Frugal Starter Management Explained

I wanted to call this Modern Starter Management, but perhaps it isn't. Dick Adams and Carlos, separately and independently both discovered this method so others in past years must have done the same. First, a discussion about traditional starter keeping so the differences in the frugal approach will be clear.

Although they differ in details, most of the traditional sourdough starter keeping methods call for using or discarding a portion of the starter from a container and replacing the amount taken out with an equivalent amount of flour and water. This method works quite well when the baking is on a regular and frequent schedule. The problems occur when the use is infrequent.

Usually traditional sourdough recipes call for at least a cup of starter, and most of the procedures require that the starter be doubled when fed or refreshed. This set of directions has most folks keeping at least two cups of starter going. That means that if you don't bake, you have to throw away a cup of starter every week or so. Not frugal at all.

Most of us do not bake every day, many not even once a week. In fact, there are probably times when the starter sits so long in the refrigerator that it is dying, or at least is on the nasty side of its peak activity. People often have to use some trick to revive the starter before it is even remotely usable. Even if the starter is fit to put in the dough, there is no telling where it is on its growth and dying curve so there is inconsistency in the bread making. Many have put almost dead starter in the dough and wondered why it did not rise very well. Frugal Starter Management helps avoid these problems.

Central to Frugal Starter Management is the concept of a "mother" or storage culture that is separate from the starter that goes into the bread. You keep a small separate starter that never goes into the bread. It is a starter for the starter, if you will. This storage starter can be a very small amount. Every time you make bread, take a small portion (a teaspoon or less) from the mother culture and use that to grow - build in stages - enough start for the bread recipe.

For example, the way that I do this is to take a scant teaspoon of mother starter culture and add it to a small container with a tablespoon of water and enough flour to make a batter. When this bubbles up, I add a 1/4 cup of water and a heaping 1/4 cup of flour to make a thick batter. When this bubbles up, I add 1/2 cup of water and a heaping 1/2 cup of flour to again make a thick batter. When this rises up, you will have over one cup of very active fresh starter to use as you wish in your recipes. You can scale the amounts to fit your own requirements. These steps will add about a day to your baking schedule, but little real work.

You can find a different set of instructions and measurements that use the same concept in the article "Frugal Culture Management".

The advantages of this method outweigh the disadvantage of the extra steps. The amount of storage or mother culture can be as small as you want. You are limited only by the size of container and stirring tool that is convenient to handle. If you discard half of this to refresh the storage culture, you are not wasting much. However, the biggest advantage is that you always begin your bread making with fresh active culture; this should make your results more consistent. Even if you are working with some arcane methods that call for aging or retarding starter, you will always begin with fresh culture.

Frugal Culture Management will save you flour and provide a basis to improve your bread making by allowing you to always start your process with fresh active starter.

- Carlos, 05/12/06