How to Feed Your Animal: No Leaven Left Behind

“I don’t care how good the bitch is, don’t let me keep any,” my mother said as she walked into the kitchen.

This was a few weeks ago.  The back story.  I had traveled home to Syracuse with two quart containers of sourdough starter, a scale, some rice flour to prevent sticking, and—what shall now be known as—my “travel” bench scraper. 

The starter? Destined for my brother, visiting from D.C.  The gang of baking oddities?  Tools for making sourdough when traveling.  My mother?  A woman who knows her weakness for bread.  And who—only in the right company—will curse for comedic emphasis.

The thing about starter is, well, to put it in unladylike motherly comedic terms: it’s a bitch.  When Dave brought some home from Canary Square, it came labeled as such.  Bitch. Written in block letters on a piece of masking tape.  A point quickly reinforced.

A starter requires daily feeding.  If you are not careful, you can overfeed it.  Which is what happened when I was home.  The bitch expanded, popped its top, oozed out of its container (so much that it tipped sideways), and covered an index card that had installation measurements for my mother’s new door. 

Hence her quote.  She has yet to get a dog, so she definitely isn’t going to be tied down by sourdough.  No matter how good.  

And it makes very good bread.  The recipe I use faithfully is from Tartine Bread, a cookbook from their San Francisco bakery.  Their country sourdough requires 8 to 10 hours start to finish and involves 15 pages of instructions.  (In fact, I am not going to write the instructions for fear of carpal tunnel.)  Instead, I have included a picture of the final product (starter itself isn’t going to win any beauty contests).  Suffice to say if you enjoy making bread, I highly recommend the book.

In the meantime, here are some tips for feeding a sourdough starter.  Which, it turns out, is a lot like the parenting you’d provide a small child (minus the bit about ‘nam).  Though you might want to think of a name other than bitch.  My brother started to refer to his as “Animal.”  Which is very appropriate.  Brother, this is for you.

How to Feed Your Starter Your Animal:

Replace what you take. 
To feed your animal (which I keep in a plastic quart container), remove about a third of the starter and replace it with roughly the same amount of a mixture of flour and water (about 60/40, respectively).

Use what you have.
No need to feed with bread flour, AP will do.  Or use bread flour, if that's what is around.  Whatever.

If you don’t feed it, it will die.
Starter becomes cultured with wild yeast and bacteria.  These things need food.  If they don't get food, starter will die.  The end. (You should feed the starter once a day, if kept out at room temperature.)

Mistakes will be made.
It’s pretty hard to kill a starter, unless you utterly neglect it.  A healthy one will double in volume after a feeding.  If yours doesn’t perform this parlor trick, it may not be strong enough to raise bread.  Try taking out more of your starter, and feed it again with more flour and water.  When it floats in warm water, it is ready for bread making.

This is like ‘nam.  There are no rules.
Trust your instincts. Does your starter seem a little wet?  (It should resemble a loose dough.)  Add a bit more flour.  Traveling from Boston to Syracuse?  Best to slightly underfeed it, so the starter does not crawl out of your bag and all over your car. 

Plan ahead.
If you will not be regularly baking bread, keep it in the fridge and feed it about once a week.  Remove the starter two days before you intend to use it.  Feed it once or twice a day, so it gains strength.  And be sure to feed it about 8 hours before you plan to use it.  It’s like training for a sports event.  Properly hydrate and eat enough carbs.  (If I don't have time to bake bread, I'll take the starter out and let it come to room temperature before feeding it.  After that leave it out and feed it daily or put it back in the fridge.)

-The starter you use in a bread recipe is called a leaven.  It naturally raises your dough.  There are detailed instructions for making your own starter culture in the book.  You can also always make a new friend with someone that has a starter.  I had a generous boyfriend.

-These instructions work well for my Boston-grown, Canary Square-birthed starter.  (It’s coming from a persevering place, fueled by good beer.) I don't always get a chance to make bread regularly, so I've adapted my instructions as such.  Dive right in and experiment.

-I have nothing but love for this starter, despite its moniker.

-It seems Martha has published Tartine’s recipe.

-A special shout-out to the Quicks, whose baby bun is no longer in the oven.  May she have many good loaves in her future.  Lots of love, new family of three.


  1. That loaf looks gorgeous! I'm glad that you like Tartine Bread so much. Octavian's mother has shown some interest in my starter, but I've never had the opportunity to bring her any. We always fly there when we visit, and I don't think that the TSA would look too kindly on a bubbling, sticky mass, especially one that's more than 3.3 oz in volume!

    I haven't been baking with my starter lately, but even when I do bake with her (it?) more regularly, she spends most of her time in the fridge. Otherwise, she just has too much of an appetite. Like a hungry teenager, maybe? Her name is Gertrude.

  2. I love the idea of calling it an animal! Great blog title, too. This is making me want some fresh baked bread right now!

  3. This post is so practical and wise; the world of the starter is tricky and it's easy to make mistakes. I eagerly started one a few months ago and, at one point, it seemed ready to go, but then seemed to die (admittedly, I had neglected my animal). Since then I've been wary of restarting the process (I can relate to your mother's feelings), although I think your post has inspired in me the need to try again. If I can take care of a puppy, I ought to be able to deal with a starter, right?

  4. Katie: Gertrude! I love it. You definitely helped motivated me on my Tartine quest. Sometimes she does feel like a hungry teenager, but she's worth it! :)

    Bianca: hope you found some, freshly baked!

    Junsui: wishing you the best of luck with trying your hand at starter #2. It can be especially difficult in the summer, especially with all the vacations often taken this time of year. Worth it, but a pain in the you-know-what.