Making Sourdough Fit Your Life

Maintaining a sourdough starter can sometimes feel like adding an additional family member. Remembering to feed it regularly and allowing for adequate rising times may seem burdensome, but it doesn’t have to. Here are some suggestions for making sourdough fit your schedule instead of ruling your life.

Letting a starter go too long without being fed or refreshed can cause it to take on an undesirable flavor that is hard to get rid of, especially if it is a whole-grain flour starter, like spelt or whole wheat. While it may be ideal to maintain your culture regularly, life happens. You may go on an extended vacation, get too busy to tend to your starter, or just get tired of baking every week. A good option for these instances is to mix a dry starter.

Making a Dry Starter

  • Remove 6 ounces (about 2/3 cup) from a fresh, active culture. Place this starter in a medium-size bowl and add 2 cups of flour. If you are working with a whole wheat starter, use whole wheat flour; add unbleached white flour to a white flour starter. Work the flour into the starter, using your hands if necessary, until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Add additional flour if needed to get the correct consistency. This “dry” starter can now be placed in a zipper-style bag or a glass jar with a lid and stored in the refrigerator for up to a month. (It is possible to store a dried starter for even longer before it becomes acidic enough to kill the culture.)
  • About 48 hours before you are ready to bake again, remove the starter from the refrigerator and place the crumbs in a medium-size bowl. Add 1 cup of lukewarm water and stir. Cover loosely and let sit out at room temperature for about 30 minutes to absorb the water. Stir again, adding additional water or flour to make the starter look more like it did before it was dried. Resume the normal feeding schedule, adding equal proportions of starter, flour, and water by weight. If you are using cup measurements instead of weight, add 1 part water and a scant 2 parts flour to 1 part starter. Repeat feeding the culture two more times, about 8 hours apart, for a total of three feedings. (Don’t worry if it goes 10 or 12 hours between feedings; it will still work.) Your starter is now fresh and ready to bake with.

Once you have used the fresh starter to mix your bread dough you’ll need to allow adequate time for it to rise (proof) before baking. Most sourdoughs benefit from at least an 8-hour rise time. You can adjust this time upward or downward depending on how sour you like the bread (see article on Manipulating the Sourness of Sourdough), the percentage of starter culture used in the dough, and the ambient rise temperature. While only one rise is essential, often it is easier to refrigerate the dough after mixing it, allowing it to have one slow, cool rise and another warmer rise at room temperature right before you are ready to bake. Rather than having to stop whatever you are doing to tend to your bread dough, you can shape it, give it the second quick rise at room temperature, and bake it when it fits your schedule.

Another option is to let the dough rise for about an hour before shaping into loaves, then put the loaves in the refrigerator to rise slowly, again baking at your convenience. If the refrigerated loaves seem to have risen too much, just reshape them and let them rise again. Dough that is over-risen will often flatten in the baking process and have a crumbly texture. To determine if the dough has over-risen, press your finger into the side of the loaf. If the loaf starts to deflate it has risen too long and will benefit by being reshaped. Once you have baked a few over-risen loaves you’ll have a good eye for what the loaf should look like. You should bake the bread within 24 hours of the initial mixing, but you don’t have to be tethered to the kitchen the whole time, afraid of letting the dough rise too long.

Many sourdough recipes can be proofed in the refrigerator, freeing you up to bake when it is convenient. Some doughs can even be mixed, proofed, and then frozen to be baked at a later date. (Sourdough Rosemary Cracker dough works especially well with this technique.) Don’t be afraid to experiment with your sourdough recipes to find which ones are the most flexible. Most of all, don’t let your sourdough starter intimidate you! It’s really quite forgiving.


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