Feeding a Sourdough Starter without Having to Discard: a Method

As shown in the last post, there are lots of ways to feed a sourdough starter. Most of the time, newbies learn a method that involves regularly discarding (i.e., throwing away or repurposing) half or almost all of the starter they maintain. But it’s not the only way. Below is a look at feeding a sourdough starter without having to discard–and how and why it can be better.

Feeding a sourdough starter without having to discard: a method / Go Eat Your Bread with Joy

In what sometimes feels like another life from the one we’re now living, my husband, Tim, and I wrote a cookbook, The Einkorn Cookbook. While it was primarily about featuring 100+ recipes for ancient (original, nonhybridized) wheat, it included a few recipes for sourdough. We (he) developed those recipes during our household’s first season with sourdough–one in which we discarded a big chunk of the starter every time we baked. I loved the bread; I hated the discarding. We both wished there were a better way.

Turns out, there is.

Why Do People Discard Sourdough Starter?

Once you have an active, thriving sourdough starter, most people will teach you to regularly discard part of it. Why? Simply put, it’s a maintenance routine. If you’re regularly feeding your starter more than you’re removing for recipes, think about it: your starter will keep getting bigger. The bigger it gets, the more you need to feed it and the more space it will take to store it. Eventually, the sheer mass of your starter is going to get out of control. Discarding gives you a way to keep it manageable.

Anecdotally, I have also heard that regularly discarding part of a starter helps balance its pH levels–is this true? My research has not been able to uncover any conclusive evidence of this being scientific fact. (If someone reading this has helpful information to add, I will be glad to amend this post!)

Bottom line, the biggest reason you discard is for convenience.

What Are the Benefits of Not Discarding?

If you are frugal, a minimalist or someone who for any other reason hates waste, the idea of regularly dumping a chunk of cultivated flour and water might sit funny with you. It did with me. It kind of turned me off to the idea of baking sourdough. That’s exactly why, if there were a way to skip discarding without overrunning your home with sourdough starter, it would be worth investigating. Feeding a sourdough starter without having to discard means no waste, no excess and no pressure trying to come up with ways to use your discarded leftovers (assuming you aren’t throwing them in the trash, which is also a way to discard).

Those are benefits big enough to warrant finding another way.

How Does Feeding a Sourdough Starter without Having to Discard Work?

So here’s the solution. It’s simple enough to surprise you: keep a small starter. How small? According to Barbara Alpern at King Arthur’s Flourish Blog, “two ounces” is a good amount. After testing this idea, she says, “I’ve been maintaining reduced versions of my starters for a few months now and everyone is happy and healthy.”

Like Alpern, I, too, have gotten into a rhythm of maintaining a small starter and never having to throw anything away. I love it.

What Feeding a Sourdough Starter without Having to Discard Looks Like for Me

Here’s how I maintain my starter (well, starters, now that I’ve added a grape version to my stash; yes, I have two now):

  1. I keep a small jar of starter in the fridge and typically use it once or twice a week to bake.
  2. When I’m ready to bake, I take my jar out of the fridge, remove part of it for my recipe and refeed my starter jar small but equal parts water and flour. It goes back in the fridge.
  3. The part of starter I am using for my recipe is essentially what could have been a discard. I don’t need to get rid of anything more than that because my starter is small.

*Generally speaking, you will encounter two types of sourdough recipes: those that start by asking you to feed your starter and get it active for a few days, then to discard part and use part in a recipe; and those that have you start a levain or preferment with part of your starter, feed it and then use that up in your recipe. I prefer the latter. When I use the first kind, I ignore the instructions to beef up my starter first; I just withdraw straight from the fridge, refeed my starter and keep moving forward. If you are new to sourdough and this doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry about it; it’s not vital information.

A Photo Tutorial

To illustrate this process further, I have set up a demonstration in my Instagram Highlights — you’ll find it in the “Bread 101!” tab here. I’m also going to provide a photo tutorial in this post, walking you through it:

Feeding a sourdough starter without having to discard / Go Eat Your Bread with Joy
Here we have a clean jar, but it could also be a bowl, depending on your recipe. This is where I am starting my bread recipe.
Feeding a sourdough starter without having to discard: a method / Go Eat Your Bread with Joy
In this example, I am using 25 grams of starter (straight from my small jar in the fridge–the one pictured here in my husband’s hand, with a rubber band around it).
Feeding a sourdough starter without having to discard: a method / Go Eat Your Bread with Joy
The starter gets combined with 65 grams of organic all-purpose flour and 65 grams of distilled water.
Feeding a sourdough starter without having to discard: a method / Go Eat Your Bread with Joy
Once stirred together, this mixture becomes my levain or, preferment. It will get a chance to grow and rise before being added to a larger combination of ingredients for bread.
Feeding a sourdough starter without having to discard: a method / Go Eat Your Bread with Joy
I mark the levain jar with a rubber band so I can easily, visually tell when it’s doubled. In other recipes, I might mark the side of the bowl with a sticker or piece of tape.
Feeding a sourdough starter without having to discard: a method / Go Eat Your Bread with Joy
Then my original starter jar gets refed. After some has been taken out for a recipe, I always refeed it. In my case, this means equal parts flour and water.
Feeding a sourdough starter without having to discard: a method / Go Eat Your Bread with Joy
The new flour and water gets thoroughly stirred into the small starter jar.
Feeding a sourdough starter without having to discard: a method / Go Eat Your Bread with Joy
You do not need to mark your starter jar to measure growth, but I like seeing how it still rises slightly in the fridge.
Feeding a sourdough starter without having to discard: a method / Go Eat Your Bread with Joy
This is my starter jar that will go back in the fridge, lid ajar, until I need to use some again.

A Few Concluding Notes

Because I bake sourdough at least once a week, I am very familiar with how my starter looks and behaves. When something seems off, I adjust.

One example: a few months ago, during my regular small starter routine, I noticed my levains were lagging a little–growing more slowly, not smelling as sweet. This is when I decided to discard and sort of “jumpstart” my starter jar. (This is also saved in Instagram Highlights.)

In that situation, I discarded all but a tablespoon of the starter (the discarded portion went into pancakes), refed that tablespoon small but equal parts flour/water, waited a few hours; refed that amount, waited a few hours; and got it to a point where I felt like it was revived and thriving.

For me, discarding once every six months or so is much more manageable than weekly worrying about getting in a batch of pita bread or pancakes to use up my leftovers.

So that’s it! I hope this is helpful to someone. If you, too, are interested in sourdough but hesitant about wasting, be encouraged: there’s no reason you have to dump starter in the trash all the time. Try this small-starter method to see.


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