The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Sourdough starter: what do the numbers mean?

Kelly1960's picture

Sourdough starter: what do the numbers mean?

It started with Michael Pollan's book "Cooked".  The concept that any old Tom, Dick, or Harry (or in this case Kelly) could create a sourdough starter which would then birth a loaf of bread was intriguing.  Somehow I ended up reading blogs about Chad Robertson's Tartine bread, the wild yeast, and numerous others.  And I'm confused.  On feeding times (I'm feeding mine every 12 hours).  Feeding proportions (I've been doing everything in grams, but now am doing a simple four ounces of warm spring water, two ounces whole wheat, two ounces unableached AP, four ounces old starter).  And, last but not least, what the heck do the numbers in everyone else's posts mean?  The 1:1:1, or 1:2:2, or 1:3:3, so on and so on.  I have no clue and am terrified there is some type of secret formula I've missed out on that will make or break my bread.  Ive baked twice with my starter, first the Pollan whole wheat loaf, then the Tartine country bread, and both times was afraid to trust my starter.  It passed the float test, but didn't seem to be an enthusiastic floater, so I added a bit of yeast, and felt guilty.  If someone can tell me what all of those numbers mean, I will feel the DaVinci code has been unlocked for me, and can cook with a bit more confidence.



dabrownman's picture

starter,: water and flour  1 part starter 2 parts water and 3 parts flour is a 1;2:3  A fine beginning bread where you would use 100 g of starter 200 g of water and 300 g of flour.

Also works for starter feedings where the first is the starter seed and the feeding amint of water and flour follow.

Sorry about the earlier typos

Kelly1960's picture

is that 3 grams or 300?  is the first number always starter, the second water, and the third flour?  

pmccool's picture

and almost always yes to the starter:water:flour sequence.  Never hurts to ask though; every now and then you'll find someone rearranging things.

The feedings that you describe could be called a 1:1:1 ratio, since you have 4 oz. of starter, 4 oz. of water, and 4 oz. of flour (2+2).  That, by the way, is quite a lot of starter to maintain if you aren't baking each day.  You could get by with 1 ounce of each, or even less.

My own preference is more along the lines of 1:1:2, roughly.  I rarely measure anymore for simple maintenance feedings.  It usually lives in a covered glass jelly jar in the refrigerator between uses.  If I put in "this much" water and "that much" flour, it makes a stiff dough that fills the bottom 1/4 or 1/3 of the jar, leaving room for expansion between this feeding and the next use or feeding in another week or two. 

Don't fret about all of the different advice you have or will see.  All it means is that there are a lot of "right" ways to handle sourdough.  Whatever you settle on will be another one.

The biggest differences between your approach and mine are the consistency of the starter (yours is wetter and mine is drier) and the proportion of new flour in a feeding.  If you want to keep your present hydration level, you could switch to a 1:2:2 ratio so that you give your culture more to eat at each feeding.  What kind of difference will that make?  The best way to know is to do a side by side comparison.  My expectation is that the 1:2:2 will be slower out of the blocks than the 1:1:1 but will contribute more yeast to whatever bread you want to make with it.


Kelly1960's picture

According to my calculations, (using ounces instead of grams for simplicities sake), 1:2:2 would be 2 ounces starter, four ounces water, and four ounces flour.  Since beginning my starter two weeks ago I've used Michael Pollans formulation, Chad Robertsons's formulation, then very recently went to the 1:1:1 because my starter didn't seem to look like others posted (almost like bubbly buttermilk). I think because I am using a mixture of whole wheat and unbleached all purpose, my starter is darker and does not have the sheen the others seem to have.  They simply look happier to me and I think a happy starter would be a healthy starter.  I have noticed since I went to the 1:1:1 formulation, my starter appears to peaking much earlier and spends quite a lot of time in a somewhat deflated state.  As I am using so much starter it would stand to reason that the yeast/bacteria are eating all the flour and spend the rest of the time hungry.    What amount of starter seems to be the optimal amount if I'm making bread once a week?

lepainSamidien's picture

I have had my starter going for over a year now, and I've found that it's a pretty hardy community, once established, which doesn't require as much maintenance as some suggest.

I would definitely agree with the posters who have suggested keeping it in the fridge during the week. Because of my work schedule, I can only bake from Thursday-Saturday, so I usually take out Gregory Saint-Hilaire (my starter's name - "Gregory," for short, and who, by the bye, lives in a quart-sized wide-mouth glass mason jar) on Wednesday night when I get home from work (around 9.30 PM), let him warm up at room temperature for an hour or so, pour out about half of his contents into a work bowl (to use for a levain), and feed him with an indeterminate ratio of starter:water:flour, and do so every 12-18 hours.

I've found that, after a year of keeping him, I can for the most part just eyeball the water and flour I add to achieve the texture at which I want to maintain him. But, since your guy is still in the incipient phases of development, I'd keep the feedings at a 1:1:1, maybe upping the flour a little to provide a little more food for those glutton yeast. I would also, during the establishment phase, stick with just white flour, as it helps to just really get things going. I only feed Gregory with white flour, but I will use other flours (WW, spelt, buckwheat, etc) when creating levains, depending on the flavor and texture profiles I'm trying to achieve. Also, I have found that the dryer the starter/levain, the longer the ferment time, the more sour the final product.

As far as how much to keep on hand, I've found it doesn't matter all that much: I always end up using whatever I would normally discard toward making another levain. Something about dumping starter in the trash always seemed WRONG to me. Because I don't do as much in terms of precise measurement, I can only estimate: I'd say I keep anywhere from 200-250 g of starter in the jar regularly.

I'm so glad to hear that your culture is doing well, thus far, though ! Within a few months, you're going to be exploring gustatory territories that will be as enriching as they are enlightening. Once a starter really finds its stride, the possibilities are endless.

Happy baking !

DavidEF's picture


First of all, you can feed your starter as soon as it reaches its peak, or just after, to keep it healthy and happy. That way, you can be confident that it will give you its best in your baking. If you want to make it peak right at 12 hours, you can use less starter in your feeding cycle. So, instead of your current 1:1:1 feedings, try the 1:2:2 schedule. If that doesn't do it, keep adjusting until you get it where you want it. If you wanted to, you could even feed it enough to last 24 hours. Letting it go longer after peak before feeding supposedly creates more sour. I guess I'd be sour too, if I only got fed 4 to 6 hours after I got hungry!

The actual amounts can be very small. Unless you are happily using all that starter for baking, there is no reason for making that much, just to throw it away at feeding time. Now, you could keep it in the fridge, and use it little by litttle, and never throw any away. But, for a starter kept at room temperature, I would suggest going back to grams, and scaling it WAY down. You can keep as little as you'd like. You could, for instance, keep 10g starter, and feed it 20g each of flour and water, for a 1:2:2 ratio. The thing to remember is that the starter needs to live in your world, and be governed by your schedule. Once it is well established and mature, your sourdough culture is hard to kill (accidently anyway). With a little experience, you can start to tweak the feeding schedule until it fits perfectly into your schedule. Or, as Paul said above:

Don't fret about all of the different advice you have or will see.  All it means is that there are a lot of "right" ways to handle sourdough.  Whatever you settle on will be another one.