You will need:
- Sourdough starter
- Bread flour (I like King Arthur Bread Flour)
- Food scale
Most recipes calling for sourdough starter are referring to a starter that has been maintained at 50% water and 50% flour by weight (i.e., 100% hydration). However, for our recipes, I use a starter maintained at 60% water/40% flour by weight. This makes for a looser starter that I find easier to mix. With higher water content, the starter activates over a shorter timeframe than a standard 50/50 starter. I keep our starter covered in the refrigerator in a straight sided plastic container (I use a 32 oz plastic yogurt container). I always give it a feeding before I put it back in the fridge.
When ready to use:
Here is the process I use when taking the starter out of the refrigerator and getting it ready for use in a recipe.
Take the starter out of the fridge first thing in the morning the day before you want to make the recipe. Starting with 75 grams of starter, add 45 grams of (filtered) water and 30 grams of bread flour (in other words, match the 75 grams of starter with 75 grams total of water and flour at the 60%/40% ratio by weight). Keep this covered at room temperature. This amount will build up to the amount indicated in our pancake and waffle recipes plus a bit left over to put back in the fridge. If you have less than 75 grams in the fridge, see below in General Maintenance on how to quickly build to a greater amount.
Around 2pm, feed the starter again, now adding 90 grams of water and 60 grams of flour to the 150 grams of starter that resulted from your morning feeding. In other words, you are doubling the starter with each feeding. For this feeding you’ll end up with 300 grams of starter.
For pancakes, do a third feeding that night (8-9pm). That would be 120 grams of flour and 180 grams of water added to the 300 grams of starter from the midday feeding to make 600 grams of starter. Leave it at room temperature overnight and it will be ready to make pancakes in the morning. Don’t forget before you make the recipe to set aside a small amount of starter to feed and put back in the fridge. You may have to move it to a larger container for this third feeding (we use a large plastic bowl), particularly if you’re making a batch and a half or a double batch as I often do.
For waffles, the midday feeding is the last. That evening (about 5-7 hours after the midday feeding), the starter is ready to make the evening portion of the waffle recipe. Again, don’t forget to set aside a small amount to feed and put back in the fridge.
- Take the starter out of the refrigerator first thing in the morning (e.g., 8am) two days before you plan to make pizza (for example, take it out on a Thursday morning for Saturday pizza). Mix 105 grams starter with 63 grams of water and 42 grams of flour. This is the same 60/40 ratio and feeding process as above – just with an amount that gets you where you need to be for our pizza dough recipe.
- For the midday feeding, add the 210 grams of starter with 126 grams water and 84 grams flour.
- For pizza, the midday feeding will be the last. That evening (about 5-7 hours after the midday feeding), the starter will be ready to make the pizza dough with a bit of starter left over to go back into the refrigerator.
- See the information below on how to tell when the starter is at peak strength following the last feeding.
How to tell when starter is ready for another feeding or for use in a recipe:
When you feed starter, you’re feeding the natural yeast in the starter with flour. The yeast begin digesting the flour creating bubbles and the starter will overall become less dense and rise. A 50/50 starter, being more solid, will rise more than my 60/40 starter. This process will reach a peak as the flour is exhausted by the yeast. You can put a rubber band around a straight sided container at the level of the starter right after a feeding and see how the starter rises above that band as it gets active. As the starter rises, periodically move the rubber band up to the starter level. When the starter stops rising above the rubber band (or starts to lower below it), that’s when it has peaked and is strongest and optimal for the next feeding or, more importantly, for use in a recipe. Another way to test that starter is at its peak is to put a spoonful in a glass of water. If it floats, it’s good. If it sinks, it’s not ready. The timing for this process from feeding to peak is about 6-8 hours in my home, but it’s highly dependent on the room temperature. It happens faster in Summer than in Winter. If left alone without feeding at its peak, the bubbles will begin to look like foam on top and then eventually the starter will separate and liquid will form. All of that said, the waffle and pancake recipes are very forgiving, so you don’t need to worry too much if the starter is past peak when used in the recipe. I am more careful to ensure peak starter strength when making baked items like bread and bagels.
What to do when the starter is weak:
I’m able to get my starter going over two or three feedings from the refrigerator. However, for various reasons, the starter could get weak, for example, if the starter has been sitting too long in the refrigerator without a feeding (e.g., 2+ weeks) or sitting too long at room temperature without a feeding (e.g., 10+ hours). Depending on how bad it is, I might feed the starter using the doubling method described above over two to three days – three feedings per day. In this case you can reduce the amount down each feeding or every other feeding and put the discards in the refrigerator. Otherwise, you’d quickly have too much starter. You can find many recipes on the web for using discarded starter so don’t throw it away (see recipe for Crumpets). You can also use the method below for using starter for bread. Rather than always doubling the starter, this feeding schedule varies the ratio of starter to food to help maximize strength. For example, the last feeding of the day provides more food to the starter since it sits overnight. It’s a 50/50 starter, but after doing this schedule, you can simply switch to a 60/40 feeding.
What to do if I don’t have enough starter when I take it out of the fridge (or want to build it up even more in the middle of a feeding cycle):
Keep in mind, starter is pretty forgiving. For example, say I want to have 800 grams after my nighttime feeding. I would need to start with 100 grams in the morning, feed it with 100 grams of flour/water. Then, at midday, feed that 200 grams with 200 grams of flour/water and then that night, feed that 400 grams with 400 grams of flour/water to get to 800 grams. However, say in the morning I only have 50 grams of starter instead of the 100 grams I need. I can get there by subtracting my 50 grams of starter from the 200 grams I need to have after my morning feeding (i.e., 200-50=150 grams). Then, instead of matching the starter with flour and water, I need to add 150 grams of flour and water to that 50 grams of starter to get to my 200 grams needed. To determine the ratio of flour and water, just multiply 150 x .6 to get the water amount (i.e., 60% of 150 or 90 grams) and 150 x .4 to get the amount of flour (40% of 150 or 60 grams). Mix these amounts of flour and water with the 50 grams of starter and now you have the 200 grams you need for your midday feeding. Despite having a lower amount of starter, it should catch up fine, but you can put it in a warm place to help it along. This can be done at any feeding. For example, if I have starter for a single batch, but at midday I decide I want a batch and a half, I can use this method to boost the amount in the midday (or nighttime) feeding.
Using starter for bread (or whenever you need a strong 50/50 (100% hydration) starter):
For baking bread or when a recipe calls for a standard 50/50 starter, I use a feeding ratio of equal parts flour and water by weight instead of the above 60/40 ratio. Because I want the strongest starter possible for maximum rise in these cases, I build up the starter strength over a few days using a special feeding schedule. It’s fine to start this schedule with the 60/40 starter and just start feeding it with 50% flour and 50% water by weight. After this schedule, I can take the 50/50 starter back to a 60/40 starter simply by feeding it at 60/40 a couple of times or just adding a bit of extra water to get it to the right consistency.
7am feed starter from fridge mixing 16 g starter, 16 g flour, 16 g water
2pm feed by mixing 16 g of the above starter with 16 g flour, and 16 g water. (The excess starter from the prior feeding goes in the fridge.)
9pm feed by mixing 5 g of above starter with 20 g flour and 20 g water. The higher proportion of flour/water to starter ensures enough food for the starter overnight.
7am feed by mixing 5 g of last night’s starter with 10 g flour and 10 g water
2pm feed by mixing 5 g of above starter with 10 g flour and 10 g water
9pm feed by mixing 5 g of above starter with 25 g flour and 25 g water. However, at this point you might increase the amount to build to an amount need for a recipe. So, for example, if after the day 3 feeding, you needed 300 g, you’d want at least 60 g after this feeding instead of the above amount. At the 1:5:5 ratio for this feeding that would be (rounding up to a whole gram) 6 g starter, 30 g flour, 30 g water.
7am feed by mixing at a ratio of 1:2:2 (starter to flour to water). Again, the amount will depend on the final amount needed. Using the example above where we need 300 g, it would be 60 g of last night’s starter, 120 g flour, and 120 g water (300 g total). Monitor this starter for peak activity using the guidance above (about 5-6 hours after this feeding).
Note: for each of the above feedings, I’m taking only the amount of starter indicated from the prior feeding. The excess goes into the fridge for a discard recipe. The exception is the last 2 or three feedings where I’m building up to the desired amount for the recipe. In those cases, I don’t reduce down at each feeding.
- The starter will be behave differently depending on the temperature of the room. The starter will get active faster in a warm room. If you need to kick start the starter, you can put it in a warm room.
- Weigh the container you use to store and feed the starter. When you pull the starter out of the fridge to weigh it, knowing how much the container weighs will let you calculate the weight of just the starter in the container.