Do I feed my mother enough?

Reader Dianne tells me she’s concerned about my mother. She tells me that based on my recent posts, it sounds like I don’t feed it very much, or very consistently. Dianne, that’s true, though I assure you it isn’t a cruelty. The system I use is a little different than most. I keep a very small, somewhat meagerly fed, mother starter. Most of the time I have little more than a cup in the fridge. That’s on purpose, as I like to grow new starters as I need them, not keep bigger ones that require lots of food and attention. Given that the amount of starter you can grow from even a small amount of mother starter is theoretically infinite, I need very little on-hand.

As written below, I’ll take as little as a few tablespoons from my mother starter when I initiate a bread project, then steadily grow that into the quantity I need over a period of a day or two. Replacing what I take away is therefore a simple matter. I add a couple of tablespoons of flour and some water and stir it back in. True, that usually adds up to less than a full 100% refreshment of my mother starter, which is what most books recommend, but I’ve found over time that my mother can subsist on a light diet.

From time to time I will throw out a few ounces of my mother starter so that my refreshment adds up to 100% of the total, generally when I’m doing a lot of regular sourdough baking, but little starters create little waste, which is a good thing. Thanks for your concern, Dianne! I shall pass it on!

6 thoughts on “Do I feed my mother enough?”

  1. Welcome back, Joe! I used to read religiously, before your hiatus, and it’s been a delight to have your voice around again in these strange times.

    My starter is about three years old, wild-caught here in the starter utopia that is San Francisco. I lost decades thinking starter would be difficult to maintain – what a fool I was! My starter frequently languishes in the back of the fridge entirely neglected for months at a time and always comes right back like a champ. Like you, I only keep a small amount in storage – generally about 50 grams. Lately, with all the quarantine baking, it’s like she’s been Crossfitting…so bulky and strong. I had forgotten what a truly vigorous starter looks and acts like.

    Your “mother” approach is new to me, although guess it’s common in professional settings. My approach has always been to take the whole thing out, bulk it up with feedings to a bit more than I plan to use, and then put away 50g of the refreshed lively batch as the next sleeper. Not so different, I suppose, it just never occurred to try it your way. And I can see how the mother approach lends itself to the variety you mentioned in your earlier note about customizing the starter to the recipe.

    I’m interested about your recent comment that starter shouldn’t be used until fed and fully lively, due to potential food safety issues. I have many recipes for “discard” sourdough (crackers, pretzels, biscuits, etc.) and have used them to take up excess from as early as the first feed out of the fridge – which is to say, I haven’t thrown out basically any starter for years. I’ve never had an issue and it seems to me that since the finished product is thoroughly cooked there ought not to be much risk. Care to counterpoint? I’m open to constructive criticism and I certainly don’t want to make anyone ill!

    1. Hey Essbee!

      Great comment! I think we have a small misunderstanding. What I meant to say is that the excess of a starter that’s in progress (i.e. on that’s brand new, in its very first week of life) should not be consumed. In that case the yeast culture probably isn’t built up all the way, and there could be some bad guys, like clostridium perfringens, lurking about. Once the first-time growing process is complete and the starter has come to full strength, it’s perfectly OK to use any waste as pancake batter or whatever. But in that very first week it’s potentially dangerous to consume, thus at least waste is inevitable. That was my point.

      Regarding your starter method, it’s really the same as what I do, I just leave some behind in the fridge. Probably as you say, because it’s a method I witnessed in the bakery where I first started, and this is my home version.

      Thanks again and keep up all the great quarantine baking!

      Cheers,

      Joe

      1. Glad to hear I misunderstood and am not in the habit of inadvertently trying to murder my family! =) Thanks, Joe.

        1. Ha! Well, the nice thing about starters is that once they’re cranked up to full strength for the first time, you’re pretty much in the clear. I’ve heard rumors of instances where established starters have grown something else in them, but have never seen it. The main thing is to trust your senses, especially your sense of smell. If it looks good and smells good…you’re good.

          Cheers,

          Joe

  2. I must admit, when I read your most recent description of how you work with your “mother,” I had something of a similar reaction to Dianne. But it just goes to show that there are many different ways to keep a starter going, and some of these authors who swear that X method is critical usually don’t know what they’re talking about! (All the more so when their method involves wasting half a cup of flour a day….)

    Personally, I engage in mother abuse of a different kind: I’ve found that I have the most success when I keep it (her?) in a very small quantity (typically 2 or 3 tbps max) on the counter all the time with 100% feedings only every couple of days … sometimes even 4 days apart when I’m particularly neglectful, although I definitely don’t recommend it! If I’m planning to bake, I make sure I do 24-hour 100% feeds for a couple of days, rising to every 12 hours in the last day. If I need the starter to be particularly strong, I’ll do a couple more 12 hour feeds first, but on the whole, I find there can be advantages to a slightly sluggish starter. Changing seasons (and, ahem, continents) calls for a little more attention and tweaking in order to return to a steady state, but it’s not too much trouble.

    Anyway, it’s useful to appreciate how adaptable these little colonies are – and, in turn, how they appreciate a little adaptability from us now and then!

    1. You method is time-tested for sure. There are tales I’ve read of pioneer trail “cookies” who kept their starters in small leather pouches around their necks to keep them safe (and relatively warm in winter). Yours is on the counter, but the principle is the same. I can’t do that myself. I’d forget it for a week and it would turn into hopeless, green-blue goo. But if it works for you do it, says I.

      Joe

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