The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Liquid levain vs. stiff levain

xaipete's picture
xaipete

Liquid levain vs. stiff levain

Is there a standard hydration level for a liquid levain vs. a stiff levain? I was reading Leader's Local Breads this morning and noticed that his liquid levain has about 130 % hydrated vs. his stiff which has about 50% hydration. I've also been readin Michael Suas's Advanced Bread and Pastry and notice that some of his SD formulas call for a liquid levain while others require a stiff starter.

I realize there is probably not a rigid standard, but perhaps someone has some knowledge what constitutes one vs. the other. I'm also interested in knowing if a book discusses these terms. Oddly enough, Suas' book, which is very comprehensive, doesn't define the differences.

--Pamela

Ford's picture
Ford

I guess I am a maverick with the hydration of starters (levain).  I use a hydration of 188% (equal volume water and flour).  I started this hydration from reading about Nancy Silverton in Julia Child's book "Cooking with the Master Chefs".  She used grapes to get things started.  I now know this is just part of the folk lore that has grown around sourdough and the grapes are totally unnecessary.

From my reading I find that most bakers use a starter that is only 100% hydration or less.  However, I have grown accustomed to using this and I find a couple of advantages.  The starter is so fluid that it does not expand to overflow the container when left in the refrigerator for several weeks.  Contrary to the belief of some bakers, this starter is easily refreshed after a month of hibernation in the refrigerator.  It takes only about one day to regain full activity when brought to room temperature (about 72°F) and fed three times.

(Refresh Routine:  With 18 oz. starter, feed 4.3 oz unbleached flour, in ~6 hours feed 4.3 oz., flour and 8 oz. water, in ~6 hours feed 4.3 oz flour and 8 oz. water in ~6 hours feed 8 oz. water.  Use 36 oz. to start bread recipe and the balance back to the rerefrigerator.)

With this extreemly wet levain I can start a whole wheat bread by adding the the whole wheat flour to the starter, let it ferment for a couple of hours, and go from there.

At one time I used the starter only for the flavor, now I know it is potent enough to be the only leven in the dough.  I also measure by WEIGHT, it is easier and more precise.

Back to your question about which hydration to use.  Use the one you like.  Just get the final hydration the same as the recipe.  I think there is no standard, no "right" way.  BUT, I am an ameteur.

Ford

xaipete's picture
xaipete

I use a hydration of 188% (equal volume water and flour).

Hi Ford. If you are using an equal volume (weight) of water and flour, would that be 100% hydration?

I'm not asking a question about which type of starter to use in a given recipe. I'm trying to find of if there is some kind of a hydration standard that classifies one starter as liquid but another as stiff.

--Pamela

jj1109's picture
jj1109

I read that Ford says he weighs his ingredients, but that statement about the equal volume does confuse - but does work out about right.

eg. if I use generic weights for volumes (australian here, so different to you in the US) 1 cup water = 250g, 1 cup flour = 130g (like i said, generic values) gives hydration of 192%

This suggests (to me) that Ford does use volume rather than weight for the initial starter - and the weights that are added when refreshing the starter come to 186% hydration.

Ford's picture
Ford

I do weigh the major ingredients in making my breads.  I find it easier and certainly more precise.  Though I am a scientist, by training, I do not use the metric system in baking and cooking.  The metric system is not widely used in the USA and very few cookbooks make any attempt to express the amounts in a recipe by weight.  To be understood by the majority I use the Avoirdupois weight measurements, and also give the volume measurement.  I do not weigh minor ingredients, e. g. 1/4 tspn., 1 Tbs., or pinch.  My scale is not that precise.

Sifted, or fluffed flour carefully spooned into a measuring cup and leveled off will weigh 4 1/4 oz., rounded to 4.3 oz., with some variation for the miller and coarseness of the milling.  King Arthur white all-purpose, white bread flour, and whole-wheat flour weigh 4.3 oz./cup (122 g/cup).  (A measuring cup in the US is 8 fluid ounces – confusing.)  However, whole-wheat flour from Arrowhead mills weighs 4.7 oz./cup.  (133 g/cup)  There are variations in rye flours:  Arrowhead Mill pumpernickel flour weighs 4 oz./cup (113 g/cup), and that from Hodgson Mill weighs 4.8 oz./cup (136 g/cup).

With these variations in flour bulk densities, it is certainly safer to express the amounts by weight rather than by volume.

Nancy Silverton expressed her measurements by volume in the production and refreshment of the starter.  I can only assume that she used the conventional method of measuring the volume of flour, i. e. sifting, spooning in, and leveling off the flour in the measuring cup.  I saw a video of the baker at the “Sullivan Street Bakery” demonstrate the “No Knead Bread” preparation.  He just scooped up the flour in the measuring cup and shook off the excess.  I would guess that that flour measured that way weighed 5 oz./cup.  Of course, he was trying to show how easy it is to make ”good” bread, but he did leave a bad impression on the proper way to measure flour.

Ford

xaipete's picture
xaipete

Yes, many cookbooks and recipes still don't express ingredients in terms of weights. It's maddening to me because I'm so converted to using weights, which, as you point out, is esp. important when flour is used, not to mention easier! How often do I just tare out my scale? Many times everyday!

--Pamela

LindyD's picture
LindyD

After reading Ford's volume measurement results, I couldn't resist, so I spooned Arrowhead Mills organic  white flour into a (volume) cup, leveled it off, then weighed it: 4.80 ounces.  Reinhart assigns a weight of 4.5 ounces for bread and whole wheat flours.

Did the same for Arrowhead Mills organic rye:  4.10 ounces 

I have a fluid ounce measuring cup for liquids.  Eight ounces of water poured into that cup was precisely at the one cup level.  When I poured eight ounces of water into one of my Oxo volume cups, it overflowed.  Not all cups are equal.

The beauty of scaling is accuracy.

xaipete's picture
xaipete

I noticed the same thing about my Oxo volume cups--my volume measurements of water and milk were way off using them. I was surprised too by just how much they were short.

--Pamela

Ford's picture
Ford

Hello Pamela,

 

The baker's percent is always by weight based on the total weight of the flour.  Since a cup of flour weighs 4 1/4 ounces and a cup of water weight 8 ounces, then equal volume of flour and water is 188% hydration or rounded to 190%.  Equal weight flour and water would be 100% hydration.

I would certainly classify my starter (190% hydration) as liquid.  It certainly does separate ahd have a large layer of "hooch" on the top.  I just stir it into the solids that have settled to the bottom and refresh it as needed.

Other people have given you their opinion of what is liquid and what is stiff.   I'll not add to that question.

Happy baking.

Ford

xaipete's picture
xaipete

Thanks, Ford, for clearing this up. If you are using weights, then indeed you do have that level of hydration. I was just confused by the word "volume", but now you have explained.

--Pamela

gaaarp's picture
gaaarp

I used to keep all my starters at 100% hydration.  Then one day, just as an experiment, I converted a bit of starter to 65% hydration, and have kept it there ever since.  I like the lower-hydration starter because it is very active and it's easy to work it into a non-sourdough recipe.  Since it is essentially a chunk of dough, I just work it into the rest of the dough without adjusting the original recipe, other than to reduce or eliminate the yeast.  It increases the overall volume of the recipe nominally (I use about a golfball-size chunk most of the time), but not enough to matter to a rank amateur like me.

All that said, I am intrigued by Ford's uber-hydrated starter, so I might have to experiment with that, too.

Phyl

xaipete's picture
xaipete

Hi Phyl, That is my current experience. The lower hydration starter appears to be a lot more active. I'm not sure why, though.

I keep just one type at 75% (I actually have two different starters, but both are at the same hydration level.)

--Pamela

Ford's picture
Ford

Hello Phyl,

I have been intrigued by your statement that you might have to experiment with "Ford's uber-hydrated starter."  Do you have any results to report yet?  I truly am interested your comments.  Mike Avery said it was way too hydrated, but I think he had not tried it.

Ford

rainwater's picture
rainwater

I evolved from Reinhart's 100% hydration starter to a 75% hydration starter....very easy to work with.  When I have left over, I use baker's math to determing how much flour and water is in the leftover, and subtract this from a standard recipe....beats throwing it out...it is, after all, only flour and water....with added flavor. 

After purchasing Hammelman's book, I'm learning to work with a 125% hydration liquid starter.  Hammelman's doughs, so far, seem to work differently than Reinhart's.  They use less percentage of starter, don't proof and final rise as much....but make up for it in the home stretch with oven spring.  I'm learning a lot. 

So now, I keep a firm starter (75%), and a liquid starter (125%).  To answer the original question.....I would think you could POUR a liquid starter, and CUT  a firm starter in pieces???????

xaipete's picture
xaipete

I haven't read Hamelman on starters yet, but the thing I am learning is that it is not just the amount of water in the starter--not just simply a matter of making it more liquid--but a change in the proportion of acids, which changes other factors in the loaf.

--Pamela

foolishpoolish's picture
foolishpoolish

Speaking purely from my own experience (with starters from anywhere between 50% and 150% hydration refrigerated and room temperature) I can't say I've found a definitive relationship between hydration of starter and sourness. Of course I also realise that sourness rather than acidity is, at least in part, perception. 

For white flours, I personally prefer hydration of 100% or lower as I find the 120+% hydration liquid levain far too temperamental. For rye, I tend to use a hydration of 133-150% which keeps it tremendously active.

In my opinion, the composition and  fermentation of the final dough is far more significant in determining the sourness of the final result than the hydration of the storage starter.

FP

 

 

 


xaipete's picture
xaipete

I can see why you think high hydration levains are tempermental. I'm only on day two and I can see they need a lot of attention and feeding.

In my opinion, the composition and  fermentation of the final dough is far more significant in determining the sourness of the final result than the hydration of the storage starter.

We were talking about how sourness was achieved on another thread. Debbie Wink said:

You're getting some sour from the starter, yes (if your starter is sour), but more importantly, the starter provides thepotential for sour to be further developed in the dough. That potential depends on there being enough souring bacteria present to make the sour. They grow and multiply quicker in warm wet conditions.

They will produce a higher percentage of acetic acid in cool dry conditions. But they can't do very much very fast if they're not there. Strength in numbers. So wouldn't the best strategy for increasing the sour be, to give a period of warm and/or wet in your starter, preferments and/or bulk fermentation (to increase the LAB population) and then cool it down to kick them into acetic acid production?

The problem or advantage, depending on which side of the sour fence you sit, is that continuing to refresh and maintain a starter cool and/or dry, reduces the LAB population, and its sour potential. It won't matter that each organism can produce more acetic acid if there aren't enough organisms to produce it in the given time.

 

Starter and dough require different strategies.

So I don't disagree with you, FP. At this point I'm mainly trying to learn more about sourdoughs and why one tastes a certain way while another tastes differently. Apparently, there are extensibility issues in play too. Different bakers specify different types of levains and I want to know why (understand why they care to specify one vs. another), esp. when I see the same baker using both types, e.g., Leader, Suas, etc..

--Pamela

hansjoakim's picture
hansjoakim

To figure out the hydration of Suas' starters, I think you'll have to take a look at p. 181, where he breaks down the caramelized hazelnut squares in detail. He writes that the starter "is not listed as an ingredient", and that it has the same parts flour and water as the rest of the starter recipe. I believe this means that his stiff white starters are at 50% and his liquid starter is 100% (see e.g. sourdough with liquid levain on p. 202 and sourdough cheese bread on p. 217). It get's a bit confusing if you look at sourdough olive bread on p. 215, where his stiff starter is used in conjuction with 100% hydrated flour/water mix... Not very consistent, if we should believe that his starters are at the same hydration as the other flour/water mix.

If you're in doubt, you can always break his formulas down to get the overall formula, ala Hamelman's layout. Then you can see if your guess hydration is making sense.

I'm only keeping a 50% hydrated white starter myself - I've been feeding it twice a day the last couple of weeks on approx. 1:1.5:3 (starter:water:flour). I've had great success in converting recipes calling for liquid levains or even poolishes; the main thing to look out for, is that the overall hydration is correct and that you're prefermenting the correct amount of flour (i.e. you need less stiff starter than you need of a liquid starter).

xaipete's picture
xaipete

Thanks, Hans, I've only gotten through chapter 4. It's taking me longer to read this book because it is so incredibly heavy! (How much does it weight? 15 pound? Maybe even more?)

Yes, you are right. There is a breakdown on pg. 181. I looked for something like that in the indices but didn't see it. Thanks for pointing out the location to me. I'll check out Hamelman too.

So you aren't putting your starter in the refrigerator at all? And, how many days do you wait to use the starter after you have converted it to the correct hydration?

Thanks, --Pamela

 

hansjoakim's picture
hansjoakim

I used to store it in the fridge, but I've kept it on the counter for the last 2-3 weeks. Each feeding only takes about 5 mins., and I've been using it at least twice a week in baking, so I figured I might as well leave it out.

So far I've kept the starter at 50% and rather converted the recipes to fit my starter (instead of changing the hydration of the starter to fit the recipe). This is my kitchen! I'm making the rules here!

xaipete's picture
xaipete

Well that's a smart way to proceed! Yes, it is your kitchen and you are making the rules there!

But what about the idea of some intrinsic difference between liquid and stiff starters? Do you think it has any significant merit?

--Pamela

hansjoakim's picture
hansjoakim

I can't say that I've noticed any difference in the flavour or changes in fermentation/proofing times. A stiff starter should give a bit more sour taste and a bit slower fermentation times, but these are subtle differences that I haven't noticed so far.

What I have noticed, however, is what Dan pointed out above with regards to dough strength and extensibility. To compensate in cases where great extensibility is very important, I've sometimes used a separate poolish or done an extended autolyse on parts of the flour in the dough. Other times I've just skipped the starter all together, and gone with a poolish to achieve the desired extensibility (and many of the other advantages with a liquid levain). Sure, I could branch off a liquid starter from the firm one, and use it after a day or two, but it's less hassle to just mix up a poolish and put that into the dough.

I've come to love the little guy that I'm feeding twice a day (I haven't named him yet... but  I know it's got to be a boy. A girl would smell sweeter and nuttier), so I wouldn't mess with his hydration too much yet. And I'm not ready for more starters than this one yet, I think.

xaipete's picture
xaipete

Perhaps the differences in flavor and fermentation/proofing times are subtle enough that they might only be important to bakeries.

If there are significant benefits with regard to dough strength and extensibility as has been suggested now by both you and Dan, then it is worth noting.

How you have compensated to obtain extensibility is extremely interesting and creative. It demonstrates great knowledge, on your part, of what you are doing!

So that may be it for the home baker: the intrinsic value of the type of levain used has to do with dough strength and extensibility, both of which can be accomplished by means other than just the hydration of the levain.

Thanks for participating in this discussion! I have really learned a lot.

--Pamela

hansjoakim's picture
hansjoakim

The choice of preferment (poolish, biga, pate fermentee, starter at given hydration) might have great implications on how the dough behaves. Suas goes into this in great detail in chap. 5 in his book, so you got plenty to look forward to, once you've finished chap. 4! :)

But you make a good point, Pamela - I think bakeries and larger scale operations need to consider this very closely, especially so if they need their doughs to be easily machineable. It's also very interesting to read (as you will in chap. 5) about how different preferments can be used to compensate for flaws in the flour (e.g. if the flour is overtly weak). One of the great things about ABAP in particular, is how the whole baking process, from mixing the preferment to pulling the loaves from the oven, is a single, connected process, with each step depending on the previous ones. Thanks for starting this great thread!

Stephanie Brim's picture
Stephanie Brim

Due to finding out I was pregnant again and the inevitable nausea that came after, I had to restart my starter as per Phyl's recipe.  This time I'm doing a liquid start (same by volume of water and flour) followed by feedings of 1/4 cup flour and 1/8 cup water (which will get me approximately 100% hydration).  I'm on day 3 today and everything is going well. It smells like old socks. Adam's old socks. After a day at the factory. But that's what it smelled like last time, so I just have to keep doing what I did then.

In my opinion the words liquid and stiff can be misleading and therefore shouldn't be used. They don't really describe enough the hydration percentage. I just use a percentage by the amount of starter I'm using in my recipe. 60% is a firm or stiff starter in most of what I make, and 100% is the batter-like starter that's still strong enough to hold its own. I scale the recipe to suit my starters.

xaipete's picture
xaipete

Congrats, Stephanie, on your pregnancy. I hope you feel better soon and have good luck with your starter.

--Pamela