At some point you will have a starter culture that rises and falls predictably and you’ll be ready to switch to maintenance from creation. There’s a few approaches available here, ranging from ideal to lazy. I’ve used them all!
The Ideal Approach
The ideal approach is to keep your starter at room temperature and refresh it every day at the same time (or twice daily), adjusting your ratio of kept starter to water to flour so that it rises and starts to fall in the time in between refreshments. You do not want it to fall all the way back to flat in this time, or even most of the way back to flat. We are trying to encourage a particular balance of yeast and bacteria that is good for raising bread at this point. The longer you let it fall after the peak before refreshing, the more active the bacteria become and the less active the yeast become. Yeast are the ones who do most of the work of raising your bread, so you want your yeast colony to be strong and active.
When I say “adjust the ratio” what I am talking about is moving away from that 1:1:1 by weight of starter:water:flour we have been using to whatever ratio gives you the rise and fall times you want. If your starter has fallen most of the way back to flat by the time you refresh, then try going to 1:2:2. If it’s still rising and falling too fast, try 1:4:4. Keep experimenting until you get the desired rise and fall time. You will also want to be aware that changing seasons can change the ratios you need. In the heat of summer I have had to go as high as 1:10:10 to keep it from rising and falling too fast. (You can also change your water temperatures to influence this – use cooler water if the house is hot and warmer if it’s cold. Not too hot though!)
The good news is, even your starter has fallen back to flat before you refresh, you haven’t killed or ruined it. These cultures are hardy and you can keep baking with it. It might just be slower to raise your bread than you want, or have a more sour flavor than ideal. It will still make you bread.
The Lazy Approach
Let’s say you’re only baking once a week. Is it really worth it to refresh your starter 1-2 times a day? Are you going to bake with all that discard? Probably not.
So here’s what you do: Feed up your starter, let’s say with a 1:2:2 ratio, and stick it IMMEDIATELY in the refrigerator. (I see some recipes recommending leaving it out for a few hours first but that makes no sense.) The point of refrigerating it is that this will greatly slow down the activity of your yeast and bacteria, reducing the chance that they will die in their own waste while being ignored for a week or two. It will also prevent mold growth. You want it going in the fridge with little waste products and plenty to live off of for a week or two.
Then, a day or two before you want to bake again, take it out of the fridge. Assess the starter – is it full of bubbles and at a peak? Has it risen and fallen? Is there liquid on top? (The liquid is called “hooch” and can be tossed.) I like to leave mine out at room temperature and check on it in a few hours – if it’s active at that point, I can probably use it to bake right away. If it’s falling, then I will refresh it 1-2 times before baking with it OR use it to start a sponge for a longer-fermenting bread recipe.
What I do
I take sort of a middle ground approach between the two. If I am baking regularly, I keep Mr Sticky out on the counter. If I’m going to be busy and not baking regularly, he goes in the fridge. I also like to refresh Mr. Sticky at fairly extreme ratios so that even on the counter I can go to an every other day schedule without harming the culture. When I refresh Mr Sticky is often based on a visual check more than anything else. (I only keep .2 oz of starter and refresh at 1:5:5 in the winter and 1:10:10 in the summer. I would not start this until you have an established starter culture and are comfortable with maintenance.)
- Maintaining a Smaller Sourdough Starter – this article from King Arthur Flour (yes, I rely on them A LOT) is what led me to my current refreshment routine
- Making an Incredible Sourdough Starter from The Perfect Loaf
- The Secret to Sourdough part 1 – this article talks about influencing how sour your sourdough bread actually tastes
- Sourdough Science – when I first started learning sourdough I was very frustrated by all of the mythology and lack of reasons for why anyone did things a certain way. Luckily lots of people have been demystifying it lately and I love it! This article is a great summary.
- The Science behind creating a sourdough starter – another decent summary of what’s going on at a microbial level; the point about amylase and acidity becomes extra important if you’re baking with rye flour
Flour Water Salt Yeast by Ken Forkish is pretty much the seminal work on artisan bread techniques, including sourdough.
The Rye Baker by Stanley Ginsburg is my personal favorite bread book – I love rye bread and he does a fabulous job in this book! He discusses the history of rye cultivation, the microbiology and chemistry of why baking with rye is NOT the same as baking with wheat, regional variations in traditional bread recipes across Europe and the ingredients used in bread with such clarity. It’s also chock full of delicious and well-written recipes. The Sauerkraut Rye bread from that book has become a staple in my household that people regularly demand.
Once my baby starters are ready to bake with there will be another post and videos too 🙂