Happy Birthday to Mildred The Sourdough Starter (or how not to kill your sourdough starter)

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There was a big birthday in the house this week. Mildred, our beloved sourdough starter, turned 5 years old!! She is our oldest starter to date - having killed at least two previous incarnations in the years prior. In fact, we almost lost ol’ Millie earlier this year, when I contaminated her with some Kombucha starter and left her on her own for a couple of weeks.

Baking 2+ loaves of bread a day to feed a busy household certainly helps maintain Mildred’s activity levels, but more than that, I have learned that starters are a lot more forgiving than they seem. In fact, they are pretty hard to kill and if you do, it is equally easy to start again. So, 5 years on (and a couple of failed starts before that) here are my top tips for keeping that starter in tip top shape.

  1. Feed it regularly, but find a schedule that works for you. Bakeries like Tartine are feeding their starters 4+ times a day. You don’t need to be that disciplined but feeding your starter at a regular interval helps keep it going and helps you get into a routine with it. Ours is fed every night when I make the next day’s batch of bread. It then sits on the counter until we need it the next evening. While its true that starters are at their peak about 4-6 hours after feeding, if you don’t have time to feed it 4-6 hours before you make your bread, don’t sweat it. A good active starter can be left longer than that and still make beautiful bread.

  2. Think outside the bread box. It can feel overwhelming to make bread every day or every couple of days or it can feel wasteful to throw away part of your starter when you feed it. The good news is starter can be used for many things like pie crust, pizza base, scones and even cake. Search “sourdough discard recipes”. These sourdough english muffins are some of our favourites.

  3. Store it in the refrigerator. If you aren’t baking every day, store your starter in the fridge. It slows down fermentation and extends the life of your starter between feedings. Try to remember to take it out and feed it at least 12 hours beforehand or if you forget, build a levain (see below)

  4. Build a levain. One way to get a more active starter or to build up your starter amount if you only keep a small bit is to use a step called building a levain. You simple build a separate starter about 4-6 hours before you bake, using a small amount of your starter and flour and water. For example, if my recipe calls for 200g of starter, I might add 50g of a sluggish starter and 75g each of flour and water to build a levain of that 200g of starter I need.

  5. Use only a small amount of starter. Some of the most active starters you can use are ones that have been created with a small amount of starter and then flour and water. When I say small, I mean the scrapings of the jar small. This is a great way as well to recolonise a starter that is looking a bit off. Throw most of it out, then add 100g each of water and flour and see what grows back. In all likelihood your starter will reinvigorate.

  6. Give it a good stir. Yeast loves oxygen, so if you are seeing a lot of liquid build up on top without many bubbles before that, give it all a really good stir when you mix in your flour and water. I know some people who whip their starters with a whisk.