How to Use a Sourdough Starter: A Complete Guide

Last Updated on January 15, 2024 by TheFarmChicken

Agnes the sourdough starter

So maybe you took Agnes’ advice on how to start a sourdough starter, or you were gifted one, somehow you are here because you have a sourdough starter, and you don’t want to mess it up and quite frankly it can be confusing sometimes. Let’s get rid of some of those fears and questions by looking at how best to maintain, prep your starter for baking, and just all around take care of your sourdough starter. After all it is kind of like having a pet. That’s what this is all about, How to Use a Sourdough Starter: A Complete Guide.

If you don’t already have your own sourdough starter you can learn how to make one with Agnes. Check that out first! Sourdough starter is a natural yeast that is grown by fermenting water and flour. It is used in baking as a natural leavening agent and adds delicious flavor and soft texture to many baked goods! This natural leavening agent can replace commercial yeast or instant yeast in your pantry.

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So, you have a sourdough starter now what?

Learning how to feed your sourdough starter:

We will go over the equal parts technique to feed your sourdough starter:

  1. A 1:1:1 ratio of starter to water to flour by weight.

The one-to-one ration is pretty self-explanatory. Here are the steps:

  1. You take your sourdough starter jar out of the fridge.
  2. Weigh how much starter is in the jar on the gram scale.
    1. Keep the weight of your starter jar written down somewhere so you can easily refer back to it and subtract that from the total weight with the starter in the jar.
  3. Add flour and water to equal the same amount of starter.
    1. So, for example if you had 100 grams of starter in your jar you would feed your starter 100 grams of flour and 100 grams of water.
  4. Mix that up, cover the top of the jar loosely and let double/rise on the kitchen counter.

You can adapt this depending on how much starter you need for your recipe or as discard. Just keep the ratio 1:1 for the flour and water.

When I feed my starter at a higher rate it would be like 1:2:2 or 1:3:3. This first number represents the sourdough starter already in the jar.

Example: You have 140 grams of starter in your jar, and you feed it 280 grams water and 280 grams bread flour; that would be a 1:2:2 ratio.

Note: When I first started my sourdough starter in the beginning of 2020, I would measure out 1 cup water and 1 cup flour. I think I would have gotten a better result if I would have weighed it instead. I didn’t like how runny it was so as I learned more about my sourdough starter I started cutting back on the water and just feeding the starter about a cup of flour and water to reach a thick consistency I liked.

Fast forward to today and I continue to do that…. add flour…add water to make the correct consistency (a thick brownie batter consistency). This works well and may be where you find yourself in a while. Eyeball the flour and adding water to reach the desired consistency. At first though it will be helpful to weigh it out to get the best sourdough success!

So, to explain the sourdough feeding process more accurately to you I have started measuring my flour and water, that I add to my starter, so you have the greatest chance at success. In doing this I have found that *by weight* I feed my starter at a 1:1 ratio. And this is a nice, consistency that gives me consistently good results.

If you have specific questions about this, make sure to drop them below or reach out on Instagram. I’d love to answer any questions you may have!

The tools you need to feed and maintain your sourdough:

  • Jar – I use a mason jar, but a Weck jar also works really well.
  • Scale – Cheaper of an investment than you might think this gram scale is usually under $15.
  • Stirrer – I use a rubber spatula but if you want to get fancy you can use a sourdough stirrer.
  • Lid – I love these lids for mason jars. They work so well for sourdough starters and storing other things in mason jars too!

What type of flour can you feed your sourdough starter?

Top view of active sourdough starter in jar
  1. White UNBLEACHED flour (All Purpose Flour or Bread Flour)
  2. Whole Wheat Flour
  3. Einkorn Flour
  4. Rye Flour

I use an unbleached bread flour, Dakota Maid brand, for my starter. I have done some experimenting with whole wheat but so far just prefer using a high protein bread flour. Dakota Maid is the best flour I have used.

The water:

You should be using a distilled or filtered water for your starter feedings and your active sourdough starter recipes. Water with chlorine in it can kill the wild yeast in your starter. This can cause flat dense loaves that do not rise like they need too.

Things that play into the rising of your sourdough starter:

Full jar of sourdough starter

Starter Strength:

If you have a new starter- meaning it is not active and strong and is still fairly “young” you will have difficulty with getting your starter to rise. The best way to get past this is to do some more feed and discards until it doubles and rises nicely! You will then have a mature and healthy sourdough starter.

Signs of a strong sourdough starter:

  1. Lots of Bubbles
  2. At least doubling in size

How much you feed your sourdough starter:

The more you feed your sourdough starter the longer it will take to rise. Think about it this way…the little bit of starter in the jar has to “eat” through however much you feed it. Feed it a lot; it takes longer than if you feed it a smaller amount. So, if you have a very active sourdough starter and you want it to take longer to rise, feed it more! You can always use the extra starter in a discard recipe.

Room Temperature:

This can be a huge factor in your sourdough starter rising. If you have had a starter for awhile you probably have noticed that it is a lot more active during the summer months than the winter months.

Example: Our house is roughly 73 in the summer months and 69 in the winter months. It takes my starter, Agnes, about 6-7 hours to double in the summer months and 8-10 hours in the winter months.

Frequent Feedings:

Frequent feedings will make your sourdough starter happy. You don’t need to do this to keep it alive, but I can tell when I feed Agnes 3 or more times a week, she is more likely to rise beautifully and maybe even over double in size.

If you can’t feed your sourdough starter 3 times a week don’t let that stop, you. Sourdough Starters are resilient and can go 3 weeks without a feeding. When you go to bake something again you may want to feed your starter twice if it seems sluggish the first time you feed it after a 3-week period.

Ways to get your starter to rise faster:

  • Feed it the minimum that you need for the recipe you are making.
  • Put it in the oven with the light on. This is my favorite way to get faster growth on my starter especially in the winter months. (It may be helpful to place a note over the preheat button so someone, or yourself, doesn’t start the oven with your starter in it. That would be sad.)
  • Run the microwave with some water in it for 20 seconds then take the water out and put the fed sourdough starter in. Close the door. (Again, you should put a note on the start button so that it doesn’t get turned on with your sourdough starter in there.)
  • Wrap your starter in a warm towel. Yes, it seems silly, but it does work.
Active sourdough starter in jar

How to know when your starter is ready to bake with:

So, you fed your starter and placed it in a warm (68-74 degree-ish) spot. How do you know when it is ready to bake with? Here are a couple ways to tell:

The Rubber Band marker trick:

One of the ways you can know that your starter is ready to bake with is when it doubles. This can be hard to eyeball and sometimes you just forget how much was in the jar when you started. That is why the rubber band trick is so helpful.

How to do the rubber band trick:

  • Take a rubber band after you have fed your sourdough starter and place it around your jar at the level of the starter.
  • Then when you come back in a few hours to check on your starter you can tell easily when it has doubled in size.

          If you want, you can just leave the rubber band on the jar for future feedings.

The float test:

Another common test is the float test. You can use this test to check if your starter is ready to use.

How to do the float test:

  • Take a little bit of your grown/ doubled fed sourdough starter and drop it into a glass full of water.
  • If it floats it is ready to be used.

NOTE: I have found the float test is not always an accurate way to measure, especially if you have a more liquid starter. It tends to just fall to the bottom of the glass and can still be ready to use. (Another reason I like having a thicker starter. And why weighing your starter is more accurate and helpful to reach a good result.)

The doubling in size is my favorite way to tell when my sourdough starter Agnes is ready to bake with. The float test I feel is more of a test to use when you have just made your starter from scratch, but you can use either and experiment with what you like using best.

My sourdough starter is ready to bake with…now what?

Using your starter in a recipe.

  • For the ease of explaining let’s say you are going to make TheFarmChicken Sourdough Artisan Bread. (However, this would be virtually the same process for any of the sourdough recipes.) First take your gram scale, place the bowl on the scale and tare it to zero. Next, add the sourdough starter, which for this recipe if 280g active sourdough starter.
  • Now if you have more than a few tablespoons or 140ish grams left in your jar you can choose to discard. You can discard it into a bowl with a lid and keep it in the fridge to use in discard recipes.
  • Just always make sure to leave a little in the original jar and put it back in the fridge for future feedings.
  • Continue with your recipe and you have successfully fed, grown, and used your sourdough starter!

More on all things discard, in a post all its own!

consistency of sourdough starter agnes

Discarding leftover starter:

So, you have fed your starter, used as much as you need for your recipe and now you have extra in your jar. What do you do with it? You have three commonly used options.

  1. Put it in the fridge just as it is. This can make your starter more sour if you continually use this option.
  2. Discard into a separate bowl or container. Leaving around 140 grams of sourdough starter in the jar.
    1. Discarding this low helps your starter be healthy and freshens it up. You don’t have to do this with every feed, but you can if you have a healthy starter.
  3. The third option is kind of a mix of option 1 & 2. You can also put the starter in the fridge and discard down to around 140 grams when you take your starter out the next time to feed it. Just make sure to mix it up first before discarding.

The options above for sourdough discard are all useful and work. Basically, it boils down to which one works better for you!

Discard

Here we discuss discard in depth. In short discard is when you feed your starter and have extra starter left in the jar after using what you need for the recipe that you are making. This gets discarded from the starter.

A Baking Timeline:

This baking timeline has worked well for me in my schedule. You can tweak it to better fit your life, but it is helpful to see what works for someone and then adapt it to your lifestyle and time schedule.

          11 AM -I feed Agnes, my sourdough starter.

          5 PM -I mix up the recipe I want to use with the active starter.

          7-10 AM -I bake the recipe.

Working 5 days a week, can make it a challenge to bake bread during the week, but weekends work great. If it works to bake your bread in the morning before work then you could feed your starter before you leave for work, come home mix it up, put it in the fridge overnight and bake it before work the next morning.

If you have a mature starter you may want to feed your starter at a higher ratio like 1:3:3 like we talked about above so that it will take a longer time to peak and won’t be past peek by the time you would arrive home from work.

Storing your Sourdough Starter in the Fridge or on the Counter:

In the fridge:

I store my sourdough starter in the fridge, and this works best for me.

Storing it in the fridge gives you a chance for the starter to slow down. You don’t need to bake or feed it every day this way. When you need to use your sourdough starter for a recipe, simply take it out 6-8 hours before you plan to bake with it and feed it.

On the counter:

This way is a lot more demanding but can be done if you plan to feed and make or discard your starter every day. If you run a bakery, doing daily feedings is a common way to care for your starter. Remember to keep it out of the sunshine!

What is Hooch?

Hooch on sourdough starter

Maybe you have heard of this and maybe you haven’t. Such a strange word but Hooch is the light to dark liquid that will sometimes accumulate on top of your starter. It is harmless and can either be dumped off or stirred in. Hooch usually appears when your starter is hungry! I usually stir in any Hooch that my starter accumulates. I really don’t get much if I bake a few times a week with my starter.

Remember– hooch isn’t a bad thing so don’t feel like your starter is bad if it has some on top. Since hooch on your starter, is your starter trying to tell you that it is hungry, the best way around it is to feed it.

Ways around hooch accumulating:

  1. Feed a higher ratio like 1:2:2.
  2. Feed more frequently.

Do’s and Don’ts of Sourdough:

Don’ts

  • Don’t set your sourdough starter in the sun. The sun can kill the active wild yeast in your starter.
  • Don’t use all your starter in one recipe. As a first-time sourdough baker this is an unfortunate and sad mistake that can happen.
  • Don’t use chlorinated water in your starter.
  • Don’t compare your first loaf to someone’s 100th loaf.
  • Don’t overcomplicate it. Though there are a lot of factors in sourdough it is a straightforward process. Fermenting grain is used to add height flavor and structure to baked goods.

Do’s

  • Do feed your sourdough starter at least once every 3 weeks.
  • Do enjoy the process! Sourdough is rewarding, tasty and fun to learn more about!
  • Do save your sourdough discard and make something fun like muffins or tortillas with it.
  • Do keep going! Every bake you do you will learn something new and get better. Keep going!

Why do you need a high protein flour to make good artisan sourdough bread?

Protein = Gluten = Bread Structure = Oven Spring

When you are baking with sourdough to make an artisan loaf you want to have a high protein bread flour. Gluten is a protein that is formed in wheat/bread when liquid is added.

When you make artisan sourdough as you fold/stretch the dough (which is building the gluten structure.) you are creating more structure in the bread, that when baked, gives you a beautiful oven spring.

Without this lovely protein/gluten structure you very likely will end up with denser and flatter loaves. Definitely not as fun or tasty.

Sourdough bread in Dutch oven

My sourdough starter has mold on it now what?

There are different thoughts on this but if you find mold in your starter jar, I would throw it out and start again. Mold is not something you want to mess around with, and it is better to be safe than sorry.

This brings me to another point that could help you if you find yourself in this predicament.

Saving/preserving your sourdough starter:

It is always a good idea to save some of your starter in case of accidents like dropping it, baking it on accident or like we talked about above, mold. You can do this a few different ways. This is kind of like making sure your eggs are not all in the same basket.

  1. Dehydrate some active starter. Store this completely dried starter in the freezer.
  2. Have a second starter in the fridge that you use here and there.

I usually just keep some dehydrated sourdough starter in the freezer for accidents.

How to dehydrate your sourdough starter:

There are a few ways you can do this, but I will usually just do it this way:

  1. Take some of your active sourdough starter and spread it in a thin layer on a piece of parchment paper.
  2. Cover with a tea towel and set the parchment paper on a cooling rack.
  3. Once the starter is completely dry break up the pieces and store in an airtight zip top bag in the freezer.

This works best if the starter is not in a humid environment already. If it is, you may need to use an actual dehydrator to complete this task.

How to get your sourdough to have a more or less sour flavor:

So, you want your sourdough baked goods to be more sour. It will be helpful to note that Lactic Acid Bacteria is the component that has to do with the sour flavor in the starter and dough. Lactic acid is a product of the fermentation of the flour and water. How do you get your sourdough baked good to be more sour? Here are a few tips:

  1. Using whole grains to feed your starter can make your sourdough more sour in smell and flavor.
  2. Don’t feed your starter as often.
  3. Mix in the hooch. Don’t pour it off.
  4. Ferment your dough longer.
  5. I’ve found having a looser consistency produces a tangier sourdough starter.

Pin for Later:

Pinnable image for sourdough starter

FAQ’s

How often should I put my starter in a clean jar?

Probably less than you think. This is really more personal preference than anything. I usually change my jar probably every 2-3 months. Usually, I decide to change it if the top threads are getting all full of dried starter.

Why would I leave a small amount of starter on the bottom of my sourdough starter jar?

Think of it as a refresh. Bringing your starter to a low amount refreshes your starter and strengthens it! I would only do this with a mature sourdough starter.

Does the type of flour matter?

Like we touch on a little in the above text the type of flour does matter. You need an unbleached, higher protein, quality flour to get your best results in making your sourdough starter and sourdough bread. I like using Dakota Maid bread flour. Affordable but good quality!

Can I use my sourdough starter after it falls?

Short answer: Yes. It is best to use your starter at its peak when the yeast is happiest but after it falls is still an option.

Should I cover my sourdough starter jar?

When it has been fed and set on the counter to rise, I will loosely place a towel or lid on top to avoid anything from falling or getting inside the jar. Fruit bugs seem to love sourdough starters. When it is in the fridge, I just screw on one of these reusable mason jar lids.

How long does it take to make a starter from scratch:

This answer varies but as a general rule around a week to 10 days. Temperature can be one of the biggest factors here. If you have a cold room, it could take longer.

How do I revive my starter if I haven’t fed it in quite a while?

It might be dead, but you can know for sure by stirring it up, discarding all but 140 g or around ½ cup and feeding it. If you get some bubbles after 8-10 hours, discard it again and feed it. After it has doubled well then you can use it again for your sourdough baking.

Should I use all-purpose flour or bread flour?

Really either should work but I do think you get a better result from using bread flour. This is mostly because of the higher protein content in bread flour.

How do I get larger holes in my bread, a more open crumb?

One way you can attain this is by using a higher hydration recipe. TheFarmChicken Sourdough Recipe is a medium crumb but adding 50 grams more of water can make it a more open crumb.

Beginner Sourdough Links:

Sourdough Bread Recipes:

Yet the LORD will command his lovingkindness in the day time, and in the night his song shall be with me, and my prayer unto the God of my life. 
Psalms 42:8
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