How to Make a Starter in a Hot and Humid Climate

Can you imagine making and baking sourdough in a small, compact bachelor apartment in the sweltering heat, lungs muffled by high humidity?

I can, because that’s precisely what I experienced in Cambodia, Southeast Asia.

Donkey under a palm tree at Angkor Wat temple, Cambodia

Smart ass in the shade at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

 

When living in the hot tropics, you may befriend your air conditioner to combat high temperatures and humidity. Unfortunately, it has its limits.

Back in September 2012, I created and nurtured my first sourdough starter, using Debra Wink’s pineapple method. However, several days after the inception of my starter, I noticed a defect on my beloved mass of wet flour. My starter, who I aptly named Abital (Hebrew for “my father is dew”), developed a thin, dry crust.

The culprit?…

Air conditioner button of a car

Air-con, my so-called companion—you’ve betrayed me!

 

Under most circumstances, sourdough starters and bread dough needs some humidity to remain limber and healthy. Hence, starters and dough are not too fond of air conditioners. Besides the air, they can leech moisture from starters and dough, inducing them to develop dry, chapped skin. (On an additional note, air currents produces the same effect.)

Subsequent to that bleak discovery, I discontinued the use of my air conditioner during the incubation of my starter and bread baking. Because the humidity and temperature became much less tolerable, it was common for me to bake solely in my underpants. Essentially, I’d perspire profusely, glistening like a disgruntled salamander.

Salamander crawling on a wet rock

What you may look like when baking in the hot tropics

 

One major problem. After abandoning my air conditioner, the ambient temperature of my apartment skyrocketed. We’re talking above 30°C / 86°F on any given day. Consequently, a translucent, liquid substance called “hooch” kept appearing in my starter. This was a visual indication that my starter was fermenting too rapidly and starving for food.

Since then, I have learnt and applied a few lessons to reduce the metabolic rate of my starter in tropical conditions.

Avoid sources of heat:

Adjust your starter’s diet:

Personally speaking, I don’t recommend incarcerating your poor starter in a refrigerator, especially if the starter is less than a month old. Otherwise, your starter’s thriving community of bacteria and yeast may degrade and yield to undesirable microbes.

My question: Do you have other suggestions concerning sourdough starters in hot, humid climates? If so, feel free to share your valued wisdom by commenting below. Thank you!


Author: Zita (bakingbadly)
Published: August 28th, 2013
Last Modified: September 24th, 2013



12 Responses to “How to Make a Starter in a Hot and Humid Climate”

  1. This reminds me of the time when I made my sourdough here in Guangzhou, having similar conditions (up to 90% humidity). But now, we got only 17 Celsius left and my sourdough is still very active, I don’t even need the usage of a temperature box, even I got all the parts here to built one.
    Liking your blog, very beautifully done, for that reason you are in my blogroll from now on! Feel free to link back.
    Cheers from China

    • Zita says:

      Right now where I live it’s hitting about 25C at night and 35C during the day. I feed my sourdough twice on a daily basis. Doesn’t seem so hard now that I’ve had it for months.

      Anyway, thank you for linking to my blog. It’s not well known but it’s nice to spread the word.

      Cheers!

  2. Admiral Adama says:

    I live in a beach town in Central Africa. Same temperature, same humidity, same struggles with stuff rotting and molding and sweating. Thanks for taking the time to post this for those of is who live in these unforgiving climates and still want to bake sourdough. I’ll try your advice.

    Though. I started waxing philosophical the other day: if it is so hard to get the whole wheat (only imported, not a local fare) and so hard to get the starter going (a real fight with heat, humidity, ingredients, bacteria, times, quantities) then perhaps it’s not appropriate for my climate and I should just take the attitude of “when in Rome…”

    • Zita says:

      Glad to be of some help!

      If you have poor access to whole wheat, perhaps you can try other grains? Teff and millet comes to mind, which if I’m not mistaken is grown in Africa. You won’t be able to produce crusty, airy breads, but you can produce sourdough flatbreads that are just as delicious.

      To get you started, I suggest doing research on “injera”, which is an Ethiopian sourdough flatbread.

  3. Gerardo Guzman says:

    I’m living in Panama, very humid and inside my flat reaches 30 C, and so far nothing has worked for me in rising a sourdough starter, the firsnts tries, rised up tremendously the first day just to go off next one and start smelling awfull.
    Then I put them in the living room which gets the fresh air from air conditioners on the previous night and remains at about 27C. I fed them once a day, first day ok, second ok, bubbly and good smell, third day a yougurth, no more bubbles. dont know what is happening and how can I solve it, any clues??

    • Zita says:

      Hello Gerardo! This sounds normal. When making a new sourdough starter, it may smell awful, rise a lot, then appear “dead”. Don’t give up and keep feeding your starter until it is mature and active. This may take a few weeks or less if you’re lucky. Good luck!

  4. david says:

    i just put them on the counter of my kitchen,
    one time i tried putting them in to the fridge ( because i am away for a weekend, starter is about 2 month old or so) and after i revive it, it goes ballistic, really bubbling like crazy after i fed it :)
    now its still doing fine, although the peak fermentation 9 before it deflate again) is about 4-6 hrs, so need to time my preparations well. but for feeding still every 12-24 hrs
    i live in indonesia btw

  5. Stephanie says:

    I live in Surabaya, Indonesia. Here is hard to find a good crusty bread, so I tried to make my own crusty bread. I’ve tried to make no knead bread, but I didn’t satisfied with the result. The bread is too chewy&tough inside, the crust is too hard. This morning I begun to make sourdough starter.
    I started at 12pm, now is 9.40pm and I can see few bubbles in the starter and already smell a little bit sour. The question is when should I feed my starter? 12 hours or 24hours?
    Thanks

  6. Stephanie says:

    I live in Surabaya, Indonesia. Here is hard to find a good crusty bread, so I tried to make my own crusty bread. I’ve tried to make no knead bread, but I didn’t satisfied with the result. The bread is too chewy&tough inside, the crust is too hard. This morning I begun to make sourdough starter.
    I started at 12pm, now is 9.40pm and I can see few bubbles in the starter and already smell a little bit sour. The question is when should I feed my starter? 12 hours or 24hours?
    Thanks

    • Zita says:

      Hi Stephanie,

      A number of factors will dictate when and how you feed your starter. Room temperature, humidity, hydration of the starter, etc. If kept outside of your fridge or cooler in a tropical region, fed once a day is enough if the starter is stiff. A consideration: If a murky layer of liquid (colloquially called “hooch”) appears in your starter, it means your starter needs to be fed.

      Apologies for the delayed response and best of luck!

  7. Amy says:

    Thanks so much! I live in the South Pacific in PNG and have experienced the exact same problems. This post has me ready to try again.

  8. Ako says:

    Hello! Zita,

    There are lots of useful tips to baking with sourdough starter.

    You said you live in a quite hot place like 25C at night and 35C during the day. I live in Japan and from June to September the temperature is similar to your place and the humidiy goes to about 98% when it’s rain. Do you keep your starter on the counter or in the fridge?

    I’ve just started baking with my own sourdough starter since May. The weather in Japan is now very suitable to sourdough starter but I’m worrying about the coming summer and thinking of how to keep my starter fit. I prefer keeping on the counter with feeding twice a day.

    If you’ve got some tips about maintaining sourdough starter in a hot and humid country, please let me know!

    Cheers,
    Ako

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