How to Travel With a Sourdough Starter

Have starter, will travel

Many people emerging from over a year of lockdowns yearn to travel. But during lockdown, many of them also adopted new pets that will require care while they hit the road—their sourdough starters. How will they manage?

1. Check your starter into a sourdough starter hotel

In Sweden for a mere $3 a day, harried, traveling, and overly protective sourdough starter parents can check their starters into a sourdough starter hotel and bakery located at the Stockholm airport. Staff will take care of your pet’s needs (flour and water) while you relax on vacation, knowing you have left your starter in good, flour-covered hands.

Don’t have a sourdough starter hotel near you? Ask a friend who bakes to take care of your starter. Or teach a friend who has shown interest in baking sourdough how to feed a starter. They can practice with yours.

2. Refrigerate your starter

If your trip will separate you and your starter for a short period of time—say, for up to a week—store your starter in the refrigerator. The day before you leave, feed it, let it digest its meal for a few hours and bubble up, then stash it in the refrigerator. When you return, take it out, remove most of the starter from the jar and feed your starter its usual meal. If you don’t usually feed it warm—never hot!—water, heat the water to about 80°F. After being in the refrigerator, your starter may need a couple of meals before perking up to pre-vacation bubbling levels.

3. Freeze your starter

If you’ll be away for a longer period, freeze a spoonful or two of your starter for several months. Even if you stay home for another year, you may want to stash a bit of starter in the freezer as an insurance policy. Should anything happen to your main jar of starter—mold; accidental death when you store your starter in the oven to keep it warm, forget about it and turn on the heat; or putting the entire starter in a recipe, leaving nothing behind.

While heat will kill the live bacteria and yeasts in your sourdough starter, cold temperatures will merely anesthetize them. When you return from your trip, remove your starter from the freezer and let it thaw on the counter. Once thawed, feed it it’s usual meal. It may require two or three dinners to perk back up.

Where are you going for so long? Have fun!

a tiny jam jar of frozen sourdough starter to keep it alive while you travel
A tiny jam jar of frozen sourdough starter

4. Dehydrate your starter

I have dehydrated my starter only once and the process required several days so plan ahead if you choose this route. If you dehydrate some starter well before you plan to travel, however, you’ll be prepared for either an impromptu trip or a starter disaster. Go here for a tutorial from King Arthur on dehydrating a sourdough starter.

5. Take your starter with you when you travel

I always travel with my sourdough starter, Eleanor, and my kombucha SCOBY, Etheldreda. I wouldn’t dream of leaving home for a trip without packing clean underwear or small amounts of each starter.

Last year, I planned a trip to Ontario, Canada to see my mother. As the date of flight approached—March 7th—I wondered if I should go. But I had recently turned in the manuscript for my cookbook and needed to relax—and see my mom. So I flew home.

On March 16th, Santa Clara County, where I live, issued shelter-in-place orders. On March 17th—the date of my return flight—the premier of Ontario declared a state of emergency. After watching on the news scenes of complete chaos unfolding at airports across North America, I cancelled my flight. I stayed in Canada for nearly four months.

Good thing because my then 88-year-old mother kept trying to make a run for it, like a sneaky teenager, while I kept trying to convince her of the importance of staying home. “I’m going out to the mailbox,” she would assure me and then return, belated, pushing her walker with groceries spilling out of its basket. “I didn’t lie,” she’d say. “I did go to the mailbox.”

I was so happy to have my starter (and SCOBY) with me up there. I baked the best sourdough loaves at my mom’s, all without fancy, expensive tools. I ate piles of sourdough pancakes also. And sourdough pizza. And sourdough chocolate cake. And more.

Starter travel by planes, trains and automobiles

When I travel with my sourdough starter, I pack her into a tiny jam jar. Etheldreda travels in a roomier spice jar. Because the bit of kombucha I pack Etheldreda in can leak, I stow both jars in a small cosmetics bag and put that inside my luggage.

a map of all the locations around the world that my kombucha starter has travelled to
The 67 cities My kombucha SCOBY Etheldreda now resides in; this well-traveled SCOBY even helped launch a kombucha company in Bangalore

Automobile

Which is hotter? The trunk or the car? The internet has mixed and very strong opinions. I like to keep my starter in the car while traveling. You can also pack your starter in a cooler or insulated bag on very hot days. Whatever you do, never leave your starter in a hot parked car! The heat might destroy it.

If you take a very long road trip and stay in a hotel or at a camp site, pack extra flour, a jar for discard, some water and a fork. Feed your starter every night (or morning). The discard will turn funky if you don’t refrigerate it so store that in the hotel refrigerator or make pancakes with the discard at your campsite—a perfect breakfast (or lunch or dinner) to cook in a cast iron pan over a campfire. Or, skip the feedings altogether and store the starter in a cooler during the entire trip.

Train

I’ve never had luggage stolen or lost on a train trip but I would really hate to lose my starter this way. So you might want to keep your starter with you in your bag at your seat.

Eleanor dressed up and traveling by train in Canada on March 11, 2020

Plane

The first time Eleanor, Etheldreda and I flew together, I packed the girls into my checked baggage because I worried that airport security would seize my live cultures of goop. We have flown together several times since then and no one has ever so much as asked me about my starters. And if they did, I would say they are face masks or hair treatments. I have, after all, washed my hair with sourdough starter (dry flour works so I thought I’d try the starter…) and I rinse my hair with kombucha vinegar. So I’m not exactly lying (like mother, like daughter).

Wherever you pack your starter, burp it when you land to release the pressure that built up in the jar during the flight. En route to your final destination (a hotel, an Airbnb, the house of friends or family), stop to pick up flour if you haven’t packed any. The TSA may not appreciate bags of white powder in your luggage.

Bon voyage!

a travel packing checklist that lists sourdough starter and other necessities

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One Reply to “How to Travel With a Sourdough Starter”

  1. Great post, but one quibble: From a biosecurity standpoint, please reconsider public recommendations to travel with undeclared live cultures. It’s true that guidelines for crop species and foods in general are different from other biosecurity factors… but it’s also true that microbes have been the cause of catastrophic losses of biodiversity and even food crops in very short amounts of time. (For more, read about taro blight in Samoa where a multi-million dollar export industry was lost within two years.)Traveling always brings risk, and microbes are part of that. But just as one should wash one’s shoes – especially hiking boots – between locations, one should be just as cautious about sharing microbes as sharing seeds. Thanks so much for sharing all your enthusiasm and great zero-waste practices!

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