The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Need a Child's Guide to Sourdough Starter Development and Use

TastefulLee's picture
TastefulLee

Need a Child's Guide to Sourdough Starter Development and Use

Hi, all. I’m having such a great time learning and reading on this website. As a very new baker of things containing yeast, there is certainly much to learn and I’m grateful to all who have contributed in expanding the knowledge of others.

I’m currently working on my first juice/whole grain sourdough starter, and I’ve read much about the development and maintenance of one, so I think I’m off to a good start - HOWEVER - there’s a lot I don’t understand. I’m running into trouble when people are discussing things like ratios, and also how to bulk up a starter for use in a recipe. I’m also having difficulty with percentages, such as 100% hydration, for example--what does that mean, and how do you formulate a recipe based on that type of expression?

I know there is much information here, but does anyone know of a post that already exists that specifically and clearly explains these and other information about sourdough starter development and use, from the ground up for those of us who are brandy-new and terrible at mathematics? I think that despite my inexperience and deficiency with numbers, I could manage if I could grasp the concepts I could begin to figure it out. Unfortunately I’m finding that I need things explained to me as though I was in kindergarten. L

Thanks in advance for any information or referrals. Have a GREAT weekend! J

PMcCool's picture
PMcCool

Click on the Handbook link in the banner at the top of the page.  You will find a lot of good, basic information there, including a discussion of hydration (bakers math).

The other thing to do is use the Search tool at the upper left corner of the page.  Type in a search term (pineapple, for instance) and get a volume of posts which contain that term.  Lots of good reading and lots of good information, too.  And you will probably find yourself learning about things that you hadn't even thought to ask.  Which can take you back to the Search tool for more info...

Don't be bashful about asking.  We all have opinions to share and some of them are probably valid.  ;-)

Paul

TastefulLee's picture
TastefulLee

I'm very glad for your suggestions and will be reading a lot in the near future-in fact I have all but abandoned my Kindle for now lol. One question that's nagging me that I haven't come across the answer to is this: I live in a climate that's cold this time of year in an old drafty house. The temperature can vary greatly from room to room. I wonder if my 3 day old juice and rye flour starter needs a carefully controlled steady temp to grow. I am a busy person and although I am enjoying learning all about this I kind of need to know if there's an easy way, or more accurately a forgiving way of doing this, because if there isn't I won't be likely to continue. What I mean is that I don't mind investing time and effort as long as I don't have to worry about every little element and variable and hover over it like its a matter of national security lol. As new as I am to all this I'd like to know what I'm signing up for before I commit  and the temperature thing is what I need to clarify @ this point, at least for now. Thanks again!

TastefulLee's picture
TastefulLee

oops....forgot to ask if things like boiling water in a bowl in the microwave and then parking my starter in there to create some warmth can kill it?

 

cranbo's picture
cranbo

Nope, definitely won't kill it, actually will really help it grow more quickly. Optimum yeast temp for growth is around 80F or so. 

clazar123's picture
clazar123

I live in the midwest (USA) and it is usually very cold this time of year. The one place in the kitchen that is consistently warm is the top of the refrigerator. THe heat rises from the coils in the back. THe hard part is that I have forgotten the poor beasties there, on occasion. On the other hand-they are out of the way. Practical suggestion-put them on a plate in case they overflow! It is hard to get the dried starter (esp rye!) off the sides of the refrigerator when they drip down. :)

rolls's picture
rolls

lol thanks for the tip. i hav been putting mine inside the closed oven. or near the stove while cooking to catch some of the warmth.

and thanks for this thread. im sure many of us are in the same boat. trying to figure it out and a gazillion questions pop up in the beginning.

i did follow susans at wildyeast at one time. but my lifestyle back then didn't permit for me to really take sourdough seriously. but this time round, i feel  like im getting it more lol

jus gave my dough its final feeding, trying to built it up, so hopefully will mix a dough tonight :)

off to have a look at those links. there should be a sourdough for dummies lol

rolls's picture
rolls

making white sourdough bread from bourke st bakery, starter worked and tripled the dough, so have to shape and bake today :) very curious to c end result. its my first sourdough ever.

TastefulLee's picture
TastefulLee

for everyone's input. I think have 2 starters going now...I may have killed the original, which my granddaughters named "Smelly" when I put him in the microwave to rest after nuking some water and not realizing until a few secs had elapsed that the darn thing was still ON....so since I had not yet disposed of the discard I added some flour and water to 1/4 cup of it in a separate container and "Stinky" was born...now I have the potential to have 2 starters ready in a week and a half with absolutely no comprehension of how to get them ready for use in a recipe lol, no idea how to maintain after use and still mystified by bakers math....folks I consider myself a fairly intelligent form of life but I'm just not getting it...sigh...will keep working on it so I hope I will be ready when these two are are ready for baking. Wish me luck, and rolls, hope your bread is awesome!

TastefulLee's picture
TastefulLee

Hello again its your friendly neighborhood noob. I am now on Day 6 of the sourdough starter I began with oj and rye flour according to sourdoladys instructions. The two I have going are looking exactly alike even after I accidentally nuked the first one lol. However-as they continue to develop so do I - more questions, that is!

...so here we go...1)  I have noticed there is quite a bit of what I think is termed "hooch" floating on top of my starters before I feed them each day. I have come to learn that this means they're hungry, but I am still unsure what to do with this liquid, which brings me to 2) I have been stirring the hooch back into the starter before I feed, but my mixture even after a feeding is very watery. I am reading that this starter should be the consistency of thick pancake batter-mine isn't even close. So do I discard the hooch, or do I cut down the amount of water, or is there something I'm missing? Speaking of water 3) Is it even possible to have a starter that's 100% hydration that stays the consistency of thick pancake batter? And 4) does the hydration percentage make a big difference or is the consistency more important? Finally 5) the two starters I have are from the same batch started at the same time. I split it because I thought I killed part of it but apparently I didn't. Is it safe to combine them again and if so is there a specific procedure? I know this is a lot but I want to get these concepts and I am grateful for any answers, suggestions and advice. 

PMcCool's picture
PMcCool

I'm glad to see that your starters are progressing,  And that you are paying attention to what they are doing.

In response to your questions:

1. Yes, hooch typically indicates that the organisms in your starter have exhausted their preferred foods.

2. You can stir the hooch back into the starter with no ill effects.  After stirring it in, discard a portion of the starter and add enough new flour to give the remaining organisms plenty to work with until the next feeding.  What is "enough"?  You'll see a range of answers.  The absolute minimum would be 1 gram/ounce/pound of flour to feed 1 gram/ounce/pound of starter.  Even better would be 2 or 3 grams/ounces/pounds of flour to feed 1 gram/ounce/pound of starter.  And yes, I am beating the drum for measuring by weights instead of by volumes.  Hydration is expressed in percentage form when dividing the weight of water by the weight of flour.

3. Yes, depending on the type of flour.  A bleached or unbleached white flour will most likely produce a consistency like pancake batter at 100% hydration (equal weights of water and flour).  Whole wheat flour at 100% hydration may start as a thick batter and gradually change to a very soft dough as the bran has time to soak up more of the water.  Whole rye flour at 100% hydration will start out as a sludge and gradually become almost mortar-like, again as a result of the bran absorbing water.

4. Hydration influences consistency.  The important thing is that the dough/batter be soft enough (wet enough) to expand as the yeasts generate CO2 but not so soft (so wet) that the gluten bubbles are too weak to trap the gas.  A thin batter may have a lot of bubbles but never actually expand very much because the bubbles aren't trapped.  A thicker batter, or a soft dough, will be able to trap the bubbles and expand to double, triple, even quadruple its initial volume.  That makes it a lot easier for you to guage what your starter is doing.

5. You can combine the starters if you like.  Just stir one into the other.  Or keep whichever seems healthier and make a batch of pancakes with the other.

Paul

TastefulLee's picture
TastefulLee

Thank you so much for taking the time to give such a detailed answer. It is very generous of you. Maybe I am just reading too much and confusing myself but I did more research and now I am concerned because although I see bubbles and some hooch I am getting no rise or barely any and the photo progressions I have seen indicate that these two should be doubling a few hours after feeding. They are definitely not doing so. 

I am discarding all but 1/4 cup daily and using a 1:1:1 ratio for feeding - in case I've expressed that wrong I'm saving 1/4 cup of starter and adding 1/4 cup AP flour and 1/4 cup spring water to it. I then stir well to combine and cover loosely. 

I have been keeping the containers in fairly warm places based upon what I've read but today I read a post from someone named Debra Wink who seems to be an authority and that post indicated my efforts to keep them warm are hindering the process. I'm so confused...

Also its been about 8.5 hours since I fed them and they both have a good layer of liquid hooch on top already. Should I feed every time I see this happen? I am following a procedure that suggests feeding once daily.

TastefulLee's picture
TastefulLee

OK. After I posted again last night I decided to feed the starters again since there was so much liquid floating on top. I stirred it down into the starter, then I measured out 2 oz. by weight and discarded the rest. Afterward I measured out 2 oz. of spring water and 2 oz. of rye flour, both by weight and fed them, stirring well.

This morning they had almost doubled and the consistency was that of a very thick pancake batter, maybe even thick as a brownie batter. I was worried about the hydration at that point and gave each 2 tsp. of water, stirring well.

This is  day 7...still confused. Makes one wonder how my children survived...?

PMcCool's picture
PMcCool

When you fed the starter equal volumes of flour and water, it was watery and could not trap any of the bubbles.  As you noted, it was so thin that the flour couldn't even stay in suspension; the flour simply settled to the bottom of the container instead of remaining a batter.  One quarter cup of water weighs approximately 59g.  One quarter cup of flour weighs 30-40g.  The hydration, then, was somewhere between 59/40 and 59/30, or 147-197%. 

When you fed the starter equal weights of flour and water, it was thick enough to trap bubbles and expand.  And there was enough food available that it did not produce hooch between feedings.

Try this experiment to see your starter thrive: feed 1 part starter with 2 parts water and 3 parts flour, all by weight.  It will make a dough.  You can even knead if for a minute or two after mixing everything together, if you want.  Or not.  The microoganisms will have plenty of food, there will be enough structure to trap the gases and the whole thing will expand like a balloon.  To see how much expansion, plop the just-refreshed starter into a container with straight sides.  The container should be transparent or translucent so that you can see the starter inside.  And it should be tall enough to hold a 4-fold expansion of the starter.  Make sure that to cover it, preferably loosely, so that bugs stay out and moisture stays in.  Mark the starting height with tape or a marker.  Check it every couple of hours to see how it is growing.  If you are detail oriented, you can even mark the times and heights on the container when you do a check.  (Note that I'm basing these comments on a wheat flour starter, since rye flour won't be able to trap as much gas or expand as greatly.)

After some hours, which will depend largely on the temperature of the place you put the starter, you will notice that the starter isn't growing any further.  It has reached its peak.  Mark that point to see how much it has expanded from its original size.  If you wanted to bake with it, this would be the perfect time to use it.  It is also an ideal time for another feeding. 

If you let the starter alone instead of baking with it or feeding it, you will notice that some time after it has peaked the top surface will begin dimple as it starts to collapse.  Eventually it will collapse back to almost its original size.  If you stick a spoon or a finger in it, you will see that the gluten is largely dissolved into a gummy, gluey mass because of the acids and enzymes released during the extended fermentation.  This is not what you want to use for baking purposes.  Nor is it the preferred thing to do to a starter in storage.  But it is a good thing to know.  And, surprisingly, you can usually get a starter back to good health from this stage in just one or two refreshments.

Don't sweat the whole starter thing too much.  I came across this statement in Andrew Whitley's Bread Matters last evening: "People have recounted to me the demise of their sourdough in terms that could hardly be more guilt-ridden if they were cofessing to starving the family cat.  There's probably a psychotherapist somewhere doing a roaring trade in sourdough bereavement counseling."  With adequate food, moisture and warmth, you won't be able to stop yours from growing. 

Paul

G-man's picture
G-man

These organisms can survive under conditions of starvation. Unfortunately that's what's happening.

Give them more food when you feed them. A ratio of 1:3:3 swf should be enough. If you still get hooch, feed even more. Hooch means you're starving your starter. Hooch isn't bad, it isn't going to kill your starter. It IS an indicator that you're not feeding it enough.

Some starters don't rise much, and it's still early yet. Give it some more time, and if it still doesn't rise test it out by setting some aside and feeding it in amounts similar to a dough, about 1:3:5 swf.

TastefulLee's picture
TastefulLee

...just a little bit.

your detailed and prompt response is much appreciated. This is quite a learning experience...so from what I've read I did the right thing to feed when the hooch accumulated, just maybe not in the correct proportions.

As of now there is bubbling action and no hooch. They have both almost doubled according to my tape markings. There is maybe a looser consistency than this morning  but no hooch this time. I'm thinking they are well fed but the kitchen is cool-however I am reluctant to move them to a warmer place per Deb Winks post I read yesterday. Now do I feed again tomorrow even if there is no hooch?

So...I will follow your suggestions, g-man, and hopefully I might accidentally get this right. One last question and I swear I will stop babbling (for now anyway...) I was going to combine the two containers since they are essentially the same original starter split in two. However-I am curious to know if I could transition one of them into a firm starter, like the dough balls some people keep instead of liquid? 

I hope some day I can give back to this group at least a little...thanks for everything!



G-man's picture
G-man

Switch it to a different hydration level and feed it for a while at that new hydration level and you might get a different flavor from it. You also may not. My starter became much more sour when I started keeping it firm. Others will swear they had the exact opposite happen. Still others say there was absolutely no flavor difference.

Different storage conditions do influence the organisms in your starter. That's what the science-types who have posted on the subject have said and that's what I'll stick with. Whether that changes the flavor in a way you can detect is another matter.

The thing you have to remember, if you want to experiment, is to always keep one jar of starter as a control, the one you'll use in case the others fail to produce a flavor you enjoy. It can be difficult and time-consuming to get a flavor back once you've lost it.

TastefulLee's picture
TastefulLee

your advice is helpful and I'm learning a lot. Your willingness to help is to be commended. I think I'm on my way but if need be I will holler :)

TastefulLee's picture
TastefulLee

...Paul, I bought a scale today. Weighs grams. Lesson learned.

TastefulLee's picture
TastefulLee

...I think I'm ready to try to bake with these science projects living in my kitchen. Now my question is this--have about 1/2 c. before feeding and discarding today, at which time if I stay with the same schedule the starter will peak at about the same volume. How do I increase the amount of starter? What I mean is do I just keep feeding the same way for a couple of days without discarding, or do I feed it an increased amount once, or what?

I am thinking from my research that I omit the dicard step until I have what I need for my recipe plus a little reserve...am I correct?

G-man's picture
G-man

You should only have to go through one or two feedings without a discard before you've got enough to bake with, even if you start with a tiny amount. Even starting with 1oz of starter and feeding at a ratio of 1:1:1 you'll wind up with 9 ounces after two feedings, which is enough to raise about three pounds of dough. If you go by grams, starting from 25g of starter you'll wind up with 225g starter, quite enough to raise a 1kg loaf with enough left over to start it all over again.

TastefulLee's picture
TastefulLee

...now I have a bubbly liquid starter on my counter in a jar, and a whole grain stiff starter in another container on the other side. I baked once with the liquid and was not overly impressed with the results, which brought me to yet another question: when, exactly, is this starter ready to use?? What I mean is, should I use it immediately after feeding, a couple hours later, the day after, when it has receded, when its thick or when its thin...? What, exactly, should it look like when ready? Is there a particular appearance or smell I should be watching for? I don't think I ever identified the exact moment that sourdough starter should be introduced into a formula being prepared. 

I also wonder about bulking a starter for use...is there a max that can be introduced per feeding, and a point where it can be overfed? For example if I have 50 g of starter and need 250 is it ok to bulk it up in one big feeding or do I need to feed several small ones? 

Also while I am here... I have no idea whatsoever how to use the stiff starter though I would like to try it. Is there a post that explains this in detail? I didn't have much luck locating one.

As always I am grateful for the wealth of knowledge available here and everyone's kindness and willingness to share and be patient with the noob.

Any advice and/or suggestions would be wonderful.

 

cranbo's picture
cranbo

when, exactly, is this starter ready to use?? What I mean is, should I use it immediately after feeding, a couple hours later, the day after, when it has receded, when its thick or when its thin...? 

Starter is typically ready to use when it has doubled/tripled/quadrupled/etc and has just started to recede. Usually this is in the range of 4-6 hours after a feeding for a healthy, vigorous starter; it may be slightly earlier or later than that. 

In a more general sense, it takes about 10 days of regular, consistent feeding (preferably 2x per day) at room temperature (72-75F) to achieve this state. It may take slightly more or less time than that; it might take 7 days, it might take 12 or 14 days. If you use a clear container to store your starter and pay close attention, you can find the time at which it peaks and begins to recede, and you will know when it's ready to go. 

What, exactly, should it look like when ready?  Is there a particular appearance or smell I should be watching for?

That's going to vary depending on whether your starter is liquid or firm. More liquid starters will be bubbly and full of gluten strands when you take a spoon and grab a tablespoon. Firmer starters will be more "fluffly", may not have as many (or any)  visible gluten strands. In both cases, they will have just started to collapse in volume. 

In terms of smell, I don't think there is any good indicator; as long as your starter smells slightly sour, or like fresh mixed dough, you're in good shape. If it smells like stinky cheese, or like nail polish remover, or strongly of alcohol, or moldy, or musty, something is off; keep feeding it regularly (at least 2x per day) until it gets healthy. 

I don't think I ever identified the exact moment that sourdough starter should be introduced into a formula being prepared. 

Hopefully the above tips help! Some recipes provide guidance too. 

TastefulLee's picture
TastefulLee

I should note that both starters are two weeks old and fed once a day. So far they have been kept at room temp. I have had no hooch forming since I switched to weighing the feedings so I assume they are happy with what they are getting. The liquid is fed 1:1:1 and the stiff starter fed 1:3:5.

 

cranbo's picture
cranbo

Two weeks old should be just enough to start baking. The starter will continue to develop for at least 2 more weeks, but if it's vigorous and healthy, then you can bake with it now. 

Has it doubled/tripled and then started to recede slightly within 4-6 hours after feeding?