How to Feed a Sourdough Starter - Everything you need to know

Feeding Sourdough Starter

Sourdough baking isn’t an exact science as there is an art to it too. A sourdough start is a live culture of yeast and microbes you use to raise bread. It is called a starter, and this article will explain how to maintain your very own starter culture.

Active Sourdough Starter

 Be warned - you’ll get hooked on the fantastic flavor and texture of homemade bread. Baking with sourdough is fun and rewarding. Once you get the routine down, it is pretty easy to maintain. Read on for the basics of feeding the sourdough starter. 

Key Terms

One of the first things is to learn are some of the terms. As I read through cookbooks, people use many words interchangeably, and was confusing. Here are a few of the basic terms:

 Starter - When talking about sourdough culture, the starter is also called, mother dough, the mother, starter dough, sourdough start, mother sponge, start, levain, Leaven, yeast culture, natural yeast, wild yeast, seed sour, or fermenting dough. Wow. The starter uses naturally occurring lactobacilli and yeast to raise bread. The lactic acid produced by the lactobacilli gives the bread a more sour taste and improves storage. Original starter cultures can last for many years.

Proof - Allowing the starter to sit in a warm spot after it is fed is called proofing, but other terms for proof are sit, rise, ferment, and/or to culture. Some starters proof faster than others.

Feeding-The starter must be fed flour and water regularly to remain active. Some people refer to feeding as refreshment. Some people refer to a fed starter brought to full strength as Leaven. 

Essential to Successful Sourdough Starters

There are a few keys to success. You must find a warm spot (yeast likes 70°- 85° F) and cover it to keep it free of contaminants such as dust, bugs, hair, or other types of foreign substances. 

Feeding is a must - To create a strong culture, you feed it and let it sit. This means you let it sit in a warm spot to give it a chance for the good bacteria and yeast to grow, usually taking about 8-12 hours.

Typically you feed a start every couple of days or weekly if it is refrigerated. Starter kept on a warm counter will need to feed about twice a day may be as much as every 6 hours.

But starter is pretty forgiving and can be brought back when neglected. If you let your start sit too long, it will get a dark liquid on top. This liquid is called Hooch and can be poured off or stirred back into the culture if it hasn't been too long without feeding.

Watching it is the only way to time feeding as the process is variable. Check it after a few hours (if kept in warm spot) to see if it is starting to bubble. Make sure you don't cover it with a tight lid. The growing yeast produces gas that builds up pressure in the container. Pickle Pipes with a Tough Band make great covers.


Tip: When the starter doubles in size, usually in 4-8 hours, feed it again or add it into a recipe to start making bread

Refrigerate or Not?

If you use your starter less than every couple of days, it is better to keep it in the refrigerator. Refrigeration puts the yeast into hibernation, so it won't need to be fed as often. You'll need to "wake" it up when you take it out to use. Depending on how warm it is in your kitchen and what variety you are using, it may take three feedings to bring the yeast back to full vigor before you can bake with it.

Let your starter sit a few hours in a warm place after being fed before you put it back in the fridge. You will have more than 4oz of unfed Sourdough Mother starter. Most people call it 'left over's or 'discard.' If you feed all of the starts twice a day, pretty soon, you'll have more than you can handle (think," "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" LOL).


Leftovers can be used or gifted; frozen or dried to be used later in other recipes. It is always good to keep a backup in case something were to happen to your main Mother. These two recipes are for maintaining a mature sourdough mother starter. If you are rehydrating a new start or working with a weak start you'll need to take a week to bring it to maturity.

FAQ's: Feeding Sourdough Starter

Can I make the dough using a cold refrigerated start?

You need to wake up or activate your starter before using it after it has been refrigerated for best results. Most experts recommend feeding it at least three times after it has been refrigerated. However, a starter that has been fed a day or two before you take it out maybe vigorous enough to use a starter straight from the refrigerator. Give it a float test to make sure it's active. The dough may take a little longer to ferment since the temperature of the dough will be co

What type of flour is best for feeding sourdough starter?

Unbleached, unbromated flour or whole-grain flours contain more microorganisms. They have rich, complex flavors, therefore, are recommended to feed your sourdough starter. You can mix different types of flours together.

Here at Heirloom Mills, we keep a bucket with a screw-top lid with three small bags of different flours- White Spring Wheat, Spelt, and an Artisan Blend. Equal parts of each flour are scooped with a cup into the mixing bowl that sits on the scale. This makes feeding easy. We mix the different flours together and do not weigh the three flours separately as long as the total weight equals what is called for in the recipe.

Is the type of water used important when I feed my sourdough starter?

Yes. Chlorine and Chloramines, which can kill the yeast and microorganisms, are found in many tap water systems. To have clean water without these chemicals, fill a container with water, and let it sit for 24 hours. Or Boil and cool water, use bottled water, or use filtered water (activated carbon filter or another type of filter.) Make sure your filter is proven to remove Chlorine and Chloramines from the water.

Can you make bread with a new (immature) sourdough starter?

A sourdough starter needs time to grow before it is ready to make bread. As it is fed and matures, it will have enough vigor to raise bread. It may take weeks or up to a month for the starter to be strong enough to lift bread. Yeast is dependent on temperature, variety of culture, and nutrients. It depends on where you have gotten the new start. If you are developing it from a dehydrated start or capturing wild yeast, it will take a while to bring it full strength.

How often do I feed my sourdough starter?

When it's hungry. This isn't really a silly answer. Feeding a sourdough start has some guidelines, but you really need to watch it and let it tell you when it is ready to be fed. A start kept on a counter in a warm room may need to be fed twice a day. A start kept in a refrigerator may only be fed once a week. When it is bubbling, doubled, and then slides down again, it can be fed.

Another sign to watch for is a dark, smelly liquid called "hooch." It is an indication that your starter needs to be fed. The smell varies, but some have described it as smelling like alcohol or sweaty socks. If it has been a while since you fed and you see this, you can regularly drain it off and feed your sourdough. But if it is just past feeding and is a slight amount of liquid, you can just stir it in and feed as usual.

How do you know when a sourdough starter is mature enough to raise bread?

The best sign is how quickly the starter doubles after it is fed. If it doubles in under 6 hours, it will raise bread. Putting your starter in a clear container and marking it with a piece of tape or a rubber band is an easy way to monitor your starter.

Tip: Place a rubber band or piece of masking tape around the jar to measure the starter’s growth as it rises.

Feeding Sourdough Starter - Mark with a rubber band

Is it better to weigh or measure the ingredients when I feed my sourdough starter? 

We recommend weighing ingredients as it is more accurate than measuring. If you're off a little bit every time eventually your starter will be out of balance. But people have been keeping starts for hundreds of years and undoubtedly they all didn’t have a scale.

Where do I get a Sourdough Start?

The easiest way is to ask a friend who has a start to share with you. The next is to buy a starter kit. There are many good ones on the market. We happen to be partial to our starts! Check it out here.


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