The Care and Feeding of Sourdough

May 22, 2016 • Posted in Baking by

We call the basic mix a starter, and starters may be saved and used for years, under proper care, by replenishment.


Replenishment means to return something to the depleted reserve of sourdough in order to restore the full amount you began with. If you started with three cups, you want to wind up with three cups after replenishment. What you return is a simple mix of flour and water, nothing more, unless you choose to use one of the sourdough starter powders that are sold by King Arthur Flour (see resources) as a supplement.

Replenishment may take place in one of four ways.

  1. Take a portion of the sponge or the dough you produce from a sourdough base out of the whole batch prior to salting and baking. Put that portion back into the original container with the remains of the starter. This will rise and subside over the course of the next day and may subsequently be refrigerated. If you plan to use the sourdough again soon, you may leave it out in a less brightly lit area of your kitchen. This is commonly known as the “old dough” or chef method.
  2. After you have removed a percentage of the sourdough to make your new bread, add flour and water in proportionate measure (about 2 cups flour for every one cup water) in order to bring the mixture back to its original amount. I normally keep 2 1/2 – 3 cups of starter in each of my containers so that I never deplete the entire stock; that way continuity is assured from one batch to the next, since you are using the remains of the previous mix with its peculiarly developed taste to create and enhance the next batch.
  3. This is merely a variation on step 2 and is for the sake of the new bread, not the sourdough starter. But I list it as a separate step.Replenish your sourdough while developing the first stage of the new dough. This also allows opportunity for an autolyse for the new dough. An autolyse is a time of activity at the beginning of the mixing process in which the flour and the water may intermingle completely, which enables the flour to hydrate and the gluten to relax. Autolyse makes for greater extensibility in your loaves. The period of autolyse makes for better kneading.To perform this step: mix a sponge for the new bread and set it aside (this allows time for the autolyse ). After you have set the sponge aside, take out two cups of the sourdough and put it in a separate small bowl.
    Then you may either:  a) directly replenish the sourdough with water and flour, or b) after the autolyse is ended, take two cups of that mixture and add it to the sourdough base as a replenishment.If you use option b, add half a cup of additional water and two more cups flour to your sponge prior to the autolyse. After the half hour of autolyse, take out and mix the correct amount of sponge into the sourdough that you set aside. Raymond Calvel, who suggests the use of this step, also suggests it for regular bread. You will also find this note under “the basics.”
  4. You may purchase starters from a number of sources (see the appendix) in order to start anew or to replenish your stock. The King Arthur Flour Company sells two types of powder starters, for example, one for pain de campagne and one labeled French sourdough. You use 1/4 tsp. for each mix of 2 cups flour and 1 cup water.

When you set your sourdough aside after whatever method you choose to replenish it, cover the sourdough with a clean cloth for 24 hours to gather wild yeast from the atmosphere before capping it with the regular lid. You can stretch the cloth over the mouth of the jar and batten it down with a rubber band around the top.

In any case, I encourage you to replenish the different cultures you develop in the same way each time you use them in order to maintain the consistent qualities of each culture.

I used to think that the secret to sourdough was in the starter that you used. That is why you can find web pages and addresses of places to contact that will sell you various sorts of starters. Truth to tell, however, no matter what starter you begin with, it will be altered over the course of time by the infusion of wild yeast (what friend Veterinarian Dennis Slade called “ambient yeast”) from your environment.

The longer you bake with natural leavens, however, the more you learn that the secret to sourdough is in the maintenance of consistent cultures.             

This means, first, that you will replenish your culture in the same way each time you use it. Use the same amount of water in ratio to the same amount of flour each time you replenish. Occasionally you may want to spike the mix with a small amount of malt extract or honey. This will add to the fermentation because these substances will add to CO2 and alcohol, whose properties fermentation relies upon.

Second, the rule is never add commercial yeast directly to the culture. We have said that commercial yeasts have their place, but it is not in the culture or cultures that you are maintaining. The specific type of yeast that grows in sourdough cultures is not the same as that which is purchased in commercial dried yeasts, and may in fact interact poorly with it, causing yeast cells in your homegrown culture to diminish and/or die. This rule does not apply to the use of commercial yeast with a portion of your culture in dough.  See elsewhere on that principle.

Third, the culture should be replenished on a regular basis. For me, “regular” means every other day. Some guides will tell you that it should be replenished daily; others will tell you that it doesn’t matter how often you do it. Perhaps I am being too scrupulous about the matter, but before I jumped into production baking, I would refrigerate cultures not being used after three or at most four days, and the culture I was using I replenished every three days. That is because I had a schedule of baking every three and a half days, which meant I used the culture twice a week. This works out well for the home baker in terms of timing and necessity. You may discover another pattern and I am only suggesting my own, but I do strongly urge you to be consistent in your replenishment of the culture, as with other aspects of its use.  One of my students, who has learned to excel at the use of sourdough (she began with a portion of my oldest culture) replenishes daily and gets great results on that regimen.

Lastly, since we know that the denser a mix the slower the rate of fermentation, you may wish to calculate the density of your culture on the basis of use. If you use the culture every other day, e.g., you can have a soupier mix than if you use it once a week.  


Starter can be stored in glass, ceramic, or plastic containers. Keep the starter loosely covered. If the containers have screw tops, do not screw them down tight. Allow a small gap for the mixture to breathe or else you may wake up to a shattered or cracked glass container.

By the way, when you mix the sourdough with other ingredients or when you are replenishing, do not use metal spoons.  Use wooden or plastic spoons or a rubber spatula. Sourdough does not like metal.


If your starter has been in refrigeration, you want to allow it the opportunity to return to room temperature (70 – 75°) before using it. This will take several hours in any season of the year. A slightly higher temperature of 85 – 90 degrees may assist the sourdough action when you are mixing it.

If you plan to use your starter on a regular basis every day or every other day, simply leave it in a warm place in the kitchen. If you do not use a starter that is sitting out within a week, refrigerate it. Other undesirable things begin to grow in it if you leave it out longer than that. The wild yeast in the air has been picked up in the first 24-48 hours after mixing.


Sourdough waffles are known in my house as “crunchy air.” They are much lighter than regular waffles because they are crisp and crunchy on the outside and tasty and hot on the inside. Their texture is incomparably superior to other waffles.

The waffle recipe:

  • 1 c sourdough starter
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 T sugar (or more, to taste)
  • 3 T oil
  • pinch salt
  • 1 t baking soda

Whisk the ingredients together in this order. Save the baking soda until the waffle iron is at baking temperature and you are ready to bake the waffles. The baking soda will blow up the mixture twice its original size, and in the process the color will change from deeper yellow to a whitish yellow. Use the mix immediately for best results. This recipe will make three large waffles.

For pancakes reduce the amount of oil to 2 tablespoons.

For biscuits, mix together:

  • 3 C starter
  • 2 C flour
  • 1 t salt
  • 2 T sugar
  • 1/2 t baking soda
  • 1/2 c melted butter

Add the butter to the starter. Mix in the dry ingredients. Turn onto a heavily floured board and knead lightly into a sticky dough. Roll or pat out the dough on a floured board to 1/2 inch thickness. Use a biscuit cutter or drinking glass to cut out the biscuits.

Dip each biscuit into a bowl containing a second 1/2 c of melted butter, coat it, then place it on a baking pan. Let the biscuits proof for 30 minutes, then bake them for 20-30 minutes in a preheated 375 degree oven. Serve them hot since they will harden when cool.

This recipe will produce 30 biscuits.

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