The process of baking sourdough can be intimidating. It seems like so much to remember, from prepping your starter hours beforehand to figuring out how long to do your bulk fermentation for the best results. Perhaps you’ve wondered, “Can I use sourdough starter straight from the fridge?” to make this process faster–I know I have!
People love to overanalyze sourdough and can easily get into camps that there is only one best way to go about preparing sourdough bread recipes.
The truth of the matter is that while there’s a pretty standard sourdough process, there certainly is room for different methods. Prepping your starter to make it an active sourdough starter takes several hours. The fermentation process takes a long time, too. The entire sourdough process takes a lot of time!
So what if there was a way to speed it up without diminishing results?
What is a Sourdough Starter?
First of all, it would be good to establish what a sourdough starter is and how it works. A sourdough starter is a complex colony of fermented microbial organisms, such as bacteria and wild yeast. It is typically created by mixing equal amounts of flour and water and allowing it to sit at room temperature, discarding a certain amount, and refeeding it at regular intervals for several days, or even weeks until it’s established.
This fermented culture is what is used to leaven bread instead of commercial yeast. As the microbes feed on the nutrients in your flour, they release carbon dioxide that causes your bread to rise. As a result, the fermented dough is now more digestible to humans.
Making your own sourdough starter is very easy, but it does require patience. You can visit this site for step-by-step instructions for making your own starter. Many websites and videos will promise you a fully mature starter in seven days, but lots of people will not have a mature starter for 2 weeks or even more. For some, it takes up to a month. So if you are trying to make a new starter and it is taking longer than you expected, fear not. It will come. As long as you’re not seeing signs of dangerous mold, keep going. Mine finally took off at the 14-day mark, but it will be different for everyone.
There are so many things that can impact your sourdough starter (which I will get to later in this article), so it’s impossible for everyone to have the exact same results as everyone else. That means that you should just keep going and allow your starter more time to fully develop.
My Sourdough Process
A few notes about how I do my sourdough:
- I am passionate about whole-grain baking, so my starter is 100% whole wheat. There is a difference between white starters and whole wheat starters.
- Most notably, you’ll notice that at equal weight of flour and water, whole wheat starters are stiffer than white starters. That’s because they can absorb more of the liquid. It is perfectly fine to have a stiffer starter, and many feel it helps with gluten structure.
- The whole wheat flour is also why my starter does so well in the fridge. Wholemeal flours are filled with so many nutrients and minerals that the microbes have much more support in cooler environments.
- I make 99% of my loaves with 100% whole wheat flour. I often grind my own flour with my Mockmill because home-milled flour has more fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants than store bought. But…that’s because I’m a big whole-grain nerd. I know that’s not possible for everyone. Just use the best flour you can get!
- After I measure the amount of starter I need for my loaf, I feed my starter to restore what was taken.
- I keep my starter in the refrigerator for long term storage and feed it after using it, instead of before like most people.
- I do not keep large amounts of discard, but if you like making sourdough discard recipes, then you may choose to make extra so you have some.
- After feeding, it sits out at room temperature for an hour or two if I have the time, but sometimes it goes right back into the fridge after the feeding until the next week.
A Series of Sourdough Experiments
One day after forgetting to prepare an active starter before bed for the umpteenth time, I got to thinking about how feeding your sourdough starter just requires feeding at least an equal or larger amount of fresh flour and water to the existing starter and then giving it some time to ferment. I thought…how is that much different than preparing a loaf of sourdough?
Creating your bread dough is just a large amount of flour, a medium to large amount of water, and then a small amount of starter. A little salt. But overall, it’s just a sourdough starter feeding on a large scale.
I wondered, “Can I use my sourdough starter straight from the fridge?” I decided to find out!
Experiment 1: Using Unfed, Cold Starter
The first thing I experimented with was just grabbing my cold sourdough starter right out of the refrigerator. I prepared my loaf as normal (adding 500 g flour (whole wheat), 425 g water, 100 g starter, and 12 g salt) to a bowl and mixed together thoroughly. The only difference is I used a refrigerated, unfed sourdough starter instead of an active and fresh sourdough starter.
I went through the preparation process as I normally do, completing my stretches and folds and then allowing it to bulk ferment. Everything worked as it normally did with an active starter–I was amazed! I didn’t even notice a significant difference in the amount of time it took to reach my target rise for the bulk ferment, but the only way to know for sure would be to do a side-by-side.
Experiment 2: A Side-by-Side Comparison
The next experiment I performed was to make two loaves at the same time. For one, I prepared a levain several hours before. The best time for me to mix the levain is usually right before I go to bed so I can start mixing the dough right when I wake up. Since I needed to extend the time it would take to get to its peak, I added 20 grams of starter to a clean jar plus 50 grams of flour and 50 grams of water instead of a typical 1:1:1 feeding (equal parts starter, flour, and water). I set it on my counter overnight.
For the other loaf, I just planned to use my cold, unfed starter. I used the same grams of starter for each, it’s just that one was considered active and bubbly, and one was not. The dough was kept at the same temperature–the difference would be the starter temperatures: the active and bubbly starter was room temperature, and the refrigerated starter was around 37-38 degrees. The dough with the refrigerated starter may have started a slight bit cooler than the other dough, but when I took the temperature of both doughs after my stretches and folds were complete, both were 69 degrees.
The water temperature was the same–I poured each one from the same pitcher, used freshly milled flour for both loaves, and milled the flour for both at the same time in one big batch.
I let both doughs rise for as long as they needed to reach a 75% rise during the bulk fermentation. There was a noticeable difference in the time it took to rise–the dough with the unfed starter needed a longer fermentation time, while the dough with the active starter hit its target rise about 90 minutes faster.
At the end of the experiment after baking and cooling, both loaves turned out almost identical in rise and taste. The one with the active starter was a little bit gummy in the crumb, meaning I should have baked it a few minutes longer. When baked for the same amount of time, the loaf with the unfed starter was not gummy. I’m not sure what would have caused that kind of difference– it’s possible the difference was something like an unnoticed variance in oven temperature during the baking process or a difference in the amount of stored heat in the baking vessel. I do not think it was likely related to the starter at all. Overall, both loaves were very good.
I personally could not detect a difference in flavor. Some say an unfed starter will give a more sour taste. To me, the level of tang was the same in both loaves, but there’s more that can affect taste than just the details surrounding the starter.
So in conclusion–can I use sourdough starter straight from the fridge? Absolutely!
In my research and experience, there are a few caveats to the results of this experiment.
- You need a healthy starter. It should be robust and maintained, and it should receive regular feedings. You cannot expect to leaven a loaf of bread with a starter that has been sitting in the back of your fridge for 5 months, smelling like acetone (or worse). A healthy sourdough starter is fed regularly and not allowed to get too “hungry.” Your starter is hungry if it is developing hooch.
- Consider feeding your starter with whole wheat flour to encourage a greater diversity of microbes. That can help create more temperature resilience.
- If you want to start using a cold, unfed starter for your bread, you should give it time to get used to cold storage if it is not yet used to that. I will get into this more in the next section, but one thing that affects the microbial makeup of your sourdough starter is the temperature at which you maintain it. Some bacteria and yeasts do better at cold temperatures than others. If your starter is not used to being cold, it may get more sleepy in the fridge than a starter that is always stored that way. My starter is at the point now where I get a rise even in the fridge (albeit slowly–it rises over the course of days. Some have told me it’s not possible that my starter can still rise in the fridge, but yes, mine does. And yes, my fridge is cold enough. I even just got a new fridge. I set it to the perfect fridge temperature).
What Affects a Sourdough Starter?
There are numerous factors that affect a sourdough starter, meaning that no one’s starter is exactly the same as someone else’s. With reasonable care and feeding, they adapt to their environments which may make them behave differently for each baker. Here are some things that affect sourdough starters:
- Temperature. As I explained above, the temperature you keep your starter at may impact the types and balance of microbes in your starter.
- Type of Flour. I feed my starter 100% whole wheat flour. Usually hard white wheat, but sometimes red wheat, sometimes a little rye. Whole wheat starters will behave differently than starters made with white all purpose flour.
- Water. It’s possible that heavily chlorinated water or water with lots of heavy metal content (like iron) can impact your starter in some capacity. Chlorine has the potential to kill microbes, though many people find they’re still able to use tap water without issue. It may depend on how much chlorine your municipality uses.
- Your local environment. Your starter’s microbial colony is made up of what is in the environment surrounding it. That’s one reason why San Francisco is known for its sourdough–its unique climate contributes to a certain microbial composition that gives it its characteristic flavor.
- The way you care for your starter. This should go without saying, but you need to take care of your starter. Starters are resilient. If you’ve neglected yours for a while, don’t fret–you can almost certainly revive it as long as it’s free from mold. However, a starter trying to recover from neglect is just not going to behave as well as a properly maintained starter. If you want your starter to work when you need it, you need to learn how to care for it properly.
Tips for Using Unfed Starter from Fridge
As a recap for those wondering, “Can I use sourdough starter straight from the fridge?” Yes, you can! But you should expect that you may need to add more time to the bulk ferment. However, this helps you save several hours on the front end by not having to worry about remembering to feed your starter at the right time. For me, that’s what I need at this stage of life, so making bread from unfed starter is perfect for me.
Here are some final tips if you would like to try it yourself.
- Keep your starter healthy! This is the most important thing. Keep feeding it regularly–at least once a week.
- Feed your starter at least a 50% portion of whole wheat or rye flour, if not 100%. The microbiome of whole wheat sourdough starters is more diverse, making them more resilient to cooler temperatures.
- Allow enough time for the bulk fermentation.
- My experiment showed that the dough from the unfed starter needed an additional 90 minutes for the bulk fermentation at 69 degrees.
- During the summer when my doughs were a few degrees warmer, I also did a side-by-side test. It was only a difference of about 30 minutes. Be prepared for the time difference to vary depending on your unique variables.
- Consider some tricks to speed up fermentation if needed.
- Use warm (not hot) water in your dough
- Add some whole wheat flour (whole meal flours encourage faster fermentation by having more nutrients)
- Keep your dough in a warm (but not too hot) place. All of these things will help your dough ferment faster.