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Is there such a thing as too strong a starter?

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marosenthal's picture
marosenthal

Is there such a thing as too strong a starter?

I finally have a starter that I'm letting get strong enough to keep and use.  It's 100% hydration, fed with King Arthur AP flour and spring water at a 1:1:1 ratio.  Currently it's doubling in 16-20 hours, and I'm continuing to feed it as it gains in strength.  I expect it to get up to doubling in 8 hours in the next few days.  Maybe that's not a reasonable expectation, but I'm sure I'll see shortly!  The question is, (maybe 2 questions) is there such a thing as allowing a starter to stay at room temperature, get fed as it doubles, and have it wind up "too strong"?  Will it stabilize at some doubling time?  My observation is that a 100% dough made with KAF AP will collapse shortly after doubling.  Maggie Glezer's French Mother, at 50% hydration, she says can quadruple at 8 hours.  At that point it's strong enough to refrigerate.  Thanks for the help!

dabrownman's picture
dabrownman

to have too strong a starter so I wouldn't know but, I am a qualified expert at being too weak a baker.

tgrayson's picture
tgrayson

... is there such a thing as...have it wind up "too strong"?  Will it stabilize at some doubling time?

No and Yes.

marosenthal's picture
marosenthal

Um, any details, there? About how long or short of a doubling time are we talking about?

tgrayson's picture
tgrayson

Eight hours minimum, assuming 1) doubling when refreshing, 2)  room temperature water, and 3) 100% hydration.  That's what mine does after reviving it from a long stint in the refrigerator and refreshing it for a number of days.  For people that use theirs regularly and have the latitude to refresh it more than once a day, they might be able to do better.

 

Edit:  I refreshed mine this morning and it more than doubled in about 6 hours.

marosenthal's picture
marosenthal

So, if anything, the starter is going backwards.  I gave it a feeding, 1:1:1, in preparation for baking.  Then I took out 40g, fed it 40g each spring water and flour, and built a sponge with the rest.  The sponge is more wet, and has some big bubbles after 8 hours.  That's in the fridge until I can build the dough on Wednesday.  The mother, however, had not doubled by the morning, and I'm not seeing those big bubbles.  Lots of tiny ones, yes.  I gave it a feeding of 40g flour and water this morning, without taking any out, so a smaller feed.  How do I get it to be stronger, then?  I thought if I let it double, then feed, and continue, it should get stronger, and double more quickly.  If I let it go too long after a feed, past doubling, will that harm it? Or should I push the issue, and feed every 12 hours?  The last time I tried that, I started diluting out the culture.  I'm so confused.

tgrayson's picture
tgrayson

Have you successfully made bread with this yet?

I gave it a feeding, 1:1:1, in preparation for baking.  Then I took out 40g, fed it 40g each spring water and flour, and built a sponge with the rest.

 I assume you didn't pull your 40 g out immediately, yes?  Otherwise, you're diluting it a lot, so it would take longer to double.

 

I thought if I let it double, then feed, and continue, it should get stronger, and double more quickly.

 In general, I think this is true.  How many days in a row have you been doing this?

 

 

marosenthal's picture
marosenthal

I've been working with the starter for about a month now.  It still hasn't doubled in 12 hours.  The best I've gotten is around 20 hours.  What I did, to start, is combine three days of WW flour and pineapple juice (2T each, daily), then feed 1/4c each AP flour and spring water daily.  I did that for about 10 days, then started taking 40g of the baby starter and feeding it with 40g each of flour and water.  Since it hasn't doubled in 12 hours, I haven't baked with it at all.  This is my first attempt, which is also why I chose a recipe with a sponge, to hopefully give more time to grow the starter before building a dough.  It's a grand experiment.

To make the sponge, I took my mother (110g), fed the whole thing 120g each flour and water, and let it sit at room temp for 24 hours plus.  Then I took out 40 g to feed, and built the rest into a sponge with 3c tap water and 250g each WW and Rye flour.  I expect that the sponge is not all that strong, but I'm going to see how it goes anyway.  It's currently in the fridge until Wednesday.  The rest of the dough will be 600g AP or bread flour.

I get the impression that maybe I'm diluting too much with each feed, and maybe a I should feed 80g starter with 40g each flour and water, diluting less, until it gets stronger.  Would that be right, do you think?  This morning, it wasn't quite doubled, so I fed 40g each flour and water, without discarding any, so a proportionally smaller feeding. 

tgrayson's picture
tgrayson

One thing I'm wondering is if you even have a wild yeast culture going.  You may be familiar with the problem that Peter Reinhart mentioned that there is a strain of bacteria that can mimic the activity of yeast, creating a lot of little bubbles.  The pineapple juice is supposed to help prevent this problem, but I never had any luck with his directions.  I know that I got some rise in the early days, but it was sluggish and didn't improve.

 

I finally restorted to the grape starter method and had almost instant success.

 

 

marosenthal's picture
marosenthal

I take that to mean that a successful starter should be pretty strong right from the start.  Messing around like I've been doing for the pastmonth, and my three previous tries, strongly implies that I don't have active yeasts. All the directions I've seen make mention of doubling pretty fast in the first week, and that once a culture is going, it should be pretty vigorous. Aargh. Very frustrating. OK, my current plan is to take the sponge out and let it ferment until Wednesday morning. I'll keep my culture fermenting until it doubles, or tomorrow evening, then feed it at 2:1:1. If the bread fails, or I get poor activity from the starter, I'll scrap it and try again. Off to reread Peter Reinhart. 

tgrayson's picture
tgrayson

I'll scrap it and try again. Off to reread Peter Reinhart.

 

I tried it Peter's way for several months, with no success.  I know that, in theory, all you need is water and flour, but perhaps the density of wild yeasts vary from region to region, and house to house.  I strongly recommend the grape starter method:

http: //allrecipes.com/recipe/wild-grape-starter/

Organically grown grapes are best.

 

 

 

marosenthal's picture
marosenthal

If I decide to scrap it and try again. 

PMcCool's picture
PMcCool

If you mentioned what your room temperature is, marosenthal, I missed it.  Wild yeasts tend to be very sensitive to temperatures.  Their growth rate slows tremendously as temperatures slide below the 70F mark.  When the temperatures are in the 75-85F range, their growth rate is nothing short of spectacular.  You may just need to give your starter a warmer place to work to see it accelerate.

A 2:1:1 feeding regimen is leaving your culture underfed.  Try a 1:1:1 or 1:2:2 or 1:2:3 or even higher ratio of flour to starter.  That way the yeasts and bacteria have plenty of food to work with.

Paul

marosenthal's picture
marosenthal

My kitchen runs in the mid to high 60s F. Too cool, I'm sure. If I've been working this starter for a month, refreshing daily, wouldn't I have diluted the yeasts out of culture by now? I could always toss it in the oven with the light on, and see what happens. I was just looking at the DIY proofing boxes that have been posted here on FL, and I'm tempted, but I have too many projects going at the moment. Thanks for your input! What do you think the chance is the I have a leuconostoc culture, instead of a sacchromyces? (Bacteria vs yeast?)

PMcCool's picture
PMcCool

And I suspect that's at the root of your starter's performance so far.  Here's one easy way to find out.  If you have a picnic cooler, fill a jar or a bowl with a pint of boiling water and place it in the cooler.  It isn't necessary to cover the water container.  Then place the container with your just-fed starter in the cooler and close the cooler.  Check back in 4 hours.  You will probably see some bubbles forming in the starter.  Check back at the 8 hour mark.  You may well find that the starter is doubled or more than doubled in volume.  If so, you have confirmed that low temperatures were inhibiting your starter's growth.

If you don't have a cooler, you can use a cardboard box with a blanket wrapped around it for insulation.  Or put the water and starter containers in your microwave oven.  (Note that you can replace the water if it cools so much that it isn't keeping the air in the cooler or box warm.)  Or put the starter anywhere in your house that can maintain a consistently warm temperature. 

I very much doubt that the starter has a leuconostoc infection.  You would immediately notice the stinky odor if it did.  I think its just cold.

Paul

marosenthal's picture
marosenthal

I will try that tonight when I get home. If I don't get any response, then I fear I will have to start over again. Once things are going, will I have to warm the starter to wake it up when I'm building a levain, or should my room temp be OK?

tgrayson's picture
tgrayson

I keep my house at 74 degrees, if that's any help.  Your symptoms don't match exactly those of a leuconostoc  culture, so that's just speculation.  PMcCool might be correct regarding the temperature, even though I haven't noticed this temperature sensitivity.  I'll refresh tomorrow morning before going to work and then see what it looks like when I get home.   My house drops well below 70 during the day while I'm not there.

dwcoleman's picture
dwcoleman

I feel really cheap now only heating my house to 69F during the day and 63F at night!

tgrayson's picture
tgrayson

Ok, since our daytime temperatures have been hitting 70 recently, I left my starter outside last night before going to bed.  The temperature was 64 degrees.  When I got up, the temperature was 68 degrees and the starter outside was just barely doubled, but lots of big bubbles.  This was starting off with a refrigerator cold starter before refreshing it and room temperature water.  So the reduced temperatures of course had some effect, but, to my mind, don't completely explain the weakness of your starter.

marosenthal's picture
marosenthal

 

Paul, I did as you suggested.  Put a container of hot water in a cooler with the starter and closed the lid.  This morning, I got... bupkiss. I only got a 20-30% rise, and no large bubbles.  The sponge I took out of the fridge and put in the oven with the light on and the door ajar.  This morning, it was frothing vigorously. 

Here's what I've done... I had a sample of starter from before I made the spionge, when I thought I had some good activity.  It was waiting in the fridge, just in case.  I took 40g of that,  fed 1:1:1 and put it in the oven (sample B).  I also took 20g of the sponge and fed it 1:2:3 (to end up with a 100% hydration sample) and parked it next to B in the proofing oven (sample C).  I also took last night's not-doing-so-well starter and put it in there, too (sample A). 

The sponge, made with 250g each WW and rye, the starter, and 720g tap water (private well with a neutralizer in the circuit) I had left out for 8 hours at my room temp, retarded in the fridge for a day, and left in the proofing oven overnight.  This morning, it was very frothy, and smells of grape must, hay, alchohol, and some funk.  I've built a soft dough with 600g white bread flour and 25g kosher salt.  The smell is much more mild, but I'm not sure how "sour" it is.  I'm afraid someone will recommend throwing out the dough as unfit to consume.  Or at least unpleasant.

And I'm having a hard time getting this post to save.

tgrayson's picture
tgrayson

I'm a bit confused on how many samples you tried in what order. 

Last night:  starter in cooler (sample A) =>  No good

                      sponge in oven (sample B) => Very active

                       refreshed stater (sample C) =>  No good?

Am I correct in saying that only your sponge shows the appropriate activity?  (If so, you should make a new starter from it.)

marosenthal's picture
marosenthal

You're right, tgrayson. The starter I -had- been working with, in the cooler, little to no growth. The old, refridgerated starter, little growth. Starter made from the sponge (C) has nearly doubled in 6 hours. All three have been in a proofing oven (light on, door ajar) since this morning. That one, I'll keep feeding, and keep it warm for now. I'll either feed 1:2:2 or 1:2:3. 

And we'll see if the bread is edible, or if it's too funky to be food. If nothing else, it'll make good compost. , 

PMcCool's picture
PMcCool

Let's see if I have tracked correctly.  Sample C began with 20g of sponge which was at 720/(250+250) = 144% hydration.  It was then fed at a 1:2:3 ratio.  So, 12g of water and 8g of flour (rounded slightly) had 40g of water added and 60g of flour added; a total of 52g water and 68g flour.  If my calculator isn't lying, that's 76% hydration, not 100% hydration.

Samples A and B appear to be twins at 100% hydration, except for Sample B having been refreshed more recently.

All were fermented in the same environment, your oven.

Given that information, I'd say that your starter is a lot more active when well fed (Sample C), as compared to less well-fed versions incubated at the same temperature.  Therefore, one way to get consistently good performance would be to go with feeding ratios that are higher than 1:1:1.

Paul

marosenthal's picture
marosenthal

Thank you for the clarification, Paul.  You have it absolutely right.  My math was off, and your results explain what I'm seeing in my kitchen.  I fed both B and C last night at 1:2:2.  (A became compost).  This mornig, after overnight in the oven with the light on, neither had doubled.  I was very surprised, and more than a little disappointed.  I left them alone to continue, which I hope won't hurt the starter.  When I get home, I'll feed both at 1:2:3, since I got better results that way.  Maybe I should do 1:2:4? 1:3:4? 1:4:4? 1:5:10? I just don't want to waste too much flour. 

Yesterday's loaves, by the way, came out very well.  My kids were all over the bread last night.  The crumb was uneven, but I got some nice large holes, and a chewy crust.  Now I -really- want to keep the starter going, so I can keep this up!

PMcCool's picture
PMcCool

I ask because I'm beginning to recognize a pattern that hadn't been apparent to me previously: all of your "inactive" results occur when the starter is at 100% hydration. 

First: what is the shape of the container(s) you have used so far?  Are they taller than they are wide, with the vertical sides being straight?  Or are they more of a bowl shape whose cross-section at the bottom is smaller than the cross-section at the top?  If the former, you can mark the starting position of the top of the starter (let's pretend it is 1 inch above the bottom of the container) and also mark another position that would equate to doubling (in our pretend example, that would be 2 inches above the bottom of the container).  If the latter, you'll have to do some fancy measuring and then a bit of calculus to determine just how far up equates to a doubling of volume. 

Second: have you been able to monitor the full time that the starter was fermenting?  Or have you had to be away for some or all of that time (work, sleep, etc.)?

What might be happening is two-fold.  First, the container may make it very difficult to eyeball how much the starter has expanded.  Second, the starter may actually have expanded and collapsed by the time you were able to check on it.

While there are enough variations in flour to prevent a definitive statement, wetter starters typically ferment faster than stiff starters.  They are almost self-stirring because of bubble movement, bringing the yeasts into contact with fresh food supplies more easily.  Wetter starters typically expand less than drier starters because they are softer and less able to trap the bubbles.

The 1:n:n feeds maintain a 100% hydration.  The 1:2:3 feed maintains a 67% hydration.  The drier, stiffer starter doesn't expand as fast, perhaps allowing you to see it at or near its maximum inflation.  The stiffer, stronger structure also allows the gas bubbles to be trapped longer and to grow larger, again leading to a greater volumetric expansion when compared to your 100% hydration starter.

Although your sponge's behavior may seem to contradict that theory, remember that a lot of water in the sponge got soaked up in the bran of your whole-grain flour which means that the sponge behaved as if its hydration was lower than the numbers would suggest.

These are all just ideas.  I'm not there to see what's going on, so I can't be sure.  If you were to post some photos of your starter at various intervals, it would be some additional information to consider.

Paul

tgrayson's picture
tgrayson

I get fine results with a 1:1:1, so I have a hard time believing this is where you're having problems. But let me confirm:  is it still true that the only activity you're still seeing is the starter made from the sponge?  Or has that starter failed you too?

Since 1:1:1 should work fine, I don't see a lot of value in trying random ratios.  One thought I had in looking at your trials is the only activity you saw was in the sponge that contained WW and rye.  WW, and particularly whole grain rye, typically contain more wild yeasts that regular flour, so I suppose it's possible that's where your activity came from, although I wouldn't have expected those yeasts to have become so active in only one feeding.

marosenthal's picture
marosenthal

First off, both of you, thanks for the help and suggestions.  I'm geting a lot out of your collaboration with me.

I've been using Ball jars or Pyrex measuring cups to hold the starter, specifically so that I can judge doubling as a function of volume.  I'm marking my starting point with a rubber band around the container, or a piece of masking tape.  In the glass container, I also get to see how large the bubbles are, rather than looking only at the top. 

I have NOT been able to monitor continuously.  I have been at work from 7:45am-5:45pm, except yesterday.  I don't think I have any way to photograph the starter in-between times.  Unless my wife is willing to participate in the experiment. 

My observation is that at 100% hydration, the starter starts to collapse after reaching double volume, but it will "hang out" there until the container is jostled.  I'm using KAF AP flour.  tgrayson,what kind of flour are you feeding with?  

I also have noticed that I'm getting better results with a larger feeding of flour.  Better so far at 1:3 starter to flour.  I'm getting growth in both the starter from before I made the sponge, and the starter from the sponge, samples B and C.  The other thing I've noticed is that I'm getting better growth when I feed with WW flour.  I wouldn't expect that to make a difference in one feeding, either. 

Current plan is to feed 1:3:3 or 1:2:3 shortly, when I get home, and proof in the oven.  I'll take photos at time zero, then again right before I turn in and in the morning. 

 

tgrayson's picture
tgrayson

My observation is that at 100% hydration, the starter starts to collapse after reaching double volume, but it will "hang out" there until the container is jostled.  I'm using KAF AP flour.  tgrayson,what kind of flour are you feeding with? 

 

Mine will get well past double, but I'm not sure it will triple; I usually put it in the fridge before that point, or refresh it again.  I use KA bread flour for the starter.  A firmer starter might well get bigger, but that isn't necessarily better, or the reason you might choose a firmer starter.  Reinhart had made some comment about the stronger flours being more durable in a starter, which is why I tend to use them for this.  But I've seen other bread books call for AP in the starter.  Probably isn't a big deal.  How thoroughly do you mix the starter after refreshing it?  Could you be lacking any gluten development at all?

 

I'm getting better growth when I feed with WW flour.  I wouldn't expect that to make a difference in one feeding, either.

 

Except for the likelihood of a greater yeast population in the WW, as I mentioned above.  That's why many starter formulae include WW in the early stages.

 

marosenthal's picture
marosenthal

 

 Yes, I started with WW flour. My reading suggests that, due to the lower numbers of organisms, white flour is preferable to maintain a starter, by not introducing as much competition to the organisms we want. 

I have fed sample B in a 1:2:3 ratio, and C in a 1:3:3 ratio. Both are in a 77 deg oven. The below pics are of the starters before feeding, immediately after, and after 4 hours.  I may have to post the photos in the morning. Still trying to figure out my iPhone. 

marosenthal's picture
marosenthal

Before feeding

 

After

 

  

4 hours later

 

marosenthal's picture
marosenthal

Before feeding

After feeding

After 3 1/2 hours

This morning, around 13 hours

The smaller container is "B", at roughly 75% hydration (fed 1:2:3).  The larger is "C" at 100% (fed 1:3:3).  As you can see, not doubled yet.  "B" is still domed, it hasn't levelled or fallen yet.  The oven has been at 75-77 degrees F, according to my probe thermometer, which you can see in the photo.  And I forgot to mention last night, when I feed, I stir with a spoon until all the lumps are gone and the starter clings together around the spoon or fork.  I should be getting some gluten formation.

tgrayson's picture
tgrayson

"B" looks close to doubled, since it seems to have started at a level below the top of the tape.  Still, it takes over twice the time as mine does.

marosenthal's picture
marosenthal

"B" is closer to 71% hydration, and I couldn't get it level in the container.  This morning, it was still domed, so I assumed it was still rising.  "C" was more like 50% risen.  I didn't feed either one this morning, opting to let them finish and exhaust their food supply, hoping to grow more yeasts.  I expect to feed when I get home in about 1/2 hour. 

I want to look at all the variables, and see where I could improve. 

Food: KAF AP flour.  Seems to do better with a larger feed, but slow rising, even with a 1:3 feed.  Seems to do better after adding WW flour.  Should I feed with WW instead?

Water: Bottled spring water.  Store brand.  Could there be some leaching of chemicals from the bottle?  Some lack of minerals?  Some buffer in the water?  Maybe try tap water, but my water -does- have buffer in it, or another brand of bottled?

Temperature:  Definitely getting more activity in a proofing oven in the mid to high 70s F. Would refrigeration improve matters?  Let more bacteria grow to drop the pH and get better rise?

Container:  Glass, clean.  Really shouldn't make a big difference, but the smaller container is harder to get in and out of.   Going back to a wide mouth 2 cup Ball jar, unless I'm getting better results with a larger batch of starter in general.  If that's the case, a quart jar or plastic container would be better. 

Time:  Trying to let the starter tell me when to feed it again.  Can I really let it go too long, as long as I'm feeding at least daily?  Or when it seems to have reached maximum rise?

How to make the starter stronger?

tgrayson's picture
tgrayson

Nancy Silverton recommends that you feed your starter 3 times a day, and emphasizes that you stir between feedings.  She just adds more flour and water throughout the day, doesn't throw any away.  And she doesn't wait for doubling, just every 5 or 6 hours, feed it.  You might have to take it to work.

I just use tap water, works fine.  Impurities in the water supposedly enhance yeast activity, anyway.

 

marosenthal's picture
marosenthal

How much does she feed at a time?  Or is it just "some"?

After thinking about the variables, I came up with a plan. Assuming there's nothing wrong with the water or flour, although I think bread flour would be wise, and the container makes no difference, that leaves me with temperature and time. The amount of a feeding shouldn't make a difference, except that a larger feed allows more time between. 

Temperature I think I have solved, just by using the oven. I decided to feed every twelve hours, after looking at some other threads here and rereading SordoughHome.  I'll feed sooner if it doubles sooner. I also decided to make one sample a firm starter, a la Maggie Glezer. I left the other at 100%. So far so good. The stiff starter is close to doubling at 12 hours, and the wet is pretty soupy by then. Which is why bread flour would make sence. 

G-man's picture
G-man

I'd never heard that impurities in the water enhance yeast activity. Source?

One of the big problems with tap water is chemicals introduced by municipal water management. Most cities and towns, at least here in the states, add chlorine and, in some cases, fluoride. These chemicals are added for the express purpose of killing microorganisms. They don't discriminate between things that are bad for you and things that you want.

tgrayson's picture
tgrayson

Hammelman, Jeffrey.  "Bread". pp. 50-51.

While it's true that chlorine kills things, I have not experienced a problem with sourdough cultures due to local chlorination levels. A profound  observation I saw once by a toxicologist was "There are no toxic substances, only toxic quantities."

The overall point is that this idea that "if a little is good, more is better, " isn't always true and tends to cater to the OCD in all of us.  ;-)

 

 

marosenthal's picture
marosenthal

I have heard (but I can not quote) that the micronutrients in water are necessary for good growth. Distilled doesn't give such good results. I've been using bottled water in my starter, because my home system has a neutralizer on the line. Our water is acidic. Good for yeast, but bad for pipes. 

marosenthal's picture
marosenthal

I've continued using AP flour, as that's what I have right now.  The starters are coming along, just not very quickly.  The 100% starter I've been feeding every twelve hours, and I'm not so sure that it's been rising any faster.  I did, however, make an (almost) 100% whole wheat recipe from the River Cottage Bread Book, which came out reasonably well.  Not so many large holes in the crumb, but well-aerated throughout. 

The stiff (60%) starter is doubling in 24 hours.  Perhaps by tonight I'll have something closer to triple.  It seems to me, that the way to grow the starter, in my kitchen, with my materials, is to use a very wet starter, maybe 150%.  Maintenence seems to be... unpredictable.  I am encouraged by the bread I've been able to make.  And so, the experiment continues...

sflsurfernAlaska's picture
sflsurfernAlaska

I have just recently begun playing with baking and have used the pineapple recipie with no issues that I know of. My question is that trhat recipies say to rest for 18 hours until it doubles in size, but mine is tripling! Is this a good thing or bad. My first attempt came out great, but w/o the very large holes. Can't figure how to post pic and keep getting told I'm spamming when I try to post a link.

marosenthal's picture
marosenthal

If your starter is tripling in 18 hours, that's good.  The more rapidly your starter rises, the better it will raise your loaves.  It sounds like you should feed every 18 hours, or even every 12, as the starter grows in strength.  When it levels off at a strength, perhaps tripling at 6 hours, for example, it should be ready to bake with, and to store.  I have baked with my starter when it doubles at 24 hours, and I've had OK results, it just takes a while between the build and the bake.  Your loaves will have large holes if you increase the hydration (the proportion of water to flour).  What kind of flour did you use to start your starter?

To post photos, use the bar at the top of the Comment box.  Click the little tree icon, then the Browse icon to the right of the URL box.  That will allow you to browse the photos on your computer, and insert them into your text.  Highlight text you want to make a link, then click the chain link icon on the bar to edit/insert links. 

 

 

 

sflsurfernAlaska's picture
sflsurfernAlaska

Thanks for the info, but I actually meant my dough is tripling instead of doubling in size in less than 18 hours as the recipie states.

marosenthal's picture
marosenthal

Your starter must be quite strong, since it's performing faster than the recipe says it will.  You could do one of two things.  Either use less starter than the recipe calls for, or allow the dough to rise in a cooler environment.  Either way, the bread will rise more slowly, and also give the "souring" bacteria a chance to catch up to the vigorous growth of the yeast.

sflsurfernAlaska's picture
sflsurfernAlaska

BTW - I used bread and AP flour with a whole wheat starter.