How to Maintain the Sourdough Starter

PJ Hamel wrote . . . . . . . .

How’s your starter doing?

Fresh sourdough starter is a wonderful resource. Bread, pancakes, waffles, cake… there are so many delicious directions you can take with sourdough.

The key: maintaining your sourdough starter so that it’s healthy, happy, and ready to go when you are.

Once you’ve successfully created your starter, you’ll need to feed it regularly.

If you bake a lot of sourdough treats, you may want to keep it on your counter, at room temperature. While this means feeding it twice a day, it also means your starter will be ready to bake with at the drop of a hat (er, oven mitt).

However, many of us don’t want the commitment of twice-a-day feedings. If you’re a more casual sourdough baker, it’s possible to store your starter in the refrigerator, feeding it just once a week.

Let’s take a look at both methods.

But first, a word of advice. Sourdough baking is as much art as science. This method for maintaining sourdough starter is just one of many you might choose to follow. It doesn’t exactly match the process in our Baker’s Companion cookbook, nor some of our recipes online, nor what your neighbor down the street does. And that’s OK.

If you have a process you’ve successfully followed before, then hey, stick with it. Or try this one and compare. All good.

Maintaining your starter at room temperature

Room temperature is the best environment for the yeast and lactobacilli that inhabit your starter, and you can learn a lot about your starter by observing a twice-a-day feeding regimen with the starter at room temperature.

If you’re willing to maintain your starter at room temperature by feeding it twice a day, here’s how:

Stir the starter well and discard all but 1/2 cup (4 ounces). Add 4 ounces non-chlorinated, room-temperature water (hereafter known simply as “water”) and 4 ounces King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour (hereafter known simply as “flour”) to the 1/2 cup of starter. Mix until smooth, and cover. Repeat every 12 hours.
A note about room temperature: the colder the environment, the more slowly your starter will grow. If the normal temperature in your home is below 68°F, we suggest finding a smaller, warmer spot to develop your starter.

For instance, try setting the starter atop your water heater, refrigerator, or another appliance that might generate ambient heat. Or, set it near a heat source (baseboard heater, etc.).

Another option: set the container of starter on a folded dish towel laid atop a heating pad on its lowest setting.

Maintaining your starter in the refrigerator

For most home bakers, daily feeding is impractical; so you’ll need to store your starter in the refrigerator, and feed it once a week.

Take the starter out of the fridge. There may be a bit of light amber or clear liquid on top. Either drain this off, or stir it in, your choice; it’s alcohol from the fermenting yeast.

Remove all but 4 ounces starter. Use this “discard” to make pancakes, waffles, cake, pizza, flatbread, or another treat; Buttery Sourdough Buns is one of my favorite “unfed” sourdough recipes. Or, simply give to a friend so they can create their own starter.

Add 4 ounces lukewarm water and 4 ounces flour to the remaining starter. Mix until smooth, and cover.

Allow the starter to rest at room temperature (about 70°F) for 2 to 4 hours; this gives the yeast a chance to warm up and get feeding. After about 2 hours, refrigerate.

Getting ready to bake

If you’ve been maintaining your starter at room temperature, you may want to increase the volume of starter to the amount needed for your recipe. You can do this by feeding your starter without discarding; or by discarding, and feeding it 8 ounces flour and 8 ounces water.

If your starter has been refrigerated, you’ll want to both increase its volume, and raise its activity to a more energetic level. You can do this by giving it a couple of feedings at room temperature.

Take the starter out of the fridge, discard all but 4 ounces, and feed it as usual with 4 ounces water and 4 ounces flour. Let it rest at room temperature for about 12 hours, until bubbly. Repeat as necessary, every 12 hours, until you notice the starter doubling or tripling in volume in 6 to 8 hours. That means it’s strong enough to leaven bread.

For the final feeding, make sure you add enough flour and water to use in your recipe, with a little left over to feed and maintain the starter for the next time you bake.

For instance, if your recipe calls for 1 cup (about 8 ounces) starter, add 4 ounces each water and flour. If your recipe calls for 2 cups (about 16 ounces) starter, add 8 ounces each water and flour.

Once the starter is bubbling and vigorous, remove what you’ll need for the recipe and set it aside. Feed the remaining starter with 4 ounces flour and 4 ounces water. Mix until smooth, and allow the starter to work for about 2 hours at room temperature before putting it back in the refrigerator.

Troubleshooting your starter

Living creatures sometimes get sick, be they humans, pets, or even sourdough starter. If you find yourself becoming a sourdough doctor, here are some symptoms and possible cures:

If your starter lacks acidity

Feed with half whole-rye (pumpernickel) flour or whole wheat flour for a few days. The extra nutrition in the bran and germ can increase the starter’s acidity.

Be sure your starter has a chance to ripen (develop) fully before it receives another feeding; before you use it in a recipe, or before refrigerating it. An ideal feeding regimen for a starter kept at room temperature (in the low 70s) is two feedings a day at 12-hour intervals.

Find a slightly warmer (in the mid 70s) area in which to ripen the starter after its feeding.

If your sourdough is too acidic

You may be letting the starter ripen too long before using it. Once your starter is bubbling and vigorous, it’s time to make bread, feed it again, or refrigerate until its next feeding. Don’t let it become bubbly, rise, and then fall and start to “calm down;” that’s adding acidity to its flavor. Reduce the duration of ripening as necessary.

Ripen your starter in a slightly cooler area, so it doesn’t digest its meal of flour and water too quickly.

Reviving a dormant or neglected starter

Sometime you may find yourself with a starter that’s gone far too long without a feeding.

Covered in a clear, dark liquid (alcohol, a by-product of yeast that’s been deprived of oxygen), the starter will lack bubbles or other signs of activity, and will have a very sharp aroma.

Although the starter appears lifeless, its microflora will spring into action again as soon as they get a few good meals.

Stir the liquid back into the starter. Discard all but 4 ounces, and set the bowl or crock on the counter; you’re going to be leaving it at room temperature (at least 70°F) for awhile.

Feed the starter 1/2 cup (4 ounces) water and a scant 1 cup (4 ounces) all-purpose flour twice a day, discarding all but 1/2 cup (4 ounces) of the starter before each feeding. It should soon become healthy, bubbly, and active.

Sourdough starters are hearty, and easily resist spoilage due to their acidic nature. The pH of a sourdough starter discourages the proliferation of harmful microorganisms.

However, if your starter turns ominously pink or red; shows signs of mold growth, or smells decidedly putrid, throw it away and begin again. Luckily, in our experience, this rarely happens.

OK, after all of that – how about baking some sourdough bread? Our Rustic Sourdough Bread is a great place to start.

Source: King Arthur Flour

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The History of Sourdough Bread

Vanessa Kimbell wrote . . . . . . . .

Bread is older than metal; even before the bronze age, our ancestors were eating and baking flat breads. There is evidence of neolithic grinding stones used to process grains, probably to make a flat bread; but the oldest bread yet found is a loaf discovered in Switzerland, dating from 3500 BCE. The use of leavening was discovered and recorded by the the Egyptians; there is some discussion about how this process happened, and the degree to which there was an overlap between brewing and bread-making, but obviously without a handy time machine it’s going to remain one a debating point among historians of ancient food. What is not in doubt is that the ancient Egyptians knew both the brewing of beer and the process of baking leavened bread with use of sourdough, as proved by wall paintings and analyses of desiccated bread loves and beer remains (Rothe et al., 1973; Samuel, 1996).

Wild yeast is used in cultures all over the world in food preparations that are so seeped in culture and history that they have been made long before any form of written words. The Sudanese, for example make kisra (fermented dough made with sorghum), The Ethiopians use wild yeast to make injera (teff), Mexicans make pool a fermented corn drink, Ghanaian kenkey and Nigerian use fermentation for their maize to make ogi, Indian idli breakfast cakes, made with rice, beans or chickpeas, and the Turkish make bona `( a ferment drink) generally with wheat, maize, sorghum, or millet and Nigerians ferment the cassava to make gari or fufu with.

Until the time of the development of commercial yeasts, all leavened bread was made using naturally occurring yeasts – i.e. all bread was sourdough, with it’s slower raise. Indeed, one of the reasons given for the importance of unleavened bread in the Jewish faith is that at the time of the exodus from Egypt, there wasn’t time to let the dough rise overnight.

From Egypt, bread-making also spread north to ancient Greece, where it was a luxury product first produced in the home by women, but later in bakeries; the Greeks had over 70 different types of bread, including both savoury and sweetened loaves, using a number of varieties of grain. The Romans learned the art of bread from the Greeks, making improvements in kneading and baking. The centrality of bread to the Roman diet is shown by Jevenal’s despair that all the population wanted was bread and circuses (panem et circenses). We have sourdough recipes from seventeenth century France using a starter which is fed and risen three times before adding to the dough. The French were obviously far more interested in good tasting bread over an easy life for the baker.

The introduction of commercial yeasts in the nineteenth century was to the detriment of sourdough breads, with speed and consistency of production winning. By 1910, Governmental bills preventing night work and restricting hours worked made more labour intensive production less sustainable, and in response, the bakers moved again towards faster raising breads, such as the baguette. It’s only since the nineteen eighties that there has been demand again for sourdoughs in the UK, to the extent that in 1993, regulations were issued defining what could be sold as a sourdough bread. In Germany, again, the use of sourdough was universal until brewers yeasts became common in the fourteen and fifteen hundreds. The overlap between brewing and baking was reflected in monasteries producing both bread and beer, using the heat of the oven to dry malted gain and the yeast to raise the bread. However, the big difference was that in Germany, sourdoughs continued to be used for rye breads, even as bakers’ yeasts became more popular for all other types.

While yeast is still used with rye flours, the sourdough is used to increase acidity, which prevents starches from degrading. This use in Germany is also seen in other countries with a strong rye bread tradition; Scandinavian countries and the Baltic states. Like France, the Germans have regulatory protection of what can be sold as sourdough.

The prospectors and explorers in the United States in the nineteenth century were referred to as sourdoughs as it was a practice to keep the mother leavening on your person, to make sure it didn’t freeze in the bitter winters. Personally I think that it was to get the yeast’s going, with the warmth so they would be more active and make better bread rather than as a freezing prevention measure. As a result, the bread in San Francisco was predominately sourdough, with bakeries such as the Boudin Bakery still baking today after having been founded in the mid nineteenth century.

Here in the UK, greater and earlier urbanisation, and the later invention of the Chorleywood process enabling the mass production of bread using softer English wheats moved baking away from small scale and artisanal production towards larger industrial methods. However, with the current triumph of television baking, and a re-invigoration of interest in the quality of the food we eat after the nadir of the post war period, interest in sourdoughs from smaller bakeries and home production is once again on the rise.

Source: The Sourdough School