The complete guide:

Baking with sourdough

The simplest beginnings – flour and water – can lead to magic.

Sourdough FAQs

I'm really confused about feeding sourdough. Do you feed it before you use it in a recipe, or do you just feed the part going back into the fridge?

Please read our step-by-step instructions for feeding sourdough.

How often do I need to feed it? Can I feed it any flour I want?

Please read our step-by-step instructions for feeding sourdough. This will tell you all you need to know about different feeding schedules.

Basically, the more frequently you feed your starter, the more active and strong it'll be. That said, your starter can also suffer quite a bit of neglect, and still bounce back once you feed it again—though it may take several days of regular meals to bring it back to full health.

For best, most consistent results, we recommend feeding your starter with unbleached all-purpose flour. We don't recommend bleached flour, as its chemicals tend to harm sourdough.

While it's a good idea to start your starter with whole-grain flour, feeding it regularly with whole grains increases your starter's chance of attracting unfriendly bacteria. The possibility is lessened by refrigeration, but still exists. So, go ahead and feed your starter with whole-grain flour, if you like; understanding you run the risk of possibly having it go bad.

When do I use fed starter vs. unfed starter?

If you're using your sourdough in a bread recipe without any added yeast, then you absolutely need to feed it before using. You may even need to feed it several times, to make sure it's very active and ready to provide your bread with the leavening it needs.

If you're using the starter in a bread recipe with at least 1½ teaspoons added yeast, then you can choose to feed it before using, or not; fed sourdough will help your bread rise, but you can also simply rely on the yeast in the recipe.

If your recipe is for cake, waffles, or something else with added leavening (baking powder/baking soda), then you can either feed your starter before using, or not. The amount of sourdough the recipe uses, plus the fact that it includes another leavener, makes feeding unnecessary.

How do I increase my supply of starter?

Please read the Getting Ready to Bake section in Maintaining Your Sourdough Starter.

Can I freeze my starter?

Yes, it's possible to freeze starter. Transfer your starter to a plastic bag, seal the bag as airtight as possible, and freeze. Make sure your freezer's temperature doesn't drop below 0°F, which would kill the yeast in the starter. Also, a freezer without the auto-defrost feature works better, as it keeps the starter at a more even temperature.

When you're ready to use the starter again, thaw it in the refrigerator; transfer it to a bowl; and feed it on a regular schedule until it's good and vigorous before using. We don't recommend freezing starter longer than 2 to 3 months.

How do I use my starter in a recipe not calling for starter?

Your starter is more or less equal parts flour and water, by weight. So try using it in recipes that include both flour and water (or milk). Start by substituting a small amount of starter, and increase it if you like the results.

Example: Your bread recipe calls for 3 cups of all-purpose flour and 1 cup of water. Substitute 1 cup of sourdough starter (8¼ ounces) for 1 cup of the flour (4¼ ounces) and ½ cup of the water (4 ounces) in the recipe.

How can I make my starter have a stronger flavor? Why doesn't the loaf taste like the tangy sourdough I had in California?

The flavor of your bread is more dependent on your bread recipe than the flavor of your starter. Simply put, the longer your bread rises (up to a point), the richer its flavor will be.

And, the temperature at which your loaf rises makes a difference. The wild yeast in sourdough produces both acetic and lactic acids as it consumes the starch and sugars in bread dough. When the dough is refrigerated, the yeast tends to produce more acetic acid than lactic acid. Since acetic acid is quite sour (think vinegar), bread dough that rises in the refrigerator overnight will tend to produce a more sour loaf than dough that rises for several hours at room temperature.

Why doesn't your bread taste like San Francisco (or New York, or Key West) sourdough? Because there are so many variations—in starters, weather, the microclimate in which you're baking, and the recipe you're using—that it's nearly impossible to duplicate exactly someone else's sourdough bread. Your best bet is to follow a recipe, and discover what you can do with YOUR starter, in YOUR kitchen.

Why do I have to always have to remove 1 cup to maintain my starter? I feel wasteful if I'm not able to use the removed starter.

It's necessary to remove some of your starter before feeding for three reasons, as follows:

  1. First, unless you discard, eventually you'll end up with The Sourdough That Ate Milwaukee—too much starter;
  2. Second, keeping the starter volume the same helps balance the pH;
  3. And third, keeping the volume down offers the yeast more food to eat each time you feed it; it's not fighting with quite so many other little yeast cells to get enough to eat.

Also, you don't have to discard it if you don't want to; you can give it to a friend, or use it to bake. There are quite a few recipes on our site using “discard” starter, including sourdough pizza crust, sourdough pretzels, and waffles.

Can I make starter faster? Can I modify the time line to suit my schedule?

No, you can't hurry sourdough. Creating and maintaining a starter is a slow process, and speeding it up will result in an inferior product.

Can you modify it to suit your schedule? Well, you can certainly modify your bread recipes; most yeast bread doughs are happy to rest in the refrigerator for several hours or even overnight, if you can't get to them when they're ready.

As for modifying the time line for creating/feeding your starter: it depends on what you want to do. Your best bet is to experiment; build your starter to a healthy level, then remove some, and see how feeding it on a different schedule—one that fits into YOUR schedule—works out. If it doesn't work, you've still got healthy starter in the crock to build up and experiment with again.