I have a sourdough starter, now what? This is the most frequent question I get asked. So I am going to break it down for you so you can start baking delicious sourdough treats with your starter right away.
First of all, congratulations! On either making your own sourdough starter, purchasing one online or receiving one from a friend. You have an exciting journey ahead of you and I’m excited to help guide you as you begin.
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DO YOU STILL NEED A SOURDOUGH STARTER?
Before we get started, maybe you don’t even have a sourdough starter yet. If you do not have one, here is a Day by Day Guide to help make your own Sourdough Starter. It’s my most popular blog post, and for good reason. It’s very easy to follow and I break it up into very simple steps. If you’d like to learn more about the benefits of sourdough, check out my “Why Sourdough?“
What should I keep my sourdough starter in?
I keep my sourdough starter in a tall glass jar.
A tall jar is helpful because you can visibly watch the sourdough ferment as it rises up in the jar.
A glass jar is the easiest vessel to clean. Believe me, a sourdough starter can get a bit messy and the extras become like cement on the sides of the jar.
Do not use plastic for storing a sourdough starter. Plastic can leach into your sourdough starter and plastic also holds onto scents and flavors so anything previously stored in that container can contaminate your sourdough starter.
So just stick with glass 😉
Do NOT make this beginners mistake!!!
WARNING: *DO NOT use up all your starter in a single recipe! Why? Because then you will have nothing left to feed and regrow. This is such a common mistake for beginners. I have heard this story over and over again. So here is your PSA to always leave at least a teaspoon of starter behind in your jar to re-feed and grow again.
First things first: How to Feed your sourdough Starter
Okay let me preface by saying this is how I have successfully fed my sourdough starter for 5 years. Every single person finds their own groove when it comes to a feeding. However, when first starting out it is helpful to have someone else explain their process. I encourage you to branch off and find your own rhythm from here!
First things first, you will need a kitchen scale. Precision is key for beginners.
I mostly keep my sourdough starter on my counter. Therefore I need to feed it every 12 to 24 hours.
If I plan to bake with it the next day I will give it a feeding that will allow for enough starter to be made for both my recipe as well as having some leftover to regrow for its next feeding.
For example. If my recipe calls for 100 grams of sourdough starter I will feed my sourdough starter 55 grams flour and 50 grams water (I explain in another question why I use slightly less water).
I feed it near equal parts flour and water and make sure the grams weigh out to be the amount that the recipe calls for. This way I know I will have enough starter for my recipe and since I’ll be feeding the existing starter, I know there will be a few grams left behind to feed again after removing starter for the recipe.
If I do not plan to bake with my starter I still need to feed it since I leave mine on the counter. It gets “hungry” and needs to be fed. So I feed my starter every 12 hours and mostly give it a “maintenance feed”. This feeding is around 50 grams flour and 40 grams water.
Sometimes I may miss a feeding, that’s okay! If it goes 24 hours without a feeding it will become flat and more liquidy. Simply give it more flour than water at the next feeding and it will thicken back up.
What kind of water is best to use for sourdough?
Filtered water is best for sourdough. I have a Berkey Filtration System that filters our well water. I realize not everyone has this, but if you do then use this water!
If you have a reverse osmosis in your home or under your sink, this is fantastic water to use as well.
Spring water is a great store bough option. The gallons of water at the store are cheap and will last you a while. Purified water works well too but I would recommend spring over purified because the natural minerals are left in spring water verse purified where the minerals are added back in.
Do not use distilled water! This water is what I would call “dead” water because it has been stripped of everything good, minerals included.
Minerals are vital to a healthy sourdough starter so be sure the water you use is mineral rich and you will have a healthy, happy starter 😉
Why do I feed my starter more flour than water?
This is preference and a method that works for me. I used to feed my starter equal parts flour and water. Easy right? Yes! And you can totally do this. Most professionals do it this way.
But I have found that the water causes the starter to ferment quicker and weighs down my starter earlier, before I am ready to bake. I don’t like to use a runny starter for my recipes. So feeding my starter more flour creates an airy, pillowy starter that almost always passes the float test (more on the float test later). Which makes it prime for baking!
For example, if I’m just feeding my starter a maintenance feeding I will feed it 50 grams flour and 40 grams water. I tame back the water by about 10-20 grams depending on the feeding. If I feed it a large feeding of 100 grams flour I will only add 80 grams water.
Again, this is how I have found my own rhythm in feeding my starter. I encourage you to find what works for you.
What is active sourdough starter?
An active sourdough starter is a term you will read on a lot of recipes. This is a starter that has been fed in the last 12 hours, passes the float test and is ready to bake with.
*Do not try baking with your starter right after feeding it. Allow time for it to grow and feast on the flour before using it.
Starters are usually ready to bake with around 4-12 hours after a feeding depending on the amount you feed your starter. The larger the feeding, the more time it needs to ferment.
What is sourdough Discard?
This is a very confusing topic and one that I did not understand for far too long. So I hope to make this as simple as possible.
Discard is a portion of sourdough starter that is removed before each feeding. This removed portion is considered discard and can be used immediately to bake with.
However, some people will keep that removed portion of starter and place it into another jar in the fridge. That jar in the fridge begins to add up as you are constantly accumulating more and more sourdough discard after each feeding.
People will then use that “hotel of sourdough discard” in the fridge and add that to a recipe. That being the “discard” people write about in their recipes.
Personally I have found discard to be wasteful and an unnecessary extra step in the sourdough feeding.
I maintain a small amount of starter and do not create excess to discard because I am always using my starter to bake with. I simply place my starter into the fridge if I don’t plan to bake with it instead of leaving it out and having to feed it often.
2 exceptions I have when discarding:
- If I forget to feed my starter for two days the sourdough starter begins to “over sour”. It begins to have a nail polish remover or acetone scent to it. Needless to say it is not pleasant. I will not bake with that because it “over sours” my recipes. In this case I will remove about 90% of my starter and completely throw it away. I then feed my starter a maintenance feeding to bring it back to life and get rid of that sour smell.
- When my starter has been in the fridge for an extended period of time (let’s say I’m on vacation) the starter can start to separate. It’s a natural process but in this case I remove the top half of the starter and completely discard and throw it away.
What is Fed and Unfed Sourdough Starter?
This question bounces off of the last two: Active Sourdough Starter and Discard Sourdough starter.
Fed starter is a sourdough starter that has been fed and given flour and water within the last 12 hours. This is also what is called an active sourdough starter as I said above.
Unfed sourdough starter is sourdough starter that hasn’t been fed fresh flour and water in 24-48 hours. Or it may even be the discard sourdough starter in the fridge that I mentioned above. Unfed starter is lifeless and very sour flavored! If it is used, it may need a leavening agent like baking soda to help activate the recipe.
What is the Float test?
The float test is a simple method beginners can use to test if their sourdough starter is active enough to bake with.
Fill a small cup full with water. Remove about a teaspoon of your active starter and place it in the cup of water. If it floats, your starter is active and ready to bake with. If it sinks, give your starter another feeding and try again in about 4 hours. This test is not necessary each time you bake. It is really just a technique you can use to help you determine if your starter is active enough. The more you bake and get a feel for how your starter works, you will no longer need to do the float test.
I will say, I have used plenty of starter that would never pass the float test and yet my recipes still turn out. This is because I have a very active and mature starter that I leave on the counter all the time.
The yeasty microbes in my starter are strong enough to rise my breads even if they don’t pass the float test. So keep that in mind as you keep a mature starter of your own.
What if I miss a feeding?
It’s okay! Just feed as normal and move on. You are not tied like a ball and chain to your starter–I promise! It’s so resilient and will come back like normal.
I have gone more than 48 hours between a feeding before and it’s okay! If that happens, be aware that your starter will become very lifeless and liquidy. It may have some separation with water lying on the top. It will have a smell that may or may not burn your nostrils out–almost like an acetone nail polish remover smell. Do not be alarmed! And do not throw away your starter!
Remove 80-90% of your starter if it’s been a few days and throw away the starter you removed. Feed the remaining 10-20% that’s left in the jar. I usually feed it a maintenance feeding of 50 grams flour and 40 grams water. The starter will spring back by the next day. You may need to feed it 2 or 3 times to get it active enough for a bread bake but it will come back to life like nothing ever happened. Like I said–they’re so resilient!
Can I use different flour in my sourdough starter?
Yes! If your starter is made with wheat flour I recommend keeping the flour for feeding your starter in the wheat family. If you have a starter made from rye then keep it in the rye family. Know that I am talking about a wheat sourdough starter because that is what I am most experienced with.
You can feed your starter the following flours:
- Whole Grain
- Whole Wheat
- Unbleached All Purpose
- Einkorn, Kamut
- As long as it’s in the wheat family it’s fair game for your starter.
This is not a gluten-free sourdough stater! I do not recommend feeding your wheat starter with gluten- free flour either. They are not equivalent.
How long should I wait after a feeding before using it?
I wait about 4-12 hours after a feeding before using my sourdough starter. You will know when your starter has peaked if it has a slight domed peak at the top. At this point it has eaten through all its flour and will begin to fall after this.
Be sure to bake with your starter after it has peaked. Then you know it is active enough because it has eaten through all the flour in its feeding and it is ready to feast off more flour in a bread recipe.
When to put my sourdough starter in the fridge?
When you are not planning to bake with your sourdough starter, put it in the fridge covered tightly. This is a way to “pause” your sourdough starter until you’re ready to bake with it again.
I place mine into the fridge when I don’t need to bake anything for a few days. Because if it sits on the counter I have to feed it to maintain. But if you place it in the fridge you do not have to feed it. So this “pause” makes sense so you don’t build up excess sourdough starter.
I do not recommend placing your starter into the fridge right after a feeding. Give it time to ferment on the counter and feast through all its flour before covering and placing into the fridge.
Once you remove your sourdough starter from the fridge you can give it a normal feeding immediately and let it ferment on your counter. It will come right back to life after several hours.
This is a great option for people who choose to bake on the weekends. They can leave their starters in the fridge all week and by Friday give it a feeding in the morning and in the evening and by Saturday morning it will be ready to bake with.
How long can I leave my sourdough starter in the fridge for?
A long time! And by that I mean several months! I go by the sniff test. If it smells good and there is no visible mold, it’s still good!
There are also visible signs to look out for when keeping it in the fridge for a long period of time. Separation occurs and is normal! The water starts to separate and leaves a grayish black, watery layer resting on the top of the starter. The technical name for this layer is called “hooch” and this separation is nothing to fear. It is normal and is your starters way of telling you it’s hungry–FEED ME!
Simply discard this hooch layer and a portion of the starter underneath and completely throw it away. Then feed your starter as you normally would. It may take a few feedings to bring it back but give it time and it will come alive again.
If you leave your starter in the fridge, some people recommend removing it and giving it a feeding once a week, or once every few weeks to keep it going. Honestly, in my experience I do not find this necessary. If it’s covered and placed in the back of the fridge it will be just fine for 6 months or longer!
Quick story: I brought some sourdough starter to my mother in laws house to use while we were visiting them. She tucked it away and left it in the back of her fridge for 9 months. My sister in law found it 9 months later, discarded the top portion, fed it, and after a few feedings the starter came back like it was never dormant for all that time. Isn’t that fascinating?
I’m like a broken record over here but sourdough starters are hard to kill!
What is Hooch?
Hooch is the natural separation that occurs in a sourdough starter when it’s left in the fridge. It is the grayish black, watery layer that rests on top of the sourdough starter. This is normal and nothing to fear. Your starter is basically screaming at you – FEED ME!
Some people will mix this back into their starter along with the next feeding. Personally I will remove that hooch layer, along with a good portion of the starter below. I will then feed my starter a large feeding to bring it back to life. If your starter was in the fridge for an extended period of time it may take several feedings to bring it back to an active starter.
Sourdough Recipe Terminology Explained:
Levain or leaven: This is a small portion of your sourdough starter removed and added to another jar. It’s then given a high portion feeding of flour and water. This levain grows and becomes very active creating a stronger starter to use in your breads. You can just use your sourdough starter in place of a levain. In my sourdough bread recipe I have an option for creating a levain. It was something I used to do. However, now that I maintain a smaller sourdough starter, I already have an active enough starter to rise my breads. I found there to be no difference in using straight sourdough starter or making a levain first. So personally I just skip the levain part and just use straight sourdough starter.
Sourdough Sponge: This is another word for a ferment. Essentially you mix together several ingredients along with a sourdough starter for a recipe. This mixture rests and ferments on your counter for several hours. In the end it’s considered a “sponge”. Which makes sense because the mixture is usually a thick spongelike, airy and hole filled consistency.
Earlier in this post I explained active sourdough starter as well as sourdough discard. These are the few baking terms that I personally use in my recipes. However, there are dozens more and I don’t want to lead you astray.
Here is a full glossary of sourdough baking terms that you may find as you brows other recipes. This is very helpful and I highly recommend giving this a read if you’re a beginner. Or at least reference this list if you have any questions in the future:
Nervous to start?
The best way to learn is to do! Tell yourself it will be a learning curve but you can do it! You’ll only regret not starting sooner 😉
I hope you find this post helpful. And if you find you have a question that I haven’t answered for you, please comment your question below so I can assist you and maybe even add your question to this post too.