The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Sourdough starter age

beetsuits's picture
beetsuits

Sourdough starter age

Hi,

Does the age of a sourdough starter really matter, after it is fully developed?

Boudin claims to use a mother dough that dates back to 1849. How long will the starter continue to improve? Will Boudin's starter make a bread that is sixteen times as delicious as another bakery's ten-year old starter?

A baker in my shop complained when his experimental whole wheat starter was discarded (accidentally) after a couple of months. If he restarts it, will it not be back up to speed after a week or so?

On another, sort-of-related topic, if I bring my San Francisco area starter to say, St Louis, won't it eventually become St Louis area starter unless kept under fairly strict quarantine conditions?

I have searched around for a while on this forum but cannot find an answer to this specific question.

 

Thanks,

Scott

hanseata's picture
hanseata

A new starter definitely needs more than a week to perform as well as an old one. I accidentally used up all my mother starter 2 or 3 times, and had to start a new one from scratch. It took at least a month before I didn't detect a very noticeable difference any more (without doing a side by side taste test).

Whether a 200-year old starter makes better bread than a than twenty year old one  - I have no idea.

But the yeast population will change with the environment. It's not so much the airborne yeast cells that fall down into it, but the wild yeasts that cling to the flour. I guess mine is a Montana-Ontario-Maine hybrid...

Happy baking,

Karin

PiPs's picture
PiPs

I used a week old levain to bake the breads in my latest blog posting.

http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/26098/marathon-milling-and-formula-tweaking

It was just as active as my previous starter and leavened the breads beautifully ... I am not after a "sour" flavour and I feel the new levain gave the bread a clean but deep flavour.

Be aware though, I used freshly milled flours to build it and we are having warm temperatures here which are ideal for creating a new culture.

Yes the levain will change depending on what it is fed, how often it is fed, temperature it is kept at, the feed ratio, water etc ...

I read a nice story though I am not sure where or if it is true - of the yeasts/bacteria maybe forming a symbiotic relationship with where they are kept and who feeds them ... I often think about this when I mix and knead the levain at its feed time.

Cheers, Phil

Chuck's picture
Chuck

As one who lived in San Francisco and tried to create a starter that made bread that tasted like the commercial bread -and failed miserably- I tend to treat those claims with a certain amount of respect even though I know they have a significant smoke-and-mirrors component:-)

Now on to some specific questions:

...If he restarts it, will it not be back up to speed after a week or so?

Maybe more like three weeks. And, the feeding and care while starting up is much more demanding of effort than the one for just maintaining an active starter. So complaining bitterly about a starter "accident" that forced starting all over is quite reasonable.

if I bring my San Francisco area starter to say, St Louis, won't it eventually become St Louis area starter unless kept under fairly strict quarantine conditions?

That indeed is the "conventional wisdom", the story you'll get everywhere  ...but it's dubious. In fact the starter is much more likely to be influenced by the flour you feed it (i.e. the microorganisms already in the flour) than by the location (i.e. the microorganisms "in the air").

I have searched around for a while on this forum but cannot find an answer to this specific question.

I think that's because nobody really knows for sure in any quantitative, scientifically verifiable way. I doubt you'll ever find a completely satisfactory answer with evidence anywhere.

 ... a mother dough that dates back to 1849. ... make a bread that is sixteen times as delicious as another bakery's ten-year old starter?

Most likely the long age of the starter won't make any difference  ...but I don't know of any scientist that was around in 1849 that's done the definitive experiment.

What matters more is that these days air pollution is so common and flour processing is so centralized that many unique starters are quite hard to reliably recreate any more. That 1849 date is more about having a "blast from the past" than it is about all the intervening years. (A lot of it is marketeers getting buyers to imagine "the gold rush", then using those rose-colored romantic feelings to sell more bread too:-)

 

proth5's picture
proth5

opinion of the well qualified bakers with whom I have discussed this is that once the sourdough is mature (about 3-4 weeks) it becomes stable and does not get any better.

But in the words of "my teacher" - a very old starter is the "bakers pride."  It takes skill and devotion to maintain a healthy starter over many, many years.  And I consider that this may be worth something...

Happy (sourdough) Baking!

ehanner's picture
ehanner

The nature of a sourdough starter is complicated. The bacteria that create lactic acids are a different animal than the ones that produce acetic acids. The yeasts are another part of the over all population. The strength, stability and numbers of these individuals are the basis for your starter to have the ability to produce a certain flavor in the bread. The flour used for feed stock, temperature that is offered to the culture as a home environment and the feeding schedule all play a part in encouraging some individuals and discouraging others from reproducing and eating the available food. The acids that flavor the bread or give it a tang are independent of the yeast. If you feed for a mild tang and ferment the dough with mild in mind, you should get a mild outcome. As Pat said above, after the starter is stable, it doesn't get any better---except that if you change any of the things that affect the production of either kind of acid it WILL change. Better, that's a value judgement.

Cheers,

Eric

Doc.Dough's picture
Doc.Dough

There is lots of disagreement within the blogosphere, but pretty good agreement among the academics.

The missing piece would seem to be a widely accepted model that explicitly captures the terms that lead to the long term stability of starters when they are subjected to selective pressures (such as feeding new flour to an established culture).

There is good data to indicate that some starters have not changed in multiple generations. But there are those who complain that their starter gets contaminated every time the wind shifts.  It is my belief (based on observation and testing) that a starter that is well maintained is very stable (hard to contaminate).  Any new competitor must exhibit an average growth rate that is higher than the average growth rate of the dominant population in the environment where the dominant population has evolved and is thus "optimized" to the environment (which includes temperature cycles, feeding cycles, population growth and decline cycles, pH cycles, ...). If there were many species with that characteristic, they would fight it out to become the dominant species and thus resistant to contamination (circular argument?).

But if you have difficulty, you can always get a new bit of starter by mail from King Arthur in a week or so, and make 100Kg of it in another 3 days.

foolishpoolish's picture
foolishpoolish

The bacteria that create lactic acids are a different animal than the ones that produce acetic acids

Heterofermenters can be responsible for both acetic and lactic acid products (using the pentose phosophate pathway).

jcking's picture
jcking

When it comes to wild yeast and bacteria it's survival of the fittest.

Jim