The Fresh Loaf

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Sourdough Starter Flour to Water Ratio

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Song Of The Baker's picture
Song Of The Baker

Sourdough Starter Flour to Water Ratio

I thought I would share this bit of info in hopes to help other people that encounter the same problem I did when trying to develop a strong, consistent sourdough starter.

When I first tried making a sourdough starter, I followed the plethora of simple recipes/instructions there are out there.  Most of the instructions state to combine equal parts, by weight, of flour and water.  This ratio would be valid for both beginning stages, and eventual regular feedings.

I had to throw out the first 4 attempts due to no doubling (just slight rise) and eventual dying.  After a promising first week, they all turned into a very thin, non bubbling gloop.  Yes, I did follow all the other instruction exactly.  Temperature, timeline between feedings, etc.  This issue finally disappeared completely, when I accidentally one day overweighed the flour.  I saw a doubling for the first time.  I decided to try it again in the next feeding and sure enough it doubled again.  I started a whole new starter, by using 1/2 cup flour to 1/4 cup water measurements instead.  I saw instant doubling (sometimes more) and they have all gone on to live strong and healthy till today.

So how can all these pros be wrong, and simple 'ol me use a different method, and get it to work a different way??

For anyone who has problems developing a proper starter, try this.  It totally helped me.  And for those experts, any comments as to why this could be?  Should't the weighing method work across the board??

John

 

 

 

cranbo's picture
cranbo

I had to throw out the first 4 attempts due to no doubling (just slight rise) and eventual dying.  After a promising first week, they all turned into a very thin, non bubbling gloop.

If it was very thin, it means you probably weren't feeding it equal parts by weight. A starter fed 1:1 equal parts flour and water by weight (using AP, bread, or whole grain flour), will be like a thick batter. It should not be pourable at all; it will hold together as a solid mass. A 1:1 starter (100% hydration) by weight should never separate or form "hooch".  

By contrast a starter fed 1:1 by volume will be watery, thin and pourable, and will likely separate and/or form "hooch" during fermentation. 

Starters that are more thin/watery tend to work faster than starters that are very thick and dough-like; I think that's why many recipes recommend that, especially early in building a starter, where you are trying to propogate yeast and bacteria quickly. Not to mention that it's easier for people to remember, especially those that don't weigh ingredients. 

The volume ratio that you suggest (1/2c. flour to 1/4c. water) is closer to the 100% hydration level.  Consider this:

1/2c flour approx. 75g
1/4c. water approx. 59g

This is around 78% hydration, slightly higher than most finished doughs. (Most bread doughs range from 55-75% hydration, although there are some exceptions). 

Contrast this with:

1/2c flour approx. 75g
1/2c. water approx. 118g

This is 157% hydration, which is a thin, runny, watery "batter". 

BTW, I bet your starters (watery or not) would've turned out fine if you kept feeding them. That's a common mistake for beginners: you have to give it 10-14 days to establish strong activity most of the time. Many people quit after 5-7 days and think their starter is "dead". It almost never is, but they give up and start over. Even a watery 157% hydrated starter will be able to leaven bread after about 10-14 days. 

As with all bread baking, the moral of this story is "give it time". Only the patient are rewarded with exceptional sourdough experiences :)

Song Of The Baker's picture
Song Of The Baker

Thanks Cranbo.  In fact, the starters started getting thin after the second or third week.  Quite mature and way past the 10 - 14 days suggested to be patient.  As mentioned, I followed the instructions to the point.  I weighed the flour to water.  It wasn't until started measuring by volume that the starters worked for me past the 3 week mark.  Yes, I do have a very good kitchen scale, so it's not that.  Whatever the case may be, the starters consitently do not work for me if I weight the ingredients.  Only when I measure them by volume, do I get the healthy, rising starters.

John

FlourChild's picture
FlourChild

How interesting.  My read on it is that you may have been waiting too long between feeds, so that when you switched to a formula with more flour your starter started receiving enough food to last between feedings.  Also, the drier culture would ferment more slowly than the wetter one, futher helping your culture slow down between feeds.  

IMHO, a firmer starter can be helpful in that it is a little easier to see when it has reached peak activity.  The goal is to feed the culture when it has risen to its peak, before it begins to fall.  A liquid starter will also rise and fall, but it is more dramatic and easier to see with a firmer one, especially in early days when rises are small.  Following timetables from recipes strictly can be problematic, as your culture may or may not be peaking at the time specified in the recipe, and it is more important to catch it at its peak.

When your starter is well-established, consider keeping the amounts of flour and water the same for each feed, but altering the seed amount so that the culture is peaking when you next want to feed it.  You may need to reduce the seed in warmer temps or with higher hydration feeds, or increase it with cooler temps and lower hydration feeds.

Since you mention feeding equal weights of flour and water, I'm thinking that you had a thick batter when you first fed the culture, but that it thinned by the time of the next feeding.  That is most likely from vigorous enzyme activity.  Enzymatic activity is favored by a higher hydration, so using a drier feed formula would help curb that issue.  Another technique that works especially well for curbing enzymatic activity is salting the starter at 1-2% of the weight of the flour.  I sometimes salt mine at 1/8 tsp salt (0.7g or 1.4% of the flour) for a feed with 50g of flour and 30g of water.  It slows fermentation slightly, but has a more dramatic effect on enzymes, the dough doesn't get so sticky.

cranbo's picture
cranbo

I agree with everything FlourChild says. 

Song Of The Baker's picture
Song Of The Baker

That sounds like what the culprit was.  The feeding schedule and timing.  I can not say that I fed the starter for the first 3 weeks with 100% consitency and by the methods you outline. 

Eitherway, is it bad that I use a starter that is healthy and working from measurements by volume?  If the hydration is higher with mine, then I should probably be adjusting my water in the final build correct?

John

cranbo's picture
cranbo

 is it bad that I use a starter that is healthy and working from measurements by volume? 

Not at all. Nowadays I eyeball it all the time, I rarely measure my feeds. Measuring at first is good for establishing a "feel" for the right consistency. Once you have the "feel", it's faster not to measure. 

If the hydration is higher with mine, then I should probably be adjusting my water in the final build correct?

Yes, definitely. This is why, in general, it helps to keep the hydration of your starter relatively similar to your final dough (or to whatever starter hydration % that the recipe/formula calls for)...it means you have fewer adjustments to make. 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

One reason for stirring up by "feel" is that when coming back to check on the fermentation (I tend to leave my spoon in the inoculated starter) I tend to do three things: look at it, stir it,  ...and I love the burst of aroma (yes, confessed rye starter sniffer) that should be present and I check the thickness of the starter.  As the starter ferments, it tends to get more liquid and fragrant.  If the starter is the same consistency, smells more like wet flour, fermentation is slow.  Move to a warmer location and wait.  If aromas are bold but the rise or consistency is off,  I discard starter (reduce the LABs) and feed it again to boost the yeast numbers and wait.  When I'm satisfied, I will use the starter.   If by now my timing is off (bad time to start a loaf)  I will thicken it just a little with some flour (returning to my favorite toothpaste like consistency) cover and refrigerate for half a day.

Note:  Refrigeration:   my cold rye starter can't be trusted for "feel" as it tends to stiffen.  The aromas are minimal.  Judging a cold refrigerated starter can be difficult without much experience.  Then either let the starter warm up to judge the stage of fermentation or go by the looks and taste of the starter.  

As I know my starter well, I just dig out a spoonful (10 to 20g) of cold rye starter looking at the stiff pudding spongy texture, mix with a little water, feed it and check on the elaborated starter after about 8 hrs. or in the morning.  

 

 

sfsourdoughnut's picture
sfsourdoughnut

Just fyi, by weight, 1 cup of flour is approx 120 gms, water is approx 240 grms.  So to feed your starter equal amts of flour and water would require 2 cups of flour to 1 cup of water, exactly what you discovered would make your starter "double".

My cup of flour seems to weigh anywhere between 120 and 144 gms, so it is always best to just use a scale.