The Waste Conundrum

On bread discussion boards where people talk about their sourdough starters, invariably you will see posts written by people who are concerned about the amount of flour or old starter they end up tossing away, especially during the creating-the-starter phase. There seems to be much fretting and worrying that so much product is simply going to waste.

In this post, I’d like to address a few ideas concerning waste in the starter which, hopefully, will spark some discussion and help resolve some of the concern.

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Let’s begin by discussing something that is certainly within everyone’s control and that is the size of the starter you keep. Some starter instructions have you making two or three cups of starter which would mean that at each feed, whether it’s being kept refrigerated once it’s reached good active levels and fed once a week or, worse, while it’s developing  and on your counter being fed twice a day, you’re going to be producing at least one or more cups of excess a shot or more if you’re reducing 2/3. Feed that twice in one day and you’re removing at least two cups. It’s not difficult to see that this would begin making a serious dent in your bag of flour over just a few days!

The solution to this problem is very simple:

Keep your starter much smaller.

Unless you bake every day and/or make many loaves at a time, you do not need to keep and feed industrial quantities of starter. And there’s no need to begin your new from-scratch starter at these quantities either. There are plenty of methods/recipes to get a starter moving that require less than a cup. If the starter recipe you’re looking at is requiring a cup of flour each feed, look for another recipe. Your new starter will not work one bit better whether it’s a half cup or three cups, it’s merely proportions. Pull a tablespoon from both a half-cup and three cup new starter at the same stage and you’ll have identical activity in either tablespoons. Bigger is simply not better, it’s just… more.

“How much starter should I be keeping?”

This is a question you’ll see pop up fairly often in bread forums. The answer to that will depend on how much starter your favourite “go to” bread requires. For example, the Hamelman Vermont Sourdough recipe requires 30g of active starter. So if this were your regular bread and you made that recipe once a week, you could keep your starter at a size that would be small enough to create 30g of excess on feed day. A 1/4 cup starter would be plenty big; this is made up of a 15g:30g:30g ratio (old starter:flour:water) or a 1:2:2 ratio. If your regular go-to recipe needs 120g of starter, then you’d want to keep your starter at about a half-cup size, 30:60:60g so that the regular feed provides you with the 120g excess you need. This way, there’s actually never any excess to toss out.

What if your recipe requires 360g of starter? Do you then need to keep and feed a cup and a half of starter? If you bake regularly, sure, this would simply mean you have that amount available each week on feed/bake day. But you could still do a smaller amount 15:30:30 and simply bulk up that 60g of excess by adding 150g each of water and flour, to get your required volume when you are going to bake. This way, you still create the amount of starter you need in your recipe, hang on to a much smaller jar of starter in the fridge and, should you need to skip baking one week, you can still feed the starter it’s 30:30g and not have a huge amount of excess to worry over – just enough to make a batch of pancakes. Again, there’s actually no excess to toss out.

Another way to the same end: some people like to keep their starter stiffer making it more a dough than a batter consistency. Keeping a small ball of starter, they pluck off a small knob off their chef starter each time they wanted to bake, expanding that small amount to their recipe’s requirement. When their mother starter was down to the last possible little knob, it is then mixed up into a new dough ball and the whole process starts again.

Now what if you do have to toss the excess because you aren’t making pancakes or any other baked goods for a while, but the starter in the fridge is needing a feed anyway?  Even if that excess end up heading for the compost/green recycling or just into the trash, you have to keep in mind a few points.

1) Stop thinking of that 15 or 30 meagre grams of flour as “waste”!

If you were taking a cup of flour right from your flour bag and chucking it into the garbage, then yes, I’d agree that IS wasteful. But that isn’t what you’re doing at all. You’re taking that flour and you are feeding and maintaining a living starter colony. That is not “waste”, that is a purposeful use. That small amount of flour, even if it ends up in the trash (but better in the compost, of course) has been put to good use and given you and your family delicious sourdough bread. It is not “waste”. It is no more “waste” than the food you buy at the grocery store is “waste”.

2) Count your pennies

Or don’t, as the case may be. Here in Ontario, I can buy a 10 kilo bag of unbleached all purpose flour for about $12 from the local big grocery store. And this is Canadian prices and on the high end ever since flour prices went up. Americans get it even cheaper. But let’s continue.

Even at the relatively not-cheap price of $12 for 10k, that works out to $0.0012 per gram of flour.
12.00 ÷ 10000g = 0.0012 cents per gram.

If I’m smart and keeping a starter of a relatively small size like 75g (15:30:30), I’m using 30g of flour per feeding. 30g at $0.0012 is a stunning $0.036. Let’s look at that again: a touch over 3¢ worth of flour.

Now, even if I never did anything with that flour but took it right from the bag and immediately tossed it directly into the garbage because for some odd reason that was a required step in the starter process, is having an active, useful starter that produces great bread worth 3¢ a week? I’d say yes. That, by the way, is $1.87 per year. A goldfish that just swims about and poops in his water costs more to feed than that.

And if I really put my penny-pinching goggles on, I could probably find plenty of other things I or anyone out there does each week that uses up one heck of a lot more than 3¢ but that doesn’t even register on anyone’s radar. Didn’t finish that cup of Starbuck’s coffee the other day? I’ll guarantee you that was more than 3¢ wasted. And even if you did, that empty paper cup cost you more than 3¢.

The point here is simple: that small amount of flour is not a huge financial burden considering what it gives you back and in the grander scheme of things, is probably one of the smaller expenses you have in a week.

3) Use that extra starter

As has been mentioned in another post and is always brought up when people worry about “wasting” their starter, there are plenty of uses for that excess starter so you don’t have to feel bad about tossing it. And remember, it’s “excess”, not starter “gone bad”. That very same stuff could be given to someone else to get their own starter going, could, obviously, be used to make bread, so it’s not dead, gross stuff, it’s just “more than you need” because you have to give the other 1/5 you’re keeping of THE EXACT SAME STUFF a fresh batch of flour. Use this extra in nearly anything you’re baking: cakes, muffins, pizza shells, waffles, pancakes. There are lists out on the intarweb of cool things you can do if you aren’t up to making a round of bread. You can store the excess in a container and keep it for a week or two or three (toss out any hootch that builds). Get clever in using it, look up possible uses. Remember, it’s not “trash” it’s merely “too much” and can be used in other ways.

So in conclusion, my advice is PLEASE, DON’T FRET SO MUCH.

Yes, it’s a current (and valid) passion to not “waste” anything but this isn’t wasted! It has been well and wisely used, has done it’s duty and fed your wonderful starter, which isn’t a at all a “waste”. Recycling is a perfectly fine and acceptable thing to do with it without causing anxiety. It’s only a couple of penny’s worth of flour that, again, has gone to supplying you with a great starter. Keeping a smaller starter will minimize the amount you might need to discard/use alternatively, if any. During the start-up process, that’s not stuff you’d want to keep anyway; it’s part of the steps.

Relax and consider the great bread you can make from your starter. THAT is the goal and where you need to focus, not on what happens to the extra. Any more than you’d be bothered about having kids because they produce waste (and a heck of a lot more, in all sorts of ways) you try and keep it to a minimum but accept it’s just part of the way things are. And you enjoy the final results. To a much lesser degree, your starter is the same. A little acceptable discard in the compost allows you to enjoy amazing baked products. Think of that warm, golden loaf of  bread coming out of the oven and the joy and healthy bounty that brings to you and your family, then ask if it’s worth a few grams of flour.

Of course it is.

Please feel free to comment on this post!

2 thoughts on “The Waste Conundrum

  1. Linda Hartley

    Thanks for the wonderful tips. This is my first time making sourdough bread. I loved your reasons for not saving the starter. The swimming pool analogy made me laugh.

    Before I read your blog, I didn’t want to “waste” that first 1/2 cup starter, so I used the “throw away” starter to make some sourdough bread in my Zojirushi bread machine. I followed a sourdough bread recipe and put the dough on the dough cycle. After the rising cycle, I shaped the loaf, cut 4-5 slits in the dough and baked it on the top rack of a pre-heated 425 F. oven with a pan of hot water on the lower rack for 30 minutes. I sprayed the loaf with water before and during the cooking period to achieve a crusty top. Half way during the baking period, I covered the loaf with foil so it wouln’t brown too fast.

    It was the best tasting French bread ever! Not exactly a strong soughdough flavor, but it looked, smelled and tasted great anyway. So, if you really can’t bare to throw that starter away the first 7 days, just make some lite sourdough “French” bread and make everyone happy.

    Reply
  2. Mark Wisecarver

    Good points. This is something we should always mention in Baking posts. The age of waste is over.
    Here’s a Simple tip for new SD bakers; Try to bake something with your starter once each week, if you have a cup of starter that is going to waste add it to any dough during the mixing step, i.e. 1 cup of starter in 27 ounces of Burger bun dough, even if you don’t allow it to rise all day will give you the most amazing tasting burger buns.

    Reply

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