The Fresh Loaf

A Community of Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts.

Starter maintenance

Jeffrey Hamelman's picture
Jeffrey Hamelman

Starter maintenance

I was told that a FreshLoafer had asked about my method of sourdough maintenance. Now that my baking is done at home as needed, and not as daily production, my method might be pertinent to some FL bakers. 

During my first baking job, I worked for a German woman in Northampton, Massachusetts. We used a rye culture for all the breads--rye, whole wheat, white. Before leaving that job, I began a rye culture of my own, on August 28, 1980. It wasn't for another 12 or 15 years that I began maintaining a liquid levain culture along with the rye. The rye culture was the backbone of the bakery I owned, and over the years it has brought me to six continents. Both cultures were fed daily, as the healthiest cultures always are. And how good it feels to know that well over a million loaves of bread have been generated by the cultures.

These days I  bake once every week or two, and I only maintain the rye culture. I feed it daily. Here's how: 10 g ripe culture, 16 g water, 20 g whole rye flour. Pretty straightforward, right? However, I do make slight adjustments as the seasons come and go. For instance, this time of year--hot and humid in Vermont--I may start with just 7 or 8 grams of ripe culture to slow it down a bit. And I make it just slightly firmer during the hot months, as a firmer culture ripens more slowly than a looser one. And for that reason, I may increase the water weight by a gram or two in the winter to encourage full ripening  (I heat with wood, so the house is pretty cool by morning). Occasionally I'll use some of the discard for waffles, pancakes, or crackers, but most days I discard it. Into the compost it goes. I certainly don't consider this to be "waste," as I'm sure all those many millions of sourdough bugs are contributing in their own way to the metabolism of the compost. I simply consider that the discard is changing its "job description."

If I am making a bread that requires a wheat culture, I simply feed some of the discard with wheat for a day or two before building the final sourdough.

The sourdough is kept on my baking table 24/7. If I am going away, I give a normal feed, then refrigerate it after two hours. The principle is that the yeasts can get a bit of a head start before a lot of acidity develops, and once refrigerated, the majority of the rye flour is still available for them to feed on. I think the longest I've kept it refrigerated in this way is about three weeks. It returns to full health almost instantly. This method also works well with firm levain cultures (making the build slightly firmer before refrigeration is a good idea). If I maintained a liquid levain culture and was leaving for awhile, I'd simply make it into a firm levain first. 

I try to remember to dry some of the rye culture every year. I take maybe 10 grams of ripe culture and patiently rub it with roughly 100 g of whole rye. I put it into a square of cheesecloth or an old (clean!) cotton sock and leave it on my desk. I've successfully re-hydrated the culture after two-plus years of dormancy. I'm currently holding some dried culture back to see how it does after five years. It's a good idea for all bakers to keep some dried culture as a back-up, just in case. I also like to dry some as it preserves the culture's "DNA."

I guess if I decided to eat just one day a week and spend the majority of my life at 38F, I'd feed my culture just once a week too and refrigerate it the other days. However, I really enjoy seven days of nutritious eating each week. Although my trusty old rye culture doesn't speak English, it surely does communicate, and the message it sends is that it prefers daily meals too. 

DanAyo's picture

Thanks for posting your starter maintenance, Jeff. A TFL user, gavinc got me interested in trying your method. 

Most of the TFL bakers are used to refreshing once the starter peaks and just barely starts to recede. I have been unable to get any starter to go 24 hr using this criteria at room temp (~68-76F). Is your starter peaking way before 24 hr?

For years my starter was maintained at room temp by feeding it twice a day. Once would be more manageable than two for sure. 

gavinc's picture

Thanks, Jeffrey. I adopted your regimen after hearing you on ISO videos and it has given "new life" to my struggling sourdough starter. It is interesting that you adjust according to the seasons. Mine lives on the kitchen bench in Melbourne Australia and we have a wide temperature range in any 24 hour period. My rye culture has now lived through spring, summer, autumn and winter. I bake once or twice a week.

I appreciate your responding and giving clarity to our discussion. My wife didn't notice the missing cotton sock :)



Dan_In_Sydney's picture

Hi Jeffrey,

Thanks for the detailed description.

Three questions - if you would be so kind:

1. Looking at your feeding regime, do you bake with a tiny portion of starter (and therefore have a very long fermentation) or do you build a levain fresh for each bake. If so, what is your standard process for this?

2. Beyond convenience, is there a reason to feed only once a day? I note that you are adjusting quantities by +-10% or so as the weather changes, presumably in order to maintain the schedule rather than the feeding rates. I am led to believe that feeding your starter too frequently is undesirable as, like putting too much in your worm farm, the excess of food can invite undesirable invaders. Is the once-a-day feeding goal the ideal, if it can be managed? And, if so, what is the benefit in flavour or usability?

3. I've not seen that method for drying a starter - most I have seen use a purposefully wetter build to spread out on baking paper and then dry. Can you elaborate on the process of rubbing the starter with so much rye flour and what the benefit of this method is over spreading out a more liquid build to dry on baking paper?

Thanks again (and apologies for sneaking in the multi-pronged questions).


Jeffrey Hamelman's picture
Jeffrey Hamelman

Great questions, Dan-in-Sydney,

1. I usually mix roughly 3 kg of bread, with 20--35 percent of the total flour in the sourdough phase. And that rarely requires more than 40 g or so of mature culture for the sourdough build (10% to 15% of the flour weight). So the feeding weights I described yesterday work well. I just bulk up the morning build if I know I'll need more. Ripening takes about 16 hours, meaning I can make the build late afternoon and mix the next morning. 

2. Convenience and thrift are my motives for just building once per day. If I felt that the breads suffered from this regimen, I'd change things. But "la verité sort du four" as Calvel said--"the truth comes out of the oven"--and I find the loaves to be acceptable--good rise, good flavor, so I stick with this method. There are, of course, innumerable ways to work with our comparatively small set of ingredients, and by no means would I think that my method is "best." As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote "No worst, there is none." Well, in this world of bread baking, it's "No best, there is none." Or maybe, more accurately, there are lots of bests? Feeding too frequently certainly is bad, because each time we feed we are discarding a percentage of ripe micro-organisms, and if we feed too often (ie, before full or close to full ripening) we continually diminish the population of mature micro-organisms which will negatively impact the rising and the flavor.

3. I've not heard of making a rye culture wetter before drying it, although it's common with white flour cultures, and works fine. I suppose you could make rye wetter; it's something I've not tried. I was taught the drying method and have not tried any other. If you do it that way, it is important that there aren't any moist bits of starter, as they might mold. I take my time and keep rubbing in the flour until everything is dry and mealy. If a liquid levain culture has to be refrigerated when one is going away, making it a firm levain works well (my friend James MacGuire in Montreal has left his white culture for six weeks under refrigeration with no ill effects). For long-term back up storage of a white culture, making it wet firs (100% hydration minimum) is the best method. Thanks.

Dan_In_Sydney's picture

Many thanks for the explanations.

My biggest take-away from your post is that I will look to dry some of my starter for safe-keeping as, while he is not approaching his 41st birthday, as yours is, he has been with me for some 5 years now and is, by far, the most reliable, unassuming, easy-to-care-for organism I have ever owned and I am very attached to him.

I try to curb my tendencies towards sentimentalism but am unashamedly attached to my starter and, while he has survived every lapse and absent-minded mistreatment and rebounded without complaint, I would be quite distraught if I lost him.

I will take some time this week to dry a portion out for a long-term 'backup', though in truth I would still feel that I had failed in my duty of care and, however well it might perform should I need to call on it, it wouldn't be the same and I would likely give it a new name.

I think you need to be a little odd to bake bread.

phaz's picture

Nothing related toa starter, just a?

Jeffrey Hamelman - Vermont - Chester - Baba Louis by chance? 

Jeffrey Hamelman's picture
Jeffrey Hamelman

Hey phaz,

Yep, Baba à Louis is/was a Vermont bakery. Can't say that I ever had their bread, but it has been/was around for a number of years. 


phaz's picture

Someone was asking about that in another thread a little while back, something rang a bell!