‘Help—My Sourdough Starter Is Taking Over My Life!’

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The Perfect Loaf is a column from software engineer-turned-bread expert (and Food52’s Resident Bread Baker), Maurizio Leo. Maurizio is here to show us all things naturally leavened, enriched, yeast-risen, you name it—basically, every vehicle to slather on a lot of butter. Today, a guide to making your sourdough starter’s schedule work for you—and not the other way around.

So you have a sourdough starter bubbling away on your counter. You’ve made some delicious bread; perhaps you’ve even made some sourdough waffles or sourdough cinnamon rolls. And day after day, you refresh your tangy companion—the daily obligation that slowly becomes yet another chore on the to-do list. I’ve been there—I am there!—and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to waking up at least once in the middle of the night in worry, trying to remember if I refreshed my starter before bed.

But after maintaining the same starter for almost a decade, with countless loaves of sourdough bread cranked out of my oven, I’ve learned to relax some. I’ve learned an established starter is incredibly resilient: the beneficial bacteria and wild yeast that symbiotically inhabit a sourdough culture want to continue living—and they won’t give up easily.

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It is important to maintain your starter with some regularity for its optimum health (and to make the most of its natural leavening), but the essential thing a baker quickly learns is to make their sourdough starter work for them, not the other way around. A crucial part of this is getting your starter on a refreshment schedule that revolves around yours, giving it fresh flour and water when you have time and are in the kitchen. And there are a few techniques we can use to keep your starter vigorous while also accommodating just about any work/life schedule (and even a little neglect).

How do I adjust my starter refreshments to my schedule?

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Two powerful tools for adjusting a sourdough starter refreshment schedule are the amount of starter left in the jar each refreshment (also called the seed) and the temperature at which you keep your starter. Let’s take a look at each.

Adjust the starter seed amount

Varying the amount of seed left in the jar is my preferred way to sync my refreshments to my work/life schedule. When I leave more starter in the jar, it reduces the time between refreshments (speeds things up). If I leave less starter in the jar, it lengthens the time between refreshments (slows things down).

Let’s take my typical refreshment as an example: I leave 10 grams ripe starter in the jar (discarding the rest), and to that, I add 100 grams of fresh flour and 100 grams of water. I keep my starter at a warm temperature, and after about 12 hours it’s fully ripe: It’s broken down, loose, bubbly, and has a pungent, sour aroma. Because I bake almost every day, I refresh my starter twice a day so it’s ready to use at a moment’s notice, and I refresh it just after breakfast at 8:30 a.m. and then just after dinner at 8:30 p.m. If I wanted my starter to ripen earlier at night, I could increase that seed amount to 15 to 20g and speed things up, perhaps shifting that evening refreshment up to 6:00 p.m.

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Adjust the starter’s temperature

Generally, warmer temperatures mean increased fermentation activity, and cooler temperatures mean decreased fermentation activity. Just like leaving less starter in the jar, using colder water to refresh your starter will slow the fermentation down, buying you more time before it needs another refreshment.

I usually keep my starter in a warm spot in my kitchen (or in a proofing box), but temperatures do fluctuate in my kitchen with the seasons. In the summer, when it’s swelteringly hot, I could use cold mixing water to help offset the warmer temperature in my kitchen, preserving my 12-hour refreshment cycle. And similarly, in the winter, I could warm the mixing water or keep it in a warmer spot in my kitchen to speed fermentation.

If you’ve maintained a sourdough starter for at least a year, you’ve surely seen this ebb and flow of fermentation activity through the seasons, speeding up in the summer and slowing down in the winter. Over time, your response to this might become instinctual, noticing how that first hot day of summer you naturally reduce the amount of starter left in your jar at the next refreshment or use colder water to offset the change in temperature.

How do I use the refrigerator to put a pause on things altogether?

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Let’s not forget about the mighty refrigerator. Sometimes life interrupts baking completely, perhaps we have travel plans or don’t have time to mess with anything bread for the next week. To put a pause on your sourdough starter, refresh it as usual and let it sit on the counter for 1-2 hours, then pop it in the fridge. It will last in there without any problem for a week or two. When you want to bake, take out your starter, give it a refreshment as you would normally, and it should spring back and be ready for baking.

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I see a thin, transparent layer of liquid on top of my starter. What gives?

This layer usually forms when a starter is not refreshed frequently enough. The clear liquid (sometimes called “hooch”) isn’t harmful, but it’s a good indicator that you should try to refresh sooner or use one of the tools listed above to slow the fermentation down, increasing the time between refreshments.

What if I forget to refresh my starter for a whole day?

Don’t worry about it; pick back up with regular refreshments, and your starter will be fine. This only becomes an issue if neglected in this way for an extended period, especially during warmer weather conditions.

How often should I refresh my starter?

I’ve found my starter to work best when I refresh it at least once a day. I make the process quick and easy by keeping the flour, scale, and starter in the same spot in my kitchen. When it’s time for a refreshment, I discard, add flour and water, stir everything together, and go about my day. This refreshment process only takes me 5 minutes in total.

What’s the longest I can go without refreshing my starter?

Your starter would be totally fine not receiving a feeding for one or two days, but I wouldn’t make it a habit—eventually, you might see a decrease in performance. If I can’t refresh my starter once a day, I’ll typically use the refrigerator to store my starter until I’m ready to bake.

What’s the longest my starter can stay in the fridge?

I’m not particularly eager to go over a week without taking it out and giving it a refreshment. If I have no choice, two weeks will work, and in extreme cases, I’ve pushed it three to four weeks without issue.

The key to maintaining a healthy and robust sourdough starter is to be mindful of how it progresses through the day, knowing you can adjust the seed amount or its temperature to keep it on the schedule you want, not the other way around. And if you forget to feed it one night before bed, don’t worry, it’ll be just fine.

Do you have any other tips and tricks for adjusting your starter to fit your schedule? Let us know in the comments.

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