Maintaining your sourdough starter: food, water, and time

How’s your starter doing?

Fresh sourdough starter is a wonderful resource. Bread, pancakes, waffles, cake… there are so many delicious directions you can take with sourdough.

The key: maintaining your sourdough starter so that it’s healthy, happy, and ready to go when you are.

Once you’ve successfully created your starter, you’ll need to feed it regularly.

If you bake a lot of sourdough treats, you may want to keep it on your counter, at room temperature. While this means feeding it twice a day, it also means your starter will be ready to bake with at the drop of a hat (er, oven mitt).

However, many of us don’t want the commitment of twice-a-day feedings. If you’re a more casual sourdough baker, it’s possible to store your starter in the refrigerator, feeding it just once a week.

Let’s take a look at both methods.

But first, a word of advice. Sourdough baking is as much art as science. This method for maintaining sourdough starter is just one of many you might choose to follow. It doesn’t exactly match the process in our Baker’s Companion cookbook, nor some of our recipes online, nor what your neighbor down the street does. And that’s OK.

If you have a process you’ve successfully followed before, then hey, stick with it. Or try this one and compare. All good.

Maintaining your starter at room temperature

Room temperature is the best environment for the yeast and lactobacilli that inhabit your starter, and you can learn a lot about your starter by observing a twice-a-day feeding regimen with the starter at room temperature.

If you’re willing to maintain your starter at room temperature by feeding it twice a day, here’s how:

Stir the starter well and discard all but 1/2 cup (4 ounces). Add 4 ounces non-chlorinated, room-temperature water (hereafter known simply as “water”) and 4 ounces King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour (hereafter known simply as “flour”) to the 1/2 cup of starter. Mix until smooth, and cover. Repeat every 12 hours.

A note about room temperature: the colder the environment, the more slowly your starter will grow. If the normal temperature in your home is below 68°F, we suggest finding a smaller, warmer spot to develop your starter.

For instance, try setting the starter atop your water heater, refrigerator, or another appliance that might generate ambient heat. Or, set it near a heat source (baseboard heater, etc.).

Another option: set the container of starter on a folded dish towel laid atop a heating pad on its lowest setting.

 

Maintaining your starter in the refrigerator

For most home bakers, daily feeding is impractical; so you’ll need to store your starter in the refrigerator, and feed it once a week.

Take the starter out of the fridge. There may be a bit of light amber or clear liquid on top. Either drain this off, or stir it in, your choice; it’s alcohol from the fermenting yeast.

Remove all but 4 ounces starter. Use this “discard” to make pancakes, waffles, cake, pizza, flatbread, or another treat; Buttery Sourdough Buns is one of my favorite “unfed” sourdough recipes. Or, simply give to a friend so they can create their own starter.

Add 4 ounces lukewarm water and 4 ounces flour to the remaining starter. Mix until smooth, and cover.

Allow the starter to rest at room temperature (about 70°F) for 2 to 4 hours; this gives the yeast a chance to warm up and get feeding. After about 2 hours, refrigerate.

Getting ready to bake

If you’ve been maintaining your starter at room temperature, you may want to increase the volume of starter to the amount needed for your recipe. You can do this by feeding your starter without discarding; or by discarding, and feeding it 8 ounces flour and 8 ounces water.

If your starter has been refrigerated, you’ll want to both increase its volume, and raise its activity to a more energetic level. You can do this by giving it a couple of feedings at room temperature.

Take the starter out of the fridge, discard all but 4 ounces, and feed it as usual with 4 ounces water and 4 ounces flour. Let it rest at room temperature for about 12 hours, until bubbly. Repeat as necessary, every 12 hours, until you notice the starter doubling or tripling in volume in 6 to 8 hours. That means it’s strong enough to leaven bread.

For the final feeding, make sure you add enough flour and water to use in your recipe, with a little left over to feed and maintain the starter for the next time you bake.

For instance, if your recipe calls for 1 cup (about 8 ounces) starter, add 4 ounces each water and flour. If your recipe calls for 2 cups (about 16 ounces) starter, add 8 ounces each water and flour.

Once the starter is bubbling and vigorous, remove what you’ll need for the recipe and set it aside. Feed the remaining starter with 4 ounces flour and 4 ounces water. Mix until smooth, and allow the starter to work for about 2 hours at room temperature before putting it back in the refrigerator.

Troubleshooting your starter

Living creatures sometimes get sick, be they humans, pets, or even sourdough starter. If you find yourself becoming a sourdough doctor, here are some symptoms and possible cures:

If your starter lacks acidity

Feed with half whole-rye (pumpernickel) flour or whole wheat flour for a few days. The extra nutrition in the bran and germ can increase the starter’s acidity.

Be sure your starter has a chance to ripen (develop) fully before it receives another feeding; before you use it in a recipe, or before refrigerating it. An ideal feeding regimen for a starter kept at room temperature (in the low 70s) is two feedings a day at 12-hour intervals.

Find a slightly warmer (in the mid 70s) area in which to ripen the starter after its feeding.

If your sourdough is too acidic

You may be letting the starter ripen too long before using it. Once your starter is bubbling and vigorous, it’s time to make bread, feed it again, or refrigerate until its next feeding. Don’t let it become bubbly, rise, and then fall and start to “calm down;” that’s adding acidity to its flavor. Reduce the duration of ripening as necessary.

Ripen your starter in a slightly cooler area, so it doesn’t digest its meal of flour and water too quickly.

Reviving a dormant or neglected starter

Sometime you may find yourself with a starter that’s gone far too long without a feeding.

Covered in a clear, dark liquid (alcohol, a by-product of yeast that’s been deprived of oxygen), the starter will lack bubbles or other signs of activity, and will have a very sharp aroma.

Although the starter appears lifeless, its microflora will spring into action again as soon as they get a few good meals.

Stir the liquid back into the starter. Discard all but 4 ounces, and set the bowl or crock on the counter; you’re going to be leaving it at room temperature (at least 70°F) for awhile.

Feed the starter 1/2 cup (4 ounces) water and a scant 1 cup (4 ounces) all-purpose flour twice a day, discarding all but 1/2 cup (4 ounces) of the starter before each feeding. It should soon become healthy, bubbly, and active.

Sourdough starters are hearty, and easily resist spoilage due to their acidic nature. The pH of a sourdough starter discourages the proliferation of harmful microorganisms.

However, if your starter turns ominously pink or red; shows signs of mold growth, or smells decidedly putrid, throw it away and begin again. Luckily, in our experience, this rarely happens.

OK, after all of that – how about baking some sourdough bread? Our Rustic Sourdough Bread is a great place to start.

Or for “true” sourdough, without any added yeast, try our Extra-Tangy Sourdough Bread.

Want a printer-friendly (no photos) version of these instructions? See Feeding and Maintaining Your Sourdough Starter.

Want to make your own homemade starter from scratch? Read our post on creating your own sourdough starter.

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. Marcia

    Weekly I feed my starter, removing 8 oz. and leaving 4 oz. I sometimes just feed the 8oz to make a total volume of 16 oz., say for the “naturally leavened sourdough” recipe. Is this considered a “fed”starter. If you have a recipe that calls for 8oz. Can you just use the discard? Or would you feed it to make 16 oz. and basically have extra for the recipe?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Marcia. For a healthy starter, you want to feed it with equal amounts of water and flour. So if you want to feed the 8 oz, you’d need to feed it with 8 oz flour and 8 oz water, leaving you with a total of 24 oz.
      Following the formula of 4 oz water, 4 oz flour, and 4 oz starter, that gives you 8 oz for your recipe plus 4 oz leftover to feed and keep going. If you need more than 8 oz, simply increase all of the starter components (flour, water, and starter) equally. If your recipe calls for 16 oz, you’ll want to make at least 20 oz so you have 4 oz left over to feed, so let’s make it simple and round up to 21 oz, and feed 7 oz of your starter with 7 oz flour and 7 oz water. Your starter will be ripe and ready to go when it’s bubbly and had about doubled in size. This usually takes between 2 and 16 hours depending on the health and vigor of your starter. If you have any other questions, our free and friendly Baker’s Hotline is available at 855-371-BAKE (2253) or through chat and email on our website so always feel free to reach out. Kindly, Annabelle@KAF

  2. Jules

    I received a started and was going to follow your refrigerator maintenance instructions as I would like to try my first attempt at something like pancakes but the starter they gave me is only 2 ounces. This may be a stupid question but is that enough? Your instructions ask for 4 ounces. If this is enough starter would I use the same amounts of water and flour (4 ounces) to start to increase it in volume?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Jules, we’re not sure if you’ve received a starter from King Arthur Flour or from a friend. If you’ve received it from us, it’s important to follow the instructions that come in the booklet, which will allow you to increase the volume of starter to about 2 cups. If you’ve received a portion of discard from a friend, you can add 4 ounces of flour and 4 ounces of water to 2 ounces of starter and let it rest for a few hours until it’s bubbly. Feed it regularly for about 2-3 days using the method described in this blog (discarding all but 4 ounces and then feeding it with 4 ounces of flour and water). Once it’s healthy and growing in size after each feeding, you can keep it in the fridge for about a week between feedings. You’ll need about 8 ounces of starter for the Sourdough Waffles or Pancakes recipe. Be sure to re-feed your remaining starter after you take what you need for this recipe. We hope that helps, and happy baking! Kye@KAF

  3. Judy Ward

    HI, I’m pretty new to sourdough baking! Wonder if you would kindly give me some counsel as to how to go about increasing sourdough starter volume, as I would like to make 5 loaves of half white and half whole wheat flour sandwich loaves….and the starter is kept in the fridge all of the time. How to increase the volume to 5 cups (1 cup per loaf), is a real stickler for me! Also, how much would I keep in the fridge on an ongoing basis? (If you have such a recipe, it would be so very much appreciated!) Many Thanks! Judy

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Judy! To have enough starter for your five loaves and enough to keep it going, you’ll have to have six cups of starter to start baking. To get those six cups you would feed 2 cups (16 ounces) of your starter with 2 cups (16 ounces) of water and 4 scant cups (16 ounces) of all-purpose flour. It will take a few hours at room temperature for that large mixture to get nice and bubbly and ripe and ready to make your dough. To make sure you always have at least 2 cups of starter in your fridge in order to do this, change your regular feeding from 4 ounces each of starter, flour, and water, to 6 ounces of each. This would be 3/4 cup starter + 1 1/2 cups flour + 3/4 cups water. This will be your regular starter that lives in the fridge all the time. It will give you enough to use the 2 cups in your mixture when you’re ready to make bread, and leave you enough to feed and keep going. If you have any other questions, our free and friendly Baker’s Hotline is available at 855-371-BAKE (2253) or through chat and email on our website: https://www.kingarthurflour.com/bakers-hotline/ so always feel free to reach out. Happy baking! Annabelle@KAF

  4. Francisca

    What do I do if I forgot my sourdough starter on the counter and missed 2 12 hour feedings? Do I need to throw it away and start all over again?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      No worries, Francisca, it would likely take weeks of neglect for it to die. Keep going as if the feedings hadn’t been missed and it’ll be just fine. Annabelle@KAF

  5. Kay

    Hi! I’m wondering how hot is too hot for a starter to live comfortably. I keep mine on the counter and feed it twice a day. That’s worked fine through the winter and early spring. Now temperatures are creeping up quickly, and for the past few days I’ve found my starter feels much more liquidy/weak than it used to by the time I’m feeding it. It used to be pretty viscous, and hold together; now it’s quite watery. Does this mean I need to transfer it to the refrigerator to stay healthy? Is there a good way to keep it slightly cooler than the ambient 85 degrees of my unairconditioned apartment? Thanks for all your help!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Kay. Sourdough starter will keep comfortably up to about 80°F. The fact that it’s a little runnier suggests that the humidity is being absorbed by your flour, causing it to be thinner. This is perfectly normal, so you can sprinkle in a little extra flour until it reaches the thicker consistency you’re used to. We hope this helps! Annabelle@KAF

  6. Brittney Horst

    What if my sourdough didn’t get very puffy for the second, one hour rise? I am trying out the rustic sourdough recipe.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Brittney, there are a number of reasons why sourdough might not rise as high as it should during the final proof. First off, make sure your starter is healthy and fed regularly. You should try feeding it two times a day for at least three days before baking. (This isn’t essential because you’re also adding commercial yeast to make the dough rise, but it will help ensure a stronger second rise.) Also, be sure the yeast you’re using is a fresh instant or active dry yeast (rather than RapidRise). The last tip, give your dough the time it needs to become puffy and reach its maximum potential before baking. It should still be on its way up when put into the oven (not over-proofed), but it should feel nice and marshmallow-y to the touch. Good luck, and happy baking! Kye@KAF

  7. Darcie

    This post is the *best* resource! I asked for some of my neighbor’s starter at the beginning of the year, emboldened in the instructions and tips I found here, and have had such fun experimenting with recipes. I slowly figured things out by experimenting and now maintain 2 starters: one that I feed with KAF whole wheat, and one that I call my buckwheat goo. Thank you for keeping this post around and updated! I really can’t tell you how helpful it is, and the comments are great too.

    Reply
  8. Larry

    My experience with starters varies according to whether (or not) the recipe calls for yeast to boost the leavening. After having a sluggish starter that took weeks before it finally started to double, I now have a vigorous starter that doubles in volume in about 2-4 hours after being taken out of the fridge and given its first feeding. I have been successful with the Rustic Sourdough recipe using the lower amount of yeast. For my latest batch of Rustic Sourdough, I didn’t want to bake right away, so I let the dough rise for about 45 minutes at 75 degrees and then put the dough in the fridge to slow down the rise. Even in the fridge, the dough has risen like gangbusters! (I have had to deflate it a couple of times because I’m not quite ready for the final shaping, rise, and baking.) I look forward to seeing how the flavor turns out with the slower rise. If I were baking a loaf with just starter and no yeast, however, I’d probably take the extra time to do multiple feedings before baking.

    Reply
  9. Jersey Pie Boy

    I’ve been pretty happy with my starter but would sometimes like the bread flavor to be a bit more sour. I was thinking maybe I need a different starter unil I saw this link http://www.northwestsourdough.com/sourdough-starters-and-temperature/

    Have I deflavored my starters by storing them in the fridge which I thought was the right way to go? Is what the article speaks of more theory than practice or have I caused a problem? I think my starters still smell great when well-refreshed and the flavor is good if somewhat mild…If the reason they’re mild is because of what the article suggests, can I revive the original flavor, perhaps by feeding with whole wheat as one of your answers suggested for a damaged starter? Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern

      Hi Jersey Pie Boy, the science is complex and to some extent uncertain when it comes to the effects of refrigeration on your sourdough starter. Many do argue that low refrigerator temperatures for extended periods of time can damage the friendly bacteria that contribute flavor to your sourdough. However, if you’re feeding and maintaining your starter regularly (at least once a week when storing it in the refrigerator) and giving it a few feedings at room temperature prior to baking, I doubt very much that the refrigerator is causing any harm. When returning your starter to the refrigerator, be sure to give your starter 2-4 hours at room temperature after feeding to get the fermentation going. At King Arthur Flour we like to emphasize keeping your starter healthy as the first part of flavor development, but the easiest way to manipulate the flavor of your sourdough bread is actually during the dough phase. Refrigerating the dough for part of the fermentation process can increase the sour flavor, as does adding a small amount of whole grain flour (particularly rye flour) to the bread recipe. Breads without added yeast that can allow for a more extended fermentation time will result in more sour flavor than breads that contain yeast and sourdough starter. Check out our Extra Tangy Sourdough recipe and our Artisan Sourdough Bread recipe as examples of recipes that incorporate refrigeration as part of the fermentation process to enhance the sour flavor in the bread.
      Barb

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