So, you’ve gotten into baking sourdough, huh? One of the original DIY projects, baking your own bread is a great way to cook sustainably and produce your own food. Once an iconic homesteader’s activity, this age-old craft has become a popular hobby recently as many Americans are staying inside during the COVID-19 crisis, with some turning to stress baking to calm anxious nerves, while others aim to provide their own bread supply as grocery stores and online retailers run out. Both newbie bakers and long-time devotees finally have the ability to focus on the detailed, time-intensive project that is sourdough bread, a process that can take up to 36 hours, depending on the method you choose.
Building on a more niche trend that started in the late 2000s of growing interest in whole grain and artisanal baking, sourdough loaves, and their “crumb shots,” have now hit the mainstream and become the it social media photo. Bakers have turned into mini-celebrities and there’s even a fictional novel mockumenting the sourdough baking boom. Over the past few months, Google searches for sourdough more than doubled, use of the #sourdough hashtag increased 100 percent on social media, peaking in early April, and many online retailers and grocery stores have seen temporary flour shortages. These days, it seems you haven’t really baked if you haven’t baked sourdough. But as the pros know, and the new bakers quickly find out, with all that sourdough baking comes the waste of the sourdough discard.
Building a strong sourdough starter — a mixture of water and flour that yields natural bacteria and wild yeast, which both give that signature sour flavor and leaven the dough — requires frequent “feeds” of freshwater and flour to encourage active yeast and bacterial growth. During the feeding process, a portion of the starter — known as the “discard” — is generally tossed away.
Luckily, there are ways to reduce or cut out that waste, by either storing the sourdough starter in a way that eliminates the need for a discard step or using one of the many recipes that feature the discarded sourdough starter, including biscuits, crackers, pancakes and more. Use our guide to understand the best ways to maintain and store sourdough starters, and explore our list of sweet and savory recipes to make use of your sourdough starter discard.
Starting With Less Waste
According to the method outlined by the baking authorities at King Arthur Flour, building a sourdough starter can take anywhere from five days to several weeks, depending on the conditions of your kitchen. As mentioned above, this process includes multiple “feeds,” and “discards.” The reason for the discard system is two-fold: as you build up a starter, you need to consistently feed it new flour and water to encourage yeast and bacterial growth. Most experts agree that a ratio of 1:1:1 of starter to flour to water by weight is the best for managing a healthy starter, especially for beginners. In order to maintain this ratio, you need to discard some starter, or you’ll quickly end up with an unmanageable amount of starter. Secondly, a smaller volume of starter encourages more growth; each time you feed the starter, there are fewer yeast cells fighting to get enough to eat.
If you want to avoid tossing out sourdough starter unnecessarily, the easiest way is to skip the process of creating a fresh starter, which includes the most amount of discard steps. (Once a starter is ripe and ready to use, discards can be limited, as explained below.) To do this, either purchase a pre-made sourdough starter online or acquire a portion of a starter from a friendly baker. If you do decide to create your own starter, the recipes below can help you use the discarded starter rather than toss it out.
Storing Sourdough Starter to Reduce Food Waste
Once you’ve begun baking with your starter, there are several ways to store it to reduce how often you go through the feeding and discard steps.
Refrigerate it: King Arthur recommends storing sourdough starter in the refrigerator, feeding it weekly to encourage the bacterial and yeast growth. If you follow this method, you will end up with sourdough discard once a week which you can use for the recipes below. If you have a strong, vibrant starter — and don’t plan to bake in the near future — you can also refrigerate the starter for several months without feeding.
Freeze it: Sourdough starter can be stored in the freezer for up to one year. You can also store discarded sourdough starter in the freezer to use for a future recipe like many of those below.
Dehydrate it: Another way to store sourdough starter long term is to dry it out. Feed the starter, then spread it into a thin layer on parchment paper-lined sheet trays. Set aside at room temperature to dry out completely, 3 to 5 days depending on the temperature of your kitchen. Once completely dried, break the mixture into pieces and store in an airtight glass container.
Savory Sourdough Discard Recipes
Sourdough crackers: One of the simplest ways you can use extra sourdough starter is by making crackers. Add the discard to flour, butter, salt and herbs to form a dough. These crackers freeze well too, which means there’s no reason to toss that extra discard!
Sourdough discard English muffins: If all you’ve ever had are frozen English muffins, put these at the top of your list of things to make with discarded sourdough starter. The recipe requires two rises, making it a more time-intensive preparation, but the tender muffins, full of nooks and crannies and a slightly tangy flavor, are worth it.
Sourdough discard pancakes: Making pancakes and waffles is an easy, go-to way to use up discarded starter. The classic way is to add a portion of discarded starter to flour, sugar, milk and other ingredients, or you can use just the discard from a freshly fed starter. Simply cook it in a hot, greased skillet as you would other pancakes. Another approach is using the starter to make the okonomiyaki, a Japanese savory pancake.
Sourdough discard biscuits: Another very popular method of using sourdough starter is to make biscuits, using the starter, instead of the classic buttermilk, to create a tender, slightly tart dough for the biscuits.
Sourdough flatbread and pizza: If a weekly loaf of freshly baked sourdough bread sounds good, how about a weekly batch of fresh pizza? It’s easy to use the extra starter to make sourdough pizza crust or focaccia, using the starter to help give the pizza some rise, as well as a hearty bite. King Arthur suggests a sweet version, with apples and cinnamon.
Sourdough dumplings: Turn extra sourdough starter into dinner by making dumplings, perfect to drop into a pot of simmering stew.
Sourdough pretzels: Although this 2-day sourdough discard pretzel recipe sounds time-consuming, a lot of the prep is inactive time when the dough is resting. And if you put in the work, you’ll have freshly baked pretzels by the afternoon of day 2. They also happen to freeze well, meaning you could have pretzels whenever you please. For those interested in more nitty-gritty sourdough science, Zero Waste Chef breaks down how to convert a pretzel recipe to one using sourdough starter here, and offers some great tips for baking with starter, including using a pinch of dried ginger or citric acid to help soften the dough.
Sourdough tempura batter: Another way to use straight sourdough starter — make tempura! Thin out the starter with beer or water, then toss vegetables, fish or other ingredients in it until coated and fry. Or try a sweet version, using the starter to batter apple rings before frying.
Sweet Sourdough Discard Recipes
Sourdough breakfast rolls: Cinnamon rolls, cardamom buns and mornings buns all are made from similar doughs that can also be made with sourdough starter discard to add tang and a tender texture. These cardamom rolls from bread master Sarah Owens are made with einkorn flour for nutty flavor and topped with a coffee cream cheese glaze.
Sourdough banana bread: Go even more zero waste with your banana bread by not only using those old bananas but also extra sourdough starter. This is a great pantry clean out recipe; you can swap different nuts and dried fruit depending on what you have, and can similarly make zucchini, pumpkin and other quick breads.
Sourdough discard scones: Similar to making biscuits, these scones substitute some of the discarded sourdough starter for the buttermilk to create tart flavor and a soft crumb, with a texture that falls in between a biscuit and a muffin. Add clotted cream and jam, and you are set.
Sourdough granola and granola bars: A great, easy way to use up discarded sourdough starter is as a binder for granola, instead of the usual maple syrup or honey. Toss oats, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, spices, and other granola ingredients together with the discard to coat before baking. For granola bars, add flour and other binding ingredients to create a thicker dough.
Sourdough cookies: Cookie recipes that use ricotta or cream cheese — like these key lime cookies — can easily be made with sourdough starter instead. You can also add sourdough starter to classic chocolate chip cookies for a tangy bite.
Sourdough brownies: Although this recipe outlines making a fresh starter in its method — suggesting these brownies are so good they are worth the effort of making starter! — you can certainly use starter discard you already have on hand. In fact, you should do that, ASAP.
Sourdough pie crust: Just as vinegar is often added to pie dough to help tenderize it, so too can sourdough starter be added to pie dough to create a flaky crust that avoids tough texture. The addition of sourdough does add some bready flavor and aroma to the pie crust, and would be great for either sweet or savory pies, such as pot pie, apple-cheddar pie or cherry pie.
Sourdough discard cakes: Along with quick breads, you can also use discarded sourdough starter to make soft, moist cakes. Try it out with this decadent chocolate cake recipe, a nutty browned butter and banana sourdough crumb cake, or carrot cake. Similarly, sourdough starter can be used to make muffins (muffins are basically cake after all). These blueberry sourdough muffins get a boost of tangy flavor from the addition of unfed sourdough starter, whereas this recipe turns sourdough coffee cake into muffins.
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