Dave Miller's Sourdough Starter Maintenance

A while back, I had the privilege of attending Dave Miller's bread class at Grist & Toll and came away inspired. This post is focused on conversations the group had about Dave's starter maintenance.

Though I've spent a lot of my sourdough journey pondering the minutia from strengthening to pre-shaping, the key to making a great loaf of bread is ultimately the vitality of your food pet. Dave's routine got my brain wheels spinning about ways I could improve the health and performance of Moomin the Starter. My original instructions, "How to Build and Maintain a Sourdough Starter", are still on point so this post is simply an extension of that information.

Four Takeaways

After the class, I started playing with four concepts related to starter maintenance: a stiffer starter, stepped inoculations, consistent 2X a day feedings, and giving the yeast a rest.

Stiffened Starter

But first, a qualification. I've read a number of forums and blog posts regarding stiff vs. liquid starters and whether or not one imparts more of a "sour" taste, more strength, more spring, and so forth. Though I still don't have a clear understanding of the science, I assume there's a results-oriented difference between stiff and liquid since certain formulas specifically call for one over the other. There's a lot to consider with this subject if you go down The Google rabbit hole. I came across some threads on The Fresh Loaf (here and here) that are a bit mind-bending but interesting if you like information peppered with diagrams of molecules. For the purposes of this post, however, I'm going to leave the deep science out of it. My experiments discussed below stem more from advice from other bakers than my own knowledge about LAB, acetic acid, yeast, and the balances thereof.

With that out of the way, here's more on the subject.

In Dave's experience, a stiffer starter has "more force". As a general rule of thumb, 100% or more hydration is considered a liquid starter and 60-65% hydration and below is considered stiff. Dave's starter is in the neighborhood of 65-70% hydration per my calculations. I decided to go with 80% hydration for my maintenance and levain build and can't give a good reason why I chose that number. Splitting the difference perhaps? Bakers are always evolving their techniques so it's possible that Dave has changed things since the class, but 65-70% is what I understood at the time.

Has my move from 100% to 80% hydration made a difference? I can't say for sure but my bread (pictured) is looking great so I'm sticking with 80% for now and may bump it down to 75%. I think a combination of frequent feedings and stepped inoculations have made the most difference.

Stepped Inoculations

25% inoculation means that a feeding has 100 grams of fresh flour and 25 grams of mature starter. When Dave brings his starter out of hibernation, he does three feedings (technically four) and then steps the inoculations from 25% to 50% and then 75% before mixing his bread dough. I decided to start varying my inoculations during feedings and levain builds and my starter seems quite happy. Specifically, I rotate between 50-70% in the morning (depending on the time of day) and 30% in the evening for daily feedings. Don't we all like variety in life?

Feeding Twice a Day

I don't recall Dave explicitly suggesting this, but his method works out to be about 2 feedings a day and many experienced bakers are committed to this approach. Without question, my starter seems to have more energy and a better nose (smell) when it's refreshed twice a day. From time to time I'll only do one feeding in a 24-hour period, but if it's a couple of days from a bake I try to stick with twice a day.

Give it a Rest

Dave shared that he only bakes once a week for the local farmers market. In between bakes, he dries out the starter and stores it in the refrigerator. This is an excellent method for anyone that likes to make sourdough but can't bake regularly.

Rather than drying my starter out, I occassionally feed the starter, let it rest at room temperature for 30 minutes, then put it in the refrigerator for a couple of days if I'm not going to bake anything during the week. I suspect Dave's approach is better at maintaining the starter's health so I'm going to start rotating my food pet in and out of nap time. A portion of starter will be dried out in the fridge and then every couple of weeks I'm going to rotate the dry starter to liquid and the liquid to dry. I may even go full Dave Miller and dry out my starter between bakes. Why am I doing this? I'm curious to see what kind of bread I produce. Does the starter perform differently? Is the flavor cleaner? You never know until you try. This is more of a fun experiment than something I expect will blow my bread world open.

And with all that, let's get to the main event.

Loaf 156

Tools & Resources

  • Fine Mesh Strainer
  • Scale // Weigh all the things. That's my motto with cooking and baking. I recently purchased my second OXO scale after having the first one for 10 long and happy years. Not an advertisement, this scale is just what I happened to buy back in the day and it has served me well.
  • Tartine Bread // Like many bread bakers, this book got me started on my sourdough journey and occupies one of the four cookbook spots in my kitchen.
  • Bread // I frequently reference this book. From recipes to bread science, it's a wealth of useful information.
  • How to Build and Maintain a Sourdough Starter // This post has a number of tips to help you get up and running with a new starter.

Dave Miller's Sourdough Starter Maintenance

Though every baker has their own rhythm and method, I find it instructive to know how experienced folks do things. It's food for thought and encourages me to consider new approaches. Here is a breakdown of Dave Miller's sourdough starter maintenance as I understood it during the class. Not only does Dave's approach to starter maintenance minimize waste, but he feels it consistently maintains the vitality of the yeast. The method of drying and rehydrating a starter is especially appealing for those that might only want to bake a couple of times a month. I'm including hypothetical days of the week to give a sense for how this might work for a weekend baker.

Flour for Feeding

Blend together 50% Central Milling's Organic Beehive (or unbleached organic all-purpose) and 50% whole grain Sonora.

Bake and Dry - Saturday (Day 1)

After the bake:

  • Combine 3 ounces of ripe levain with 14 ounces of the fresh 50/50 flour blend.
  • Rub the starter and flour mixture until the starter dries out and forms little sourdough balls.
  • Cover and refrigerate until needed.

No Activity - Sunday, Monday, Tuesday (Days 2-4)

  • Rest
  • Rest
  • Rest

Rehydrate - Wednesday (Day 5)

  • A couple of days before baking, use a fine mesh strainer to sift the sourdough balls out of the mixture. Set the sifted flour aside.
  • Add 10 ounces of 80-degree water to the sourdough balls and stir thoroughly to combine. Once the balls are hydrated, add the sifted flour back in. Note: Before adding in the sifted flour, feel the starter mixture with your fingers to see if any hard bits remain. If it's still not 100% hydrated, pour the mixture through the mesh strainer and then pushed and scraped with a spatula to break up anything that gets stuck (if some small bits remain just discard those). Let the mixture sit in the bowl for a bit longer until homogeneous and then add the sifted flour back in.
  • Let the mixture rise overnight at room temperature.

Build - Thursday (Day 6)

  • Feed the starter in the morning with a 25% inoculation and 70% hydration. Hypothetical numbers for reference:
    • 100 grams fresh 50/50 flour blend
    • 70 grams filtered water
    • 25 grams ripe starter
  • Feed the starter in the evening with a 50% inoculation and 70% hydration. Hypothetical numbers for reference:
    • 100 grams fresh 50/50 flour blend
    • 70 grams water
    • 50 grams ripe starter

    Feed, Mix, and Shape - Friday (Day 7)

    • Feed the starter in the morning with a 75% inoculation and 70% hydration. Hypothetical numbers for reference:
    • 100 grams fresh 50/50 flour blend
    • 70 grams water
    • 75 grams ripe starter
    • Mix
    • Shape and Refrigerate

    Note: I can't recall if Dave dries the starter on Friday or Saturday so I added a feeding on Friday evening. I like that extra feeding but suppose you could just dry the starter out on Friday after mixing. That may actually be what Dave does since the starter has already been refreshed three (technically four) times. Baker's discretion.

    • Feed the starter in the evening with a 50% inoculation and 70% hydration. Hypothetical numbers for reference:
      • 100 grams fresh 50/50 flour blend
      • 70 grams water
      • 50 grams ripe starter

    Bake and Repeat - Saturday (Day 1)

    See instructions above.

    Rip Van Moomin

    I wanted to test the drying method before publishing this post so I rubbed some starter and flour together, threw the bowl in the fridge, and forgot about it...for a year. Moomin went down for a nap in July of 2017 to be exact. Always date all the things. Also, I cut the starter and flour by 1/3 and had plenty.

    Since this post was burning a hole in my drafts folder, I pulled the bowl of crumbly bits out and decided to take a chance and rehydrate them. There wasn't a shred of life after 18 hours and the mixture just smelled like fresh flour. I stirred the contents of the bowl frequently and made sure it was at about 78°F. I started to see some hints of activity after about 24 hours and performed another feeding. The next morning, my tiny but might yeast had risen. After two more feedings, Rip Van Moomin was ready to bake after its long and luxurious nap in the cheese drawer.

    On that note, here are some tips:

    • Use an airtight container and don't put said container in a place where the flour will pick up off odors. Cheese drawers, for example, aren't the best choice. I had to discard the flour that my starter balls were stored in because of the smell.
    • Take extra care to stir the mixture several times and ensure that it's at an optimal temperature of around 78°F. Give the starter every chance to wake up and get running.
    • This is very important (albeit obvious) advice. If you're going to change up your sourdough starter routine, be sure to set some aside in the refrigerator as an insurance policy. I was messing around with feedings one week and almost lost my starter. It suddenly smelled like dirty socks and I ended up mixing 4 different feedings at varying inoculations in what was effectively an ICU for yeast. Lesson learned.

    Final Thoughts

    Last but not least, it was so nice to meet some of my Instagram bread friends in person. Min and Noah are passionate sourdough bakers and worth a follow if you're on IG. Also, check out who they follow and you'll discover a community of people who are as curious as you are about the journey of bread baking. If you made it to the end of this post, you're solidly in the bread geek column.

    I plan to publish more bread baking notes and recipes on Chic Eats, but in the meantime my Little Brown Bakery journal is always available for anyone who wants to follow along loaf by loaf.

    Rip Van Moomin after the third feeding.

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