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ingredients and techniques

Keeping A Sourdough Starter Long-Term

meg's picture

Okay, I've started you on your levain journey, and hopefully you have a good basic idea of how to begin. But the thing about a starter is that it's a long-term relationship. Or at least it can be if you play your cards right.

As in any relationship, the first days are blissful and exciting. You're learning a lot, and the rewards are great. But after those first few loaves of bread, situations are going to arise. Situations in which, oh, say you're going on vacation or perhaps one of your loaves turns out to be a dud. You will be tempted to toss your starter. "Starter," you will say, "you were fun for a while, but, gosh, you're just so slow and old-fashioned." I'm not going to lie to you. Keeping a starter is something of a commitment. But as with any rewarding long-term relationship, as you get to know your starter better, you will be glad you stuck it out through the hard times.

Even more important in my estimation is that you will become a better, more knowledgeable baker through the process of keeping and using a starter. You will be able to troubleshoot, modify, anticipate, and roll with the punches. I won't go quite so far as to say you'll be a better person, but...well...you might.

Seasonality

Just as the seasons affect everything else in your life (although I say this from a temperate climate-dweller's perspective and realize some of you may not experience dramatic seasonal changes)--from the clothes you wear to the foods you eat--so will it affect your starter.

As you might imagine, cooler weather will slow your starter down. Fermentation is affected by multiple variables including sugar content, liquid to solid ratios, and surface area, but perhaps the most obvious variable is temperature.

There are tons of little reactions and processes going on in your starter, and they're fascinating to read about. For now, though, rather than inundate you with scientific information, I will just tell you that when the temperature cools, your starter will slow down.

In practical application, what this means is that you will be able to feed your starter less frequently and it will take longer to mature after feeding. For instance, this past winter I fed my starter every other day instead of every day, and sometimes I even went longer between feedings with no ill effects.

Conversely, in the summer you will need to feed your starter more often. Generally, I feed mine once a day in warm weather, but if your kitchen is very warm you may need to feed it twice a day.

Retarding Your Starter

Some people are crazy about levain-raised breads. They use their starter weekly or perhaps even more often. But this may not work for you. You may love your starter and want to hold on to it for a long time, but you might only want to make bread once every couple weeks or perhaps once a month.

You could keep your starter at room temp and feed it every day, but this would be a huge waste of flour. The better option would be to refrigerate your starter. Refrigerated, your starter's rate of fermentation will slow drastically, enabling you to feed it occasionally and not worry about it surviving. To do this, I recommend making a "stiff" starter, which will slow fermentation even more. To turn your starter into a stiff one, simply take 2 tablespoons of mature starter and add to it 2 parts flour to 1 part water. For instance, one cup flour and one half cup water. Put a lid on the container that the starter is in, and place it in the coldest part of your refrigerator. Here it can stay up to a month without being fed at all. I know, it's amazing. I wouldn't believe it either unless I had tried it myself. Some people advise you to feed it once a week if you keep it refrigerated. This is good advice. But know that it can go longer if you need it to.

You can even freeze your starter if you like. There's not much of an advantage here over just putting it in the fridge, but freezing it may suit you better.

Stiff Versus Liquid Starters

I mentioned a stiff starter in passing above, but other than reducing the rate of fermentation what else does a stiff starter bring to the bread-baking table? My personal opinion, having tried breads made with both types of starters, is that there is very little, if any difference in breads made from stiff starters and breads made from liquid starters. It's really a matter of how you like it.

I keep a liquid starter. I find it very easy to simply dump a handful of flour into my starter bucket and then add enough water to make it easily stirrable. It would be slightly more cumbersome to me to have to knead my starter every time I feed it, so I don't.

The theory behind stiff starters is that they result in milder-tasting, less "sour" breads. However, some people believe the opposite to be true. It's not something I would get my knickers in a wad over, folks. If you like your starter stiff, then keep a stiff starter. If you like it liquid, then keep a liquid one.

Converting Your Starter

As you experiment with your starter, you will inevitably run across recipes that call for a starter different from the one you have. I have bread books that deal exclusively with stiff starters and other books that only use liquid starters. No need to panic.

To convert a stiff starter to a liquid starter, simply take 2 tablespoons mature starter and add equal parts flour and water. To convert a liquid starter to a stiff starter, take 2 tablespoons mature starter and add 2 parts flour to 1 part water. Easy peasy.

But what about different kinds of bread? Rye for instance. Do you need to use a rye starter? The short answer is no. You can make a perfectly wonderful rye bread using a white flour starter. If you are of a perfectionist bent, you may want to use rye flour to feed your starter before making a loaf of rye bread, but it is not necessary

Prepping Your Starter

Hypothetical situation. You've been keeping your starter in the fridge but want to bake bread with it this week. How do you get it to come out of hibernation?

I like to allow three days between fridge storage and baking. On day one, I take the starter out of the fridge in the morning, discard most of it, and feed it. That evening, I feed it again. On day two, I feed the starter twice again--once in the morning, once in the evening. On day three, same deal, except for the evening feeding I feed it whatever my bread recipe calls for. For instance, if I need a cup of starter, my recipe may tell me to feed my starter with one cup flour and one cup water. By morning, the starter is ready to use.

The three-day grace period is not set in stone, however. Really what you're looking for is a "return to normalcy" with your starter's behavior. You want to see it rise and fall regularly. If your starter is still acting erratic after a few days on the counter, it may need more time before you use it to bake bread.

Using A Starter Instead of Commercial Yeast

You can convert any bread recipe that uses commercial yeast into a levain-raised bread. Consider that a cup of starter has about the same rising potential as a packet of yeast. Also consider that your starter, if liquid, contains equal parts water and flour. Thus, if you use a cup of liquid starter in a bread recipe designed for instant or active dry yeast, you need to subtract 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup liquid from the recipe.

You will want to tweak this to your liking. I prefer a wetter dough when baking levain-raised breads, as they seem to rise better and I prefer the more open crumb, so I might subtract 3/4 cup flour and 1/2 cup liquid for every cup of starter I use.

Another thing to take into account is that levain-raised breads take a lot longer. Your favorite sandwich bread may be ready to go into the oven after 3 hours of rising, but when converted to be used with your starter it will take much, much longer. Of course, the vast majority of this time is hands-off. But anticipate an 8 to 12 hour rise. Further, there's no need to go through the double rising that most bread recipes call for (the first rise in a bowl and the second in the loaf pan). Simply shape the kneaded dough, place it in the loaf pan, and allow it to rise once.

Other articles you might enjoy: Sourdough or Levain? Debunking the Myths and Mysteries of Wild Yeast, Basic Levain

Comments

Giulia's picture

I am completely new to levain. In the last week I have been reading 4 baking books and dozens of sites in regards to the matter. I have found that these brief few posting of yours, among all that I have read, are truly the most clear, easy to understand and certainly the only ones that actually made me want to start this process.
So, all I want to say is THANK YOU!
Giulia

meg's picture

Wow! You're welcome and thank you for the kind words. I actually just revived my levain after a summer of leaving it in the fridge (we have no air conditioning, so cranking my oven up to 500 degrees for a couple hours is not my idea of fun when it's hot out!). But I encourage you to give it a shot! The bread made with a levain is delicious, has a better crumb and crust, keeps longer, and will give you a huge sense of accomplishment. I've been making "bakery-quality" bread in my home for a few years now and will never go back!

Fatemahisokay's picture

I have started using a starter in my breads about a month and a half now.. all I can say is WOW WHAT A DIFFERENCE IT MAKES!! I think I will never make bread again without it.. I have had mine for about a month and a half now. I keep it refrigerated and feed it each time I take from it which is at least one or twice a week.

meg's picture

That's awesome! I think it makes a huge difference as well. Breads made with a starter are tastier, stay moist longer, have a better crumb and a better crust.

Kristen's picture

It sounds like you mostly leave your levain out on the counter and you feed it every day. I'm wondering if you feed it quite small amounts just to keep it going, or if you take out a chunk of the starter each time and then feed it. If you're taking starter out every day, are you throwing it away or baking every single day? Or if you take out small amounts of starter each day, maybe you collect those amounts over a week and then bake once a week? I'm trying to wrap my head around how you do it so I can figure out what'll work best for me. Thank you so much for the info in the post!!

meg's picture

Most of the time, I keep my levain in the fridge. About three days before I want to bake bread, I take the levain out and sit it on the counter. For example, if I want to bake on a Saturday, I would take it out on a Wednesday. I would feed the levain Wednesday night by pouring out all but a small amount of the levain and feeding it with equal parts (by weight) of flour and water. On Thursday, I would do the same thing--feed it in the evening as I did the day before. On Friday night, I'm feeding the levain in preparation for baking on Saturday, so I pour out all but a few tablespoons of the active levain, then feed it with as much flour and water as indicated in the recipe (my recipe calls for 200g flour and 200g water). On Saturday morning, the levain is ready to be mixed into dough. After measuring out the levain you need for your recipe, feed the levain one final time and refrigerate until you need it again.

I find that refreshing my levain for 3 days before baking is usually just about perfect. Sometimes during the summer when it's hot and my levain is super active, it only takes 2 days.

You can either throw away the starter that you have to pour off or you can use it to make other things--I often make sourdough pancakes or waffles with mine. They're very easy because you just mix up the batter in the evening when you feed your levain, then in the morning the batter is ready for cooking. You can also use it for crackers or any other recipe that calls for sourdough starter (I've seen everything from sourdough biscotti to sourdough chocolate cake recipes--if you do a little sleuthing you'll come up with tons of recipes!).

Usually, when I bake bread I make enough to last for two weeks. For us, this means two large round loaves. I freeze one and keep the other one out. This way, I don't have to feed my starter constantly.

I hope this helps. If you have any more questions, please don't hesitate to ask!

Rebeckah's picture

What if you have gone weeks without feeding your fridge-stored start? Should it be tossed and should I start anew, or will it be okay if I feed it again?

meg's picture

I would try feeding it and see what happens. I've been shocked more than once at how resilient my starter has been in spite of my neglect. The only reason I would toss it is if it has mold growing on it or if it smells putrid (like a compost pile). You'll have to feed it a few times before it revives fully, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's just fine.

Rebeckah's picture

Thanks! I am going to see if I can bring it to life again. :)

Tracy's picture

I tried a recipe for sourdough, or bread made with levain, that I got from the King Arthur's webpage but the result seemed so solid and sticky that I didn't dare bake it. Can you describe the rising process in a little detail? The instructions I followed were to combine the levain with 3 cups (of 5)flour and 1 1/2 c. water rise it on the counter 4 hours then 12 hours in the fridge, then pull it out add the other two cups flour, some salt, sugar and sour salt (if wanted...I didn't), kneed it, divide it then rise it 2 to for more hours. Mine never got to looking like raised bread that I've made in the past looks and I couldn't even handle it so I threw it away. What did I do wrong? I don't mind the time but nothing looked like dough usually does.

meg's picture

I'll be perfectly honest with you. I use Tartine's country bread recipe, and it's so good that I haven't felt the need to even try another sourdough bread recipe. It's incredible. I highly recommend buying their book, Tartine Bread, because it has detailed photos of every step, but you can look at the recipe here: http://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1016277-tartines-country-bread

I like it not only because it makes the best bread to ever come out of my oven, but also because if you start the bread in the morning, you can have freshly baked bread by dinner of the same day (with the option to refrigerate the dough and bake it the next day).

Read the recipe and let me know if you have any questions. I've made this bread so many times I know the recipe by heart.

Chad's picture

About the Tartine recipe....
I started baking sourdough bread with recipes online, and their folding and kneading techniques were sticky and a pain, and I got really poor results. But my friend lent me her Tartine bread book and from the first time I used the recipe, I got AMAZING results!! The crust was perfectly crispy but not burned and the crumb was wide and open. Plus it was sooo much easier to make and it gave directions and pictures for every step of the way! I highly recommend that book!!!!

meg's picture

Agreed! The first time I tried their recipe, this amazing, deep golden, open-textured loaf came out of my oven, and I was in shock. Yes, Virginia, it is possible to make bakery-quality bread at home!

Lois's picture

I was given a starter months ago, October I think, now is March (yikes). It has been in my fridge with a tight lid ever since...I have not feed it once! Have I murdered my starter??? Help!

meg's picture

Well, there's only one way to find out. Try bringing it out to room temp. Then, discard half of the starter and feed it with flour and water. Do this every day. At first, you may not notice much activity. It is certainly possible that the starter is dead, but you'd be surprised at how resilient they are! I've "abandoned" mine several times, and it always seems to bounce back. Good luck!

Marn's picture

Also about the Tartine recipe...
I am in the midst of making the starter for the first time (well my first starter period), and I made a mistake 3 days running. I did not discard any of the starter. It seems to be on track and bubbling away nicely, but I have have two questions: how do I know how much to use? What is the volume needed for the actual recipe? and ... will it still work without the discard part?

meg's picture

It will work fine without discarding it, but you'll end up with huge quantities of starter. The Tartine recipe uses 200g of starter, and generally most sourdough bread recipes call for a cup or so.

Blair's picture

Wow these are great instructions. I am leaving for the summer and have a starter that was given to me by a neighbour. I have used it twice with some success- still learning! I will ask my someone to feed my starter for me while it is kept in the fridge but she really can't do anything too complicated. if I add 1 c flour and 1/2 cup H2O every 10 days without discarding should that be ok? then it will be left for about 3 weeks without feeding until I get back home. I have been trying to research how to maintain it while I am gone and this post has made me feel better! Now I want to try the tartine recipe! is that Tartine in SF?

john's picture

You don't need to feed the starter if it's in the fridge Blair... just cover it with wrap and put in the back of the fridge. The Tartine recipe is amazing and worth the effort! Yes, they are in SF.... best gougeres we've ever had.

kim p's picture

I just revived starter that I had in my fridge for close to a year, with no feeding in between. I didn't use all of the dormant starter so I just stuck it back into the fridge for later use, give aways or in case something happens to what I reactivated.

meg's picture

It's pretty remarkable how much neglect a starter can take. I recently left mine out on the counter for a couple weeks without feeding, and when I checked on it, it was almost dry. I tossed most of it, but added water to rehydrate the rest, then replenished it with more flour. It's bubbling away again, and will be at full strength in a few days.

Zooland NC's picture

At the end of this posting, "Keeping a Sourdough Starter Long-term" it says there is no need for the second rising, just make the dough and put it in the pans to rise before baking.
Is this true for most sourdough recipes? Namely King Arthur's Buttery Sourdough Buns recipe. Thanks.

meg's picture

I would just follow the recipe that they give since it's a recipe specifically made for sourdough.

Toni's picture

I came to this site to find out if there was any risk (health-wise) in using my starter after I did the same thing. I left it out for three days without feeding it, and was surprised when I took the lid of the crock to see a dry crust on top, rather than the liquid that usually accumulates. I scraped the crust off, stirred the remainder (haven't fed it yet), and it still has some bubbles in it. I've read that the only time you need to worry about starter "going bad" is if it develops mold, changes color to pink or orange, or smells bad. I was a little concerned because it wasn't until AFTER I discarded the crust off the top that I asked myself "Hey, was that crust sort of orangish colored?" And the smell is not what I would call bad at all, but is IS distinctly different - a very sharp sour smell. Almost stings my nose to sniff it. But thanks to your post I am going to try reviving a bit of it, and hope that it won't kill us if I bake with it, lol. PS: I don't see any dates on these posts, so I don't know if I'm replying to a thread from yesterday, or one from five years ago...

Ken KJer's picture

I have had the same starter for years. I took a pint jar and froze some it. It kept for years, when I thawed it out, it immediately started to ferment. I also keep a large amount of starter, I keep it in a plastic Folgers large coffee can, about 3 quarters full, when I am baking regularly I keep it liquid form, when I am gone for awhile I change to stiff form. I always keep the liquid in the fridge and feed it once a week. I only throw some away when my container gets to full. If I am lazy I make sourdough bread in the bread machine. I also use my starter to make Bannock, it is delicious. I vary the Bannock recipe depending on how big a pan I am using and how thick I want it. It is not rocket science and it is very hard to screw up a starter. I know, I thought I have screwed up many times by forgetting about. But, little water, handful of flour, some honey or sugar and them little things in there start working again.The easiest way to make a starter is through a handful of flour in a bowl and about half as much water and mix it together and let it go, the next day do the same thing, soon you will see bubbles and it rising and you now have a starter. For friends of mine I just give them a cup of my starter and tell them to sart feeding it. 4 to one, flour to to water.

meg's picture

A dry crust is okay, Toni. It will be pretty obvious if there's mold growing. Also, a very sharp smell doesn't mean it's bad--just means it needs to be fed! I recently let mine go a few days without feeding, and it smelled like nail polish remover. It cleaned out my sinuses quite well!

claudie henault's picture

Does this mean that it will always 3 days between the time I take the starter out of the fridge and the time it is ready as final dough to bake?

Helen 's picture

Good morning, we have too much starter and want to know if we can freeze some to use later? If so how would you recommend and in what amounts?

Matthew Ponsot's picture

I followed your directions for my very first levain and it proceeded perfectly. I completed my very first bake and had no epic fail, in fact the boules were quite nice, and I thank you for all your fine advice. I have owned a copy (various editions) of The Joy Of Cooking for over thirty years, though I rarely use a recipe, and now I will gift someone the app as a way of showing my appreciation!

john's picture

Thanks for the kind words Matthew! Glad your boules turned out well.

john's picture

You definitely need to give the starter enough time to "wake up" after napping in the refrigerator. If it's bubbling and appears active after less time, go for it!

john's picture

We have never tried freezing starter, but others say that freezing will kill it. Sad... apparently you can spread the starter thinly on some parchment and dry it for longer-term storage though. Again, haven't tried it, but it looks intriguing (I found the procedure here: http://blog.kingarthurflour.com/2015/05/01/putting-sourdough-starter-hold/ )

Allan's picture

I read somewhere that the rule of thumb is that you must at least double your starter when feeding it. So if you have 100g of starter, you need to have at least 200g after feeding. Otherwise there is not enough fresh flour to sustain the growth of new yeasts and bacteria. This is why people discard starter each time they feed it. You could simply keep doubling it, but you'd end up using an awful lot of flour and have way too much starter On hand.

I generally weigh my starter and then add a 50:50 combination of flour and water so as to at least double the quantity of starter that I begin with. For example, with 100g starter, I would sdd 50g flour and 50g of water. You can add more flour and water, but never less.

john's picture

When we feed our starter, we always discard all but a very small amount--less than 1/4 cup. If your starter is very active, you can even get away with just keeping the starter that clings to the sides of the vessel. Then we simply add flour and water (200g of each if you're prepping the starter for baking the next day, less if you're just doing a routine feeding). If we're feeling really lazy, we just eyeball the amounts ;)

ilona_pena@hotmail.com's picture

Should I keep a tied lid on my starter or should it be loose? I have it in the fridge.

john's picture

Keep it tightly covered Ilona. It will dry out quickly in the refrigerator.

ilona_pena@hotmail.com's picture

Can I use the rye sourdough in other bread recipes?
How much of rye sourdough in relation the other two ingredients flour and water?

meg's picture

Yes, you can use rye sourdough starter in other bread recipes. You can just follow any sourdough bread recipe if you want. My standard sourdough bread recipe is 200g sourdough starter, 700g water, 1,000g flour (900g all-purpose flour + 100g whole wheat flour), and 20g salt.

ilona_pena@hotmail.com's picture

Hi Meg:
I'm interested in doing your recipe. Where can I get your complete recipe for this standard sourdough bread?
Thanks for your kind reply.

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