The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Why do some bread books use such large starters?

FlourChild's picture

Why do some bread books use such large starters?

Some books, like the recently reviewed Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast (Ken Forkish), and Nancy Silverton's Breads from the La Brea Bakery, use large starters or levains- much larger than the amount used in the main dough, so that there is a lot to throw out.  For instance, in Mr. Forkish's book, the levain builds all amount to 1,000 grams, yet the main doughs only use 200-300 grams of the levain.  That's a lot left over- even if one were to keep some to use for the seed of the next feeding cycle, that would only account for another 100g.  

So far, I've thought of two reasons why this might be a good practice, but was hoping someone could bring some fermentation science to light and/or point out some additional thoughts.  My thinking so far:

First, temperature.  There is a lot of emphasis on water and dough temperature in these books, and a larger batch will be slower to cool to room temp than a smaller one.  However, I have a home proofer, so I'm not sure how relevant this is to my set up. 

Second, fermentation.  I have a rather fuzzy idea that fermentation might proceed differently in larger batches than in smaller ones.  Is this solely due to the slower loss of warmth, or is there something else going on?  If ambient and dough temps were held constant, would a large batch still taste better ( or different) than a small one?  


JMonkey's picture

I've always prepared just slightly more starter than I need for the bread I'm making. I've never had any trouble.

sournewb71's picture

To make waffles and pancakes of course.... ;)

There should be no difference between a small batch or large batch of starter as long as they are both kept in the same environment and are made using the same ratio of starter:flour:water.

cranbo's picture

I believe that the thinking for large builds is that somehow a large build provides better stability for establishing a bacterial culture. That is, if the yeast and beneficial bacteria exist within the flour itself, conventional wisdom suggests that using more flour would provide more opportunities for those yeast and bacteria to form a culture and outcompete the "nasties". Thus, a larger culture would somehow be more foolproof. 

I'm not sure that I agree with this completely. I do believe that there is a certain minimum quantity of starter/culture that a person must keep/maintain. Anecdotal info on these forums suggest that maintaining too little starter (less than 1 tbsp reserved, or less than 1/3 cup after feeding) can lead to starter contamination over time. 

Ars pistorica, Debra Wink or others here may have some more input on this. I think with the right conditions (fresh wholemeal flours) you can create a healthy culture with a very small amount of flour and water, much less than those recipes suggest.



dabrownman's picture

I have no idea either,  I keep 80 g of starter at 60-65% hydration in the fridge and now feed it once every 2 weeks if I haven't used enough of it in making bread over that time.  No problems like JMonkey - if I use it and or feed it every two weeks.

I just figured that that these commerical bakers never have enough starter and make huge amounts of it knowing it it will get used and not thrown away.   Then I saw the video that turned me on to of Forkish throwing away the left over starter calling it spent fuel.  Heck, it is at its peak and not spent at all :-)


varda's picture

says prepare just more than you need and save a small amount for the next build.    That's what I do.   Right now I have around 15g of my regular starter in the refrigerator.    I think this approach works fine, but I know I have read stuff by Debra Wink saying no, no, no.    She advocates keeping your starter in very stable conditions with very stable feeding schedule, rather than feast or famine, cold or room temperature.   I figure if it's good enough for Hamelman, it's good enough for me.   However, he is targetted to a bakery environment, where the leftover starter is built up every day.    That is probably more stable than home, where I remove the seed from the refrigerator and build up the starter every couple weeks or so.   Andrew Whitley in Bread Matters says to develop a tub of rye starter, keep it in the refrigerator, and just take out a spoonful when you are going to bake.    I follow that as well.    It seems like rye starter is just about indestructible, whereas I've had to rebuild my wheat starter from time to time as something goes wrong.  

baybakin's picture

Daniel Leader in Local breads always makes 50g extra in his formulas, in order to leave that amount for the next feed (This practice is what causes many people to have problems with his recipies).

I usually have about 10-20g left in my mother starter when I'm about to feed it.  Wasting any starter bugs me, so I save any spent extra to make crackers, I've never had issues with contamination.

cerevisiae's picture

The way I see it is as a safety net. If you prepare more levain/poolish/starter/whatev than you should need, then you have more to feed (in case you don't have any back up starter), but you also have more in case you mess something up the first time; read the water amount wrong, forgot to tare the bowl before weighing something, or it just doesn't look right and you want to try again to be sure.

In the cases where there's waaay more than you should need, as Silverton and Forkish seem to advocate for, you can just immediately proceed with the recipe a second time if you immediately think something's off. In cases such as Leader and Hamelman, where a smaller amount of extra is produced, you at least have enough of the right starter there to feed a new batch if you want to try again.

This is more of a commercial baking perspective; it's better to risk throwing out a few pounds of flour in a starter than to risk not having your dough ready on time for your customers.

It's true that larger batches will hold the desired temp for longer, which might be part of the logic for this, although it's not a reason I've heard discussed before, so I don't have any real thoughts on it other than, yes, it may be a helpful bit of cushioning.

I don't know that fermentation happens differently in larger or smaller batches. I've heard it suggested that dough is basically just happier in larger quantities, but haven't seen any evidence or ideas suggesting that this is actually true, or why it might be.

FlourChild's picture

Well, at least I know I'm not alone in my puzzlement over this practice, but I do wish I knew more about what I'm giving up if I choose to build amounts that are much smaller, and much closer to what is needed to mix the main dough.

@JMonkey, Varda, dabrownman and baybakin, I'm with you all, I normally make just a little extra in case I need it to perpetuate the starter or if something goes wrong, or even if I just don't feel like cleaning out every little bit from the container.

@cranbo, I'm wondering specifically about bread builds with a mature culture rather than creating a culture, but perhaps the same reasoning works for both.  No idea why, but for some reason I seem to be more accepting of the need for larger quantities when creating a culture than I do for regular bread baking.

@cerevisiae, having a back up makes sense, as you point out, more for professionals than for the home baker.   

gmabaking's picture

I keep hoping that I will understand more about amounts, timing, etc but it seems like everytime I think I grab onto one piece of understanding, three more questions loom. Only the taste keeps me from returning to my bag of SAF instant yeast.

Here is what I have tangled myself up with this morning. Yesterday afternoon I removed my stored levain (Forkish) from the refrigerator and let it warm up a bit. Mixed 50 g into a new levain, but cautiously saved the remainder just in case. This morning, the restored one looks great, removed 100 grams from it and continued on. So now there is the remainder from yesterday plus the remainder from today, and in a few more hours, there will be yet another remainder when I use only part of what is working now. Meanwhile the one that I removed from the refrigerator and left on the counter unfed, is so active it looks like it is trying to climb out of its container.

A week or so ago I found myself in the same quandry and just put all of the dibs and dabs, along with some plain wheat sourdough starter into a bowl and made Mardi Gras bread with the left over olive salad. That turned out well. There are several things that I like to use the buildup  for-Silverton's onion rings, TFL English Muffins and waffles-so it doesn't usually go to waste (just waist).  There are times though when there is no time to use it up right away.

Is it safe to just feed the collection of leftover builds all together and stash it away in the refrigerator if I can't use it right away? The alternative seems to be to toss it all out except for the freshest remainder and save that to either feed or refrigerate. That brings up another question. When I remove the amount to mix the final dough this afternoon, the levain will have been fed about 7-8 hours previously. To store that leftover, should I feed it again and wait to put it in the refrigerator or should I do that when I mix the final dough.

Thank you for your patience with all my questions.


dabrownman's picture

put all your dibs and dabs of starters together and stash them away in the fridge no problem as I do this quite often.  I do feed it without any additional water to make it stiff, let it sit and hour and refrigerate it.  I do try to use it for the starter of my next bake, what ever that is by feeding it again before using it in bread.  Seems to work and the starters have never complained about their forced inter-yeasty relationships - bread turns out OK too from my point of view and that is one that counts :-)

cranbo's picture

For a mature culture, I see absolutely no need to  maintain a larger-than-useful culture. That was one of the issues I had when I built my first culture using Nancy Silverton's method and maintenance instructions, which I found wasteful. I don't like to waste more flour & water than I have to, so I personally keep & maintain the minimum possible (for me, that's about 1/2 cup of starter).