The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Pre-marital counseling: advice to my baby brother, an aspiring sourdough baker

dmsnyder's picture

Pre-marital counseling: advice to my baby brother, an aspiring sourdough baker


Ruth (our sister) left her sourdough starter in the refrigerator at Pelican Way (vacation home).  I plan to use it when we're back here in a few weeks.  Where shall I start?


Dear Glenn,

I'm so happy that you have decided you are mature enough to enter into a long term commitment to a levain. You have, no doubt, heard the expression "starter marriage." I assume, like most, you have the impression this refers to the failed marriage of two people at a young age, but, as the Egyptians first discovered some 5000 years ago, it really refers to the successful long-term relationship between a baker and his or her wild yeast culture.

This can be one of the most rewarding experiences anyone can have, but it only works if there is mutual respect, an understanding of the partner's needs and a willingness on the baker's part to be patient and flexible, especially in the first months of the relationship. There will be disappointments, inevitably. You must accept these adversities and work through them together. If you do, your starter will reward you with nourishment for your body and soul. It will become resilient and forgiving. It will provide an endless variety of pleasures - pain au levain, pain de campagne, sour rye, challah, even croissants! 

As you feed your starter, it will awaken and come alive. It's yeast and lactobacilli will grow and multiply and produce the CO2 that raises your dough and the alcohol and acids that strengthen your gluten and lend complexity of flavor to your bread. But, if you neglect it, it will weaken and ooze liquid (hooch) as it's strength fades to nothingness. Yet, if you feed it again and again, it will revive and forgive you, time after time. Who cannot but treasure such loyalty?

The material requirements for a successful relationship are minimal: Your starter, water, flour and salt. Bowls and spatulas and ovens you have. You will need a scale to accurately measure ingredients. It should measure to 1 g (1/4 oz) and have a tare function. The most inexpensive but very acceptable one I know is made by Escali and costs less than $30. 

Your levain can be fed all purpose (AP) flour, but it really likes its feeding spiced up with a bit of rye and/or whole wheat (WW). The mix I use for feeding my starter is 70% AP, 20%WW and 10% rye. (All measurements are by weight, not volume.) So, I advise you to mix up a batch of starter food, say 210 g AP, 60 g WW and 30 g rye and keep it in a quart jar.

I generally keep my starter at 75% hydration. (This means 4 parts flour to 3 parts water.) And when feeding it, I mix together 1 part starter with 4 parts flour and 3 parts water. For example, mix 15 g starter with 60 g flour (the flour mix described above) and 45 g water. This makes 120 gms of starter. Mix this in a medium sized bowl (3-4 cup size), cover the bowl and let it ferment for 12-16 hours. It should double in volume and be all bubbly with a domed top. I like to do this in a glass or clear plastic container. Before using the starter to make bread, repeat the feeding. Discard all but 20 g of starter and feed the starter with 80 g of flour and 60 g of water. You now have 160 g of starter. It may now double in 6-8 hours. It is now ready to use to make bread.

I would start with a simple San Francisco-type sourdough bread. I would plan on making the same bread several times before you feel you "know it." Then, choose a variation or another type of sourdough bread. I know you like my Sourdough Italian Bread, so you may want to work on that. It is a little trickier, in that it is a wet, sticky dough. I can send you formulas for these or other types of sourdough bread.

There is a wealth of information online. You know TFL. Read Sourdough Lessons which has links to a number of sources. Mike Avery's Sourdough Home - An Exploration of Sourdough also has a lot of good information and tips. You may also want to explore Susan Tenney's Wild Yeast blog for inspiration. If you read my blog on TFL, you will find many formulas, most of which contain detailed instructions for procedures. I'll be home next weekend (making bread, no doubt) so feel free to give a call.






Trishinomaha's picture

and very well written. I had about four sourdough starters sleeping in my fridge for longer than I care to admit and finally pitched them. The NY Bakers test recipe marathon has gotten me back into baking and now that we're almost done with that I'd like to get back into sourdough. I am now ready to start over. Would you be willing to share your favorite method of starting a new soudough starter with me? I'd be really grateful-


P.S. You should consider writing a book - the above "letter" is so well written...

dmsnyder's picture

Hi, Trish.

I've never grown a starter from scratch. I have bought a few over the years. If I were to grow my own, I think I'd use Debra Wink's "Pineapple Juice" method.


GSnyde's picture


I appreciate the advice (about bread, not marriage).  I have tried over the years to avoid enclosing my spouse in refrigerators, even after she's eaten well.  And so far it's worked out pretty well.

My sourdough starter is going gangbusters, and I plan to bake with it this weekend.


dmsnyder's picture

First point: If you fed your starter as often as you feed your spouse, you would not be refrigerating your starter either.

Second point: The real difference is that spouses are customarily fed 1-2% of body weight. Starters are fed 100-200% or more of their body weight.

This should be perfectly clear. I will not be held responsible if you confuse the two.


GSnyde's picture

David, I think we have agreed that there are more differences than similarities between a spouse, refrigerated or room-temperature, and a bubbling mass of flour, water and micro-organisms.

I think I will treat my starter, not as a spouse, but as a pet...or livestock.

Which reminds me of a story:  

A farmer had a pig.  One day the pig did a remarkable thing.  The farmer had fallen asleep on a stack of hay, and the farmer's cigar had fallen out of his mouth and sparked a fire.  The pig ran over to the farmer, grabbed the hem of his overalls in its teeth and dragged the farmer to safety.  Word of this spread through the community, and all the neighbors agreed this was a splendid pig indeed.

Some weeks later, a neighbor was visiting the farmer and noticed the pig was missing a leg.  The neighbor asked the farmer how it was that the pig was stumbling around on three legs.  The farmer took a puff on his cigar, and replied: "You don't eat a pig like that all at once."


Just to keep this comment on topic, I'm sure the pig's leg was eaten on some very fine bread.  Maybe San Joaquin Sourdough.


dmsnyder's picture

I think we have agreed that there are more differences than similarities between a spouse, refrigerated or room-temperature, and a bubbling mass of flour, water and micro-organisms.

I don't know how many differences there are or how many similarities.

The biggest difference is that spouses contain relatively little flour. The bubbling part is variable. Spouses are predominantly made up of water and micro-organisms. (Did you know your body contains more bacterial cells than cells with your own DNA?).

Sourdough starters have proportionally less water and micro-organisms. They have more flour than spouses (do).

I don't think your intention was to add 3-legged pigs to the comparison. Are you pulling my leg, or is that really how they make "pulled pork?"


trailrunner's picture

we are on an island. we are only using bikes for transportation. we are 112 steps DOWN from the road. So when we are ready to go up my dear spouse asks" do we have everything? " check backpacks and pockets...OK yes...we are ready...for if you arrive at the top and don't have everything...too bad. 

We are then out for 4-5 hours biking and hiking...all of this is apropos of the discussion " what % does  one feed ones spouse?"....when we arrive at the final stop ( Thriftway...a MOST wonderful store in the PNW )  before we head back to our " home/rental" we have everything ??? ( which on Vashon Island is (ooops). 

Dear spouse relates hours later he is still hungry...salmon/risotto/fresh green beans/baguette/choc icecream...ah well you get the picture.

Starters need whatever they need to keep them going...


GSnyde's picture


Here's the result of my first attempt at sourdough baking.






I learned a lot, with thanks to David...and TFL.

I'll try a blog post of my own some time soon, but experimenting with baking has me too tired to experiment with blogging right now.



Daisy_A's picture

Hi Glenn,

That looks like a great start - good crust, good crumb.

Kind regards, Daisy_A