A sourdough starter needs constant nurturing, or does it? Yes, it is a living creature, but an active starter is very resilient. So how best can we store a sourdough starter for regular or occasional use? If you’re an avid baker or have been given a starter and don’t know what to do with it, read this article for the best sourdough storing techniques and how to keep a sourdough starter for the short, mid and long term!
How to slow fermentation of sourdough
– Use salt to slow down fermentation
Including salt in a sourdough starter slows down the fermentation process. It does this largely through osmosis and is used as a natural preservative for many foods. Salt isn’t common in sourdough starters but it can be used and world-famous bakeries do this. To find out more, view the salt in bread page.
If a starter is less hydrated, water can’t supply the yeast as efficiently. This slows down the activity of the starter. A wet starter ferments faster than a thick one.
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If all of the moisture is completely removed, the starter will become dormant until it’s rehydrated.
Lactic acid bacteria (LAB) and wild yeasts operate best at warm temperatures. The ideal temperature for a sourdough starter is around 32C (90F). Dropping the temperature of the starter below this will slow activity. We can do this by using a cooler environment like a fridge to house a starter, or to a lesser extent by using cold water when feeding.
– Mineral content of the flour
Flour with high ash content has more food to supply the bacteria in the starter. Switching the flour to a low ash type will slow down the rate of fermentation. However, this will mean it takes longer to reach its peak and becomes more vibrant. Ash content is usually on par with gluten content. Low gluten flour will generally contain less ash.
– The effect of hard water in baking bread
The minerals in the water also play a part in the speeding, or slowing the bacterial activity in a starter. Hard water has more water activity which speeds up the rise of the starter. It’s not going to be too easy to switch the water, without using bottled or relocating, but it’s a factor so I’m mentioning it here.
– The ratio of starter when refreshing
An equal feeding ratio of flour, water and starter is the driving force of many starter recipes. Though we can extend the length of the rise by adapting this ratio of ingredients.
To slow down a starter so that it will keep for longer, decrease the amount of starter whilst increasing the water and flour. This means the starter will take longer to consume the bacteria. A starter made like this with a ratio of say: 1 part starter, 5 part water and 5 part flour, will take longer to rise.
Depending on how often we want to make sourdough bread we can use this knowledge to create a storage method. This will allow us to have our starter ready when we need it without too much waste. In some instances we can make the starter (almost) dormant.
Best ways to store a starter
If you have a new starter from either making it from scratch or have had it gifted and don’t know how to look after it? First, you need to think about how often you are going to use it. Depending on whether it’s daily, weekly or monthly, there are methods to follow. We can even store it for a few months whilst you are away.
After you’ve worked out how long you will need to store it for, let’s look at how best to store a sourdough starter. If you are still not sure how long you will be storing it for, have a read through each one and see which one will suit you best. Feel free to reach out for some advice in the comments at the bottom of the page.
How to keep a starter for daily use on the counter
Warm, active starters need feeding 2-3 times a day. This can be a bit of pain when you don’t want to bake that frequently! It can also be an issue when timing a starter to be at its peak for making bread. Read how to know when a starter needs feeding post.
So, what can we do to feed a starter less frequently?
– Increase the size or the feeds
Increase the ratio of flour and water to starter when refreshing. This will extend the amount of time it takes for the starter to peak. This is a great way to feed your starter less often. A 1:5:5 ratio of starter, flour and water can result in a twice or sometimes singular daily feedings.
– Lower the hydration of the starter
A less hydrated starter will have lower fermentation activity. This can be used to our advantage by making a dryer starter.
Increase the amount of flour alongside decreasing the amount of water used in the refreshments. Thickening our previous ratio to 1:6:4 of starter, flour and water is a great place to start slowing down your starter.
Increase the amount of water used in your sourdough bread recipe to compensate for the lack of water in the starter.
– Switch the flour
To increase the rising time of a starter, use a flour with a higher ash content. Whole grain flours (such as rye, spelt and wholemeal) can be mixed with strong white bread flour. This is a common solution and prevents dense bread.
– Cool down the starter
Instead of keeping the starter at its optimum temperature we can of course cool it down a bit. We can do this by placing it in a cooler spot at home. This could be a shady space, a larder or the fridge.
Using the refrigerator can slow things down a little too much for daily bread (see weekly use methods below). To combat this somewhat, my sourdough starter recipe shares a feeding routine you might like. The starter is stored in the fridge for part of the day, and at room temperature for the remainder.
A proofing box is the ideal solution for storing your starter. It makes controlling temperature and timing so much easier! You might want to check this one out by Brod and Taylor.
For weekly use
The best way to store your sourdough starter for the short term is to use the fridge. Here we can either use the ‘Motherdough’ method to remove a portion for refreshment or by refreshing the entire Motherdough. The other option is the Scrapings method. With all of these methods the fridge is used to slow down the starter so that feedings are reduced. This can save a lot of waste and time so it is worth doing if you don’t want to bake every day.
Using the fridge drops the activity levels of the starter to almost dormant levels. The amylase enzyme cannot operate when it is cold. This means simple sugars aren’t presented to the yeast or Lactic Acid Bacteria and fermentation slows right down.
Removing a portion from the Motherdough method
A mother dough is the main starter. In this method it gets left in the fridge and fed weekly or fortnightly. For each batch of bread, the desired amount of starter is removed, refreshed with exact measurements for flour and water and left to rise. The “child” should be the perfect amount of starter for the recipe.
This is one of the most popular ways to maintain a sourdough starter. Using this method reduces waste as the Motherdough can be kept small.
The refresh the Motherdough feeding method
Similar to the previous refreshment method, but the Motherdough is the Mother, and the child. After the Motherdough is refreshed it goes into the fridge. Again it can be left in there for a week or two. Once ready to bake, the amount of levain required is removed and the Motherdough is refreshed.
You will need to make enough starter each time for the bread and to prepare the next refreshment. The longer it is left in the fridge, the less active the starter will be.
The zero waste method
Here the starter is put in the fridge after use without being refreshed. Whatever is left in the container (usually scrapings) is left sealed and dormant. A few days later, the jar can be removed from the fridge and the starter is fed. Build up the size of the refreshments without discarding and after 2-3 refreshments the starter will be ready to use.
After the bread is made, the remaining starter goes back in the fridge and the refreshments are repeated.
Benefits of storing sourdough starter in the fridge
The use of the fridge means:
- The starter is preserved for longer
- Reduces discard waste
- It can be used at a time that suits you
- It is less hassle than feeding every day.
Why not store a sourdough starter in the fridge?
Lowering the temperature of the starter makes it harder for bacteria to multiply. This weakens the activity in the starter and changes its flavour. That said, great bread can still be made and it’s a sensible compromise for most home bakers.
How to store a starter when I go away on vacation?
The starter will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks, no problem. Any longer than this and you should consider another option. Personally if it was my first attempt using these methods, I’d do both, and keep a jar in the fridge! If one doesn’t work, the other should. I wouldn’t want you to worry on your sunbed!
Crumble into dry flour method
Take a tablespoon of a thick mature starter and drop it into a large bowl. Add to the bowl around 200 grams of flour and 2 teaspoons of salt. Begin to rub the starter and flour together, just like you’d combine flour and butter together to make a biscuit dough. I used a pastry blender, but you can use your fingers if you wish.
Keep rubbing until the mixture resembles fine bread crumbs. It now goes into a clean container and will store in the fridge for multiple weeks.
How to revive the dry starter
Just add a tablespoon of flour and around 200 grams of water and stir. Add more or less water till the desired thickness is reached.
How to dry into shards to store starter
Take a baking sheet and line with some silicone paper. Using a palette knife, spread a dollop of starter out as thin as you can.
Next, we’ll ideally use a Brod and Taylor proofer and hydrator. But, the kitchen counter will work pretty well. You want to aim for a temperature of 23C (73F).
23C (73F) is just under the temperature where the amylase enzyme operates. This means the starch particles will stay the same. It is cool enough to slow down yeast and LAB activity, yet warm enough to evaporate the water slowly.
Depending on the thickness and how wet the starter was, it might be ready the following day but often needs a couple of days to dry.
When the starter is nice and hard, shatter it into shards. Check again that the centre of the shards are dry. You might want to leave it a few more days if not.
Pop the shards into a jar, ideally with a bag of rice to catch any extra moisture. The jar can be left for months.
How to revive the dried shards
Put the dried starter in a bowl and add enough warm water (35C (95F)) to cover. Stir, and every 5 minutes return to stir again until the lumps disappear. After this, thicken the starter with flour and leave to rise. The starter can be used as it peaks.
How to store Sourdough Starter in the Freezer
After feeding, wait a couple of hours for bubbles to appear but before getting gassy. Then take a sealed container, ideally a zip-lock bag and spoon the starter in. Try and push out as much air as possible and put it in the freezer.
Providing the starter doesn’t get freezer burn it can stay in the freezer for a year.
How to revive a frozen starter
Simply remove it from the freezer and leave it on the counter. When it is slightly defrosted, put it in a container to rise. Once fully defrosted, which takes around 5 hours, refresh it with fresh flour and water and let it rise.
The gluten will have been damaged in the freezer if it has been in there for several months. It may take a few days of regular refreshments before it can be used.
Freezing or drying sourdough starter, which is better?
I like that drying the starter with the shard method allows it to be used instantly. But it is a bit of a faff and requires a bit of pre-planning, which isn’t ideal. Using the freezer has the risk of freezer burns and takes a while to get back to life. I prefer to combine the starter with flour and leave it to dry. But this will only work for a month or two. If I leave it any longer then I would choose the drying out method over freezing starter.
The best starters are kept warm and active at all times. They are regularly refreshed and ready to use within hours. But if we want to trade some of the quality for convenience, knowing the best way to store your starter is handy. I hope I’ve answered your questions today, feel free to drop a note in the comments if I have, or haven’t.
Frequently asked questions about sourdough starters
Can I keep a sourdough starter alive without feeding it?
Yes, a starter will stay alive without feeding, but moisture has to be removed to prevent mould setting in. The big question is if it’s any good. And the answer to this is no! It will need regular feedings to bring it back to life to proof bread.
How long does sourdough starter last?
The bacteria that comprises a sourdough is very resilient. Sourdough has been found hundreds of years old. So it will last forever, but the conditions have to be right. It has to be regularly fed or dried out to deter mould.