If you want to know how to store sourdough starter when taking a break from baking or you want to send someone some of your precious starter, I’ve tested three ways to store sourdough starter for a long period, including the freezer method, drying method, and fridge method. These are the pros and cons of each method, and how to troubleshoot when your starter doesn’t come back to life.
Many sourdough bakers who mainly bake on the weekend put their sourdough starters in the fridge during the week, bringing it out on Thursday night for a feeding before baking a boule for the weekend. But what do you do when you’re going on holidays or simply want a break from baking for more than a week? Is your starter going to die? Can this starter that you’ve spent so much time maturing ever produce great bread again?
My break from sourdough baking was initially enforced by moving apartments for a second time during the pandemic – where now at three times thanks to a bunch of mature age anti-vaxxers who loved to party like they were in a backpacker hostel. Having to pack up the apartment, move, and then unpack everything again took around two weeks, which meant two weeks when I couldn’t bake. On top of this, the small oven at the new apartment couldn’t fit my baking/pizza stone and could barely fit my Dutch oven.
I surrendered and fed my sourdough starter for what I thought could be one last time. I dated it and put it in the back of the fridge, not knowing how long it would sit back there with the kimchi and grainy mustard, and whether I’d ever be able to bake another sublime loaf of sourdough bread from it again.
How to Store Sourdough Starter In the Fridge Long Term and How to Revive Your Starter
So it was back to store-bought bread again. How bad could it be? Well, sadly, despite the French influence in Cambodia, Siem Reap does not boast many decent bakeries. While there are local bakeries that can bake a decent baguette (we have a bakery around the corner that bakes okay French baguettes several times a day, along with pink lamingtons), most bake one of two types of ‘baguettes’: one that goes hard as a rock within an hour and can be used to hammer nails, and the other that’s doughy and soft and, rather alarmingly, never goes mouldy.
It’s impossible to find fantastic sourdough or any loaves made without bakers yeast and sugar. Sourdough is more digestible than other breads and sourdough baking is the oldest method used to leaven dough, so it makes me very sad to have to go to the supermarket and buy white bread made with loads of sugar (3.5%), milk (10%) and shortening (5%). I just find eating anything with this bread deeply unsatisfying. It’s too sweet for sandwiches, doesn’t toast properly, and barely performs the function of filling your belly.
During the first year of the pandemic (I can’t believe I just typed that), I had been baking sourdough bread every couple of days with excellent results. However, by the middle of 2020, our local supermarkets had run out of good bread flours, including the whole wheat flour that I use for my sourdough starter and mix in with my bread dough.
In the last month, a huge shipment arrived from the USA and once again Bob’s Red Mill flours was back in stock on Siem Reap’s supermarket shelves. There was no excuse for me not to pull my sourdough starter out of storage and start baking sourdough bread again – apart from my tiny oven.
Before I tell you how that turned out, let me share the methods of storing sourdough starter for the long term in case you find yourself in a similar situation.
Storing Sourdough Starter Long Term
Freezer Method for Storing Sourdough Starter
The freezer method for storing sourdough starter is a good way to store your starter if you don’t want it taking up precious fridge space. You simply feed your starter and when it’s active pour it into a couple of zip-loc freezer bags – don’t forget to label and date it. It can stay in the freezer for up to 12 months.
To defrost and reactivate your sourdough starter, treat it like any other frozen food and place it in the fridge to thaw. When it has thawed, take it out to room temperature and then feed your sourdough starter as normal. You’ll need to keep a normal feeding schedule for a couple of days before your sourdough starter is active enough to bake with.
If your sourdough starter is slow to reactivate, do a couple of double feeds where you feed it, wait eight hours, and feed it again. You can make some sourdough discard recipes with the discarded starter in the meantime.
Drying Method for Storing Sourdough Starter
The drying method for storing sourdough starter is a fantastic way to store a sourdough starter in a cupboard in case something goes wrong with your active starter. It’s also a great way to transport starter and many people even sell starter in this form as it retains yeast and bacteria better than the other methods.
If you’re moving abroad or interstate and are catching planes, having starter in a plastic container is a great way to take it with you – customs willing! Make sure you check in advance if it’s possible to take starter into a country with you.
To make ‘dried starter’, feed your starter as per normal, then as it is rising place a tablecloth on a workbench, and cover it with a sheet of parchment paper (or baking paper). When the starter peaks, spread the starter thinly over the parchment paper using a wide palette knife. Let it dry overnight.
The next day, your sourdough starter should be brittle enough to break up with your hands. Place the pieces in a zip-loc bag, label, and store it in a cool dry place. This will last indefinitely. To refresh the dried starter, weight it and place it in a container. Add the same weight of water and stir. Leave this for a few hours before refreshing with a normal starter refresh.
Fridge Method for Storing Sourdough Starter
This method is how to store sourdough starter in the fridge and it’s how I’ve stored my sourdough starter in recent months as an experiment. It’s quite simple too. Before you store your sourdough starter in the fridge, refresh your starter as per normal. Give your sourdough starter an hour or so to get the feeding going, then place the starter in the fridge with a solid lid (don’t use cling wrap). Date the jar and make a note that you need to check your starter in two months time.
Your sourdough starter can stay in the fridge for up to two months or more without a refresh. Some bakers don’t like this method because the starter takes up space and you need to remember to refresh it. Note that the longer you leave the starter, the more chance it will be a little funky when you go to refresh or use the starter.
If there’s any mould on the starter or it’s super funky, then your sourdough starter is probably spoiled – perhaps by using utensils that were not perfectly clean to mix the starter. You should discard this batch of sourdough starter if this is the case.
If there’s just a little water on top of the sourdough starter (it may be brown-ish), then tip this out and place the container on the countertop for 12 hours before feeding. This gets the starter back to room temperature and ready to take on the new feeding. It may take at least a couple of feeds before it’s ready to bake with again. See my notes on our personal experience below.
Tips to Activating Your Stored Sourdough Starter
Depending on how strong your sourdough starter was, it may take more effort to revive due to the bacteria and yeasts not being strong enough. I recommend not storing a starter that is less than 3 months old.
To give your sourdough starter a boost, try increasing the frequency of feed to twice a day for a couple of days. If this doesn’t work, change the type of flour you’re using. I recommend a wholewheat flour or a less-processed flour to try and kick-start your sourdough starter.
If that doesn’t work, try the brute force method of discarding most of your sourdough starter. You can try feeding the sourdough starter discard separately as well. Just feed the starter as per normal. The brute force method has worked for me with only 15 g of stater fed with 50 g of water and flour. Amazing when it works!
My Experience Reviving My Starter Using the Fridge Method
My sourdough starter sat in the fridge unattended for 73 days. When I pulled it out the other day, it wasn’t looking too promising to be honest. There was a grey watery substance on the top of the starter and it looked pretty dead. It didn’t smell pleasant either.
I scooped the top layer off the starter and gave it a stir before placing it on the counter top. I fed it the next morning at 8am – a ritual that I follow so that I can start shaping bread by 4pm – and it rose and had bubbles in it, but nowhere near the 2 1/2 to 3 times rise I get with a healthy starter. It also had a slightly funky aroma – and not in a good way as it was very vinegary.
Over the next couple of days, using wholewheat flour to feed the starter, it came good. The aromas were fresh and yeasty and the starter peaked at triple the size of the starting point. The only thing was, it wasn’t terribly bubbly on the surface. I did a float test that showed the starter was very buoyant and after feeding the sourdough starter next day, I shaped my first batard.
Now, because my oven maxes out at 220°C (as opposed to a normal 250°C), I needed to compensate by creating a much tighter shaping of my batard. Most bakeries do their shaping very quickly and don’t take time to push the tension of the dough to the limit as the skin of the dough might split. I carefully made mine as tight as possible to get the most oven spring – and as you can see by the photo, it worked out great!
My Formula for Baking Bread After Activating Your Stored Sourdough Starter
To get a good first loaf of sourdough I used 20% wholewheat flour and 80% white bread flour. The hydration level was 77%. I make quite small batards and boules. I use an online app called BreadCalc to calculate my formula and hydration levels. This is my formula for this bread, I know it makes quite a small batard or boule, but there is only two of us. Note that with this formula the 20% wholewheat flour is 67 grams and 80% white bread flour is 266 grams.
I would love to hear from you if you have any tips on how to store sourdough starter in the fridge long term or how to revive your starter. You can leave comments below, email us or connect with us on social media.
An update on my Sourdough Starter – from failure to fully-blown
If you’ve read through this post we’ve now moved three times during the pandemic – now into its third glorious year of making our lives abnormal. This third residence had everything, except an oven. The reason is that unless the apartment block is run by French expats, they don’t understand the importance of an oven in Western cooking or baking. All local home cooks just use a couple of gas burners and a rice maker!
Thanks to a generous donation by some friends we now have a big ‘toaster oven’, or a tabletop electric oven as the owners manual states. It’s an Electrolux EOT56MXC (not on Amazon that I can see), that’s big enough for my Dutch Oven and my pizza stone.
This meant brewing up another new starter as the old one did not survive the move. But it didn’t work so well. Double feeding, distilled water, several different flours, placing it in different areas in the apartment – nothing worked. It bubbled occasionally and lazily. It never quite reached doubling in volume. But I was still not yet about to give up and buy the whitbread “sugar loaves” or poor baguettes that could double as baseball bats before you took a tuk tuk home.
Enter, rather sheepishly, Wessex Mill Strong White Bread Flour. With black & white packaging that looks like it was ‘crafted’ by a forklift driver who smokes too much weed, the actual flour is fantastic. It’s not just my strong (13 g protein) flour, I use it for all my loaves now, even if I throw in a little wholewheat flour with it. Using very old mills in the UK, local grains and grinding the wheat slowly, it’s fantastic.
So what was wrong with my previous attempts? I literally have no idea. Was the flour too old? Was the water (both tap and bottle) different? Was the storage temperature wrong?
It’s hard to say, even after going through each individual element of the starter. So the moral of the story is, try everything. Make notes. Don’t change more than one thing at each attempt. And, persevere. We’re now making what Lara considers to be the best bread of my nearly four years of making sourdough bread.