The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Length of time for starter build?

Doc Tracy's picture
Doc Tracy

Length of time for starter build?

I've been noticing, while using more book recipes from places like JH's " Bread" that the directions call for a 12-16 hour build after adding mature starter to build the leaven. Since the leaven is peaked, doubled or quite puffy, depending on the hydration and if it is rye or wheat, this seems to be excessive. I've been waiting only 6-8 hours and starting my dough, trying to catch things at the peak, rather than going the full 12-16 hours. Am I missing something with regards to flavor, texture Or something I don't understand at all? It seems like the last 4-5 recipes that I've made from various sources have had these instructions. My kitchen is around 72 degrees right now so not overly warm.I've been pleased with all my breads but of course always strive towards perfection. I'm certainly not at the level of TXFarmer or Shiao Ping yet. My favorite daily bread right now is a whole wheat made with fresh ground hard red wheat, a 1-2-3 formula, retarded overnight with 30% bread flour. I'm baking a loaf for Thanksgiving. Our other favorite is Mini's Rye with added rye berries. I'd like to try the blueberry braid with a starter but not sure I'm brave enough without having time to test an enriched dough before serving to company Friday for brunch so will probably stick with the original yeast formula and experiment with enriched sourdoughs sometime between now and Christmas. Perhaps the sweet potato rolls, which make the best cinnamon rolls I've ever tasted!

davidg618's picture
davidg618 flavor and texture are subtle; e.g., increase the amount of pre-fermented flour 15%, you'll get a 2% change in overall flavor.  (It is imperative, at this pause, to remind you that 87% of all people make up their own statistics.)

Nonetheless, Most of my sourdough formulae contain approximately 30% prefermented flour. Furthermore, I allow twenty-four hours to build my formula-ready levain (3 progressive builds) My reason? Flavor.

I also make straight dough baguettes, but retard them for 17 hours (overnight) at 55°F. Reason? Flavor.

Can I quantify the "flavor improvement"? No: but I'm convinced the time investment is worth it.

David G

yozzause's picture

Hi Doc Tracy

This is a conunundrum that i have been struggling with too. My bakers apprentice training way back when taught me to recognise and use doughs at the height of their fermentation for the best resulting breads, I was also able to witness the results of using underfermented (GREEN DOUGHS) or overfermented (ROTTEN DOUGHS)

Now with going back to the future and using Sour dough techniques with stretch and folds after initial mixing, the straight forward bulk fermentation is interupted and the visual signs of maturation are not as discernable. The other factor of X amount of yeast added to a mix @ y temperature bringing it through in z hours is also not there, especially with retardation.

I have tried takeing a small amount of dough and setting it aside in a small container to monitor how the dough is performing under normal bulk fermentation whilst doing the normal SD stretch and fold regime.

The results of  green or rotton doughs on resulting bread are fairly well documented, so even in the build stage of a starter i try to conform with taking at the peak, remembering that there is a very rapid multiplication of yeast cells and bacteria which are feeding on the available food (flour).

It is eay to see that if you start off with only a small amount of starter or yeasts that the amount of time taken to reach maturity will be a lot longer.

We used to have a chart for the amount of yeast required to  produce a mature dough in a required time. This was before  instant yeast foods or bread improvers changed all that and a lots less yeast was then required for no time doughs . it was based on a bag of flour which in those days was 150 LBS  

8 hrs bulk fermentation = 1LB compressed yeast

6 hrs bulk = 1.5LB yeast

4 hrs bulk = 2LB yeast

2 hrs bulk = 4LB yeast

1 hr bulk = 8LB yeast

(the second figure is of particular interest as it equates to 1% of fresh yeast = 6 hours fermentation time which is still valid figure  today.)

So Doc  if your levan has the strength and the omph to mature in less time than recommended then i'm with you i would still be inclined to take it at its peak, as you do not know how active or strong the  starter in the recipe was. If you allow your starter to carry on, it is producing more and more yeast / bacteria at the expense of its food source which is being used up at an ever increasing speed to feed the extra (mouths) population.

Of course there is always the experiment  take half at height of maturity and the other half at the recommended time and compare the resulting breads!

kind regards Yozza     

Doc Tracy's picture
Doc Tracy

Could it be that I'm seeing the rapid peaking due to the use of fresh ground wheat and rye grains? I use flour right off the mill, which means the flour is also warm. I don't know if it is more or less active than older flour but I would assume that the warmer flour temperature is a factor. The starter, though, is straight out of the fridge, not room temp. Water is cool, out of the RO filter. Is fresh ground flour more active? I swear, if I leave my starter a full 24 hours it's well beyond peaking and gluten starts to degrade. It gets wetter and looser. But, I'm not going for a ton of sour either. Perhaps the key to more sour would be the 12-16 hour time for the leaven build? Even with salt added, I seem to get too much enzyme activity at room temp after 8 hours.

longhorn's picture

My interpretation of your comments is that you are doing an expansion to make levain and then doing the 1-2-3 formula for the final build. But you say very little about how you build the levain. 6 to 8 hours is really fast peaking for a wild yeast at room temp, especially with salt added as a retarder. So something must be going on!

To answer your question, warm flour can compound your issue. You should probably check the temperature of both the levain and the final dough so you know more about what is happening. Temperature is a major factor in sourdough expansion rates and you should understand that variable (know the temperature) since it is a potential contributor to the problem. I would also suggest giving the fresh flour an hour or so to cool down. I do my WW in batches and even freeze it and find the aromatic qualities I like from fresh ground persist. I don't believe it is necessary to use the fresh ground flour immediately to benefit from the fresh grinding. 

First question would be what is your expansion ratio in creating the levain? If you are expanding the starter at a 1:2:2 ratio (starter:water:flour) 8 hours is WAY fast. If it is 1:1:1 then you should consider increasing the expansion ratio to slow it down. Using chilled water (maybe 65 or so) would also help slow down the expansion.

I also use fresh ground wheat and occasionally rye but only in small quantities (under 5% or so) so I cant comment on high concentrations of fresh ground flour though it is my impression they can be a bit faster. However, a simple experiment could resolve the question. Simply let the fresh ground flour cool an hour or so before use and see if it is still really fast.

Another possibility may lie in the specific grains you are using - their source and history.

Guessing a bit, I would tend to suggest letting the fresh ground flour cool a bit and increasing the expansion ratio on the levain. I am guessing you expand the starter and then take some to use in building the dough. Consider pulling starter to feed to make a levain and feeding the remaining starter separately. That way the levain can be fed at an expansion rate that supports overnight fermentation while the starter can be fed at a different expansion rate and go back in the fridge earlier.

Good luck!



Doc Tracy's picture
Doc Tracy

For my 123 bread I use about 50 grams of starter. For other leaven builds, it just depends on the recipe. Next time I grind flour I'll stick my thermometer in there and take a reading, also will check my water. Duh, don't know why I didn't think of that already! It's been so easy to just grind the flour as I pull everything out and get ready to mix stuff up. I'm hoping I don't actually have to plan ahead and grind beforehand. That's why I hate doing pies. Always having to freeze everything and wait, the spontaneous moment of wanting to bake is lost. Ok, I'm not a very good planner. I'm grinding some flour to take to my mother this AM so I'll check the temp and get back to you with it. The only thing I know about the grains is that they are certified "chemical free" and from North Dakota.

longhorn's picture

Hi Doc!

What is your actual procedure? You start with 50 grams of starter and add ? grams of water and ? grams of flour to make the levain? 

WRT grinding, you can make grinding the first step and spread it thin so it can cool some. Using slightly chilled water will certainly help also.

Look forward to your temps.

Something is definitely weird with your starter activity!

Bake On!


Doc Tracy's picture
Doc Tracy

Just checked the temperature of the flour fresh off the grinder. 94 degrees! Holy cow! I knew it was warm but had no idea! I guess I do need to give it an hour cool down before feeding the starter or doing my levain builds. Sometimes the answer to a problem is so obvious but you just have to put it out for someone else to throw back at you. I guess I thought the added water was enough to cool off the flour to room temp, not realizing that the flour was 20 degrees above room temp. Man, no wonder I was having so many problems during the summer time with my starter. I'm going to have to use ice water and put my flour in the fridge before my feeds next summer!I was adding the warm flour to water that was coming out of warm pipes and my room temp was 82 degrees last summer. My starter started smelling like nail polish. I finally quit using it until it cooled off. I was able to fix the problem with a bunch of frequent, heavy feed and lowering the hydration to about 50% over a two week period. Now I have my sweet smelling, lively starter back. Perhaps too lively? Just pulled two nice 123 loaves out of the oven for my part of the Thanksgiving Day meal.Huge oven spring despite being nearly all WW flour.

RobynNZ's picture

Hi Doc Tracy

Have you ever taken a look at Susan's calculator for determining water temperature to achieve a suitable temperature for your dough? As longhorn said you could use iced water to adjust your water to the temperature you need. The method is based on that in "Bread" but I find it really easy to click on the calculator and enter  flour temp/preferment temp/room temp/water temps (tap and boiling in my case) and required water volume details. I prefer to file everything, not keeping anything on my desktop, this calculator is the exception, I use it so often. As I work by hand I have found 5 to be a good friction factor for me, but you'll have to experiment a little to get the best figure for your conditions and working method.

I do realise that it is the levain which is causing you consternation, but I'm sure you'll be able to adapt the logic for your levain prep to get a temp in the range Hamelman recommends for the levain.

The downloadable calculator is at the bottom of the page, but the whole page is worth reading:

I hope you enjoy sharing your Thanksgiving meal.

Cheers, Robyn