Managing Your Sourdough Starter

Before you watch this video on sourdough starter maintenance, please know that it really isn’t a big deal to keep your sourdough culture alive and healthy. A good starter is naturally very hearty and robust. If I were as strong as my starter is, I’d be competing in Iron Man competitions. At a minimum, all you have to do is throw some flour and water in once in a while to keep it alive during periods when you’re baking infrequently. To keep it near optimum health, feed it once a week or so and keep it refrigerated.

If you’re baking regularly, say weekly or bi-weekly, it’s easy enough just to feed it after using the amount called for in your recipe before returning it to your refrigerator. If you really want to be sure your starter is in optimum shape, feed it once or twice the day before baking or the two days prior to baking day. In addition, here are a few points that are worth noting…

  • When you feed your starter, feed it with approximately equal weights of flour and water. That equates to about 2/3 to 3/4 cup of water for every cup of flour.
  • As a general rule of thumb, the amount you feed your sourdough starter depends on how much of it you have to start with. When practical, you want to approximately double the amount of starter you have each time you feed it. However, if you already have a couple cups of starter on hand and typically only use a cup of starter in your recipe, it doesn’t make sense to have to double the existing two cups of starter. In this case just dispose of a cup or more of the starter and then double what remains.
  • If it’s been a long time since you’ve fed your starter and you don’t plan on baking for a while, don’t feel like you have to go through a big rigamarole to keep it happy, just stir in a 1/2 cup of flour and about the same amount of water and forget about it. That will at least buy you a few more weeks before you have to worry about it again.
  • If you really don’t think you’re going to use your starter at all for a very long time, (some people don’t bake during the summer months, for example), you could dry some starter and freeze it. It will store this way indefinitely. Then revive it in the fall. See the videos on drying starter and reviving dried starter.
  • If you need a whole wheat or rye starter, it’s easy to convert your white flour starter by just a few successive feedings with the flour you want. You may have to adjust the water as some flours are thirstier than others.
  • Be sure to store your starter in a container that’s not air tight. This comment from Madelyn dramatically (and humorously) illustrates why.

I’m really belaboring this subject. Once you’ve played around with sourdough starters for a while and baked some with it, you’ll know all you need to know and develop a sense for what works best. If your bread is not rising as much as you think it should (you’re not getting the desired oven spring) then try what I said about feeding your starter a couple of times in the 12-24 hours before starting your recipe.

As with anything on this web site, if you have any questions or comments about anything please ask in the space below.

Jan 13, 2011 Update: In this video I mention a favorite recipe of mine that calls for 2 cups of sourdough starter. It’s been so long since I shot the video (and many favorite recipes ago), that I’ve forgotten exactly which recipe I was referring to. I do know it was in Ed Wood’s book, Classic Sourdoughs. He has many recipes in there that call for 2 cups of starter.

{ 1409 comments… read them below or add one }

Vicki September 8, 2014 at 1:21 pm

I made my first loaf of sourdough with the starter I purchased from your website. While it tastes great, it’s not as strong of a sourdough flavor as we like. Is there any way to make the starter have a stronger flavor?

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Anna September 5, 2014 at 10:32 am

Sorry for this basic question… but I’m having a hard time figuring out when the optimal time to bake with my starter is? I have read so many different opinions that I am now totally confused. My starter is pretty well established, I have been feeding twice a day, it’s really active about 4 hours after feeding, is that the best time to use it? also if I want to refrigerate my starter how long after can I use it to bake? I feel like all I’m doing is caring for the starter and I can’t figure out the jumping off point of using it to bake. Thanks in advance!

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Alex September 1, 2014 at 8:51 pm

Started my first sourdough starter 4 days ago. Everything was going well but when I went to look at it today the top had a very slight pink tinge. The rest of it was fine. It smelled very vinegar-y, not spoiled.

I am really disappointed that it might have gone bad.

As an additional note, my husband accidentally stirred it with metal, I know that should be avoided but don’t know how bad it is…

Could it possibly be fine?

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Breadtopia September 1, 2014 at 8:54 pm

Where has it been during these 4 days? In fridge or sitting out?

Metal is not a problem.

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Alex September 2, 2014 at 12:06 am

It has been sitting out

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Breadtopia September 2, 2014 at 4:59 am

It may be that you just need to feed it more often. Unless you’re feeding it a couple times a day, starter will start growing all kinds of gross mold if it’s not refrigerated between use and feedings.

You might be able to save it if you feed it (refresh it) with several feedings in rapid succession. I would toss all but a tablespoon or 2 and build that up by doubling a few times with twice of 3x/day feedings. Once it’s bubbly, spongy and clear of pink mold then keep it in the fridge between feedings.

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Alex September 2, 2014 at 9:49 am

Thanks a lot! Will do!

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Ashlee August 29, 2014 at 7:06 pm

I love this site, thank you Eric. My starter is brilliant, about 3-4 yrs old now. When I made my starter I read that you can throw a few whole red grapes in with the flour and water instead of juice. I believe the white powdery stuff on the grapes is natural yeast. Anyway, that’s how I made mine. I left the grapes in for a couple of days and then took them out and pretty much did what Eric did.
Ashlee

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Clifford August 23, 2014 at 4:27 pm

Hello:

I took a sour dough bread workshop and was given a 1:5:5 ratio for feeding starter ( Starter:Flour:Water). Should I use yours instead? This ratio works but makes large starters. I’m just beginning to bake and its cumbersome.

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Vera Zabloudil August 13, 2014 at 5:11 pm

I have had my starter for about 8 days. Feeding it every day 1/3 cup flour and 1/4 cup spring water. I probably have about two cups. But it smells like vinegar?.. Is it ok? When do I use it. I have kept on the kitchen counter. Should I have refrigerated it?

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Patricia August 28, 2014 at 10:53 am

You’re good. A fresh starter can smell pretty sharply acidic. It all depends on the critters in your environment, and everyone’s yeasts and bacteria are different. If you see mold, then you’ve got a problem and need to start over, but a vinegary smell should be fine. As the mother matures, the smell should even out.

Leaving it on the counter is fine, too; it just means you’ll have to feed it more often — every couple of days instead of once a week. If you see it suddenly deflate, it’s time to feed it (kind of like me around 2 pm, lol.) It’s helpful to have it out if you bake several times a week, but if you’re a once a week or less baker, you’ll want to refrigerate it eventually. You need to let it mature for about a month before using.

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Priscilla August 2, 2014 at 3:39 am

Hi there
My husband has decided to use the whole starter into the bread dough and the take out a ladleful after the first proof. This is instead of our biweekly feed in the jar. So pours all the starter into the flour, adds water, kneads it, proofs, then takes out a bit to put in the jar and puts aside, then adds the salt if using does the second proof. The starter in the jar is put in the fridge. Would that affect the strength of the starter if he renews it like that rather than feed it in the normal way?

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Breadtopia August 2, 2014 at 3:57 am

Interesting question. Is he putting salt in the bread? If so, when?

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Priscilla August 4, 2014 at 4:45 am

Yes. He puts the salt in after the first rise and he takes out the dough to keep as a starter.

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Charlie August 1, 2014 at 11:50 am

I recently moved to Conifer Colorado, and took my Sourdough starter along. I feed it, and stir until it has grown and bubbled happily, but when I make bre4ad it is heavy and granular. So I’ve tried kneading it more and making sure the loaf has at least doubled, taking my time and hoping, still same results. Any suggestions?

P.S. the birds seem to love it.

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Charlie August 1, 2014 at 11:51 am

Ooops, Forgot My home is now at 9,280 feet Altitude.

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Alyssa August 4, 2014 at 11:46 am

I used to live in Florissant, CO and found that you need to have dough that is so wattery it just looks wrong. Your liquid is going to evaporate quickly making a very dense bread. I actually almost exclusively made no-knead bread because you can’t knead liquid very easily.

Good luck! Pie in the Sky is an excellent book with all kinds of tips.

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Marcy August 9, 2014 at 1:44 pm

I live in Divide, CO at 9200 ft., and I have found I need to use an electric bread machine for the exact reason Alyssa says. In order to get the dough to work at that altitude, you almost have to double the amount of liquid you use, or your bread will be used as a doorstop rather than as a food. There are a lot of high altitude recipes out there, but the best place to check is the CSU Extension Service.
http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/p41.html.
Hope this helps!

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Charlie August 9, 2014 at 9:34 pm

Thank both of you for what guidance you had. Will be trying variations on that almost natter bread you recommended. Also the Colorado State reference was appreciated. I have a few ideas now to get an airy loaf op0f bread versus the brick.

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Hila July 6, 2014 at 8:35 am

Thank you so much for your helpful video! I have a batch of starter that I’ve recently created, and have had 2 successful bakings with it. I normally keep it in the fridge and feed it 1-2 times a week. I have 3 questions… 1. If I want to bake, I understand from your video that I feed it to double the quantity the day before, and let it sit out overnight or so. Can I do this every day? 2. When it’s out, how do I cover it? Is a cloth towel ok? 3. When it’s in the fridge just “keeping alive” – how do I cover it? Does it need to be in an airtight container then? Thank you very much!

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richard July 3, 2014 at 8:55 am

I have a starter that is very old from Tuscany, I am still travelling and adding organic whole grain flour and glass bottled water every day, I throw out half and add more water and flour, it smells ok and looks ok, how do I know it is alive and will work?

thank you

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Michelle August 13, 2014 at 3:03 am

From what I understand, if your starter does not start to bubble and move around on it’s own after about 5 hours, it is no good. If it does, it is still good. If it has a rancid smell or is pinkish or discolored then it is bad also

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kathnell oshea June 22, 2014 at 12:39 pm

Very pleased to have discovered you folks–your videos are fantastic–products are great–my I have a copy of Erics,’ receipe for sourdough bread that calls for two cups of sourdough starter–or where to find it–many thanks–Kathnell

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Luc June 22, 2014 at 11:46 am

Hi, thanks for the great website. I’ve been making no knead sourdough bread for almost two years now and I bake several times a week.

About a couple of months ago, I started getting a greyish coloring in my starter and even after reading some stuff about it on the web, I’m not quite sure what I’m doing wrong. Of course, I can still make bread and other stuff with it cause it’s working fine, but the color bothers me as if I’m not feeding it the right way. Also, the odor of my sourdough isnt only sour, it’s stronger than that, kind of reminds paint!

Anyway, if you have any idea what I could be doing wrong, I thank you for your assisatance.

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Anthony June 19, 2014 at 9:09 pm

Hello, I have been storing my starter for a few months and have not fed it lately. It smells Ok but a dark liquid has formed on top. Is the starter still OK to feed again ?

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Ashley June 19, 2014 at 8:20 pm

Hi, I’ve got a question. Can you leave your starter on the counter and just feed it once a week? I’ve seen different opinions all over the internet and wondered what you thought about it. I’ve seen some say you can leave it out but feed it twice a day, others saying they feed it once a week. Then others saying refrigerate it and feed it once a week, and others saying feed it once a day and don’t refrigerate it.

….is it one of those “opinion” things and up for experiment or is there a more appropriate guideline to follow? Refrigerate or done, feeding once a week or not kind of protocol.

I am excited to get into sourdough and making all sorts of things, but maintaining a starter intimidates me, I’m a busy mom of 4 young kids and tend to not do well with things that are high maintenance with my crazy schedule.

Love your site by the way, SO glad to have found you! :) Thanks for any help you can give me on this topic.

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Breadtopia June 19, 2014 at 8:26 pm

Hi Ashley,

I’m firmly in the refrigerate and feed at least weekly camp. I don’t think there’s any way around daily (once or twice) feeding if it’s left on the counter. Given your lifestyle, you pretty much have to go the fridge route or you might as well figure you have 5 kids ;-).

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Ashley June 20, 2014 at 5:20 am

Thank you! That’s the route I’ll take then. One last question, can I use my starter the day after I started it or should I wait for the first week to go by before using any of the starter? I hate throwing it away, but I have seen some places say that it’s not established enough the first week to use it yet. What do you think? Thank you again. :)

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Breadtopia June 20, 2014 at 4:16 pm

The real test is if it rises well within a few hours of feeding. It should tell you when it’s ready. It usually does take at least a few days to get there.

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Ashley June 25, 2014 at 6:01 am

Can I ask one more question? For the first week while you’re getting your starter established can you leave it out and feed it twice a day or so and just add equal amounts of flour and water to the starter without having to take a portion of the starter out each time?

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Anita June 26, 2014 at 9:12 pm

You don’t have to discard or remove some of the starter, but if you don’t, you will end up with a huge amount! I have tried to use it all up, but it is very dificult. When you are just beginning to make it from scratch yourself, it ususally takes several weeks of feeding twice a day to get peak activity, and you really need to double the amount that you are working with to get the best results. Here is a link to a good explanation of the process -http://www.kingarthurflour.com/blog/2012/04/08/maintaining-your-sourdough-starter-food-water-and-time/

Noni June 15, 2014 at 12:31 pm

Hello
I bought some starte from you a few months back, but so far have not yet had a successful loaf. But I have been a bit sporadic with it and sometimes forget to feed the starter for awhile.
Recently I noticed that it is forming a pinkish skin on top. Is this ok? I think it happens when I don’t refrigerate the starter. I usually remove the skin and stir in the liquid and then feed it. I live in Florida.
Thank you

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Michelle August 13, 2014 at 3:05 am

it is not good. you must refrigerate the starter. you can make a starter very simply on your own. throw it out and start over.

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Angela June 15, 2014 at 6:33 am

Hi

I have the starter on day 2 only.

When I would like to bake bread, I take it out for a day or two and feed it everyday, is that right?

Then do I feed it again and leave it outside at room temperature and when do I put back in fridge?

I don’t bake bread every week.

Thank you very much

Ang

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Robert June 14, 2014 at 10:04 am

My starter formed a skin on top. Should I start over? I started it 6 months ago and used it weekly. No problems. The loaf last week was really sour. This week I went to use and this skin had formed. Seems quite tough. It does not dissolve in water. I maintain in a half gallon cookie jar, because of the lid allows gas to escape. I did not refrigerate. I store in the basement. The basement area is low light and cool.

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Breadtopia June 14, 2014 at 11:02 am

I would toss the skin and feed the rest. Once you’ve got it back to a healthy state, store in the fridge between feedings and use.

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Adrea June 13, 2014 at 4:14 pm

Hi, when I feed a starter the day before baking, do I leave it out at room temp until the next day?

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Cath Hitchens June 5, 2014 at 2:53 am

Started to make a sourdough starter on Sunday .It smelt okay until yesterday when it started to develop a brown liquid on the top.
It doesn’t seem to bubbly today.I fed it last night as usual.
What am I doing wrong and can I save my starter,
Many thanks Cath

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Breadtopia June 13, 2014 at 9:17 am

It may be too late to help you this time, but when you say that you “started to make a sourdough starter on Sunday”, do you mean that you literally were starting from scratch on making a new starter on that Sunday? New starters often take a while to get well established and strong. They require frequent feedings. During the process of getting them going, it’s not all that uncommon for hootch to form (the brown liquid (alcohol) on top). You can just pour that off and proceed with the next feeding.

Also, even if you’re doing everything right, getting a starter going doesn’t always work and you end up having to start over.

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