Saturday, 18 March 2017

Sourdough Basics 102.1: Maintaining a starter - an update

I created my starter back in mid 2014.   It was my first foray into sourdough and I was very nervous.  I wrote a post about maintaining the starter back then.  A few years on I am happy to report that it is still alive and producing lovely bread.  Now I am more relaxed and am writing an update on starter maintenance from this perspective.

For those who are not familiar with maintaining a sourdough starter, one of the biggest challenges is using it regularly as it needs regular feeding to stay healthy and hence continues to grow.  If you don't use it regularly you either have an unhealthy starter or need to throw some of it out.  

Feeding the starter
It was a scary prospect once I had made my starter and had to keep it alive.  (Others also get a starter from a friend or buy it online.)  However I have kept up the feeding it usually every week with some longer periods when I am busy.  It usually lives in the fridge but will sit out at least 30 minutes after feeding.  I keep it in a plastic jug that holds about 1.25 litres and I usually have about 500-750mls of starter.

Unlike in my earlier post on starter maintenance, I now feed the starter based on need rather than a set amount but the weight of water always equals the weight of the flour.  I have an idea of the amount I usually have the jug which helps me work out how much I need.  If I use 300g of starter for bread, I feed 150g each of flour and water.  If there is not much starter left, I feed it generously.  And if I didn't use much starter, I don't feed it much.  I still used water that has been boiled and cooled. I use electronic scales to weigh it but I know people who use equal amounts in cup measures and don't even own scales.

I usually buy Wallaby flour - a white plain flour that is made for bread-making.  I keep a bottle of cooled boiled water that I keep topped up occasionally when the kettle has cooled.  For baking bread I find tap water is fine but I use the cooled boiled water for feeding the starter to make sure it doesn't get impurities into it.

I still follow the basic rules from my first post.  If the starter is warm, it needs more feeding, if the starter is cold it needs less feeding and if the starter smells unpleasantly sour it needs more feeding.  I have got to know how it should smell and how it shouldn't, how it looks when healthy and when not so good. 

Here are my three stages of feeding the sourdough starter (pictured above):
  • Just fed - when I feed the starter it is quite thick.  I don't worry if it is a little lumpy.  This can give the little wild yeasts more work to munch through the flour.
  • Ready to use - the starter is best to use when it is thick and stretchy with lots of large bubbles.  After a week in the fridge it is usually like this.  You can also leave it on the bench overnight, depending on the weather, to get this texture.
  • Hungry - when the starter gets thin and has clusters of tiny bubbles or is just a bit grey and watery on top.  This is usually after it has been in the fridge for over a week and a half.  The starter is hungry and desperate for a feed.
When starters need help
When the starter has been neglected too long, I usually just stir in any water on top and feed it.  The smell of the starter is a great way to check the health of the starter.  If it is ripe and yeasty then it is doing well.  If starts to smell over-ripe and/or reminds you of nail polish remover, it needs some TLC.

When I first made my starter I was so worried about killing it off.  Yet it has been quite resilient.  I have read that if your starter is poorly, it helps to reduce the starter to just a few tablespoons and feed it up.  This seems to work fine.  If it is not so great, my bread doesn't rise as well (see below photos of overnight sourdough bread dough) and the bread can taste a bit more sour but it still does us fine.  So now I worry less when it gets out of shape.  I know it doesn't take too much to help it back to good health.

Overnight sourdough bread dough using a neglected starter
Where to keep the starter
I keep my starter in the same plastic tub that I have had ever since I made it.  The tub fits in my fridge door nicely and has a lid that is not too tight (important as the gases will build up in the tub).  As you can see in the above photo, it gets pretty crusty around the top.  Sometimes the crustiness builds up in the lid, making it hard to close it, so I need to dig out or break off crustiness.  I sometimes wonder what this build up is like in the sourdoughs I hear of which are hundreds of years old.

Easy recipes help me use my starter more regularly
Having kept my starter alive for so long, especially during some busy periods, has only been possible by finding recipes that are quick to make and that we love to eat.  So many sourdough recipes online are complex with lots of steps. I have found recipes for bread, flatbreads and pizza dough that are straightforward and delicious.  I talk about them below.

Overnight sourdough bread dough using a healthy starter
Firstly I yet again am grateful to Celia for all her sourdough inspiration but particularly for her overnight sourdough bread recipe.  This is my regular bread recipe now.  It only requires a little planning and a little time the night before and then a bit of shaping and baking in the morning, given you have time to hang about while it rises and bakes for about 90-120 minutes.  It is a great recipe that has kept me baking sourdough bread regular, even when busy.

I have shared the two pictures of this bread dough to illustrate that the condition of the starter really does make a difference to the bread.  Both pictures are of the dough after sitting overnight.  I am lazy sometimes and just take the starter cold from the fridge.  It works much better when brought out of the fridge to sit at room temperature and get nicely bubbly.

Overnight sourdough bread
I have passed some starter to a few friends and my mum.  Of these, only my mum still uses hers.  She bakes bread every day or two.  I wish I could say I bake so regularly but I don't have energy to do it.  We still buy bread elsewhere as well.  However I don't spend lots of money on fancy sourdoughs.  I wish I could say I bake bread every week but that doesn't happen.  I usually use sourdough every week or so.  I use it enough that I don't need to just put some of the starter in the bin so I can feed it up.

Two of my favourite quick recipes that make an easy dinner and mean almost instant sourdough products are flatbreads and pizza.  I wrote about the flatbreads in my earlier starter maintenance post.  They are pretty quick and taste delicious warm off the frypan.  I have dabbled in sourdough tortillas but usually make these thicker flatbreads.  I have had a couple of goes at baking a pizza on one of these flabreads.  It worked well one one occasion but not on the other.

My very favourite pizza base is my fast track sourdough pizza.  While playing around with sourdough recipes, I found some that combine sourdough and commercial yeast.  This is great for getting the flavour of sourdough and the speed of packaged yeast.  I have adapted a pizza recipe to use my sourdough and it is on regular rotation in my house.  I don't need to plans ahead for hours to make pizza for dinner.

Pesto and cheese pizza for St Patrick's Day yesterday
As well having hit upon some great easy sourdough recipes, I continue to experiment when I have the time and energy.  Most of my breads are variations on the overnight sourdough bread.  Occasionally I throw the sourdough starter into another recipe such as scones, batter for dipping tofu nuggets, and cakes.  The more I do this, the more confident I become.

So in summary, I buy a lot more flour these days because I bake bread far more with sourdough than I would without the prompt of the starter.  The key to maintaining the starter is to feed it regularly and if you don't feed it as regularly as you would like, not to worry so much, but find some good easy recipes you can make with your starter.

Sourdough recipes
I leave you with some a list of recipes in which I have found sourdough works well.  I would love to hear if you have a favourite way of using up sourdough starter.


  1. One day I will make sourdough!

  2. Great tips Johanna! Mine died of neglect when I went away (hubby forgets to water plants and it was too much to ask him to do that). But one day I will have a starter again!

  3. You are dedicated! Mine also died of neglect. You always make great looking bread with it.

  4. Such an interesting post Johanna. I have still not got round to starters and sourdoughs. I am not sure I have the dedication to devote to such a needy beast. But if and when I do, I will come back to this post to make sense of it! x


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