I’ve been playing around with sourdough starter since 2014 and my loaf success rate has gone from 30% to about 70% over the years. I still get an oddly dense, underproved loaf every so often, which usually is relatively tasty (or, at least, edible) toasted or turned into french toast or bread pudding.
I tossed out my first, dear Bubbles after neglecting them for many months at a time, working in outdoor education and roaming 2016-2017.
In 2018, I acquired a small jar of starter once again, and have since taken more care to keep them going (no, I haven’t named them).
This means I’ve also given away jars of starter, followed by sharing various links to the nerdery I’ve ingested over the years. The thing is, many of the highly technical instructions out there involve creating massive amounts of starter, and also tossing it out. I am highly waste-averse, so I’ve adopted some more conservative techniques for growing & keeping my starter.
But first, let’s talking about keeping that little gift “alive.” I use quotation marks because the yeast and bacteria in a starter are always multiplying and dying off. So even a long-neglected starter has dormant yeast in there, just waiting for a sprinkle of flour and sip of water.
I keep my starter in the fridge in a 16oz jar. It’s a good idea to put a layer of waxed or parchment paper between the jar and the lid. The lid gets crusty after a while without it. Take care to scrape down the mouth of the jar after mixing. If I’m mindful, I can reuse the paper and jar a long time.
This jar is also where I keep my “discard” (more on that later).
What’s happening in the jar:
The yeast and bacteria culture are feeding on flour and water, then multiplying (and also dying). Depending on temperature and amount of water, this process can go quickly or slowly. The warmer and the more water, the faster they digest flour, creating bubbles & “hooch,” that sharp-smelling gray/brown liquid that gathers at the top of the jar. Keeping the jar in the fridge slows this activity until you’re ready to use it.
When I am not planning to bake, I just add a spoonful each of flour and water to the jar every week or two. If you have a small amount of starter, you may want to do this weekly until the culture grows to about half the jar (8oz). If you have a larger amount, it will remain stable longer, and you can let it go for a month or more without attention. I try not to let the jar get more than 2/3rds full (generally, I use it up by making pancakes).
I keep my starter fairly thick, about the consistency of thick brownie batter. I’ve found it lasts longer that way.
Grey liquid on top:
If you leave your starter without feeding it for a long time, you’ll notice a dark liquid on top. This does not mean your starter has gone bad! This is the accumulated byproduct of the bacteria and yeast culture. You can pour it off or mix it back in when you decide to feed it. I usually just mix it back in.
Dry, white layer on top:
Recently, after a many-months-long period without baking or feeding, I noticed that the top had completely dried out, and there was a thick, dry, bubbly layer on top. I freaked out. Then put the jar down and did some research.
I peeled that thick layer off and scooped a spoonful of the starter beneath into a fresh jar. I added double the amount of water and flour, and left it on the counter to re-activate for a few hours before throwing it back in the fridge. I scraped the remnants of the old jar into the compost bin somewhat regretfully.
The culture did its thing, and grew, and I’m still using it.
Okay, let’s start there. I’ll get to the baking part soon.
- The Fresh Loaf bread forum is where I usually lurk with my sourdough questions.
- Cultures for Health is a great resource.
- Breadwerx (advanced) is a place to read some wonderful truly-madly-deeply nerdy bread essays & recipes. This article about mixing is one of my favorites, along with this meditation on benchwork. The videos are good, too. The site hasn’t been updated in a while, but the author is active on Instagram.