The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Stiff vs. Liquid--What's really the difference?

fsu1mikeg's picture

Stiff vs. Liquid--What's really the difference?

I ask this question because I had trouble converting my stiff starter to liquid recently.  I have a very active stiff starter that I refresh at 50% (per Dan Leader's formula).  It is very durable and always doubles within 8-12 hours.  I followed the advice I found on here to use 24g of my stiff starter plus 143g water/100 g flour to readjust the hydration to 130%.  It never rose even slightly, barely bubbled, and water appeared to separate and float on the top of the mixture.  I tried refreshing it for a few days at 130%, but same results day after day.  ANYWAY, I got to wondering if I wouldn't be better off just using my reliable stiff starter for all formulas calling for a liquid starter and just adjusting the hydration in the final dough.  My question is....

Is there a difference in the character of the finished bread when you use liquid starter as opposed to stiff starter?  In other words, aside from the inconvenience of having to re-calculate all formulas calling for a liquid starter, is there any legitimate difference in the resulting bread?





proth5's picture

Since no one else seems to have tackled this, I thought that I would give it a shot.

I've spent some time wranglng with "my teacher" over the stiff vs liquid issue and here's what has come of it.

There is a line of thought that says that liquid levains will allow more lactic than acetic acid development and breads made with liquid levain will be "milder" than those made with lower hydration pre-ferments.

Of course, there are a lot more factors that go into the whole "sour vs mild" discussion as some excellent threads with input from D. Wink have shown.

Essentially it is a matter for you - the baker - to decide.  I like to keep my starter at 100% hydration and I like to do a 100% hydration preferment.  Why?  I just like the process better that way.  I have used my 100% hydration starter to do lower hydration preferments and I can't say that I have noticed much of a difference - except I don't like the process.  I've got no one to keep happy but me - so, there you are.

I noticed your post about problems converting your starter and really couldn't add anything.  I've converted liquid starter to firm starter and back again with no problem, but our hands and our starters are all a bit different.

So, if you like your firm starter and it is reliable for you, get a spreadsheet together and convert those formulas.  If you like the results then it's all good.  If not, evaluate and adjust.

Hope this helps.

celestica's picture

I also had trouble converting a great stiff starter to a liquid one.  It was slimy, smelled disgusting, and didn't create any rise in my bread.  Also, my stiff starter does not produce a sour tasting bread but one that is so mild you could mistake it for yeasted, were the other flavours not so complex and amazing.  I'm sticking with the firm one and going to try either adjusting the final hydration or throwing some extra water in without converting it.  

fsu1mikeg's picture

Thanks for the replies.  I thought it was simply baker's choice whether they keep a firm or liquid starter, but wanted to make sure there was no other factors to consider.  I am excited to use my firm starter for all those liquid formulas I have been afraid to try.  I'm not sure yet if I will bother re-calculating the percentages or just adjust the hydration on the fly.  For what it's worth, I did successfully convert my stiff starter to liquid once before using the same method I described above.  I have no idea why it didn't work this time.  All I got for my troubles was a a jar of what looked like watery cottage cheese.

rainwater's picture

My starter was @100% hydration when I first started it......then I went to 75%, then to 60%, and now I'm going gradually back to 75% because that was the best loaf I've baked so far.....I've only been doing sourdough for about two months, and I'm really happy with my's alive! ! !   .....but I'm careful to make drastic changes because I don't really know what I'm doing....I've read that less hydration makes for a more stable starter which is why I decreased my hydration from loaf bread is about 65% hydration, so my intuition says to try to keep the sourdough near the hydration of the breads I'll be baking???? 

I think my starter is really stable at 75% because the starter hadn't been fed in 4 days when I made this loaf, and I used the 65% starter the next day after feeding (what is written as the best time), and I didn't notice any significant difference....maybe the 75% starter loaf was even better????

not much difference....  The first loaf is 75% older starter...and the second is the 65% freshly fed....


MommaT's picture


I have only emperical evidence and do not at all profess to know much about the bacterium/yeast details of my starter.

I have kept a wild yeast 100% hydration starter made with ±1/4 ww flour and 3/4 bread flour for about a year now. For Christmas I received a couple new baking books and, since a fair number of the recipes I wanted to try required a liquid starter, I converted a portion of my 100% hydration starter to a 130% all-white flour starter. 

My experience was quite the opposite of Proth5:  I found a distinct difference in flavour with the liquid starter having a much more pronounced sour flavour.  It also seemed to bubble up to a peak (at room temp) much faster than my lower hydration, more ww starter. 

While I like the tang of a more sour loaf, my family does not, so unfortunately my liquid starter was used up on pancakes and I've decided only to keep a 100% hydration and convert it, as needed.  The 100% is a convenient calculation point and, in my recent and limited experience, when I convert it at the time I build up to bake, it doesn't get the more sour flavour it did when I maintained it at 130% for a couple months.



strattor's picture

proth5 is right--a ripe, stiff starter will yield a more sour-tasting bread than a ripe, liquid starter will. The key word is ripe.

All things being equal, a stiff starter will take longer to ripen, and will stay ripe longer than a liquid starter. Because there is more water available to the microorganisms, a liquid starter will ripen more quickly and overshoot that mark into the realm of over-ripeness pretty quickly.

I think this timing difference might account for the different results people are getting with different hydration sours. As home bakers it is hard to level all the variables so that your starter will always ripen in the same amount of time. That's why folks like Maggie Glezer advocate using a stiff starter at home--it's window of ripeness lasts a few hours, which is crucial if you are making a 100% naturally leavened bread.

Let me also point out that a lot of home bakers just eyeball their starter feedings. A few extra grams of mother in a small starter can drastically affect the ripening time.

Personally, I keep a 100% hydration WW starter at home. It does well going in and out of the fridge, and stays ripe for a pretty long time.

fsu1mikeg's picture

Well, last night I used my stiff starter in place of liquid starter in prepaparation to make a bread today.  I just pulled off a few pieces of the stiff starter and mixed in the water and flour according to the liquid levain specifications.  I left it out for about an hour than put it in the fridge overnight.  Took it out this morning so I can start mixing a bread this afternoon when I get home.  I can't imagine much of a difference using the stiff starter for this levain, because the formula called for such a small amount (2 T).  I actually halved that because I am only making one loaf.  FYI, the bread is Hamelman's 5 grain sourdough.  One thing I notice about Hamelman's levain formulas is they call for a very small amount of your mature starter.  I think this might work to my advantage, since the overall percentages aren't going to be off that much if I substitute my stiff starter for a liquid one.  I guess I'll find out tonight...

Soundman's picture

It may be worth mentioning here that the high hydration sourdough starter is a relatively new phenomenon, compared with stiff starter or levain, historically speaking. As Leader points out in Local Breads, before refrigeration, in France at least, stiff levains were the only game in town. The French generally have not appreciated the sour in sourdough, and without refrigerators to slow the process down, and what with bakers needing a day off once in a while, the only way to keep their starters from becoming too sour was to make a stiff levain. So, all other things being equal, a stiff levain should generally produce a less sour bread.

High hydration starters were therefore somewhat radical when they were first introduced. With refrigeration to handle the off-days problem, there was no reason not to play with higher hydration. And this turned out to be a big help, because these wetter starters get ripe faster, which gives the baker added flexibility in scheduling.

But let's not leave out the importance of temperature in the equation. Each of the components of a sourdough culture develops best at different temperatures. For example, at 86 dF (30dC) the growth rate of lactobacilli is almost twice the growth rate of the yeast C. milleri, whereas at 78 dF (26dC) the growth rates are almost the same.

So by using both hydration and temperature one can develop the various qualities one wants in one's bread, and get the dough made on time as well!

My last comment would be about 130% hydration. If you've had trouble converting a stiff levain to a higher hydration levain, try a little lower hydration, for example 100%. I've never tried 130%, but it sounds kind of thin to me.

Hope this helps.


pantone_000's picture

It's been 10 years ago but this is a treasure of a reading!