The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

New starter advice please

  • Pin It
Hither Green Cooks and Bakes's picture
Hither Green Co...

New starter advice please

Hi Everyone,

Been making up my Sourdough Starter following the River Cottage (UK) book: equal portions of flour/water, discarding half each day for first few days etc.... usual thing I think. 

After whisking each evening I am finding my starter highly separated by morning. Is this normal. The starter looks pretty active: lots of small air bubbles fizzing up the sides of the glass when I gently tilt it, for example. 

Should I just be whisking this liquid back in or pouring it off? 

I'd like to make my first batter this evening & attempt my first loaf tomorrow so any help appreciated.

Thanks. HGC&B

http://hithergreencooksandbakes.blogspot.co.uk/

placebo's picture
placebo

Your starter is too wet, which is why it separates. What's more typical is to use equal weights of flour and water. With the lower hydration, the starter is thicker and able to trap the gas produced by the yeast. It becomes much easier to tell when the starter is ready because it will expand to two to three times its initial volume.

Hither Green Cooks and Bakes's picture
Hither Green Co...

That was what my gut was telling me but didn't want to go "off piste" without a second opinion. thanks. will adjust now & give it a give mix! 

Capn Dub's picture
Capn Dub

Feeding your starter by volume rather than weight is ok; it doesn't have to be exactly accurate.  To get very close to a 100% hydration simply add half as much water as flour.  If you measure the flour using the spoon and scrape technique (which is how you should always measure flour), a cup will weigh about 120 grams, which is about the same weight as half a cup of water, which weighs 118 grams.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

to start out and sounds good so far.  I would not thicken it until I can smell yeast growing in the culture.  Then remove a portion of the thicker lower layer (one to three Tbs) and feed as Capn Dub just mentioned.   Hang on to your culture until this test proves itself.  Mark the level of the newly fed starter and see how long it takes to expand or peak in a tall glass jar.  

Hither Green Cooks and Bakes's picture
Hither Green Co...

seems to be making good progress this morning. I scooped off the excess liquid & added appropriately weighed out flour & water: think before I was adding at least 25% more water based on the volumes being 1:1 rather than the weight.

@Capn Dub - thanks for the hydration tip - i am learning fast! These "cup" things i know not of my side of the pond :-) 

@Mini Oven - thanks too. I can already see some bubble holes in the top of the (now thicker) starter so feeling pretty confident so far. 

 

clazar123's picture
clazar123

I would also suggest having an overall volume of only a few tablespoons. The bigger the culture the more mouths to feed and you can go through a lot of flour.

Also, it looks hungry! Formation of the hootch may indicate it has exhausted the food supply and is going to an alternate metabolism. Since you want yeast formation, keep it about 80F and increase the feeding schedule to twice a day for a while. It will settle down. Also, thin starter means it is easier for the yeast to access food as the starter circulates around the yeast (they don't move towards food) and they can exhaust their food supply faster.

So keep it warm enough to optimize yeast production and feed that hungry baby.

Just a few comments on weighing/measuring. Precision is  one of the tools in my baking toolbox  and is important esp if you are trying to replicate what someone else does or even what you have done. I don't use it for everything I make but it is available when I need it.

"On the other Hand"...Some of the best baking in my house has been thrown together with an understanding of how the ingredients work.

"On the other hand" (Fiddler on the Roof line)... I may make a more delicious loaf that time.

Just depends on how adventurous you want to be that day and with those ingredients. There are recipes I follow closely and some that are merely suggestions. Know your tools and ingredients.

Others may adamantly disagree but every baker uses tool differently. Find what works for you!

DavidEF's picture
DavidEF

Some people always keep their starter fed by volume 1:1 of flour:water and never have trouble. It is certainly not a wrong way to do it. I prefer feeding a ratio of 1:1 by weight, but my opinion doesn't make it right. I know the Carl's Starter brochure says to feed 1:1 by volume, and that starter has been around since the days of the Oregon Trail at least.

I think the bigger issue may be in how much starter is being figured into the feeding ratios. I'm not familiar with the River Cottage book method. But, you need to feed the starter when it is hungry. I suspect that you may be underfeeding, and the liquid is actually an alcoholic layer called "hooch" that forms when the starter begins to starve. When you first start out, you really should not have to feed it as much, but once it gets quite active, you should either discard more, or feed more, to make it a higher ratio. Especially, it appears you're using a whole grain flour. That will make your starter very active, and very hungry. You could also just feed it the same amount you are doing, but more often. One other thing that thickening does is slow down the activity just a bit. So, you should also see a difference just by making that change, but it won't help if you're still underfeeding. Can you tell us how much (by weight) of starter you are feeding with how much flour and water in a ratio like flour:water:starter and how often? For instance, I usually feed mine around 2:2:1, so if I'm keeping 100g starter, it would be fed 200g each flour and water, and I do that twice a day. In the summer, it takes more, because the starter is more active at higher temps.

ElPanadero's picture
ElPanadero

100g starter + 200g flour and water

Isn't that 1:2:2 rather than 2:2:1?

Surprised that this ratio needs feeding twice a day as you're giving the starter double the amount of food that 1:1:1 maintainers do.

 

DavidEF's picture
DavidEF

I mixed up the order. But, it works as long as you keep in mind which is which. I always think in terms of how much food and water is needed for the amount of starter, which would be like saying 1:2:2. But, a lot of people like the ratio listed as Flour:Water:Starter, which is the other way around. I was trying to accommodate the preference of some without changing my own thinking pattern, which ended in that confusion. Sorry about that!

The starter I'm using does go through a lot of food. I only occasionally let it live outside the fridge because of that. However, there is a bit of preference in there, too. My family doesn't like bread that is very sour. Feeding more to my starter keeps the yeasts and LABs less crabby, and my wife and daughter, too! Feeding less to the starter puts the beasties into survival mode, and can end up making the bread more sour. I also feed using white flour for the same reason.

ElPanadero's picture
ElPanadero

I'm struggling a little to understand this David.

If I take 100g of starter and add Y amount of food to it (Y being an equal aount of flour and water, 100%) then the yeasties and LABs in the starter will work their way through that food until it is gone at which point we can assume that the yeasties and LABs are uniformly spread through that 100g+Y mix.

If you then take 100g of that mix and feed it another Y of food this process will repaet.

The time it takes for the yeasties and LABs to eat that Y amount of food is constant here, say time T.

What you are doing is taking 100g of starter and giving it 2Y of food, so my instinct says that the yeasties and LABs will take a longer time to munch through that extra food. It probably won't be linear so I doubt it will take 2T but certainly it will take longer than time T. Yet . . . . you are feeding twice per day with twice the amount of food that most others would use.

I wonder whether this means that at feeding times the yeatsies and LABs haven't yet had time to eat all of the food and thus you're discarding waste? Not sure

If thuis works for you then that's great. In the end we have to find a balancxe of lactic vs sour that is to our taste, and to that of our family ! My starters have only been excessively sour if I have neglected to feed them, often leaving them in tthe fridge that way too long and developing hooch etc. I've always fed them 1:1:1. Am I missing something here?

Hither Green Cooks and Bakes's picture
Hither Green Co...

after getting rid of the hooch & half the mix.... I put 160g flour in, & trying to dry it out a little I added around 130g water this time. I may migrate to white flour as time progresses.

I think I will lower the overall weight I add over the course of the week as it appears I have a lot of starter compared to what I am hearing herein as needed. I will be baking from this weekly though... or at least that's the aim! 

I marked the container on the side & after a few hrs I can see it expanding up above the line by 5mm already. 

This is a great forum - thanks for your help everyone!

 

 

DavidEF's picture
DavidEF

Hither,

Watching is the best way to know when to feed and how much. Once you see how long it takes to reach peak, which may be more than double, or even triple the original height, you will see how much the beasties eat, and you can adjust feedings to accommodate them while fitting it into your schedule. For instance, if it peaks in 4 or 5 hours, then begins to fall in a couple hours more, you could feed them a little more or keep a little less of the starter (changing the ratio), to stretch that time out. If it peaks in 8 hours, then takes 3 or 4 hours, you can feed it the same amount, but do it twice a day, and it will be happy and strong. If it is peaking in 12 hours, you could change the ratio, to get it to peak either more quickly or more slowly, depending on how often you want to feed it. Or, you could go ahead and feed it every 12 hours, not waiting for it to fall, just catching it at the peak itself. Ultimately I like how it was said sometime before. I can't remember who said it, but "the best way is the way YOU do it" meaning whatever works for your schedule and makes bread the way you want bread to be is the best way for you to do it. Once they are established, starter cultures are hard to kill accidentally.

One thing that I only briefly mentioned in another post is to keep the starter in your fridge. Once it is nicely established, the fridge will keep it less active, so you feed it less often. If by "baking weekly" you mean once a week, it may be something for you to consider. I got this from dabrownman, and he explains it better than I can, but you basically just pull out a small amount of your starter a day or two before baking, and build it up until you have the amount you want for your bread, without discarding. You feed the part kept in the fridge only when you need to build up your supply again. Or, the way I do it is to keep it as a piece of plain dough, with or without the salt. I take out the small amount of dough from my fridge and add enough ingredients to make a loaf or two. After the first bulk rise, I take a piece back out for next time, and put it back In the fridge. Then, it never needs to be "fed" because it stays refreshed from using it to bake! It takes longer to make bread this way, because the fridge slows down the beasties, and it takes some time to get them up to speed again. Dabrownman's way is actually a better way, but what I do works for me.

placebo's picture
placebo

There's a tendency for some to incorrectly identify any liquid on top of the starter as hooch and therefore conclude the starter needs food. In your case, it was almost certainly simply the flour and water separating because the starter was so wet. If the liquid was actually hooch, it would take a really long time to generate that much, not just one night.

Also, you should keep in mind that making a starter from scratch is different from maintaining a starter. With an established starter, you can feed 20 grams of starter with 100 grams each of flour and water, and in less than a day, you'll have 220 grams of starter. On the other hand, if you were to use the same amounts with a developing starter, it would probably take weeks to get going (rather than just days), if it gets going at all. Until the starter has become reliably active, you want to keep the feedings relatively small.

DavidEF's picture
DavidEF

El Panadero,

The logic you use can only be as good as its underlying assumptions. Let's begin with your math problem. And let's make two starters. Starter "A" is 100g. You add Y amount of food, once a day. It lives. You add "Y" amount the next day. It continues to live. Good for you. Then, you take Starter "B" and add "Y" amount of food. You watch closely, and in a few hours, Starter "B" has reached full peak and is as active as it can be. You realize that this means Starter "B" is hungry. You give another "Y" amount of food to Starter "B" and watch. In a few hours, here we go again. Ultimately, you give Starter "B" four times the amount of food in a day, and find yourself asking "How is that?"

Well, lots of things can cause that. For one, the culture in Starter "B" may just be more active than in Starter "A" naturally. Also, the ambient temperature in which Starter "B" lives may be a tad warmer than that in which Starter "A" lives. Another thing may be that the two starters are fed different foods. There are other variables, but the final one I want to mention is this: there is a huge range covered between "surviving" and "well-fed", just as for humans, animals and plants, also for yeasts and LABs. My starter is well-fed, because I want it that way. If you let yours go longer on less food, it will live for some time, but one by one, the individuals within the colony will start to die, and the culture as a whole will be starving to death. The beasties (yeast and LABs) will be forced into survival mode. I don't think it is a waste to keep my starter "well-fed" rather than "starving".

The culture is the strongest when the beasties are well-fed. The least wasteful way of keeping them well-fed is to watch the starter as it rises and falls. When it has reached its peak, and is just starting to decline is the razor's edge time to feed (and also to use) the starter for the maximum strength and vitality. After a while, you figure out about how much they will need, and you settle into a routine. For a little while this past summer, I was trying to keep my starter well-fed while keeping it in my kitchen's ambient temperature. I do have air-conditioning, but fluctuations still occur with the seasons. I was feeding 80g each of flour and water to 5g starter twice a day! I decided it needed to live in the fridge from then on! Right now, as cold as it is around here, I could probably get by with a 1:1:1 ratio if I wanted to, but still twice a day.

ElPanadero's picture
ElPanadero

Your theory/analogy above would be sound were it not for the fact that the feeding regime of 1:1:1 is used by thousands (millions?) of people worldwide.  If that regime resulted in the starters dying off as you suggest then it wouldn't be a widely accepted regime.  Just my thoughts.

As I said, if it works for you that's great.  Personally I don't like or want any waste or discard so I want a regime that keeps a lively starter and will do so in a sustainable fashion without any such discard.  1:1:1 seems to work for many.  Like you, if my starter is left out at room temperature I will feed it twice a day.  If kept in the fridge, then just once a week keeping a close eye on it for any signs of hooch and hunger.

I'm only baking 2-3 times per week at home so my requirements are small.  At the moment I keep just 150g of starter in the fridge (which is actually 50g of starter pluse 50g flour and water fermenting).  I plan to reduce this significantly so that in TOTAL I only ever have 50g of starter in the fridge which is little more than 1-2 teaspoons.  From that I can build a preferment the day before I bake with about 10-15g of starter.  With 50g available I can make 2 such preferments and then refresh the remaining 20-30g in the fridge building it back to 50g.

DavidEF's picture
DavidEF

Thanks, placebo, for clearing that up. Next question - How does the liquid separate in such a short while? I've mixed starter at that level of hydration before and never seen it do that. And, as I and others have said, many people do it as a general practice, and some at an even higher hydration than that. What causes it to happen in such rare cases as this? I don't understand how that works.

placebo's picture
placebo

Obvious factors are the flour (brand and type) and the way you measure it. One time I followed a KAF recipe for whole wheat bread using Gold Medal whole wheat flour, since that's what I had on hand, and it resulted in a brick. It was one of the first times I made bread, so I didn't realize that the dough needed a lot more water.

In my experience, separating isn't as rare as you're suggesting. The first time I tried to make a starter, I followed instructions saying to mix one cup of AP flour with one cup of water. That mixture separated within an hour or so. Others, like Hither, have run into the same experience and posted here asking if it was normal. These days, when I make whole wheat sourdough, I convert some of my white starter to a whole wheat starter with feedings consisting of two parts of water to one part of whole wheat flour by weight. After two or three feedings, the starter will often separate after a few hours unless I add a bit more flour.

Hither Green Cooks and Bakes's picture
Hither Green Co...

here I am a few hrs later... the top of the red tape marking where the starter was after mixing it's latest feed in.... looking good - thanks again for the tips/advice.... 

1 final (for now ;-) ) question: when taking some of this to make my sponge - would you mix it back down first & then take your required recipe qty, or would you just take from the top? 

moving along nicely

DavidEF's picture
DavidEF

Hither,

I always mix mine down before taking out for a recipe. If your recipe calls for a volume measurement, it is surely necessary. If it is weighed in, it really shouldn't matter so much. One other thing, when you feed your starter, it would be good to scrape down the sides of the container, so the top of your starter is level. That way all of it can get fermented at the same rate, and none of it dries out into a hard crust on the inside of your jar. Plus, you can see better where to mark for rising.

zesti's picture
zesti

Hi there, I'm Ine, new to this forum and new to sourdough baking. I've been drooling over all those yummy looking sourdough pictures on this website and decided to give it a try :-) I started a brand new starter 3 days ago, just equal parts of simple organic all-purpose flour and filtered water, yesterday it was already all bubbly and looking very happy and then a couple of hours later it suddenly looked like yours Hither, completely separated though it still smelled pretty nice, a little bit sour but the bubbles were gone. So I was a bit worried I messed up somehow. I guess I made the same mistake, measuring in volumes and not in weight. I started out small just 1/4 cup of flour and 1/4 cup of water because I will only be baking in small quantities, just for myself. Anyway, thanks so much for this question. I've just scooped out all the water on top. Not sure if I should give it another feed today, already gave it a feed earlier today and I thought one feed/day would be enough in the first couple of days. What do you guys think?

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

problem with starting starters is overthinking and doting on them.  Just cover loosely and leave them alone the first few days.  The only problem with a little excess water (equal volumes) is that some folks think it's a problem.  It isn't.  All it means is that the mixture is too thin to rise and make a big mess all over the place.   The culture will still continue to sort itself out and doesn't need a lot of added food until yeasts start to grow.  A tablespoon of flour and water is enough for the first few days.  Temperature plays a big role in how fast everything happens.  The first day should be a warm one.  Followed by a slight reduction in temperature.  Give the culture an added spoon of flour every day and enough water to cover keeping the flour very wet.  A whole week's worth of culture growing can be done in one deli container with very little waste and no discarding.  It is not a big mystery requiring a lot of flour.

Zesti, about the water. Didn't need to scoop it out but now that it is done, do not add water to it, that will raise the pH.  A layer of water on top is not a bad thing.  When the yeasts get more active, separation will not happen so quickly as they will tend to "muddy the water" and stir things up a bit, more than your stirring.  Add a spoon of flour every day and wait for the yeast.  The water will darken and loose it's clarity.  Wait for your culture to smell yeasty and beery before removing a tablespoon of the yeasty goo off the bottom and then feeding or testing it.  Save the culture as back up for the next few days while you test the goop on the bottom for yeast.  You can then back up to the older culture if the goo is not yeasty enough.  Does that make sense?  The older culture will continue to develop.  

Once you have yeast, you can now discard parts of the ripe starter and add food to keep the culture at a reasonable small size.

Hither Green Cooks and Bakes's picture
Hither Green Co...

here we go everyone.... my first ever sourdough. I'm going to give TFL a good mention in my blog when I get it finished.... but for TFL here is the update: 

The sponge was left overnight, then in the morning I added the extra flour & salt. 

Knocked back hourly for 2 hours, then left to prove for 3.5 hrs. 35 mins in the oven... first 10 at 250c, then the rest around 180c.

It tastes great!! Thanks everyone. 

proving up

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

done

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

crumb

 

 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Looks Very Good!  Congratulations!

Hither Green Cooks and Bakes's picture
Hither Green Co...

Well, I made some more lovely bread yesterday, from sponge made overnight in Monday, but I think I have underfed my starter on monday.... the smell coming out of the jar was quite alcoholic & perhaps a little like nail polish? 

When I whisked it down the gases released & the strong smell went down. I've retained a ladle & a half & mixed this with 80g new strong wholemeal flour & 80g water..... do you think the starter will recover? 

 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

nail polish or alcohol?  They mean very opposite things.  Alcohol is a normal product of fermentation and means to reduce and feed.  Nail polish like is from an invasion of bacteria and means overfed, acid levels not being low enough and the starter needs to defend itself so feeding soon would be a mistake for it needs to ferment longer.

If you still have the smelly starter, save it and let it ferment longer in warm room temps.  If you think it has an acetone smell (double check whiffing some nail polish) then remove half add a little spoon of vinegar or lemon juice to one part of the starter and wait to see if that helps the good bacteria win back the overhand.  Don't rush to feed the starter.  

Hither Green Cooks and Bakes's picture
Hither Green Co...

Mini Oven thanks so much for all the comments & guidance... you are a fountain of knowledge on this forum/website this much i am learning. 

Given that I already reduced the starter & fed it before I posted & got your excellent reply, I guess time will have to see what the results are. About to go into several long days at work so have actually put the starter in the fridge. 

Yesterdays bread had great flavour, so hopefully my starter will find it's balance again.