Here at King Arthur Flour's Baker's Hotline we hear a common lament from frugal sourdough bakers:
“Why do I have to throw out so much sourdough starter every time I feed it? Isn’t there a way to avoid all this waste?”
The stumbling block for some bakers is that our tried and true maintenance routine requires discarding a full cup (227g, 8 ounces) of starter each time you do a feeding and aren't planning to bake. That's why we've devised so many great recipes that utilize sourdough starter discard.
Many sourdough bakers have established a routine that allows their starter regular feedings while putting their discard to good use. If you’ve found a good groove for feeding and maintaining your starter that gives you great results and creates little waste, this blog post may not be for you.
But if you're drowning in discard and wondering why you couldn't just maintain less starter, read on!
Maintaining a smaller sourdough starter — why didn't we think of this before?
To be honest, we weren't sure how low it was safe to go.
Our sourdough maintenance routine evolved out of the artisan baking world, where bakers have nurtured sourdough cultures and produced beautiful and flavorful naturally leavened breads for centuries. Their traditional methods work.
Professional sourdough bakers tend to be leery of extended sourdough starter refrigeration, and rarely have to worry about discard or the viability of tiny amounts of starter.
In production baking the starter is primarily kept at room temperature and nourished through a course of feedings that build the starter to the amount needed for baking, with enough left over to feed and begin the process all over again.
This system works great if you're baking daily and using a lot of starter.
Of course, that's not the way most of us bake sourdough at home.
A scientific perspective on starter maintenance
I was recently lucky enough to take a sourdough class here at King Arthur Flour with guest instructor Debra Wink. She's an accomplished microbiologist and devoted baker who's combined two passions by turning her microscope to the world of sourdough starters.
As a scientist and home baker, Wink was able to provide some really helpful insight when it comes to maintaining a smaller sourdough starter.
From her own research and hands-on experience, Wink has concluded that refrigeration isn't likely to cause any permanent harm to your sourdough starter.
In fact, Wink revealed that she regularly refrigerates her starters and maintains them at just two ounces, rather than the more normal 12 or so ounces.
What, only two ounces?
If you’re like me, your sourdough brain may be feeling just a little blown.
How well does it work?
As soon as I heard "two ounces," I went home and reduced the size of all six of my sourdough starters. (And if you're wondering why on earth anyone needs six different starters — you're right, there's no good reason.)
They did come in handy this time, though! I was able to test the smaller starter method on a variety of starters: liquid, stiff, rye, whole wheat, and even two different gluten-free starters.
Conclusion: I've been maintaining reduced versions of my starters for a few months now and everyone is happy and healthy.
And, believe me, I was overjoyed to discover that my starters could thrive on this reduced maintenance routine!
How to maintain a smaller sourdough starter
Note: For step-by-step directions in easily printable format, check out our recipe for maintaining a Smaller Sourdough Starter.
We’re going to keep the same ratio of ingredients as our regular liquid starter: equal parts by weight of starter, flour, and water. All we're doing is reducing each component to a much smaller quantity. For this method, a digital scale really, really comes in handy.
I can give you rough estimates for measuring by volume, but working with tablespoons of starter is messy and not very precise. So, take all that money you'll be saving in discarded flour and consider adding a scale to your baking toolbox.
Two ounces is equal to 57g, but for simpler calculations I've rounded up to 60g. Not only will a scale make this process easier, but working in grams makes much more sense when working with such small quantities.
For 60g of starter:
Save 20g (1 heaping tablespoon) starter and feed it 20g (4 teaspoons) water and 20g (2 tablespoons) flour.
Tools for maintaining a smaller sourdough starter
If you decide to maintain a smaller sourdough starter, downsizing your tools can make the process much easier. Our regular sourdough crock is just too big for this little guy.
For our smaller starter you'll need an 8-ounce canning jar or similar sized container. This jar will only be used for maintenance feedings. Be sure your jar has a wide mouth to make stirring easy.
Two identical jars can make the feeding process even easier. If you're weighing your ingredients you can tare the empty jar. If you're measuring by volume it will be easier to transfer the heaping tablespoon of starter to the clean jar.
You'll also need a larger container or bowl when it comes time to build the amount of starter you have in preparation for baking. Our sourdough crock could come in handy here, but I'd be wary of building more than 454g (16 ounces) of starter in this crock.
Mini spatulas and a mini-scoop can also make the feeding routine a lot easier.
Feedings become builds
While refrigeration may not harm your sourdough starter, it doesn't provide the necessary environment or nourishment to keep bacteria and yeast populations at optimal levels for baking.
If you're accustomed to storing your starter in the refrigerator and feeding weekly, then you know it's helpful to take your starter out of the refrigerator a day or two before you plan to bake and start feeding it twice daily at room temperature. These revival feedings at room temperature help bring your starter back to full vitality.
When maintaining our regular 12 ounces of starter, two or three such revival feedings can generate as much as 567g (20 ounces) of discard.
The real beauty of maintaining a smaller sourdough starter is that the revival feedings that are necessary after refrigeration are integrated into building the quantity of starter, with little or no discard generated along the way.
Making bread with three feedings/builds:
Say you want to make our Naturally Leavened Sourdough Bread recipe on Saturday. This recipe calls for a daunting 454g (16 ounces) of ripe sourdough starter.
Thursday night you'll take your 60g of starter out of the refrigerator and give it a normal feeding:
20g starter + 20g water + 20g flour = 60g starter (40g of starter are discarded).
Friday morning, rather than discarding, you'll begin building the quantity of your starter. You'll save all 60g and feed it with equal parts flour and water:
60g starter + 60g water + 60g flour = 180g starter (still not enough for the recipe, but getting there).
Friday evening, you'll do the last feed/build before baking on Saturday morning:
180g starter + 180g water + 180g flour = 540g starter.
Saturday morning you'll have enough starter for the recipe (454g), plus 86g left over. You'll need 20g of that 86g remaining starter to feed and perpetuate.
This means you're only generating 66g of discard with this last build.
If you include the 40g of discard from the first feeding, the total discard generated is only 106g (less than 1/2 cup).
And how does the bread turn out when you use this method? Pretty darn nice.
How many feedings/builds are necessary?
Of course there are various ways you can accomplish these builds, incorporating more or fewer feedings into the building process.
Keep in mind, if your starter has been stored in the refrigerator for several weeks or longer it's going to need more than just a few feedings to bring it back to full vitality before baking. For more on this, see our tips for reviving a neglected starter.
More room-temperature (70°F) feedings will lead to a more active starter, which will perform better in your baking. In particular, more feedings will contribute to a better rise.
But what if you only have time for two feedings/builds before baking the bread recipe above? How do we get from 60g starter to 540g in two builds? And how will fewer feeding/builds affect our results?
Take your starter out of the fridge and begin building immediately, with no discard:
60g starter + 60g water + 60g flour = 180g starter
Again no need to discard as we continue to build the quantity of starter:
180g starter + 180g water +180g flour = 540g starter
You'll need 454g starter for the recipe and 20g to feed, leaving only 66g (about 1/4 cup) to discard!
But will our results suffer with only two feedings/builds?
Surprisingly, the results are just as nice as the bread that got three feedings/builds.
The results are even more surprising when I test our Pain Au Levain recipe with only one feeding prior to the overnight levain. Hardly the lackluster loaf I was expecting!
If more feedings lead to better rising bread, why don't my results bear this out?
- An unintended effect of testing was that my starter got a lot more overall room-temperature feedings. I was feeding and baking over a two- to three-day period, refrigerating my starter for three to four days, and then feeding and baking again. My busy baking routine no doubt contributed to how quickly my starter rebounded after refrigeration. This helps explain my successful results, even with fewer feedings/builds immediately prior to baking.
- In the case of the Pain Au Levain recipe, the overnight levain provides a built-in feeding/build. Even though I only fed my starter once before adding it to the recipe, it really got two feedings/builds.
Takeaway: A few midweek room-temperature feedings may help improve the vitality of your starter, allowing it to recharge more quickly later in the week.
Tips for maintaining a smaller sourdough starter:
- The beauty of the smaller starter method is that post-refrigeration revival feedings are combined with starter building, creating little or no starter discard.
- You'll need two 8-ounce wide-mouth jars, and tools that fit easily in them. A scale will also make this process much easier and more accurate.
- Because you're creating so much less waste each time you feed your starter, take this as an invitation to feed more often. The more room-temperature (70°F) feedings you can give your starter, the more active it will be, and the better it will perform in your baking.
- A smaller starter leaves less margin for error. When planning your feeding/build schedule be sure to include some padding in the numbers to guard against spillage.
- A smaller starter will respond faster to temperature changes. Allow your starter at least four hours at room temperature after feeding and before refrigeration. This will ensure that fermentation has progressed sufficiently before your starter cools down and becomes dormant in the refrigerator.
Reducing the amount of starter you maintain can really revolutionize your sourdough baking routine. We're sure you'll have lots of questions, so please don't hesitate to ask them below! And if you've already taken the leap to a smaller starter, we'd love to hear about your experiences and results!
If you've ever wondered why discarding is a necessary part of maintaining a healthy sourdough starter, our new Sourdough Baking Guide has the answer for you, along with lots of other great sourdough information.
If you're a new sourdough baker, this guide offers spectacular step-by-step visuals to lead you through creating a starter and baking your first loaf of naturally leavened bread.
Many thanks to Debra Wink for inspiring us to try maintaining a smaller sourdough starter.