The Fresh Loaf

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Is firm starter more potent that a 100% starter

avatrx1's picture

Is firm starter more potent that a 100% starter

In recipes that call for a firm starter but don't specifiy, what is the purpose of the firm starter.  Do you get more "bang for your buck" so to speak with a firm starter vs a standard 100%?

I'm becoming more familiar with using a starter and my bread gets good oven spring, but now I'm faced with a recipe that calls for a firm "levain" which I believe is another name for starter.  They don't specify how firm.  Can't I just use the 100% and modify the recipe by reducing the amount of water or will that have an impact on the rise I ultimately get when I assemble the final dough for baking?

Is there a general rule of thumb for yeast vs starter amount?  Specifically tuned to hydration of starters? use X starter to replace Y yeast?

I'm determined to get a handle on this.




CanuckJim's picture


Using firm or liquid starters really seems to be a matter of experience and preference.  Many professional artisan bakeries seem to use a firm starter, perhaps because it's easier to store.  Here, though, I prefer a liquid one.  However, I've used both and have never noticed any difference at all in "bang for the buck."  The best methods for converting a firm starter to a liquid one and vice versa I've ever seen are in Hamelmann's Bread. It's simply a matter of hydration during the final build.  Hamelmann's book contains forumulas using both types.  Have a look.

Hope that helps.


chouette22's picture

... I have been asking myself the same thing. I hope we'll get some good answers!

Genin's picture

As a Quebec (Canada) resident, French is my first language.

"levain" is the french translation of the word sourdough.

Starter, in the bread lexic, translate into "chef de levain". But the word "chef" alone translate into chief in english, so I don't know why we use it that way :)

gcook17's picture

As far as I can tell from reading and hearing what bakers say, there aren't universally accepted definitions for these terms.  Some people, like Hamelman and Suas, use the term "starter" to mean the sourdough batch that you feed everyday (or every so often) and that many of us store in the fridge.  Reinhart calls this the "mother starter" in his Whole Grain Breads book.  This starter can be liquid or stiff and this affects the type of acidity (liquid ->more lactic, stiff->more acetic).

Hamelman and Suas use the term "levain" for the starter you pull out of the main starter and feed in preparation for making bread.  Reinhart calls it "firm starter" in his BBA.  Hamelman says levain means sourdough (like genin said) and that he also uses it to mean the final build stage before mixing the dough.

I think different bakers and writers use these terms differently, but they try to use different terms for different things so it is clear what they're talking about.  Depending on whose book one is reading it's necessary to figure out what they mean. 


loydb's picture

I started out making a firm starter as per the directions in PR's BBA. I tried using just starter instead, and once I got my hydration adjusted, noticed no difference in the quality. Nowdays, my trigger to make more sourdough is when I notice that I've got too much barm :)


SourFlour's picture

I used to keep my starters always at 100% hydration because it seemed to be a common practice, and made math simple.  I played around with different feeding schedules, which could affect the yeast activity, and sourness. To do this you can feed more often, or higher quantities of flour and water, or keep things at different temperatures. So even at one hydration level, there is plenty of different things you can do.

But now I have two primary starters, Blarf and Dulce.  Blarf I am currently keeping at 125% hydration, and he is very liquidy.  I did this at first because it made feeding easier.  Rather than having to work out any flour clumps, I just stir for a small period  of time and everything gets incorporated.  But another benefit of being at a higher hydration is that the yeast are more effective at eating their food.  I am currently feeding once every 24 hours, and at this high hydration, it almost isn't enough.  He is extremely active for many hours after the feeding, but once I start crossing over 16 or so, he starts to look as if he would die (although I imagine he would survive 2 days at this level).

Dulce is my firm starter, and I am currently keeping her at 60% hydration.  One benefit of a firm starter is that a different kind of bacteria thrive, so you can get more pronounced sour flavor.  Also, the gluten is well developed already, so it is good to use in things like ciabatta.

I am still exploring the differences in hydration levels and feeding schedules, and will let you know as I discover more.  One key thing I'd say is that you can get away with making bread with any type of starter, you just need to adjust to get it how you want.

Hope this helps.

Danny - Sour Flour

avatrx1's picture

HI Danny,

I'm happy to hear that the female version of your starter is the firm one and the male version is the flabby one.  Your info does help.  A previous poster - prior to yours refers to a barm.  That term I'm not familiar with so I guess I'll have to google it.

I'm curious about your 60% Dulce.  How often do you feed her?  When adjusting her for baking do you take her out feed her 100%flour and 60% water and wait? With something firm, how do you tell if it's active?  does it bubble and froth like a typical starter or do you have to wait longer?

I'm a big fan of ciabatta and mine always tastes good, it's just that it comes out more like a flat slipper - kinda like a snowshoe.  almost  never more than 1-1/2" high so maybe I should try a firmer starter like Dulce?


SourFlour's picture

I keep Dulce (my firm starter) out of the fridge completely.  I am still experimenting with different feeding schedules, but I have been doing once every 24 hours, and am about to try out once every 48 hours.  I also used to feed her 5:5:3, but have moved to 10:5:3, as I am guessing that she goes through the food much slower than a higher hydrated starter.

As for telling about her liveliness, because she is so firm, she holds more of the gas she produces, so rises up, rather than bubbling like higher hydrated starters.  Also, she currently has a very strong alcoholic smell, she lets me know something is happening.  The loaves that have been coming from her have been rising nicely, so that is the real signal for me of how active she is.

I'm interested in exploring this more, so will let you know what I discover.

Take care,
Danny - Sour Flour

dghdctr's picture

There are also other threads where the differences are discussed.  You can probably find some of them with the search box.

Also try searching for any discussion of sourdough by Debra Wink at this TFL blog:

--Dan DiMuzio

Koyae's picture

My experience with spring is that it actually depends on your individual cultures. I had two that I kept 100%-ish for a long time.

For transport or busy periods where I didn't want to feed often, I would harden them up. Since sometimes I make a last-minute something before things get hectic, the feeding days wouldn't always line up. Due to this I learned that Cloverstarter was much happier (and less likely to try and mold or die on me) at a higher hydration, and Big Boy more comfortable quite desem-ish, starting to look sickly if I allow too much hydration. All this despite both cultures having been captured in the same location during the same period, and having both been on the same diets until just recently.

So I've got the trio of starters right now -- one liquidy, at about 100% presently with a still-experimental mixed diet mostly for fermenting rolled berries and steelcuts: Cloverstarter.

one harder, between 65% to 80% with a diet of wheat and rye flours mostly for breads and crackers: Big Boy

and one sortof snot-consistency, (not quite sure of hydration) with a diet of unbleached unbromated white flour for pizza-crusts and frenchier-breads to impart a more broad-spectrum microbial taste to things: Imbecile (last name I called it, other than just 'White Starter'. Since Imbecile stays in the fridge, and we don't interact that much I don't have a better name).

In the winter months, the house-temp sometimes dips into the mid-50s (Fahrenheit) and stays well below 70, so I can pretty easily keep the my two mainstays out, and feed once I see that peak activity has declined some, which takes maybe a day and a half to reach hit its top, and then I let the LAB have their fun for a period before doubling the two cultures. Imbecile gets fed on a quite irregular basis currently averaging about once every two weeks, getting maybe a half-day or so out at roomtemp before going into the fridge.

When I don't feel like making bread or porridge or cake or cookies, and I've not been taking out from the trio, I mix all three to make a pancake or two and add butter and maple-syrup. They often taste oddly like blueberries -- sortof a dark sweet with sometimes more than a hint of sourness.