Sourdough Discipline

Once you get the hang of working with sourdough, you might find yourself with a refrigerator full of unfed starter. Regularly feeding your starter will result in a lot of left over starter if like me, you just can’t throw any away. I soon discovered a need for recipes using unfed starter. At my worst, I had three large jars full of starter in my refrigerator but that pales in comparison to my daughter that had over three thousand grams in huge jars and miscellaneous vessels stashed throughout her fridge. I had to intervene and threw most of it out, keeping only the freshest and most recent batch.

Her problem, along with many others, (Yes, I’m included!) is getting so excited that our vision exceeds our ability to plan the time necessary to produce great bread. I tell newbies that making sourdough is not complicated but it does take a tremendous amount of time management. A simple loaf comprised of only starter, flour, water and a bit of salt can take over twelve hours to produce that simple loaf. You’re actually only involved in the process for 10 to 20 minutes at the beginning and maybe a few minutes putting it in the oven. Most of the time is taken up in letting the sourdough bulk ferment and rise. (Anywhere from 4 to 6 hours) Then you might have another 5 minutes of portioning off smaller bits and forming them into whatever type of loaf you are making and then covering and letting those loaves ferment and rise for maybe another 2 to 4 hours. Then you are ready to pop them into the oven for anywhere from 20 minutes to 45 minutes. Actual hands on time playing with your sourdough… 30 to 45 minutes!

So what happens before you’ve gained the discipline necessary to not waste time or materials? You forget how long the dough has been sitting on the counter top, or something came up and you had to leave town for a few days or you just were too tired to bother with it, promising to get to it tomorrow, and then forgetting your solemn vow. If you are able to remember to put your starter in the refrigerator if you can’t bake right away, congratulations! However, the same scene repeats itself the next week as you get out some starter, feed it and then get busy again. (See comment on my daughter above.)

In the interest of maintaining starter for different needs, here is my regimen.

  1. mother

    I only keep two glass jars of starter in my fridge. One small jar which contains my “Mother” and a larger jar of rested or unfed starter. “Mother” is around 50 to 75 grams and is fed twice a month on the first and the fifteenth. Occasionally I will refresh her with some strong left over starter just to keep her strength up. The larger jar contains around 400 to 500 grams of starter which I designate as my working starter.

  2. After my initial burst of enthusiasm, trying to bake everything I could every day, I’ve settled into a relaxed schedule so I only bake once a week. Sometimes I use the rested starter for crackers, biscuits or waffles if I won’t be needing a lot of starter for breads that week. I’m down to baking two loaves of bread once or twice a month and on special occasions making treats such as scones, beignets, pretzels or any number of other tasty treats.

  1. Unfed Starter

    Once I decide what my needs are for the weeks baking, I pull the working starter out and weigh it to see how much starter I have to start with. (I weigh the empty jars so I know how much they weigh.) Then I consult my recipes and determine how much starter I will need. If I need 300 grams of starter, I pull 50 grams out of the working jar. I feed it and with my 1:1:1 ratio and I end up with 150 grams. I feed 100 grams, putting the left over 50 grams back into the working jar and end up with the 300 grams I need. I find two feedings usually brings my starter back up to full strength, but if I haven’t baked for a few weeks, then three feedings might be necessary.

  2. You can determine the strength of your starter by dropping a small bit into a container filled with room temperature water. If it floats, its ready for baking. If it sinks right to the bottom, feed again.

  3. On the rare occasion when I’ve miscalculated my time constraints, I simply put the fed starter back into the fridge once its finished feeding. Just remember to let it calm down before you cap it. During the colder months it is okay to leave it out on the counter top but during the heat of summer you need to get it back in the fridge.

  4. Keep an eye on how much starter you’re hanging on to and if you find you’re getting too much, make waffles, crackers or biscuits. Once you’ve gained experience you will easily whip these up without a lot of fuss.

  5. Every time I put my starter back into the fridge, I use a clean glass jar. It might just be me, but I don’t like to see a grody jar with bits of dried starter caked all around the rim of the jar. Don’t forget to clean the lid as well.

Don’t let me tamp down your enthusiasm and excitement to get into this great way to make fresh and wholesome bread for you, your friends and family. By all means jump in and make some mistakes. Try many different recipes and techniques and decide for yourself what works and what doesn’t. I’ve botched many attempts and was still able to salvage something edible.

Make it Happy, Make it Sour!

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