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Feeding Sourdough Starter

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Feeding your sourdough starter doesn’t have to be a complicated, brain bending task. This easy starter guide will help you understand how to feed your sourdough starter in a simple way so you can make tons of sourdough recipes!

Do you have a new sourdough starter?

What is sourdough?

Sourdough is a form of leaving that consists of a symbiotic relationship between bacteria and yeast in a mixture of flour and water. It likely originated in Ancient Egypt (around 1500 BC) and was likely the first form of leavening available to bakers.
Even after commercial  yeast was cultured and used for baking, sourdough continued to be popular, and played a huge part of the culture of the California and Alaska Gold Rushes.
Starters can be kept alive for years, and were often passed down through families. The older they are, the more personality it will get – becoming more unique and tangy, and bread made from different starters will taste differently because of this.
overhead view of mason jar with sourdough starter inside
I love sourdough! The scientist in me loves the process of each week weighing and feeding it (its not complicated at all, but it makes me feel like I’m in a lab again), and I really like finding unexpected ways to use it.
Trying to look around online about how to feed and maintain your starter will make your head swim. There are, literally, 3 billion ways to do it. And everyone’s way is “THE BEST!” It is completely overwhelming – do you keep it in the fridge or on the counter?
How do you feed it? 50% Hydration, 100% hydration, 87% hydration?
How do you make your own sourdough starter? Because I haven’t made my own starter, I suggest you start asking around and see if anyone you know has some. Getting a little bit from someone else is the easiest way. You can also buy some online through King Arthur Flour. Or, head over to Bless this Mess and read how to make a sourdough starter.

Overwhelmed by sourdough? Read my Ultimate Guide to Sourdough for Beginners to get all the answers to all the questions you have!

What is hydration?

You have probably seen the word “hydration” floating around in relation to sourdough starters. Hydration is how we reference the consistency of our starters in relation to how much water we feed them with.

Most sourdough starters are fed at a 100% hydration – meaning they are fed equal amounts of flour and water by weight.

You can also have a low hydration (or stiff) starter. These are fed twice as much flour as water, and are great for using in enriched breads such as sourdough challah.

You can also have a high hydration starter (also known as a liquid starter) that is fed with twice as much water as flour.

Because a 100% hydration is the most common and most versatile, the rest of this post will talk about using a 100% hydration starter.

collage showing images of how to feed sourdough starter by volume

How to feed a sourdough starter by volume

When you are just starting out, feeding a sourdough starter by weight (as in grams) can seem complicated and overwhelming, especially if you don’t have a kitchen scale on hand. Here is an easy way you can feed your sourdough starter using measuring cups.

  1. Remove your sourdough starter from its home, place in a bowl and give it a good stir.
  2. Measure out a 1/2 cup from your starter and place this in a second bowl. Reserve the original bowl for later, this is your discard.
  3. To the 1/2 cup of starter, add in 1/2 cup of water and 1 cup of loosely measured flour. Stir well and return to the container.
collage of images showing how to feed sourdough starter by weight

How to feed a sourdough starter by weight

Feeding your starter by weight is the best way to get a true 100% hydration sourdough starter because you won’t get any errors in measuring. A lot of sourdough bread recipes use grams, so it is also a good way to get used to cooking by weight.
  1. Take your sourdough starter out of its container and weight it on your food scale. Let’s pretend that your sourdough starter weights 200 grams.
  2. Divide your sourdough starter into two equal portions (so both portion should equal 100 grams). One portion you will feed and place back in the container. The second portion is called your discard. Set that aside for now.
  3. To the portion you will feed, add 100 grams of water and 100 grams of flour. Mix well. This is called a 100% hydration because you are essentially doubling your starter.
  4. Place your starter back in its container.

Note: These amounts are just examples. You can choose to maintain a larger or a smaller sourdough starter, the same method applies no matter how much starter you have.

glass mason jar filled with sourdough starter

Frequently Asked Questions about keeping Sourdough Starters:

What kind of flour should I use in my sourdough starter?

That largely depends on what you want to do with it! The different flours you feed it will change its appearance, smells, and taste. You can feed your sourdough starter with unbleached all purpose flour, whole wheat flour, eikhorn wheat flour, rye flour, or spelt flour.

What kind of container should I store my sourdough starter in?

How you store your sourdough starter depends on what you like best. The most important part is that your container is at least twice the size of your sourdough starter. You need room for it to grow and expand, and you need room for the sourdough stater to have access to air.

  • A glass mason jar. This is my favorite option because it is easy to clean,  you can see what is going on inside, and you can control how tightly the lid is on.
  • A food storage container with lid. This can be plastic or glass, just make sure it is big enough, and that you remember to crack the lid when the sourdough starter is doubling so that the pressure doesn’t explode it. I don’t like these options as well because they are often wide and squat instead of a taller glass jar, so its harder to tell when your starter has doubled in size.
  • Stoneware crock. These are great because this is what sourdough was originally kept in. This is also a great option because its obvious to tell it apart from the other jars and containers in your fridge. They are also made from sturdy non-reactive material.

No matter which type of container you choose, its important to make sure you keep your container clean. Over time, your  container will form crusty bits of dried flour and starter at the top. Its totally normal and fine, just make sure you take your starter out and clean the container.

*Important Note: Make sure your container is clean and free of soup, and also back to room temperature before you put your starter back in.

 How big should your container be?

The container for your sourdough starter should be twice the size of the starter that you tend to keep on hand. Because sourdough starter doubles in size as it becomes active, you want to make sure you have plenty of room and it doesn’t expand outside the limits of the container and cause a mess.

How often should I feed my sourdough starter?

How often you feed your sourdough starter depends entirely on how often you are going to bake with it, and where you keep it. If you are going to bake with your starter every day, or nearly every day, you should store your starter on the counter. If you want to bake with your starter less frequently – say once a week or once every other week, you should store your starer in the fridge.

If your sourdough lives on the counter – If you would like to bake with your sourdough starter often, you may leave your starter on your counter, loosely covered. Make sure to feed it every 12-24 hours, depending on the temperature of your house. If it is warmer, you will need to feed it more often. If it is colder, you will need to feed it less often. You will know that it is time to feed it because it has doubled, reduce, and may have liquid collecting on the top.

If your starter lives in the fridge – If you want to bake with your sourdough starter less often, you can store your starter in the fridge and feed it once a week. Make sure you bring your starter back to room temperature before you feed or use it.

Either way, please make sure you clean up from feeding your starter immediately! Dried sourdough starter turns into an almost impossible to remove cement.

image showing two measuring cups with sourdough starter and when starter is ready to use

How do I know if my starter is ready to use?

Your sourdough starter is ready to use when it has doubled in size and is filled with air holes and looks bubbly.

You can also try the float test to ensure it is ready. Take a spoon full of your starter and drop it into a glass of room temperature water. If it floats, your sourdough is ready! If it sinks, it either needs more time to be active, or you missed the window and you need to feed it again.

What if I left my sourdough starter out too long?

The good thing about sourdough starters is they are pretty resilient. Whether you have let your sourdough starter sit on the counter too long or it got pushed to the back of the fridge for too long, don’t worry! Just feed it again!

Help! My sourdough starter smells funny!

Normally your sourdough starter smells a bit funky, a bit fruity, a bit like rather bubbly flour. As you learn to know your sourdough starter more, you should learn what your particular starter smells like. Yes, I want you to sniff it, and sniff it often. This will help you know when something isn’t right.

If your sourdough starter smells more like strong alcohol than anything else, it means you are not feeding it often enough. Try keeping it on the counter and feeding it every 12 hours for a few days.

Note: Sourdough starers are fairly resilient. Unless it is moldy, you probably didn’t kill it. Keep feeding it every 12 hours! If it isn’t responding, make sure that it is warm enough, try changing flours, and making sure your water isn’t chlorinated.

jar with sourdough starter showing a layer of hooch in the jar

What is the liquid on top of sourdough starter?

The liquid that forms on top is called “hooch” and is what happens when your sourdough starter hasn’t been fed in a while. It is the alcohol that is given off as your wild yeast ferments. It means your sourdough starter is hungry and ready to be fed.
When your sourdough starter has been left hungry for too long, the hooch can turn from clear to dark colored. You can choose to pour the hooch off before feeding your starter or you can mix it back in – the choice is yours.

How to tell if a sourdough starter is bad?

Sourdough starters can have a wide range of colors and smells. Unless you have mold growing in the sourdough starter, its probably ok. Really! Just give it a few good feedings and promise it you will take better care of it now.
image showing uses for sourdough starter discard

What tools and equipment do you need?

You don’t need many special tools and equipment to maintain a sourdough starter. A jar or storage container is necessary, as is a scale or measuring cups to feed with.

For more details about other tools you might need, read my “Essential Sourdough Bread Tools” guide.

What do you do with sourdough discard?

You can do three main things with the sourdough discard you create at each feeding:
  • Throw your discard away (in the trash, not the drain! Remember it turns into cement when it dries).
  • You can use it as is, in an unfed state, in a sourdough discard recipe.
  • You can feed it, wait for it to become active, and then use it in a recipe

Sourdough starter isn’t for bread alone! There are tons of awesome things you can do with it! Over 60 recipes for how to use sourdough starter

Check out Quick Sourdough Recipes for when you want to make something in less than an hour!

sourdough starter in jar with text overlay that reads \"easy sourdough starter 101\"
sourdough starter in measuring cup

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