The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Timing for Refreshing Starter

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shakleford's picture

Timing for Refreshing Starter

Hello folks,

 This question isn't strictly about sourdoughs, but since it applies to starters, I thought that this would be the best place to put it.  I will be making my first attempt at a sourdough bread within the next few weeks, and have a question about the timing of the steps.  The below is based on the instructions in The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book and Peter Reinhardt's Whole Grain Breads (currently my entire cookbook collection), but hopefully anyone knowledgeable with general technique will be able to make sense of it.

In Whole Grain Breads, a small amount of the starter that you keep in the fridge (the "mother starter") is combined with additional flour and water to form a recipe-specific starter (the "wild yeast starter").  After at least 4-6 hours at room temperature, this starter is combined with the soaker and other ingredients to form the final dough.  The practice in Laurel's Kitchen is similar, although the terms are a bit more mixed.

My question is whether I should be refreshing the mother starter the day before I take out a small amount to make the recipe-specific starter.  Laurel's Kitchen seems to say no, while Whole Grain Breads seems to give conflicting information (due to my own misreading, I suspect).  I understand from reading on this site and elsewhere that you normally want an active, recently-refreshed starter when you're using it directly in the final dough, but is one needed when you're building it into a larger starter as an intermediate step?

This isn't a big deal; I'm just trying to plan out the feeding/baking schedule I'll use (overplanning is a serious problem for me).  Thanks for the help!


sphealey's picture

Personally, one feeding cycle before using the starter (the night before or early the morning of depending on the schedule) I discard 50% of my refrigerated starter and feed it with the appropriate flour/water mix.

My reasoning is thus: after a week (on average) in the refrigerator the mother starter is filled with dead starter byproducts. In reasonable amounts these byproducts create flavor, in excessive amounts the flavor might be, well, excessive. So I give it a 1:1 feeding to sweeten it up.

I have now read dozens of bread books and they all give different advice, but that seems to be about the average recommendation.


chez-jude's picture

I used Floyd's "When Yeasts Attack" sourdough starter recipe
and it has worked beautifully for me.

The day before I need it, I just take the starter out of the refrigerator, measure out 1 cup and toss the rest. Then I mix that cupful of starter with 1/2 cup water and 1 cup flour. I let it set at room temperature (which is between 65-68 in my house during the winter) and it's ready to go in the morning. I've been very pleased with the results.

bwraith's picture


Stored in the refrigerator, the starter culture goes into a dormant state and slowly dies off over time. Also, the organisms may not die off at the same rate. So, the culture becomes weaker and out of balance over time, the longer it remains in the refrigerator.

To bring the culture back to full vigor, you feed it serially at room temperature for a period of time. The amount of time and the number of feedings are dependent on several factors. The longer the starter has been stored in the refrigerator, the longer it will need to recover. At lower room temperatures, like 68F, more time will be required. The number of feedings depends on your feeding routine. If you feed at a lower ratio, like 1:1:1 of starter:water:flour by weight, then you will need to feed more frequently. At a higher ratio, like 1:4:5, feedings may be done only once every 12-24 hours at room temperature (closer to 12 hrs at 76F, closer to 24 hours at 68F).

Generally, you want the starter to go through an entire cycle before feeding. A cycle for a paste starter would be to rise by about 3 to 4 times original volume, peak and dip in the middle, and finally collapse. Feeding some time after it has peaked makes sense, but you can wait quite a while after that. The aroma should go from flour paste to a strong tangy smell over the time from first being fed until it has collapsed. At some point, after it has collapsed, the smells may be more like acetone or other "off smells". You should feed before the starter reaches that point, ideally, but starters will usually bounce back even if left sitting long after they've reached the feeding stage.

Roughly speaking, 12-24 hours at room temperature is required to fully recover from a week in the refrigerator, and 24-72 hours is required for longer periods in the refrigerator. These are very rough estimates, and many factors can affect your true mileage.

You can make good bread with starter before it has been fully refreshed, but it is ideal to bring the starter back to full activity at room temperature before using it in a bread recipe. It is important to the long term health and stability of your culture to bring your starter back to full vigor at least once in a while before storing it in the refrigerator.

To know when your starter is fully active, watch it's activity during the feeding cycle. If it is rising faster and shows more signs of activity (total rise, bubble quantity and size, and aroma) sooner than the last cycle, you should feed it again. After some number of feedings, you will notice the cycle is stable, and you won't observe the starter improving its level of activity during subsequent feeding cycles.

It is more difficult to gauge the activity level of a very thin, wet starter, since it won't rise much or at all, although it will foam and develop aroma. If you maintain a starter at a paste consistency, it will rise, and you can measure how much it rises in a given time or how long the starter takes to double or triple.

Once your starter has been fed enough times at room temperature to reach full activity and stability, then it can be returned to the refrigerator for storage. You can store the starter before that, but the culture won't be as strong or stable as it would be with a full cycle of refreshment.

For longer term storage in the refrigerator, it helps to thicken up your starter to a dough consistency.

You can use smaller amounts than are usually recommended in most books. For example, I typically maintain only about 50 grams of starter. I will take 5 grams of starter, and feed it with about 20 grams of water and 25 grams of flour each time I feed, feeding every 12-24 hours.


chez-jude's picture

Bill: What a beautifully informative explanation. Definitely will be printed and kept with my notes. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

shakleford's picture

Agreed - thank you to everyone who replied, but your post was especially informative Bill.  It may take me a few cycles to get the hang of the timing, but I'm looking forward to trying out your tips.