The Waste Conundrum

Paul, January 20, 2009

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!

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7 thoughts on “The Waste Conundrum”

  1. Linda Hartley says:

    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.

  2. 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.

  3. Gord Bakker says:

    I’m new to the whole sourdough starter experience, currently on Day 3 of your starter recipe, and am wondering, do I actually have to remove from my starter when feeding, or can I just keep adding which would result in a super starter mass due to all the feedings, or can this “waste” be used to run a 2nd starter along side the mother starter it was borne from?

    1. Paul says:

      Hi Gord,

      Until your starter is going consistently well, doubles or triples regularly and is baking excellent bread, you aught to discard as recommended. The first while, during the cultivation, what you’ve got here is not quite a starter yet, so there’s no point keeping it. And if you just don’t discard, you’ll have a pool-sized amount of starter in a week or so.

      I’d also suggest you put aside great plans to keep and feed multiple starters until you’ve been using this ONE starter for a while and learn how to feed and care and maintain it. Jumping to being a new multi-starter parent is not really a great plan. Learn with this one and then, later, if you TRULY feel you MUST have a second one, then do so. (And yes, it’s as easy as using the excess you’d compost or add to your pancakes or pizza – it’s just as useful as the part you’re keeping for bread making.)

      I’d further want to ask you why you feel you would need multiple starters going at the same time. If you’re planning on making several types of breads (regular, rye or whole wheat, for example), it’s simple as anything to use you normal starter and switch it up for that recipe to a different type of flour; just feed some excess set aside for it with you desired flour. Bake away you fresh batch of deli rye, then next week you can go back to making your normal sourdough. For that matter, you don’t even need to make a special starter of a new sort, usually. Just use your “plain” mother to make your rye or whole wheat bread. Since it typically takes a very small amount of “mother” to build up your levain for a recipe, it probably won’t make any noticeable difference in the final loaves.

      Lastly, I would want to make sure you weren’t being just too eager to jump with both feet and a few arms into this way of bread making. Remember that this is “slow food” – patience is an important part of making sourdough bread. Since you specify that you are new to sourdough, I would recommend taking it nice and easy and learning one thing at a time as you explore sourdough bread and not be too eager and going in numerous directions at once. Learn to keep one plate spinning before deciding you need to get several of them going at the same time, especially when starting out.

      If you would like to expand on your reasoning for needing numerous starters, I’d be glad to help you look into it.

      1. Gord Bakker says:

        Thanks for the quick response Paul.

        Yeah I was just thinking of multiple starters so I would have something to do with the “waste”, but agree it wouldn’t be ideal as I would end up with as you say a “pool-sized” starter.

  4. Arianne says:

    Okay. I’ve gotten through the first four days of Peter Reinhart’s starter, and it’s been sitting happily in the fridge for the last two days. I have not fed it yet, but I would like to bake from it. So…

    do I feed the whole starter and then use what I need?

    do I remove what I need and replenish it if I don’t have much left? (i will have a ridiculous amount left. i think it makes something like 6 cups of starter and i need something like 2/3 cup)

    do I discard a bunch, feed it, and then use what I need?

    do I make something with a bunch of it, feed the rest, and then remove what I need to make the loaf of bread I want?

    I’m not clear on the process here.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Arianne,

      There are a number of ways to use the starter but this is what I’d suggest.

      When you are going to make bread, take the starter out of the fridge two nights before bake day. So if you plan to bake Saturday morning, take it out Thursday night.

      Feed the starter as you normally would three times: Thursday night, Friday morning and Friday night. This will give your recently refrigerated starter a chance to get back to a good production strength after several days in the fridge. Friday night’s feed is a bit different. Instead of discarding/composting the excess starter, you’ll use that in another jar to build up what you need for your bake. You’ll ALSO keep your main starter sometimes referred to as the Mother or Chef in it’s original jar and feed that on it’s own again. This way you will have TWO starters for this last feed and the next morning, you’ll put Mom back in the fridge where she’ll be good and safe from accidentally going into the bread dough.

      Depending on how big Mom is usually and how much you take out when feeding, you will want to increase this last excess/discard to whatever size your recipe wants (this is called the “levain”). If, for example, you take away 60 grams (about ¼ cup) from Mom, you can build that up to 5 times this amount in one feed (60 starter + 120 water + 120 flour) to get 300 grams (about 1¼ cups). Of course, if you don’t need that much, just find out what you do need and reduce this excess to the right amount, basically one fifth of that required levain.

      As a side comment, I’ll add that your sourdough starter is probably not ready to be used for bread making yet at just four or five days old. Keep it out on the counter and feed it twice a day at a 1:2:2 ratio for the next week or two. And you really only need to keep about a quarter cup (60 g) for basic home baking of a couple of loaves every now and then. There is NO advantage to keeping large amounts, and a definite disadvantage: you have to use more flour to feed it, meaning more waste.

      Lastly, if you don’t have a scale yet, seriously consider getting one. I have a detailed set of things to look for in a home kitchen scale here: Digital Scales: Which Weigh To Go? A scale is an inexpensive addition to your baking tools, you can get them pretty cheap these days. Get one; it will make your bread baking more reliable and consistent.

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