridge. I take it out 12 hours before making the final dough, give it some flour and water then put the same quantity back in the pot before adding final bread ingredients. I thought that was what you were meant to do!

  25. Julie Lichtenberg on

    An excellent approach to creating a sourdough culture can be found at:

    http://www.wildyeastblog.com/2007/07/13/raising-a-starter/

    And Susan, the author of the Wild Yeast blog, describes how she maintains her starter at:

    http://www.wildyeastblog.com/2007/09/29/maintain-starter/

    I have maintained my sourdough starter for about 3 months now, following Susan’s description. I have on several occasions only fed my starter once a day and it seems to cope with this. However, to get it vigorous enough for leavening dough, it’s advisable to beef it up with twice daily feeds before baking until it’s doubling in size in about 8 hours. I refresh it early morning and again 12 hours later, keeping the 1:5:5 ratio and 100% hydration. I usually throw away the surplus 90g of starter each feeding, but it could be used to make muffins etc – see Wild Yeast blog for recipes)

    So, for each feeding/refresh I take 10g starter and add
    50g water
    50g white bread flour
    keep at room temperature….

    To bake with the starter:

    The following recipe is for a 1 kg sourdough loaf, based on Susan’s Norwich Sourdough Loaf but with a slightly higher hydration:

    500g flour (450g white, 50g rye)
    200g ripe starter at 100% hydration (100g flour, 100g water)
    310g water
    11.5g salt

    = 600g flour = 100%
    = 410g water = 68% hydration (410 divided by 600)

    To get my starter ripe for baking with for the above recipe, this is what I do:

    Morning of Day 1 – refresh the starter using 1:5:5 ratio but increase the quantities to generate enough starter to bake with and enough left over to refresh and maintain as an ongoing culture:

    So, to 25g starter (throw the rest away or use for muffins etc) add
    125g water
    125g white bread flour
    (makes about 275g ripe starter, plenty for the recipe and to refresh as the ongoing starter)

    keep at room temp, with a view to making dough in evening…

    A healthy sourdough starter should be ‘ripe’ in about 8 hours, i.e. it should double in size in that time.

    So, 8 hours later/ when it’s doubled in size:

    Remove 10g of ripe starter and add
    50g water
    50g white bread flour
    keep at room temp and maintain with 12 hourly feeds as above (this is your ongoing sourdough starter)

    Take 200g of ripe starter and add to dough mix for loaf (see Susan’s Norwich Sourdough recipe for method:

    http://www.wildyeastblog.com/2007/07/08/my-new-favorite-sourdough/

    This is what I do to make the 1 kg loaf:
    autolyse 30 mins
    work dough 20 mins
    fermentation with 2 x folds 2.5 hrs
    proof 1.5 hr at room temp (I use a 1 kg brotform or linen-lined banneton)
    overnight retardation in fridge (helps to develop the sourdough flavour)

    Next morning, Day 2:
    proof to room temp 4 hrs
    bake in hot oven with steam 15 min, then reduced heat 5 min, then oven off and door well ajar 10 min, then cooling rack…

    I’ve also used this 1 kg dough mix to make 2 x 12″ pizza bases (use only white flour for pizza bases, work dough and refrigerate until needed, shape pizza bases, top and bake 10 min in very hot oven), 4 x baguettes/ rolls, 2 x free-form oval loaves… it’s a versatile white/ light rye dough….

    Many thanks to Susan of Wild Yeast blog.

    Happy Sourdough Baking!

  26. Rudehamster on

    I have two of them:-)…one 70g unbleached white and 30g rye,the other is 100g unbleached. I use flour from the Bacheldre Mill and 100ml Highland Spring water (it’s from near where I was brought up, in Scotland).
    The 70/30 is the oldest and is now almost eight months old. They live in glass kilner jars and are mostly fed daily. Rarely do they miss a feed, but they do go for a few days holiday in the fridge every so often.
    It has to be said that the 100% unbleached looks a little depressed and not very bubbly. Should I try potato in the main jar? Can I leave it there?
    Thanks for the Dan Lepard link. I’ve never heard of freezing starter, but I’ll have a go with some after Wimbledon has finished (all things stop for tennis!).

  27. Oh finally! There are lots of other sourghdough fanatics out there! I got my starter about a year and a half ago and it was already nine years old…rather a responsibility. I’ve been baking every week (apart from one or two) ever since and still trying to work things out as it seems to change all the time. I now have friends buying my borodinsky….a question though…how to I make loads of production for larger quantity of loaves?

  28. Really interesting reading about all these starters and ways of keeping them alive! I had mine given to me last September and have been using it almost weekly since then. I had never made sourdough bread before only loaves with commercial yeast. I enjoy the taste of sourdough but I still have not made the ‘perfect’ loaf, has anyone? I would like to hear how others achieve a ‘good loaf’. Tips please!

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  30. Wonderful to see so much discussion on this so soon after publishing – and to see a healthy group of real (sourdough) bread makers (waves!).

    I confess that my starter is only a couple of months old (or at least has been with me that long – it’s about 55 years old all told – so I am taking great care of it!).

    I too started weighing carefully – but am now also much relaxed – and just go by consistency. My sourdough bread is probably baked weekly (interspersed with ‘regular’ yeast made bread) – so it sits for a week, up to a Thursday evening, in the fridge. I think take it out, feed it (probably doubling the quantity of starter) that evening, leave it for a day, and then bake the day after. By then it’s bubbling pretty vigorously!

    Looking forward to future blog posts – on how to make perfect sourdough! Mine has been good but can also be a bit hit and miss. So much to learn – but so much fun practising! Thanks to BB for my proving baskets, lame and peel – they have made a phenomenal difference to the finished result. Now saving up for a stone…

  31. We have had our ‘starter’ for over a year now.It is kept in the fridge in a glass kilner jar and we feed it once a week with 100g of strong bread flour and enough cold tap water to make a thin batter consistency.Sometimes it separates into ‘putty’ & ‘liquid’,we just mix it together and it works fine.When we want to make a loaf we mix 100g of the starter with 300ml of tepid water and 250g of bread flour together and leave it overnight then the next morning we add a futher 300g of bread flourand then use like any other bread recipe.

  32. Great to see such a relaxed attitude to the “care” of this thoroughly robust organism. My approach is based very roughly on Richard Bertinet’s recipe (per his book Crust); it gets refreshed every 2-3 weeks and (so far)- 400g “old” ferment mixed with 800g flour (white wheat) and 400g water. I don’t throw any of the old ferment away. Sometimes I give it away but usually I’ll add excess (up to 400g) to the straight dough that I’m making that day. A quick calculation gives the correct amount of water to add to the recipe to give a rate of 60% hydration. The bread doesn’t end up with a true sourdough flavour, but my personal opinion is that the flavour, texture and crust are enhance by the addition of the ferment that otherwise might have been thrown away.

  33. Jeannette, Sainsburys do very similar plastic pots for 3 to 5 quid. 25% off them at the moment! It’s what my culture lives in!

  34. I also keep my levain in the fridge for 3 weeks or more between baking with no problems. I use a glass bowl sealed with clingfilm and take it out of the fridge and add a table spoon of rye flour and mineral water in the evening. The next morning I begin the recipe and remove some to return to the fridge before adding the rest to the bulk of the flour to bake. I have had no problems. It does sometimes separate a little but soon revives.

  35. In a recent blog post of his own Dan Lepard advocates freezing nuggets and reactivating them. There’s some explanation and a video here: http://www.danlepard.com/blogs/2010/06/2717/awakening-the-frozen-sourdough/

    (you’ll need any add blockers turned of to see the video)

    I myself keep my starter in the fridge and simply remove and feed 24-48 hours before baking. It never goes more than a fortnight without a feed though (1 cup water, 1 cup wholemeal flour). I’ve been doing this for a year and if anything the flavour and liveliness has improved in this time. I will try the Lepard freezing method though.

  36. I like the look of the Kilner plastic pots, but where can they be bought? I have Googled them with no success!

  37. The plastic jars are great – don’t put in too much (that can be a bit messy – not explosive though, more oozy! I like the plastic pots because they don’t react and can be cleaned when it is demanded. A stone jar sounds very good too.

  38. Sue Haworth on

    I too discovered it was unnecessary to follow strict feeding routines but have found the longer you leave it unfed, the more sluggish it becomes and the longer it takes to resuscitate, so I find it best to feed my starter once a week. I first captured the original yeast cells in my orchard 8 years ago and have never had to replace them.

    If I am not going to bake in a while, I find it best to spread some starter thinly on greaseproof paper, leave it to dry and then freeze it. It does take time to resuscitate it.

    I no longer measure flour:water ratio. The absorption powers of flour vary so much and after all you are only aiming for a thick batter. It is surprising how yeast cells naturally reactivate much more quickly in summer than winter, even if the kitchen can often be warmer in winter than summer – well, not really surprising as they are a natural organism. I have sometimes found summer overnight dough spilling over the bowl onto the kitchen table the following morning, which never occurs in winter.

    I am surprised at the use of plastic kilner jars with clip-on lids. Always thought that such containers would eventually explode, but perhaps these are not airtight. I use stone jars with a non airtight cover and feed the yeast with strong white only (plus spring water) as it gives wholemeal dough a lot more oomph.

  39. Pat Thorne on

    Patrick, that’s almost exactly what I do. My starter is about twelve months old, and stores perfectly in the fridge until I need it – three weeks if I’m on holiday. I sometimes liven it up (when its at room temperature) with a bit of left over mashed potato (potato ferments really well); and although Daniel is a bit worried about halving it, that’s what makes it strong and lively, just follow Patrick’s method it works well. I am so glad that I discovered Dan Lepard and BakeryBits; our bread is so wonderful we’ll probably live forever (like my starter …)

  40. Oh dear! I think that the idea is to put a little in the freezer as a backup. Most of the organisms will die, but with luck enough stay alive to get things going again. Not sure I’d recommend that route though, especially for only a couple of weeks.

  41. I was quite happy with my starter, which I had started in October last year an dkept happily in the fridge between baking. My method was to add 750g flour & 450g water to 600g starter and leave for 5 hours or so, then use 1200g of the refreshed starter to make two loaves and put the other 600g back in the fridge – so I was refreshing all my starter each time I baked.

    Then I went on holiday, and read that I should not leave my starter for more than two weeks in teh fridge, so I put in in the freezer as recommended.

    NO GOOD – it died.

    So at the moment I am using the Sekowa Backferment for my bread until I can get a new starter up and running, and I won’t be putting it in the freezer again!

  42. No – just stir it back in. If the starter has been left a very long time, it’ll just take a bit longer to kick-back into life. Of course, there are limits…

  43. I’ve been agonising over the “pouring it away” before feeding and revitalising it. I hate to waste any food, and cumulatively, if you use your leaven say once every two weeks, you can end up wasting a lot of flour.

    But with this technique, say you leave it 3 weeks and the leaven separates – into the “putty” below and liquid on top – will it still be revitalised ok? I always imagine once it’s separately, it’s a bit past it? Is that wrong?

  44. Mine is around a year old now and lives in the fridge, it was born on the kitchen counter top in a Parfait Jar, flour/tap water mixed and every day for about two weeks I’d throw away 50% and feed fresh flour & water until it smelt right. I must admit I’ve never taken to using special flour water, just tap water and Doves Farm organic flour.

    1. On baking day I take it out of the fridge, give it a quick mix with the whisk as it seems to separate after a few days in the fridge.
    2. Tip out what I need (the bake pre-ferment I do in a separate bowl), then top up with flour and water, give it a mix with the whisk
    3. Prop the lid open with the metal catch from the jar and leave it on the kitchen counter in the corner.
    4. In the evening when I’ve done the baking and its all nice and frothy I snap the lid shut and put it back in the fridge until next time

    eh voila.

    Kate 8)

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  46. I’ve had my first starter going for 2 days now, and am really loving the challenge and am amazed that you can “grow” it yourself!

    Thanks very much for the tips. Looking forward to using it with my first sourdough!

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