The Fresh Loaf

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Maintaining starter: do quantities/feeding regime really matter?

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The Whole Grain's picture
The Whole Grain

Maintaining starter: do quantities/feeding regime really matter?

Dear all, 

I am new to baking sourdough bread and would love some advice from you. 

My question: does it really matter how you feed or maintain your starter? Will I run into problems if I do it all freehand and by not following a strict regime?

The reason why I ask is that I don't want the whole baking experience to become an exact science, I want it to be a relaxing -and rewarding- thing. 

Thank you for your advice, 

The Whole Grain

PS: 
My approx 100 gram mother starter is about 4 weeks old, I keep it in the fridge and feed it whole wheat flour approx once every 2 days but more often and bigger feeds if I plan to bake within the next 2 days. It is alive, bubbling and doubling in size after a feed. I like to keep the consistency like creamy peanutbutter so I can mix it using a fork. It smells sour, sometimes of alcohol which I assume is because it has been starving. I like to keep it small and have little waste, especially because I won't be baking bread that often (one person household and trying to keep carb intake low-ish).


108 breads's picture
108 breads

To feed, I put in some water and mix in enough flour to get the desired consistency, which, for me, is a thick batter. Once in a while, I measure just to determine the hydration percentage for this consistency. Generally, it's 100 percent. I feed twice a week and keep the starter out for a few hours before using or feeding; otherwise the starter is happy in the fridge.

dabrownman's picture
dabrownman

starter in the fridge but at 66% hydration.  I bake out of it using 15 g of stater once a week.  After 3 weeks and baking for the 4th time out of it I have used 60 g with 40 g remaining or so.  That is when i refresh it back to 100g and use the other 30 g to make pancakes or English muffins.  No waste, no feeding, no muss no fuss.  When i baked more ther ewas never a need to make anything when it was time to refresh the starter back to 100 g.

I like to feed it whole grains but feed it all kinds of thing now and again like milk, potato flakes oats, ground seeds, NFDMP, fruit juices, soaker waters from whole grain or dried fruits, corn meal  - just about anything.  My starter loves them all.  I think it just iasn't smart enough to notice?

With such a small amount of starter and low hydration i weigh everything out to make sure i'm not off the 66% hydration.

DavidEF's picture
DavidEF

It doesn't really matter how you maintain your starter. Just make sure it is actively bubbling away and reaching peak height at least sometimes. Of course people will say quite correctly that you should let it peak every time before feeding it for maximum baking potential to be reached. But that isn't what this question is about, right? You just want it to live and do its thing without you having to sacrifice your life to it. You can and should make it fit into your life, not make your life fit into its feeding schedule.

Actually, I've read on here that your bread will be better if you know it and give it what it wants, rather than follow the recipe to the tee, or watch the clock, or whatever other scientific matter. I suppose that truth is true about the starter itself as well. Let it tell you when it is hungry. If you want to stretch out times between feeding, dump a little more food in. If you want to shorten the doubling time, feed it less. Your starter is a unique entity, and as such, will not act exactly like anyone else's starter.

What I do, that seems to be working well enough for me, is that I make a simple bread dough with Flour, Water, Starter and Salt. I make some bread, and the dough I don't use goes back into the fridge for next time. You can mix the dough by feel to the hydration level you want your bread to be, and your "starter" will be the dough you keep back. Measuring helps to keep everything predictable, especially with the salt. But once you've done it several times, you start to get a feel for it and measuring is not quite as necessary.

The Whole Grain's picture
The Whole Grain

Thank you for confirming what I hoped the answer would be: relax and trust your intuition. 
And exactly like you say David EF: I don't want to fit my life around the starter. 

Maybe I'll also try and feed it other things like dabrownman does. But if I do then I will keep a pure whole wheat starter as backup in case I kill the other one. (What is NFDMP?)

Thanks again for your help. 

TWG. 

dabrownman's picture
dabrownman

What ever you see in the various recipes around here besides acids like vinegar, caustic lye and other bases and salt, are nothing more than food and liquid for your starter.  Your will find that it is ver5y hard to kill your starter.  I have done about everything possible to kill my starter since 1973 but so far no luck.

Once your starter is mature make sure to spread some on parchment, let it dry and store and store in a sealed glass jar in the cupboard and I also store a frozen chink in the freezer.  I have revived both successful over the years but haven't needed them in an emergency,  It you kill yours off, you can then get it back very quick with a good feeding of the stored varieties. 

The Whole Grain's picture
The Whole Grain

Frozen or dried backup is a good idea!

A friend of mine wants some of my starter: I will dry it and send it by mail in a ziplock bag. 

Q: don't these different feeds alter the taste and scent of the starter?

 

wassisname's picture
wassisname

Like dabrownman said, it is harder than you'd think to kill a starter.  I managed to do it once and it was from giving it too much attention rather than not enough.  I fed it too often without letting it get acidic enough and something funky took over.  I wasted a lot of time trying to save it before I broke down and started a new one - starting a new one was far easier and quicker than trying to heal the sick one. 

So now I make sure it smells at least a little sour before I put in the fridge.  If it just smells like flour and water I give it more time.  It can handle 2-3 weeks I the fridge no problem - I just feed it once or twice before I use it.  Oh, and it's whole wheat at around 70%-75% hydration.

Marcus

Davo's picture
Davo

I agree with the sentiments above. Some people will weigh out to get exact hydration and feed ratios, but the way I look at it, the small starter volume is really just a viable culture. Once you have refreshed it out of the fridge enough to be active, and then you go to start mixing a small amount of that active starter into a larger levain/starter, rather than just keeping the culture alive, that's when I start to measure quantity and hydration. Just so I get a levain in the same ball park as I usually make. This just makes it easier to arrive at the right overall size of loaf and stage of activity, give or take the variables like kitchen temp etc. But for the starter culture and keeping it alive, I'm pretty laissez faire.

Yes it might vary in characteristics depending on temps and feed ratios, but really there will be a heap of variation with the most precisely measured scenario anyway - it will vary from 4C to room temp (whatever that might be), from flush-with-new-food to pretty-much-starving, and the time beween feeds might be a few days or oops, I've been away for two straight weeks now. Unless you are keeping it in a wine fridge at constant temp, and with a constant low rate feed of new material  and constant rate of disposing excess, true consistency in the process is probably a bit of a mirage.

The way I look at it, I can meaningfully control new food/water ratios, temps and durations when I am in the levain and bread dough stages, but the rest of the starter life (in and out of fridge), it's just keeping it viable and easy-enough-to-revive. Getting highly quantitative about that regime wouldn't seem to me worth the effort. It's kind of like a fire. You will get a certain anmount ot heat from a certain amount ot wood or coal, but it doesn't really matter how big is the match you light that fire with, so long as it's decently active. Obviously if that match isn't viable, it wont start any fire, so this has got to be within reason. A reasonable basis is the way most people look at their starter anyway - "did it double in x period of time?", or "how honeycombed with gas bubbles is that starter undeneath when I drag a tespoon through it?" So long as it's doing those kind of things, it's a viable "match" to "light the fire" with.

Beloz's picture
Beloz

I'm only on day 12 of my first starter. It's still on the bench top. I've been following the advice to feed it twice a day. Last night frankly, I just couldn't be bothered. I thought the starter would simply go down and smell more sour if I waited another 12 hours before feeding. 

This morning I noticed that it had continued to rise! Does that mean I have been feeding it too much? I do the 1:1:1 method. 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Feed when it peaks out and starts to fall back.  It should also be kept above 75°F or 24°C, even warmer when trying to start a sourdough culture.  When it peaks under 12 hrs, then you can feed it twice a day.  When it peaks and falls around 8hrs and smells very yeasty, increase the flour amount in the feeds and/or reduce the amount of starter being fed.  

Beloz's picture
Beloz

I forgot to mention that I now discovered that it more than doubles in size. So it probably about doubles after 12 hours, but keeps rising.

I kept it in the oven with the light on at first, but didn't notice much of a difference in behaviour when I moved it to the bench.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

"Doubling" is arbitrary.  

If you feed 1:4:4 it will be at least quadrupling.  If all the gas is trapped and none is escaping the culture, it will rise higher, also more available food = more available gas trapping.   Waiting for a first peak in activity is one way to make sure there are lots of yeast in your culture, it reduces the lag time it takes for the culture to recover (return to ideal conditions for growth & gas release) after the next feed.  Waiting for it to fall a little ensures the bacteria have "caught up" to the balance the culture before the next feed (soon to come.)  It should smell yeasty.

If the culture is refreshed/fed too soon (at just double) you may actually be reducing your yeast numbers with each feeding.  The concentration of yeast could be higher if you wait.  Then with each consecutive feed, the lag time is reduced and the starter takes less time to peak.   It is very important at this phase in starter development to watch carefully, time, and take meticulous notes on your starter.  Temps, time, location  to be able to compare feeds or later to remember what happened.  

Right now the starter may give you a few feeds in the middle of the night, but you can remedy that by either feeding less or more flour to get the starter to peak either sooner or later.  Keep in mind that if you have changes in room temp, the ferment will go faster above 23°C when warm and much slower as the temperature goes down.  These changes can also happen at night slowing down the feeding only to turn around durning the day and rise like crazy with warmer temps.  It is not uncommon to feed less food at night and more during the day.  

Beloz's picture
Beloz

Thanks, that was really helpful. So, I should feed less often - at it's current slow peak time, or keep it at a warmer temperature to try make it rise faster? It will be 28C here today, so I'll leave it on the bench for now and see if that makes a difference. 

Most instructions only talk about "doubling in 12 hours", which is confusing as it clearly doesn't tell the whole story.