This how to feed sourdough starter post was updated on January 18, 2021.
As I write this (on May 12, 2020), it’s been 60 days since we started sheltering in place, practising physical distancing and pivoting our entire life as a family to do our best to keep everyone sane, happy, educated and fed. Make that well-fed.
Despite saying I would “NEVER” try making sourdough bread, I’ve proven yet again that one should never say never. Especially me. My hesitation was based on weeks of reading to try and wrap my brain around starting and maintaining sourdough starter. Whenever I read about how to feed sourdough starter, it was always about this many grams of flour and that many grams of water. But without a scale, it seemed like an intimidating journey.
Then, one day in a local Facebook group, a fellow mom offered some of her mature sourdough starter and promised to provide some guidance on feeding it through private messages. I’d read enough at this point to know that inheriting a starter that someone has already lovingly tended to for a few weeks (or, in some cases, years and even decades) meant I could skip the hardest part and skip to the part where I just need to keep it alive. We picked it up from her porch one night and yelled thank you from the driveaway as we held onto it with care during the drive home.
If this is starting to sound a lot like feeding a newborn, that’s really a great analogy — except your starter only needs to be fed twice a day (or once a week if you keep it in the fridge) and it won’t cry when it’s hungry.
I dove back into reading all of the information I could get my hands on and in the absence of really good instructions online for how to feed sourdough starter without a scale, I also turned to YouTube videos to try and get a better sense of what my starter should look like at different points in the feeding process. And then, with a bit of upfront guidance from the nice stranger on Facebook, I essentially…guessed. I guessed and trusted my eyes (and my gut) to lead me through feeding a sourdough starter.
I also took notes. Lots of super nerdy notes. Because I love experimentation but I also wanted to be able to find a predictable pattern that I could repeat.
So, in this post, I’m going to tell you EXACTLY what I did — without anything but the measuring cups you already have at home — to feed sourdough starter that was inherited instead of made from scratch.
How to feed sourdough starter: why even bother?
First, what the heck is the point of looking after sourdough starter? Aside from being a distracting hobby while the world as we knew it implodes, making sourdough bread and other carb-y goodness means you never have to rely on your local bakery, mill or grocery store for commercial yeast.
Sourdough starter, also known as wild yeast, allows you to make leavened bread products without those little packets of instant yeast or the tiny balls of active dry yeast. Over time, with some patience and attention, you have yeast at the ready for any given day you feel like baking.
Sourdough is also much more easily digested, a superb source of protein and something that you can experience with and pass down to your kids (and even your grandkids — yes, with the very same starter you’ve inherited).
How to feed sourdough starter: some prep work
In addition to reading this post thoroughly — before you inherit your starter, if possible — I also strongly recommend reading a few other posts about feeding sourdough. There’s an incredible subculture to sourdough and the whole experience will probably become a very personal thing for you.
These posts are an excellent pathway to finding your own sourdough narrative (side note: there is not one human on this planet who, 61 days ago, would ever would have said that I write that sentence):
- Feeding and maintaining your sourdough starter recipe from King Arthur Flour — click here
- How to feed sourdough starter from Cultures for Health — click here
- Sourdough starter maintenance routine from The Perfect Loaf — click here
I swear this is going to sound and feel much more complicated until you start doing it. After the first 48 hours, it became second-nature for me and now I can’t help but wonder why I was so fussed about the whole thing.
How to feed sourdough starter: things you’ll need
- A small or medium-sized glass jar with a loose-fitting lid — I like mason jars because you can separate the two-piece lid and just use the flat lid to cover your sourdough starter jar. What I’ve discovered through some trial and error is that you want a nice, wide opening (to make it easier to stir morning and night) and it doesn’t need to be huge
- A large glass jar with a tight-fitting lid — old bone broth or big spaghetti sauce jars are perfect. This is for your sourdough discard (more on that later)
- Measuring cups
- Lukewarm water — either from a filtered dispenser or the tap; but if it’s from the tap, you should leave it out on the counter for at least an hour so the chlorine evaporates. I keep a 4-cup glass measuring cup full of water on the counter at all times now thanks to my Adventures in Sourdough
- Flour — you can use all-purpose unbleached flour if that’s all you have; it’ll turn out delicious bread and other goodies. But if you want to get more into interesting artisan breads that are packed with extra flavour and nutrition, get some organic flours from a local mill if you can. I mix mine together in no particular order and keep that flour mix in one canister so I’m not picking bits out of four different flour bags every day:
- A long stir-stick of some kind — I find the ends of wooden spoons or chopsticks work best
- A counter top area somewhere with low traffic so it doesn’t get knocked around — we use our fireplace mantel
- A name — it’s good luck to name your sourdough starter. Here were our front-runners: Bread Pitt, Breadly Cooper and Bread Astaire. My family quickly shot down another idea I jotted down (Goo-topia) and the winner was ultimately Right Said Bread. I also have an offshoot that I created from this starter that’s called Courtney Loaf. Get creative and have fun with it! We have the names of each starter written on some masking tape that’s attached to each jar, but that’s mainly because I have two going right now and I also like to clearly distinguish them from the sourdough discard jar that we keep in the fridge
- An elastic band that will fit around the circumference of your jar
How to feed sourdough starter: day #1 & night #1
Since your new-to-you starter has already passed the initial 5-10 day fermenting process, once you feed it on night one and the morning of day two, it’s already going to be ready to make bread (or whatever else you want to bake). No more waiting required!
This post assumes that — at some point on day one — you’ve inherited somewhere between 1/4 to 1/2 cup of sourdough starter that the original owner fed earlier that morning. You can leave it in whatever vessel it arrived in until tonight. Leave it somewhere safe, at room temperature, and go enjoy your day.
OK…nighttime has arrived. On your counter, you should have your measuring cups, the elastic band, a small/medium glass jar, loose-fitting lid, stir-stick, flour and lukewarm water.
I feed sourdough starter every 12 hours, and this is easily customizable around your ideal time to wake up and deal with the few minutes it takes to get your starter its nourishment. For me, that means feeding sometime between 8-9 p.m. and 8-9 a.m. I’ll time-stamp every step here and you can adjust as you see fit.
- 8:30 p.m. — if you’ve received more than 1/4-1/2 cup of starter, now’s the time to scoop out all but 1/4-1/2 cup into your clean sourdough discard jar. Put a tight lid on that jar and stick it in the fridge so you don’t mix up your jars
- Add 3/4 cups of flour (at first, I started with 60% all-purpose flour and 40% bread flour but you can really do what you want here; unbleached is essential, organic is optional but will give you an even better result) to your starter jar
- Add about 1/2 cup of room-temperature water (remember, this needs to have been on your countertop for at least an hour if you’re not using filtered water). The kind of flour you use may require that you drizzle a bit more water into the jar. Start with 1/2 a cup and then drizzle more in about 1/4 tsp at a time. You’re looking for a pasty consistency that’s stir-able but not even close to runny
- Now place the rubber band around the jar and line it up all the way around at the same level as the starter (this will eventually help you see if your starter is rising properly to be used in recipes…but you’re not there yet)
- Place a loose-fitting lid on top and put it in its designated spot overnight
How to feed sourdough starter: day #2
Rise and shine!
- 8:30 a.m. — grab a metal spoon or chopstick and give your starter a good stir, then grab your discard jar from the fridge and scoop out all but about 1/2 cup of starter. Put the lid on the discard jar and put it back in the fridge for later (yes, some people fully discard their excess starter, but that kind of waste is horrifying to me, especially since there are so many sourdough discard recipes)
- Now, all you’re going to do is add 1/2 cup of your flour mix and just under 1/2 cup of room-temp water (as above), stir well and adjust your elastic band
This will start to rise over the next 2-8 hours; how fast it rises depends a lot on your environment (room temperature, humidity levels). It’s ready to bake with during this time and there is a goldmine of information you can Google about knowing how to identify when sourdough starter is at its peak for recipe use (look up videos for “sourdough starter float test” for example, and read up on the kind of bubbly look and tangy smell your starter should have when it’s thriving).
Remember, this is now taking the place of commercial yeast! At this point, about 4-5 hours into its rise, I scooped out a cup of active/fed sourdough starter for my first bread recipe, which I’ll link below. This left me with about 2 tbsp of sourdough starter in my original jar and I immediately “fed” it with 2 tbsp of flour mix and about 1.5 tbsp of room-temp water, stirred it well and covered with a loose-fitting lid until night two.
How to feed sourdough starter: night #2
Since my starter was fed around 12:30-1:30 p.m., I didn’t worry about getting to the night feeding right at 8:30 p.m. It was probably closer to 9ish. Starter, as you’ll soon learn, is pretty hardy and can handle being ignored; so if you find you’re off-schedule, don’t worry about it.
- 9ish p.m. — stir well and remove (“discard”) all but 1/4-1/2 cup of starter into your discard jar; if you used starter earlier in the day, you may only have this much in it after its midday feed, in which case you don’t need to discard any
- Now you’ll start to see the pattern emerge — it’s about a 1:1:1 ratio for every feeding. Basically, you want to use about the same ratio of flour to what remains of your starter and just slightly less water:
- So, if you have 1/4 cup of starter, use 1/4 cup of flour mix and just under 1/4 cup of room-temp water, then stir and cover with a loose-fitting lid, adjust your elastic band and store it on the counter
- Similarly, if you have 1/2 cup of starter, use 1/2 cup of flour mix and just under 1/2 cup of water, then stir/lid/elastic/store
Remember: you want this starter to be thicker than a pancake batter, but not so thick that you can’t stir it.
Most sites will tell you that you NEED a scale to make this work, but I didn’t have a scale for the first nine days of my Adventures in Sourdough, and so far I’ve made six loaves of bread, Morning Rounds, pancakes, pizza crust, banana bread and raisin bread and everything has been amazing. As long as you eyeball and measure reasonably well, I think you’ll be successful, too.
That said, because I’m a super nerd and generally just curious about how much better my bread could be (none of us can actually imagine it being better, though), I have ordered a scale to give that a try and to be able to follow the overwhelming number of sourdough recipes that measure in grams. But let me reiterate that in my experience so far, you can definitely do without.
How to feed sourdough starter: day #3
- Stir your starter that’s been out overnight and discard all but 1/4-1/2 cup of it into your discard jar that you’re keeping in your fridge. Feed it with that 1:1:1 ratio, put the loose lid on, adjust your elastic band and BOOM…now it’s groundhog day!
- From here, you just repeat your morning and evening feeding pattern and keep at least 2 tbsp of the original starter going
Now, you can decide whether it’s better for your baking needs to keep this starter on your countertop to use every day or two (in which case you’ll repeat the 1:1:1 ratio feeding schedule twice a day as above) or, if you’re more of a once-a-week baker, learn how to feed a starter that you keep in the fridge — which is about once every week or two, depending on where you get your information. Those links I posted above are a good starting point to learn more about the fridge method.
Pro Tip: keep your newly inherited starter on your counter and do the daily feeding at room temperature for at least a few days to get it going; then if you prefer to keep it in your fridge, it’s stronger and ready to survive the colder, slower fermenting process.
Recipes using sourdough starter
This was the first sourdough loaf I made — a rather involved process that took about 26 hours from start to finish with a fair bit of hands-on work and LOTS of waiting, but it was delicious. I like this recipe a lot because if you don’t have any fancy equipment or proper proofing bowls (which I didn’t), this tells you what to use instead.
More of what to make with sourdough starter discard
- Sourdough discard dupe for Morning Rounds
- Once you try my sourdough English muffins, you’ll never buy them in a store again
- These sourdough brownies are, hands down, the best brownies I’ve ever had or made
- Sourdough crepes weren’t my kids’ favourite because they weren’t sweet, but Big B and I agreed we prefer them to traditional crepes
- Sourdough discard pizza crust
- Sourdough discard pancakes (I used buttermilk in these)
- Sourdough discard banana bread (I didn’t have an orange so used grapefruit rind instead)
- Sourdough discard blueberry muffins (you don’t even need the topping if you’d rather cut the sugar)
- Sourdough discard cinnamon raisin bread
If you have a favourite sourdough bread recipe or discard recipe, feel free to drop it in the comments and share the love.