Understanding Sourdough Starter: Feeding, Ratios, Using in Dough, Leaven
Take a deep dive into understanding how sourdough starters function. We are reviewing ratios for feeing sourdough starters, what kinds of flour to use, when to use it in a dough, and the cycle the starters go through.
Today I want to take a deep dive into understanding the nuances of how sourdough starters work and the different approaches people use. I’m not going to be going over how to actually create a sourdough starter in this post. If you do not already have an active starter you can follow my step-by-step tutorial for how to make sourdough starter from scratch.
This article is to help you build a deeper understanding of how your sourdough starter functions. There are a many different ways to approach how much to feed, what to feed, when and how to use your starter, and how to store your starter, so I want to review those here.
Watch the Video
If you learn better through a video, this is the video form of this written article.
Ratios for Feeding Sourdough STarter
Let’s first talk about feeding your starter. As you probably already know your starter is a living culture. This mixture of flour and water has tons of yeast cells and bacteria living within it. And this culture needs food in the form of fresh flour and water.
The more of the culture you keep, the more life there is within it and therefore the more food it needs. But, how much food is the right amount of food? That’s probably the most common question I get because there are so many different ways to approach this.
Minimum Feeding 1:1:1
At a minimum, you should be feeding your starter a 1:1:1 feeding. Which means however much starter you keep by weight, you will want to feed it equal amounts of flour and water by weight.
For the purposes of keeping this simple, let’s say you keep 10 grams of your starter. For a 1:1:1 feeding you would feed the 10 grams of starter that you kept with 10 grams of water and 10 grams of flour. This fresh flour and water is not only food for the culture that you kept, but it is also now a part of that culture. In this example you would then have 30 grams total starter after your feeding.
Other feeding Ratios
While 1:1:1 is the minimum feeding that is typically used, there are many other ratios that are commonly used. You might see some people use a 1:2:2 or a 1:3:3 or even a 1:4:4 or 1:5:5. Again, these ratios represent the amount of food you give the amount of starter that you keep.
I typically use a 1:3:3 ratio meaning that however much starter I keep I feed it 3xs the amount of flour and water. So let’s use our example again of keeping 10 grams of starter. For the 1:3:3 feeding you would give your starter 30 grams of flour and 30 grams of water resulting in 70 grams of total starter.
How Much Starter to Keep and Feed
These are just example amounts. The quantity you keep is up to you can be adjusted based on how much you need for what you will be baking. There is no reason to keep and feed large quantities of starter if you are not going to be baking with it.
For instance, I keep my starter at room temperature because I bake with it really frequently. However, I don’t bake with it every single day. On non-baking days I will only keep 5 grams of starter and feed that my 1:3:3 ratio (15 gr flour and 15 gr water). This way, if the next day is a baking day, I have enough that I can keep a larger quantity to feed so that I can bake with it, or if it is a non-baking day again, I only have a tiny bit of discard. You can increase or decrease the amount you are keeping as you need it.
The Cycle Of Your Sourdough Starter
In order to understand the differences between these different feeding ratios and why you might want to use one over the other, we need to discuss the cycle your starter goes through after it is fed.
When you give your starter fresh flour and water it starts consuming it and creating gasses. You will see your starter begin to rise up in its container and it will sort of have a dome on top. The dome is an indication that it is still rising which means it still has food and has not fully peaked yet.
This stage right after it is fed is sometimes referred to as a “young starter.” Though that phrase can also be confusing because “young” can also be used to refer to a brand new starter.
When Your Starter Peaks
Eventually the dome will flatten out and you will see that the top almost starts looking weak, like it could easily collapse. This is the point at which your starter has “peaked” which means it has run through all of its food and it won’t rise anymore.
After your starter peaks it will slowly start falling in your container. This is because it has run out of food and it isn’t actively producing any gasses anymore. Those gasses that it previously produced are slowly releasing out of the culture which is why it falls.
Speed Of cycle
Depending on a number of factors, this process will happen at different rates. If your room is very cold your starter will peak slower than if your room is really warm. And if you feed your starter a smaller ratio, like a 1:1:1 ratio, it will peak faster compared to say a 1:3:3 ratio. This is because with the smaller ratio it has less food to run through before it peaks.
When your starter is hungry
As the starter runs out of food, the yeast living in the culture essentially goes into a dormant state and your culture will start to smell more and more acidic the longer it sits without food. It can even start smelling like acetone or paint thinner if it goes a really long time without food.
Now, there are different theories on this and how it should be approached. There are many methods that suggest that you really need to feed your starter right when it peaks and that you shouldn’t let it fall in the jar before feeding. This method assumes that it is unhealthy to let your starter go hungry and that it will produce inferior bread.
However, other methods are a little more lax about this, and have you feed your starter once every 24 hours regardless, even though it likely has peaked and fallen before its next feeding. This is actually my approach.
Why? Well, because it was the way I initially learned and it has always worked out really well for me. It is also my approach to keep things simple for the home baker. With my method you will feed your starter at around the same time every day using the same 1:3:3 ratio. Now this is assuming your house stays around 72 F. If you live somewhere really warm, you might want to increase that ratio or feed your starter more frequently.
Neglecting feedings and molding over
The younger your starter is, the more you need to baby it in order to develop a strong culture. Starters that are well established are very resilient and can definitely still thrive without being fed as soon as they peak. There is actually a well regarded sourdough baker on YouTube that keeps his starter at room temperature and ONLY feeds it before a bake. Which means that his starter sits in a hungry state sometimes for a week or more and he makes beautiful bread.
I personally, wouldn’t push it that far. Your starter can start molding over if you neglect it too much and I personally wouldn’t risk it. But this is just to say, that there are a lot of different approaches and no one way is the “right” way. I should also note, that letting it sit for a while before feeding it will produce a more sour bread, so if that isn’t something you want, you might want to feed it when it peaks or increase your feeding amount so it doesn’t peak so quickly.
Using Feedings to Control Peak Time
I know that when I feed my starter a 1:3:3 feeding and keep it at room temperature, which for my house is about 72 F, it will fully peak and start falling at about the 12 hour mark. Now, this will be different for everyone.
Depending on how old your starter is, how active it is, how warm your room is, and various other factors, your starter will have its own timeline. But if you can get a feel for how your starter typically functions, you can adjust your feeding ratios as needed to meet your schedule.
If I need my starter to go into a dough sooner than it would normally be ready for, I might use a 1:1:1 feeding so that it peaks a little faster.
Changing Your Feeding Time
If you have a bread schedule that really doesn’t fit in with your normal feeding time, you can easily adjust it. If you are on the 24 hr feeding schedule, you can add in an extra feeding if needed for that day.
You can also just feed your starter a few hours late or a few hours early. Starters are adaptable and you don’t need to stress about this.
When to Use Your Starter in a Dough
The next most common question I get is: when do you put your starter in your bread dough? The answer to this question is actually a little less complicated than you might think.
After you feed your starter and it starts getting really active and vigorous, you will have a few hours when your starter will be powerful enough to leaven your bread. And when you choose to use it within that time frame can be dependent on what you are looking for.
Once your starter is looking really bubbly on the sides and top of the jar and is in that vigorous state where you see the dome on top, likely you can go ahead and put it in your bread dough. You can do what is called “The float test” where you drop a little spoonful of starter in water to see if it floats. This is a fairly good indicator if it is vigorous enough, though you do have to be careful not to push the air out when you do this so it isn’t a fool proof test.
You can use your starter from this early point of looking really bubbly and full of air, all the way to the point at which it peaks and even slightly after peak. There is a good chunk of time in which it will leaven a loaf of bread well. For my starter that has been fed a 1:3:3 ratio, I typically have about 5 hours where I can use it before it starts falling too much and won’t really be vigorous enough. Again, this is always individual based on the ratio you are using and how strong your starter is.
differences in bread based on when you use
The earlier you use your starter in this cycle, your bread will tend to be a little less sour, a little more mild in flavor and almost slightly sweet. At this point your culture is also in a state where it is on its way to becoming more and more active, so your bread will tend to rise a bit faster if you use it at this point.
In contrast, if you use your starter right before it hits the full peak or right at full peak, that will give you the most rise on your bread because your starter is in its most powerful state. It will also tend to be more complex in flavor and have more of an acidic flavor than the younger starter.
You can even also use your starter when it is slightly past peak when it is just starting to fall but hasn’t fallen completely. Using it at this point will take your bread slightly longer to rise, and you might not get quite as much rise out of it. But you will get an even more acidic flavor to your bread if that is something you want.
Creating a Leaven vs Using Fed Starter
I want to address something that I think people find super confusing when just getting started with sourdough and that is the concept of a leaven. You may see some methods refer to the process of “creating a leaven” to go into your bread instead of just taking your fed active starter and using that in your bread.
The word leaven, is really just the word for the part of your starter that is going to go into your bread. However, some methods instruct taking a part of your starter and creating an offshoot. This portion is then fed and that entire quantity will go into your bread dough, while the main portion of your starter is fed separately.
There are a few reasons why someone might want to create a leaven. For instance if you wanted to change the hydration of the leaven for some reason, if you really needed to change the timing of your feeding, or if you wanted to use ratios and ingredients that aren’t in your normal feeding.
However, for most everyday home sourdough bakers, I find this method both unnecessary and really confusing. I prefer to just feed my starter enough so that I can bake bread with it and have a little left over for next day’s feeding. But I did want to address this so that you understand what recipes are referring to when they talk about “creating a leaven”
What to Do After Your Starter Goes Into the Dough
Another common question I get is “what do you do after you put your starter in your dough? Do you need to feed it immediately?”
The answer to that question depends on what method you are following. If you want to feed every time it peaks, then yes, it will likely be about time for its next feeding. I personally do not feed mine immediately, unless I need to start another dough that requires me to have starter that is ready in a few hours. Otherwise, I just leave it on its normal schedule and feed it the next day at about the 24 hr mark.
What to Feed Your Sourdough Starter
Let’s talk quickly about what to feed your starter. You might not be shocked to hear at this point that just like with everything else in the sourdough world, there are a million different ways to approach this. No one way is the “right” way or even the best way.
You can pretty much use any type of wheat flour as long as it is unbleached flour. This can be unbleached all-purpose flour (or plain flour), bread flour, whole wheat flour, white whole wheat flour, or even rye flour.
A starter that is fed a high ratio of whole grains: like whole wheat or rye flour, will tend to peak faster because whole grains ferment faster in general, and it will tend to create bread that is more sour in flavor. In contrast, a starter fed with all white flour will tend to be more mild in flavor.
My personal preference is to use some whole grain and some white flour for my feedings at about a 1:2 ratio and pre-mix it. So I combine 1 part whole wheat flour with 2 parts bread flour and mix that all up and that is my “starter blend” that I use to feed my starter. I like the extra strength that the starter gets from the extra protein in the bread flour. But sometimes I will use just all-purpose flour if I am running low on bread flour.
Changing the Flour You Use to Feed Your Starter
If you want to adjust what you typically use to feed your starter you can do that. This can be helpful if you want to increase or decrease the acidity of your bread or if your starter is being sluggish and you want to see if it will thrive better on a different flour. For instance, rye flour can really promote fermentation so it could be helpful to use a little rye in your feeding if your starter is being sluggish or slow to get started.
If you do try to change the flour you are using, I suggest splitting your starter up, putting some of it in the refrigerator or continue feeding a portion of it your normal feeding, while you try to feed the other portion of it with a new type of flour. It will likely take a few feedings for it to adjust and it should definitely adjust, but keeping a portion separate is just a little insurance policy.
Storing Your Starter
There are two main methods of storing your starter: out at room temperature or in the refrigerator.
Storing in the Refrigerator
If you are someone who does not bake frequently with your starter, at least once a week, I would suggest storing your starter in the refrigerator. The cold is going to slow down the fermentation and allow you to store it without feeding it every day. If you do store it this way, you can’t let it go indefinitely without feeding it. Ideally you want to feed it at least about every 10 days or so to keep it healthy.
Again, no one way to approach this, but I take my refrigerated starter out of the fridge and give it an hour or two to take the chill off and wake up a little. I then feed it. If you’re wanting to bake with it, depending on how long it has been stored, you might want to give it a couple of regular feedings before putting it in a dough to get it to be nice and vigorous.
If you are just feeding it as maintenance and won’t be using it in a dough, let it sit out on the counter for a few hours until it is really bubbly and active, and then you can put it back in the refrigerator. Don’t wait until it has fully peaked to refrigerate it because ideally you want it to still have some food when it goes back into storage.
SToring at Room Temperature
If you will bake bread frequently, at least once a week, I definitely suggest keeping your starter at room temperature. With this method you will want to feed it at least once a day at about the same time every day.
As discussed earlier, some people do like to feed it more frequently and will do two a day feedings. If you are using this method, try to feed it after it has peaked so you aren’t over feeding it before it runs out of food.
Quickly before we close out here, I want to address sourdough discard. I actually have an entire post and video addressing sourdough discard, but let’s quickly review.
Hopefully, you now see that there is no reason to have a ton of discard if you are adjusting how much starter you keep and feed based on your needs. However, this is something people get really hung up on. They worry about waste and don’t want to throw any out.
So I’ll say this: discarding some of your starter is actually a way to reduce waste. The more starter you keep the more flour and water you need to use to feed it. Your starter is going to get massive if you never discard it, and it will require a huge amount of flour and water to maintain and for it to have enough food to stay healthy.
I personally keep a jar in my refrigerator with my discard. This gives me a backup if something were to ever go wrong with my active starter. And I can use the in all kinds of recipes if I want to- like my sourdough discard muffins.
Also, I encourage you to try keep in perspective your definition of waste. Making bread at home is hopefully replacing store bought bread that is packaged in plastic and has likely been shipped across the country. If you have to throw away a couple tablespoons of flour and water, in the grand scheme of things, making your own bread at home is much less wasteful.
There is also a method called the “no discard method” that Bake with Jack has a video on. It isn’t my personal approach, but if you really don’t ever want to have any discard, I would definitely watch that video and see if that’s a better method for you.
I know this was a lot of information. I hope you found it helpful! If you haven’t already checked out my “understanding the sourdough bread process” post and video, it is a similar style walking through the whole process of making a loaf of bread and all of the different approaches.
You can also find all of my articles related to the topic of sourdough bread here.