Sourdough: Preparing the Culture for Baking

Most of us get started using a sourdough culture with the notion that we want delicious, crusty, tangy loaves. Sure, we can make a host of other baked goods, but the daily or weekly loaf-baking is the grand prize.

In order to use the sourdough culture as a wild yeast leaven, we must prepare it to do so. Unlike pancakes in which we use the chemical reaction between baking soda and the acidic sourdough for leavening, yeast-risen sourdough is entirely dependent on the health of the microorganism population of the culture in order to rise.

Which means we want an active, bubbly starter that is ready to leaven our bread. Now, I am generally an eye-baller when it comes to kitchen work, but in baking I try to stick within the guidelines so that I don’t end up with an utter disaster.

And in preparing the culture for baking, there are some tips that, when followed, will help you create a happy, active, bubbly starter ready for baking.

In the last post on sourdough we mentioned discarding all but 1/2 cup of the starter, feeding it, and allowing it to proof. Let’s continue on from there.

1. Determine How Much Starter You Need

Most sourdough bread recipes will require 2-4 cups of sourdough starter, depending on the type of bread and the size of the number of loaves you are baking. So, if you continue to dump all but 1/2 cup of sourdough starter into the compost or a batch of pancakes, you’d be hard-pressed to have enough starter to bake with.

So, first determine how much starter you will need for your baking session. Add 1/2 cup or so in order to set it aside to continue the perpetuation of the starter, and you have an end volume in mind. Let’s say your recipe calls for 3 cups of starter. Our end volume then needs to be at least 3 1/2 cups of starter.

2. Begin Feeding for Baking

Start as you would any other feeding. If you prefer to discard all but 1/2 cup of starter then start with 1/2 cup. If, however, you have recently fed your starter and it is in good health then start with whatever amount was left after the last feeding, and focus on feeding it well and frequently enough to prepare it for work.

Just remember that you’ll be feeding it until it is very active, which means you might end up with more starter than you bargained for if you start with more than 1/2 cup, due to the feeding ratios.

3. Stick With Correct Feeding Ratios

It is important to stick with a general feeding ratio of

  • 1 part sourdough starter
  • 1 part water
  • scant 2 parts flour

This is for those of us who generally measure in cups. So, if you start with 1 cup of sourdough starter, you will mix in 1 cup of water and 2 scant cups of flour.

Mix vigorously to incorporate air, and allow to proof and double in size.

4. Feed Three Times and Until Needed Volume is Achieved

Keep an eye on your starter. It could take only 4-5 hours to double in size, or up to 8 hours. Either way, this is the point at which you really should feed it again.

If your starter has been stored in the refrigeration in a state of hibernation then you are going to need to feed it three times before it is fully active. If, however, it has been on the counter and fed twice a day, it may only require two feedings to become fully active.

Once it is active, determine if you have enough starter to bake with. If not feed it again using the same ratios as stated above. You may end up with much more than the few cups of starter you need for baking, since you continue to feed at the ratio recommended.

This is not a bad thing. Make pancakes, crackers, muffins, or double your batch of bread. You probably won’t regret it.


Shannon is a mama to four small children, homesteader, freelance writer, and picture-taker. She lives with her husband on their off-grid homestead where they make and eat kefir, kombucha, sourdough, and fermented vegetables.

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