The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Starting a starter in the frigid north?

CeraMom's picture

Starting a starter in the frigid north?

I'm thinking of attempting a sourdough starter, but was wondering if it would even be worthwhile. It hasn't been above frozen here in quite some time ( I'm in Northern Canada ) and it has been down as cold as -46* C! Any thought on whether this will be a fruitless pursuit? I'm not sure I'm ready to have batter going bad on my counter if nothing will happen!


Sarah K.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

As long as it's not so cold inside you should be able to manage it.   You could even carry a small amount around with you in a zip lock bag in your pocket if your room temps are below  70°F and you can't find a warm spot.  Use organic rye if you can, it expands much less than wheat. 


Ottilie's picture

Hi Sarah,

I'm in Edmonton, Alberta, and I've currently got a thriving sourdough starter on the go.  As long as your indoor temperature isn't too cold, you should be fine.  Ours is usually around 20C during the day and 17C at night, and I'm pretty sure that I started it last fall or winter, when it was also fairly cold out (though nothing in comparison with what we've had lately!). 

Once I've established my starter, I refrigerate it between baking days, and take it out (a day or two before I need it) to feed it up again at room temperature.

I've read stories of Eastern European immigrants keeping sourdough going through the Canadian winter when they were living in sod huts, so I think you will be fine, thanks to the miracles of central heating.

If your house is on the cooler side, you might want to look into trying a desem sour.  There are detailed instructions in the Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book, and I've always wanted to try it out - but I've never had a cool enough area to give it a whirl.

Good luck!


CeraMom's picture

How funny! I'm in Edmonton too! Can you believe we were the 2nd coldest place in the world that nasty snap?? I just worry yje air is yeasty beast free from the cold snap!

I keep our apartment at nearly 25*!

Ottilie's picture

It was so cold that the British newspapers even reported on it! 

Thank goodness it's warmed up!!!  I've always wondered whether the extreme dry air here would prevent yeasts from developing, but my sourdough here works way better than when I tried to start one in England.  Maybe because there aren't a lot of yeasts to compete with the natural yeasts in the flour? 

I started mine using rye flour and following the directions in Maggie Glezer's Blessing of Bread book (the directions are almost the same in her Artisan Baking book too), and it's been very successful.  My ex-husband had good luck cultivating one in Lethbridge, even though it's one of the driest places I've been.

If you get really interested in breadmaking, check out the artisan bread class at NAIT.  It's 3 evenings long and well worth it!  Very inspiring.


LindyD's picture

Hi CeraMom....

Not to worry about your air possibly being yeast free.  

The wild yeast you seek are primarily found in the flour and will perk right up when they're released from their bondage of a dry sack and jump into a warm pool of water.

If your apartment is at 25C - that equates to  77F, which is a nice, toasty warm enviornment for a sourdough culture.

breadinquito's picture

I'm writing you from Quito, although we're at 2850 meters of altitude the lowest average outdoor temp is 8º centigrade, nevertheless, unless the  inside temp was lower than 17 I would have some probs with my 2 years old a few words: give your starter a warm place a good amount of flour and you'll get it back in the next loaf...Cheers Paolo

althetrainer's picture

I am in Calgary and it hasn't been very warm here these days.  Our house is cool but not cold and I don't have any problems maintaining my sourdough starter.  In fact, my starter is always very good.  If it looks a bit sluggish I just feed it, add a couple of raisins and leave it out overnight.  It usually picks up the next morning.  We all love SD here.  Al

PaddyL's picture

I've heard of making starters with grapes, but what do raisins do for starters?  I've got to get a new one going to replace the one I lost to the fruit flies last summer.  Our flat in Montreal is always on the cool side, but I don't have any problems getting a starter going.

althetrainer's picture

Paddy, I am not sure why but raisins seem to help my starter whenever it needs a boost.  I built my starter using grapes too.  It could be the sugar, but I can't say for sure. 

The last time I traveled with my starter it became very sluggish by the time I got to my destination.  It didn't smell like SD at all, just flour and water.  I thought it was dead. I was away from home and all I had were flour, water, and some raisins.  So I forced fed it a few times a day and put 4 raisins in with the starter.  In about 12 hours, the starter began to show signs of live.  The next morning it was all happy and bubbly.  I was relieved that I didn't have to start all over again.



Yumarama's picture

just put your starter near a table lamp in a draft free corner. Leave it on and that should generate enough warmth to make the surrounding area a few degrees warmer. Or maybe you have an electronic appliance that's on all the time (top of fridge, around the computer) that generates a bit of steady heat.

And you don't need to worry about the "yeast in the air" because all the yeast you need will already be on your flour. As  Mini points out, using organic rye is your best source of yeasty flour. You don't need much, you use it for the first three or four feeds only then switch to regular unbleached all purpose (see the instructions), so getting a half kilo from the local bulk store will be plenty.

Doc Tracy's picture
Doc Tracy

Try a cheap yoghurt maker to start your starter. It will keep it at 80deg.

Sean McFarlane's picture
Sean McFarlane

if it ehlps i was able to start a starter ina 50 degree F kitchen in five days!(detroit area) a few weaks ago.

ques2008's picture

it's cold here but my starter managed to survive, after 1 or 2 problems.  i heard about raisins!  and I also heard about the grapes method.

i decided to start with gaarp's tutorial (it's here on TFL under "tutorials) and i told myself if that didn't work, i'd go with Reinhart's pineapple solution.

if you want to make sure, try using warm water (but not too hot as that will kill the wild yeast in the flour).

mike owens's picture
mike owens

i thought i would give a go at a sour dough starter. it's supposed to be straight forward but i have had no luck with three attempts.  first attempt was hard white wheat i ground up three weeks prior to attempt.  mixed 3 1/2 Tbs flour w/ 1/4 cup water, on day two i fed it and it started getting active but then suddenly seperated into hooch and muck.  tossed it. try#2  3 1/2 T flour & 1/4 cup pineapple juice,  two days later i fed it, after 2 more days no change, added a little rye - no change, this is day five - no change.  try #3  3 1/2 T rye &1/4 cup water, on day 2 now but no signs of life. i will let it go another couple days.  any ideas?  i live in colorado, make yeasted bread all the time.  is wild yeast regioal or everywhere, i thought everywhere but i am getting nothing.  ideas welcome.  thanks, mike

Debra Wink's picture
Debra Wink

This time of year, it takes longer. Five or more days is typical. Keep feeding once a day. Sourdough requires patience  : )

LindyD's picture

Avery, that is.  He has a terrific sourdough site, including precise instructions with step-by-step photos.  You can see it here.

As you'll see from his site, he urges you to contact him personally if you have any problems following his steps.

Good luck.

mike owens's picture
mike owens

so it took about christmas day but now i have a couple questions.  i made a couple loaves with the no-knead method and i have noticed the consistancy is quite defferent when i scoop it out of the 1st bowl rise from the yeasted version, is this common?  also, i get a good 1st rise but after i fold the second is a little weak, any thoughts? and lastly,  1st 2 loaves with this method turned out pretty pretty good (except for the lack of rise) but last night it ended up very flat and it tasted horrble. any ideas?  thanks in advance, mike.