Adding sourdough to a recipe: when it works, how to do it

“I really hate throwing away some of my sourdough starter when I feed it. Isn’t there something else I can do with it, instead of just ditching it?”

Absolutely. Adding sourdough to a recipe is simpler than you might think – so long as you choose the right recipe, and understand how to do it.

First off, let’s get past the romance of sourdough starter – its history, the way it bubbles and grows, its “geographic” range of flavors – and get down to basics. Sourdough starter is equal parts (by weight) flour and water/alcohol, with a bit of organic acids, friendly bacteria, and yeast thrown in.

Why alcohol? Because as the starter ferments, yeast gives off tiny bits of alcohol (in addition to those flavorful organic acids).

Adding Sourdough to a Recipe via @kingarthurflour

Over the course of time, your starter will gradually become slightly more liquid, due to the addition of this alcohol. That dark liquid you see in the photo above is alcohol sitting atop a starter that hasn’t been fed in a couple of weeks.

However, despite this little bit of alcohol, you can continue to think of your starter as equal parts liquid/flour, by weight.

Adding Sourdough to a Recipe via @kingarthurflour

I’ve just fed my starter (left); on the right is my discard, which measures a scant 1 cup (7 ounces).

What can I do with discard starter?

First, you can use it in any of our online recipes calling for unfed starter.

Beyond that, think of recipes in your own repertoire using flour and water. Or flour and another liquid, like milk or coffee or juice.

And by liquid, I mean liquid that doesn’t contribute additional attributes to the baked good’s texture, e.g., vegetable oil, which is mainly fat; or honey, which is mainly sugar. Don’t substitute sourdough starter for liquid sweeteners or liquid fats.

Adding sourdough to a recipe for cake.

Let’s try this unfed starter in one of my favorite cake recipes, King Arthur Flour’s Original Cake Pan Cake – which happens to be our 225th anniversary Recipe of the Centuries.

Adding Sourdough to a Recipe via @kingarthurflour

The recipe calls for 6 1/4 ounces flour and 8 ounces cold water, so it’s a good recipe to use.

I have 7 ounces of “discard” starter (a scant 1 cup). That’s 3 1/2 ounces each water and flour.

So I’ll add that 7 ounces of starter to the recipe; and reduce the amount of flour and water in the recipe by 3 1/2 ounces each: meaning in addition to the starter, I’ll use 2 3/4 ounces flour and 4 1/2 ounces water.

Stay with me here; if you don’t regularly bake with a scale you might feel a little foggy right now, but this is simple arithmetic.

Adding Sourdough to a Recipe via @kingarthurflour

I mix everything together. See the discard starter plopped on top?

Adding Sourdough to a Recipe via @kingarthurflour

Bake.

Adding Sourdough to a Recipe via @kingarthurflour

The edges of the cake are just barely pulling away from the sides of the pan – that means the cake is fully baked.

Adding Sourdough to a Recipe via @kingarthurflour

I pour a simple icing on top…

Adding Sourdough to a Recipe via @kingarthurflour

…and there you have it, Cake Pan Cake made with discarded sourdough starter.

Adding sourdough to a recipe for yeast bread.

Now let’s try this same process in one of my favorite bread recipes, English Muffin Toasting Bread. While you can substitute unfed starter in yeast bread, I like to give my bread a little extra oomph by subbing fed starter instead.

Adding Sourdough to a Recipe via @kingarthurflour

Here’s my fed starter, fully ripened and ready to go. (For you sourdough newbies, “ripened” means fed and bubbly.)

The English Muffin Toasting Bread recipe calls for 3 cups (12 3/4 ounces) flour, 1/4 cup (2 ounces) water, and 1 cup (8 ounces) milk.

I’m using 8 ounces of ripened sourdough starter. So that means I need to reduce the flour by 4 ounces (to 8 3/4 ounces); and reduce the liquid by 4 ounces by eliminating the water (2 ounces), as well as 2 ounces of the milk.

Adding Sourdough to a Recipe via @kingarthurflour

The batter looks the same as it usually does (left). It rises nicely (center). And bakes up beautifully (right).

Adding Sourdough to a Recipe via @kingarthurflour

The finished loaf slices nicely.

And the taste? It’s not sour, but rather seems richer compared to my usual toasting bread. It’s as though the starter simply enhances the bread’s natural wheat/milk/butter flavor.

Adding sourdough to all kinds of recipes.

Using sourdough starter, either fed or unfed, is possible in a wide range of recipes – so long as the recipe includes sufficient water/flour for you to substitute your starter.

A cookie recipe wouldn’t work well; cookie recipes generally don’t include significant amounts of water or milk. But muffins, biscuits, pancakes, scones… all of those usually include enough liquid for the substitution to work.

One thing to keep in mind: when you’re substituting sourdough starter in a recipe calling for milk, you’ll lose something: milk fat and milk solids, which add flavor and enhance texture. You may be willing to make the tradeoff, but it’s useful to manage your expectations ahead of time.

So, now that you understand the simple process of adding sourdough to a recipe – go forth and bake!

A special note to Madelene, Beth, and Nadine from California’s Bay Area, who recently sent me a lovely present. Ladies, THANK YOU! I’m so touched. Hope you don’t mind the “public display” here, but this is the only way I know to get in touch with you. Sending you all kinds of good baking karma…

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Amy

    PJ, I love doing exactly this with my discard starter. The English muffin toasting bread is in my regular rotation, and I always just add a spoonful (it’s probably about 3 tbsp, but I just give the bowl a dollop) of dry milk powder along with my starter and water. Not quite the same, I’m sure, but the flavor comes out magnificently rich and multi-dimensional, and the crumb is tender without being crumbly.

    Reply
  2. Lucy

    Is there anyway to print this easily, that won’t take 14 pages? I am an old fashioned cook, IE I don’t like having my laptop or tablet sitting on my kitchen counter. I want my own physical cookbook that I have made in front of me, not a screen. I can cut and paste, but is there another way? Thanks!!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Sorry Lucy, we don’t have a printer friendly version of the blog. However, I will pass on the suggestion! Jon@KAF

    2. sandra arrington

      Yes Lucy, there is a way to print the King Arthur sourdough info. I just did it, and I am not just an old fashioned cook… I am old and no computer guru. /First thing I did was press little – sign in top right hand corner of my screen to minimize the recipe… / then I went to my document (open office is what I use) and got new blank page… / Next, all I had to do using my mouse was to put curser at top of page, /then I clicked contrl and C and /ran my mouse down to end of page where everything was changing to blue (both photos and text)…. / then I went to my blank screen with curser at top of page and /clicked on contrl V on my keyboard. Voila, there it was. Now I can delete the photos, between the text and just leave the text only and print it, or just leave it on computer as sourdough info. It is all like copy and paste but I have never done that… Sandy

    3. Bette Solomon

      I just copy a long recipe onto a blank word document and edit to the essentials. It doesn’t take long. Then print a one-page rendition.

    4. Uvmshell51

      Lucy,
      Some printers will allow you to print only certain pages of a document Re: 1-4,5,9 etc.
      Easier than cut & paste.

    5. Dawne Bil

      You can use printfriendly dot com too. It lets you remove pictures and adjust as you want. Just copy the web address of the page you want to print, go to printfriendly, paste it in there.

    6. Al F.

      You guys print recipes from the internet??? How 20th century. How quaint. May I recommend the use of software? I use MasterCook (I am in no way affiliated with them) and import all of my recipes via their software web tool (super easy to use). And it’s cheap. I think it’s around 15 or 20 dollars these days. Once imported, you can organize your recipes into cookbooks and the like, and, you can print them. At this point I couldn’t live w/o it. My family’s meal plan gets done this way.

    7. Charlie Peterson

      Hi Lucy, hit ctrl and p at the same time. This will bring up your printer prompt. On this prompt you can tell the printer how many pages to print. Hope this helps…………………….charlie

  3. Anna

    This post is greatly appreciated; I too do not like to discard a portion of the starter and often am looking for ways to use it other than the usual.

    Reply
  4. PIL

    Even when it gets a bit grey (because it hasn’t been fed for a couple of weeks), my husband knows we’ll have sourdough pancakes with applesauce for dinner, made with the discarded starter and enough more flour and water to come up to the amount needed for our go-to recipe. (I usually let the batter get a bit bubbly before adding the other ingredients.) The remains in the crock get fed for new starter.

    Reply
  5. Heather Lambeth

    How long can I keep my unfed starter in the fridge?

    And can you use the starter substitutions with the KAF gluten free flour since I understand the starter negates most of the gluten to allow those with gluten sensitivities to consume (not celiacs) I made my own GF starter but use my regular starter more often.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Heather, I wouldn’t recommend keeping it longer than a week, since there’s always more unfed starter coming your way. We’re bakers and not dieticians or doctors, so can’t advise you about whether your regular sourdough starter is a safe choice for those with gluten sensitivities, but I imagine it would work in GF recipes as well. Barb@KAF

  6. Esther Smith

    I have not made anything with sourdough yet, but I am going to try Buttery Sourdough Buns for Thanksgiving.
    I have a nephew that is lactose intolerant, to I am hoping these will be easier on his system.

    Reply
  7. Kristi

    Thanks for the tips! Are you adjusting the amount of yeast in the original recipe for English Muffin bread when you use the starter?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Kristi, I would keep the recommended amount of yeast in the English Muffin bread recipe when adding starter. Barb@KAF

  8. Steve Rosen

    PJ – I’m a Bialy lover. If you want the most delicious bialys ever (puts NYC’s Cossar’s to shame – in my opinion) add 1-1/2 cups of unfed sourdough starter to 2C of KAF AP flour and 3C of KAF Bread flour plus 11oz of water with 2tsp of instant, or dry active, yeast. You won’t want anyone else’s! Oops, remember to include 4tsp of salt and 3tsp of sugar (optional).

    Reply
  9. Jennifer McCarthy

    Yes PLEASE on the printer-friendly version, but I have gotten around the problem by emailing the post to myself and printing from the email.

    Reply
  10. Leslie

    I’ve been baking with sourdough for perhaps 45 years now. I never use yeast any more. I adapt recipes routinely (breads, pizza crust, bagels). I have recipes for sourdough quick breads (waffles, pancakes, biscuits, corn bread) and a super delicious chocolate cake. I find that bread is quite tolerant, I just add flour until the consistency is right. Seeds and such in the sponge take on great flavor from the sourdough (flax, chia, quinoa) But I’ve never used sourdough in cookies, and you’ve motivated me here to explore that option. Thanks for your suggestions, I always appreciate them.

    Reply
    1. Anne

      That is so interesting! Do you just at the quinoa dry? And how much do you add?
      It’s great to learn some new tips from experienced bakers.

    2. The Baker's Hotline

      If you’d like, you can add a few tablespoons of quinoa per recipe. Happy baking! Laurie@KAF

    3. Patti

      Leslie, I’m very interested in some of your recipes. Especially the ones you add flax,chia & quinoa to. My husband is gluten intolerant, but can eat sourdough without any problems. So I’m always looking for ideas. Thank you for the inspiration. 🙂

  11. Bonnie Tarlton

    Mystery solved! Thanks for this article. Love my sourdough and have wondered how to incorporate it into other recipes!

    Reply
  12. Don

    Hi PJ,

    Love your posts and insights. I usually have a milk fed sourdough in the fridge. Does the milk fed type make a difference, or will it generally work the same as a water / flour based sourdough? Also, my sourdough is equal parts by volume, but I think I know how to handle that per your blog post.

    Thanks.

    Don

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Don, we’re not familiar with using a milk fed sourdough starter, so can’t say for sure whether or not it would work the same way. If you’d like to create your own flour/water starter here’s a helpful post to get you going. Barb@KAF

    2. Don

      Your tips are awesome — I’ve made and killed a number of pineapple juice based flour / water sourdough starters. Thanks for all you do.

      Don

  13. Richie

    Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. so much thought into the recipes. So much thought into the comments ( as well as some grand tips, suggestions and ideas)

    All so surprisingly refreshing, especially when one is looking out at a gloomy day. I would dare to say that looking at the recipes, and reading the comments is a ray of sunshine on any day. My pleasure to give thanks to all those that contribute.
    As a PS this site should be public reading for all that are shut in at the many rest homes and assisted living places. I suspect it would be a welcome change. And maybe inspire some to test out their old/young skills in the kitchen ….

    Yes, I have made the English Muffin Toasting bread –great treat for the Grand kids .. Will , for sure, try it with some starter now that I really know how to substitute.

    Warm hugs to all Richie

    Reply
  14. Amy

    When substituting starter in a recipe calling for milk, would it make sense to add some dry milk to the batter/dough? And if so, in what proportion?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Amy, it should work fine to add milk powder to equal the amount of milk called for in the recipe. 1/4 cup milk powder + 1 cup water = 1 cup milk. Be sure to add the milk powder with the dry ingredients. Barb@KAF

  15. DD

    Just wondering … I’ve never used sourdough starter, but am always willing to try something new and yummy. So please explain whether recycling leftover starter is simply a way not to waste it or if it actually improves a recipe. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      DD, I would say it’s both a way to use up excess starter and also can provide an interesting depth of flavor to a recipe. Barb@KAF

  16. "Dr. Krusty"

    Although not explicitly stated, I am guessing the starter used in the examples is a liquid starter, i.e., 50% flour, 50% water. I use a starter that is five parts flour to four parts water, a bit stiffer. If I used my starter in a cake or non-sourdough bread recipe, would I reduce the recipe’s flour by five parts and the water by four parts? Thanks!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Dr. Krusty, yes, our starter is equal parts flour and water. As long as you keep the ratio of ingredients in your starter equal to the ratio of ingredients you replace in a recipe, it should work fine. Barb@KAF

  17. SS

    Thank you AGAIN, PJ for all of your wonderful ideas and recipes. I have old Yankee habits and hate to throw anything away that can be used well. Your blog posts make me feel like you are an old friend. I will use my baking scale and try this out. I can’t wait to start. Again, thank you!

    Reply
  18. Kath

    I have made the starter and made pancakes with the discard part but I noticed when I left it out after feeding it that a leathery top formed on the top of it. It had risen and had bubbles but the leathery or whatever you would call it on the top bothered me. Is this normal and if so should I throw it away or stir it in? Not sure what is causing this and thought I would ask someone for help. Help!!!!

    Thank you

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      The top part is leathery because it was exposed to the air. Use a spoon and scrape it off to avoid hard bits going into your dough. It’s not harmful, just unpleasant. Keep it covered to avoid this happening on a regular basis. Happy baking! Laurie@KAF

  19. Chris

    Tried this substitution with the No-knead oat bread on KA’s website. This calls for an overnight rise. Got a great first rise, but then it deflated by 15% overnight, and no increase for the second rise. The loaf didn’t rise much in the oven, either. The flavor of the finished loaf was good… Quite a bit of sour “bite”, even tho’ this is a slightly sweet bread, with a soft, almost sponge-like texture and holes inside. Dense, but still edible. Maybe I’ll make crostini out of it.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Since the dough requires an overnight rise, you may be best off if you use unfed sourdough and the same amount of yeast called for in the recipe. This should give you the light texture you are looking for with a sour flavor. We hope you keep experimenting! Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  20. Jeff

    Hi. Is there a recommended limit to how much UN-fed starter can be substituted into a recipe (especially for non-bread recipes, since a fed starter can be used to make any bread sourdough)? If there isn’t enough new flour then there may be poor gluten development, right, especially if you have gone 1-2 wks. since the last feeding? So in your cake example above, if you were to use 12.5 oz. of your 100% hydration starter, which replaces all of the flour in the recipe (6.25 oz.), and only add (1.75 oz.) water, would the results still be okay? Thanks.

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins

      Hi Jeff,
      We haven’t really tested this to the point of failure, so don’t have a specific maximum. For the most part, using 1 cup is a pretty safe bet for most baking applications. ~ MJ

  21. barbara nivens

    My husband loves it when I use sourdough starter for chicken fried steak. I coat it w/starter before flouring. Have also added it to country gravy.

    Reply
    1. Barbara

      Thank you so much for that idea. I have often thought about using my starter for fried chicken batter or chicken fried steak. Now I will. Can’t wait!

  22. Mary Lou

    When I need to feed my started, but do not have time to use the unfed sourdough, I take the unused and add two quarts or more water until it is like water consistency. Then we pour it down the toilet to go into the septic tank (yeast to keep it working properly). Do not know if it works, but it seems logical that it would keep it perking properly.

    Reply
  23. Brigid

    Thank you SO much for posting this!
    Is there any way to fully substitute the yeast in a recipe with sourdough starter? I am allergic to yeast, and I am wondering if there is any way to make the substitution?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Brigid, this type of substitution is a bit more tricky because regular bread recipes don’t usually call for the long fermentation required when using a sourdough starter. You will need to tweak the recipe and allow for more rising time, which may not be the optimum method for an enriched recipe that contains milk, eggs, etc. Also, the amount of starter you need to use to get an adequate rise may also need to be adjusted. For best results I would recommend following sourdough recipes that are written to be yeast-free, or experimenting by leaving out the yeast in a sourdough recipe that calls for yeast, and giving it more rising time. Whenever you use your sourdough starter in a recipe that does not include added yeast, you’ll need to be sure to use fed starter, and to add it to the recipe when it’s at its peak of fermentation. A recipe that depends on the sourdough starter for both rising and flavor needs to be in optimum health, so if your starter has been refrigerated for a week, several feedings at room temperature (once in the morning and once in the evening) will help revive your starter and give you the best results in your bread recipe. Barb@KAF

  24. Martin

    Stop thinking in terms of ounces and cups for your starter and you won’t be wasting anything. I maintain about 1 tablespoon of starter at any time and am able to grow it to a rather large and healthy sponge within two or three days. I use all but a teaspoon or so of the starter when baking bread. Take that small amount, feed it and keep it small until you wish to bake. I never have “unfed” (unhealthy) starter and I dont waste anything.

    Reply
    1. Al F.

      I would like to know what your method is on that. I’m growing a starter for the first time and have opted to measure in teaspoons (grams actually) rather than cups. At this stage I can’t justify producing a surfeit of starter if it’s not going to get used.

  25. Amy

    When do you add the starter to the English muffin bread when you’re subbing it for some of the flour and liquids?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Amy, I would add the starter to the ingredients heated in the microwave, but heat very slowly and check the temperature often to be sure this mixture does not exceed 120 degrees. Barb@KAF

  26. Maureen Donovan-McLaughlin

    Thank you so much. I have begun using a scale to measure my baking ingredients and I do like it. I feel as if, for the most part, my baking will always be successful as the ingredients are always exactly the same in weight and volume. I have wanted to use sourdough for a long time but deferred because I knew that I wouldn’t use it often enough for it to be practical. I hate wasting food. This idea of using the discard for other baking is a great one. Again, thank you.

    Reply
  27. Karen R.

    While I’m not looking for uses for discarded starter (I use the store-a-tablespoon-and-build-up method), lately I’ve been using a teaspoon of starter in your no-knead pizza dough recipe, instead of the ¼ teaspoon of yeast. It takes an already wonderful recipe up a notch.

    Reply
  28. Mark Zellers

    I highly recommend sourdough waffles:

    2 cups sourdough starter
    2 Tbsp sugar
    1/2 tsp salt
    4 Tbsp oil
    1 egg.
    1 tsp baking soda

    Makes about 6 waffles

    The same recipe works for sourdough pancakes, but I like the waffles better!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      You’ll find the link to making your own sourdough starter right here. Happy Baking!Irene@KAF

  29. Paul Messina

    My starter is about two months old and doing quite well. As a newbie I have some basic questions:
    1. How do I determine if a recipe calls for just fed or fed about 4-6 hours ago when has doubled in size or unfed starter from the day before?
    2. I plan on sticking my starter in the fridge while away for a week. Should I feed it then immediately refrigerate or wait until it rises?
    Thank you.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      It sounds like you’re keeping your starter at room temperature and feeding/baking with it daily. The typical fed starter that was fed 4 – 12 hours ago can be used in recipes that call for fed starter. Once the starter is in the refrigerator, consider it napping and you’ll need to wake it up or feed it, then wait 4 – 12 hours, before using it to bake a recipe calling for fed starter. Happy baking! Irene@KAF

  30. Alyssa

    When adding sourdough starter to recipes like muffins that call for baking soda, do you adjust the amount of soda? Since adding the starter will be adding acid to the recipe?

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins

      Hi Alyssa,
      The recipe that PJ demos for cake has baking soda in it, and she just leaves it in. It helps temper the acidity of the chocolate, so it helps with the starter acids as well. ~ MJ

  31. Kimbo

    Could you replace all of the flour in a recipe with discard? The cake recipe in your example calls for 6.25oz four and 8oz of water, so could I just use 12.5oz of discard and 1.75oz of water?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Kimbo, I’m not sure how this would work, but I suspect it would change the consistency of the batter somewhat, and may give you too much sour flavor. If you decide to experiment, please let us know how it turns out! Barb@KAF

  32. SMM

    Can you please explain exactly what “fed” vs “unfed” starter means? Is “fed” when it’s at its peak of bubbliness/growth? Or is it sometime before or after that? Is “unfed” right before I’d be feeding it to maintain it? I’ve enjoyed the couple loaves I’ve made so far, but I hate throwing away all the excess starter, and am trying to understand the King Arthur recipes. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      You’re on the right track with your first thought. Generally we think of a starter as “fed” when it’s at its peak point of activity, usually within 4-8 hours of feeding it. Recipes that call for “fed” starter are usually relying on it to help leaven a loaf, whereas those that call for an “unfed” starter are relying on it solely for flavor. If we can help explain any further, feel free to give our Baker’s Hotline a call at 855-371-BAKE. Mollie@KAF

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      It’s difficult to add sourdough starter to a mix that has a fixed amount of flour in it, since usually you would reduce the flour based on the amount of starter that’s added. You’re welcome to give it a shot anyways by simply adding the starter to the batter and reduce the amount of liquid you add, but it may not yield great results. Instead, consider using this recipe for Sourdough Chocolate Cake. It’s a surprising combination of flavors! Kye@KAF

  33. H

    Hello!

    I have a very stiff starter (fed at 67% hydration) and I am having trouble calculating what I would use in a recipe. For example, lets say a recipe calls for 500g of flour, and I have 220 grams of my stiff excess starter I want to throw in. How exactly do I figure out how much flour and how much water is in that 220 grams of starter? Do I just multiply 220 by .67? I am so lost.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi H! In order to figure out the flour/water content of your 220 grams of starter at 67% hydration, you have to remember that the 67% relates to the weight of the flour, which is always considered 100%. This means that for each 100 units of flour in any given amount of your starter, there are 67 units of water. In order to figure out the weight of each ingredient you need to come up with the conversion factor, which is the total weight of the ingredients divided by the total of the percentages, or 220 divided by 167 = approximately 1.32 (always round up). If you then multiply this factor by the percentage of each ingredient, it will give you 132 grams of flour, and 88.44 grams of water = 220.44 grams (close enough). This is a bit complicated, I know. Now that you’ve figured out the weight of the flour and water in your starter, you can subtract this amount of flour and water from the recipe. Keep in mind, however, that you need to be a little careful about how much sourdough starter you add to a recipe because this can make a big difference in the acidity of the dough and how quickly it ferments. Barb@KAF

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