The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

CONFUSED! mother starter vs starter vs ??? (how to use)

skinnydoc's picture

CONFUSED! mother starter vs starter vs ??? (how to use)

Hi all... first post!!

anyway... I have a backyard WFO now, and living in Berkeley am lucky enough to have world class bread available around the corner.   But making my own stuff is fun, so instead of just pizza thought I'd try some bread.

So I got some sourdough culture for and got his book, AND I have Rhinehart's Artisan Breads Every Day.  I'm seeing confusing things in both, and the language is a bit cryptic and abbreviated, so some help appreciated, sorry if this is super basic.

From Rhinehart I did the pinapple juice/flour trick, and over about 10days now have made what he calls the 'mother starter' which is dough-like, in a ball in my fridge.

Separately, I've gotten my culture from going over a month or so, following his instructions about feeding every 12-24 hrs, and then 'washing' if I let it sit in the fridge too long.  The result is a pancake batter consistency material in the fridge which I can wake up in about a day or two if needed.  Is this a 'mother starter' also?

I'm confused because then Rhinehart talks about taking the mother starter, then adding a small amt of flour/water to make a 'preferment' (I guess), waiting yet again 4-8hrs, then finally making the reall dough with that starter.  Why this extra step?? With so many steps I'm about to forget it and go down and continue getting super excellent Acme bread!

(BTW, I do autolyse my dough, then refrigerate for at least 48hrs, so it is a long cold ferment.)

In fact I have tried using some of the mother starter straight up (randomly guessing how much I need) and had some luck making a boule or two. Good crumb, but flexy crust... not good enough.

So questions:

-are these two both 'mother starters'?

-can I just use the mother starter assuming it hasnt been in the fridge too long?  can I skip the preferment?

-what amt or baker's percent should I shoot for on the starter?  Is it a matter of taste?

-after the cold ferment, should I leave the boules out for as long as it takes to get some decent rise, BEFORE considering baking?

-should I add a small amt of commercial yeast (what %?) to 'cheat' and get that puff after the cold ferment?


Thanks y'all for any answers, just trying to understand the conflicts in the stuff I've read!




jcking's picture

A better term would be storage starter. Which is elaborated/expanded/built into the amount needed in the final dough.


Doc.Dough's picture

The storage starter needs to be maintained.  This is in some cases part of the elaboration process (you feed, wait an hour, then refrigerate some of what you used to make bread) but in others is a separate track. If you refrigerate the starter to avoid having to feed it on a daily basis, you still have to recognize that it is consuming food while in the refrigerator but not in a balanced way (the LAB is growing and the yeast either is not growing or growing less than the LAB). Because this shifts the populations, you need to fix it before you use it (whether to put it back in the refrigerator or make bread). If you are feeding at 1:10:10 (1 starter: 10 water: 10 flour) you can refrigerate for about 5 - 7 days depending on your refrigerator temperature (in the range 36-39°F). When you take it out you will need at least two refresh cycles to recover the ~100:1 (LAB:yeast) ratio that is "normal".  It should at least double in volume in 10-12 hours at room temperature. During the refrigerated period, you can take out a small bit and elaborate it to make bread. The longer you wait before you replace the refrigerated (storage) starter the less active it will be and the more refresh cycles you will need before it is ready to use or refrigerate.

I suggest you get a copy of Hamelman (Bread - A Bakers Book of Techniques and Recipes) and read it a couple of times, paying close attention to the blue print.  He explains the use of soursough reasonably well, and some of his recipes use both starter and yeast (think of the starter as a levain, bigga, or chef that contributes to enhanced flavor).

ehanner's picture


I don't want to confuse you further and it seems like you have the basics sort of dialed in. I'll give you my understanding of the process. There are some conflicting terms used and also there are some language conflicts in the way natural yeasts are spoken of.

First I suggest you look at the starter you think is more active and discard the other. No need to maintain two cultures. If they were fed the same flour and treated in a similar fashion as far as being kept at room temperature they would soon be the same anyway. What matters in the building a new culture is the schedule, temperature and hydration percentage.

Most home bakers don't bake sourdough breads every day and maybe only a few times every Month. For that reason, once your starter is active and tripling in 10-12 hours at room temperature (68-72F) and the bread has a good flavor, the starter may be fed in a firm state (80% hydration) and refrigerated. The activity slows way down in the cool climate but the yeasts and bacteria remain viable and waiting for warmth. I will let the Mother sit in the refrigerator for a week or even two between feedings. This is what I call the Mother Starter or Mother Culture. My build of the Mother is 80 grams water and 100 grams flour. I can remove a tablespoon of Mother multiple times between feedings for use in the elaboration process and still have plenty waiting for another bake or feeding.

When you want to bake or prepare a pre ferment or Levain for use in dough, the process is called "Elaboration". You take a small amount of Mother starter (25-50 grams) and use it to inoculate the pre ferment or dough. Some people will rev up the activity of the mother starter first by doing an interim feeding before building the pre ferment. This insures the starter is loaded with active hungry creatures. Personally I don't usually do this step.

You can use the Mother starter to build or elaborate another starter of another grain or hydration also. If a recipe calls for a barm or liquid starter, simply use the mother starter to inoculate a build at the higher hydration (say 150%) or use the Mother starter to inoculate a rye or whole wheat build. The small amount of Mother starter used is insignificant in the overall scheme of things.

Don't be confused by the lack of uniform terminology. Between the French and Italians and Polish (Poolish) and the loose usage of the English language by some authors.

I hope this is clear and helpful.


skinnydoc's picture

whoa... that is confusing... but ultimately it'll start to soak in.  Luckily I have a day job too (ignoring right now).

So here's what I did last night, just for kicks:

I actually took out a full cup of my Rhinehart homegrown mother starter, cut it up, and chucked it in with ~400g warmish water, and partially dissolved/hyradted it in my mixer.   Then I added enough KA bread flour to have a very loose ball, dripping off the dough hook, and let it hydrate for 20min (autolyse), then I started mixing on low adding enough flour to form a tacky ball, also adding my 16g of salt.  Then I let it sit for 10min, then I did the stretch and fold cyles x 3, with 15min in between.   It did get more and more smooth and stretchable with each iteration.  I then balled it up and put it in an oiled bowl in the fridge.  I plan to take it out in the AM on Thursday, divide it and wait until it rises some (?doubled), score it, then either use my WFO at ~600deg or my oven with stone at ~600deg, and see what happens.

Will any of this work??  I guess I skipped the 'elaboration' step?  My last few attempts had pretty good crumb, but they werent crusty, despite tryingn to use some steam.  I think I may have not let them go long enough, and get dark enough (?).

Thanks for any comments!  I ordered the book mentioned above, and the Tartine book too (Tartine is in my backyard, though I havent made the pilgrimmage yet)


Maverick's picture

Debra Wink has posted a lot of scientific information about sourdough. Among her many great posts (that are very interesting, but may be more technical information than you want), there is a good summary of what she considers the three stages of sourdough: the stock culture, the pre-ferment(s), and the final dough. I think it might give you an understanding of the differences between the stages whatever you choose to call them (and, yes, sometimes the terms are used interchangeably by different authors). You can read her summary here:

The title of the post is "You could do it in one step...", so don't let the title confuse you and think you are at the wrong place.