By Catherine Haug, June 20, 2011
I continue to experiment with my sourdough bread (after learning how at our recent SourdoughGathering), researching info on the web to help me make the best bread possible. My starter has not been as bubbly as I would like, probably because I don’t use it every day, so I’ve been experimenting with how, and when to feed my starter.
To maintain your starter when you don’t use it very often, you should keep it in the fridge, then every few days, cast-off some of the starter and feed the remainder with 1 Tbsp flour and 1 Tbsp water.
Why cast-off? Lightening its load is important to keep the starter from collapsing under its own weight; and remember that the cast-off can be used for quickbreads, pancakes, etc.. (see Bread Bakers Forum: How Much to Feed your Starter for a good explanation of this).
If you don’t use it regularly and keep it in the fridge, it will need a boost before you use it for leavening bread. See Feeding Starter for Baking Sourdough Leavened Bread below, if your starter is still alive and well but you want a really active starter for bread.
What if it doesn’t smell good, or gets a nasty crust? If this happens, your starter needs more help. It may be tired from overfeeding, or starved from underfeeding. Sometimes it is contaminated with unwanted bacteria (because the pH is wrong from over/under feeding); this can sometimes be fixed, but it may be easier to start over and make a new starter. See Sourdough Baker: Healing your Starter (5) before deciding to start over.
What about hooch? Refrigeration tends to produce a lot of hooch if it is not poured off before feeding. Not that hooch is bad, in fact it lends character to the bread. But it is also a sign that the starter is getting weak, and as the amount of hooch builds up, your starter could ‘die.’
Keep the hooch if you plant to use the starter in a day or two; otherwise, as it builds off, periodically pour off some of the hooch, feed the starter and return it to the fridge.
One more tip: don’t over-stir when feeding starter. Too much stirring develops the gluten, which you don’t want at this stage (you only want it to develop when kneading the bread dough). Add water first, then flour a bit at a time (adding all at once tends to make it clump).
Feeding starter for baking sourdough-leavened bread
Starter kept in the fridge (see above) may not be as bubbly as needed to leaven bread, even if fed once the night before. At least, this is a problem for me.
Intense feeding method
My solution to a strong and bubbly starter for sourdough leavened bread, is to feed it at least twice a day for 2 days before I intend to use it, doubling the amount of flour and water with each of these feedings, and letting it remain at room temperature during this time. Keep in mind that the amount of your starter doubles with each feeding, so you can go from 1 Tbsp to 1 cup of starter with just 4 feedings, and 2 cups after 5 feedings!
(NOTE: This method is also something to consider doing before you give away some starter to a friend, to ensure it is lively).
This example produces 1/2 cup starter in 2 days. If you need more than that, start with 2 Tbsp starter to produce 1 cup; or 1/4 cup starter to produce 2 cups in 2 days.
Feeding #1 (Day 1, morning)
- Measure about 1 Tbsp starter into a wide-mouth pint jar. (Maintain remaining starter in crock as per above)
- Add 1 Tbsp flour, stir, add 1 Tbsp flour, and stir again just to mix.
- Cover jar with cheesecloth held in place with a rubber band. [Note: remove then replace cheesecloth with each subsequent feeding.]
Feeding #2 (Day 1, evening)
- Add 2 Tbsp water and 2 Tbsp flour, stirring. If starter is too thick, add another Tbsp water. Should have about 1/4 cup of bubbly starter.
Feeding #3 (Day 2, morning)
- Add 4 Tbsp flour and 4 Tbsp flour, stirring and adding extra water if too thick. Should now have about 1/2 cup bubbly starter.
Feeding #4 (Day 2, evening)
The starter should be quite active and bubbly – what I call ‘flourishing.’ The amount I feed for the last feeding depends on how much starter I need for my recipe:
- If I only need 1/2 cup starter for my recipe, I just add 1 Tbsp flour & 1 – 2 Tbsp water.
- If I want more starter for my recipe, I add 8 Tbsp (1/2 cup) flour & water; total starter about 1 cup after this feeding.
Baking day (Day 3, morning)
- If my crock (in the fridge) has a lot of starter, I cast-off most of it.
- Transfer 1 Tbsp of the flourishing starter to the mostly empty crock for storage in the fridge, and maintain it by feeding with 1 Tbsp flour and 1 Tbsp water every few days, until ready to repeat the intense feeding described above.
- Use remaining 1/2 cup or more starter in the pint jar for the recipe.
See Sourdough Home: 100% Whole Wheat Bread recipe (2) for an example of how this is done.
An alternative feeding method to ensure a good strong starter for your sourdough leavened bread, is to make a sponge the night before baking. I’ve not tried this yet, but when I get it down, I’ll do a post about this method.
The following (from The Encyclopedia of Country Living: An Old Fashioned Recipe Book by Carla Emery (6)) is only a guide; modify amounts as needed to suit your recipe, so that the sponge includes:
- all of the warm water required for the recipe, and
- roughly half the total flour for the recipe.
From Carla Emry’s book:
Put a cup of starter into a bowl. Add 2 cups warm water and stir to make a good slurry. Add 2 1/2 cups of your flour. Mix well. Cover with damp cloth and let rest in a warm place overnight.
In the morning the sponge should be good and bubbly. Remove 1 cup of the sponge to replace the cup of starter you removed from your crock/jar. To the remaining sponge, add the remaining flour and other ingredients in your recipe, plus more water as necessary for the right hydration.
Feeding Starter for Quick Breads
Quick breads include banana bread, pancakes, muffins, coffee cakes, biscuits, etc.. That is, baked goodies that are leavened by baking soda/powder rather than the sourdough starter or yeast.
In this case, the starter is needed to acidify the batter and activate the baking soda/powder as the leavening agent. And for this, you do not want a strong bubbly starter, as its leavening ability would compete with that of the baking soda. (1)
When making quick breads, use an ‘old’ starter (not real bubbly) and simply feed it as for maintenance: 1 Tbsp flour and 1 Tbsp water, the night before using.
References and for more information
- Gathering Summary: Sourdough, a Panel Presentation
- Cat’s Sourdough Learnings (How not to get a too-sour bread)
- Sourdough Home: Maintaining a Starter
- Sourdough Home: 100% Whole Wheat Bread recipe
- The Fresh Loaf: Managing Sourdough Starter Properly
- Bread Baker’s Forum: Sourdough Index, Recipes, and Maintaining your Starter
- The Sourdough Baker: Sourdough Sponge Method and Sourdough Baker: Healing your Starter;
- The Encyclopedia of Country Living: An Old Fashioned Recipe Book by Carla Emery. See Amazon for more, and for a peak inside. Thanks to Bill F. and Jean H. for sharing a copy of the Sourdough section of this book.