The Fresh Loaf

A Community of Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts.

Fed vs unfed starter

GerryR's picture

Fed vs unfed starter

Is there a general rule about using a starter?  I recently made a sourdough bread recipe that called for "unfed" starter.  Simole enough, but I have seen other recipes that don't specify fed or unfed.  Unless otherwise stated do you normally use "fed" starter?

PaddyL's picture

I have used unfed starter in some breads, but mostly with added dry yeast.  Generally, sourdough bread needs a fed starter.

GerryR's picture


DavidEF's picture

There is a possibility that I'm wrong, but from what I've seen, it seems that most recipes prefer unfed starter. In order to understand what is going on, you need to establish what the terms mean. AFAIK, the terms are talking about the time-frame of the bread baking event, and comparing the starter to that. So, "fed" starter would be starter that was fed recently compared to when you begin making the bread recipe, and "unfed" starter would be starter that was due for feeding right before you begin making the bread. In other words, it is mature and active, and (almost) out of food.

With those definitions in mind, we can use some simple logic. Let's say I feed my starter 1:2:2 of Starter:Water:Flour, which I do. If I take 100g of this "fed" starter and try to use it to make bread, I'm only actually using 20g of starter, and 40g each of fresh flour and water. By contrast, if I use the starter right before feeding time, it is at the height of strength and vitality, and 100g of starter will actually be 100g of starter. Also, we usually don't think of it this way, but when I mix this with the ingredients for bread, I am actually feeding the starter. So, if I use 100g starter with 300g water and 500g flour to make bread, it can be looked at as a feeding of 1:3:5 and can be expected to act that way. Then also, if the starter is "fed", the result will actually be 20g starter, 340g water, 540g flour. That bread will take a huge amount of time to rise by comparison.

I think a mistake we sometimes make is assuming that "unfed" equates to "starved to death" but I've never seen it used that way except in conversations like this. In recipes that call for "unfed" starter, the assumption is that the starter is just off peak, ready for some more food, which the bread dough provides.

baybakin's picture

These term problems are difficult to work through.  I read "unfed" as "starved/spent" and "fed" as "active and ready to use"

more approporate could be "young" (only a few hours after feeding), "mature" (at the height of activity, just before it would fall), and "spent" (needs to be be fed before it can be used again, too acidic and does not contain enough activity to levian bread sucessfully)

dpnync's picture


Thanks for clarifying the point. It's been so long that I have read about fed starter I'm not really sure how much I should feed it by. I generally use a 5-step feeding cycle recommended by "Sourdough Lady" to regenerate small amount (2-3 Tbs) of left-over starter. After Feed #4, I normally have so much starter I use some for pancake breakfast so that I have enough (about 12 oz in my recipes) for break baking after doubling the starter in Feed #5.

At each feeding step, I wait for the starter to smell pungent (generally a whole day in the summer months) but before it smells of alcohol before I start the next feeding, so by the end of the 5 day my starter smells pungent. Although I used to feed it again and double the volume again ( which creates a problem with what to do with all that extra starter) and what for the starter to double in volume before I use in mixing my bread dough, I finally decided that mixing my bread dough is no different than one big feeding and started using unfed dough which is at its peak vitality (pungent). It's worked consistently for me.

When I have too much starter left (4-6 oz) after baking, I store it in my fridge.  After a week or so, I'd consider it unfed. When I need to use that, I take the starter out of the fridge and just go through Step 4 and Step 5 of my feeding cycle (taking about 2 days) to get the starter reading to use. Timing the feeding so that it reaches its peak vitality when I'm await to make the bread dough is always taxing. In cooler months, I will put my started in front of my heater vents to speed things up.

My starter is also at its peak volume when it smells pungent. If I leave it on the counter too long (by half-a day?), it shrinks, the pungent smell goes away, and it looks dead. In that case, I'd feed it (50% of its weight in dough & 50% water) again, then wait for it to smell pungent again. Actually, I don't always double the volume just to activate a starter that's a few hours past its prime. I have activated it with less dough and water (still 50-50 ratio). The bread generally comes out OK but it's not always as sour as I like.

My observations sure sounds very subjective but I wouldn't know when the starter is too acidic. Never tasted starter and wouldn't want to. Looks kind-a disgusting!

Even with forgetfulness and unexpected events, my baked bread rises satisfactorily 95% of the time. Timing things so the bread comes out smelling like good sourdough bread is still somewhere between 50% to 70%!