Learn how to use a sourdough starter for different recipes. Understand the difference between active and hungry starter and sourdough discard.
Sourdough always seemed like some elusive thing I would never have time to master or even understand. I watched people on YouTube use their sourdough starter all the time but, for some reason, it seemed so difficult to understand. When 2023 rolled around, I decided this was the year I was going to learn how to use and maintain a sourdough starter!
My biggest inspiration for everything sourdough is Lisa from Farmhouse on Boone. Her blog and YouTube channel are full of recipes and several ways to use sourdough starter on a regular basis. I highly recommend checking out some of her content for inspiration and basic knowledge on using a sourdough starter and incorporating it in your kitchen!
Creating a Sourdough Starter
I created my own sourdough starter from scratch. I read several different articles and decided if I was going to try, I wasn’t going to be able to be super precise with the timing of everything. Between a full time job, kids and activities, and all the responsibilities that come with a farm, my schedule varies day to day. This was one of the main reasons I believed I could never have a sourdough starter.
When I finally decided to just jump in, I followed these instructions (very loosely). I basically started by mixing about a cup of organic bread flour with a half cup of water. The next couple days, I took out about half of the flour and water mixture, and fed it again with the cup of flour and half cup of water. I repeated this process for a week. Then I tried to make a loaf of bread. I made a hockey puck. I was confused because my starter had lots of bubbles and was rising after I fed it. Turns out, it’s very unlikely that a sourdough starter that is only one week old will have enough strength to rise a loaf of bread.
How to Feed a Sourdough Starter
Feeding your sourdough starter is not complicated. The basics to remember are that you need flour and filtered water. You can really use any flour. It is ideal to use something organic and freshly ground, but if you don’t have access to freshly ground organic flour, unbleached all purpose is fine, bread flour is fine, einkorn is fine, anything is fine. Using filtered water is important, especially if you have city water. The chemicals in treated city water may hinder the natural yeast and bacteria growth that you need in your sourdough starter.
When determining how much to feed your starter, base it off of what you need the starter for. If you are trying to make a big batch of pancakes, feed your starter several cups of flour and water and watch it double in size! It is not an exact science. I typically go by consistency but aim for somewhere between a ratio of 1:1, flour to water, and 2:1 flour to water. Anywhere in between that ratio will get you a good starter.
Understanding Sourdough Starter
Sourdough starter is fermented flour and water. When you mix the flour and water together and leave it out on your counter at room temperature, the natural yeasts take over and feed off the mixture. This is how it becomes bubbly and alive. The bubbliness is what rises bread or baked goods made with sourdough starter.
What is an Active Sourdough Starter?
An active starter is one that has been fed in the last 4-12 hours, and it is puffy and bubbly. The timing of how long it takes for your starter to become active after a feeding is based on the temperature in your house, the strength of your starter, and the hydration level (water to flour ratio). It is active because the recent feeding has fed the bacteria and yeast inside the mixture and they are now fermenting and producing gas bubbles.
What is a Hungry Sourdough Starter?
The opposite of an active starter would be a hungry starter, or one that needs to be fed. A starter goes from active to hungry a few hours after it peaked in its bubbliness. It will almost deflate, lose some of its bubbliness, and thin out.
What is Sourdough Discard?
Sourdough discard is a term referring to the excess starter, after it has peaked. Discard is typically less active and not as puffy or bubbly. My starter becomes thinner or more runny as it gets hungry. Discard is what we call the extra starter that would be removed before your next feeding, to reduce the volume of starter you have.
Do you Have to Discard Sourdough Everytime you Feed Sourdough Starter?
You don’t technically have to discard sourdough starter. It is important to note that in order for your starter to become active and bubbly, it needs to be fed about as much volume as it currently exists as. For example, if you have 1 cup of starter, it needs at least 1 cup of flour/water to be content and have enough food for all its bacteria and yeast to consume. As you can probably understand, without discarding, your starter will soon turn into a massive quantity.
Active Sourdough Starter vs. Sourdough Discard
Some recipes call for an active starter and some call for sourdough discard. The active starter is needed to rise the bread or whatever the baked good is. Sourdough discard can also rise bread or baked goods, but not usually very much. Discard recipes are made more for using up sourdough starter in order to reduce the total amount before feeding.
Some of my favorite ways to use up sourdough starter are pancakes and waffles, pizza crust, and banana bread. Once again, Lisa from Farmhouse on Boone has so many great recipes for sourdough bread and using up sourdough discard.
How Long does a Sourdough Starter Last?
Sourdough Starter can theoretically last forever. If you feed it when it’s hungry and store it properly when you’re not using it, it will stay alive.
How to Store Sourdough Starter
Keep your starter in the refrigerator between uses. This will stop the fermentation process and preserve the starter in its hungry state. If you put the starter into the fridge when it is active and bubbly, it will eventually become hungry again. Unfortunately you cannot preserve the active stage of fermentation.
I have kept my starter in the refrigerator for about a month and was able to take it out, feed it, and revive it to its active, bubbly state. However, I do recommend feeding more regularly than once per month. The more you feed it, the more robust and active it will become. The cultures will become stronger and more resilient.
What is the Clear/Gray Liquid on top of my Refrigerated Starter?
After a handful of days in the fridge, the starter will form a layer of clear or grayish liquid on top, called Hooch. Hooch is the alcohol formed from the fermentation of the yeasts in your starter. Hooch is not bad or dangerous. You can simply mix it in with your starter and continue feeding it as normal. It is simply a sign that your starter is hungry.
How Do I Know if my Starter has Gone Bad?
Any visible signs of mold is a clear indicator that your starter is no longer good to use. Sourdough Starter is supposed to smell sour and fermented. It is not supposed to smell moldy, rotten, or cheesy. Familiarize yourself with the scent of your starter so you can identify when something seems off. Our noses are pretty good at telling us if something isn’t right. Trust your gut. If the hooch on top of your starter has any color to it other than gray, it would probably avoid using it. Gray and even dark gray hooch is typically nothing to be concerned with. Once again, if you are concerned, just don’t use it.
However, it is pretty uncommon for sourdough starters to go bad out of the blue. Don’t be too quick to throw out your starter if there is just a little liquid on top. Sourdough starters are extremely resilient. Make sure to use clean hands, utensils, and work surfaces whenever working with your sourdough starter or any food, for that matter.
I hope this gives you a little confidence when it comes to using a sourdough starter. It truly does not have to be a complicated process. I would not be capable of keeping a starter alive if it was complex! If I can do it, you can definitely do it!!
If you are looking for other meal inspiration, check out my Spring Meal Plan. It is chalk full of fresh recipes with seasonal ingredients!
If you are ready to dive into gardening or starting seeds, check out my latest post on starting seeds indoors. I discuss my current set-up and everything you need to start seeds.
I hope you enjoyed this peek into Life at Metzger Acres!