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. Judy

    I have made your recipe for sourdough starter in the past but wasn’t making enough bread so I gave up and threw the starter out. The breads were good but didn’t have the tang that San Francisco sourdough has. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and I had a bakery near me. So recently we went on a trip to San Francisco, specifically, Pier 39 and there was a bakery/restaurant there with bakers making crab shaped french bread in the front window. They had sourdough starter packets for sale. I’m attempting to make a starter but it doesn’t rise. It looks like a thin pancake batter and doesn’t have any bubbles.Tomorrow I plan on putting together your recipe in another jar. Maybe I’ll have better luck. Do you think because I no longer live near San Francisco, I cannot make french bread to taste like theirs?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Having grown up in San Fransico as well, Judy, and making many a trip to Pier 39, I can fully understand the desire to replicate the bread of the city. A section of our Sourdough Guide FAQ’s reads: “Why doesn’t your bread taste like San Francisco (or New York, or Key West) sourdough? Because there are so many variations—in starters, weather, the microclimate in which you’re baking, and the recipe you’re using—that it’s nearly impossible to duplicate exactly someone else’s sourdough bread. Your best bet is to follow a recipe, and discover what you can do with YOUR starter, in YOUR kitchen.”
      We encourage you to experiment with lots of sourdough bread recipes until you find that one that most closely resembles the flavors you love. My favorite is our Naturally Leavened Sourdough Bread using rye flour in place of the whole wheat, but you’ll never know which one is the best fit until you do some very tasty testing. Happy baking, and always feel free to call our Baker’s Hotline at 855-371-BAKE (2253) for extra tips and tricks. Annabelle@KAF

  2. Katherine

    I neglected my starter for a few days and when I checked on it, it looked like your photo with the liquid on top. But then I discovered a substance floating on the surface of the liquid that seemed EXACTLY like a kombucha SCOBY. I do brew kombucha, so I was wondering if that’s what it is? The starter even had the same kind of vinegar smell as my kombucha. Any thoughts? I actually put the alleged SCOBY in some tea just to see what happens.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Katherine, we haven’t heard of something like this happening before with a sourdough starter, and it makes us a bit weary to hear about unidentified things growing in your starter. We’d recommend airing on the side of caution since you’re not sure what kind of yeast/bacteria culture has formed and simply start fresh (discard the affected starter). Food safety and the well-being of our customers is of utmost importance to us, so we’d recommend being prudent in this case. Kye@KAF

  3. Cindy Vice

    Which is better sourdough starter made with yeast or just plain flour & water?
    What is the best way to store – in a mason jar with lid just barely on, covered loosely with plastic or just screw the lid on regular?
    What is the ideal temp for growing a starter – my house is usually between 68 & 74 degrees?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Cindy, when it comes to sourdough baking, there are no hard and fast rules about what is “better.” If you ask what makes the best sourdough starter to a room full of bakers, you’re bound to get dozens of answers. We prefer using this recipe to make your own sourdough starter, which uses a basic combination of whole wheat (or whole rye) flour and water to capture the wild yeast from the environment. (Sometimes adding a bit of commercial yeast to “kick start” your starter can be helpful, but it’s usually not necessary.)

      For storage, we like keeping the sourdough starter in a crock with a loose-fitting lid like this, but a mason jar with the lid slightly ajar works well. Avoid screwing the lid on tightly to allow some gas exchange. It sounds like your kitchen will make a cozy sourdough home. Ideal temperature for sourdough is between 68°F and 70°F. (Check out this post about growing your own starter for more details.) Kye@KAF

  4. Drew

    My starter seems to rise and fall in a span of about 4 or 5 hours. I’ve been using it at its peak somroughly half that time. I get decent results. Should I try using it at 8 hours? Everything thing I read says you should use your starter at its peak.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Glad you hear you have a very active starter, Drew. Using it at it’s peak is ideal for getting the best rise out of your bread, though there isn’t necessarily a wrong time to use it. We encourage you to experiment using it at different rising and/or falling points to see which stater-state results in your ideal loaf. It would be a tasty experiment indeed. Annabelle@KAF

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