Once the starter is in the refrigerator, you will need to get it out of hibernation and activate it before baking. To do it, take the starter out of the fridge and feed it 8-12 hours before you plan to start making the dough. A healthy, mature starter should be bubbly and double in 8 hours. If your starter does not double before you begin making the dough, it is best to feed it one more time and wait for it to double. The best time to bake is when your starter is fully active and has doubled.
When a recipe calls for an active starter, take equal parts of refrigerator starter, flour, and starter to activate it. For example, if the recipe calls for 60 grams of active starter, take out 20 grams of starter and combine it with 20 grams of flour and 20 grams of water the night before you make your dough.
Once your starter is bubbly and has risen double, you can perform a float test to check if it is fully active and ready for baking. To do the float test, take a teaspoon of the starter and drop it in a bowl of water. If it floats, it passes the float test; and if it does not, it needs more time to be fully active. You can wait for some more time and check again or can feed the starter again and wait for 4-6 hours.
A sample timeline I follow:
FRIDAY NIGHT: Take the starter from the fridge and feed it with flour and water. Leave it in a warm temperature overnight.
SATURDAY MORNING: Mix dough, stretch, and fold, bulk fermentation.
SATURDAY NIGHT: Cold fermentation in the fridge.
SUNDAY/MONDAY MORNING: Bake day
I have elaborated on the baking schedule in my post on baking sourdough bread.
TROUBLESHOOTING SOURDOUGH STARTER
WHY IS MY STARTER NOT BUBBLY AND RISING
If the starter is not bubbly, it may need more frequent feedings. Also, check the temperature at which the starter is placed. It needs a warm spot to grow and develop bacterial and yeast culture.
Some new starters may take more time to become active and bubbly, which is completely normal. With so many factors influencing the bacterial and yeast growth, it is important to be patient and continue to follow the discard and feed cycles. You can also stir the starter one or two times between the feeds which can help in increasing the oxygen levels in it. The starter is healthy as long as there are no molds/black spots on it.
WHAT TO DO IF THERE ARE MOULDS
If your starter develops black spots or has a pink tinge to it or is furry, you will have to throw it away and start again. Clean the jar thoroughly before starting a new starter. You may also consider changing the flour.
WHY DOES MY STARTER SMELL WEIRD/FUNNY
When making a new starter, it is normal for it to not smell good during the first couple of days. It can have a strong and pungent smell in the beginning, and it can stink as well. This only means that you have caught yourself some wild yeast and the yeast culture has begun in the starter. Keep continuing the discard and feed cycle and as the starter starts to mature and ripen, it will have a fruity and yeasty smell with an astringent note to it.
Sometimes, a mature starter develops a funny smell – like nail polish remover or acetone. This means that the starter is hungry. Feed it to reduce the smell. The starter is perfectly normal. With a more frequent feeding cycle, the smell will go away completely. A healthy starter should smell yeasty or a bit like vinegar.
WHAT IS THE DARK LIQUID ON TOP OF MY STARTER
This is called hooch and happens if the starter is hungry. You can choose to throw it away or stir it back in – it does not make any difference to the starter. Just feed the starter right away. I prefer to stir the hooch back into it as this adds more sourness to the bread.
WHY IS MY STARTER VERY LIQUIDY
If the starter is placed in a very warm place, it eats up all the food quickly turning it very watery or liquidy. If this happens, you will have to place the starter in a spot that is less warm. Continue to discard and feed, and move the starter to a slightly cooler spot to fix this issue.
WHAT IF I MISS A FEED
While it is important to feed the starter regularly, the starter will not die if you miss a feeding cycle. But feed it straight away once you remember and continue with the regular feeding cycle. While making a new starter, I prefer to set a reminder on my phone so that I can feed the starter on time. But I can assure you by experience that mild negligence will not kill your starter. Once the starter is well established and goes into the fridge, it only needs to be fed once a week. Consider setting a particular day of the week as a part of the routine to do it.
Read how to maintain your established starter here.
This is easier said than done. It takes time for the starter to get mature and ripe, and it needs some love and care while it is developing. Remember there are no shortcuts to create a starter. Don’t rush into it as making and establishing a starter takes time. The only shortcut to make the starter fast is to have an established starter – consider getting some discard from friends and family who bake sourdough regularly.
Every starter is different and can behave differently. It may take anywhere from 7 to 14 days for the starter to be active, bubbly, rising double, and ready to bake. Don’t give up on your starter as long as there are no molds. It takes time but is absolutely worth it when we get to bake real bread with it.