The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Starter Questions

Djehuty's picture

Starter Questions

I'm in the process of building a sourdough starter, following the directions in Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads.  Based on information I've found here and elsewhere, I'm planning on making it a 100% hydration starter, because as I understand it that will produce a slightly milder flavor.  Although I'd be glad to hear any thoughts on that topic, my questions of the moment are about what to do once the starter is up and running.

The first problem is how to keep it alive and happy.  I've read so many different methods for doing this that I'm more than a wee bit confused.  Do I feed it in a 1:1:1 (starter:flour:water) proportion twice a day?  One, two, or three feedings at 1:2:2?  Feed it at 1:2:2 and bung it in the fridge until I need it?  Some other method I haven't noticed yet?  I'm thinking of keeping it on the kitchen counter, because I'd like to bake with it two or three times a week.  I have a nice ceramic crock from King Arthur Flour in which to keep it -- will it be happy there?  And once the proportions are settled, how much should I keep on hand?

Next, when it comes time to bake, what do I do?  I've read some instructions which say to take a small amount of starter and grow it into a larger pre-ferment, and others which say to take as much starter as you need and use it directly.

Finally, is it difficult to adapt recipes to use a wild-yeast starter?  I'd like to use this for everything, or almost everything, if I can.

Any advice for an over-eager sourdough newbie?


JIP's picture

When/if you get things going you will figure out what aschedule works for you.  Personally I have a starter I purchased from KAF and I have got it up to speed and now I only feed it when I bake.  I go by Nancy Silverton's feeding schedule in her Breads from Labrea Bakery.  Some will say her way uses WAAAY too much flour but it works for me in the long run because I do not feed it every day.

As far as what to do when you bake, this is pretty much determined by your recipe.  You will generally get the requirements in a recipe and I will generally go by that.

marieJ's picture

Hi! In October last year (2008) I began my first sourdough starter culture.  After reading many wonderful books on bread baking - The Easy Way to Artisan Breads & Pastries, Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads : new techniques, extraordinary flavour, The Village Baker : classic regional breads from Europe and America- and failing miserably at least 7 times, I finally found success!  I'd followed a starter recipe from Avner Laskin's 'The Easy Way to Artisan Breads & Pastries' to the letter but without final success. On the 8th attempt I thought I'd managed to fail again. So I threw out the recipe and atacked my seemingly failed starter with cavalier and guerilla like abandon. I mean after all, I'd already obviously messed it up somewhere along the process!!??. So I took this gluggy mess, added more water to it and plonked it in the oven with the oven light (light bulb - not gas pilot light) on and shut the door. (Do not turn on the heat!) I walked away from it and at the end of the day at around 6pm the starter has erupted into life!!!  It frothed and foamed like mad!  I fed it with a couple of cups of flour and a huge slurp of spring water and it consumed this like some ravenous monster!!!!  From then on I never looked back!  Clearly the Australian yeast and bacteria varieties floating around in the air in my neighbourhood needed a little extra water and some extra warmth.  I have since been making wonderful ryes, mixed ryes and fantastic white loaves. Sadly my GP thought I may have a gluten allergy so the last loaf I made was in the middle of January. So even more sadly I left my culture in the fride unattended for a very long time.  At the beginning of March this year I fed my starter culture and it was still full of life but had lost that delicious apple cider aroma.  I continued to feed it up (I'd kept a rye/mongrel version and a white version). Both were vigourously active but I couldn't bring back that beautiful aroma so finally decided to grit my teeth and say farewell to my darling pet.  It went out with the rubbish. Sigh!  The aromas it was giving off were so different and to me indicative of a culture that was possibly either contaminated or out of balance with the 'bad guys' throwing their own exlcusive party.

Now that I'm going through the agonizing, but interesting process of acitivating a natural starter all over again, I'm having more success.  I still haven't got a starter that's ready to use but its well on the way.  I'm so afraid of not ever again having the truly stunning starter I originally had.  I think what I'm trying to impart here is that there is value in trying a 'kamikaze like approach' to your own yeast culture.  Have an assortment of glass/pyrex/duralex bowl and place small quantities of your starter into these, keeping 'the Mother load' safe,  and treat them all differently and see what kind of reaction you get. My 'Mother load' was fed all sorts of flours. I used to throw in all the small leftover amounts to feed her. Kamut, rye, wholemeal, white, etc., and just guessed at water quantities. I went for a thick, firm past which would probably equate to a wet dough.

When it came to preparing a dough for baking, I would place about a cup of starter into a new glass bowl, feed it a cup of flour and add water to make a wet dough. Leave it at room temp. Feed it with about another cup of flour & some water the next day, in the morning. Then before going to bed that night feed it the same way again and use the entire amount in the next morning's loaf.

This would result in about 3+ cups of wildly active starter, 3-4 cups flour and  1 1/2 tablespoons of sea salt  being mixed together and kneaded into a very stiff dough that's almost impossible to wok (work it any way!). Then gradually knead in 1 - 1 1/2 cups of spring water, or as much water as the dough will take before starting to become too sticky to work with. I just add as much water as possible and find it makes a superior loaf.  By kneading the dough very dry at first, the gluten forms a provisional bond that will stop the dough sticking to your fingers and driving you absolutely potty by being impossible to work with or remove from your person.!.!!. Allow to rise in the oven with the oven light on for 1 hr. Gently knock down a little and shape. Allow to rise on a tray, or pizza tray perforated with holes (put aluminium foil under the tray to cope with the dough that expands through the holes) in the oven again for 6 - 7 hrs. rempove from the oven and keep in a warm place. Preheat the oven to 230 C  and bake 15 minutes with steam. Turn oven down to 200 C and bake for a further 45 mins.

I found this worked perfectly for my particular culture created in an Australian season of Spring.  I hope it may illustrate the fact that it isn't necessary to be so precise in your approach to something that is living and breathing, and somehting that exists in variations all over the world.  Happy nurturing! Happy baking! Feed your spirit and your soul!  Bye

marieJ's picture

Please note in the my above suggestions - please remove the foil from under the base of the pizza tray before baking. 

Thanks. Cheers!

marieJ's picture

Hello Djehuty!

Once my sourdough starter was up and running, I kept it regularly well fed and at room temperature for about 3-4 days.  It was wonderfully active and rapidly doubling in size after each feeding. After this time I then gave it a good feed and put it into the fridge. It had become so strong and active it continued to double in bulk in the fridge.  From this point on I always keep it in the fridge. I build up my loaves 2-3 days in advance. I do this by taking some of the starter out of the Mother starter and putting it into it's own fresh bowl (about a cupful). I then feed it at room temp regurly over the nest 2-3 days before incorporating the whole lot into the new loaf's dough. The Mother starter stays in the fridge.  This haas worked well for me.  I hope you find this helpful. Cheers!