I was on a home baker’s forum and saw a post where some dude’s wife took pictures of him proudly displaying his jar of sourdough starter that he just pulled out of his suitcase. The caption read something like, “My hubby took his starter with him on vacation!” When I saw that picture and read the caption, I chuckled, then thought to myself, I thought I was obsessive… But this takes it to a whole different level! Several people chimed in on the discussion thread and said they had done the same. That kind of amazed me.
Then I asked myself, “Why in the world would someone do that?” The only thing I could come up with is that home sourdough enthusiasts seem to have this notion that they have to feed their sourdough every day – some even twice a day – thinking that their starter will die if they don’t feed it.
Though I do my best to be nice, there’s no other way to put this: Your starter won’t die if you don’t feed it. And yeast is extremely hard to kill! In other words, go on your damn vacation and don’t let your starter dictate your schedule! 🙂
I studied Biology in college with an emphasis on Microbiology and Virology. Though that was decades ago, one of the things I learned about yeasts is that they’re extremely hard to kill. As opposed to dying, when they don’t have a food source, they enter into a sort of suspended animation and go dormant. They can be in this state for thousands of years and be revived, amazingly enough (click on that link – it’s pretty fascinating).
So where does this daily feeding thing come from? Probably from professional bakers or home enthusiasts who bake sourdough every single day. They have to be on a schedule because they need their starter daily. But for those who don’t make sourdough every day, there’s just no need to feed the starter until it’s needed. In the meantime, it can sit in the fridge.
And why go through the hassle of discarding all that flour? It’s nonsense. From a purely practical standpoint, how many crackers and pancakes can you eat? Sheesh!
Look, I bake every day, but I don’t feed my starter daily because I don’t make sourdough every day. So when I’m not making sourdough, my starter is in the fridge. When I know I’m going to bake sourdough bread, I begin feeding it the day before – no discard, by the way, and I’ll get into my method below – or early that day if I make my dough in the afternoon.
For me, I use a tailings method with all my starters (I currently have 3 in my fridge right now). In each Kilner container, I probably have 100 grams of starter. When I’m going to use one, I remove it from the fridge, add 100 grams each of warm water and flour for the first feeding, then when it doubles, I do another feeding. The amount of flour and water I use varies based on how much starter I’ll need. I’ll actually make more than what I need so I will have extra once I add the starter to my dough. That extra – the tailings – goes back into the fridge.
This morning, I revived some tailings that are well over a month old as I have been traveling this past month and have only managed to bake yeasted bread while I was home. As of this writing, the levain I’m building is in the midst of its second feeding and it’s highly active. I’ll be ready to build my dough in another hour or so – that’s literally four hours since I removed it from the fridge! The point is that I let it sit for a long time and it still came back.
That said, yes, a starter can indeed slow down. But kill off the yeast? It’s highly unlikely unless the starter was exposed to some really extreme conditions. But in a cold environment like a fridge, all the microbes slow down, so competition in the environment will also slow (read: You can let it sit for quite a while).
But… if you want to take your starter on vacation, no one’s stopping you. But if it’s because you feel you have to feed every day, you just don’t need to do it. Pop your starter in the fridge and go enjoy yourself. Don’t let your starter dictate what and when you can do things.