The Secret Life of Sourdough

"Feed me, daddy, feed me!"

It’s been almost ten years since I really got serious about sourdough baking.  That was when I retired and determined to learn as much as I could about how to bake a really good loaf of bread – and you can’t go about doing that without learning something about your subject!  I wanted to pause and take a good deep breath today and recount some of what I’ve learned over the past ten years about sourdough.

I have grown to love microbes, both intellectually, and as my personal friends.  Oh yeah, I know there are microbes that will kill us – but I also know that we are dependent on more friendly microbes for our very existence – and it’s easier to love these microbes, right?  Especially when you know that your microbial friends are hard at work fighting against your microbial enemies.  My sourdough starter is one of my microbial friends.

When I first started down this sourdough path, I was taken with the complexity of working with sourdough, and just how difficult it was to keep my starter alive and well – to my mind, it was a fragile life form that was just looking for an excuse to die off on me.  Well, my friends, after ten years of living with my sourdough friend, the first thing I can tell you is that as a life form, my sourdough starter -and all his relatives- are FAR more likely to live on into the future than are we!  In fact, with all our self proclaimed knowledge and intelligence, we are among the most fragile of the world’s life forms in existence today – and science is quite clear about our potential for long-term existence – and it ain’t good!

However, microbes have several life sustaining abilities that we -as supposedly smart as we are- simply do not possess.  They can, when conditions get really bad, go into a hibernation that can go on for millions of years, or longer, and then begin their normal life activities again. Is this not the secret of life, or at least the avoidance of death, that mankind has searched for since cavemen began talking to each other?

Amber can be "time capsules" of ancient DNA, as well as the hibernation dens of microbes millions of years old.

And if that ain’t enough, recent research suggests that microbes have yet one more life advantage – when faced with the challenge of losing one of the very required elements of life itself -something mankind thought sacred- microbes seem able to literally change the nature of life itself, and to substitute a new element for a missing required element!  Now that, my friends, is simply mind-boggling, and suggests that perhaps microbes may be indestructible!

Scientists have found a microbe in Mono Lake, California, that uses arsenic as a fundamental building block, changing the definition of 'life as we know it'

And yet, we worry about our sourdough starter dying!  No, my friends, I think our fears are ill founded – we should be worrying about our own life potential, and let the starter get on with its life.  Here’s what my observations over ten years have thus far taught me.

Once your sourdough starter has sprung to life and is able to produce a loaf of bread, it will be almost impossible to kill it!  Ooh, I can hear millions of novice sourdough bakers rising up in objection to such a thought!  Now, please allow me to remind all that life is one thing, and health is quite another.  I’m convinced that millions of jars and containers of sourdough starter are thrown out each year not because they are dead, but because they are not healthy enough to do their intended job.  But every one of those bakers will then say that their sourdough starter “died”, when actually it was abused to uselessness.

So, how do we keep our starters healthy?  Of course, I also have a few more radical thoughts on that too – all based, mind you, on simple observation over ten years.  First, I think there is a perfect environment for a healthy starter – and I would not be surprised to learn that such perfect environments are locally dictated by the microbes that exist in your own locale.  In other words, the microbes that will do best in your area are those which have already fought and won the battles of survival in your area.  And if you agree with that, you’d have to also agree that the most logical way to create a local starter would be to capture the airborne microbes from your own kitchen.  And yet, most of us have created our starters by “importing” our microbes from some other location.  But, I think that even when we import our sourdough cultures, eventually, the local microbes -and those in the flours we are using- take over our starter anyway – so may not even matter.

Frankly, I’m not entirely convinced about the above theory, however strong the evidence, since there is contradictory evidence as well.  For example, witness how well my own Oregon sourdough culture sprang to life and produced a beautiful loaf for Joanna, even when exported all the way to the U.K. I’d love to hear other baker’s theories on this.

But I’m more sure of the fact that your local starter will be healthier if it is kept warm than it will be if kept in a refrigerator.  Personally, I never subject my starter to imprisonment in the fridge -except of course as a part of a fermenting dough- because I don’t think it does anything good for a starter.  It’s not a matter of killing it -actually, I don’t think you can ever kill a starter in the fridge, no matter how long you leave it there- but each time you subject your starter to the cold, it will take many feedings before your starter is healthy enough to do a good job.  And the longer it is in there, the harder the job of bringing it back to health.  I also think that most of the negative comments of novice sourdough bakers arise from the fact that their starters spend most of their time in the fridge, and not enough time recovering, to ever be healthy enough for a good loaf of bread.

How important are starter feedings?  Come on guys – how important is food to you?  I’m a diabetic, and my doctor tells me that if I divide my daily ideal diet over my waking hours, and consume a tiny part every hour, I’ll be healthier than if I eat only two or three times a day.  The same is true of your starter.  Yeah, I know, it’s already a hassle – why make it even worse?  Well, my intent here is simply to suggest the fact that frequency of feeding is the key to a really healthy starter, and then I’ll let you make whatever compromise with reality you want to.  Personally, for normal maintenance, I feed at room temp once a day, but on days I’ll be baking, I usually try to feed twice daily before baking – and three times would be even better.

I end today with perhaps my most radical of theories with an  attack on sourdough’s most sacrosanct belief -that the longer it has been maintained, the better it is.  I know this is a widely held belief, but my own observations have led me to agree with the school of baker thought that suggests that over time, the ritual of refreshing a starter over and over actually creates the build up of acids and other substances that hinder the continued heath of the starter – those bakers correct that potential by occasionally creating a new starter, usually by simply capturing the local microbes from the air, and they start anew.  Here’s what MC, bread baker and blogger extraordinaire, discovered when she interviewed Gerard Rubaud, French baker extraordinaire:  “Interestingly Gerard renews his levain regularly (every 4 to 5 weeks, sometimes 6 in the summer and every three months in the winter) as he finds it impossible to control the acids otherwise.”

If you agree with me that over time, the local microbes become the dominant culture, then this theory will also make sense too.  I’m a believer – and I no longer care about loosing a starter.

Do you have a few observations or theories regarding your sourdough starter – if you do, I for one would love to hear them.  After all, as we wind down our own human existence, it can’t hurt to know more of the secrets of life of one of the creatures that will inherit our world.

Photo Credits:
Top- The private collection of drfugawe
Bottom- – Ben Margot/AP/file


About drfugawe

I'm a guy with enough time to do as I please, and that my resources allow. The problem(s) are: I have 100s of interests; I have a short attention span; I have instant expectations; I'm lazy; and I'm broke. But I'm OK with all that, 'cause otherwise I'd be so busy, I'd be dead in a year.
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8 Responses to The Secret Life of Sourdough

  1. Frances Quinn says:

    Hi, Dr. I have always kept my starter in the fridge but after reading your post I am inclined to not do so in the future. Since I am only one in the house I don’t bake bread all that often and cooking for one is just not in my vocabulary. Hence, my freezers are busting like yours. Don’t know how to cure this but am going to try in the coming years. Thanks for all your wisdom and help.

  2. Fascinating read for a relatively new sourdough baker. I started my own starter about 6 months ago and am happily still playing and working out techniques that work for me. My starter does jump in and out of the fridge quite a lot. Sometimes it needs a little rest time in a quiet cool corner, as it would be too needy sitting on my bench in our summer. It seems happy, it certainly produces bread I am happy with, and I’ve never had any problems with it. It’s slowly being passed around the neighbourhood, boldly taking on other kitchen counters and rewarding their new owners with tasty loaves.

  3. Caring for sourdough… I think I have followed a ‘natural’ progression from obsessive feeding schedules and container purging to bordering on the casual neglect. Having said that, my experience is broadly in line with yours. Regular food, filtered water, a nice warm room. What more could a starter need to be content? I have put them in the fridge and depending on how long they have been in there for has a direct relationship to how long they take to become properly active again. I wonder when we resuscitate leaven from either dried or frozen/chilled and it takes almost as long as creating a new leaven, what is really going on in that tub…. Grappy held on with invisible claws to the worktop when I suggested a spell in the fridge, so I am still pandering to him, though I suspect he is losing his American accent already.

    Have you ever tried adding salt to a very active starter to slow it down? I read about this, but never tried it, always too worried the starter might OD.

    • drfugawe says:

      I’m beginning to think that one reason why we have such divergent opinion about sourdough and its maintenance is that it is far more complex than we’d like to think! I wonder, for instance, if when we ask our starter to spend a lot of time in the fridge, if we’re not giving rise to a completely different type of bacteria/yeast than we get when we never refrigerate it?

      You ask a key question about what is really happening when we resuscitate a dried starter – I too wonder if we’re not simply creating a completely new culture out of the microbes in the air rather than truly resuscitating an old one. ??? Good question.

      Yes, I have no doubt that Grappy is right now at battle with the local microbes and yeasts in your kitchen, and that eventually, he’ll lose because of the sheer numbers against him.

      As you know from my post, I don’t think you’d be able to kill your starter -unless you way oversalted it- but why would anyone want to slow down an active starter – I try to create more active starters!

      I love your comments and questions – thanks Jo.

  4. Now this was an interesting read, Doc. Our experience has been a little different – storing in the fridge seems to be the happiest environment for our starter, and we’ve used the same one for nearly four years now, without a noticeable increase in acidity. I think that’s because it’s stored in the fridge – left on the bench, it becomes unbearably acid and smells like paint thinner within a very short period of time. Someone (I think it might have been Dan) once told me that starters left out too long can get very acid and kill themselves off, whereas keeping them in the fridge keeps that in check.

    Our starter is very resilient – I give it a couple of good feeds before using, and it makes a dough which never fails to recover, even if it has been left overnight on the bench and massively overproved during the bulk prove. As maintenance, I feed it once a week on bakers flour (white) and filtered water, and it’s completely happy. 🙂

    • drfugawe says:

      Hi Celia,
      Thanks for responding to my “provocative” post – I had hoped to hear from folks who had different opinions – and I appreciate yours – but on sev points, I’m not so sure we disagree, as much as need to define some terms we’re using.

      For instance, when I use the term acid, I’m talking about those characteristic elements that give sourdough its “sour” flavor – and those acids are “managed” and are doing their best work during the fermentation period, which I’ll admit occurs best if it’s slowed down, and refrigeration slows down fermentation.

      However, if you -theoretically- never took your starter out of the fridge, other acids would take over and create other, not so attractive, tastes. All of this activity would take place primarily because the starter is not eating anything, and is essentially trying to survive while lying in its own wastes (now I know you don’t do this, I’m just using it as an example).

      So, my definition of acids are those sour tasting elements which occur only when the starter is not eating. This happens faster at room temp, and slower when refrigerated, but regardless, it still happens.

      My starter is always out, but always eating too – I never give it a chance to develop acids – or alcohol. The “paint thinner” smell you describe is a by-product of the yeasts eating carbs/sugars in the flour, and then just sitting there resting. Since my starter is refreshed daily, it never has a chance to develop either acids or alcohol (at least not significantly). BTW, that alcohol smell will also occur if we leave a fermenting dough too long in the fridge, as I’ve experienced all too many times.

      When Dan says a starter left out becomes acidic, I’ll bet he means one that is not fed while out – by definition, acid in a sourdough only occurs as a by-product of yeasts consuming carbs and sugars. If he meant both feeding and non-feeding starters, that would fly in the face of contrary evidence – There are simply too many professional bakers who never chill a starter.

      Let me see if I can get agreement from you on a few points:
      * Would you ever immediately put a refrigerated starter to use in formulating a dough, before refreshing it a time or two in a warmer environment? If the answer is yes, then your fridge is truly the ideal environment for your starter.
      * Do you enjoy the sour taste of your sourdough bread? If the answer is yes, then you have significant acids in your sourdough, and your starter too, if it is kept at rest in the fridge – that’s not a bad thing, mind you, just true.

      I thank you, Celia, for contributing to our discussion – your comments are appreciated. And whatever you’re doing to keep your starter happy, keep doing it!

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