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I'm using a sourdough starter from the recipe in Peter Reinhart's Artisan Breads Every Day and I have gone through several of the rebuilding cycles with it. It's been working fairly well for me and I have been refreshing it every week. It is stored in an airtight container in the fridge.

How long can the starter be left in the fridge without being refreshed before it's un-salvageable and would need to be thrown out?

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How much starter do you have? I imagine this will influence the length of time it can last –  NBenatar Jan 13 '11 at 12:19
    
According to Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads, you can pretty much always refresh a starter, it just takes more work after 2 weeks. –  justkt Jan 13 '11 at 13:01
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I would be concerned about storing in an "airtight" container. To the best of my knowledge, the lactic acid bacteria in a sourdough are aerobic. If you store in an airtight container, you risk growing anaerobic bacteria -- which produce toxins that remain after cooking. My personal favorite was a glazed stoneware crock with a loose-fitting lid. And a box of baking soda to keep down nasty odors in the fridge. –  kdgregory Jan 19 '11 at 12:54

3 Answers 3

up vote 12 down vote accepted

The following is paraphrased from Andrew Whitley's excellent book Bread Matters

Wheat leaven

  • If you intend to use within 2 days, store the it at ambient temperature
  • For 2-14 days, store it in the fridge. Optionally refresh it before use.
  • For longer, refresh then freeze. Refresh again after thawing.

Rye sourdough

  • 0-3 days -- ambient temperature
  • 3-30 days -- fridge, no need to refresh
  • Longer -- refresh then freeze. Refresh again after thawing.

Whitley describes "constructive neglect". He keeps a rye sourdough in his fridge that's several months old, so that he can demonstrate to students how easily he can take 50g of it and produce a lovely sourdough from it within 16 hours.

It's a great book.

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+1 for 14 days as the upper limit in the fridge, but I'd say you'll definitely want to refresh before trying to make bread with a culture that old. Or you'd need to allow more time for the initial rise. I'd say after 14 days on a bread or A/P flour starter you're more in the area of risky neglect than constructive neglect. You're not risking that all the yeast will die as much as you're risking an infection of bad bacteria or mold. –  Cold Oatmeal Jan 13 '11 at 20:25

I've had mine sit for six months or more without feeding and still have life in it.

Don't use such an old one for bread though. Do a thorough wash of it first. Otherwise it'll taste like poop in a gym sock.

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How do you wash a starter? –  Todd Hunter Jan 14 '11 at 8:59
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Take a little bit of the starter, add flour/water, and toss the rest. Do it 2+ times before using. Refreshes and strengthens it. By the time you're done the old:new ratio should be enough to remove any bad characteristics from super-old, over-fermented starter –  Crazy Eddie Jan 19 '11 at 1:24
    
How do you know what poop in a gym sock tastes like? Just kidding! I agree whole-heartedly. I can take mine out of the fridge after months of neglect and have it back in shape within a day. –  erickson Aug 26 '11 at 2:49

It should last for a couple of weeks without feeding. You should feed it at least twice before using it again though. Probably the safest thing to do is take a little of the starter and use it as an experiment; keep one bit for a week without feeding and see if it works, and another bit for two, etc.

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