looking after the baby (or: how to maintain and use my sour dough starter)

wishfish's picture

I posted some questions about actually baking bread but I would like a few hints about how to maintain my starter. I made my (surviving) starter using ordinary all-purpose white flour because it is all I have available. I fed it every 12 hour for about a week and since then I've been keeping it in the fridge. I attempt, without the benefit of any very accurate measuring devices, to use equal quantities of flour and water by weight (or put another way some where around half a cup of water to every cup of flour I feed it.)



As I said in the other post I live in a remote rural village in a developing country and have very few resources available. We have regular power outages of anywhere up to 18 hours (sometimes for six days in a row) so keeping it in fridge doesn't necessarily mean that it is alway very cold.



My questions are these:


1. Do I need to feed the starter if I am not using it and it is in the fridge? If there is a long power outage and it warms up should I feed it?


2. Do I need to take it out of the fridge and feed it before using it? When I take some to use that is, I believe, when I should feed it... do I feed it and put it straight back in the fridge.



It seems pretty active and tastes nice and sour.


I think I'm doing alright but I am working more by instinct than anything else. I wish there was some knowledgeable bakers around these parts to lend advice but in their abscence I hope you will help me out here.




324 users have voted.


Flour and Spice 2012 June 22

 My sour dough starter baby is over 11 years old, here at home we all refer it to as the: "Chef" and it is still well and alive!


To answer your questions, based on my experience nurturing my "Chef":


1. In the fridge the Chef is asleep, he is not interested in eating when he is sleeping. The Chef doesn't really like to sleep any longer than 5-7 days, because by then the hibernation will have made it ravenous! Before baking a new batch of sour dough, the Chef needs to regroup its energy for at least a day with a good feed.


2. Which kind of takes me to your next question. Don't expect any performance from your starter if it is cold and hungry! So yes, you need to take it out of the fridge the day before you intend to bake, give it a good breakfast & dinner and even an energy boost by giving it a spoonful of sugar or honey and sometimes I've even given it a little bit of orange juice, if I think it needs a vitamin jab. Chef loves it. I never put the Chef back in the fridge without giving it another feed, that's what it lives on whilst it's hibernating.


Some final tips:

When I go away for a longer period of time my Chef experiences brave new world cryogenics, I put it into the freezer for a long deep sleep, so it cannot go hungry like it would in the fridge after a week or so (in which case, it would be doomed to die eventually). When I get back, I let it gently thaw to get its circulation back and once fully recovered from the freeze, you guessed right, it gets a feast, usually for at least a week before I do anything with it.  It is how I've been able to keep the Chef around for so many years. Like with any of us, its performance can be very dependent on the time of the year, the weather and its accommodation. It doesn't mind the cold but it hates drafts and excessive heat.


You should always be able to taste your starter and it should have this sweet & sour taste that is pleasant and enjoyable. If it is too sharp and acrid, then it hasn't been happy with the feed, it is a bit of a balancing act and I agree, use your instincts, they are always a good guide! Babies are quite resilient, they just need a lot of TLC. 


Hope this is of any help  Tia


gongoozler 2012 June 22

 Hi wishfish,


As with a much cookery it is often better to use your instinct than to stick slavishly to a given formula or timings, especially as, in your circumstances, you obviously have to improvise a bit.

I find that my starter goes through several distinct phases: it begins to bubble about 4 hours after feeding and is definitely rising by 6 hours (at room temperature in the UK). By 10 hours it has more or less shot its bolt ane begins to subside. However, as I always keep it in a mini fridge this process is considerably slowed down.


Because I always make a preferment, which I leave overnight at room temp, I don't find it necessary to feed my strarter before baking. I bake every 4 days using the starter which I fed 4 days previously and put straight in the fridge. My starter is normally on the point of hooching when I use it.


Although I always use an identical technique for feeding I have noticed that the starter varies quite a bit in performance and taste. I assume this is something to do with the bacteria involved but I'm no scientist! For example I have noticed that, even at a controlled temperature, proving can take anywhere between 3.5 and 5.5 hours. For this reason I now use the "poke test" rather than relying on timing.


I like my starter to be at 100% hydration so I tend to use 50 grams flour, 50 grams water and whatever starter I have left over from the bake (usually about 30 grams). Maybe you could rig up some sort of balance using a couple of cups with flour in one and water in the other


I've never tried tasting my starter as Tia recommends, but it sounds like a good idea to ensure that all is well.


Happy baking!


wishfish's picture
wishfish 2012 June 24

Thanks Tia and Gongoozler for replying!


I guess I make a preferment (sponge), too - that's like a mega feed around 10 - 12 hour before making the dough, isn't it?


I do taste my starter regularly and it tastes pretty good, I reckon. Sour but pleasant. Sometimes it has a slightly bitter aftertaste which I use to guage it's health - I figure too much bitter is bad.


Part of my challenge is that I've cobbled together my recipe and method from various recipes that I found rather than sticking to one. However, it seems to be working out, more or less.



It rises pretty well and much faster than I expected. The ambient temperature is probably between 27 - 30 degrees and humidity is super high.



I suspect I may be overproofing on the first rise.


I am trying to come up with a name for baby. I considered simply 'Baby' but I'm not sure yet. 'Bread monster' is another contender, or 'Beastlie' (except that was the name I gave to a cat recently).


I just added photos of the Beastlie Bread Monster in its infancy.

Karniecoops's picture
Karniecoops 2012 June 24

The photos of Beastlie indicate "he" is looking nice and healthy. My bug is coming up 4 years old this year and is still kicking along nicely. I have left it longer than a week before feeds and it doesn't seem to particularly care. If it seems a bit sluggish I just feed it again before making a loaf.

My general regime is take bug out of fridge, depending on what bread I'm making I feed it sufficiently to make the starter for my loaf and a bit spare to pop back in the fridge. After leaving it "eating" for 10 or so hours (usually either overnight, or while I'm at work) I will then make my bread and put the spare bit back in the fridge for next time.

If you don't have regular power to keep your fridge cold, you might find you need to give Beastlie a bit of food a bit more regularly just to keep him going. Your ambient temp is very warm for bread making, so your fermentation/ proofing times would be considerably shorter than generally recommended. Like gongoozler says, give it a poke rather than following a strict recipe timeline. Gut is good!! :)


Happiness is making bread!
wishfish's picture
wishfish 2012 June 25

Thanks, Karniecoops, for admiring my baby photos!


So, in the Norwich Sourdough recipe which calls for a mature starter and doesn't do a pre-ferment at what stage should my starter be? Taken out from the fridge and fed? Or hungry? What does mature mean in this context?

JohnF 2012 June 26

That is a great looking bubbly starter!  I've had very limited success with getting a starter going. I used equal volumes of strong white flour and spring water (tepid) to create the mother. I used genuine sourdough yeast.  At room temperature I got a few bubbles alright but nothing so dramatic as in the pics above. I never got froth! 


I feed the starter regularly, discarding some each time and making a mix about the consistency of thin porridge.


Experts on this board probably won't be surprised to read that I never managed to get the bread to rise much. I read a bit and chatted to some Polish bakers here. They said to try organic wholemeal flour next time I fed the starter.  I did. Now the starter smells of vinegar and I have no idea what to do next. 


I'd be grateful for advice.



Jerzy 2013 April 16

In Beginners' blog - a starter, from scratch

               looking after the baby (or: how to maintain and use my sour dough starter)

JohnF  26th June 2012 rote about a red liquid on his starter. Beware. 


Info. by Mirabbelka at http://www.chleb.info.pl/

Zasada brzmi: Tak długo, gdy zakwas nie zmieni koloru na czerwony, zielony, niebieski albo czarny, nie śmierdzi przeraźliwie, nie pokrywa się włosem, (czyli wyraźnie pleśnieje) możemy zakładać, że żyje i cierpliwie czeka na pożywienie.


The principle is this: As long as leaven does not change it's colour to red, green, blue or black, it stinks terribly, is covered with hair (filaments), (is clearly mouldy), we can assume that he was alive and patiently waiting to be fed.


Best to discard it and start again. As you are no doubt aware, not all bacteria are safe.

I have only saw your blog yesterday John, though late I hope this helps.



wishfish's picture
wishfish 2012 June 26

John, I believe smelling of vinegar is probably a good sign. The starter is supposed to be acidic.


Don't give up. I tried three times before I got this one going. I tried various methods until I found something that worked. You dont' say how long you've been at it either. It took quite a few days before this starter really got going.



It's generally said that whole wheat or rye flour is better for getting a culture started but I used all purpose plain white because it was all that I had available.



Keep trying and good luck.

JohnF 2012 June 26

Thanks wishfish.  I started a couple of months ago!   At first I got some bubbles and I fed the baby till I had enough to use as leaven.  It had some bubbles but nothing like the photo. The resulting bread was not bad - a pretty dense crumb but very eatable.  After that I stored the starter in the fridge.  I took it out every ten days or so and fed it.  Sometimes it had a thin layer of dark red liquid on the top - I guess this is 'hooch'.  I skimmed off most of this before feeding the baby again and each time allowed it to grow at room temp (around 20 C in our kitchen). There were always a few bubbles but nothing dramatic.


My next breadmaking attempt was a fiasco with a runny dough that was just useless.  It was so runny I poured it down the drain. I discarded some of the starter and began to feed it again, with roughly equal measures of plain white flour and tepid spring water.  Again, I got a few bubbles but not more.


The final breadmaking attempt resulted in a very nice dough, easy to knead.  We were optimistic it would be a success. The dough hardly rose at all over 6 hours at 20 C and the resulting bread was as heavy as lead.  Un-eatable.


I suspected there was something wrong with the leaven. So I asked the Polish bakers who suggested feeding with organic wholemeal flour. Now, I've got lots of hooch, and a vinegar smell - not unpleasant, but not 'yeasty'.  Oh yes, when I stir it up a bit, there are a few bubbles. 


So, should I take a teaspoon of the starter and build up again?  Or what?



gongoozler 2012 July 2

 Hello John


Many people have found SourDom's starter tutorial helpful.(look at the top of the right-hand column under "beginners").

If your starter is producing hooch then it's still alive but definitely needs feeding! Some people advocate simply mixing the hooch back in but I always pour it off. When a starter is fully active and suitable for baking it should look like wishfish's photographs, that is to say about 10 hours after feeding (or a bit more depending on temperature) it should have expanded, appear glossy and be bubbling nicely.

I would follow wishfish's advice and try feeding it every 12 hours for about a week, keeping it nice and warm..

 When it is looking really healthy you can start keeping it in the fridge and feeding every week or so (again this depends on how cold your fridge gets). I feed using Dan Lepard's recommended combination of flours i.e. 7 parts white flour, 2 parts wholemeal and 1 part rye (all by weight). I normally take 30 grams of starter and mix it with 50g of the mixed flours and 50g of water (i.e. 100% hydration). This makes a fairly thick paste.

My starter took several weeks to become really potent but it now makes consistently good loaves which rise well and have plenty of oven spring.

Just my two cents' worth - do have a look at SourDom's tutorial and DON'T GIVE UP!



chel 2012 July 2

Hi John


I live in Scotland and have recently started my own starter which is fingers crossed up and running and behaving well. It doubles in less than 12 hours and I refresh it twice a day. If you would like me to detail what I did to get it going let me know. I have never refridgered mine yet as its only 4 weeks old but it has gone through a stage for about a week when it smelt really strongly of vinegar. The loaves rose just fine but tasted of vinegar.



wishfish's picture
wishfish 2012 June 26

I think you're better off waiting until you get a starter that's really active before attempting bread with it.



I had better success with my starter (and this one is my third attempt) when I started feeding it more often. I fed it every 12 hours for about a week. It started getting pretty active around day 4 or 5 but I kept feeding it to get its strength up and make sure it was reasonably stable. I used just plain white all purpose flour but only because that's all I can get my hands on in remote rural Panama.



It's pretty warm here - ambient temp of 28 - 32 celsius - which I think is a pretty good temperature to get things going and growing. Perhaps you need to find somewhere warmer? I don't know because you didn't really describe in much detail what you have done already.


Keep going but maybe don't embark on any more bread until you have something you can rely on. I started by using the discard starter as pizza bases and stuff like that before I launched into bread.


Good luck and happy baking.

Staffo 2012 July 19

 Hi wishfish,

Time has moved on since you asked about refrigeration, starters and feeding. 

I am impressed with what you have achieved so far under challenging conditions. Well done.

I have been thinking about your situation, and how you could manage and care for your starter. I have travelled with some starter, so that means no refrigerator, and warmer temperatures than my normal kitchen. I prepared my starter for travel by making a very dry mix of starter and flour. I placed it in a scalded sealable container and then bagged in a couple of zip. lock bags (to avoid problems in my luggage if it became strangely active). That worked well. It might be an approach worth trying if you know you are facing longer power outages. The semi dried out starter responded with vigor when I mixed it with water. An extra feed and it was ready for work.


You have indicated temperatures of 28 to 30 celcius. What is the humidity like? I was wondering if a coolgardie safe would help you to keep the starter cool.  If you have high humidity it will not be very effective because the safe depends on evaporation. The basic safe is a cloth soaked in water, draped over a frame, with a breeze passing over the cloth outside the frame. The frame is box shaped. You place the items you want to cool inside the box. The box is kept in the shade, in a place with a breeze.  To keep the cloth moist you arrange for water to be taken up by the cloth. Sit the edges of the cloth in a bowl, and allow the cloth to absorb the water like a wick, or place a bowl of water above the structure and allow the water to drip, or seep onto the cloth. Traditionally the cloth is hessian, but any loose or open weave absorbent cloth should work.


Staffo 2012 July 20

 I just received an email from "Instructables.com" with an instruction for making a cooler with 2 clay pots and sand, with a damp cloth draped over it.  Same principles as a coolgardie safe. I would improve this clay pot cooler by using a container with water to keep the cloth damp, either by wicking the water into the cloth, or by dripping water onto the cloth. 

This might provide a quick and easy solution to long power outages for keeping a jar of starter cool.

Old Possum's picture
Old Possum 2012 June 27

Your starter may not be up to supporting a loaf of bread yet (usually takes 14 days to be really stable) but the discarded starter from your refreshes is perfect for scones (USA = biscuits) or pancakes. Yum.

wishfish's picture
wishfish 2012 July 22

hi all,


It's been a while since I looked at this thread. My starter is still doing well.


Staffo, I just feed the Beastlie more regularly if the power goes out for too long and it warms up enough to get active. It's a very humid climate so a coolgardie safe probably wouldn't work so well.


I'm having trouble getting nice consistent loaves of sour dough bread on a regular basis but I'm persevering and managing to make some good pizzas, pancakes and other goodies on the way. I have to slow down a bit because I'm putting on weight!

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