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Life with Mother

A number of questions have come in about barm (sourdough) starters the last few days. Though some of the specifics have varied, the main theme seems to be: how do I keep and use a starter on a long-term basis? Looking over in my section on barm starters, it appears that I never really covered that subject in detail. What an oversight! Well, better late than never I guess.

Keeping a starter is a very easy thing to do once you’re in the habit. I keep mine in a 2-quart container in the back of the fridge. It’s been there for years. Every time I set out to do a little starter-based baking I take a little of it out, then feed that bit, slowly building it up into the quantity I need. The main starter that stays in the fridge is what’s known, in baking parlance, as a “mother”.

A mother starter can live indefinitely, provided you take care of it, and over time develops a character that’s unique to your kitchen. As I’ve written often before, it’s a myth that homemade starters are cultures of local yeasts. Wild yeasts, yes, but most of the yeasts that make up your starter come out of the flour bag. Which is to say, they are yeasts that occur naturally on wheat berries as they grow in the field. When those wheat berries are ground into flour, at least some of the yeasts that have adhered to them end up in the flour. When you make a starter, they’re the yeasts that develop first. And every time you feed your starter, you introduce more. Thus the odds are good that most of your starter is comprised of yeast strains that originated in North Dakota or Kansas.

Which is not to say that those yeasts are all that’s in there. A starter is an ecosystem all it’s own, containing a wide variety of micro-flora and micro-fauna. And while the majority population may be from the Plains, eventually the locals will move in. The longer you keep the mother starter, the more entrenched those local yeasts and bacteria will become. So in time your mother will come to possess a character all its own. (Insert mom joke of your choice here).

The question then becomes: how do you maintain a mother starter once you have one? Again, it’s a very simple thing: you take a little of the mother out when you need some, and grow that small quantity into what you require for your recipe. You then replace what you took away (using some fresh-made starter “food”) so the mother never actually gets any smaller.

There are many philosophies on maintaining mothers. In busy bakeries mothers are constantly being depleted and refreshed. At the bakery I used to work in, we’d double or triple the volume of the mother starters nightly, use nearly all of it the next day, then repeat the process. At home it’s rare that a mother gets that sort of consistent workout. Usually is just sits in the fridge, staying dormant for days, weeks or even months. I’ve gone six months without using or even feeding mine. In those cases it may take two or three days to wake up the quantity I take from it — leaving it at room temperature and feeding it its own weight in 50-50 flour-water mix (by weight) every 8 hours or so. In those cases, I do end up throwing away a little starter, since I don’t want to keep doubling the thing at every feeding. I’ll take, say, 2 ounces of the mother out, give it an ounce of flour and an ounce of water, stir it and leave it at room temperature. Next feeding I’ll throw away half of what I’ve made (2 ounces), and repeat the process until I’m satisfied that what I have is fully awake.

Once my small quantity of starter is active, bubbly and predictable, I build it up to the quantity my recipe calls for, then use it. However I always try to make more than I need, so I can put a decent amount of lively starter back into the mother. That or I replace what I took with “starter food”, my usual 50-50 (by weight) flour-water mixture. Note that there’s no set strategy for maintaining a little-used mother. Some people, even when they don’t use it much, throw away half the mother every couple of weeks, replace what they took with “food” then put it back in the fridge to slowly bubble until they use or replenish it again.

Me, I rarely remember to do that. A lot of times I’ll go a loooong time without using my mother starter. In those cases, when I open it, it’s grey and clay-like, with a cloudy grey layer of liquid over the top (a mixture of water and alcohol). Ugly as that is, it’s still a perfectly usable mother. I simply stir the liquid back into it, take some out, and feed it as described above. In these cases I’ll throw quite a lot of the rank mother, and give what’s left a full feeding — of 100% of its weight — then refrigerate it.

I hope this all makes sense. Note that there may be times, especially if you become a busy sourdough baker, when you’ll use up almost all of your mother starter. Don’t worry. I’ve used virtually all of mine a time or two. The good news is that as long as there’s even a tiny amount left in the container, you can build it back. Just sprinkle in a little flour and water, stir it together with the scrapings that are left, and let it grow at room temperature for a few hours until that little amount is bubbly. Feed it again, rest it again, and feed it again until it’s back to where you want it. Mothers are bottomless wells of sourdough baking love. Which I guess is why they call them mothers.

18 thoughts on “Life with Mother”

  1. By way of insurance, I keep a back-up small supply in my freezer. I’ve had to use it a couple of times, but my starter, too, is amazingly forgiving of neglect. It’s been across the country twice, had city water added (avoiding the days the chlorine was added), and is perfectly happy with well water for the past 35 years. BTW, I’ve had mine since 1968 and it arrived in a container dated 1887. Don’t know how true that is—! I’ve just recently had success, finally, with a no-knead type of sourdough bread no I can call myself a baker now!

    1. That’s a precious thing you have there, Sally! even if it’s “only” 52 years old, it’s definitely something to treasure. Just out of curiosity, where did you find your no-knead sourdough recipe? A lot of readers would be curious, as there’s a lot of experimenting going on.

      Cheers and thanks!


      1. I tried first a non-sourdough no-knead bread from an online source I’ve forgotten. I *have* been bread baking for more than 50 years. Mostly white sandwich bread and rye bread and rolls, etc.

        The sourdough recipe I started with is this one:

        There’s some things I do differently, having watched other videos and other methods. I DO sort-of knead it by the fold-and-stretch method, about every 90 minutes after mixing it up, all night if I can’t sleep. A bowl of water beside the bowl of dough to wet my hand makes it easy. By the second fold it’s beginning to develop some nice stretchy gluten. My dough seems to want a good 18-hour first rise. I have a small dutch oven, so a quarter of the dough gets removed and shaped into a sandwich roll. The rest goes into a crumpled-paper-lined 1.5 qt. bowl which rises about 4 hours. 450° is about right for baking, but I put a small round rack on the bottom of the dutch oven to keep the dough up off the very hot part. Anything I haven’t mentioned as changes are done as the video suggests. HTH!

  2. Hi, I’m new to sourdough as in I haven’t tried it yet but am very interested. Throwing some starter away feel wasteful and that has prevented me from starting one. So, instead of throwing away some starter, do you think I can put it aside in a jar in the fridge for later use (to make pancakes, waffles, etc)?

    p/s: When I found myself downing post after post in your blog, you have gone away. I’m so glad you’re back!

    1. Hi Jeri!

      I understand the feeling, which is why I try to grow my starter using small amounts, only discarding an ounce of flour per feeding while I wait for the culture to strengthen. You should definitely not consume starter that hasn’t attained full strength since you never know what kinds of microbes might be in the culture at the beginning. You’ll really only know that your starter is safe to eat after it has been rising consistently after about a week, smells good (like bread with an edge of alcohol), and is bubbling up within about four hours of every feeding. This is how you know that the yeast culture is strong, and is crowding out other types of microbes that could be harmful.

      So some waste, at least in the startup phase, is inevitable. That said you can take steps to minimize waste by keeping the starter small, as I said. Four ounces of total starter is a fine amount. When it’s time for a feeding, just discard half the volume (i.e. two ounces) of the starter and add those two ounces back in fresh “food”. This way you’re only wasting an ounce of flour per feeding…maybe six or seven ounces of total flour over the course of the whole build-up week.

      My wife abhors waste like you do. She was in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic where food was in very, very short supply all the time. To this day she throws absolutely nothing away that can’t be eaten by one of the family or one of the family pets. She hates to watch starter go down the drain, but the truth is that starter, in the long run, is a very useful and efficient thing to have around, so in the long run you come out ahead.

      Thanks very much for the comment, and be sure to read the whole series of posts on beginning and keeping a starter. It’s a safe and easy thing to do, but there can be risks if you don’t give the process the full time and attention it needs. It’s all spelled out in the “Starter” section under the bread menu. The direct link is in this post.

      Have fun and check back with any questions!



  3. Thank you for elaborating on this topic! I’m trying to work with two starters at the moment (rye and wheat) and at least the wheat starter is not a success story. First, a theoretical background – as I understand, a proper sourdough starter consists of lactobacilli and yeast, right? (I’m in a FB group of local sourdough enthusiasts and one guy insists that proper sourdough starter is exclusively Lactobacillus and thus you can’t add sugar to dough because it would promote yeast and not Lactobacillus; somehow I don’t believe that it is so, as even a quick glance in Wikipedia says that starter consists of both of them) And the thing that makes leavening possible, is carbon dioxide created as a metabolism byproduct? I have a suspicion that my starter has a lot of lactobacilli, as it rather pleasantly smells of sour milk and not alcohol (which is the case with rye starter), but it has very little bubbles and doesn’t rise when left overnight at room temperature. Maybe I have been too careless with feeding it, I don’t weigh flour and water, just mix in enough to have thick pancake batter consistency. But anyway, what should I do? Wait for the next feeding until there are lots of bubbles, even if it’s more than 24 hours and starter smells of sour milk already? As for mixing bread, I already understood that I need more starter into the dough, I will work on it next time, but for now there is question on whether my starter even works.

    1. Hey Antuanete!

      You anticipated my next post — on specialty starters. I’m about to write that, but for now just know that you are right about the microbes in starters. A starter is a combination of yeasts, lactic acid bacteria…and probably quite a few other small creatures in addition to that! The yeasts are responsible for the rise (the CO2) and the alcohol, the lactobacilli for much of the flavor. You can’t have one without the other in a home made starter.

      Regarding your other questions about wheat and rye starters…more on that in a few minutes.


  4. I wasn’t one of the folks who sent you a question about this, but I should have been, as long-term storage has been the one thing keeping me from making a new starter (instead, I’ve been making a beer yeast starter to brew some pale ale this weekend…).

    The other two times in my life that I made sourdough starters, getting them going and baking with them was a breeze. It was keeping them going over the long term, through vacations and baking lulls and times that I just didn’t want sourdough, where I fell short. I felt like I was throwing away more flour than I was actually using, so I eventually just gave up and tossed the whole starter. I see how to rectify this now — thanks!

    1. Hey Alan!

      Yes a built-up starter is very forgiving. It’ll sit patiently for months without attention, then bounce back with a little care. Good luck with this next round, and let me know if you have any questions!



  5. I noticed that now my mother starter is very stretchy and stringy. When I last fed it, it was like pancake batter, but when I went to measure out some and use it, it was so stretchy I could hardly even get it to go in the measuring cup because the gluten strings kept pulling it back. Do I need to change something to get it back to its pancake battery state? Or as long as it’s bubbly after I feed it (it is), does that mean it’s happy whether or not the consistency is changing?

    1. You are good, Marilyn! Yes the stretchiness is typical of a mother starter. Something to get used to as you continue to work with it!

      Cheers and congratulations on your success!


  6. Hey Joe, I noticed in your starving mother (!) post shortly after this one that you mentioned you normally only keep about a cup of the starter in the fridge at any one time, so I’m curious about why you keep it in a 2-qt container. Do you find that the extra air is beneficial somehow? I’ve generally not been very happy with the results when I’ve tried keeping my starter in the fridge, but I’ve never tried it with such a high air-to-starter ratio.

    1. I was wondering if someone was going to observe that! Leave it to you…

      There’s no science to it. Wish I could give you a fancy answer. I just used to keep a lot more of the stuff, but quickly pared way down. I never switched containers because my wife and daughters are used to seeing that particular one (an opaque white foodservice-type tub) in the back of the fridge. Given that they frequently clean out the refrigerator, throwing away suspicious substances left in containers, its the only insurance I have that I won’t lose it!

      And that’s my explanation.


      1. Aha, that’s an excellent explanation … and a relief, actually: I don’t have room in my fridge for a big container of starter! Thanks!

        1. I don’t really either, Jen. Or so the Pastry family keeps reminding me. Oh…..DAD???

          I gotta keep’em just a little off balance though. That’s my job.

          – Joe

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