Ripe Sourdough Starter: What does "ready to use" look like?

Sift’s Spring issue goes into sourdough baking in depth, with articles on sourdough breads and the sweet side of sourdough. To complement those recipes, we’d like to share this Techniques column. How do you know when your sourdough starter is ready to bake with? Let’s take a look.
We’ve answered hundreds of questions on this topic, but in this case it seems some pictures could well be worth a few thousand words.
sourdough Starter via@kingarthurflour.com

Wake up your sourdough starter

Your starter has been tucked safely in the refrigerator for… awhile. Ten days, maybe longer. It’s separated, with a few tiny bubbles in the bottom, and a layer of grayish-looking alcohol on top. This is the sight that generates a lot of phone calls to our hotline. Can this possibly be OK? Is it dead?

Despite its current uninspiring appearance, this starter is still capable of doing great things.

sourdough Starter via@kingarthurflour.com

Your sourdough starter’s first meal

Stir everything back together (some people just pour off the top layer, which is OK, too), discard half, and feed the remainder with equal weights of flour (a scant 1 cup, 4 ounces) and water (1/2 cup, 4 ounces). Mix well, cover, and leave on the counter for 12 hours. Repeat the discard and feeding process every 12 hours, leaving the starter on the counter. After a few feedings, you’ll see the starter becoming more and more active, doubling in size in a shorter time.

Looking for ideas of what to do with that discarded starter? Visit this page to get a whole collection of recipe ideas.

sweet sourdough baking via@kingarthurflour

Get ready to bake

This is the same starter after a few days of the regular feedings described above. We stirred, discarded, and fed it with flour and water at 8 a.m. (2 hours ago). Now we’re going to watch its development. See the number and size of the bubbles increasing?sourdough starter via@kingarthurflour

Active, but not ripe, sourdough starter

The same starter at 1 p.m., 5 hours after feeding. It’s beginning to expand, and has many more bubbles. If you watch it for a minute, you can see the bubbles forming and coming to the surface in slow motion. This is an active starter, growing and expanding, producing bubbles of carbon dioxide. But it’s not yet ripe (at the top of its yeast and bacteria growth arc), nor at full strength for raising dough.sourdough starter via@kingarthurflour

Ripe and ready to go

The same starter at 4 p.m., 8 hours after feeding. It’s doubled in volume, and shows signs of just beginning to sag under its own weight. This is active starter that’s also ripe, ready to be added to bread dough to perform its sourdough magic. After mixing it into dough, then some rising and folding, the dough can be shaped and refrigerated overnight to be baked tomorrow.

sourdough Starter via@kingarthurflour.com

The best way to measure sourdough starter

An important thing to note about measuring sourdough starter: The more bubbles in it, the less a cup of active, ripe starter weighs. Measuring by volume can mean you have more or less starter in your cup, depending on where it is on its growth curve. That’s not a deal breaker for your recipe, but having a different amount of starter than called for may change the rising times and finished size of your loaf. To be sure you have the lifting power you need, measuring ripe starter by weight is always a better choice.

Once you gain confidence that your starter is vigorous, you can move its “get ready” feeding to the evening, knowing your starter will be ripe next morning to mix into your dough.

Your sourdough baking adventures await. We have lots of ideas (more than 150 recipes) to help you navigate this tasty and rewarding style of baking. Be sure to visit our sourdough guide for more in-depth information about creating, maintaining, and baking with sourdough.

At Sift, we live and breathe baking, and hope you’ll join us. Baking together is always more fun.

Susan Reid
About

Chef Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently the Food Editor of Sift magazine. She does demos, appearances, and answers food (and baking) questions from all quarters.

comments

  1. Summer

    Hi there! My start is currently in the fridge and I’ll need to wake it up to bake. But I may be baking alot over the next few weeks. What do I do to keep it maintained on the counter through that time? I’ll be baking every few days, not enough time to refrigerate and wake it up again.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Summer! When stored at room temperature, you’ll want to feed your starter twice a day, roughly 12 hours apart. Our Sourdough Guide offers details and tips on how to keep your starter healthy and bubbly. Happy sourdough baking! Annabelle@KAF

  2. Kate Evans

    I am new to all this and wanted to make my own yeast starter. I have a good starter finished. However, your sourdough recipe calls for adding instant yeast . Why isn’t starter yeast? I wanted to get away from having to buy yeast.

    Reply
  3. RK

    When measuring out ripe starter for a recipe, do you mix the starter down first and then scoop & weigh that? Or simply dip in to the top of the ripe, bubbly starter and use that?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi there, RK! If you are weighing the starter no need to stir it down first, but if you are using volume you’ll want to stir it first to get a more accurate measurement. Happy baking! Morgan@KAF

  4. Natacha

    Hi. My starters are over a month old. I’ve been getting great boules of sourdough out of them but was wondering is it best to use the starters when they are at full peak or have fallen? Does it make a difference? Thank you. I love King Arthur!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Natacha! You’ll get the best rise using the starter at its peak ripeness, but you would potentially get more flavor using the starter after it’s begun to fall. Annabelle@KAF

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