My Top Tips For Taking Care Of A Sourdough Starter
I take it you’re here for one of two reasons:
You’re thinking about creating a sourdough starter and want as much information as possible before you begin.
You’ve created your starter and have trouble maintaining it, or maybe you even killed it and don't want to make the same mistake again.
Well, I’ve been baking sourdough for years now and the way I care for my starter has changed with my lifestyle. I’ve been incredibly dedicated and regimented with feedings, more laid back, feeding once a day without measuring ingredients, straight up neglectful. Yes, I have killed a starter or two.
But however you choose to care for your starter, there is one fact you can’t get around: the health of your starter will reflect your care of it. You can tell a happy starter with a good care taker just by looking at it.
And having a healthy starter is the biggest factor in baking an exceptional loaf of sourdough because the fact of the matter is: a loaf of bread can only be as good as your starter. It’s not until you have a healthy starter that you have the potential of baking a really good loaf of bread with an open crumb.
Regardless of if you’re the regimented or relaxed type when it comes to feeding your starter, these tips will help you maximize your efforts.
 Find a routine that works for you
In my opinion, there are two main methods for maintaining a starter. The first is meticulous and precise, where each feeding is measured to the gram. Perhaps the temperature of the water is regulated and the ambient temperature is controlled. The second is more of a “go-by-feel” technique where you feed your starter in general quantities and go by the consistency to tell how much flour and water to feed it.
Both of these methods have their place and I’ll be going over the pros and cons of each.
Meticulous Starter Routine
At the minimum, this method involves weighing out your ingredients at every feeding. At the max, you’re controlling water and ambient temperature, the timing if your feeds and even milling your own flour.
When you when you give a starter this type of consistency you are at a huge advantage in learning exactly how your starter will respond after each feeding. It becomes an incredibly predictable organism that will rise and fall at regular intervals. Baking with it will be more predictable because you have conditioned it in a consistent rhythm.
This is how I started my sourdough journey and it helped teach me what a healthy starter should look like. Now, I didn’t go so far as to put my starter in a proofing box or measure my water temperature religiously, but I did weigh out my feedings and it gave me a great feel for how to care for a starter effectively.
There are a few drawbacks to method, especially for the casual at-home baker. First of all, it takes more equipment, especially if you want to specifically control the temperature of your water and of your starter’s surroundings. It also tends to be more laborious and time consuming, not to mention overwhelming. So it’s not the best choice for someone who doesn’t want to sign up for a science experiment or anyone who doesn’t have extra time on their hands.
If you’re Type A or the kind of person who reeaaaaaaally likes to get into things and understand them, this method is perfect for you! But if the though of taking care of a non-furry, non-cuddly creature to this extent puts you off, you may prefer the next method.
Go by Feel Starter Routine
This is a more laid back approach and is how I currently care for my starter. I have an almost one year old now and my mornings and evenings look different every day. So instead of going full on science experiment every time I feed my starter, I have pared it down to the basics: feed the thing a consistent amount every day, at about the same time.
You don’t need a lot of equipment to maintain this kind of schedule and it also helps you rely more on your instincts. This is great for a someone who bakes about once a week or less. This method takes me about 2 minutes including clean up for each feeding, which is SO doable when you’re also bathing, feeding and clothing an actual human baby.
The drawbacks to this is that your starter isn’t as predictable. Some day you’re feeding it a little more some days a little bit less. Some days it will be a little more hydrated than others. You can get an incredibly delicious loaf with this method and is great for bakers who are in it for the fun and pure enjoyment. If you’re going for the best loaf and to perfect a method, this way of caring for a starter probably isn’t for you.
I tend to start measuring my feedings out a couple of days before I plan on baking. And regardless of your preferred method, 2-3 days before you bake you should up your feedings to 2x/ day to get your starter up to full activity.
 Be As Consistent As Possible
Once you decide which method is right for you, try to be as consistent as you can. A sourdough starter is a flexible creature, but the more consistent you are, the healthier it will be. This means feeding it at least once a day around the same time.
If you miss a day or two, just jump back into it, giving it a little extra love and attention. It will get back to full strength in a day or two.
 Keep Your Storage Vessel Clean
Sourdough starters are sticky, messy creatures and keeping their environment clean is a must. There are a few different bacterias in balance in a starter and the last thing you want is for an unwanted organism to start thriving. This can easily happen if you go too many days without feeding your starter, or if bits of dried starter are left unchecked in your jar, welcoming mold.
I recommend always using clean hands and utensils (a given when it comes to cooking) and using a glass jar with straight sides so that it’s easier to clean bits from the side of the jar with a spatula.
An easy trick to keeping your jar clean, is to wet a clean spatula and scrape down the sides of the jar after a feeding.
You can keep it extra squeaky clean by transferring your starter to a fresh jar every time you feed it.
 feed it a consistent flour mix
Different types of flours affect how a starter behaves and you may be tempted to start feeding your starter a different type of flour one day. I would recommend either starting a new batch so that you have a reliable back up in your original starter, or transitioning your flour slowly.
If you’re feeding your starter 100% All Purpose Flour at every feeding and the next feeding you give it 100% Rye, you may not have the best results. Start by adding a small portion of new flour for a few feedings, incrementally adding more day by day. This will help not shock the yeast and bacteria all at once.
 Know how to Store it For Long Periods
Baking takes time and there are seasons where I bake more often, and seasons where I bake less. Feeding a starter every day when you bake once a month or less is just a waste of resources.
If you aren’t able to bake for a while or are traveling, you can store it in the fridge and feed it once a week. Then 3-4 days before you plan on baking, take out your starter and give it 2x/day feedings leading up to baking day.
There’s also this incredible method for making your starter go dormant indefinitely so you can pick it back up at later date.
 what to do if you think your starter is dead
If the unthinkable has happened and you’ve forgotten about your starter for more than just a few days and you’re afraid you have to start over, there is an easy trick that could jump start it back to health.
Just incorporate a 1/2t of honey into a normal feeding for a few days, and then scale back the honey as your starter comes back to full strength. The extra sugars are easy food for the yeast and bacteria to nom on.
Sourdough baking is an incredibly rewarding process, but it isn’t without its own frustrations and effort, especially when it comes to maintaining a starter. I hope you find these methods helpful to the process and would love to know if you try any of them in the comments!