The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Striving for flavor consistency in home sourdough baking (Ischia starter from Ed Wood)

zekemon's picture

Striving for flavor consistency in home sourdough baking (Ischia starter from Ed Wood)

Hi all, new to the forums but have been baking in my home for about 4 years now.   This place has been a very valuable resource over the years, so thank you all for that.


My reason for posting is lately I have been wondering if sourdough cultures are perhaps affected by too many variables to be maintained consistently in the home.  I have mainly been using the Ischia Italian starter from Ed Wood.

My main issues so far have been in flavor consistency with my experiments with the Ischia Italian culture.   I try to maintain as many variables as possible.  I have a cooler that I converted into a proof box complete with external temperature guage and a variable light bulb that doubles as a culture and dough proof box.   I tend to bake each weekend and refrigerate the culture between uses.  I try to follow the same procedure each time for activating the culture before my Saturday bakes, but I still cannot get a consistent flavor from the starter.

Now, I must say I haven't produced any bread that wasn't delicious, but sometimes the starter produces this most excellent flavor, I wouldn't even call it sour, but it is just something I have never tasted before in a bread.  I cannot really describe as there is nothing I can compare it too.  I can only imagine this is the true flavor of the Ischia starter.  However, many other times the bread does not have this special flavor, and while still delicious, I find myself wondering if I could not have achieved similar results (flavor-wise) with commerical yeast.

The flavor when I tease it out is so good that is borderline addicting and each weekend I hope for another encounter with this elusive starter, but the failures greatly outnumber the success.  I know there is some controversy over whether local organisms take over eventually but I have been using this same strain for over a year now and still manage to tease that same flavor out from time to time.   Perhaps the local organisms have already taken over or it is the original strain, but either way I am still having the same difficulty with flavor consistency.

My hope is that I still need to refine my techniques and I would love to hear if people have this problem reproducing that special flavor from their sourdough starters, or what you attribute to your success. 

cranbo's picture

My starter flavor is always changing too. 

IMO, that has mostly to do with how diligently and consistently I maintain my starter. While my general schedule is consistent, it is never quite exactly the same. 

Sounds like you've isolated some of the variables that would enable better starter consistency, here are a few more to consider:

  • What flour do you use? Do you always feed the same brand of flour every time? 
  • How regularly do you feed it? You noted you refrigerate it, what is your activation schedule?
  • How do you measure out the ingredients when you feed your starter?
  • What hydration do you keep your starter? 

One last thing: you are putting your starter through various dormancy/activation cycles via refrigeration. While in practice everyone know's it's OK to do and doesn't really harm your starter, the stress you are subjecting your starter to through these constant environmental changes will likely impact your search for flavor consistency. 

Give the same recipe to 100 people, you'll get 100 different dishes. I think the same goes for baking. If consistency is what you're going for, you really have to keep working at eliminating variables (environment, process, material, etc) in your baking.

Keep on baking!

davidg618's picture

Sorry, can't comment on the specifics of your sometimes-yes-sometimes-no flavor; you haven't provided enough specifics of your disciplines or techniques. Alternatively, I'll offer a couple of general observations, and practices I use to achieve the flavors, consistently, we prefer. Incidentally, I used Ischia Island starter for nearly two years, before I lost my seed starter due mostly to my ignorance. I now use Ed Wood's San Francisco starter, recently initiated. So far I'm equally pleased: but it is different.

1. Be consistent.  Work on one formula until you can consistently produce the flavor, crust and crumb you want. If you must experiment, change only one variable at a time.

2. If you refrigerate your starter week-to-week refresh it for a day before building levain for baking.

   2a. Starter organisms (bacteria and yeast) react differently to temperature and time. In general higher levain building temperatures, e.g. 89°F favor bacterial growth and increased acidity (lactic acid); Slightly lower temperature, e.g., 82°F favor yeast development. Nonetheless, both bacteria and yeast surrounded by food develop at rates increasing with increasing temperature from about 40°F (refrigerator temperature) to the peak temperatures for each mentioned above.  At room temperatures, e.g., 76°F, yeast activity peaks aproximately every 8 hours, and for maximum leavening power feeding or using your levain at its peak is advised, however, bacterial activity continues past the yeast's peak; consequently many formulae direct letting levain continue to ferment 12 to 16 hours between feedings, allowing more acid production, and increasing flavor.

    Note: There is no "right" way. Keep meticulous notes of time and temperature from your levain build's first feeding, through bulk fermentation, proofing and baking.  When you find the combination that works for you stick to it bake-to-bake.

   2b. Maintain your refrigerated starter by building extra levain when you bake, and completely replace your seed starter with freshly fed ripe levain. An example: Each time I build levain I make enough extra such that I can take 20g of fresh levain, place it in the clean, empty seed starter container, feed it with 20g of bread flour and 20g of water, stir it vigorously, and return it to the refrigerator.

3. Flavor development: I believe most flavors develop, and a strong gluten network develops (aided, of course by kneading, and/or Stretch & Folds) primarily during bulk fermentation. This is based on my experience wherein I routinely retard sourdoughs 15 to 18 hours in my wine cabinet, at 54°F.  I consistently begin chilling with DDT set to 54°F at autolyse, and return the dough to the chiller after each manipulation.

4. Did I mention, "Be Consistent"?

None of these techniques/practices are unique to me. I've found the clues to most (all?) of them here on TFL. Here are four references I've found especially valuable helping me understand, at least a little, the complexity of sourdoughs. The first three deal with sourdough cultures: their care and feeding. The fourth describes how I generally build levain ready for baking.

David G

nicodvb's picture

from a starter that is "wild" by definition is striving for something impossible, from my point of view. Yes consistency helps, but flours change all the time even if brand and type remain the same. I guess that we can only get so far, all the rest is wild.

davidg618's picture

Your right, but, for me, it's still worth the try.

David G

zekemon's picture

What nicodbv said is basically what I was starting to think, but I agree with David.   I still think I can continue to refine my techniques, especially using some of the helpful tips posted here.  Maybe complete consistency is unattainable but I think I can still push it a bit further.


I do feed it the same flour each week and measure using a scale, but as cranbo pointed out my schedule is sometimes inconsistent and even variations in the same brand of flour are beyond my control.  Other things are maybe beyond my control, for example the temp in my homemade proofing box is not automatically regulated.  Meaning as the ambient temperature changes the setting for the light must also change.  I must find that 'sweet spot' to get the temp I want every weekend instead of just setting a dial to the desired temperature.   While controlling each variable to a certain level is probably impossible, I do think there are places I can improve to achieve a better level of consistency.

Perhaps the largest room for improvement  is in the activation process.  The tips and links posted above are quite nice and I do believe this is where I can improve things the most.  I typically bake a large batch of rolls each weekend that my family eats throughout the week.   It uses flour, water and salt (and starter of course), it is quite basic.  Most of my experimentation to this point has been in hydration % and bake/proof temps and times, whereas any controlled experimentation with building and caring for the starter has been haphazard at best.   So, I will switch gears and use the same recipe while focusing on developing a more consistent process with my starter.  Even if I do not achieve a consistent flavor, I believe this one area I have been neglecting.


Thanks again for the tips and inspiration to get a little more serious about controlling the many variables.  To me, understanding how each of these things can affect the outcome is part of the fun.  Reading is one thing and certainly gives one a starting point, but I find that experimenting for myself is the best way to learn.