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How To Use A Sourdough Starter (Complete Guide)

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Do you want to make your own bread, but feel like the thought of yeast is intimidating? Or maybe you feel like sourdough is too complicated? Well, I have some solutions and encouragement for you! 

A sourdough starter is a simple way to make delicious, fluffy bread without using store-bought commercial yeast. 

All you need is flour, water, and some patience.

In this post, I’m showing you the best way to feed, maintain and bake using your sourdough starter. I’ll also share some tips and tricks for keeping it healthy and thriving. 

If you haven’t read my blog post on Why Sourdough Starter is Amazing, go check it out. There, I walk you through the basics of making your own sourdough starter. I also go way more in depth on this topic, and give visuals of my own process in my full course, Honest Sourdough.

For this post though, we’ll just be focusing on the care and use of your new starter.

sourdough starter in glass jar on counter

This post contains affiliate links, which means I may make a small commission at no extra cost to you. See my full disclosure here.

What do I do with sourdough starter? 

You’ve got your active sourdough starter…but now what? Trying to navigate the ins and outs of sourdough starter can feel intimidating. But we are going to go through everything one simple step at a time. 

I promise that you’ll get the hang of this and soon you’ll be maintaining and using your healthy sourdough starter like a pro. 

What should I keep my sourdough starter in?

Let’s start with some basics. Now that you have sourdough starter, you will always need to keep some of the starter in reserve. This means, when you go to make a recipe, you’ll want to feed your starter enough so that you’ll have extra, or a reserve, left over (more on that later!). 

You need to have a container in which to store your starter. I use the glass canister pictured above which I LOVE, but any container made of non-reactive material (such as glass or ceramic) will do. 

I do not recommend using plastic, as it can hold odors from previous use, and metal will react with the starter by changing its chemistry and/or flavor.

Your container should be large enough to store several cups of starter. 

Another benefit of a glass container is that it will be easier to see if it has doubled. You can even use a wet-erase marker, a rubber band or a piece of tape on the outside to mark the starter’s beginning point after feeding it so you can easily see that it has doubled. 

Where do I keep my starter?

Depending on how often you plan to use your starter, you can store it in the refrigerator or in a room temperature kitchen.

Because I use my starter so often, I keep it in my kitchen on the counter. You could also keep it in a cabinet or on top of the fridge. Some people store their starters in the oven, but I wouldn’t do this since oven temperatures can fluctuate. I’ve heard stories of people pre-heating their oven and forgetting to take their starter out. You don’t want that to happen! 

If you are baking with your starter once a week or less, you can slow-down the fermentation (and decrease how often you need to feed it) by storing it in the fridge. For best results, sourdough starter can be stored in the refrigerator in a container loosely covered with plastic wrap or a lid for up to 14 days between feedings. 

how to maintain a starter

Now let’s talk about maintenance. To keep your sourdough healthy (bubbly and fermented) you will need to maintain it by “feeding” the starter periodically. 

Each time you bake, you will feed your starter to get it bubbly and generate enough starter for both your recipe plus a reserve for future use. 

Even if you aren’t planning to bake you will need to feed your (non-refrigerated) sourdough every 12-24 hours to keep it active and healthy.

The fermentation process of sourdough starter stored in the refrigerator is slowed down dramatically by the cool temperatures, so it will only need to be fed every 14 days or before use. 

sourdough starter with flowers and flour behind

What to feed a sourdough starter

To feed your sourdough starter after it has been activated you simply need flour and water. 

You can use any kind of flour, but I typically use organic, unbleached all purpose flour. I believe this is the best flour for our family because it’s non-GMO and is also cheap and easy to find. You can also use rye flour, or whole wheat flour if you prefer. 

The ratio for feeding your starter is 1:1; this means equal parts of flour and water. 

If you have 2 ounces of starter, you will need to feed it with 2 ounces of flour and 2 ounces of water. 

How Do I Feed My Sourdough Starter? 

There are a few different methods for feeding your starter.  Some people prefer to use a kitchen scale for the most accurate measurements. If you choose this route, you will need a digital kitchen scale set to ounces or grams, along with a clean bowl and wooden spoon. 

  1. First, place the empty bowl on the scale and press the tare button so it goes to zero. 
  2. Next, pour starter into the bowl. You can either choose to use all of the starter or do a specific amount corresponding to your recipe (don’t forget to make extra for your reserve!). 
  3. Note the weight of your starter in the bowl (in ounces or grams). 
  4. Now, using the ratio of 1:1, add the same measurement (weight wise) of flour as the starter in your bowl. Then add the same measurement (weight wise) of lukewarm water as the starter in your bowl. 

For example, if I need 150 grams of starter for my recipe and I currently have 75 grams of starter, I would add 75 grams water and 75 grams flour to my starter, stir it and let the starter rest until it has doubled (this should take somewhere around 3-6 hours for mature starter). 

This should result in 225 grams of active starter. I would then use 150 grams of starter in my recipe, and have 75 grams of starter as my reserve for future baking. 

sourdough starter with small bubbles on top

my method for maintaining a sourdough starter

Personally, I just use cup measurements, and even with that, they’re usually rough estimates. So if I add 1 cup of flour to my starter, I also add about 1 cup of water. A note on this method though: water weighs slightly more than flour by volume, so if you follow this method your starter will eventually take on a thinner consistency. This is why I focus on making sure my starter stays the consistency of a very thick pancake batter.

No matter your method for feeding your starter, by weight or by cup, you will want to stir the starter into a paste consistency, cover it with a breathable cloth or a loose-fitting lid, and let it sit in a warm spot on your counter. 

If you are making classic sourdough bread or a recipe like my delicious Overnight Sourdough Cinnamon Rolls, you’ll want to wait until the newly fed starter has doubled in size before you start the recipe. 

How do I know if my sourdough starter is active?

An active starter means it has enough fermentation to make your baked goods rise. You can tell if your starter is active by: 

  • Testing: Some people test how active their starter is by dropping a spoonful in some water to see how fast the bubbles form or if the starter floats. This is called a sourdough float test. 
  • Smell: To check if your starter is healthy and good to use, you can test it by how it smells. A healthy starter should smell like mildly sour yogurt. I wouldn’t consider throwing out a starter unless it has a very strong rotting smell or is covered in mold.
  • Look: Active starter will be filled with bubbles, and once fed, will double within about four hours. 

Now, sometimes it may seem like your starter is in bad shape. You may well walk in the kitchen one day and notice that it has a watery brownish dark liquid on top (this is called hooch), or that it smells like alcohol or even stinky cheese. But just know that even in these conditions, you can still save and restore your starter back to a happy, bubbly state.

dough for rustic sourdough bread

What can I make with my sourdough starter?

Now we get to the best part of how to use our sourdough starter in recipes! You can use your starter just like you would use yeast when baking bread. Just simply add the amount of starter that matches how much flour the recipe is calling for. 

Let’s say you have a standard yeast bread recipe that calls for a packet of yeast. You could use 100g of sourdough starter to replace the packet, and it should work just fine. 

And of course, there are plenty of specific sourdough bread recipes available.

I typically use my starter to make rustic sourdough bread with whatever flours I have on hand at the moment. This way, our family gets a good dose of fiber from eating whole grain bread while also getting probiotics from my prized culture. Our family also really enjoys soft sourdough sandwich bread

I make much more than just bread, too! With an active starter, you can make English muffins, bagels, and more.

And if your starter is no longer active (meaning it’s ready for a feeding), you can still use the discard.

freshly baked loaf of sourdough bread

What is sourdough discard?

Sourdough discard is what you have left over after feeding a sourdough starter and placing some in your reserve for future use. 

For example, I need 1 cup of starter for my recipe. I feed my existing starter 1:1 (1 cup flour, 1 cup water), and let it rise until it doubled. Now I have 3 cups active starter). 

I use one cup for my recipe, put one cup of starter in my sourdough starter storage container as a reserve and then I have 1 cup of discard leftover to use. Again, this is just an example.

Discard can be used to make pancakes, sugar-free banana bread, and so much more.

There are many more uses for discard than I first realized when I got into sourdough. When I was just beginning to incorporate sourdough into my diet, it was hard to think of ways to use the discard and not just throw it away.

But after a little research and creativity, I’ve come up with a few of my own favorite discard recipes like sourdough skillet brownies, sourdough flatbread, mini-sourdough breakfast pizzas, and more.

Can I Keep a Smaller Starter so I Have Less Discard?

How much starter you keep on hand is a personal preference that also depends on how often you bake with your sourdough. But yes! You can keep a smaller starter so you have less to discard, it will just mean that you will need to ramp up the amount you feed your starter in anticipation of your using it in a recipe. 

I personally keep a larger amount of sourdough starter on hand. On any given day, I typically have at least one or two cups in my jar.

Some people maintain a small amount of starter, as little as 20 grams (approximately one rounded tablespoon) of sourdough starter. When they are preparing for a recipe, they will do a series of feedings to “build” their starter up to the appropriate amount plus have 20 grams left over in their reserve for future use. 

I find it easiest to maintain a bigger supply, but that’s because I bake using my sourdough several times a week. 

You can try both methods and decide which one works best for you and your family. 

dehydrated sourdough starter spilling out of glass jar

Sourdough doesn’t have to be hard

My best piece of advice for those of you starting your sourdough journey is, don’t be afraid! I think many people get overwhelmed with the thought of sourdough because they wrongly believe that they need to know a lot of science-y ratios and such. 

Baking with sourdough is actually very simple and forgiving. Once you have established starter, have fed it a few times and tried some delicious recipes, you’ll realize the whole process is quite enjoyable. 

In this post, I’ve taught you how to maintain a healthy sourdough starter using very simple instructions and step-by-step instructions. So grab some starter and start baking! And if you want, you can take a giant shortcut by purchasing dehydrated sourdough starter straight from my shop.

FREE Sourdough Discard Ebook

Did you know I have a totally FREE ebook full of my favorite sourdough discard recipes?! Time to put that starter to good use! Get it straight to your inbox by entering your email below.

Watch me rave about sourdough on YouTube:

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One Comment

  1. im so glad you’ve shared your love of jesus, not enough people do (im as bad as anyome else for that too!) god bless you in your endeavour to reach out! i found this site while searching for ways to use sourdough starter – ill be back 🙂