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. Emily

    Hi. I got a starter from you guys yesterday and I am following the guide that came with and I did step 1 yesterday and did the first feeding of step 2 today and there are about 3 hours left and the starter is SUPER bubbly and just about doubled in size. Should I keep feeding it every 6 hours for a few days or put it in the fridge until ready to use or for feeding? Thanks!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Emily! We’re glad to hear it’s doing well. We recommend following the instructions and continuing to feed it for a few more days, just to make sure it’s really healthy and strong. It usually takes about 10 days to get to this point, but sometimes it only takes about a week. Annabelle@KAF

  2. Karma

    Hello, I have a question about when you think your starter is ready. Mine looks great, bubbly, smelling tangy. But, when I take a cup out to make bread, I do not have 4 ounces left. Does this mean my starter is not ready?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Good question, Karma. It may very well be ready, and when you scoop it with the cup, more than 8 oz might be packing in. That would leave less in the crock. Next time, see if weighing out the 8 oz for the cup will leave you 4 in the crock. Bubbly, happy, and smelling tangy are great signs, so we have a feeling it’s ready to roll! Annabelle@KAF

  3. Crystal

    I started my own sourdough starter and it is doing quite well other than it gets a grayish color to it. It rises bread well and has a good tangy smell. What’s up with the gray color?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We’re glad to hear it’s doing well, Crystal! Usually, a grey liquid develops when the starter is hungry. If you’re curious to see some visuals and compare your starter to our, feel free to look at our Sourdough Troubleshooting blog article. Annabelle@KAF

  4. Larry

    This is a comment about changes to your web pages, not the blog itself. KAF has added a menu on the left, and parts of it print on the first page. I would appreciate an option to hide the menu (which I did not see) or a print option that prints the blog pages minus the menu.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Thanks for your feedback, Larry! We’ve shared it with our Web Team for consideration. If we can help with anything else, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our friendly Customer Service team at 800-827-6836. Annabelle@KAF

  5. Darlene Godfrey

    I have changed my e-mail address. I don’t use my old addressess for recipes. Also I’d like to be able to copy these new pages relating to making sour dough starter and maintainence.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Darlene. While there isn’t currently a function to save specific blog articles to your account, we’ve shared your message with the Web Team for future consideration. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to call our friendly Customer Service Team at 800-827-6836 and they’ll be happy to help out. Kindly, Annabelle@KAF

  6. Kirsten C Holm

    This is a question related to discard. I understand that it’s hard to part with it and there are recipes that use the discard. But if I do discard a portion, how should it be handled? I’m reluctant to just pour it out into the trashcan, both inside the house or outside, because it will attract flies. But I don’t want to put it in a plastic bag either for environmental concerns. How can the discarded portion be contained?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Kirsten. While we generally just put it in the trash, you could instead pour it into a container in your freezer, then pop it out of the container when you go to take out your trash so it doesn’t have a chance to defrost in your kitchen. Annabelle@KAF

  7. Laura

    I’ve had starter left on counter for over a year. There’s no mold, no funky colors. Looks dormant. Do you think if I fed it, it will bounce back? Or should I just toss it?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      It’s worth giving a feeding to see, Laura, but there’s a good chance it might be dead. Here’s a blog article to give you some helpful visuals and tricks in checking the viability of a 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. Annabelle@KAF

  8. Colleen

    Hi, I received several jars of starter from a customer, who just happened to overhear a coworker and me talking about bread baking. As far as he could tell it has been going for 93 years, he was originally given the starter by his grandmother. He also gave me a starter “cake”. Do I still keep this old starter going in the same way? And how do I deal with the “cake”, it is basically dehydrated starter? Thanks

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Colleen. You should be able to feed the old starter the same way, but we’re a little confused about the cake. Is it dried out or is it just a stiff starter? Our free and friendly Baker’s Hotline will be able to help with a little bit of additional information, so please give them a call at 855-371-BAKE (2253). We’ll get you baking with all kinds of starters in no time! Annabelle@KAF

  9. Jane

    Hi, I was given a bit of starter in a jar with a lid by a friend and I will be keeping it in the refrigerator and feeding it once a week. I would like to know whether I must cover it for the 2 hours or so after feeding that I leave it at room temperature? Also please tell me if I must cover it when keeping it in the fridge. Can I use the jar lid or something breathable? This post is helpful but didn’t say much about covering or not. Thanks in advance!

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid

      Hi, Jane. Covering is important, especially in the refrigerator, because the top of the starter can dry out. While at room temperature, it’s a good idea to have the starter loosely covered. Particularly in summer, fruit flies are very attracted to the smell of the starter, and nobody wants that! Susan

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *