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!
A mature sourdough starter requires regular refreshments ranging from daily, to two or even three times a day. This is a drag on your most precious resource, time. But also a waste of flour as discarded waste mounts up. So if you wish to reduce the amount of waste that comes with your current starter feeding method you can, and should, be looking for alternative ways to store your starter. The methods shown on this page will slow the fermentation rate of your sourdough starter so you don’t have to feed it as often. I’ve also provided some long-term storage methods to keep your starter alive for longer periods, for example, if you are going on vacation, or just want to put sourdough baking on hold for a while.
Warm, active starters need regular feeding which is a pain when you don’t bake that frequently! It can also be an issue when timing a starter to be at its peak for making bread. So, what can we do to feed a starter less frequently?
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. Instead, a 1:5:5 ratio of starter, flour and water is a great way to feed your starter less often. This will provide more food (fresh flour) for the bacteria to consume, thus extending the time it takes to peak.
Depending on how often we want to make sourdough bread we can use combine this method with longer storage methods which we’ll come onto in a moment.
Water is used to carry molecules between the enzymes and flour in the starter. If a starter is less hydrated, a lack of water slows down its rate of activity. A wet starter ferments faster than a thick one. Once a less hydrated starter does peak it will contain more leavening properties than a wet starter -simply because there is less water.
Increase the amount of flour alongside decreasing the amount of water used in the refreshments. Thickening the refreshment ratio to 1:6:4 of starter, flour and water is a great place to start slowing down your starter. Don’t forget to increase the amount of water used in your sourdough bread recipe to compensate for the lack of water in the starter.
To increase the rising time of a starter, use flour with higher ash content. Whole grain flours (such as rye, spelt and wholemeal) can be mixed with strong white bread flour. Protein content is also a contributor to ash content, meaning a high-protein flour will have a longer fermentation time. Low gluten flour will generally contain less ash and make a less vibrant starter.
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 food. Salt isn’t essential for a sourdough starter but many world-famous bakeries do add it. To find out more, view the salt in bread page.
Lactic acid bacteria (LAB) and wild yeasts operate best at warm temperatures. The ideal temperature for a sourdough starter is between 25-38C (77-100F). Dropping the temperature of the starter to the lower regions of this range, (or below it) will slow activity. We can do this by using a cooler environment like a cool spot on your home, or to a lesser extent by using cold water when feeding.
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 feeding methods share a feeding routine where the starter is stored in the fridge for part of the day, and at room temperature for the remainder.
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 saves 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 are presented to the yeast or Lactic Acid Bacteria at a much slower rate and fermentation slows right down. The use of the fridge means:
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. Every couple of months the motherdough’s activity can drop. If this happens, just warm it up and feed it when it peaks for 2-3 days. After its recovered, it can go back in the fridge.
A proofing box makes an ideal solution for keeping your starters temperature warm. It makes controlling temperature and timing so much easier! You might want to check this one out by Brod and Taylor.
Similar to the previous refreshment method, but without 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 fed. You will need to refresh enough starter to have some left over for the refreshment.
Some bakers prefer to refresh the motherdough the day before baking and put it somewhere warm to ferment. The required amount of starter is then removed the next day.
Here after use, the starter is put in the fridge 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 into the fridge and the refreshments are repeated.
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.
A starter can be stored in the fridge for a couple of weeks without a problem. If you plan on keeping it there for longer than a month, consider another option. If it was my first attempt using these methods and I was going on vacation, I’d do both! Keep a jar in the fridge and one of the following methods. If one doesn’t work, the other should. I wouldn’t want you to worry about it on your sunbed!
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 clean fingers are fine too.
Keep rubbing until the mixture resembles fine bread crumbs. It now goes into a clean container with a tight lid. Store in the fridge or ambient for multiple weeks. Mine lasted 1 year without going off.
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.
Take a baking sheet and line it 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 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 that the centre of the shards is dry. You might want to leave it a few more days if you’re not sure. Pop the shards into a clean jar, ideally with a bag of rice to catch any extra moisture. The jar can be left for months.
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.
After feeding, wait a couple of hours for bubbles to appear before being overly gassy. 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. Double wrap in a box or plastic container to prevent freezer burn and put it in the freezer. Providing the starter doesn’t get freezer burn it can stay in the freezer for a year.
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.
NOTE: If you plan to leave your inactive starter for more than a month use should ensure your equipment and containers are clean, if not sterile. This will prevent mould spores from entering the starter.
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 I worry that it might get contaminated with mould if I leave it for several months, so far I’ve been lucky. If I were to leave a starter for an especially long time I would choose the drying out method.
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.
Hi, I’m Gareth Busby, a baking coach, head baker and bread-baking fanatic! My aim is to use science, techniques and 15 years of baking experience to help you become a better baker.
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