Sourdough Starter Questons – Do I feed my starter before or after using it?

This was another question that was submitted about sourdough starters – related to a series of posts that happened in the winter of last year.  I’ve added some of the original posts if you are looking for more information.

I am storing my starter in the frig. I am using it about every 5 days.  When it comes time to use it in a recipe can I use it straight from the frig or do I have to feed it first, let it rest for a day out of the frig, and then use it?

I’ve done both.  Because I’m mostly using the starter for flavor in my no knead recipes rather than a leavening agent, I’m not sure it matters.  However, if your starter smells too strong, then I would feed it first to reduce the sour or ammonia smell and therefore taste of it.  Also, if you decide to use your starter for its rising properties, then I would feed it the night or morning before you use it.

Other posts on the same topic:

Sending out 100 year old sourdough starter

Sourdough starter – can you kill it?

Sourdough starter – can I use different flours in my starter?

And even more questions answered in these posts

Time to pull out the dutch ovens and get baking!

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Sourdough Starter Questions – What if I don’t have a Dutch oven?

What if I don't have a Dutch oven?  Can I use a Dru or other pot?  I have two suggestions for this one.  Yes, you can use a Dru or any other pot that has a lid and is around the correct size.  First, try using any oven proof pot with a lid (who cares if it has a long handle.)  It needs to be 3 1/2 to 5 inches tall and about 8 to 9 inches as the interior dimension.  Second, rather than buying a brand new pot, try adding a little less water to the dough so that it is more workable and doesn't require the support of the pot to keep it upright.  You'll need to experiment a bit with this one.  I'll work on it here too as several people have written to say they don't have Dutch ovens and I hate to send you to the store for a new pot if we can adjust the recipe enough to make it workable without a Dutch oven.

I couldn't get rid of small lumps when I added white flour.  Is that bad?  No, don't worry that much about them.  When I feed my starter, I just dump a cup of flour and a cup of water into the existing starter, firmly close the lid and shake well over the sink.  Any lumps are small enough to be absorbed into the starter in the resting/feeding period.  

You recommend storing the starter in a plastic container.  Can one use glass instead?  You can use glass, but you need to be SURE to crack the lid and not seal it tightly.  Guess how I know this? 

When I shake my starter at "feeding time," I always do it over the sink as it sometimes seeps around the edges of the lid because of the immediate pressure build up.  I then seat the lid again and store it.

My well-fed starter is in the fridge and has a narrow layer of water on top.  Should I worry?
No, this is just the by product of the yeast feeding on the starch of the flour.  It's normal.  It's also normal for it to smell more and more ammonia-like the longer you go between feedings.  This simply indicates that it's needing to be feed.  What I've found is that my starter is like the dog I had when we were growing up, it could always eat more.  That doesn't mean it always gets more.  I also have to say that there are times when my starter doesn't get even close to a regular feeding and has a big layer of thin liquid on the top.  After the yeast has eaten all of the starch in the flour, it just goes into a more dormant phase until its fed again.  Not ideal, but it happens for everyone who doesn't have their sourdough starter at the top of their daily "to do" list.

Keep the questions coming – I'll do my best to answer them all!

© 2009 Anne Mahle

Sourdough Starter Questions – Can I use starter in the bread machine?

A few more questions answered about sourdough…

What size Dutch oven do I need to use?
Mine are Piral Dutch ovens, terracotta pots imported from Italy, that were given to me as a gift when the first cookbook was published.  They are between 3 1/2 to 5 inches tall and 8 to 9 1/4 inches wide.  I know Mark Bittman uses Le Creuset pots.  It's also possible to use a sauce pan if it has a lid and is large enough to receive the dough.  It's not necessary to have top of the line pots, you just need one that is close to the right size and has an oven proof lid.

Can I use starter to make bread in the bread machine?
You can and in this case it would be more for adding flavor than for any levening properties.  Replace 7/8 cup of water in your recipe with one cup of sourdough.  This is an approximation and you'll need to see how your recipes respond. 

If my starter smells like ammonia or nail polish remover, is it bad?
No.  It's still good, this layer is just the "waste product," for lack of a better term, of the yeast eating the starch in the flour.  It does mean you could feed it a little more often if you chose to, but it's possible to have healthy sourdough that you only feed once a week. 


© 2009 Anne Mahle

Sending out 100 year old sourdough starter

When, in my most recent PPH column on no knead sourdough bread, I offered to send a bit of my 100 year old sourdough starter to anyone who wanted it, I had no idea the response would be so great!  Usually when I offer to send something to readers I get four or five requests.  This time?  Try over 130!

And then the trick of how to get that much starter going quickly was the least of the worries.  How to package it, mail it and get it all done without spending days on it?  The post office had enough priority mail boxes to send out 39 packages the first week.  We cleaned them right out.  And thankfully, the boxes that we ordered online arrived yesterday and now we can mail out the rest.  So far, packaging 1 cup of starter in a 2 cup plastic container with a lid, putting that into a ziplock and nesting it in newspaper sounds as if its working.  I haven’t heard from anyone that they received a Jaba the Hut mess in their mailbox.

The sourdough has been quite accommodating and has grown by leaps since the requests began coming in and it’s actually looking happier and healthier with all of this activity.  Of course, I’ve had to make some bread, pancakes and waffles with it, I just couldn’t resist.

If you asked for some sourdough, don’t fret, its coming!

UPDATED 6/15/10
Due to the overwhelming response of requests for this starter we can no longer offer it.  Thank you for your understanding.

© 2009 Anne Mahle

The Maine Ingredient – latest column

Wow.  What a response to this weeks column in the Portland Press Herald on No Knead Sourdough Breads! Biggest response to a column ever.  The three recipes include Rustic Sourdough Bread, Brown Rice and Flax Seed Bread and Maple, Oatmeal, Sourdough Bread.  I’ll make the same offer to readers of the blog that I did in the column.  If you’d like to try working with sourdough in your bread, just email me with your address and I’d be happy to send you some of mine. It’s 100 years old and was given to me by a guest on our windjammer.

I’ve been refining my own version of this technique for over a year now based on Mark Bittman’s article in the New York Times and the subsequent article that ran in Cook’s Illustrated.  Neither used sourdough and I’ve found it so easy to incorporate into what has become a solid producer of excellent quality bread with a thicky, crispy, golden crust and a moist, irregular-holed interior.

Space in the column didn’t allow for me to talk much about the care and feeding of a sourdough starter, and while it’s fairly simple, like everything, a few tips here and there to prevent major disasters is maybe helpful.  What is first and most important to remember about sourdough is that it is a living, growing organism.  For this reason, it’s most important to keep your culture in a loose lidded arrangement or a plastic container with a lid that can pop off.  If you store it in glass, the pressure will cause the glass to shatter and it is one unholy mess to clean up.

Because it is living, it needs to be feed.  It is forgiving and I think they regulate themselves to a certain degree as I notice mine changes from winter to summer.  In the summer I’m using and therefore feeding my starter almost every day and it’s fresh and lively all the time.  I don’t refrigerate it and even in the warm galley, it’s fine.  In the wintertime, however, I do refrigerate to dial down the activity.  I use it more sporadically and I notice that it’s overall just a little slower.  This is what I would suggest for most home cooks who will be baking at the most once or twice a week.

How to feed your starter is by using 1-2 cups in a recipe and replacing it with 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water.  It should be the consistency of pancake batter or a little thinner.  Shake it well and return it to the refrigerator.  You can make starter with any kind of flour, but I usually just use all purpose white, mostly for space reasons.

A happy starter is always slightly sour smelling and filled with bubbles.  One that is starving and not as happy has a sharper smell and has separated into a watery top layer and a thin bottom layer.  If this happens, it’s not dead, just feed it and maybe use less of it in a recipe as it’s going to give a stronger flavor.  Then bump up your feeding a little bit.  That’s it.  Also, if you find that once summer arrives and you aren’t baking bread for a few months, just freeze it.  It will come back to it’s lively self in the fall once you defrost and feed it.  I’ve had my starter for years now and its still going strong.

Many happy loaves to you all!

UPDATED 6/15/10
Due to the overwhelming response of requests for this starter we can no longer offer it free of charge. There is now a nominal charge of $10 for the starter and $5 for shipping. Thank you for your understanding.

© 2009 Anne Mahle