How to Keep Your Sourdough Starter Healthy

 

Keeping a sourdough starter is a little like caring for a pet or a child. They need the right conditions to thrive, you have to feed them daily (or weekly if refrigerated), and they die on you if you neglect them.

The Right Conditions for Sourdough

Remember that sourdough needs a few things to thrive:

  • Warm temperatures between 65° and 85°F,
  • A space of several feet between the sourdough culture and any other culture (yogurt, kombucha, kefir, etc.),
  • A non-reactive (glass or plastic) vessel and stirring spoon for storing and feeding,
  • A consistent food supply.

Feeding Your Starter

A note on ingredients: Non-chlorinated water is best for a sourdough culture as chlorine can interfere with the organisms in the starter. A freshly milled flour of the variety that your culture specifies is preferable.

A note on the flour-to-water ratio for feedings: When you feed your sourdough starter you want to feed it approximately equal weights of flour and water. You can measure the flour and water by weight with a kitchen scale or you can figure that for every cup of flour you will need about 1/2 cup of water. The measurement ratio can vary depending on how heavy or dense the flour is.

How frequently you feed your starter is dependent on how often you wish to bake with it. If you think you’ll be using your starter every couple of days or even more frequently then you should feed it every day. If you will only be baking with it once a week then you may refrigerate it and feed and refresh it before baking.

Maintenance Feedings

If you are interested in using your sourdough starter throughout the week for things such as breads, biscuits, pancakes, etc. then part of that process will include feeding the starter and preparing it for baking.

During weeks that you may not wish to use your starter it is still important to feed the culture, though not as frequently, to maintain its viability. Here’s how:

  • Discard any liquid which has formed on top of your sourdough starter.
  • Discard all but 1/2 cup of sourdough starter. This extra starter can be used to make Sourdough Pancakes.
  • Mix in 1/2 cup of water and a little less than 1 cup of flour being sure to incorporate plenty of air as you stir.
  • If using a kitchen scale instead of measuring cups, use equal parts of sourdough starter, water, and flour by weight. Generally 200 grams of starter to 200 grams of flour to 200 grams of water will work well.
  • If possible, allow the starter to sit on the counter (covered loosely) for a few hours at room temperature to proof. If this is not possible, simply return the starter to the fridge.
  • Repeat weekly when not baking with your sourdough culture. 
 

Preparing Fresh Starter for Baking

Most sourdough recipes call for "fresh" sourdough starter. The term fresh refers to sourdough starter where the yeast and bacteria which comprise the starter are in an optimal state of activity and ready to leaven baked goods.

If your sourdough starter is normally kept in the refrigerator, here are the steps for making fresh sourdough starter prior to baking:

  1. Discard any liquid that has formed on top of your sourdough starter.
  2. Remove 1/4 cup of sourdough starter from the fridge and place it in a large (non-reactive) jar or bowl. Feed the starter using one of the following methods:
    • If using a scale, combine equal amounts of sourdough starter, flour and water by weight. For example, feed 50 grams of sourdough starter with 50 grams of flour and 50 grams of water.
    • If using measuring cups, one part starter should be fed with one part water and a scant two parts flour. For example, feed 1/4 cup of starter with 1/4 cup of water and a scant 1/2 cup of flour.
  3. Mix the starter, flour and water together being sure to incorporate plenty of air. Cover the starter with a loose lid, towel, etc. (so the naturally created gas can escape). Leave in a warm spot for 4 to 12 hours until the starter becomes bubbly.
  4. Repeat this process two more times prior to baking using the same ratios prescribed above. It is important to have some idea how much sourdough starter you will require for your baking project (e.g., 3 to 4 cups to bake bread, etc.) so you don't make too much starter during this feeding process. To avoid making too much sourdough starter, discard some starter before each feeding or use excess starter to make Sourdough Pancakes.
  5. By the third feeding the starter should be very bubbly and rising to double its size within 4 to 8 hours of being fed. This indicates the yeast and bacteria are creating adequate gas to properly leaven your bread.
  6. Be sure to add some of your fresh sourdough starter back to your master sourdough culture (if you are keeping a separate master culture in the fridge). This ensures your master culture is properly fed for the week.

Hydration Levels 

You may come across the term “hydration level” when reading about sourdough and its starter. A hydration level, in the simplest of terms, just refers to the level of liquid in the sourdough starter as compared to the level of flour.

You will have a 100% hydration level if you are creating a starter with equal weights of flour to water. So you can assume that for every 8 ounces of starter, 4 ounces of it is considered liquid and 4 ounces is considered flour.

For the most part you shouldn’t have to worry about the percentages of hydration in a recipe if you stick with the 100% hydration starter.

For someone who is interested in the intricacies of baking and converting family recipes to sourdough recipes this may be useful as you can feed your starter up and down in hydration levels in order to achieve the desired baking effect. Additionally, understanding hydration levels may help you convert any recipe to use sourdough starter instead of commercial leavening.

 

 

                                                
   
Hot Homemade Sourdough Bread


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