Overcome Your Fear of Commitment—to Sourdough and Other Starters

A flip-top jar of bubbly sourdough starter sits on a black table

I can’t look after more than four starters. My ginger bug Mary Ann, my kombucha SCOBY Etheldreda, my sourdough starter Eleanor and my buttermilk Betty all need regular feedings or they’ll die. I take care of this little family in addition to fermenting all sorts of other foods that don’t require starters—kimchi, dill pickles, chutney, beet kvass, salsa, preserved lemons and limes, mead… Jars of fermented food have taken over at least half of my refrigerator.

If I take on another starter I will become the crazy cat lady of fermentation. Starters, like pets, need regular attention. They also need names. I have a theory that if you name a starter, you’ll take better care of it. But keep in mind that I have also knit my starters sweaters. So that alone may have already conferred “crazy cat lady of fermentation” status…

I knit the sweaters for Mary Ann (left) and Eleanor (right) and Charlotte braided the hair for Betty Buttermilk (front)

If fear of committing to the responsibility of taking care of starters has prevented you from taking one (or more) on, I have good news. Unlike with pets, you can take little—or even long—breaks from dealing with your starters.

Kombucha SCOBY

If we have a hot humid summer, my kombucha will ferment in three days rather than the usual seven or eight. I basically have a part-time job brewing the stuff. So I’ll take a break by checking my SCOBYs into a SCOBY hotel. I do this in the winter also, when we tend to drink less kombucha.

To make a SCOBY hotel, prepare a large jar of tea for kombucha as usual—brew it, sweeten it and after it cools, add kombucha from the previous batch—then fill the jar with SCOBYs. Let this sit for up to two months, then start the process again.

If, during that two months, you want to make kombucha, brew some in a jar and pull out a SCOBY from your SCOBY hotel. But let the spares sit in there and give yourself—and your SCOBYs—a vacation. I always fill a few SCOBY hotels with occupants. If disaster—mold—should strike my brewing kombucha or a hotel, I have backup and can start over.

SCOBYs (top) and tea (below)

Ginger Bug

About a month ago, I brewed several bottles of natural sodas using my ginger bug. To make these, I strain minced ginger out of my ginger bug and add the remaining liquid to my concoctions—sweetened hibiscus tea or lemonade or sweetened ginger-infused water. A few days later, I’ll have an incredibly delicious carbonated drink.

I don’t like to waste the minced ginger I strain out. I usually make additional drinks by simply adding this bacteria- and yeast-rich ginger to another concoction. It works well. But after having already brewed several bottles of soda, I wanted a break. I didn’t want to deal with the minced ginger. I didn’t need more soda. So I put it in the freezer in a small jar. Weeks later, I pulled it out and made absolutely fabulous limeade with it. (I wish I had a glass of it right now!)

Freezing the minced ginger gave me a nice little respite from brewing something right then and there.

Naturally carbonated limeade

Sourdough Starter

If I keep my sourdough starter out on the counter—usually the case when I bake weekly—I feed it daily. If I don’t feel like baking one week, I’ll put Eleanor in the refrigerator and pull her out to feed her after a week or so. If I still don’t feel like baking, I’ll put her back in the refrigerator.

In a sourdough bread boot camp I taught at the end of May, attendees asked me if sourdough starter would survive freezing. I regularly freeze apple peels and cores until I have amassed a large enough pile to ferment a batch of scrap vinegar. It works well. The microbes go dormant rather than die as they would if exposed to high heat. So, I figured my starter would survive in the freezer. I told the class I would freeze a few tablespoons as an experiment.

Frozen Eleanor

How sourdough starter fared in the freezer

Last week—now September, almost four months later—I thawed out the frozen starter. Let’s call this Day 1. I took her to work to keep an eye on her (totally normal behavior).

Take your starter to work day

At night, as I prepared to feed now-thawed Eleanor, I realized I had no flour! So I ground up some wheat berries and rye berries in my grain mill. My grain mill does a nice job on small amounts of flour and my starter needs only a little at each feeding.

Freshly ground whole wheat flour
Freshly ground rye flour
Just fed, evening of Day 1
The next morning, Day 2

I fed the thawed starter and also some starter that I had kept in the refrigerator for a little over a week. After one feeding, the refrigerator starter rose and fell, smelled sour and yeasty and slightly fruity and tasted quite tangy—all the usual sort of behavior for a healthy sourdough starter. The previously frozen starter developed a few bubbles and only a very slightly sour flavor and odor.

I fed both starters a second time—now day 2.

Second feeding on evening of Day 2
Morning after second feeding, Day 3

Overnight, they both rose nicely, developed lots of gas-filled bubbles, and smelled and tasted as they should. All was well.

I have named my starters. I have flown with my starters. I have knit clothing for my starters. I have thrown birthday parties for my starters. I am a crazy starter lady. I may as well go all out and take on kefir grains too. If you live in the Bay Area and have any to spare, please let me know.

11 Replies to “Overcome Your Fear of Commitment—to Sourdough and Other Starters”

  1. Madeleine Lawrence says: Reply

    It was wonderful to hear how you fared with frozen starter, thanks for sharing.

    I wonder, can you have too much of a good thing? We all know fermented foods are great for our health but I wonder how much is too much. Yes, these were traditionally used in many cultures but not ALL of them were used by a single culture. eg the Japanese traditionally used miso, natto, shoyu and umeboshi but they weren’t using sourdough bread, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, ginger beer, yogurt etc… I also know that they ate these foods in very small quantities as some products were very salty. So I wonder has anyone done any research on this?


    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Madeleine,

      I usually eat at least one fermented food every day. Some days I eat more than one but like you said, I eat them in small quantities. I love kombucha and natural sodas but I drink those a couple of times a week at most. They do contain some sugar so I avoid guzzling glass after glass. I found a video of Sandor Katz addressing this same question. Basically, he says all things in moderation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b9wLmEyq9Do

      Anne Marie

      1. Madeleine Lawrence says:

        Thanks so much for the link, it is common sense really. I was not so much thinking of the salt and sugar content of the foods, more of the bacteria they contain. There seems to be a very ‘more is better’ mentality around and I know of people consuming bucket loads of sauerkraut and probiotic drinks, but I did wonder if that in itself could cause the gut bacteria to lose balance. My gut feeling is probably yes!


  2. Filipa Vaz Pinto says: Reply

    I really love you Blog and I have my sourdough starter for 4 months now, and because of you. I have to say that it’s still alive and in good shape and I usually make bread once a week. I think I still have to improve my method and things do not end up like I see on your blog or Instagram stories, but I will get there some day. Every other bread tastes bad compared to this one. My husband complains because the bread is too good and we keep eating 🙂 thanks for everything you do. I learn a lot with every post. I started following you almost a year ago and you are the reason I’m trying to achieve a zero waste life.
    I’m Portuguese and leaving in Norway at the moment.
    Please never stop.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you, Filipa. I’m glad you and your husband like the bread. I feel the same as your husband, especially when I add raisins to mine. It’s like cake. It’s almost too good and I can’t stop eating it! Thank you for following and for the kind words 🙂 Enjoy your bread! ~ Anne Marie

  3. Great post – informative as always. I love your knitted work and that gives me some ideas on how to use up some left-over yarn.

  4. Dear Anne Marie,
    thank you for this encouraging post! I’m from Germany and was spoiled with good bread all my life – but I realised that only recently after I’ve moved to Japan last year. After one year (and with 2 more ahead of me) I’m finally ready to try my hand on a sourdough starter! Your constant blog posts about Eleanor keep encouraging me.
    Also, a Japanese friend of mine has shown me his sourdough starter that he made with yeast produced by ferminting fruits/berries (in his case raspberries, as he’s a hobby berry farmer) this week – instead of adding water to the flour, he added bacteria rich water made be steeping raspberries. He got the idea from a Japanese book on home fermentation – I wonder if you heared about that?

  5. […] Source: Overcome Your Fear of Commitment—to Sourdough and Other Starters – The Zero-Waste Chef […]

  6. I’ve really enjoyed your sourdough posts… read several in the last couple days. I’m very glad you can freeze it! Have you tried the way of adding a lot of extra flour and keeping it in the fridge as Michael Pollan mentions?

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Jasnah,
      Thank you! I haven’t tried that but remember reading about it in Cooked. I will have to give it a try. When I keep my starter in there, I take it out about once a week to feed it and if I don’t feel like baking that week, I’ll put it back in.
      ~ Anne Marie

  7. Any suggestions on getting my previously frozen starter to perk-up a bit more? I took mine out 3 days ago and have fed it everyday but it’s still looking a little sad. It smells sour and bubbles at little but certainly isn’t to a point where I think it’s healthy enough to bake with. It’s a little chilly in my house, especially at night so I’m going to try keeping the jar in a warm (80 deg) water bath for now. I froze mine almost 6 months ago knowing that at some point I’d neglect my starter and it would die, sure enough that has happened and I’m so glad I didn’t have to start from scratch.

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