Use It or Lose It

One of the questions people ask me most often is why you need to discard a portion of your starter every time you feed it. The answer is — you don’t; you can bake with it instead, if you’re in a baking frame of mind. However, as far as perpetuation of the starter is concerned, you’d better be taking some of it out regularly, or you’re going to be in trouble fast.

Think about what happens when you deliver a meal to those microorganisms — yeast and bacteria — that live in your starter. They gorge themselves on flour and then go about the business of procreation. Now they’re out of food, but there are even more mouths to feed. Unless you expeditiously dispose of some of those little mouths — into a bread dough, the compost pile, the trash can, whatever — you will need to bring in exponentially larger and larger meals for them, and your little dinner party party will become seriously out of control within a matter of days.

To illustrate: say you have a rather small amount of starter, 60 grams. At each feeding, you need to feed in proportion to the amount of starter you start with, around three times the flour and with an equal amount of water. If you kept feeding without taking any out, after one feeding you would have 60 g starter + 180 g flour + 180 g water = 420 g of fed starter. After the second feeding you would have 420 g starter + 1260 g flour + 1260 g water = 2940 g of fed starter. After three feedings, 20,580 g.

After just three days (six feedings), you would have 7,058,940 g of starter. You’re going to need a pretty big jar, not to mention a pretty big budget to afford all that flour.

This is not to say you must always take some out. If I have 60 grams of starter at night and plan to bake bread the next morning, I would keep and feed the entire 60 grams, giving me 420 grams. This is enough to bake a few loaves (in a few hours, once it has a chance to become hungry again) and still have 10 grams left over to keep the starter going.

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  1. I have no problem with my starters (whole rye and wheat) only because I bake regulary. I love my boys and they work very well.
    I would like to thank you for `Wild Yeast `-it is great source of inspiration for me.

  2. Another very helpful post! Thank you very much.
    I sure wish you would write a book, hope you’ve thought about it.
    Until then, I am heading out to buy more ink!
    In spite of all the bread books I have, your posts are the best!
    Thank you very much!

  3. I wish I could give away my starter, it is so great and it is not sour at all. Throwing it away feels weird every time.

    I haven’t baked with yeast in a while, time to do it! I keep refreshing the starter but not using it, bad girl!

  4. One of my favourite things to do with “excess” starter is pancakes — which I just had for lunch today. I add 15 ml of olive oil and enough milk or water to thin my 100% hydration starter down to be pourable. Then I stir in 1 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda and a good pinch of salt and away we go.

    Delicious.

  5. The great thing about sourdough baking is the variability in the methods. My personal experience has found that the ingredients and proportions are secondary and baking is more about process. I have been baking with a starter for 5 years which is supposedly 50 years old. I never throw starter away. I keep 8oz in refrigerator for up to two weeks, then revive with a quarter cup of flour and water ever 6 hours for 3 or four feedings. Then I normally use starter in a 12 hour sponge. Then use sponge in recipe, The starter and subsequent sponge are always very active and raise the dough within 3 hours. I use no commercial yeast. The product always has an excellent rise and look, but does not have a sourdough taste, but does have an overall excellent bread taste. I realize this method goes against all the rules of sourdough baking, but except for the sourdough taste I have excellent results. As far as taste, I do not really know what to expect.

  6. I tend to agree with Jack: you don’t have to throw away starter, ever.

    I bake bread with my rye starter 1/2-2 times a week, on average. Each time I make bread, I use all but a couple of tablespoons of the starter, then replenish it and let it ripen at room temperature until it is about 2-3 cups volume and bubbly. Then I sprinkle the top with rye flour, loosely cover it (I use a pyrex container with a lid propped, but not sealed, on top) and keep it in the ‘fridge until next time I bake.

    So, the starter that goes in my bread is what has ripened then sat in the ‘fridge for anywhere from a couple of days to two weeks. The dough takes a couple of hours or more to get going and rise, but it does always rise, and once the bulk fermentation is over the loaves rise quick as ever.

    I never have to throw away starter, and can make flavorful (but not too sour) rye bread without any commercial yeast whenever I want.

    Note: The rest of the loaf (besides the rye starter) is made up of whole wheat flour. If I were using all rye flour I would certainly ferment a larger portion of it the night before or else the loaves would be gummy.

  7. I almost always use my sourdough starter when I bake bread for the complex flavor it provides but I don’t let it get to the degree of sourness for which San Franciso sourdough bread is famous. My starter has served me well for about 12 yrs (made from Nancy Silverton’s recipe using grapes and the natural must on the grapes). In recent years I try to bake at least once every wk or 2, but in the past I have gone several months without using or refreshing my starter and when I refreshed the dormant starter, it took a few extra feedings but nonetheless the starter has always come back very active and robust. I know the yeast in the dormant starter runs out of food during these long periods; I think what brings them back to life is probably due to the crusty starter that clings to the sides of the glass container – in other words, starter that has dehydrated. I have read, though never did it, to save starter by spreading it out thinly on paper and drying it completely then freezing it till needed. The crusty starter on the sides of the container is probably the same idea.
    I have shared by starter with a number of home bread bakers, experienced and novice and and they too have been able to maintain their starters without too much fussing.
    Your blog is always the first one I recommend to others when asked about my favorite bread blogs. It’s fun to read and so inspirational. Thank you.

  8. I forgot to mention in the previous comment that the starter, of course, needs to be kept in the frig when not being used.

  9. I was going to sit back and be embarrassed about the starter abuse going on in my household, but I see that others abuse their starters too. Maybe there is a support group for people like us? :grin:

  10. I guess the question is – what are the abusers missing? I have always been very happy with my product. I am reluctant to compare my bread to some supposedly sourdough breads I have had at restaurants because I think chemicals were added to give distinctive taste. They were not sour, but did have a distinctive taste.

  11. hi, i’ve never agreed with throwing out something as magic as a starter. i’ve been making sourdough bread for over ten years and only ever add as much extra flour and water (in one go) as the recipe i want to follow requires. i only take the starter out the previous day to feed it for baking the following day, take off some to put back into fridge for the next baking…and that’s it. no complicated feeding schedule or throwing out…. works absolutely fine every time and the starter is really potent. wouldn’t ever contiplate feeding loads extra and then throwing out loads….. no need for it in my experience!!!!

  12. I’m with Jeremy. With two hungry kids in the house the “extra” starter goes into pancakes on a regular basis. My favorite is the 100% rye starter mixed with egg, milk, pinch of salt, bit of agave and rice flour. Makes really good pancakes. Just remember to use enough rice flour to balance the flavor. The other day my 3 yo turned her nose up “papa, these pancakes are too rye”. Point taken, they were pretty dominated by the rye. Kind of like Volkenbrot pancakes….I liked them.

    Thanks for the post. Love your blog!

  13. For those that would enjoy a lovely children’s picture book related to this mathematical problem, I suggest “One Grain of Rice” in which a grain of rice is doubled every day. Before the end of the month, there isn’t enough rice in the entire kingdom to balance the rice needed. (It’s part of a promised payment. Fun story.)

    I don’t particularly like “sour” dough bread. Is there a way to use a starter that isn’t sour? Or is sourdough starter different?

  14. Had a general idea about what was happening and why the feeding, but this makes it very clear. What a party!

  15. I have The Starter That Ate Manhatten. No matter what amount of flour I bake with, the result is a large runny sponge that appears to be another starter. The crumb and taste transport me back to San Francisco, but I cannot shape paste! (I have purchased a scale, but can’t receive it before thaw.) Should I throw it out and start over? Pls. no video recommendations as my connection is by phone-link. Thanks…

  16. Sorry, when I wrote “I cannot shape paste”, it’s really more like shaping bubbly cottage cheese!

  17. This is one of the few times I have to disagree with Susan.

    I keep about 50 gm of 100% hydration starter in the ‘frig and bake with it about once a week. Depending on recipe, for two loaves, I feed my starter just enough flour and water to end up with the amount I need for baking + 50 grams + maybe 10 grams extra. This usually means refreshing my 50 grams at a 1:1.5:1.5 ratio or sometimes at 1:2:2 but certainly not the 1:3:3 feeding ratio you recommend.

    With this feeding schedule and feeding ratio, my starter doubles reliably in about 8-10 hrs. I usually remove 50 grams of starter about half-way through the rising period (before all the food has been exhausted?). Perhaps this helps keep my starter vigorous despite my more lackadaisical and parsimonious approach.

    I seldom need to discard excess starter (ok, maybe sometimes a tablespoon or so if I’ve miscalculated) and my bread rises reliably.

  18. Thanks, everyone, for your well-considered comments, which point up the fact that there can be many paths to a good result.

    For myself, I have found that my starter makes its very best bread when it is fed twice a day and not refrigerated (although I do refrigerate it if I won’t be using it for a long period of time). Discarding (and by discarding I mean feeding the compost pile or throwing it into something else I’m baking) 50 grams of starter per feeding — which amounts to 50 grams each of flour and water per day — is not something I lose sleep over.

    A starter that makes great bread straight out of the fridge or under a feeding schedule that does not require any discarding — that doesn’t describe mine, but what a blessing! Use it and love it.

  19. This blog has a lot of great information for the yeast.. I have just started cooking with it a lot and though I’m not too familiar, I’ve gotten a lot of good tips from it. Thanks so much!
    -Kenzie
    Propane Burners

  20. A piece of eruiitdon unlike any other!

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