New to sourdough baking? Here's all you need to know about maintaining sourdough starter and what to do with your sourdough starter discard.
So you've decided to start baking sourdough bread.
Welcome to the dark side! We have cookies...and Sourdough Gingerbread.
You might be wondering what exactly you've gotten yourself into? Maybe you've heard the term "sourdough starter discard" and have wondered what that meant.
Or perhaps you've heard about the need to "feed your starter." What, like a baby?
In a word, yes.
I've been maintaining my sourdough starter for years, and I'm here to give you an easy-to-follow guide to baking with sourdough starter.
Let's have at it, shall we?
It's all about the yeast
Any story about sourdough starter has to...uhm...start with yeast. They're a living organism that occurs naturally in the environment.
While the commercial yeast you buy in the store (i.e., baker’s yeast) has been “domesticated,” yeast in the wild varies by location.
Long ago people learned to capture the yeast and nurture it, feeding it flour and water to create a bubbly living starter, and then used bits of that starter in their bread.
If you want to bake bread without commercial yeast, you'll need to use the wild yeast in sourdough starter.
What is sourdough starter?
The tangy character of sourdough bread comes from the yeast that had been captured from the local environment at a point in time. Some sourdough starters available today are descended from a starter more than a century old.
And as that starter is fed and used, it adapts itself to the local region and climate, creating a bread that is unique. That’s the reason San Francisco sourdough bread is so distinctive.
Most sourdough starters have a recipe ratio of 1 to 1 flour and water by weight. In other words, it's 50% flour and 50% water. You can also say that the flour has a 100% hydration level.
I say "most" because you can have different hydration levels in a starter based on baker preference or the flour itself.
You can use different types of flours for different types of sourdough starter. I use King Arthur Baking's unbleached all-purpose flour to maintain my starter, which has a higher protein level than most all-purpose flours. You can also use whole wheat flour, rye flour, bread flour, etc, as your flour of choice. Just be consistent and use the same type each time, if possible.
Since my sourdough starter has that 1 to 1 ratio, that's what I'm going to stick to for the purposes of this discussion. Your mileage may vary.
How to maintain sourdough starter
So as we said earlier, yeast is a living thing. In order to keep the yeast alive in the starter, you have to feed them. Our baking ancestors didn't know that it was yeast that made their bread rise, but they did know that if they didn't tend to their starter, their bread would be more like a doorstop.
Dead yeast does that.
There are two ways of feeding sourdough starter. Actually there's just one way to feed the starter, it's how often you feed it that will alter the method slightly.
The frequency you choose will depend on how often you plan to bake with your starter.
Method 1: Daily feeding
If you're going to be baking with sourdough starter frequently, then you can keep it on your counter in a warm place. The yeast will continue to feed on the starches in the flour, so a daily feeding will be necessary.
Even if you keep your starter on the counter, you'll still want to make sure it's fed before using it for bread. Just factor about 2 hours of resting time after feeding before you start your sourdough bread dough. And don't forget to replenish the crock with more flour and water to make up for what you've just taken.
Method 2: Weekly feeding
I don't bake sourdough bread very often but I still have to keep my starter alive, so I maintain my sourdough starter by storing it in the refrigerator. Think of it like putting the yeast into suspended animation.
When I go to feed the cold starter, I'm basically waking up the yeast.
So after feeding, the starter needs to sit on the counter for 2 to 4 hours to ensure that the yeast is active. You'll know because the starter will be bubbly with a nice yeasty smell, and will have risen up in the container.
At this point you have a "fed sourdough starter". If you're going to bake with it now, just remove the amount you need and repeat the feeding process to replace what you've taken.
If you're not going to use the starter now, return it to the refrigerator until the next feeding time.
By the way, be sure to hit SUBSCRIBE in the menu above to receive my recipe for Extra-Tangy Sourdough Bread using just fed sourdough starter (no commercial yeast).
Such tangy goodness, I can't even.
How to use the sourdough starter discard
You'll notice that the first thing you do when feeding sourdough starter is that you remove some. Why?
Well, if you don't, the starter will grow to the point it will take over a small city.
(Oh no! The starter that ate Cincinnati!)
The starter that you remove before feeding is the "unfed sourdough starter" (aka sourdough starter discard).
Some people choose to throw away the starter (hence the term "discard"). I don’t like to waste anything, and this is where creativity comes in to it.
I've developed many ideas that use the unfed starter, like bagels, pretzels, shortcrust pastry, rye bread, and pizza dough. Plus there are sweet pastries like pumpkin cake, banana bread, spice cake, and the aforementioned gingerbread.
Or, simply give your discard to a friend so they can create their own starter!
Measure your ingredients carefully
Please note the emphasis on the words by weight when I talked about what sourdough starter is. If you were to mix one cup of flour and one cup of water, you'd have a much different ratio.
Why? Because a cup of flour weighs 120 grams (about 4¼ ounces), while a cup of water weights 227 grams (8 ounces). So that volume measurement of flour to water would be closer to 1 to 2 flour to water, or a hydration level of 53%. That changes things significantly!
The best thing to do is to get yourself a kitchen scale. I use mine constantly. It’s much more accurate than using volume measurements because the weight of one person’s lightly sifted cup of flour can differ significantly from another’s packed cup of flour.
It's also helpful to have a digital thermometer to check the water temperature before you go adding it to the unfed starter, especially when you're just starting out. A good temperature range is about 100 to 120°F.
If the water is too cold, the yeast will be sluggish and won't rise well. Too hot, and you've just killed the yeast you've been trying to nurture!
Questions asked and answered
Here are some other questions that you might have about the care and feeding of sourdough starter...
Sourdough starter can be a mother (i.e. freshly created) or a child (the discard from an established colony). Indeed, some sourdough starters available today are descended from a starter more than a century old!
You can get your starter from a friend, a reputable company like King Arthur Baking, or start some yourself.
I like a crock for the starter. It keeps the starter protected. An airtight plastic bin also works well. Just make sure that whatever vessel you use, it has enough room in it for the starter to get active and bubbly after it's been fed.
If you keep your starter in the refrigerator, you can get away with missing a week or maybe even two, but not much longer than that. When you do feed it again, add the flour and water once, let it get bubbly on the counter for 4 hours, then discard some and feed it again. Allow the starter to get bubbly once more, then you can refrigerate it knowing that the yeast is well and truly alive and active.
You can use the sourdough starter discard as you normally would.
Normal, active starter will have a yeasty or even pungent smell. That just means it needs to be fed. If it's been kept in the refrigerator for a while, you might notice that there may be a bit of light amber or clear liquid on top. This is alcohol from the fermenting yeast, and is perfectly fine.
If you notice a strong, moldy or off-putting smell (like something rotten), or it has a pink or orange tint or streak, this is a sure sign that your sourdough starter has died. Don't use it! Just throw it away and get a new batch of sourdough starter. And be a little more attentive next time.
Further reading about sourdough
I've only covered the basics of maintaining a healthy sourdough starter for baking sourdough bread, but there's so much more to know.
I love King Arthur Baking as a resource, and they have a wonderful Sourdough Baking Guide that goes into much more depth than I have here. Peruse at your leisure.
Sourdough starter does require some love and attention, but you will be rewarded with baked goods that reflect your unique baking style and environment.
Welcome to the wonderful world of sourdough!
Slainté! L’chaim! Cheers!
When you maintain a sourdough starter, you have a dilemma. What do you do with your unfed sourdough starter discard? I've got lots of suggestions for sweet and savory ways to use your fed sourdough starter and the sourdough starter discard. Here are a few samples...
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How to feed sourdough starter
- 2 cups sourdough starter, unfed, chilled or room temperature
- 1 scant cup all-purpose flour, see Recipe Notes
- ½ cup water, warmed to 100 to 120°F
- Remove the unfed sourdough starter from the refrigerator if that's where it's kept.
- There may be a bit of light amber or clear liquid on top. Stir it back in to the starter or drain it off, your choice. Either way, it’s alcohol from the fermenting yeast and is perfectly fine. If you notice a strong, moldy or off-putting smell (like something rotten), or it has a pink or orange tint or streak, this is a sure sign that your sourdough starter has died. Don't use it! Just throw it away and get a new batch of sourdough starter.
- Place a 2-cup container on a kitchen scale and remove 1 cup (227g) of the unfed sourdough starter from your sourdough container. This is the unfed sourdough starter (aka sourdough starter discard). If you reuse the discard, loosely cover it and set aside.
- Warm in water in a microwave-safe measuring cup for 30 seconds or until it's warmed to 100 to 120°F as read on a digital thermometer.
- Place the sourdough starter container on the scale. Measure 1 scant cup (113g) of all-purpose flour (see Recipe Notes) and add it to the starter. Next, measure ½ cup (113g) of water. Stir well. Cover and set aside.
- Allow the starter to rest at room temperature (about 70°F) for 2 to 4 hours, or until it's bubbly with a nice yeasty smell, and will have risen up in the container. This means the yeast is active and feeding.
- At this point you have a fed sourdough starter. If you're going to bake with the starter now, remove the amount you need and repeat the feeding process to replace what you've just taken. If you're not going to use the starter now, just return it to the refrigerator (if that's where it's kept) until the next feeding time.