The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Tasting sourdough starter....what should we be looking for?

sournewb71's picture

Tasting sourdough starter....what should we be looking for?

When we are tasting our sourdough starters what should we be paying attention to in terms of flavor and sourness and how should we use it as a diagnosis in order to improve our starter?  How does the flavors of our active starter correlate to our finished loaf?  Will a real sour tasting starter produce a sour loaf?

In other words what is a template for someone to go by who's never tasted an active, mature starter?

wally's picture

In my experience, both as a home baker and professional baker, a healthy starter should have a marked degree of tartness/sourness - taking a taste should be somewhat like experiencing lemon juice.

Interestingly, this doesn't translate the the finished product - unless you live in the SF Bay area which has a population of wild yeast (and/or lactobacillli) endemic to the region that produces that sour flavor we equate with sourdough.

The French, I've been told, are not fond of this tartness which they feel overpowers the more subtle flavors of the bread.

Should you, however wish to achieve a more sour flavor, the best (I know of) method is to either retard your dough in bulk or as a shaped loaf overnight.

My sourdough/levain is healthy as a bull, quite sour when I taste it, and produces bread that has no signs of sourness unless I retard it.


Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Lets start from point "A."   "A" is flour and water.  Then we add starter and mix it up diluting the by-products of fermentation so that it is now "B" but at first tastes like "A."  At peak fermentation it tastes like "C."   Fermentation takes time and is a gradual process so that as the yeast and bacteria feed on the food, the waste products also build and the taste of them gets stronger.  There are many variations in taste as "B" becomes "C."  Beyond "C," I don't really like to taste starter.  That's when you pucker and get goosebumps.  

The purpose in tasting the starter is to establish that there is some kind of activity going on.  Yeast activity will raise the acid levels in the dough to make it gradually taste sour.  Bacteria, work faster than yeast to raise acid levels (or lower pH readings) so that the yeast reach optimum growing rates.  Then they both kick out acids as by-products.  Several interesting things happen with sourdough starters, the bacteria gear for the yeast and then when sour enough, the acid condition protects the yeast while it slows down as food runs out.   

Now the only reason I would taste my sourdough culture is if I thought something was off or had gone wrong.  I've had it for years now and do more sniffing than tasting.  If sniffing tells me it's on track, no need to taste.  But being a newbie not familiar with your starter culture is different.   You will soon get to know it better.  

Say I feed my starter and set it in a comfy corner next to the stove and it rises only a little bit and then quits long before it's normal quitting/peaking time of say 8 hours.  It may be that the yeasts are not concentrated enough, or weak.  Taste the starter, wow! very sour!  What does that tell me?  Too much lactobacilli most likely.  With the next feeding, I will discard more and start with a smaller amount of starter (feeding more flour) so that it is not so acid.  

Adding water and flour dilutes the acid levels so that the yeast is triggered into multiplying because there is food for them to do so.   That is why discarding or reducing the amount of starter is so important.   If after a feeding, the fed starter is tasting sour, then perhaps not enough flour has been given to maintain a healthy starter.  The yeast sense there is not enough food (from the high acid levels) to go into production and so they sort of lay in wait until conditions are right.   Feed such a waiting starter  just barely enough (so you think it is being fed) serves to keep the bacteria going, the yeast will soon dilute out with each consecutive feed and the starter is more bacteria and sour by-product than leavening power.   So a very sour starter may not mean it can raise a loaf.  It might flavour one nicely but to get a good rise additional yeast is required.  

Now if you taste the 8 hour old "B" starter (75°F) and the opposite is true, it tastes like "A" when you want it to be tasting like a "C" then you have some serious waiting to do until the bacteria build up enough to help the yeast get into production.  Don't dilute a starter further that tastes like wet flour.  Wait.  Wait stir and wait.  When it then starts to taste a little sour, wait a few hours and just add more flour.  Keep the starter at manageable levels of 40g to 100g or so, loose and not stiff and try not to double the size of it until it shows more signs of yeast fermentation by-products, like gas.

As far as flavour goes, I think you have to bake it first to make those kinds of decisions.  What flours and liquids and spices are used, not to mention how they all ferment, will have a great influence on the taste of the bread.  Maintain your starter on a regular basis and do the flavour experimenting with the bread dough.   (keep notes)

I hoped this has helped.   ...Mini


tn gabe's picture
tn gabe

You're grain bill and hydration will determine the flavor.

If you haven't checked this out and want to see a baker that makes amazing bread while breaking all the 'rules'

Rubaud suggests that ripe starter should taste like a peach or pear!