Maintaining a Sourdough Starter

Essentially, a sourdough starter contains a natural culture of yeast and lacto-bacteria colonies that need a regular food and water supply to survive and stay healthy. There are millions of yeast and lacto-bacteria cells in one teaspoon of ripe starter (i.e. a starter which has been fed and watered and allowed to ferment fully).

This is my refrigerated over-ripe sourdough starter with a layer of hooch on top. When I say over-ripe, I mean it's been in the fridge for about 5 days since its last feeding and it's past its peak of activity as the all food source has been used up.

Kept in the fridge, I'd say it has a 'life-cycle' of about 3-4 days, during which it grows, double in size, ripens, and then deflates. Ke
pt at room temperature, it has a life-cycle of about 8-24 hours.

To maintain the starter it needs refreshing or 'feeding'. I've stirred the hooch back into the starter and weighed out 10 gram
s of starter into a small bowl.

To the 10 grams of starter add 50 grams of bread flour (white will do, preferably unbleached and without flour improvers; I use Carr's Strong White Bread Flour) and 50 grams of water (bottled or filtered if your tap water is significantly chlorinated).

Mix well. Dispose of the remaining starter (or use it to bake a Sourdough Loaf) and wash out the container.

Scoop the starter into the jar and store at room temperature with daily feedings, or in the fridge if you do not bake with it regularly. Keep the lid loose.

Stored at room temperature, the starter should double in size in about 8-12 hours. The 10 grams of starter culture will have fed off the flour and water and fermented the mixture, resulting in about 100 grams of ripe starter full of active yeasts and bacteria and their by-products of fermentation.

Storing it in the fridge slows down the yeast cells which means you only need to refresh it every 3-5 days, possibly even just once a week.

It may take a little longer for a refrigerated starter to raise a loaf and it's advisable to feed and keep the starter at room temperature in advance of baking to get it fully active again. 

However, I've often used a 5 day over-ripe starter straight from the fridge to make the sponge for a loaf and it's worked well. Anything older than 5 days I'd refresh it and ripen it at room temperature before making the sponge with it.

If you refresh your starter using the above measurements (10 grams starter, 50 grams flour, 50 grams water) that's at a ratio of 1:5:5 (1 x starter to 5 x flour to 5 x water). I find this ratio works well.  If you wish to generate a larger quantity of starter, use the 1:5:5 ratio e.g. 20 grams starter:100 grams flour:100 grams water = approx 220 grams starter.

Having equal weights of water to flour means that the starter is a '100% hydration starter' and can be used in recipes that call for a 100% hydration starter. It is also known as a 'wet' starter. Halving the weight of water to flour, as in the ratio 1:5:2.5, would result in a 50% hydration starter, known also as a 'stiff' starter.

Day 2 After Feeding (Refrigerated)

Day 2 After Feeding (Refrigerated)
Day 3 After Feeding (Refrigerated)
Day 3 After Feeding (Refrigerated)
Day 4 After Feeding (Refrigerated)
Day 4 After Feeding (Refrigerated)

Starter on days 2, 3 and 4 after feeding (stored in fridge.) Shows peak of activity on day 3 = ripe starter.  Day 4 it is deflating and will need feeding.  A starter kept at room temperature would peak at 8-12 hours.

Use your sourdough starter to make a delicious artisan Sourdough Loaf.

Ask a dozen bakers how they look after their sourdough starter, you’ll probably get a baker’s dozen replies.

How do you care for yours? Maybe you’d like to comment about my method or tell about yours? Just click on the comments button at the bottom of this page.


  1. After a bit of a flop with the method from the River Cottage Bread Handbook (TBH probably my own fault for adding too much starter and no more flour to compensate), I'm giving your 100% hydration starter recipe a go, making the sponge over night tonight!
    I'd like to make an all spelt (except the starter probably) sourdough, after my boyfriend loved the £12 a loaf "Shepherds Loaf" spelt sourdough from Hobbs House Bakery (we only bought half a loaf though!). Do you know if you have to use more/less liquid to make a spelt loaf?

  2. Hi Debbie, thanks for your comment.

    Tom Herbert's Shepherd's Loaf looked fantastic on 'In Search of the Perfect Loaf'. I've yet to try it but it's got to be the world's most expensive loaf!

    On the few occasions I've made this Sourdough Loaf using spelt flour, I've only added about 50 grams of spelt, the rest being white flour, with 315 grams of water.

    Unrefined flours tend to soak up more water than refined white flour so wholemeal spelt may need a slightly higher hydration. I'd suggest just giving it a go using all spelt flour and 315 grams of water; this would make it about a 57% hydration loaf. If you find it's too dense when baked, for subsequent loaves either increase the water content to a max of 355 grams (65% hydration) or use a mix of spelt and white flour at around 57% hydration until you get the texture of loaf you prefer. (To work out a loaf's hydration divide the total water content by the total flour content.)

    Just to note, spelt flour can result in a slacker dough as its gluten isn't as strong as that of other bread flours and the loaf may spread more during final proving (particularly if free-form). However, it should have comparable oven-spring resulting in a well-formed loaf. Also, the crumb is likely to be more open due to the weaker gluten.

    Let me know how you get on!

  3. Well....using your recipe the texture and the flavour were much better (nice big holes), but it still went flop when I turned it out, in fact it spread so much it stuck to the side of the oven, although it still had good oven spring. I might have been better off doing two smaller loaves rather than one big one perhaps. I'm giving it a go again, using slightly less water today, see how that goes!

  4. Hi Debbie,

    Following your query, I've been doing a bit of research about spelt flour and sourdough baking and it appears it makes a much slacker dough than regular wheat flours due to its delicate gluten. High hydration is likely to accentuate the slackness of the dough, resulting in it spreading out of shape. Also, it appears that over-kneading and folding during fermentation can affect the dough's delicate structure, so handling is best kept to a minimum, say 5 minutes to work the dough and 1 fold during fermentation perhaps.

    I'm thinking it's a case of trial and error as to finding the optimum hydration for an all-spelt sourdough loaf. It is possible, Tom Herbert has obviously done it with his 100% spelt flour Shepherd's Loaf. Just to note, the Hobb's Bakery Shepherd's Loaf contains all white spelt flour, not wholegrain (see )... I recall Tom testing different flours in the 'In Search of the Perfect Loaf' TV programme, and he got the flour mill to refine the spelt. I guess white spelt must make a better loaf? It's worth comparing white against wholegrain spelt...

    ...I'm on a mission now to try and make a Shepherd's Loaf using all-spelt flour, white if I can get hold of it. I think Dove's Farm make a white spelt... I'll blog my findings.

    Let me know how you get on using less water...

  5. Do you know if starter can survive a spell in the freezer, and if so what if any effect does it have upon the final loaf ?

  6. Hi Vlodec

    Many thanks for your query about freezing a starter. A starter may be frozen to keep a back-up starter in case your regular starter dies.

    The starter is best made into a 'stiff' starter i.e. 50% hydration (1:5:2.5 ratio, e.g. 10 grams starter: 50 grams flour: 25 grams water) and frozen in teaspoon-sized scoops, placing the scoops on a baking tray and placing the tray flat in a freezer. When the scoops are frozen, peel them off the tray and place them in a freezer bag; they can be kept frozen for about 6 months, perhaps even up to a year.

    To reactivate the starter, place a scoop of frozen starter in a jar with 50 grams of luke warm water and leave it for about half an hour until the starter breaks up in the water on stirring. Then add 50 grams of bread flour and mix well. Cover and leave at room temperature...there should be signs of life after about 8 hours and it should double in size in about 24 hours (if not, stir and leave until double).

    When the starter has doubled, refresh using the 1:5:5 feeding ratio, i.e. 10 grams of the starter with 50 grams of water and 50 grams of bread flour. Repeat the refresh for a couple of days to build up strength in the starter.

    The starter should now be lively and active and ready to make a sponge with as normal....

  7. Thanks for your answer, now here's another query........

    I made a loaf following your instructions to the letter (I think)except that I used largely wholemeal bread flour instead of white, and it came out soggy in the middle (the crust was beautiful!). Was it the wholemeal that made the difference do you think, or did I likely trip up on something else ?

    It's true the dough didn't rise as much as I expected prior to baking.

  8. Hi Vlodec,

    Sounds like you needed a longer bake time. Make sure the oven is really hot before the loaf goes in. Bake for 15 min at 250 degrees centigrade (with a quick rotation of the loaf 180 degrees at 10 min to even browning), reduce the oven temp to 200 degrees and bake for 5 min, turn the oven off and bake for a further 5 min, leave the oven door ajar a bit and bake until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped underneath (about 10 min)...

    If you're using a gas oven, make sure it's really hot, bake for 15 min on gas mark 9 (with rotation at 10 min), reduce the temp to gas mark 6 and bake for 5 min, reduce the temp to gas mark 3 and bake until the loaf sounds hollow (about 15 min).

    ...Perhaps a longer proof time would have been of benefit too. A cold room can slow down the yeast, which isn't a problem but the dough will need a longer proof time, perhaps 4 to 8 hours until double in size. A long fermentation and proof will help to make a less dense wholemeal loaf...

  9. This recipe is for a 1kg loaf? It seems not.

  10. babaloo, the basic sourdough loaf recipe yields just a bit less than 1kg of dough and uses a 1kg-sized proving basket; granted, the loaf itself probably doesn't weigh 1kg when baked...

  11. Can the starter die if left in the fridge for more than 5 days?

  12. JW, I'm not sure exactly what is going on at biological level by about day 5, but essentially the starter is running out of food and the by-products of fermentation have built up making the culture's environment more and more unsuitable for health; the starter is not at it's best.

    However, I've managed to revive a starter after 7 days in the fridge and it's been alright after a few refreshes.

    I've read that a 'stiff' starter (i.e. refreshed 1:2.5:5 starter:water:flour) can survive longer in the fridge; one blogger had reported to have refreshed a stiff starter after 12 months in the fridge! Worth testing this out?!

    So perhaps after a duration without refreshing the starter just goes dormant rather than dies..??

    Anyhow, to keep a starter active, healthy and on peak form ready for baking I'd recommend refreshing it regularly, every 3-5 days when refrigerated. This is what has worked for me.

    P.S. for info, see the reply to Vlodec above about freezing the starter.


    1. I find my rye starter is perfectly fine for up to 10 days in the fridge. I also find that I get the best results using the German 3-stage refreshing method with each cycle at a lower temperature than the last: after taking it out of the fridge I refresh it and let it sit for the first cycle right next to a hot radiator for about 6-7 hours, then the next cycle at normal room temperature (living room table) for 6-8 hours, and the third,cool, cycle overnight in the kitchen. It is a lot of effort but gives excellently fluffy loaves even in the breadmaker (on a French program). As I understand it, the very warm cycle makes it sour, the warm cycle stimulates the yeasts, and the cool cycle balances the sour and the yeasty cultures. When time is short I still use at least two 8-hour refresher cycles at room temperature.

  13. Hi, I made my first starter 7 days ago. It hasnt come alive yet. Very little Bubbles, some hooch. No mold. Is this batch a dud? I dont want to start over but I dont want to waste more time and ingredients. Please help.

  14. Hi Malorey, it does take a few days for a starter to come to life from scratch, but if there's no sign of life by 7 days it may be worth starting again with a new batch.