Here’s a likely scenario: Someone recently offered you sourdough starter and you thought “I love sourdough! Why not? How hard can it be?” Then, you start reading and get overwhelmed. Don’t toss out that starter just yet. This guide to getting started with starter can help.
(A note from Regan: Before you even start reading, I have one piece of advice that will both save your sanity and ensure you have the most successful baking experience possible. WEIGH YOUR INGREDIENTS. Seriously. A kitchen scale isn’t expensive and it’s invaluable when it comes to getting ratios right… not only in feeding your sourdough starter but also baking in general. This is the kitchen scale I use, but any kitchen scale will work.)
Sourdough baking has always been of interest to hardcore bakers. But its recent surge in popularity (due in large part to the excess amount of time we have at home coupled with a nationwide shortage of yeast in supermarkets) has everyone and their neighbor (from a safe six feet away) either starting a starter or thinking about it.
Rather than starting a starter from scratch, you may be lucky enough to score some from a friend. The only question is what do you do with a sourdough starter once you have it? Since there’s no manual for What To Expect When You’re Expecting A Sourdough Starter, I wrote this post to help.
Am I a sourdough expert?
This is a new baking experience for me, too. I’ve been baking FOR YEARS (check out my Everyday Baking e-book). But sourdough is a new challenge. If you want to learn from the experts, go straight to King Arthur Flour’s tutorials. But if you’re like me, you may actually need a little remediation BEFORE even consulting the experts. That’s what this post is all about.
Ask when the Sourdough Starter was last fed
If you get your starter from someone who is actively baking, it’s likely that it was fed within the last 24 hours. This is important. Starter that’s going to be used soon for baking should be “fed and ripe” (which essentially means that it’s been sitting out at room temperature, growing & bubbling and has been fed within the last 24 hours at least.)
If the Sourdough Starter is NOT ripe or hasn’t been recently fed…
You’ll need to feed it for at least a day, maybe more (I’ll explain this more below) to get it happy enough to yield good bread.
How do I know when my Sourdough Starter is ready?
In general, you’re looking for it to double in size between feedings. (Opinions differ as to whether or not this is really necessary, but my experience with my starter is that it’s a good indicator of sourdough starter health. When I wasn’t seeing mine double, I had some failed loaves.)
It’s helpful to mark on the vessel you’re keeping your Sourdough Starter in where it is after you feed it. It will rise and then fall. By marking it you can get a good sense of how far it’s risen.
I’ve also observed that my Sourdough Starter baked well when it was the consistency of something similar to Elmer’s glue (the old school white stuff, not that new fangled gel stuff… obviously.) If your starter is really watery, even if it’s bubbly, it’s probably not strong enough yet to bake with.
How often do I have to feed my Sourdough Starter?
If your sourdough starter is sitting out on the counter, I’d say at least every 24 hours. If you’re trying to get it going again after a stint in the ‘fridge, maybe as often as every 12 hours. I’m learning sourdough is more art and less science than regular baking. Things like room temperature and the natural microbiome of your kitchen seem to influence it as well. So don’t be discouraged if yours is sluggish. With care, you can get it going.
How long can you store Sourdough Starter in the fridge without feeding it?
Most sources say about a week. I’ve kept my “sourdough discard” in the fridge for about a week and it was still churning along at the end of the week. I pulled some out to start it up again and had no issues. It made a beautiful loaf after a couple of days of feeding.
What is Sourdough discard?
When you feed your starter, you’ll discard some of it to make room for the feed. This is perhaps the most confusing part to read about online. Advice is all over the place on when to discard and how much.
What I Do (based mostly on King Arthur Flour tutorials) is reserve 4 ounces by weight (113 g or about 1/2 cup) to keep as my ongoing sourdough starter, “discarding” whatever is left (I don’t actually discard it; I store it in the fridge since flour is in short supply. See below “What else can I do with sourdough discard?”)
To the 4 ounces (113 g or about 1/2 cup) of reserved sourdough starter, I add 4 ounces by weight (113 g or about 1 cup) of all-purpose or bread flour + 4 ounces by weight (113 g or about 1/2 cup) of not cold, not hot water. (See below for tips about water.)
Summary: 4 oz reserve + 113 g water + 113 g flour = feeding your sourdough
What can I make with Sourdough Discard?
I’m making a ton of this Chocolate Chip Banana Bread. It’s awesome, if I do say so myself. King Arthur has a collection of recipes for discard, but I think pancakes are probably the most popular.
If the Starter is ripe and has been recently fed…
You can proceed to baking, but first…
…you need to determine what type of sourdough bread you want to bake.
I learned VERY quickly that while I’m a proficient baker, I’m a novice when it comes to sourdough. Sourdough is a subset of yeast-risen breads that can seem really complicated and overwhelming at first (in my opinion). But it doesn’t have to be. You can ease into sourdough baking (like I’m doing) by starting with something simple, like my Easy Sourdough Sandwich Bread.
While the Easy Sourdough Sandwich Bread recipe above won’t yield one of those artisanal boules like these…
…it does yield a soft, slightly-tangy sandwich bread that’s easy to cut, toasts up beautifully and makes a wonderful sandwich bread.
It also uses less flour than the traditional sourdough boules, so if it’s your first time working with sourdough, you won’t be risking as much flour if you happen to have an unsuccessful first attempt. (Although, with a good starter and being mindful of the measurements and times stated above in the recipe, I can almost guarantee success!)
Once you’ve made a successful loaf or two of my Easy Sourdough Sandwich Bread, you may want to try your hand at the more traditional, artisan breads. I plan to stick with this Extra Tangy Sourdough recipe.
It worked really well, so why mess with success? But if you want to explore and find a different sourdough recipe, by all means, do! There are a bazillion sourdough recipes out there. I trust King Arthur Flour the most, though, when it comes to baking. So if you want to be sure you’re using a tried and true recipe, I’d recommend choosing one of their sourdough recipes.
I also recommend watching this video once you’ve progressed a little in your sourdough experience. This type of tutorial is invaluable when you’re ready to take it to the next level. But be warned, if you’re just getting started, it might overwhelm you.
Other Sourdough Starter Tips
There are a lot of factors that can influence the health of a sourdough starter, ranging from flour choice to room temperature, to water quality. What I’ve shared here are best practices that seem to help the health of my sourdough starter.
- Use filtered water that’s been sitting out uncovered at least overnight. Tap water seems to make my starter sluggish apparently from trace amounts of chlorine. You can also use distilled water if you have it.
- Use unbleached flour if possible. Ideally, whole grain works best to “start” a starter and occasionally feeding it with whole-grain seems to be recommended as well. But don’t give up or fail to start baking if all you have is beached, all-purpose. It will work, too.
- Store your starter in glass, not plastic or stainless steel.
- Keep it loosely covered at all times. Those little yeast buggers need some room to breathe.
I hope this helps. Again, I’m no expert. But I’ve clocked enough hours taking care of my Alaskan sourdough starter that I feel like I’m at least qualified to give you a little neighborly advice. Come to think of it. I wish we were neighbors so I could give you some fresh sourdough starter, too. Happy Baking. ~Regan
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