Sourdough Starter Maintenance: Three Methods for a Healthy Starter

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.

fed sourdough starter in mason jar

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:

  1. Remove it from the fridge and immediately discard half.
  2. Feed it
  3. Let it sit at room temperature while it warms up and “eats” its feeding.
  4. 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.

  1. Every morning or every night, discard half of your starter.
  2. Feed it and let it sit while it eats the flour.
  3. 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.

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???? 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.

a ready to use, fully fed starter after a “boost” feeding

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.

Sourdough Starter Maintenance: Three Methods for a Healthy Starter

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  1. I put my starter in the fridge all the time, with no problems at all. I’ve had one there in a salsa jar (with lid) for almost 4 months, pulled it out yesterday and it started bubbling as soon as it warmed up with new feed. I’ve done this for many years.

    1. Me too! I do this all the time. I also just add discard back into the jar and when I want to bake, I just pour a little out and start feeding it again. It’s ready within 48 hours.

  2. Thank you this was a big help I’ve tried and tried sourdough I’ve tried and tried making my own. Sometimes it turns out great and I get to bake some bread with it but sometimes it fails so this has helped me immensely thank you.

    Marlene A.

  3. VERY helpful information! I have been looking for just information as this, but have not found it until I read this article. Thank you!!

  4. How do I use discard in recipes? Does the liquid replace water or milk? Seems like there must be a ratio on a way to exchange or supplement but I haven’t figured that out! Thanks for all your tips!

    1. since your starter is half water and half flour, it replaces some liquid and some flour. or something thick like sour cream. I have lot of sourdough discard recipes here as well.

  5. Hello Katie

    Just made your loaf this morning, all good but my old bread maker struggled a little with the mixing, so going to add a little more water next time around, a tablespoon or 2, to give it a higher hydration rate and a few more holes, hopefully it will help it rise and help to make it a little less dense.

    I Used a strong bread flour which really helps to give the final mix more body.

    The loaf tastes great, I don’t have a dutch oven so cooked it in a le-creuset pot, 25 mins at 220c (450f) and 15 mins without the lid on.

    This is the first one with strong bread flour (90%) and the remainder wholemeal (10%) using your 165g of starter instead of 100g and it rose better than my other loaves.

    I have made a few sourdough loaves which tasted ok but didn’t rise much, so your recipe has been a godsend.

    The reviews on the website were very helpful and informative and as you know it’s a steep curve to get it right when you are starting out, so thank you very much, John

    1. hi John! I’m glad it worked well for you! if you are looking for a more open crumb, try searching my site for “artisan sourdough” or similar. it’s hand folded but I promise still pretty simple! 🙂

  6. I always wonder whether I should feed my starter right after using it to make bread again, or wait until the next “scheduled” feeding that I would give it. I never see any comments on this

  7. Hello Katie, because of numerous deceased starters, I have one which seems to work, made with organic Spelt flour, have used it for baguettes, the result not the best because I hadn’t seen your post about adding a bit of dehydrated yeast to a young starter. So now I have 2 jars of starter just in case, one kept warm 100 gr. and fed everyday by removing 50 gr. and adding 25 gr. flour and water, it is doubling every day it is now 13 days old. The other starter 100 gr. which was 10 days old when I put it in a sealed jar I let it rise before putting it, in the fridge it is sitting there and has bubbles through it, I only make bread once a week because I am alone so would like the fridge method to work.
    I have been using 150 gr. of starter so with starter at room temperature I added 150 gr over 2 days without discarding anything.
    In your fridge method you say to remove it from the fridge and immediately discard half and feed it,
    why discard 1/2? and then what? feed it how much in one hit? regards, Claudine

    1. you always discard starter at each feeding unless you are keeping a very small amount. this is so your total amount of starter stays manageable and so the ratio of starter to new food is correct. you want to feed it in ratios at least 1:1:1. so if you have 50 grams total of starter, feed it 50 grams water and 50 grams flour. you can feed it more up to 1:5:5 but it will take longer to be ready

  8. I have a starter that Saturday to feed one cup milk, one cup sugar and one cup flour every three to four days to one cup starter. Meaning I need to use up a good couple cups starter every couple days.

    It’s too much to keep up on. Suggestions? Can I use just flour? Okay to keep the milk and sugar mix in the counter? I do now… In a large jar with a dish cloth rubber banded on top.

    1. hi Lisa, I’m not familiar with the milk and sugar starters. but I can tell you that with plain water and flour starters, its fine to reduce the amount by as much as 75%. I would just cut everything in half and see how it goes!

      1. Thankyou for reply,could I ask is there a reason for not putting all ingredients In the bread machine to start the mix …then it rests …then when it knocks back add the salt and let the machine do the mixing if you understand me.
        Then tip it out shape and put in fridge.

  9. When you use the 1:1:1 ratio, do you use a scale to measure in grams? Hubby and I have our own starter – he uses cup measure and I use the ratio so mine is a lot thicker but I rarely have hootch build up. I bake about once a week and so I keep mine in the fridge because I hate tossing it because it feels like I’m wasting flour that has been hard to come by. We use a high protein bread flour. Happy Baking 🙂

    1. connie to be perfectly honest, I just eyeball it. however, the ratio is by weight. so if you want to measure by cups, its closer to 1/3 cup of water and 1/4 cup flour.

  10. Do you cover your starter? I’ve seen conflicting instructions about this and I would appreciate your advice. Thanks

    1. I do! I use a mason jar lids and I screw it shut but not SUPER tight. Now, while you are building your starter it’s trying to catch things from the air. so during that stage I like people to cover it with just a tea towel. but once its established, a normal cover is good 🙂

  11. This is so helpful! I made my first loaf with you bread maker recipe (I cheated and added a teaspoon of yeast just in case my starter was weak) but it turned out great. I stay confused about feeding my new baby starter, just hatched over the last week. One point of clarity from the video; the night before baking you add 3 T of flour and 3T of water to the whole amount that you have been building over the last how long with these small additions everyday? Doesn’t the food to starter amount get so diluted as to undernourish the starter?

    1. Cathy, I find that once the starter is well established the small feeding works fine. I keep a relatively small starter so the 3 tablespoons feeds it well. if your starter is bigger it will need a bigger feeding 🙂

      1. I have had two successes with your recipe! I use the bread maker for the first mix, leave it there for 30 minutes then start the regular cycle and let it rise in the machine for the 3 hours after it ends, then follow your recommendations. I get confused by the amounts and hate it when websites use weights. Are you saying you cut down to 1/2 cup starter every few days, and then you add a cup of flour and a cup of water to only a 1/2 cup of starter a day before you want to bake? How much starter do you have on the counter that you are adding the three TBS to every day? I don’t want to kill the baby starter I have. I have some starter in the refrigerator and some on the counter. Right before I bake I stir about a cup of starter on the counter, add about 3/4 cup flour and 1/2 cup water, then use the amount your recommend, about 3/4 cup to my recipe. I feel like I need an Excel file to keep us with the ratios! Thank you! I gave you a shout out on my Facebook page and will recommend your site.

      2. Cathy I wouldn’t start tapering down the amount of flour you are giving your starter until its at least a few weeks old. but the most important thing to remember is this: a little starter needs only as little food. so think of it more like ratios. if you have a cup of starter it will need the amount of food you are currently giving it. I keep a small one and then give it 3 TBS twice a day. if I need more for a recipe, I just feed it more and all the flour I feed it ferments.

  12. dont just throw it in the trash…give to chickens or dogs on their food..they love it and its great for them

    1. Thanks for the tip! I’ll try adding it to my chicken’s fermented grain morning treat, and if my chickens like it, chances are that my quail will like it too.

  13. I have a starter that is over 100 years old. My family, and now myself, have kept it in the fridge, and use it/feed it maybe once a month. Sure it takes some time to come back up to full on readiness, but I don’t have the counter space. We never pour off the hooch, just mix it back in.
    I am attempting to bring it up to max vigor right now. We’ll see how that goes, because I have never needed the super sourdough before, but I am COVID bored.

  14. Too much information on internet so looking for the simplest sourdough strategies led me here. Began my starter on 3/5/19. Did only one discard (1 cup) after 24 hours and replaced with 1 cup each of water and flour. Poured off hooch as well. Started with 2 cups whole wheat, 2 cups water. Replaced with white flour after discard. Then started feeding one Tbs white flour before bed on 3/7 after discarding hooch again. Read somewhere if hooch accumulated starter was starved. So morning of 3/8 (very little hooch so just stirred in) I fed 1 Tbs flour (no water with any feedings) at 9AM and another Tbs an hour later. Almost doubled by late afternoon. Fed again 1 Tbs flour before bed. Always bubbles on top. Bubbles throughout with rise. will get small rise each day. Seems hassle free just adding a Tbs flour at a time, no water. Looks and smells healthy. Any thoughts?

    1. hmmmm. I would think that over tie it will become too thick feeding only flour. but as long as its working in your bread I don’t see a problem. if it gets too thick just starting adding water.

    2. My hooch has accumulated a lot! My starter hasn’t died. I love this idea, because I’m a lazy sourdough caretaker. I also feel like I’m wasting by feeding so much each day. And then I have to do a day of maintenance cooking to get my starter back down to manageable, because I don’t like tossing it (also feels wasteful). But I’ve let my starter goes days without feeding (hence the built-up hooch), and it comes back with vigor when I feed it and no issues. Of course, it’s not ready to bake with immediately. I may give the tablespoon feedings a try.

  15. I started my sourdough starter from scratch & it is miraculously still alive after almost 9 months. I decided to try the fridge method but that didn’t work for me because it took a couple days for me to get it where I needed it for baking. So on the counter it stays. I’m not able to use it everyday or even a couple times a week, I work full-time. So I have to discard. I feed it twice a day.

    1. that’s great that the counter is working for you. I discard time to time too. it used to bother me but not anymore.

  16. I made your crusty sourdough rolls and they were delicious! I had to revive my almost dead starter from the depths of the fridge. I’ve been keeping it on the counter since, and I’ve been debating if I should put it back in the fridge to (most likely) die or keep feeding it daily on the counter. This post was the perfect read. On the counter it stays!

      1. I was given a cup of starter, but found I couldn’t keep up with one on the counter… I’ve been working 50 hour weeks. I keep my 4 cup starter in a 2 quart pickle jar on the top shelf of the fridge – I see it every day, and this lets me skip some feedings. I don’t discard but I do make discard recipes – if nothing else I make fry bread from the discard (stretch dough out to 1/4 inch thickness and fry in a lightly oiled/buttered pan, eat as either sweet or savory bread – famously with Maple Syrup, but also with fruit and powdered sugar or as if it was a dinner roll). In fact I haven’t had time for a full loaf of bread yet, but trying Chapati and Battered Fried Zucchini next weekend.

      2. I have heard about the the fry bread. I will have to try that! I love the idea of making it very visible in the fridge so you can’t miss it

  17. Thanks for this info. I am planning to get a starter going this summer so I’ve saved this post for reference later ????????

    1. good luck! I’ve never tried starting my own from scratch, would love to hear how it goes

      1. Uh-oh…is it hard? I have a tutorial from the zero Waste chef. I probably am going to need a lot of luck lol

      2. I guess I worded that in an ominous way! ???? I don’t think it’s hard!