How Often Should You Feed a Sourdough Starter?

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Jar of sourdough starter on table with loaf of bread and baking utensils.

Making a homemade sourdough starter is a fairly simple process, but it can also bring up some questions, and one of those questions is how often you need to feed your sourdough starter. It can be a bit tricky sometimes, though, to answer the question of how often you should feed your starter because it can vary depending on a couple of different factors. 

How often you need to feed your sourdough starter will depend on the climate in your home, your schedule, and the amount of baking you plan to do. And since I like to keep my sourdough starter process as simple and easy as possible, the question of “how often should you feed a sourdough starter” really translates for me to “how little can you get away with feeding it and have it still survive and work for baking?”

I’ve tried to find a balance between not having to feed my sourdough starter too often but also having it be active and ready to use for baking. In this post I’ll share the method I use for deciding how often to feed my sourdough starter and some tips for how to tell when it needs more frequent feedings.

Important Sourdough Starter Notes

First things first: If you’re interested in making your own sourdough starter and are looking for information on how to do that, this post has the process that I used to make my own homemade sourdough starter

And second: This information applies to a simple homemade sourdough starter with just flour and water like the sourdough method that I use. If you are using a different homemade yeast recipe that uses other ingredients than just flour and water than this information might not work for your sourdough starter. 

Another thing that’s important to note is that there’s a difference between how long you can go without feeding a starter and still have it survive and how often you should feed it to keep it active and ready to bake with. I haven’t ever experimented with how long I could neglect it and still have it stay alive and recover because I didn’t want to accidentally kill my starter! (If I ever did experiment with that I would make sure to use a second back-up starter.) A starter that’s barely hanging on to life won’t work very well at all, though, for baking, so it’s a good idea to keep it active enough that it’s ready to use when you need it. 

How Temperature Affects Your Sourdough Starter

Something you’ll probably notice when you’ve had a sourdough starter for a little while is how the temperature can affect how active your sourdough starter is and also how long or short of a time it takes for dough to rise. When it’s cold inside your home during the winter season, your sourdough starter will be less active and it will take longer for dough to rise. When I bake bread, for example, it takes several hours longer for the dough to rise in the winter than it does in the summer, so I plan that extra time into my baking schedule. 

During the winter season, I’ve found that I can get away with feeding my starter just a three times a week. (And I make sure that one of those feedings is the day before I plan to use the starter so that it’s active and ready to use. So, for example, I usually bake bread on Thursdays, so that means that I make sure I feed my starter on Tuesday so that it will be active and ready for me to prepare my dough on Wednesday evening to rise overnight so that I can bake the bread on Thursday morning.)

In the summer, though, when it’s warm inside the house, if I go too long between feedings then my starter can start to get a little funky smelling and deflate to the point where it’s lost a lot of its bubbles. And if you let it go too long between feedings than it can develop an unpleasant smell that I’ve heard people describe as being like nail polish remover. So I usually make sure to feed my starter four times a week in the summer to keep it fresh and active. 

And lately I’ve been tending to keep on feeding my starter four times a week anyways even in the winter because I’m used to that schedule and because it seems to help to keep it more active. But if I forget a feeding than it’s not a big deal and the starter will bounce back and recover the next time I feed it. 

How Your Baking Schedule Affects Your Sourdough Starter

Your baking schedule will have a big effect on how often you need to feed your sourdough starter too. If you only plan on using your starter a couple of times a month, for example, you won’t need to feed your starter nearly as often as you would if you wanted to bake a couple of times a week. 

If you want to bake with your starter regularly and have it ready to use for whenever you might decide you want to bake with it, I would recommend feeding your starter three or four times a week, depending on the weather. And, if possible, it’s best to try to schedule your feeding so that you feed it the day before you plan to use it. If you decide to bake with your starter last minute, though, keeping it active by feeding it three or four times a week should still allow you to use it even it you aren’t able to feed it the day before. (If that’s the case, though, it might help to use a bit more of the starter than you normally would if you’re worried that it might not be quite active enough.)

If you only want to use your starter occasionally and don’t want to have to keep feeding it, though, you can store your sourdough starter in the fridge. The cold temperature in the fridge will slow down the starter enough that you won’t have to keep feeding it. When you want to use it again for baking, though, you do have plan ahead a bit to get your starter ready to use again. 

To bring your sourdough starter out of its dormancy, you’ll need to take it out of the fridge and let it warm up to room temperature and then feed it, and then for the best results it’s good to feed it again the next day too. So if you wanted to use your starter on Wednesday, you would probably want to take it out of the fridge on Monday, let it warm up and feed it, and then feed it again on Tuesday so it will be ready to use on Wednesday. 

One of the main reasons why I don’t store my sourdough starter in the fridge (unless I’m going away on vacation or something like that) is because I don’t want to have to worry about remembering to take it out of the fridge in time for it to warm up and be active enough to bake with. I like the fact that I can bake with my starter at any time if I decide to and the fact that I don’t have to plan ahead quite as much before using it.

If you don’t bake with a sourdough starter very often, though, or if you want to save on the amount of flour you are using, then storing your starter in the fridge is a good way to minimize the amount of feedings you need to do. 

My Sourdough Starter Feeding Schedule

To help give an idea of what a sourdough feeding schedule might look like, this is the schedule I usually use to feed my starter. This schedule would be for a typical week where I’m planning on making sourdough bread and pancakes on Thursday. 

  • Sunday: Feed starter 
  • Monday: Let starter rest
  • Tuesday: Feed starter
  • Wednesday: Use starter to make bread dough and pancake batter and then feed starter
  • Thursday: Let starter rest
  • Friday: Feed starter (if it’s wintertime I sometimes skip this feeding)
  • Saturday: Let starter rest

To help save on the amount of flour you use, you can also give your starter smaller feedings on days when you aren’t planning to use the starter immediately. So, for my schedule, I give the biggest feeding on Tuesday so it will be ready and active for Wednesday, but I use smaller amounts of flour and water on the other days. (And I never actually measure the amount of flour I use either. I just aim for the consistency of a very thick pancake batter, so that I’m able to stir it but with difficulty. I probably use anywhere between a quarter of a cup to a third of a cup of flour depending on whether I’m doing a smaller feeding or a larger feeding, and I just add small amounts of water until it reaches the right consistency.)

Tips for Telling If Your Starter Needs to Be Fed More Often

If you’re wondering whether or not you should be feeding your sourdough starter more often or not, here are a few tips for looking at the appearance and the smell to tell when it needs more frequent feedings.

Your sourdough starter probably needs more frequent feedings if you notice any of these signs:

  • Your starter has a really sharp smell reminiscent of nail polish remover
  • Your starter is really thin and almost watery (happens more often in the summer)
  • Your starter has a hardened crust on the top (happens more often in the winter and you can skim off the crust and still feed the starter underneath.) 
  • Your starter has hardly any bubbles at all
  • Your starter isn’t working well to raise a loaf of bread

If you notice any of these things or a combination of them, then giving your starter more frequent feedings can help it to be healthier and more active. 

Other Sourdough Tips and Resources

If you’re interested in learning more about sourdough baking or are looking for some recipes, here are some of my other posts about sourdough yeast and baking:

Jar of sourdough starter on table with loaf of bread and baking utensils

 

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The information in this post is not to be taken as medical advice and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease.

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