Your starter culture: a care guide

The starter culture is the crucial ingredient to sourdough. It’s also one of the biggest hurdles to getting started, but once you get the hang of it you’ll be well on your way on your baking journey.

I’ve written the below care guide to show anyone and everyone how to keep their starter culture alive, active and ready to produce amazing loaves at home. This includes feeding (yes, you read that correctly!), right the way through to preparing your starter culture to bake.

I haven’t included information on how to create one from scratch. If you’re curious I’m happy to answer any questions in the comments section!

When to feed your culture

As your starter culture is a literal ‘culture’ of lactobacilli it needs feeding to ensure it keeps living an producing delicious loaves. The flour and water effectively provides the right envovironment to keep it all going.

The activity of the starter culture is dependent on when it was last fed. These tend to be the phases in my experience:

  1. 0 hours since feeding: no bubbles.
  2. 3 hours in and a few bubbles will be appearing increasing in volume very slightly.
  3. 24 hours and the culture will have increased in size. When it appears to be at it’s peak (you’ll know after a few times of feeding), this will be the best point to use it to create a leaven, as this is when it’s at it’s most active).
  4. After that the starter will start to breakdown as there is a build up of acid and the bacteria starts to die. If it gets to this stage don’t worry, you can just pour off the liquid and feed again.

If you store your culture in the fridge, this timeline will be extended over a few days to a week due to the lower activity at lower temperatures.

Even if you forget for a couple of weeks you should be fine refreshing the starter culture. It will take a few feeds to recover, as they tend to be quite resilient!

Feeding your culture

Ingredients

100g Water

50g Wholemeal flour

50g Strong white bread flour

Steps

  1.  Make sure there is enough room in the jar/container. If you don’t either throw some away or, if the timing is right, create a leaven for your next bake(see next section).
  2. Add the ingredients and mix in.
  3. That’s it, you’re done!

Of course if you have some spare starter or leaven you can always make sourdough pancakes with just a bit more flour, eggs, milk, sugar, a pinch of salt and vanilla extract.

Preparing to bake (creating a leaven).

Now you may be wondering what the devil this leaven is – and rightly so. Leaven is effectively the rising agent for sourdough. It’s a bulk  quantity of starter culture that you mix the night before when you’re about to bake. It is often made separate from the original starter culture as it’s just for your next bake and you want to ensure you have some of the original starter culture spare for the future.

As an example, if your recipe requires 75g of leaven, you would just add 50g of water, 25g of wholemeal and 25g of strong white bread flour with a few large spoonfuls of your starter culture – so then you have enough left over for future bakes. If you then leave this to ferment over 24 hours at room temperature you’ll have your leaven (I tend to create the leaven the night before)!

Leaven is derived from the Latin, levamen, which translates as means of raising. You may also hear it referred to as leaving. It’s all the same really.

Storing your starter

At room temperature: depending on the time of year and the temperature your starter culture will need to be fed every 24-36 hours.

In the fridge: for more infrequent baking this is the way to go. Storing your starter at the back of the fridge slows the activity of the starter culture  and means you can leave it about a week or two between feeds (although I recommend daily checks).

If you’re going away, just use/throw away all but a spoonful of your starter culture, add 100g of the flour and water mix and store in the fridge. This will give buy you some time until you come back.

Reviving your culture

If you’ve been away for a while then chances are your culture hasn’t had much attention. Not to worry, all it takes is a bit of tender love and care and a few regular feeds.

Types of flour

Wholemeal flour: wholemeal is that bit more active and really exentuates The sourness of the sourdough.

Strong white bread flour: by mixing this less active flour 50:50 with wholemeal it hits the sweet spot of sourdough.

Rye flour: I haven’t experimented a lot with rye flour in my starter. As rye flour is lower in gluten it tends to be easier to maintain and you can go longer periods between feeds.  It also has that slightly darker and nuttier rye flavour that’s so time-tested and popular.

Bonus

Gluten-free culture: rice flour makes an excellent gluten-free substitute. With the same method and flour water proportions you can keep your gluten-free starter alive and bake some seriously good GF loaves.

For further reading The Perfect Loaf has an excellent article on maintaining your starter culture: https://www.theperfectloaf.com/sourdough-starter-maintenance-routine/

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