Maintaining a smaller sourdough starter: less waste, same great results!

Here at King Arthur Flour’s Baker’s Hotline we hear a common lament from frugal sourdough bakers:

“Why do I have to throw out so much sourdough starter every time I feed it? Isn’t there a way to avoid all this waste?”

Maintaining a smaller sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

8 ounces of sourdough starter discard

The stumbling block for some bakers is that our tried and true maintenance routine requires discarding a full cup (227g, 8 ounces) of starter each time you do a feeding and aren’t planning to bake. That’s why we’ve devised so many great recipes that utilize sourdough starter discard.

Many sourdough bakers have established a routine that allows their starter regular feedings while putting their discard to good use. If you’ve found a good groove for feeding and maintaining your starter that gives you great results and creates little waste, this blog post may not be for you.

But if you’re drowning in discard and wondering why you couldn’t just maintain less starter, read on!

Maintaining a smaller sourdough starter — why didn’t we think of this before?

To be honest, we weren’t sure how low it was safe to go.

Our sourdough maintenance routine evolved out of the artisan baking world, where bakers have nurtured sourdough cultures and produced beautiful and flavorful naturally leavened breads for centuries. Their traditional methods work.

Professional sourdough bakers tend to be leery of extended sourdough starter refrigeration, and rarely have to worry about discard or the viability of tiny amounts of starter.

In production baking the starter is primarily kept at room temperature and nourished through a course of feedings that build the starter to the amount needed for baking, with enough left over to feed and begin the process all over again.

This system works great if you’re baking daily and using a lot of starter.

Of course, that’s not the way most of us bake sourdough at home.

A scientific perspective on starter maintenance

I was recently lucky enough to take a sourdough class here at King Arthur Flour with guest instructor Debra Wink. She’s an accomplished microbiologist and devoted baker who’s combined two passions by turning her microscope to the world of sourdough starters.

Maintaining a smaller sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

Debra Wink helping a student prepare her starter for travel.

As a scientist and home baker, Wink was able to provide some really helpful insight when it comes to maintaining a smaller sourdough starter.

From her own research and hands-on experience, Wink has concluded that refrigeration isn’t likely to cause any permanent harm to your sourdough starter.

In fact, Wink revealed that she regularly refrigerates her starters and maintains them at just two ounces, rather than the more normal 12 or so ounces.

What, only two ounces?

If you’re like me, your sourdough brain may be feeling just a little blown.

How well does it work?

As soon as I heard “two ounces,” I went home and reduced the size of all six of my sourdough starters. (And if you’re wondering why on earth anyone needs six different starters — you’re right, there’s no good reason.)

They did come in handy this time, though! I was able to test the smaller starter method on a variety of starters: liquid, stiff, rye, whole wheat, and even two different gluten-free starters.

Conclusion: I’ve been maintaining reduced versions of my starters for a few months now and everyone is happy and healthy.

And, believe me, I was overjoyed to discover that my starters could thrive on this reduced maintenance routine!

If you’ve ever thought about maintaining a smaller sourdough starter as a way of avoiding so much discard—here’s how to do it. Click To Tweet

How to maintain a smaller sourdough starter

Note: For step-by-step directions in easily printable format, check out our recipe for maintaining a Smaller Sourdough Starter.

We’re going to keep the same ratio of ingredients as our regular liquid starter: equal parts by weight of starter, flour, and water. All we’re doing is reducing each component to a much smaller quantity. For this method, a scale really, really comes in handy.

Maintaining a smaller sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

A heaping tablespoon of sourdough starter is all you need to get this starter going.

I can give you rough estimates for measuring by volume, but working with tablespoons of starter is messy and not very precise. So, take all that money you’ll be saving in discarded flour and consider adding a scale to your baking toolbox.

Two ounces is equal to 57g, but for simpler calculations I’ve rounded up to 60g. Not only will a scale make this process easier, but working in grams makes much more sense when working with such small quantities.

For 60g of starter:

Save 20g (1 heaping tablespoon) starter and feed it 20g (4 teaspoons) water and 20g (2 tablespoons) flour.

Maintaining a smaller sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

From top to bottom: 20g starter, 60g newly fed starter, 60g ripe starter

Maintaining a smaller sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

Tools for maintaining a smaller sourdough starter

If you decide to maintain a smaller sourdough starter, downsizing your tools can make the process much easier. Our regular sourdough crock is just too big for this little guy.

For our smaller starter you’ll need an 8-ounce canning jar or similar sized container. This jar will only be used for maintenance feedings. Be sure your jar has a wide mouth to make stirring easy.

Two identical jars can make the feeding process even easier. If you’re weighing your ingredients you can tare the empty jar. If you’re measuring by volume it will be easier to transfer the heaping tablespoon of starter to the clean jar.

You’ll also need a larger container or bowl when it comes time to build the amount of starter you have in preparation for baking. Our sourdough crock could come in handy here, but I’d be wary of building more than 454g (16 ounces) of starter in this crock.

Maintaining a smaller sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

Our mini spatulas and a mini-scoop can also make the feeding routine a lot easier.

Feedings become builds

While refrigeration may not harm your sourdough starter, it doesn’t provide the necessary environment or nourishment to keep bacteria and yeast populations at optimal levels for baking.

If you’re accustomed to storing your starter in the refrigerator and feeding weekly, then you know it’s helpful to take your starter out of the refrigerator a day or two before you plan to bake and start feeding it twice daily at room temperature. These revival feedings at room temperature help bring your starter back to full vitality.

When maintaining our regular 12 ounces of starter, two or three such revival feedings can generate as much as 567g (20 ounces) of discard.

The real beauty of maintaining a smaller sourdough starter is that the revival feedings that are necessary after refrigeration are integrated into building the quantity of starter, with little or no discard generated along the way.

Making bread with three feedings/builds:

Say you want to make our Naturally Leavened Sourdough Bread recipe on Saturday. This recipe calls for a daunting 454g (16 ounces) of ripe sourdough starter.

Thursday night you’ll take your 60g of starter out of the refrigerator and give it a normal feeding:

20g starter + 20g water + 20g flour = 60g starter (40g of starter are discarded).

Friday morning, rather than discarding, you’ll begin building the quantity of your starter. You’ll save all 60g and feed it with equal parts flour and water:

60g starter + 60g water + 60g flour = 180g starter (still not enough for the recipe, but getting there).

Friday evening, you’ll do the last feed/build before baking on Saturday morning:

180g starter + 180g water + 180g flour = 540g starter.

Saturday morning you’ll have enough starter for the recipe (454g), plus 86g left over. You’ll need 20g of that 86g remaining starter to feed and perpetuate.

This means you’re only generating 66g of discard with this last build.

If you include the 40g of discard from the first feeding, the total discard generated is only 106g (less than 1/2 cup).

Maintaining a smaller sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

And how does the bread turn out when you use this method? Pretty darn nice.

How many feedings/builds are necessary?

Of course there are various ways you can accomplish these builds, incorporating more or fewer feedings into the building process.

Keep in mind, if your starter has been stored in the refrigerator for several weeks or longer it’s going to need more than just a few feedings to bring it back to full vitality before baking. For more on this, see our tips for reviving a neglected starter.

More room-temperature (70°F) feedings will lead to a more active starter, which will perform better in your baking. In particular, more feedings will contribute to a better rise.

But what if you only have time for two feedings/builds before baking the bread recipe above? How do we get from 60g starter to 540g in two builds? And how will fewer feeding/builds affect our results?

Friday morning:

Take your starter out of the fridge and begin building immediately, with no discard:

60g starter + 60g water + 60g flour = 180g starter

Friday night:

Again no need to discard as we continue to build the quantity of starter:

180g starter + 180g water +180g flour = 540g starter

Maintaining a smaller sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

From 60g starter to 540g in two builds. From top to bottom: 60g:60g:60g newly fed, 180g ripe, 180g:180g:180g newly fed, 540g ripe starter

Saturday morning:

You’ll need 454g starter for the recipe and 20g to feed, leaving only 66g (about 1/4 cup) to discard!

But will our results suffer with only two feedings/builds?

Maintaining a smaller sourdough starter via @kingarthurflourSurprisingly, the results are just as nice as the bread that got three feedings/builds.

Maintaining a smaller sourdough starter via @kingarthurflour

The results are even more surprising when I test our Pain Au Levain recipe with only one feeding prior to the overnight levain. Hardly the lackluster loaf I was expecting!

Baking results

If more feedings lead to better rising bread, why don’t my results bear this out?

  1. An unintended effect of testing was that my starter got a lot more overall room-temperature feedings. I was feeding and baking over a two- to three-day period, refrigerating my starter for three to four days, and then feeding and baking again. My busy baking routine no doubt contributed to how quickly my starter rebounded after refrigeration. This helps explain my successful results, even with fewer feedings/builds immediately prior to baking.
  2. In the case of the Pain Au Levain recipe, the overnight levain provides a built-in feeding/build. Even though I only fed my starter once before adding it to the recipe, it really got two feedings/builds.

Takeaway: A few midweek room-temperature feedings may help improve the vitality of your starter, allowing it to recharge more quickly later in the week. 

Tips for maintaining a smaller sourdough starter:

  1. The beauty of the smaller starter method is that post-refrigeration revival feedings are combined with starter building, creating little or no starter discard.
  2. You’ll need two 8-ounce wide-mouth jars, and tools that fit easily in them. A scale will also make this process much easier and more accurate.
  3.  Because you’re creating so much less waste each time you feed your starter, take this as an invitation to feed more often. The more room-temperature (70°F) feedings you can give your starter, the more active it will be, and the better it will perform in your baking.
  4. A smaller starter leaves less margin for error. When planning your feeding/build schedule be sure to include some padding in the numbers to guard against spillage.
  5. A smaller starter will respond faster to temperature changes. Allow your starter at least four hours at room temperature after feeding and before refrigeration. This will ensure that fermentation has progressed sufficiently before your starter cools down and becomes dormant in the refrigerator.

Reducing the amount of starter you maintain can really revolutionize your sourdough baking routine. We’re sure you’ll have lots of questions, so please don’t hesitate to ask them below! And if you’ve already taken the leap to a smaller starter, we’d love to hear about your experiences and results!

If you’ve ever wondered why discarding is a necessary part of maintaining a healthy sourdough starter, our new Sourdough Baking Guide has the answer for you, along with lots of other great sourdough information.

If you’re a new sourdough baker, this guide offers spectacular step-by-step visuals to lead you through creating a starter and baking your first loaf of naturally leavened bread.

Many thanks to Debra Wink for inspiring us to try maintaining a smaller sourdough starter. 

Barbara Alpern
About

Long time professional artisan bread baker, caramel maker and member of our Baker Specialist team, Barb grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan and has four grown sons. She has baked in Michigan, Maine, Vermont, and Texas (if you count baking cookies for her son's wedding!).

comments

  1. Crystal Cox

    I am starting sourdough baking for the first time. I am confused by what I read about the proper temps for the starter jar. I am reading everything from 80F to refrigeration. Once my starter is working and ready to “go to work” in bread making, what is the proper day to day storage temperature?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Crystal, once your starter is ready for baking you have the option to keep it at room temperature and feed twice daily, or to refrigerate it and feed it at least once a week. Most home bakers find a combination of refrigeration plus a day or two of room temperature feedings prior to baking works well. 70-80 degrees is an ideal room temperature range, but don’t worry if your house is a little cooler than that at night. I’d say my house averages around 70 degrees this time of year, and my starters seem to do fine at this temperature.
      Barb

  2. Rosalind Remer

    Just wanting to be sure I understand: the two 8 oz jars are for storing and then building, but at some point, for my recipe, which calls for 8 oz of starter, I want to move the building/growing starter over to a bowl or other, larger container, right? I love the wide mouth 8 oz jars, but assume that 8 oz of starter will be too much for them when ripe. Is that true? Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Rosalind, it’s a little confusing because the jars are 8 ounces by volume, but the 8 ounces of ripe starter you’ll need for a recipe is a weight measurement. You’re totally correct that the jars will be too small for more than the maintenance amount of 2 ounces (by weight) of starter. To increase your starter you’ll definitely need to move it to a larger bowl or container.
      Barb

  3. Carolyn Dettmann

    Living alone now (83 yrs) I also got tired of throwing away starter. I found portion wise of 4 oz. starter, 4 oz flour, 4 oz water. Works great. I get busy and forget about it being in the fridge, sometimes going three weeks but it is always there waiting for me. I have never had a failure with it. I mix my new batch, wash my KA container thoroughly, rinse with real hot water, fill with my new starter and leave it on the table until I go to bed at night. It will have already begun to activate and will continue to stay until I need it again. People get too anxious about it. It is a very forgiving substance. I use the leftover for pancakes, etc. and put them in the freezer. Also, I make the KA muffin recipe sometimes and take a little starter from my new batch to make a full cup and then follow the recipe. Turns out great. Thanks KAF.

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Thanks for sharing your sourdough routine, Carolyn! You’ve offered an important reminder to sourdough bakers everywhere by saying it’s “a very forgiving substance,” and not to get too anxious. Maintaining that perspective can really help to make sourdough baking much more enjoyable.
      Barb

    2. Frauke Facchini

      Carolyn, I totally agree with you! The starter really does NOT have to rule your life, and most of the time it still works. Love the discard sourdough recipes I have tried so far, however, Sourdough Crackers, pancakes, and pizza dough! Now I will try to create a spelt flour starter to make the crackers for a gluten-sensitive friend.

  4. margie laughlin

    Hi again,
    Question on proportions. You have equal portions, even when building to baking levels. Hamelman’s proportions of starter increase to 50% as he builds for a bake, with 25% ea. of flour and water. Many recipes call for a much smaller inoculant for final levain. Hamelman says the starter doesn’t like such big feeds, but how much will the proportions of starter in the final build impact a recipe?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      Hi Margie, according to my understanding the proportion of starter primarily affects the rate of fermentation, so a larger percentage of starter fed a smaller meal will ferment more quickly than a smaller amount of starter fed a large meal. I kept the proportion of ingredients the same when doing these builds in order to time the builds more predictably. Jeffrey Hamelman does point out that using a smaller portion of mature culture for a build is one strategy for slowing down fermentation. For example, you could use this method if you’re preparing your build on a warm summer night and want to avoid it being over-fermented by morning. This may also be why you often see this sort of smaller inoculation process for the final overnight levain in sourdough recipes. Amber Eisler, one of our talented baking instructors here at the King Arthur Baking School also pointed out to me that this type of levain build serves as a helpful way of bringing diverse starters to the same place in a recipe. Sourdough starters come in so many consistencies and activity levels that adding a large quantity of starter directly to a recipe can introduce too much variability. Including a levain build that requires a small amount of ripe starter will help create a more uniform levain build, which will function more predictably in the final recipe.
      Barb

  5. ChrissyTX

    Hi Barbara, thanks for an inspiring post! After having read your blog, I have started doing this with my starter. I recently converted it from being fed with KA AP flour to KA white whole wheat flour. It seems much thicker than with AP. I noted you mentioned you have starters made with several different flours. Do you still use the 1:1:1 ratio by weight for your whole wheat flour sourdough starter? If not, what proportions, and how do you sub for other ingredients in the final recipes?

    Reply
    1. Barbara Alpern, post author

      You’re very welcome, Chrissy! I do maintain my whole wheat starter with the same 1:1:1 ratio, and it works fine with 20g each of starter, water and flour. It is a little thicker when first stirred together, but it thins out considerably as it ferments. I would use it 1:1 in recipes calling for our liquid white starter, but realize that this whole wheat starter will ripen a bit more quickly than a white flour starter. If you’re adding this to a recipe calling for our regular starter, you shouldn’t need to change the quantity of other ingredients.
      Barb

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