The Fresh Loaf

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How long does a starter live? and some other stuff :)

RachelJ's picture

How long does a starter live? and some other stuff :)

Hola! I was just wondering, how long does a starter live? Does it actually ever 'die'? and... I was reading about starter and how sour they are and all that, and I have a question for those of you who have a starter for a while and know some about it. Do I have to add equal amounts of flour and water for the starter to be fed or can I add more flour, to thicken it? I read that the less liquid in your starter, the less sour it will be. My family doesn't like the whole big 'sour' taste to it, so I was wondering if that could be remedied. 

Thanks a bunch and I appreciate all your comments!

dmsnyder's picture

Hi, Rachel.

If you take good care of your starter, it will out live all of us.

There are many regimens for feeding your starter. You can keep it firmer or more liquid. In any case, when you feed it, you should at least double the weight of the seed starter. If you are thinking volumes, I would urge you to switch to measuring everything by weight. It's more accurate.

To most people, "more sour" means there is more acetic acid being produced. The lactobacilli make more acetic acid in drier environments and more lactic acid in wetter environments. However, there are other variables that also influence sourness. This is a big topic, but the answer to your question is "Yes. You can control how sour your bread is."


Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

How long does humankind live? 

A starter, or sourdough starter culture, is a colony or multiple colonies of many single celled yeast and bacteria.  Each cell probably has a short life span but splits or buds thus multiplying and keeping the starter culture "alive" as long as conditions are good and enough food is available.  

Each of us also has a life span and they vary but as a whole, we've been here on the planet for a while too.  Unlike yeast and bacteria, we cannot produce spores to survive drought, starvation or freezing.


clazar123's picture

And it will probably outlive me. I obtained it from a friend who had it from Grandma and great grandma.It has probably evolved over the years but I know it consistently produces and has a unique,winey smell that my younger starters haven't achieved. Very lovely.

I keep small volumes of the main starter and build a volume of it for every bake.Just take about a tablespoon or two out on Friday morning and add it to about 1/2 c flour and enough water to make a thick batter.Leave it in a 70F temp spot.Feed it about 1/4 c flour and water that evening and by then it is usually quite active. If it isn't active enough by the next morning, add a little more flour/water and stir. I use 1-2 cups of starter every week with this method. My recipes average 1/2 c-1 cup starter per loaf of bread.

As for the "mother", I feed it a little flour and water, leave it out for about 1 hour and then refrigerate it. I only keep about 1/2 cup volume at the most.

I don't weigh my ingredients. If I was scaling up for multiple loaves or trying to share more precise recipes with others, I would have difficulty doing that. My "recipes" are more guidelines. If you want to share more precise recipes or scale up, that is a good reason to weigh ingredients and to know what hydration your starter is at.

wwiiggggiinnss's picture
wwiiggggiinnss (not verified)

I forget where I read this, but the funny line was:

"Feed the @#$% starter, or it will die! It will die and you will have no job!"

The chef, who'd been repeatedly forced to feed the starter (not his job!) because the baker was a habitual drunk who'd often forget his duties, refused to do so.

The starter, a 200 year-old version used by one of Paris' most esteemed bakeries (the name wasn't revealed), did just that: it died, completely.

What did the bakery do? It made a new starter from scratch.

Did the customers notice? Not at all!

When someone says they have a ancient starter that's been maintained forever, I always remember this story.

Knowing the foibles of we as a species, I almost never believe a starter is as old as people say it is, but I allow people their delusions, unless I'm recounting this story.

Mike Avery's picture
Mike Avery

Sometimes knowledge is like an onion.  There are more and more layers as you look more closely.

If you maintain a starter carefully, it can last a long, long time.  If you use a good regimen, it can be stable.  Dr. Michael Gaenzle, formerly of the German Fat and Cereal research center had some starters that were unchanged for at least 50 years.

When a starter has been in use for some time in a bakery, the chances are pretty good that a new starter started in that location will be very similar to any other starter started in that location.

The key elements in determining what a starter will be like include the flour used to start the starter as that is probably where the organisms come from, the water used to start the starter as that can change the starting pH, the temperature the starter is started at as that can favor some organisms over others, and the hydration of the starter when it is started as that can also favor some organisms over others.

Most "nautural" starters are a mix of many organisms with a few being dominant.  That is because there are a lot of organisms on the flour.  The conditions of the starter's inception and maintenance will determine which organisms win out.  Debbie Wink had some interesting papers on these topics.

Of course, the real question is what all this means to the baker.  And usually, not much.  Most starters are pretty stable in 30 to 90 days of use (depending on who you beleive).  And if it dies, your next starter will more than likely be very much like the previous one.


Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Rachael, if you find your sourdough too sour there are ways to make the dough milder.  Feed the starter more often, is one.  Don't let it sit around mature collecting acids.  Build for a loaf with your starter and just before it peaks, mix it in and keep the dough at temperatures that favor the yeast growth and if using a retarding method, do it before too much fermentation has taken place in the dough.

Another is to add just a little bit of sugar or honey to the culture when you feed it.  You may want to experiment separately from your regular starter.  This may trigger a temporary imprint into the RNA and result in a less sour culture (how many generations I do not know 10 or 100 or 10,000 or more.)  It seems to happen in many cultures that are fed sugar especially in the beginning of culture formation.  Example: the famous Amish Friendship bread starter.  I've noticed it has also happened sometimes when starting a culture with sweetened pineapple juice.  Your starter may reshuffle the pecking order of the beasties in it (starter may go crazy or just appear to do nothing or slow down)  and it may take a week or so, so be patient with it and stick to a feeding schedule (it may be different than the one you are using) but if you want to try that route, by all means do.  I think the Amish Starter may also use milk. 

It might be a good idea to look it up and see how often it is fed and reduce the amounts porportionally since it is formulated to make enough starter to give to all your friends.  Soon one might be drowning in the stuff!

Mini  :)