Throughout the quarantine/isolation/Great Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020 I’ve been trying my hand at sourdough starter. I had one many years ago, I got it from my best friend’s dad and maintained it for quite a few months, including during one of our moves. Yep, I brought my starter in the cooler in our car. Looking back on that starter though I can see that at a certain point it wasn’t the healthiest. I officially abandoned it sometime after having my oldest daughter. There are only so many things you can focus on with a baby, and in my case, while working and having a deployed husband.
I hadn’t gotten the courage to start one on my own until the moment was right during the two parents teleworking while home with two kids phase that started in March. I documented my 4ish starters on Instagram (see the highlight called “Sourdough”) and I had some really good runs, especially with the third one.
There is a lot of information on starting your Sourdough Starter, but not as much on maintaining it. There are basics instructions, but it’s hard! So here are the points in where I failed and learned from to keep at least one of my starters for about a month or more.
I’ve updated this post as of September 6, 2020 after starting another starter, going to a Sourdough baking class, and being given another starter at the class. I’ve seen very strong gluten strands in my starter and just overall health. I ended up using up all of the starter from my class for a bake and am maintaining the one I started on my own, just decided that I wanted to see if I could keep it going, both were doing great!
Once your starter is going, after about 5 days, most recipes say that you can move it to your refrigerator. But for me that resulted in my starter molding. Why? I have a fridge that no matter what temperature it’s on, it’s FREEZING. And there are spots where it is downright frozen. I put my starter just randomly in the fridge, not considering what I know to be true about my fridge, and it got too cold. I didn’t end up storing it in the fridge again but if I did, I’d put in in the door so that it wouldn’t wander around the shelves hitting cold spots.
On the flip side, it also shouldn’t get too warm. I think that was part of its demise near the end. As it get warmer here, as it does in summer, our house temperature fluctuated. Somedays we’d crack windows or the back door to allow air flow on nice days or just warm up the downstairs a bit when the A/C was just too much. My starter sat on the kitchen counter, directly in the path of the open doors and windows. I’m sure this type of temperature and humidity change didn’t help either. Next time I will likely move to the pantry with the door closed to give it a more stable environment.
Update: I’ve started keeping my starter in the door of my fridge. It seems to be doing well there and not getting as cold as it does when it’s on the main shelves. This lets it slowly double in size versus the counter where it may be faster.
The starter needs air
On one of my first attempts at the starter it was not working pretty quickly. I did some reading and realized that I should not be closing the top of the mason jar that I was using while it was first growing. I switched to using a coffee filter screwed on while it was initialing growing and then not fully closing it once it had truly started. You do want to keep it away from super yeasted things so it doesn’t pick that up.
The flour you use matters
The type of flour that you use can change the flavor of your sourdough. It may make it more earthy or sweet depending on what you are using. I tended to do a combo of whole wheat and all-purpose for a bit of a sweet-earthy combo. But where my starter died in my long running one and then my last one, was that I used some old-ish rye. The rye itself would make a great base but the rye I got is being stored in a GIANT (I’m not exaggerating, I got about 10 lbs from a neighbor who was moving) open bag. It is picking up the moisture in the air and it technically expired. So while I’m okay cooking with it for bread and other baked goods (seriously, my husband is on a mission to use it up and put it in everything from pancakes to pie crust to bread), the rye I have is not a good starter base. When I used it in my long-lasting starter, the starter got hard on the top and started to get a sour smell. Not what you want. When I used it for an initial base, it molded in one day. ONE DAY. So when I have brand new rye and am storing it in a container, I’ll try again, for now, it’s not going into a starter.
Update: I recently took a Sourdough making class and the baker/chef that taught it recommended using bread flour as it has more protein. So far I have noticed a MAJOR difference in using it over other types of flour.
The water:flour ratio doesn’t need to be 1:1
Most recipes call for using an equal amount of flour and water when you feed your starter, but what I found for mine is that once it was established, it needed more of a 3:2 ratio. So I tended to do about 75 grams of flour to 50 grams of water. Otherwise it was just a bit too liquidy. Eventually, after a month or so, I got a lot better at eyeballing how much water was correct. I’d weigh it but then pour a little, mix, and pour as needed until it looked right. I recognize that you can’t exactly follow that last direction, but as you learn your starter and use it I think you’ll see what I mean!
And that’s it! I’m sure there are more lessons to learn when I make my next starter. I’m taking a bit of a break to regroup. A friend offered to give me some of her starter (which was made from mine ha!) but I just want to stop for a bit. I have 3 lbs + a bit more of yeast in my fridge thanks to my panicked buying from all the sources in April when I couldn’t find it in store and had an ordered cancelled. So that’s a lot of bread and yeasted dough to make!
Your water matters
I am all about tap water normally, if you live somewhere that has good tap water. I even heard some bakers on NPR (I forget the show, I don’t think it was America’s Test Kitchen but another one on my local affiliate) saying that the water really didn’t matter. But after my recent Sourdough class I decided to use bottled spring water. The reason? He said Kentucky water tends to be a bit high in chlorine which isn’t good for the starter. Well, low and behold – spring water is making a HUGE difference. So now I have a gallon of bottled water in my pantry just for my starter.