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Making less sour sourdough

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Fluffmeister's picture
Fluffmeister

Making less sour sourdough

I made my own sourdough starter a few months ago, and I've been making sourdough wholemeal bread quite successfully since, using the no-knead recipe from the Breadtopia site. It tastes fine if you like the sourness of a traditional sourdough. However, I tend to like this in moderation - and was wondering if I could use my starter to make a less sour loaf.

The no-knead recipe I use has just 1/4 cup of starter, 3 cups of wholemeal flour and about a cup of water - enough to make a sticky dough that is too sticky to knead by hand (which is why it's a no-knead recipe!). It takes about 12 hours to rise, then I carefully scoop it out, fold it, let it rise (I know I *should* do this then carefully put it in a pre-heated cast iron casserole, but I'm too much of a coward - so I let it rise in a silicone loaf tin instead) until it's above the loaf tin (about 4-5 hours) and bake. It's fine - I don't get a lot of oven spring, probably because I'm letting it rise in the tin instead of putting it a nice pre-heated casserole.

On the Breadtopia site, someone wanted even sourer bread, so they just use 1/8 of a cup of starter, let it rise for 18 hours - apparently the less starter, the harder it has to work (and of course the longer it takes), so it produces more acid.

So I thought I'd try the opposite approach to get a *less* sour loaf. I used a cup of starter, 2 cups of wholemeal flour and water, and didn't use the no-knead method - I kneaded the dough like for a normal loaf. As expected, it rose much quicker (about 5 hours instead of 12), and the second rising took about two hours. So far, so good - a quicker rise as I expected. However, the loaf tasted very unpleasant, and had a very bitter taste to it. Even the following day, it still tasted vile.

My starter is 100% hydration, is quite lively (I keep it in the fridge, but fed it the day before the bake and left it at room temperature). While the loaf was doing its first rise, I put some starter in a small cup as a test to make sure it was lively - and it was, bubbling quite nicely after a few hours. For feeding my starter, I take it out the fridge, pour all of it away except for 1 cup, then add 1 cup of flour and about 2/3 cup of water.

Am I doing anything wrong on the technique front, or is my theory of more starter = less sour bread simply wrong?

Many thanks in advance!

Chris.

 

MangoChutney's picture
MangoChutney

Try soaking the flour with the water overnight in the refrigerator, while your starter is working overnight on the counter-top.  Combine them in the morning, along with whatever else you add (salt, etc.).  This will soften the bran as was done during your longer rising, and may make the bread taste less bitter to you. 

I use some kefir whey in my soaking water, but that again introduces more acid although it is lactic and not acetic.  The two acids do not smell or taste the same.  It may be that the lactic acid can neutralize some bitterness without tasting too sour to you in the final bread.

G-man's picture
G-man

When you're maintaining and building your starter before the bake, cut the time between your feedings in half (at least!) a few days before building up to a bake. Four hours is a good time to shoot for, but requires sacrificing sleep to maintain faithfully. I'm pretty sure that sleeping would be ok. Since you're feeding it so often, you might want to cut the size by quite a lot. You only need a tablespoon of starter.

Make the starter low hydration and keep it low hydration throughout the build. Somewhere around 60%.

Feed a smaller amount of starter a larger amount of flour and water. Try 1:4:3 or so, S:F:W ratio.

Fluffmeister's picture
Fluffmeister

Thanks very much for the useful comments, Mango Chutney and G-Man!

I keep my starter in the fridge and only feed it the day before I'm going to bake and leave it out at room temperature after feeding (which in our current UK heatwave has been about 25C, but is usually more like 20C), and then use it about 8-12 hours after feeding (and then put the remainder back in the fridge). Is that also where I'm going wrong, do you think?

G-man, just to be sure I'm understanding you correctly, when you say only use a tablespoon of starter, do you mean take a tablespoon of starter on, say, day 1 out of the fridge, feed it at 1:4:3, do this every few hours for two or three days until I have quite a lot of 60% hydration starter, then use a cupful of that in the recipe (so the rising time is faster), or do you mean only use a tablespoon of starter in the final mix? If it's the latter, my understanding (which may be wrong as I'm quite a newbie to sourdough baking) is that a small amount of starter means a long rise time, which develops that distinctive sour taste - and in this case, I'm trying not to get that sourness.

And is my theory that using a lot of starter (eg a cupful) in the final mix will result in a less sour bread valid, or am I missing the whole point of sourdough baking if I do that? :)

Chris.

 

Mbouwer's picture
Mbouwer

I too store my starter in the fridge, and have run into the same issue you have now.

It helps to understand what is happening to your starter when your chill it for extended periods of time. The yeast slows way down but the lacto and aceto-bacteria keep going. Lactic acid and acetic acid build in relation to the yeast in your starter, and you end up with the more sour flavor you see in your bread.

There are a couple ways to manage this issue to put the yeast and acids back into a balance you are more comfortable with. Changing the hydration of you starter is certainly an effective way to do it, as is shortening the build time of your starter. The method I've used is to use about 25 grams of starter to start and build twice with equal portions of water and flour (100 gms each) in 8 hour increments. This gives me about 400 grams of useable starter. Since I have a fairly lively starter, I also keep the starter percentage at about 20% of the total weight of the dough..

Any of the methods works well, you just need to choose the one that works best with the way you like to bake bread.

MangoChutney's picture
MangoChutney

That depends on your goal for making sourdough bread.  If your goal is to make sour-tasting bread, then not making it sour is missing the point.  *grin*  Other valid reasons for making sourdough bread are: more complex flavors which develop in the starter versus a single-strain commercial yeast, better digestive and health properties of the final bread, and being able to make bread without wondering if the yeast packets you've got are still good.

I use a ratio of starter to flour of 1:2 by weight.  For example, I use 8 oz of 100% hydration starter with 16 oz of freshly ground flour that's been soaked overnight in a mixture of 5 fluid oz of water plus 5 fluid ounces of kefir whey.  The starter is fed the night before baking-morning, with 4 oz freshly ground flour and 4 fluid oz water (for water this is 4 oz, close enough for government work).  Starter stays at room temperature, soaker goes in the refrigerator.  In the morning I weigh out 8 oz of the bubbly starter, then feed the remainder and return it to the refrigerator.  I add 1 tsp salt to the starter and then mix the soaked flour into it.  If there are seeds to be added, those get soaked overnight with the flour.  If there are spices or other flavorings, those are added with the salt.  My dough rises in 4 hours  (3 hours in current heat)  after 10 minutes of combined mixing and kneading, with stretch & fold every hour.  The bowl for the rising starts with 1 tsp of olive oil to make handling easier.  It sounds silly to measure the oil for the bowl, but I have been known to slop easily as much as a tablespoon of oil into it when I am careless, and I believe that much oil changes the properties of the loaf.  The dough then proofs for 90 minutes (75 minutes in current heat).  It proofs either in a 9"x5" loaf pan, or in a lump on my 10.5" octagonal SILPAT.  We don't find the bread noticeably sour, or prickly from the bran.  Bitterness is something we have difficulty judging because we like bittersweet foods, but I would not call it noticeably bitter.  It's just ... bread.

Fluffmeister's picture
Fluffmeister

Fantastic, thanks very much for your responses - these are really useful. I appreciate the explanation about the bacteria, which makes sense and probably explains the bitterness I had, and the guideline timings are really helpful too. I don't dislike the sour taste of the sourdough bread I make with a small amount of starter and long rise, but some of my friends don't like it, and I wanted the opportunity to make a more conventional loaf too (I just like the concept of understanding where all my ingredients come from and how they're made, so I like the idea of not having to use commercial yeast).

 

G-man's picture
G-man

Sorry for the confusion. I meant keeping a small amount of starter and building up to the amount you need for the bake. If you're feeding consistently (which you need to do to reduce the sourness) it pays to keep a very small amount of starter on hand and then just build up to what you need in the dough.

Fluffmeister's picture
Fluffmeister

Thanks, G-man - I'll give that a go!

Chris.

 

a_pummarola's picture
a_pummarola

In addition to more frequent refreshments, lowering the hydration seems to favor yeast over bacteria. My 50% hydration sponge smells more boozy than acidic, whereas the 100% hydration starter it came from is in-your-face acidic thanks to high temperatures here. I recently posted in another thread my problems using these sponges, but most people have no troubles with such a workflow.

Take a look at this chart posted on pizzamaking.com that shows the activity for the yeast and bacteria by temperature. It looks like mid to upper 70's is a good temperature for good yeast activity without excessive acidity. As an aside, it seems the oft-propagated idea that yeast shuts down in the fridge but the bacteria keep going as normal is not 100% correct. It seems the yeast are indeed almost dormant but the bacteria aren't going too fast, either. The end result would be the same as long as the bacteria are more active than yeast, but the normal explanation is misleading.

alpinegroove's picture
alpinegroove

I have recently been experimenting with the "Tartine method." Chad Robertson prefers the milder flavor and takes different steps to reduce the sourness of the bread.
He explains the following:
1. Different kinds of bacteria thrive at different temperatures. Apparently, the bacteria that like colder temperatures yield a more sour flavor, so a starter that is kept in the fridge will produce a more sour bread than starter kept at room temperature.
2. Robertson wants to retain the strength of the starter while reducing its sourness. To achieve that, he uses "young" starter. Prior to mixing the dough, he discards 80% of the starter, feeds it, and then waits about four hours. The starter at that point is active but hasn't had a chance to ferment to the point it becomes very sour. He then makes "natural leaven" by mixing a small amount of the starter with flour and water and letting it sit overnight. At this point, the mixture is active but not so sour. It has been "diluted" twice, resulting in milder flavor while retaining strength. This mixture is used to mix the dough.
3. The level of sourness is also affected by the length and temperature of the bulk fermentation and the final rise. The longer and cooler, the more sour.

 

a_pummarola's picture
a_pummarola

My experience indicates otherwise as far as #3. I use something similar to what you describe in #2, and have found that dough bulk fermented at room temperature (here, that means 80-82F) overnight (~8-10 hours) is very, very sour with unpleasant hints of acetone, whereas dough bulk fermented in my cooler around 65F (~24 hours) is much milder. After shaping I proof at room temperature for both methods for a few hours.

I know Chad is an experienced and respected baker while I am neither, but at least in my case this particular point has not been true. Perhaps this is because my room temperature is higher than what most people think of as room temperature and I thus get some unpleasant compounds or imbalance in activity (see chart in my other comment on this thread).

MangoChutney's picture
MangoChutney

Ketones come about from a culture that is trying to live on the proteins, or in other words, starving.

a_pummarola's picture
a_pummarola

Thanks, MangoChutney. I remember hearing that a while ago, but then hearing someone else say it wasn't true. I never know with these things. So much to learn...

It would make perfect sense that the culture is working too quickly and exhausting sugars after 8-10 hours at fairly high temperatures, even with the tiny amount of starter used. It keeps rising once I start getting the smell. Some have even baked up quite nicely and tasted good after cooling. The harsh smell evaporated away after cooling down.

I noticed some gluten breakdown on one bread I made this way, now that I think about it. It collapsed after proofing.

alpinegroove's picture
alpinegroove

To make the leaven, you mix a small amount of starter with flour and water and let it sit over night.
Then you use some of that to mix the dough. Then the bulk fermentation is 3-4 hours followed by 3-4 of proofing.

So it isn't the case that the bulk fermentation takes place over night...

a_pummarola's picture
a_pummarola

I use about 2-3% fully activated starter, so my method is not the same. It sounds like a switched-up version of what I do now. It takes a few hours for the starter/sponge to fully activate. The sponge is a very diluted descendant of the fridge starter. I add the 2-3% of that sponge to the dough during mixing and bulk ferment.

The different process could very well completely change the outcome. I don't have the Tartine book but keep meaning to get it. Now I am especially curious about it. Either way, it's something for Fluffmeister to try.

Just Loafin's picture
Just Loafin

Not mentioned yet is the fact that some flours have an ash content that lends it to be able to acquire much more sour, so your flour choice can affect your outcome.

Generally speaking, I do not recommend trying to get more or less sour from the starter itself, but rather how much of it you use. It's much easier to keep your starter one way, and then vary your recipe and technique to achieve the flavor you want. This is just so monumentally easier, that I cannot emphasize this enough. If you want to try and 'shape' a starter for a particular flavor, and then adjust that every time you want a different flavor, that's up to you.. but it's a lot of work. Once you have your starter on a regular maintenance, it will become quite stable in the amounts of yeasts and flavor organisms. Yeasts generally are much faster than the other flavor organisms, so we want long fermentation periods to let the sour build. These flavor organisms also are not slowed much by cold, so cold retards allow them to multiply while the yeast slow down. This typically yields a more sour profile (depending on flour). We also use a much lower ratio of starter to flour, which takes it much longer to ferment, also yielding more sour.

So we get to how to have less sour? Pretty simple... use a much larger percentage of starter to flour, so that the bulk is very quick (in comparison to typical SD bulk times). Each recipe will be different, you need to experiment, of course, but that's the easiest way of adjusting the sour in any recipe - less starter or more starter. Some of the suggestions above are just fancy ways of getting more starter into the recipe, ie. doing multiple builds that do NOT over-ferment at all. It's easiest to maintain one starter, one way, and adjust your recipe for the flavor you want. That percentage of starter to flour in the baker's math is your key to adjusting flavor.

- Keith

lumos's picture
lumos

I also keep my starter in a fridge, but I used to have the problem of my sourdough bread becoming a touch too sour for my taste. But not anymore. 

These are what I do, just to give you an idea (I'm also UK-based, so probably we share the similar climate) :

1) I only keep small amount of starter in the fridge, maybe a few tablespoons or so. 10-14 hr before (depends on the room temperature. Also, I usually feed my starter with white flour, but if you feed it with wholemeal flour, it takes much less time for the starter to be re-activated) you need to use it, take it out of the fridge and feed twice during the period. (Note : I only used to feed once, but since I started feeding twice, I found the starter gets much more active and the resultant bread with much better crumb and less sour)  Because I only keep small amount of starter, no need to discard. I just have to calculate how much flour and water I need to make the amount of starter  needed.  I usually divide those flour and water to 1:3 ratio, meaning using 1/4 of them for the first feed, and 3/4 of them for the second.  After I used the starter to make dough, I put the remaining starter back to the fridge.

2) I usually bake bread twice or three times a week. But if I don't bake for a week, I still feed it (only one feed is enough) once during this period, just to keep the starter active and happy=less sulking and becoming sour.  The next time I use it, I smell the starter. If I find it smelling too sour, I discard a part of it and proceed with my usual starter feeding procedure. But if it's smelling OK, I just feed all of them. (meaning, you need less flour/water to make the amount of starter needed. So shorter time for the starter to be ready, too)

3) When I want to make sure the acidity in the bread is very subtle (you can't avoid sourdough bread not sour at all, unless it uses sweetner like sugar or honey to disguise it) , I  use less starter and add a tiny amount of instant dried yeast = speeding up the fermentaion = less sour.

4) Cold retard/proof for a long time definitely increase acidity. If I want a mildly tasting bread, I ferment it at room temperature. But this means shorter time for fermentation, which also means less of complexity and depth in flavour. So it's a difficult dilenma....

5) Lastly, and possibly most crucially.....in my case, anyway.  I noticed my starter sometimes got very sharp, acid smell once in a while, occasionally it became less and less active over a period of a few months, inspite of regular feeding of 2-3 times a week. I've found out it's caused by small bits of starter residues stuck to the side of container (inside), gradually gaining acidity (increase of acetic acid due to cold temperature), affecting the acidity in the main starter. (I've always scraped off inside of the container  whenever I fed/take out the starter, but still some few bits remain there)  So now, I change the container every 3-4 wks, or when I notice it's getting acid, and never have this problem of my starter (or bread)  becoming too sour any more, nor my starter becoming weaker. You just have to take all of the starter out and move it to another clean container once in a while. That's all.

Oh, and make sure your starter is at the peak or slightly before its peak when you use it. Just past the peak, it seems to gain acidity quicker.

Hope these help.

 

best wishes,

lumos

Fluffmeister's picture
Fluffmeister

Some great suggestions here, which I'll experiment with. Thank you, everyone! Keith - I agree that the simple more starter = less sour dough sounds by far the easiest, but that's what I tried with disastrous results, using 1 cup of starter and 2.5 cups of flour (while using a small amount of starter, 0.25 cups, produces a very nice - but, of course, sour - loaf). More feeds and lower hydration will be my next test!

 

lumos's picture
lumos

Another suggestion. Weighing  is much more accurate  way to measure ingredients than using cups/volume, and more accurate weighing will  lead you to more reliable baking result. Especially metric measurement, like most of the people on this forum do.

And I agree with you. If you use a large amount of starter, it would make your bread more sour because starter itself has acidity. That's why I add small amount of dried yeast (Easy Blend yeast in UK market) rather than starter to shorten the fermentation time.  Also, if I use too much starter, the resultant dough becomes too sticky and gluten not developed enough, resulting in....well, a disaster as you have experienced.  I don't know how much 1 cup of starter or flour weight, but in weight 2:1 is the highest ratio of flour : starter I'd use myself.

I used to visit Breadtopia site when I got interested in no-knead method a few years ago, but there're other methods almost as easy as no-knead and which produces much better bread, too; one of the most popular ones on this site is Stretch and Fold in a Bowl method. Have a look around when you have time. You'll see a lots of formula for it. :)

dhass's picture
dhass

Long bulk fermentation increases sourness in the bread.

For a non-sour bread, I mix 8 oz starter with 14 oz flour and 16 oz water to make a barm. I ferment this for 10 hours at 70-75F. Then I add 36 oz flour, 2 tsp salt, and 13-15 oz water and mix for 4 minutes. Stretch and fold twice at 30 minute intervals. Total bulk fermentation about 2-1/2 hours depending on temperature. Divide and shape and proof for about 2 hours 20 minutes. The complete dough is fermenting for about 5 hours and I get a very mild sour and great flavor.

I use either all bread flour, or some whole wheat, or a mix of bread flour, whole wheat and whole rye flours.

If I want a sour sourdough bread, I mix a stiffer barm the night before using 2 oz starter, 18 oz flour and 11 oz water and knead for 4 minutes. Then, I mix complete dough in the morning with the barm, 36 oz flour (any mix), 2 tsp salt and about 21 oz water. Stretch and fold at 30 and 60 minutes and then ferment for 10-12 hours. Divide and shape, and proof for about 2 hours.

The second method produces a very tangy, San Francisco style sourdough bread.

I believe than long, bulk fermentation of stiff dough makes for a more sour bread, and shorter fermentation of more liquid barms with shorter bulk fermentation produces less sour bread.

I'm not a biologist so I won't try to guess why.

My recipes make 4 1-1/4 lb loaves, 2 2-1/2 lb loaves or 1 5 lb loaf. I bake with steam at 450F, 425F and 400F respectively for the non-sour bread, and 25F cooler for the sour bread (more natural sugars in the dough make it brown faster).

nicodvb's picture
nicodvb

Hi,  in my experience bitterness can be a consequence of one or both of two factors:

-the wholemeal flour. If you soak some for several hours and taste it does it have a bitter aftertaste? It goess rancid (thus bitter) very easily.

-the starter itself, but it's unusual after the very first months of life. Does it taste bitter currently?

 

In my opinion it's much easier reducing sourness using LESS starter, not more (I generally use 10-15% of flour in the preferment and I never get any sourness, for example out of 400 gr of total flour 40-60 go in the poolish).

Just Loafin's picture
Just Loafin

It'd be interesting to find out what we're ALL doing that makes all these outcomes so different. Anyone coming by this thread would be thoroughly confused by now. On one hand, we're pretty much agreeing that longer fermentation (particularly bulk) will increase sour, but some are saying that LESS starter produces reduces sour. That doesn't make sense since LESS starter = longer fermentation.

I was one of those 'searching' for my sour until I realized all of the recipes I was trying were using tons of starter, and the bulk ferment times ranged from 4 to 6 hours. When I started using LESS starter (as I first ran across the idea at Mike Avery's Sourdough Home), the bulk times increased to around 8 hours, and it was then that I first started getting some sour. When I then ran across some cold retardation techniques, I finally found that 'classic' taste you'd expect from a bakery sourdough. I can make a French loaf today with nigh zero sour to it, and I know there's no mistake there, because the wife absolutely DETESTS sourdough but will happily mow down slice after slice of my French breads. The only difference is, a ton of starter in it. I do wonder why some of you are getting sour when using a lot of starter? Is it maybe when the starter is harvested? How it is maintained? White, WW or Rye? A little of each of those reasons?

- Keith

jcking's picture
jcking

Hi Keith.

Ready for another game? A little card playing? Just kidding.

I totally agree with your post, above this post, about the stability of a storage starter. I've been reading a lot of SD laboratory findings; there's still a lot to discover. Many, many different strains of bacteria have been found in different SD's. Which ones will dominate? Yet do they all come along with the flour? Does someone with house plants end up with a different SD? Some believe L San Fran comes from people? Does one with a firm SD who kneads it before storing it in the fridge introduce more of one type of bacteria? If stored in the fridge how will it perform at 40°F compared to 50°F? I could go on.

So far it boils down to; one needs to find what works for them. (Zen Master says "Become one with the Sourdough".)

Jim

lumos's picture
lumos

Some believe L San Fran comes from people?

If this theory is proved to be correct, I'll get my friend in SF to stay with us to sleep with my starter for a week! :p

Yeah, sourdough is really fascinating.  Breeding (?) it for a long time is a bit like peeling an onion. You find a new layer after a new layer more you delve into it. The problem is, there're so many layers tangled up and affecting each other, it's so difficult to remember what they are and understand them.....

Just Loafin's picture
Just Loafin

I don't know... I'm not convinced such subtle differences will have such extreme results. My starter is counter-top stored, as was my previous one. I only refrigerate if I'm going to be away for an extended period of time. Therefore, my starter might be 90 - 95% counter stored and maintained. If someone has a starter that is 75% or so refrigerated, that's not a subtle difference. How they might refresh before re-storing it might add or subtract from that difference. That we might have different results using very similar recipes wouldn't surprise me at all.

While I believe there are different regional differences to the various strains, I think they lean towards subtle rather than extreme in the end product. I think the real difference is in temperature and maintenance. I'm fairly convinced of that.. although I have to be technically honest that there's no million dollar grants going out to labs to prove that one way or another.

Ideas I have run across in my research suggest that there's no inherint meaning to the marriage of the words 'sourdough' and 'starter'. Sourdough is made with a starter, but so are non-sourdoughs, therefore a starter is just a starter, period. Bread made with a starter has a unique flavor, but doesn't necessarily have to be sour. If someone doesn't like that unique flavor, there's commercial yeast available. If your starter is that sour that you cannot bake a loaf that ISN'T sour, I'm going to just come out and say your starter isn't right - unless that was your intent, and then congratulations are in order. It's fact that using temperature and maintenance can 'color' a starter, which will in turn color every loaf it ferments.

Going back to the original post by Chris, it's clear he stores the starter in the refrigerator, and although he doesn't state so, I would assume it's in there a majority of the time. I'll opine that that's why he's unable to reduce the sour by adding more of it to his recipe (as he tried to do). He's actually adding more of something that isn't very stable to begin with. I think if he fixes his starter, he'll have better results (and I also think the 'bitterness' he describes will also leave his bakes). When I say 'fix', that doesn't necessarily mean doing exactly as I do. The solution might be a different hydration while refrigerated, longer counter acclimations before using, as well as long counter refreshments before re-storing, etc... he'll have to figure out what works. The answer to his question though:

is my theory of more starter = less sour bread simply wrong?

No, it's not wrong under usual circumstances. It's correct if we assume a balanced and typical starter. If it isn't working that way, re-visit the starter. It's exponentially easier to fix a starter than to try and fix every recipe, or every loaf. No laboratories needed. ; )

- Keith