Updated: Apr 3, 2020
With everything going on lately I have seen a lot of people starting to make their own sourdough starters. It makes me so happy to see people taking this chance to get into the kitchen and try their hand at the oldest form of baking. But although many are trying it, I also see a lot of people worried about their starter and doing it right, or worried they may kill it. I want to break down this barrier and reassure everyone that sourdough isn't scary and it will connect you to others and past history. Before we get into what can happen to a starter I want to say the same thing I tell EVERYONE about baking bread and specifically sourdough:
Sourdough is the oldest form of bread making. It is natural. It just happened to be discovered by accident. But it's not scary, and even if you think you are fucking up it's just water and flour, it will survive more than you think it can.
**don't have a starter? Here's where you can get started to make your own starter!
1. I have to feed it every day?
Yes. sourdough is like adopting a pet. It's minimal care but it is daily care. Sometimes more or less. As your starter sits, enzymes break down starch into sugar and microscopic organisms (mostly yeast) will eat this sugar and produce gas and alcohol as a byproduct. Without feeding the starter daily they will use up all the energy sources and slowly die off as time goes on. If you forget to feed your starter one day, it won't die though. It might be weak and need a couple days of regular feeds to be used but immediately feed it when you can and it should come right back in a day or two.
2. Discard how?
Discard as in toss or use. Every day feed your starter even if you aren't using it to keep it alive. The process of feeding uses 1/3 of the starter and the remaining 2/3's is what you use to make bread or other treats. If I don't have plans to use the starter I mix with water to dissolve then down the sink it goes. You can also keep it separate for a couple days in a fridge to use in baking non-breads but any bread making needs starter that has been fed within the past 8-24 hours. Use the extra to make things like crackers, cookies, pancakes, or anything that has some flour and liquid. Fermented flours are great for gut health so incorporating them into your diet can have benefits.
3. I ran out of the flour what can I do?
Starter can be made from any form of flour. The first starter was believed to actually be made of porridge. In modern times you typically will see white starters using all purpose or bread flour without the whole wheat berry, but you can make rye starters for rye bread, whole wheat starters, I've even seen people make brown rice flour starters or quinoa flour starters for gluten free sourdough baking. If you do need to change the flour, try to do it slowly with the same flour that you started with and move into a new flour. This will allow a smoother transition. In worst case you can go straight into a new flour. I've seen many other bakers do this to create whole wheat starters or rye starts for other types of bread. With this method there is a chance of a flat starter the first couple days. In this case keep daily feeds and it should come back. You may also need to feed it more. Keep an eye when changing the flour and feed regularly to keep it going.
4. My starter is separating and has a liquid on top.
It's just getting a little old. Like I mentioned above, when the microorganisms eat they produce gas and alcohol. If not fed regularly the alcohol builds up and can float on the surface of the starter. In high school with my first starter (long story and it was not a good one from what I know now), the early readings I did discussed pouring this off and using the good starter underneath to feed. Don't do that though. The alcohol is acidic and will create the environment for the good microorganisms to grow and keep the starter going. I do want to mention that this alcohol has a nickname of Miner's Wine. During the California Gold Rush, miners that ran out of money would drink the alcohol from starters to get drunk for free. Although enough of it could get you drunk it's also not tasty at all and you probably will regret it.
5. My starter isn't bubbly and seems to be dead.
It's hard to say what went wrong but most likely it isn't dead. It may be weakened and not as active but that doesn't mean there isn't any starter left alive. First you should start feeding it regularly again until it starts to get bubbly. Get on a routine of feeding to get the starter going again. As you move forward be cautious of how you feed. The number one thing I have had issues with is the water I use. I try to use filtered water each time I feed. One trip where I brought Carmen, I fed her with tap water. Next day she was flat. At this point she was a year and a half old so I was a little sad. A few days of regular feeding with bottled water and she was back, no issue and making bread again.
6. Why is my starter cheesy and getting an orange color?
A good starter should be bubbly and smell nice and vinegary. There can be various other scents based on location, mine specifically has a more floral scent to her. Sometimes it can also be a little cheesy in smell but shouldn't be a punch in the face. If you notice a color change or more cheesy scent you may be developing other forms of bacteria. They aren't horrible but they won't do what you want. This happened to me once when I did a long rest in the fridge while traveling. When I returned the top half of Carmen was orange-y in color and super cheesy smelling. I simply fished for the less orange starter underneath and kept feeding. Week later back to normal. In this case I think I cooled her down too fast. The colder the starter is the slower the yeast is, but you also need the yeast to create an acidic environment to allow the good microorganisms to grow. Because I fed her and went straight into the fridge she didn't acidify before the long wait. Now when I travel and leave Carmen behind I feed her and rest for 1-2 hours before placing in the fridge.
7. I don't want to make bread every day, what can I do?
Don't make bread every day. I don't make bread every day. You do need to feed a starter to have on hand but you don't have to use the starter every time you feed it. But you can find a lot of new uses for a starter. I have been making a lot of typical baked goods but with starter to include the fermented flour into other treats. Make some crackers, cookies, or even mix a little with water and drink up the good microorganisms! If you don't know what to do with a starter or just dipping your toes in the sourdough world, once active you can switch to weekly feedings by refrigerating week to week. Personally I don't like the consistency of cold starter, so if I do this I feed daily a few days before using. If you need ideas check out other posts to see some sourdough recipes like this sourdough pancake! https://www.theunperfectchef.com/post/sourdough-pancakes
8. Is there any long term storage solutions?
I have seen two ways people save their starter for long time storage or use down the line. This can also be a way to travel more easily with a starter if you want to bring it and share it with others that live further away.
The first method involves spreading starter very thinly on a piece of parchment and letting it dry. I've seen some people place it in the oven while off to speed this up but I'd rather not risk killing the starter if it gets too hot and leave it out to dry naturally.
The second method is to take 50/50 starter to flour and mix to dry out the starter. The damp flour can then be spread on a tray to dry further or throw right in the freezer. Both of these methods involve re-hydrating the starter and daily feedings before using again but you can easily preserve it for moths without having to feed it.
9. How do I know I can't use it anymore?
At the end of the day it's really hard to kill a starter if you are taking general care of it. Leave it on the counter for a week without feeding and it will start to die but could still come back. The number one things I look out for is any black spots. That can indicate a mold that can be dangerous. As long as you never see any black spots growing on the surface you can probably just start feeding and bring it back.
Sourdough can look complicated at the beginning and seem like a really hard thing to do, but once you get the hang of it and get on a routine you will find a lot of joy in the amazing things you can make with the starter. If you have any issues or questions leave a comment or reach out through an email. Let's set up a live class together where you can talk with me and get the whole process right in front of you.