How to Prevent Your Sourdough Starter from Taking over Your Life

I’ll teach a sourdough starter webinar on Wednesday May 3rd from 4 pm to 4:30 pm Pacific time. You can watch it directly from my webinar page. Open the webinar up in YouTube and ask me questions in real time through a chat window you’ll see to the right of the video. If you can’t watch the webinar live, return to the webinar page later to view. YouTube will automatically record the live stream.

I work in publishing and with non-fiction books, after you have compiled enough revisions, you put out a new edition. With a blog, you write a new post. But you can’t delete the old post because you’ve linked to it all over the place, people may have bookmarked it and you have noticed how that post attracts steady daily traffic so you just add more posts until your blog grows unwieldy, just like a sourdough starter if you’re not careful!

sourdough starter
Eleanor ready for action

How I’ve changed as a sourdough starter mom

My sourdough starter Eleanor turned three years old this year. I meant to throw her a party but I was awfully busy that week. Since her birth (February 10th, 2014), I’ve changed my technique slightly. As with parenting, you learn as you go.

To make a starter, you mix flour and water, stir it several times a day until it bubbles to life, feed it fresh flour and water and when it has finally reached maturity, use it to bake bread. You can read about starting a starter here and here, however I have some revisions for those posts:

  • I feed my starter room temperature water. I used to heat up water to about 100 or 110ºF to feed my starter. But visiting my daughter recently, I noticed she skips this step when feeding her starter (Eleanor’s offspring). I’ve made this small change too. The less energy I consume, the happier I am. I always have a jug of water out on the counter to use in ferments so I now feed that to Eleanor.
  • I maintain a much smaller starter. My previous posts called for feedings of 100 grams each of water and flour for every 2 to 3 tablespoons of existing starter, following Michael Pollan’s recipe in his book Cooked. Today I mix 40 grams of water and 40 grams of flour with about 1 tablespoon of starter. When I feed my starter, I have just enough discard to make a couple of pancakes, which I eat several mornings a week. These smaller proportions prevent my pile of discarded starter from growing into the blob that ate my kitchen. If you need more starter for something like pizza dough, just increase the proportions of the feedings.
  • I feed my starter quite a bit of rye. I used to feed Eleanor equal parts whole wheat flour and white flour. She prefers rye over whole wheat (picky toddlers…) so I feed her about 25 grams rye and 15 grams white. I don’t get too hung up on the rye-to-white ratio of my 40 grams of flour. I just add more rye than white.
  • I make only as much leaven as I need. In the past when I baked two loaves of bread, I first made a large leaven consisting of 200 grams flour, 200 grams water, 35 grams starter and 25 grams salt. After the leaven rose and fell over a period of about 10 hours, I would add half the leaven to my dough and use the other half as my new starter. But that takes me back up to the larger starter (100 grams each of flour and water) that I want to avoid making. So these days, I make a leaven half as large. The entire thing goes into my bread dough. In the background, I have my smaller starter and I continue to feed that.
sourdough starter feeding
One tablespoon of sourdough starter about to be fed
freshly fed sourdough starter
Sourdough starter after a feeding of fresh flour and water

How to use up all that starter

If you feed your starter daily, you will accumulate a pile of it. Don’t waste it! I use it up with these recipes:

  • Sourdough crackers. Old starter makes for a tangy cracker. These taste cheesy but contain only discarded starter, flour, oil, salt and baking powder. You can find the recipe here.
  • Sourdough waffles. These too work well with older starter as you add fresh flour and let the sponge sit overnight. That feeding perks up the old starter. Find that recipe here.
  • Sourdough pancakes. The easiest recipe of them all. They work best with discarded starter that’s a bit younger, let’s say a couple of weeks old at the most. Get the recipe here.
  • Soft sourdough pretzels. These work well with discard that is only a couple of days old at the most. Cheat and add a little commercial yeast. Here’s the recipe for these.

How I’ve changed as a sourdough teacher

In workshops, when I show people how to start and feed a sourdough starter, they often say things like “It sounds like ‘Who’s on First.’ Which is the discard and which is the starter I’ll use next time and why do I have to remove so much to feed it and why do you make it all so confusing?” I hope people find the instructions below more straightforward.

Remember to take notes as you embark on your sourdough adventure. You will feel terrible later if you forget the details of those early milestones, like what type of flour you used in the first loaf your starter made.

They grow up so quickly.

In the video above, I demonstrate how to make a sourdough starter and how to feed it.

Sourdough Starter

Ingredients

  • To start your starter—and for each subsequent feeding—you will need:
  • 25 grams rye flour
  • 15 grams white flour
  • 40 grams room temperature water (I have found warm unnecessary)

Instructions

  1. Combine flour and water in a glass jar or bowl. Use a utensil or your fingers. The starter will have the consistency of thick pancake batter. Cover with a cloth, a plate or lid. Set in a warm but not hot spot.
  2. Stir daily several times when you think of it.
  3. After a few days to a week, you will likely see bubbling. Begin to feed your starter daily. Transfer about 80 percent of your starter to a clean glass jar or dish. Put this aside. Put it out of your mind. This is the discarded starter. Store it in the refrigerator and bake something with it later, such as pancakes. Do not feed this starter...let it go...
  4. In the dish that you started your sourdough in, you now have a tablespoon of starter remaining. Add to this fresh flour and water—40 grams of each. Stir, cover with a cloth or lid and set aside.
  5. Continue to feed your starter daily and described in the previous two steps—remove most of the starter, add that to the discard pile in the refrigerator and feed the remaining tablespoon of starter fresh flour and water—40 grams of each.
  6. After about five days to a week of feeding your starter regularly (daily or even twice a day), it should double in size within about four hours of feeding before slowly falling back down. Congratulations, your virile starter can now bake bread. Think of a cute name.
  7. If you want to take a break from daily feedings once your starter is established, store your mature starter in the refrigerator and remove it about once a week to feed it. Let it sit for a couple of hours after feeding before returning it the refrigerator.
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16 Comment

  1. Thanks for this update! I’m definitely going to try to make the webinar as I’ve always been a bit intimidated by sourdough starters!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Great Polly! Sourdough starter is easy to start and care for but I found it very confusing at first. I wasn’t used to baking this way. Now I love it! ~ Anne Marie

  2. I was lucky enough to be given a well established starter by a friend a couple of months ago. I had always been put off trying sourdough because it all seemed a bit complicated and to be honest, so far I have only made pizza dough with it because it is the best pizza dough I have ever had. I keep mine in the fridge for most of the week, then take it out and feed it two consecutive days – the discard from those gives me enough for the pizza. Now I have to branch out into bread & crackers…..

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Sarah, I remember typing a reply on here but must not have hit send… I thought sourdough was complicated at first until I had done it a few times. Now I tell people it’s easy when you know how 😉 I’m so glad you like you pizza dough. We have friends who make sourdough pizza all the time and it’s fantastic. Easy too. Enjoy your bread and crackers. ~ Anne Marie

  3. Great post very easy to understand! Makes much more sense to me now! Thank you for putting that together 🙂

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      You’re welcome Alexis. I’m glad it makes more sense. I have taught people how to make a starter and they have often looked so confused. I knew I had to come up with a better way to explain it. Thanks for the feedback. ~ Anne Marie

  4. I was also given an established starter a few years ago. I am admittedly quite lazy with it – I feed it when I know I’ll be using it, otherwise,it lives in a jar in the fridge. They are pretty hardy creatures – mine goes through months of neglect (in the summer when it’s too hot to bake), but during the winter, it gets quite a bit of attention. It’s never been too hard to bring it back to life, although the discard I pull off when it’s sat too long ends up in my compost bin.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks for the info, Becky. That’s good to know you can leave it for so long unattended.

  5. Anne Nichols says: Reply

    Hi, I am trying to make sour dough starter for the first time. Thanks for the step by step directions and for your video. I think my starter is ready but the part I am not sure about is that it has not fallen back down on it’s own. When I fed starter today it had risen quite a bit so I think it is ready. Should it be falling back down on its own or with my help when I stir it? 🙂 Thanks.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Anne, That all sounds great. The most important thing is that it rises. It can take several hours to fall back down on its own so don’t feel you have to wait until it does that. It’s just a sign that it’s ready. When you want to use it, just stir it down. Thanks for checking out the video. Enjoy your baking adventure. ~ Anne Marie

  6. Hi Anne Marie,

    I’ve been feeding the starter daily as suggested for about 5 days now but still only a few bubbles and no rising. I’m using 100% white bread flour, 40 g of flour and 40g water. Am I being impatient and should just keep going? or possibly add in some rye flour?

    Thanks!
    Bella

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Bella. Bubbles are a great sign. It’s alive! You could start to feed it now if it’s bubbling even just a little bit. Sure, try some rye. My starter loves rye. Good luck! ~ Anne Marie

  7. Hi Anne Marie,
    Your site has been my bible as I continue to shift to low-waste, no processed eating so thank you! I’ve never made sourdough before and I’ve started a couple of starter experiments the last few days. I read about using kefir in starter, so I used 40g of homemade milk kefir instead of water and added that to 20g whole wheat and 20g white flour. After 12 hours, it had bubbled and more than tripled in size… smells yeasty and amazing. Do you have any experience with this type of starter? I think I might just try to feed it tonight and see how it does? There’s so little info on this online, I thought I’d check with you! I just can’t believe how quickly it activated, compared to my flour/water starters, I don’t want to feed it or jump to baking sooner than I should.

    Thanks again!
    Ariel

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks so much Ariel 🙂 Your starter sounds awesome! I haven’t tried adding anything much to my starter except raisins or a bit of kombucha but I know people do do this. I would keep feeding it that way and try making bread. I usually make two loaves but with that starter I would try just one and see how it goes. I can’t guarantee it will turn out but it should make a really good leaven, which should make a nice loaf. Sorry I don’t have a better answer. Happy experimenting. ~ Anne Marie

  8. Mary Sommerville says: Reply

    Hi there –

    I’m trying starter for the first time with your 40/40 measurements (used rye and white flour). I even took your advice and named her (Meredith) and she did great … got some bubbling within a couple of days, started feeding her 1-2 times a day, and she was rising well. Two or three days into the feeding, I decided to move the tablespoon of starter that I was keeping into a fresh bowl (thinking the old one was getting manky) … and she died. There was a little bit of bubbling the first day, and I fed her, and then nothing and she went mouldy.

    So I tried again using some of the discard from the fridge (Meredith 1.1) as well as a batch from scratch (Meredith 2.0). The stuff from the discard bubbled a little bit and I fed it, but then it petered out like the original one. The stuff from scratch had a few bubbles last night but I decided to wait until this morning to start feeding her, and this morning there was mould around the edges of the bowl. I’m assuming I should have fed her last night rather than waiting.

    Gah!

    Any suggestions (other than the obvious thing that I just need to try again)? Do you really keep the starter in the same container all the time without washing it?? It would seem like that would get pretty icky after a while. Or is there something different you need to do if you’re trying to revive the discard stuff? Or is there a way of “rescuing” the starter if the mould is just at the edges?

    Thanks for your help!

    Mary

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Mary. I love the name 🙂 That tablespoon of starter you’ve set aside, is that from the most recent batch? I haven’t had trouble with mold and I do use the same jar for ages. I just washed mine for the first time in a few months. Maybe that is too long… but I haven’t had trouble. What kind of dishsoap do you use? Any chance it’s microbial-killing? Oooh, what about your water? Does is smell like chlorine? That might be the trouble. What is the temperature like in your kitchen? Maybe Meredith needs a warmer spot. Or maybe your kitchen is too warm??? That might make more sense. There are so many variables. You should be able to revive Meredith after two or three feedings. I bring my cold starter to room temperature before I feed it. That might help. Please let me know how it goes. ~ Anne Marie

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