The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Starter refrigeration

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bnb's picture
bnb

Starter refrigeration

How long can a starter be fed and cultivated at room temperature? I see that a lot of people refrigerator their brand new active starters 3 - 4 days into the process. My starter has been active for about a week now and its been sitting at room temp with daily feedings. No signs of mold or any problem, very active. Is it high time that refrigerated it?

BNB.

 

dolfs's picture
dolfs


You can keep going at room temperature for as long as you wish, and this is what goes on in most bakeries. The principal benefit of refrigeration is for the home baker who does not use the starter every day to bake.

As long as you follow a process that includes a proper feeding schedule (time), and feeding ratio (determines flavor, schedule and ripeness), and proper hygiene (avoid contamination of the culture), you will be fine. Contamination is most likely in the early stages of creating a starter. Once the culture is established it actually creates some active resistance to outside organisms, but this is not an absolute protection, so clean your utensils and containers. 

If you do not wish to feed every day, bring your starter into the refrigerator. They key to that is to feed the starter and let it "go" for an hour or two before putting it in the fridge. My starter is normally on a 12 hour feeding schedule, but once in the fridge it can stay there for long times. I did not use mine since my pannetone adventure in late December (vacation and busy work), and took it out just a few days ago. Let it warm up and complete its growth cycle (for me that means approx another 12 hours) and then do 2-3 regular feedings before use or putting it back in cold storage. My starter has not lost much of its zeal for growth in those 2.5 months.

--dolf


See my My Bread Adventures in pictures

Mike Avery's picture
Mike Avery

Reading some people here, you'd think the goal was to get the starter into the fridge. "My starter has been going well for two days, so I'll refrigerate it now!"

Despite being a total sourdough fanatic, the only reason I put up with starters is because I want to make bread. Good bread. Sourdough bread.

 

It takes a while for a starter to mature. How long? It depends on who you talk to. Some people say a week. Others a month. Some say three months. Some say nine. That's when it is at room temperature and being fed regularly. I don't see that there is any reason to hurry the starter into the fridge, any more than than you'd want to put your kids into cryogenic storage.

 

I wouldn't even think about refrigerating a starter until it had passed the basic test. Has it made good bread for me? If it hasn't, I have no way of knowing if it's worth the space in the fridge that could be better dedicated to good beer than bad starter.

Now some comments on starter handling. I've been playing with sourdough for about 8 years now. I was a professional baker in a bakery that specialized in sourdough for one of those years, and I have been active in professional mailing lists and organizations.

The consensous is that starters at room temperature should be fed no less than twice a day. You can play with thicker starters, more massive feedings, and all sorts of other things, but starters at room temperature that are fed less than once a day have a habit of going astray, of declining, of becoming less active over time. Each feeding should be at least enough to double the size of the starter. So, to 1/2 cup of starter I'd add about 1/4 cup of water and 3/8 cup of flour. To 50 grams of starter, I'd add 25 grams of water and 25 grams of flour.

 

Once refrigerated, the starter can go some time between feedings. How long? It depends on lots of things. Like the starter. The refrigerator temperature. The thickness of the starter. How long before it was refrigerated the starter was last fed.

 

The strong bias at my web page, sourdoughhome.com, is to make sure the baker has a healthy starter when they start to make sourdough bread. I get lots of unhappy emails from people who don't follow my advice. One time the sourdough takes 2 hours to rise. The next, it's 16 hours and no rise. This leads to sourdough dropouts. So, I give really conservative advice. I want people to succeed, rather than leading them down the path towards how much starter abuse they can get away with and still make bread. All of which is to say, there are safetly margins in my suggestions. However, you explore them at your own risk.

 

In general, refrigeration does not preserve a starter, it just slows its death. The yeast and bacteria are still doing their thing. Slowly. Sooner or later, they will run out of food. Sooner or later, the acidity will get too high and that will kill the critters. It will just take longer in a refrigerator than at room temperature.

Before I refrigerate a starter, I make sure it can make good bread. Then I feed it until it can rise to at least double its size after it's fed. If it can't double its size, it isn't really healthy. If a starter keeps failing to thrive, I find feeding it three times a day, and enough to triple its size, will usually revitalize the starter. If the starter seems bland, let about 5% of the flour be whole wheat for a few feedings. (About 1 TBSP per cup of flour.)

 

Once the starter is rising to double its size between feedings, feed it one more time and immediately put it into the refrigerator. This assures you that the acidity of the starter is low and the starter has lots of food, both of which help the starter survive better.

 

How long can the starter stay in the fridge? I like to take the starter out once a week or so and feed it until it's happy and healthy. That said, I have left the starter in for considerably longer periods and it has always revived after a day or three.

 

Signs of starter distress:

1. Hooch forming on the top of the starter. Hooch is a clear liquid that has alcohol in it. This is a sure sign that the starter hasn't been fed in too long.

2. A liquid layer forming in the center of the starter. This is a sure sign the starter has been fed too much water and too little flour. 1 cup of water and 1 cup of flour (an often quoted ratio) is too little flour. Use equal parts - by weight - of flour and water.

3. Starter discoloration. If the starter turns gray, it's been too long since its been fed. Other colors can indicate more severe problems,and I'd discard a red, pink, blue, green or whatever starter and start over.

4. Mold. Sourdough starter actively resists mold. If mold grows on starter, that is a clear indication that things have really deteriorated in your starter. The best bet is to discard the starter, sterilize or discard the jar it was in and start over. If this was your great-grandmother's starter and you just have to save it, it can be done. Email me for instructions.

 

I am again conservative when it comes to using the refrigerated starter. I want the starter to be lively and healthy before I use it. I'll take a tablespoon or so of the refrigerated starter, mix it with 1/4 cup of water and 3/8 cup of flour. This high dilution reduces the acidity. 12 hours later, another 1/4 cup of water and 3/8 cup of flour. 12 hours alter, 1/2 cup of water and 3/4 cup of flour. 12 hours later, the starter should be very active. If you have enough starter, use it. If you don't have enough, feed it again. In a few feedings you will have commercial quantities of starter.

 

What about feeding the storage starter? I feed the starter the way I just described. When the starter is happy and healthy, I discard the starter in the fridge, clean out the bottle, feed the starter one more time and then put it into the freshly cleaned bottle and back into the fridge.

What about vacations? I just leave it in the fridge for vacations of two months or less.

 

Hope that helps,

Mike

 

dolfs's picture
dolfs

I wasn't going to put up as long an answer as you, but in my attempts to be relatively brief, I left some things out. Indeed, if you haven't baked good bread with a starter, don't bother trying to preserve (delay its death) it in the refrigerator. I also neglected to mention that my starter is a 50% hydration one, which means relatively stiff. I believe these "hold" better in the refrigerator than much higher hydration ones.

While I was submitting empirical proof that you can go for considerable periods in the fridge, it does not mean I advocate that. Normally I do not refrigerate, or if I do, I warm it up and feed it 3 times at least once a week. I do that same before I use it to bake with. But when you go on vacation, the longer hibernation seems to work.  But, most importantly to the original question: you do not have to refrigerate it at all! There is no benefit, except when you have no other choice. 


--dolf


See my My Bread Adventures in pictures

bnb's picture
bnb

Awesome! This is exactly the kind of information that I was looking for. Thanks Mike & dolfs.

itotallygaf's picture
itotallygaf

excellent reply.  concise, full on no-nonsence information and i 'specially liked the part about the starter taking up valuable space in the fridge that could be dedicated to good beer.  well said!

 

Nomadcruiser53's picture
Nomadcruiser53

Thanks for answering my questions before I asked them. Dave

petebert's picture
petebert

i kept my first starter on the counter for months, and only fed it once a week. I went away for a month and I think my wife forgot to feed it for about three weeks. It was winter so the house was about 68°.


I'm new to this so I'm not saying my way is right, it just worked and I'm curious why. It was a milk/flour starter, no water, occasional tablespoon of sugar. I never dumped anything out to feed, I just added more. I baked enough to not overflow the bowl with that method.


Before this post I never knew the hooch was a sign of lack of feeding. I had hooch in mine all the time, just stirred it back in. Was a delicous beer smelling starter that I kept for months until one day I used too much for pizza and couldnt get it going again.

xaipete's picture
xaipete

I left one starter in the fridge for several months. It only took a couple of days of 12 hours feeding (with some added rye) to get it back in its old shape.


I really think these things are pretty hard to kill even with substantial abuse and/or neglect once you have them going.


--Pamela

MSD1984's picture
MSD1984

Hi, I hope it's OK to revive an old thread?  I'm a total newbie so my apologies in advance ;-)

I made a WW starter, twice daily feedings, discarded half, feed, discard etc, for the first month.  I was thrilled when it made the best bread I've EVER made!    Having passed the did it make good bread test, I refrigerated it, in a  QT Ball jar with the lid on.   A week later I took it out to bake.  It had grey hooch.   I thought I remembered reading that was normal, so stirred it back in, fed three times 12hrs apart and baked.  The flavor was overly strong.  VERY different from the first bread I made with it.   I decided to keep it out of the fridge, fed it 2TBSP ww flour, 1 1/2 TBSP spring water and didn't discard any starter.  I was thinking to build up the starter over a week to have enough to bake on the weekend w/o wasteing ingredients.  It looks and smells fine.  Rose well.  It is crazy sour!  I add baking soda to sweeten the dough.  Did for the first loaves too.  The taste  of this bread lingers in the mouth quite a while. 

If grey hooch means it's been too long between feedings, did I just refrigerate it when it was too young?  Wait too long?  It was just a week and I keep reading that people keep starters for weeks in the fridge.   Is it normal for the flavor to get stronger like this?   I'm thinking of starting over and  not ever putting it in the fridge, getting it a nanny if nessesary for vaccations! 

dmsnyder's picture
dmsnyder

Hi, and welcome to TFL!

Hooch is an indication that the food supply in your starter has been exhausted. From your feeding routine, this is not surprising. Although there are many protocols for starter feeding, there is a general rule of thumb that you should at least double the weight of the starter being fed. And the longer between feedings, the more food (flour) the starter should be fed. You don't need to start over, but you do need to provide your starter with more nutrition.

Before suggesting a different routine that works, I am going to strongly suggest you stop thinking in terms of ingredient volumes (cups, teaspoons, etc.) and start measuring weights. A good digital scale is arguably the first and most important piece of equipment a bread baker should buy.  Okay. I've said that. The following suggestions all use weights rather than volumes.

I bake maybe once or twice a week, so, personally, I don't think feeding a starter every day makes sense. (Others may feel differently about this.) 

I keep my "mother starter" in the refrigerator. It is fed at a ratio of 1:2:4 (Starter:Water:Flour). When feeding the mother, I mix 50 g starter, 100 g water and 200 g flour to make 350 g total. This is refrigerated immediately after mixing. I refresh the mother every 2 to 3 weeks. The flour feeding is a mix of 70% AP, 20% WW and 10% Medium or whole rye.

When preparing to make bread, I generally refresh the starter as a liquid starter at a ratio of 20:50:50 (Mother starter:Water:Flour) using the same flour mix described above. This is fermented to peak activity at room temperature (generally about 12 hours). 

This refreshed liquid starter is then fed again according to the specific formula I am following. In other words, the degree of hydration, the flour mix, the ratio of levain:water:starter and the fermentation time and temperature are variable. 

Using this routine, my refrigerated starter never throws off hooch, even after a month withough being fed. 

This isn't the only way to do it, but any feeding routine that will work will use a much higher ratio of new flour to starter than you describe.

Happy baking!

David

MSD1984's picture
MSD1984

HI David,

Thank you for replying so quickly!   Wow, I feel like a neglectful parent!   You know, when I was first making the starter, I did use a scale.  Not sure now why I switched the measuring spoons/cups.  I'll go back to the scale from now on. 

So...once I get the poor thing fed properly again, will it still have this nasty taste or will it return to the lovely taste of that first batch?  More than anything, that is my biggest concern...well, right now anyway!  

I can see I have a lot to learn.  Thank you for being willing to teach!

Mary

 

 

 

 

MSD1984's picture
MSD1984

Hi again David,

 

I mix up a test of starter for in the fridge.  I followed your directions, 50g starter, 100g water, 200g flour.  I used 100% WW as it's what I have and prefer.  I had top...well, felt I had to add an additional 40g of water just to get it mixed and feel it was at least wet.  Is it due to the WW flour that it's so thick?  Should it be this thick? 

I have a starter on the counter and even after just a couple of feedings, it seems happier!  It smells much more like the original too. 

Thanks David,

Mary <><

 

dmsnyder's picture
dmsnyder

The starter for refrigerator storage is very firm. If you are using all WW, it is going to be even firmer. Whole grains absorb more water. So adding additional water is reasonable. For perspective, when I have finished mixing this starter, there is no dry flour left on the surface of the ball of starter, but the ball is only a bit tacky, not sticky.

I'm glad your starter responded to your feedings. That must be a relief to both of you. ;-)

David

MSD1984's picture
MSD1984

LOL!  It is a relief!  Thanks for your help.  I keep looking at the jar in the fridge, waiting for ...I'm not sure what, but watching it closely!   So, when I decide to use it, I rehydrate/start all of it and then make a new fridge culture after it's been fed?  I think I'll be spending a LOT of time here!

dmsnyder's picture
dmsnyder

The refrigerated starter probably shouldn't be used for about 3 days. If you keep it in a glass jar, you will see it slowly expand and develop bubbles throughout.

When I use the refrigerated starter, I generally go through 2 or 3 builds before mixing an active levain with the final bread dough. However, you can do it in one build. You don't use "all of it," just the amount you need to activate.

For example, your refrigerated starter is 350 g. Take 50 g of that and mix it with 100 g of water and 100 g of flour. Ferment this until there are lots of bubbles on the surface, and the surface looks kind of wrinkled. Those are the signs of a ripe liquid levain. (I usually make a liquid  levain build to activate my starter, even if I am going to be using a firm levain in the bread. That's because yeast multiplies faster in a more liquid environment.) This usually takes 8-12 hours, depending mostly on the kitchen temperature. I then use this activated starter to make the liquid or the firm starter (or some of each) I will be using to make bread(s).

The rest of the refrigerated starter goes back in the fridge. I renew it, as previously described, every 2 to 3 weeks, using an active starter.

Yesterday (Monday), for example, I baked two kinds of bread, a San Francisco-style Sourdough which uses a firm levain and a SFBI Miche which uses a liquid levain. I started these breads last Thursday - 5 days before baking - by activating my refrigerated starter. Eight hours later, I used that activated starter to make both a liquid levain and a firm levain, etc. I also used some of the activated starter to mix a fresh batch of starter to store in the refrigerator.

David