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:
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.
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:
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:
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.