Sourdough Starter Maintenance & Use & Other Details

There’s lots of info out there on how to baby our starter. Well… I’ve been conducting experiments to figure out how littleI can baby my starter (and still have it turn out amazing bread).

In the process, I determined that my husband and I do not want to have to make pancakes every few days with the starter discard. And, making crackers with the discard seemed like too much work (to eat and to make…).

Now you might be fine with either of those solutions, to use up the starter discard that accumulates. If not, you might appreciate some of my discoveries. On just how little time we have to spend taking care of these starters…

Stiff Starter: 1/4 c. starter, 1/3 c. water, 1/2 c. wheat/rye flour blendI already had my starter. But early on, I’d heard that it’s so resilient, you could ignore it for months, and it would probably still come back to life. One blogger reported that she had some years-old starter in the fridge, and it was still good. I guess it’s true that it might still be “good” enough to revive, but not necessarily to use to leaven a loaf of bread on the spot.

So in the old days, I was pretty casual about feeding my starter, feeding a refrigerated starter once a week. But my overly-sour bread was starting to make me sad. I really wanted to make some artisan-style bread- the kind with incredible flavor, custardy, open crumb inside, and chewy, crusty crust.

So I read up on bread and changed my method. I left my starter out in a warm place, and fed it twice daily. This new, lively started made some really good breads, even if I was to refine the method a bit more as time went on.

Now here are some scientific facts to chew on, and maybe inspire you too:

  • Starter gets a more acidic, sour flavor when it grows slowly under refrigeration, since the cold encourages the production of acetic acid. Some folks may prefer this, so keep that in mind.
  • Besides temperature, frequency of feedings also affects flavor, by changing the balance of yeast and bacteria in the starter. Fed less often, bacteria will proliferate, eventually making for a very sour bread. Fed more often, in a warm environment (like in an oven with the light left on, if necessary), and yeast takes the lead. I suppose that’s why my recent breads received rave reviews. I babied the starter for weeks, feeding it every night and morning after discarding half, while it multiplied happily in a warm spot. My one son said of one recent loaf, “I think this is the best bread you’ve ever made. I mean, wait- I think it’s the best bread I’ve ever had. In my life.” Wow, that’s high praise.
  • Another thing to consider: Moisture. The almost-buttery flavor of lactic acid likes a moist environment. A more-liquid starter might help promote this, although I’ve still had excellent flavor using a stiff starter with a moist dough. Still, something to keep in mind.
  • Use unchlorinated water. (I have a Berkey, which gives me wonderful water for all my fermentation needs- kombucha, kefir, and sourdough.) The chlorine in a lot of tap water will kill some of the starter critters you’re trying to encourage.
  • Whole-grain flour will encourage more of the good yeasts and bacterias. (Unbleached, all-purpose flour can also work, if necessary.) “Hard red winter wheat”, “hard white wheat” and “hard red spring wheat” are all options. (I use these red wheat berries for my starter.) Soft winter wheat, either red or white, is better for pastries and cake-making, so skip those.
  • Rye has amazing qualities of its own, making it particularly good to include in starter-feedings. I use a blend of half wheat and half rye berries, grinding those into a flour for starter feedings, keeping the extra in the freezer for future feedings.
  • About stiff and liquid starters: Many folks say an artisan bread is best made with a stiff starter, so I turned my liquid starter into a stiff starter, which has about three parts flour to a two parts water by weight, or almost double the volume of flour to water by the cup. (Maurizio from “The Perfect Loaf” goes into detail here and has a helpful, in-depth post on starter maintainace, here.) Liquid starter, on the other hand, has a ratio of about two parts flour to 3 parts water by weight, or equal parts flour to water by volume.

Sourdough Starter Maintenance

Remove some starter at each feeding, so that the starter being fed, which might be left outon the counter, continues to be very active. This makes for good bread!

Refrigerate the excess starter that’s removed before each feeding. Let it accumulate in a container, to use for crackers or pancakes. OR, as I’ve recently discovered, add it to the next loaf of artisan bread, along with some of the active starter. It shouldn’t compromise the flavor, if there isn’t too much of the stuff.

To avoid an overabundance of the “starter discard”, reduce the amount of starter left in the jar before each feeding. Leave a tablespoon or less of starter in the jar, adding just a tablespoon or so of flour, plus a half tablespoon of water. This should keep the starter-discard pile from getting too ginormous.

Another management tip: Refrigerate that small jar of starter for a half day or more here and there, to no ill effect. The wonderful flavors found in the perfect starter don’t seem to suffer from some refrigeration; just bring the jar back out for daily feedings for a few days before making that next loaf of bread.

A larger amount of starter below is a good amount for those making bread almost daily. Figure about 1 or 2 parts starter to 2 parts flour to 1 1/2 parts water, or something close to that. (Use less starter in warmer weather, since it’ll “eat” more in the heat.)

Make adjustments to suit conditions, so that the starter doubles and just starts to cave in a bit, before the next feeding. This might mean leaving the starter in an oven with the light on in colder climates. With our cool, Bay area weather, that has worked out well for me.

If overwhelmed with starter discard, slow the starter-feeding process down by refrigerating it. It won’t double as fast, so feedings should be less often. It can be brought back to warm room temperature for a few days, to be built back up with twice-daily feedings, for bread-making, as needed.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1/4 c. starter*
  • 1/3 c. water*
  • 1/2 c. flour*

In small jar, remove enough starter to leave about 1/4 c. To that, add: > 1/3 c. water > 1/2 c. flour

Mix well. Set lid on loosely. Leave in a warm spot for 12 hours or so, until doubled. When it just begins to cave in, feed again.

Refrigerate as needed to slow the process down if it proves to be too much bother, although the flavor will change a bit.

Refrigerated starter can be revived by leaving the starter out for its feedings for a day or two, to get it back in good standing for excellent bread-making.

* Or use a smaller amount, to keep the discard pile down. For that, use about .02 lb. starter to .02 lb. whole-grain flour to .016 water. Those quantities are just soup spoonful-sized amounts, which can be perfect for those of us only making bread once or twice a week.

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