The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Question on using little to large amounts of sourdough starter in bread...does it really matter?

sournewb71's picture

Question on using little to large amounts of sourdough starter in bread...does it really matter?

Why is it assumed that:

Small amounts of stater + long periods of time = Best Sourdough Bread?

When we inject sourdough starter into our bread recipes, we are injecting the dough with cultures of yeast and lactic acid bacteria.  These friendly yeasts and bacteria are just culturing our dough, as if we were feeding them again.  So when we use a small amount of sourdough starter and give it a lot to eat, it will take it a longer time to populate the medium.

Now assuming the temperature and ingredients are identical to the above scenario, why wouldn't a larger amount of starter produce the same quality loaf, but in less time?  The byproducts of the yeasts and bacteria are the same in both scenarios are they not?  Time is the variable.

So besides having to maintain a larger starter and having less time to work around the dough, what are the negatives?


nycbaker11's picture

A great Question you bring up...I hope I have the answers but I dont...  can't wait to see some replies go up.


breadforfun's picture

You are essentially correct, but as all things in life, it is more complicated.  Basically, the bacteria and the yeast grow at different rates and also respond differently to temperature.  They also have different lag time, the amount of time the beasties stay "dormant" before their populations start to grow.  You can read about it in at this link by Debra Wink.  There is another more detailed discussion on microorganism growth that I can't seem to find at this moment, so maybe another TFLer can post that link.


breadforfun's picture

It originated from this discussion:

Not the one I was thinking of originally, but relevant.

sournewb71's picture

The temperature chart is interesting but doesn't explain why a dough with a small amount of starter that bulks for a longer amount of time would be superior to one that has more starter and less time.  The yeast and bacteria seem to grow equally until the 75F+ range, where the bacteria are growing faster.

PiPs's picture

A couple of thoughts maybe:

Thom Leonard mentions in his Bread book that he recommends using the least amount of starter to get the job done. His book deals with baking wholegrain breads. He states that a starter's gluten may be degraded by the fermentation process and adding a large amount will have a negative impact on the final lightness of a loaf. I am not entirely sure on this but thought I would mention it ... maybe others have a comment on it?

I take his words to mean using the right amount of starter to have the dough ready for the oven at the right time having it reached optimal ripeness. This can vary from person to person and their requirements.

I use a stiff levain so my thoughts will be centred around its use.

Sometimes I use a fairly large amount of levain (25% of the total flour is prefermented) ...BUT ... when I do use this amount I am fastidious about the quality and ripeness of it. I don't want it sour so I will use before it becomes to acidic ... I usually build it up with two feedings at a ratio of 1:1:2 and let it ripen for about 4-5hrs (it's warm here at the moment) ... this ensure the yeasts are at there peak and sourness is kept to a minimum. I give the dough a thorough kneading and use a shortish bulk ferment with one one stretch-and-fold. The larger amount of stiff levain will also bring an acid hit which strengthens the dough. You can feel the difference.

I also bake using smaller amounts of levain (10% of total flour prefermented) ... You can get away with a starter that is further along. Yep, you will need a longer bulk ferment ... but this can be a good thing as it allows you to adjust kneading or stretch-and-folds to suit you timelines. You can play with temperatures also. You may also have more time to adjust temps if things are not quite going to plan. You have time to strengthen the dough and let it develop.

... hope this throws a little light

Home Baker's picture
Home Baker

I'm just a home baker and not a scientist, but my experiments in formulating bread doughs have worked out just as you describe. I use the same technique and proportions (1:1:2) as you to build my levain.

Another difference I've found with proportions of levain over about 20% is that the dough can tend to degrade more quickly as it reaches the end of proofing. Since there's less margin for error the proofed loaves have to go into the oven within just a few  minutes — like maybe ten on either side — of their peak rise. If too soon, the bread will be heavier/more dense than it should be. If too late, the color and flavor seem to fade. Weaker flours seem to accentuate these characteristics.

Janetcook's picture

A guess from what I have gleaned through reading here over the past year.....could be totally wrong and hopefully someone more knowledgeable will chime and set the record straight:

You have read the Debra WInk article I assume so my response ties into that.  Has to do with lag times.

Small amount of starter will take longer to ferment, as you know, and because of that the LABS will have a step up on the yeast as they are more abundant in your dough.  In the beginning of the fermenting the LABS will be 'dormant'/adjusting and the yeast will be first on the 'scene' to do their thing.  Once they 'wake up' they will 'overtake'/ out multiply  the yeast.   With an longer fermenting time the LABS, once 'activated', end up having a blast doing their thing which just so happens to flavor your bread.

In a  dough that has the larger amount of starter in it the yeasties are off and running long before the LABS catch on and adjust to their new environment.....the flavor makers are still in 'stun' mode and, therefore, are not doing anything to add to the flavor of your loaf.  So yes, there are a lot of LABS in a larger amount of starter but they are essentially asleep for several hours before showing up to flavor your dough.

The yeasties are the ones rising the dough so it will rise and be ready for proofing while the LABS are still snoozing....

Now whether or not a longer fermenting dough is 'superior' to one that ferments for a shorter period of time is all up to personal taste.  In our house, a milder flavor is preferred so I adjust my recipes accordingly.  

Hope this is kinda right on....and if it is....that it helps in your understanding a bit...


sournewb71's picture

Interesting Janet!

I wonder if we could negate the yeasts by bulk fermenting at temperatures that favor LABS?  Obviously some tests would need to be done to find the temperature that benefits LABS growth (80-85F?) but not totally deminishing yeasts and the rise of the dough.

Janetcook's picture

If you do a search you can find out how to influence the yeast to LAB books too .  The listing below is from D. Wink:


Mild - More condusive to yeast growth

white flour

cool temps.

lower hydration

smaller, more frequent feedings - 3-4 times a day

refresh when under ripe


More Sour - More conducive for LAB growth

rye or whole grain flours

warmer temps.

wetter dough

larger, less frequent builds - like 2x a day only

refresh when over-ripe

Hope this helps!


jcking's picture

Where does this assumption come from?

Small amounts of stater + long periods of time = Best Sourdough Bread

Please advise who or whom is making this claim. How small is small? How long is long? Which best is best?

Home baker find processes that fit their schedule. Use as much starter as you like.

The best bread is infused with the love of family and friends flowing out of the bakers hands.