The pros and cons of the three most popular methods of sourdough starter maintenance: keeping a small starter, keeping a starter in the fridge, or keeping a full size starter on the counter.
When you first get your sourdough starter going, it is important to follow the directions and discard a lot of it, add a lot more flour, and baby it a bit. It’s like a newborn, and the fact that it’s alive seems miraculous. You don’t mind the care, the time, or the expense of all the flour you are using.
You’ve babied your starter for your seven days or more. It’s bubbly, it’s doubling, it smells sour. Great! But…. now what?
As time goes on, the magic wears off, and you may find yourself wondering why you have to feed this thing two full cups of flour per day. Yes, a common recommendation for maintenance is a cup of water and a cup of flour TWICE a day if you are leaving it on the counter. Madness.
Well, once your starter becomes more established, its care becomes more flexible. There are a few very common methods of maintaining your starter that we will go over one by one.
???? Popular sourdough starter maintenance schedules
The fridge method:
The most common way to maintain your starter is to put it in the fridge. This sort of suspends its growth and hungriness. Thus, it only needs to be fed once a week. In order to use it you do the following:
- Remove it from the fridge and immediately discard half.
- Feed it
- Let it sit at room temperature while it warms up and “eats” its feeding.
- Use it for bread when it is at its peak and has doubled from its original size. How long this takes will depend on the vigor of your starter and the warmth of your room.
The countertop method:
This is recommended only for people who bake a lot. In a warmer environment, your starter eats faster so it needs to be fed more often, at least once a day. This means it needs to be discarded more often. Here is what you do when you are keeping your starter on the countertop.
- Every morning or every night, discard half of your starter.
- Feed it and let it sit while it eats the flour.
- Bake with it when it has doubled in size. As always, how long this takes will depend on the vigor of your starter and the warmth of your room.
The “small starter” method:
Now this works with either the countertop method or fridge method. The basic premise is that your starter stays at about 1 ounce. If you typically bake recipe that calls for 6 ounces of flour, you feed it 3 ounces of water and 3 ounces of flour, just enough so that you can use it and have only 1 ounce left over.
Using this method to maintain your starter, you will not need to discard. For some people this, is a positive. But if you like recipes using sourdough discard, you would not want to use this method. You also need to do a little math and a little measuring.
???? A word about tools
There are very pretty sourdough starter crocks you can get if you want it to be extra attractive on on your counter. I use a mason jar so I can see how active it is. When the jar starts looking gross from me spilling starter all over it, I pour it into a fresh mason jar so I can wash it. Easy. As far as stirring goes, a butter knife works great. You don’t need a special spatula.
But how much am I supposed to feed it?
This, like everything else in the world of sourdough, is a matter of opinion.
The most important thing to remember is that you want to think of your feedings as ratios, not fixed amounts.
A small starter needs a small feeding, like a baby. A big starter needs a big feeding, like a teenager.
The most commonly recommended ratio is 1: 1: 1, or one part existing starter, one part water, one part flour (remember, is this calculated by weight).
Many people will recommend a bigger feeding, up to 1:5:5.
Why the discrepancy? Well, they both work fine. A starter will eat through a smaller feeding faster than a bigger feeding, so it will be. ready faster and there will be less of it. For me, that’s great.
For you, it might not be. Maybe you want to bake 4 loaves of bread but you won’t be home until the afternoon. In that case, you would want a bigger feeding so you have more starter that’s ready later.
So which method do I use?
I use a combination.
I have tried the fridge method a few times, and each time it has resulted in the death of my starter. (Not sure what this implies about my parenting skills.) It definitely becomes out of sight, out of mind. Your starter is a living, breathing element that gives life to your kitchen. Perhaps you have even named it. (Bert.).
Putting it in the fridge is just all wrong. It becomes a chore to take it out, instead of just a couple seconds added to your daily routine. The container gets hidden behind things in the fridge. It starts feeling like work, and it’s easy to just not use it. We can’t have this. It belongs on the counter.
(Having said this, I will pop it in the fridge on very hot weeks when the house is overly warm and I don’t want to bake at all.)
I keep my starter as small as I can without me having to do any math. ????
And sometimes I even feed my starter LESS than the 1:1:1 ratio. I give it just enough to keep it alive, like a few tablespoons a day.
Bringing an underfed starter back to life
However, these reduced feedings mean that it is not ready to bake with at all times. If I want to bake anything that requires a fed starter, it won’t be ready to do that with this schedule. I will need to give it one or two extra feedings before baking with it. I typically do one the night before and one when I wake up, then another later in the morning, a few hours before I start baking. The point it, get is super active right before you expect it to anything for you,
Let the state of the starter be your guide. When you add the flour and stir, it should start bubbling up immediately. That just tells you its active, but that’s not quite enough to make a loaf of bread rise. Before you bake with it, it should seem almost uncontrollably alive. It will be trying to escape, wanting to overflow the container, and looking extremely bubbly. If it’s not there yet, feed it again in a few hours.
If you find that you have to make a real effort to get it back to this super bubbly state, it may be that your maintenance feedings are too weak. Try a half a cup of flour once a day and see how that works. The needs of every starter will vary. This can be based on its age, the flour you use, and the temperature of your house.
What about discard?
If you are using one of the maintenance methods that that require you to discard, there are three things you can do with your discard.
- Throw it away
- Save it for later
- Bake with it
If you throw it away every now and then, its not the end of the world. These things happen. You can even give it to your chickens or compost it if that makes you feel better.
Saving it for later is just pouring it off into a designated discard jar that lives in your fridge. I never do this, because it’s just one more thing to remember to deal with. Any then what if you need a cup of discard for a recipe but your discard jar has 1.2 cups? Do you throw that part out? Keep it? Annoying. But some people love this method.
Finally, you can bake with it. You can just pour your discarded sourdough directly into a measuring cup and use it for one these sourdough discard recipes. Easy.
How do I know everything is going well?
A healthy starter will be bubbly, smell pleasantly sour, and will double in size after a feeding in about 4-12 hour.
Typically, when your starter is ready for a feeding it will be thinner and look flat. As you stir in the flour it will start bubbling and those bubbles will spread and grow throughout the jar as the starter consumes the flour.
After the starter has peaked, the bubbles will become smaller and it will go back to a thinner, flat liquid.
All of this is good.
Sometimes when you go to feed your starter, there will be a watery, gray liquid on the top called hooch. This is fine, but it’s a sign that your starter is very hungry. You can stir it back in, or pour it off. If you consistently see hooch before a feeding, you should increase the volume of water and flour that you are feeding.
If you starter ever has black or green mold on it, I would recommend throwing it out and starting over. This is very, very rare.
????????? Related: the best ways to store homemade sourdough bread
Devising your own maintenance routine
It is hard to kill a sourdough starter. They can almost always be brought back to life with a little coddling.
Thus, don’t be afraid to experiment with your routine. You can always fix it.
It is also all too easy to have a starter that is alive, but not as healthy as it could be. And the health of your starter is so important for the quality of your bread.
You will need to find that balance where you are comfortable with the level of flour and work you are putting into it and how that balances with what your starter is giving back to you: delicious things made with your own two hands.
Once you get there, you will never have to read another word about maintaining your sourdough starter, it will just be natural. You’re both all grown up now.