The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Starter Ripening - sharing lessons learned

Mebake's picture
Mebake

Starter Ripening - sharing lessons learned

I now believe that starters do behave in different ways when the flour fed to them is changed. I have been experiencing failures with liquid-levain-based recipes, and in the midst of all the frustration , i wondered at the reason behind such failures, particularly with Whole Wheat levain (Hamelman's Book-Levains section).

I Feed my All White starter with All Purpose Flour (10.5 Protein), which behaves in a different way than Bread flour (>11.5 Protein) does. When you judge that a liquid starter is fully ripen by watching its receding level, then you must consider the time during which a starter recedes, as Higher protein flours expand higher and take longer to recede than Lower Protein flours. For instance, if you have a bread flour based liquid starter, then you know that it takes 3-4-5 or 6 hours for it to triple or quadruple in size before it begins to recede, at wich point you know that your yeasts are in full swing. However, with lower protein flour based liquid starters, receding level of the starter does not indicate full ripness, as such flour based starters collapse earlier due to their weakness.

I have observed that liquid starters are more prone to increased bacterial activity than Stiffer starters are, and therefore, by refreshing a starter many times before full ripness you're reducing the yeasts population in the starter culture, and ultimately encouraging other less potent strains of yeast and bacterias to multiply, resulting in a final dough which does not expand.

The best indicator for a ripe sourdough starter (regadless of the type of flour used) is the smell. When a starter ferments and expands and just begins to recede or collapse, smell it. If it smells vinegary or alcoholish, then it is fully ripe, if not, then it needs more time to ripen. If the same starter smells cheese like, then your refreshing regime has caused the culture population to de-stabilize and the ideal (Wild-yeast to lactobacillus bacterial) balance has been thrown off balance.

Stiff levains on the other hand, are mostly immune to such imbalances, as the movement of bacteria (which naturally outnumber wildyeasts 1000:1) is restricted, and thus their activity is kept at bay, while yeasts have ample supply of food in comparision with thinner starters.

Just thought of sharing these lessons with my fellow TFL'ers.

Khalid

ananda's picture
ananda

Hi Khalid,

Thanks for posting your tried and tested observations.

I was interested in your comments about the relative fermetation rates of liquid levains vs. stiff ones, and  the more rapidly breaking down soft flour contrasted with the more tolerant strong flour.   I agree with all your observations here.

However that has then led us to choose direct opposites when it comes to our leavens.   Mine is stiff, and uses stronger flour.   Yours is liquid and uses weaker flour.   As, I say, "very interesting!"

All good wishes

Andy

 

nicodvb's picture
nicodvb

Khalid,

recently I'm using a durum wheat starter that I keep at room temperature feeding it every 2 days (or ~36 hours) with a 1:8:10 ratio (hydratation 80%). All the preferments I prepare now are at 80% or even 75% hydratation. This pasty poolish permits me to monitor more closely the activity of the preferment and I noticed that 1) they are much less prone to be overripe (in practice they seem to resist longer) 2) they are much more speedy at raising doughs. Yes, when I find them to be at the top they smell really alchoolic, just like an old dough.

Yet, this block you wrote

I have observed that liquid starters are more prone to increased bacterial activity than Stiffer starters are, and therefore, by refreshing a starter many times before full ripness you're reducing the yeasts population in the starter culture, and ultimately encouraging other less potent strains of yeast and bacterias to multiply, resulting in a final dough which does not expand.

seems to be in  contraddiction with what Debra taught us: that multiple and early refreshments increase the yeast population at the expense of lactobacilli because bacteria have a longer lag time than yeasts.

Generally I find a bad idea using weaker flours in the preferments both for the reason you wrote and for their higher sensibility to protease activity. Weaker flour have a lower resistence to enzymes, thus I relegate them to the final dough.

Thanks for having started this thread. I agree with your "probing" method.

 

Mebake's picture
Mebake

Thank you Andy. I chose All Purpose with 10.5 Protein due to its price and availability, obviously a wrong choice. I only wanted to emphasize on the non-reliability of the collapse watermark indicator especially with weaker flours.

Good choice, Nico! 80% hydration starter is reliable and consistent enough to bake with. Thanks for sharing that!

As to the contradiction, I have done it over and over again, and found that liquid levains are very tricky to deal with especially if your ambient temperature is greater than 27C or 80F, at which Bacteria will have all the fun. The perfect environment for a successful Liquid levain is a relatively cool (71-75F or 21-25C) temperature, and a strong flour to withstand the prolonged fermentation times.

Khalid

nicodvb's picture
nicodvb

you're right, I didn't consider the temperature factor. I always forget that you live in a much warmer environment than me!

clazar123's picture
clazar123

Since I make mostly whole wheat bread, I tried using whole wheat flour to feed/maintain a starter that was originally started with AP flour. It worked ok for a few weeks and then seemed to become prone to bacterial infection and rampant enzyme production. My loaves wanted to dissolve and the dough would tear as I shaped it into a loaf. I couldn't properly prove it as it would tear as it rose.When I went back to using an AP starter I had no problems.Would I have this problem if I started the starter from scratch with WW flour?Might be a worthy experiment.

To build my WW starter,I started by feeding a small amount of AP starter twice a day with WW flour to build/convert it from an AP to a WW. After about a week, it looked and behaved great so I put it in the refrigerator and fed it once a week,same as my AP starter. Actually, what I did was remove it from the refrig every weekend for a bake, refresh it and do the same. I don't measure my starter feed anymore but I'd estimate it at a 125% (thick but still barely pourable batter).

One observation that is relevant here is that when it is hot (above 80F) in the house, my AP starter RAPIDLY burns through the food-it could require multiple feedings daily if I left it out of the refrig. I think your observation of the increased temp ramping up the bacterial activity is valid. It could be that the bacteria multiplies faster than the yeasts at higher temps-the pineapple juice method may be more critical to use in a warmer temp to give the yeasts a fighting chance.

kim's picture
kim

Khalid,

I was wondering why you didn’t post your breads recently. When I was back in SE Asia for a summer vacations, I had the same problem you are facing right now especially my liquid starter. I had to use stiff starter around 75% hydrations to solve my problems. Every time I use my starter I do smell them first before take a small bite of them (I have been doing this for the past two years), sometimes I use instant pH meter to measure my starter pH. Thanks you for the detailed lessons.

Kimmy

Syd's picture
Syd

Good topic, Khalid and one that is of interest to me as I bake under similar climatic conditions to you. Our average daily temps now (lows and highs) are between 27 and 32 C and will stay that way until mid November. 

I always feed my starter AP but our AP is 11.4% protein so I don't have the problem of the gluten not being strong enough to sustain the rise.  However, that is an interesting observation and one to keep in mind when changing starter diets. 

As to the contradiction, I have done it over and over again, and found that liquid levains are very tricky to deal with especially if your ambient temperature is greater than 27C or 80F, at which Bacteria will have all the fun. The perfect environment for a successful Liquid levain is a relatively cool (71-75F or 21-25C) temperature, and a strong flour to withstand the prolonged fermentation times.

I agree with you on this point.  I am not sure what happens or even if it is, in fact, a contradiction of what Debra said, but the heat does make a difference.  My starter goes through food more quickly and it gets more acidic as the temperature goes up.   I have to watch my starter like a hawk during the summer months or else my dough turns into a sticky, weeping, proteolytic mess. According to this article from eGullet the optimal temp for the yeast (C. Milleri) is 27C whereas the optimal temp for the lactobacillus (L.sf) is 34C. Our high temps clearly favour the lactobacillus and it stands to reason that our starters will be more acidic.

The effects of increasing acid on dough are best explained by this quote from Dan Di Muzio.

Lee Glass over at the Guild, who likes to keep track of scientific stuff like this, explained the effects of acids on dough as follows:

In low concentrations acids create strength
>>  in doughs by
>>  facilitating sulfur-sulfur bond development.
>>  These bonds are
>>  important elements of the cross-linking that
>>  helps for the gluten
>>  meshwork.
>>
>>  * At low to moderate concentrations, acids
>>  inhibit amylase activity.
>>  This is a critical role of acids in rye
>>  sourdough.
>>
>>  * At moderate concentrations, acids result in
>>  increased protease
>>  activity. The activity of proteases is enhanced
>>  in moderately acidic
>>  environments. Proteases can be quite
>>  destructive to the gluten
>>  meshwork, causing it to become fragmented.
>>
>>  * At high concentrations, acids hydrolyze the
>>  bonds that form the
>>  protein chains (not the sulfur-to-sulfur bonds)
>>  that are integral to
>>  the gluten meshwork. At such concentrations,
>>  acids have a profoundly
>>  negative impact on dough strength.

So, at some point, if the starter gets too acidic, it is going to start destroying gluten, either through increased protease activity or the acid itself destroying the protein chains.

I don't pretend to understand the science behind it at all (although I am interested in it and do have a desire to continue to learn about it), but for the moment I am more  interested in the what it all means for me, practically, when I make bread. 

Here are some of the some of the methods I use to avoid gluten breakdown.  Given that heat is the enemy in that it provides the right conditions for the rot to set in, I:

  • don't keep my starter out of the fridge for long periods of time (my usual routine now is to take my starter out of the fridge in the morning, give it a stir and let it peak - about 3 hours - remove the portion I want to use, throw out what I don't need, feed the remainder, let it start to show some activity and put it right back in the fridge again.  I think it is important to let your starter show some activity before you refrigerate it.  I let mine not quite double.  If that sounds like a lot, keep in mind that my starter quadruples before it peaks.
  • keep my equipment spotlessly clean.  Each time I feed my starter it goes into a clean bottle.  I never allow the bottle to get gunky or gooey or have splash marks running down the bottle.  I think that is just an invitation for disaster.
  • use iced water with any levain builds
  • use a much higher feeding ratio than I would in the cooler months: 1:5:5 (starter:flour:water)
  • ferment my dough in an air conditioned room if the aircon happens to be on (although I hardly think is economical to just turn on the ac for the dough alone)
  • retard, retard, retard (need I say more)
  • never starve my starter
  • don't overfeed it either (it should be at its peak - or just after - when you feed it)
  • always smell my starter (when I first open the jar it smells quite acidic, but after a stir those really harsh sour notes give way to something much smoother with fruity overtones); if it smells any different, I know there is something wrong
  • have even taken to tasting my starter (although, remember, NEVER double dip that spoon - you'll be asking for trouble)!

Can't think of anything else now, although I am bound to think of something the minute I hit the save button, however, if I do, I will come back and edit it in.

When I first started making sour dough some 15+ years ago, I  always used to use a stiff  levain.  It is only recently (since I discovered this site) that I realised there were other methods of making sour dough.  Back then I never used to have these problems. Perhaps I need to revert back to a stiff levain in the summer.  I just think a liquid one is really convenient and easy to maintain.  

Would love to hear what steps you take to avoid problems and how you are progressing.

All the best,

Syd

 

varda's picture
varda

Interesting discussion.   I have been following a regime where I remove some starter to bake, feed what is left up to level, leave it out on the counter until it roughly doubles and then refrigerate until the next bake - maintaining hydration in the 60s because I find like Khalid that it is more reliable and robust.   A month ago when it was still pretty chilly out it took around 4 hours for the starter to double, this afternoon, only 1.5 hours.   -Varda

Mebake's picture
Mebake

Thanks, Syd, for sharing all this with us. I Have been content with my stiff starter (almost stiff: 80% hydration), and build it up to a stiff (60%) levain. But, i can't ignore the poolish like effect on the flavor of Liquid levains, and would like to find a reliable feeding environment where i'd be able to consistently produce authentic breads, such as vermont sourdough. I will risk some flour, and test the rising times of liquid levains in my house, during my absence. My liquid white levains usually ripe anywhere from 6-8 hours at 27c. My house is airconditioned, as we live in desert climate. Once the a/c is switched off, temperature rised to 27c. I found a cozy place in a cupboard where my starter can consistently be at 26-27C.

I don't do measurments with starters, i hate that. I just eyeball the whole feeding procedure, and it works just fine.

I have been adopting Hansjoakim's stiff -Rye Based Pain au levain, and i baked one yesterday. It was lovely, more tangy than its white version, and the fermentation also happens faster.

1.5 hours, varda! You must have a really active starter.. What flour combination does it contain?

 

varda's picture
varda

It does seem very active.   It's not even that hot yet around here.  I think that's why my weird starter regimen works.    I use King Arthur AP which is really a bread flour (11.7% protein) at 95% and 5% very coarse stone ground rye (Hodgson's Mill).    I have been keeping this going for a long time but I switched over to the feeding schedule I described above in February.   I found that if I followed Hamelman's starter refresh instructions my bread would just come out limp and tired.  I switched after I noticed that the starter looked better coming out of the refrigerator than it did after refreshing it and leaving it for hours.   After Andy commented on my Mt. Fuji shaped loaves, I changed things a little bit.   The two changes I made based on Andy's comments are now I leave the fed starter on counter until double instead of a shorter period of time, and I am much more careful about retarding the loaf.   Retarding with this starter routine seems only to work - that is without creating the volcanic effect - if the dough has a fairly high percentage of whole wheat.   I think this is consistent with clazar's comments above.

ananda's picture
ananda

Hi Khalid,

Why not just maintain one starter, held as a "stiff levain" during its "downtime" phase in the chiller.

Then when you want to use it, alter it accordingly to create a liquid or stiff culture to use for your choice of breads for that bake.

Keep back a residual amount of the developed leaven, re-adjust it back to its stiff state if you need to, then put it back in the chiller for its dormant phase.

Would that work for you?   I can't imagine wanting to maintain more than the one rye and one wheat cultures which I hold as stock.

Good discussion; crucial to the leavened breads I'm making and posting on at the moment

Best wishes

Andy

Mebake's picture
Mebake

Thank you Andy! I maintain two starters, one is a 60-70% hydration wheat, and the other is 70% hydration Rye. (both are stiff). They seem to be happy once i feed them out of the fridge, as they double in first 4 hours, and 3 hours subsequently.

 

ananda's picture
ananda

Hi Khalid,

So do you make adjustments as I was recommending if you choose to make breads with a liquid levain, for instance?

BW

Andy

Mebake's picture
Mebake

Yes, I do adjustments to the hydration. Actually, i remove 1/2 of the starter from the fridge, add water, stir it, add flour and then stir it to arrive at 80% hydration. In Subsequent refreshments, i stiffen up the starter as i work my way to the pre-levain stage. With Liquid levains, i the pre-levain build is stiff, so i dissolve it in water and create my levain.

 

jcking's picture
jcking

Khalid,

Have you ever considered/baked using a poolish along with a SD starter? I've seen a few formula using multi-ferments yet have not tried any. In the future I plan on doing a split SD build at different temps. One to encourage the yeast and another to encourage the bacteria. I'll report back when I have some data. Very cerebral post; thanks.

Jim

Mebake's picture
Mebake

Hi, Jim

Thank you for the advice. I hate to have to deal with the hassle of two preferments, let alone one. Poolish is a delicate type of preferment, more so than liquid SD levain. However, do post your experiments.

caraway's picture
caraway

Have been keeping my 100%  white starter for over a year.  Bread has been good but have been unable to get the great rise I'm looking for.   And have noticed the starter peaks in about 7 hours which makes it hard to maintain when trying to let it ferment overnight. 

But you've given me food for thought.  Am going to try reducing the hydration as well as increasing the protein content of my flour.   Thanks, can't wait to try it out!

Sue

Mebake's picture
Mebake

Hi, Sue

You are welcome! By using stronger higher protein flour, you are stiffening your starter, as it absorbes more water. experiment and you'll notice the differences.

Do share your results with us, we are all here to learn.

 

caraway's picture
caraway

Did change my starter to 80% and used KA AP flour.  It's still rising a little fast but time is improved.  (I live in Florida, hard to find a cool place down here.)  Last night I put it in the fridge when it was at 3x (I knew it would be over ripe by morning) and found it none the worse for wear.   It ripened at 5x and am trying it in Norwich SD as I write this.   Am hoping it will give a little stronger oven spring and produce a nice high boule.   Will let you all know how it goes tomorrow morning!

Thanks again, am happier with my starter either way.  (Am a little embarrased I didn't think to try this sooner.  Kept tweaking my loaf recipe instead...)

Sue

 

caraway's picture
caraway

After overnight retarding, baked my Norwich SD and found no change!  At least the rise wasn't worse...  The loaf is very nice, crumb soft and airy and flavor is terrific.  I would say it's got a 'medium' rise which is fine but I'll have to keep searching for that 'great' rise that explodes in the oven. 

Meanwhile, I'm still much happier with keeping my starter the new way.

Thanks again, Sue