The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

$1,000 Starter?

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chris d's picture
chris d

$1,000 Starter?

Just curious...

I've been making sourdough bread and reading about it for a few years.  It should be something that the basic science of is well-understood and also relatively easy to understand.  I recently got a copy of Ed Wood's "Classic Sourdoughs." Great book. Purports to dispel a lot of "myths" about sourdough breads, including some commonly held wisdom about the ability to maintain multiple cultures in one house while maintaining the different starters' unique characteristics.  According to Ed, the idea that you can't do this is nonsense, and his company has cultures that haven't changed one iota in 25 years.

Then I visited his website, sourdo.com.  There, you can buy many different sourdough starter cultures.  I'm fine with that, though I'm much more on board with trading and sharing starters (I maintain one culture, started from Carl's culture a few years ago).  If you do the potentially costly footwork to find exotic starters, by all means, sell them.  Whatever.  What I don't get is this; they are selling 10 pound quantities of starter for $990.  

I will admit to being newer at this bread thing than some, but am I mistaken in my understanding of starter?  How would Ed's 10 pounds of culture for $1,000 be any different from the 10 pounds of culture that I could build over the course of just a few days with a small quantity of the identical culture that I bought from him for $15?  I'm not trying to be a jerk, I just honestly don't get it.  This dude sounds 100% legit, so I have to assume I'm missing something important.

Thanks in advance for your input.

Chris

AbeNW11's picture
AbeNW11

IMHO, and i'm new to this too, it sounds like emperor's new clothes.

Here's my understanding of how starters work. Until recently it was a common belief that the yeasts came from the air. But apparently they come from the flour itself. So I understand that one can maintain different starters with different characteristics in the same house. And once a starter culture is "live" and you keep on feeding it then it makes sense that the yeasts and good bacteria will remain the same and will just be multiplying. Logically that even in the same house the temperature varies throughout the year so different yeasts or bacteria at any one time will be the more dominant therefore different results from the same starter.

This is why I don't believe that bread from San Francisco, while good, is not unique just because it comes from San Francisco. Yes they have a culture of sourdough that it's famous for but another emperor's new clothes scenario. after all it comes from the flour itself not the air. No reason why anyone else shouldn't be able to start their own and be just as delicious and unique. But once something gets a "name" then stories are born.

Don't spend $1000 on any sourdough starter, make a unique and equally delicious Chris D starter :) It's easy and you'll appreciate every bite from the breads you make from it.

David Esq.'s picture
David Esq.

If he is charging by the ounce and you want 160 ounces, you have to pay for the privilege. Why one would want so much I do not know. :)

PetraR's picture
PetraR

I would never pay that amount of money for Sourdough Starter.

Some Bakers are  happy to give you some of their Starter and , it is not rocket Science to make your own.

It is ok to sell dried or even fresh starter for a few $ or £ but $ 1.000? Really???

 

AbeNW11's picture
AbeNW11

How's your 50% hydration coming along?

PetraR's picture
PetraR

* Gordon * is doing well:)

mixinator's picture
mixinator

1/3 C flour

1/4 C water

Total cost: about 5 cents.

I just saved you $989.95. Do I get a cut?

gary.turner's picture
gary.turner

Since the seed culture ends up in the bread, it has no net cost even at the beginning. It may not be strong enough at first that you don't need to spike it with IDY, but there is no reason to throw any away.  ∴ no marginal cost.

cheers,

gary

AbeNW11's picture
AbeNW11

Nice one.

ElPanadero's picture
ElPanadero

I created a thread in regards to retail starters as I think there's a degree of "marketing" surrounding them. For example some sellers claim their starters are 100 years old which gives the impression that the yeasts in there are literally 100s of years old. It clearly isn't literally true because yeasts multiply approx every 90-100mins and only do so 26 times in total. Once a yeast has budded 26 times it expires. 26x100mins = 43 hours. Someone may have successfully kept their starter culture going for many years, but that culture is no older than about 2 days old (though it is possible there are some really old dead yeasts floating around in there).

WHat you are in effect buying with these retail starters is a particular strain of yeast. Exactly what strain I don't know but perhaps some of them state that clearly on their labelling. If not I would stay clear. The San Fransico yeast strain for example is highly guarded and patented.

For me, unless you actually want some specific strain of yeast, there is absolutely no need to buy starters. All the wild yeasts you need are present in the flour you buy and they come absolutely free !! And as you say, you can grow them, multiply them very simply through normal starter maintenance, so there is no need to buy anything other than a very tiny amount if you were resigned to buying.

This is a bit like garden nurseries selling plants vs seeds. If you are lazy and don't have time, you can buy an established plant for the garden but it will cost a fortune relative to a simple packet of seeds for the same plant which you can grow yourself.

Finally, you should bear in mind that even if you did purchase an expensive special strain of wild yeast online, your ability to keep it is probably hit and miss at best. Remember you would likely be feeding it with your own flour which is milled locally in the UK. Every time you feed the starter you add more and more wild yeasts native to the UK. Over time I would think those yeasts would overrun and replace the ones you bought. Perhaps that is why they try to sell a large quantity, because they know it is an excercise in futility trying to perpetuate a yeast strain using flour that doesn't have any of that strain in it?!

In the end this comes down to microbiology and how different strains of yeasts/LABs compete, fight and survive or perish. The average amateur baker isn't a microbiologist. Therefore I recommend people don't waste money and just create their own starters using the flours they will likely use for their breads.

AbeNW11's picture
AbeNW11

If you create a starter from scratch then it takes a few days for the natural yeast on the flour to become "alive" and multiply. When one feeds a starter, with new flour, that is already "alive" then don't the yeasts and bacteria already in the culture eat it up and multiply within a few hours. So essentially the starter that one created a year ago is filled with yeast and bacteria from the original ones multiplying again and again and again... Yes the alive yeast and bacteria is never older then a few hours but still the same culture from when you first started just multiplied.

ElPanadero's picture
ElPanadero

"Yes the alive yeast and bacteria is never older then a few hours but still the same culture from when you first started just multiplied."

In what sense is it the same culture? Surely all it can be is a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy . . . . . . of the original culture you created which, given yeasts expire after 26 generations, has long since died. Equally YOU, all your cells, genes etc, are in part a copy of the many generations of people who came before you, yet not one single cell in your body is likely to be older than 10-15 years. You surely can not be the same person as someone say 100 generations earlier in your lineage (physical existence only being considered here).

AbeNW11's picture
AbeNW11

I may be wrong but how I understand it is the bacteria and yeasts feed off the flour and 'replicate' themselves. Yes! just like our cells change constantly but we remain the same person. One could also understand it as children or family tree I suppose.

All I know is add them to dough wait a while and I have good healthy bread :)

 

ElPanadero's picture
ElPanadero

the discussion gets somewhat philosophical at this point as you arrive at the need to define what is and what is not YOU. If every cell in your body has replicated since you were born and all the original cells you were born with have since died, are you still you? Are you still the same person that was born all those years ago? You certainly have memories that go back more than 10-15 years but they could simply be the equivalent of hard disk copies made when your memory cells replicated. Consider this. Science progresses to such a point that it becomes possible to duplicate exactly, every cell in a persons body (this happens just before Star Trek teleporters are invented :-) ). So in a glass tank we slowly see Abe mark 2 grow before our eyes. It is an exact copy of you cell for cell, atom for atom. Which is you? Are they the same? Of course this is where the more tricky element of spirit/soul comes in so we'll leave that one there.

My point is, that starters are just a mass of continually replicating organisms which expire after a finite number of those replications (26 for common wild yeast). So there are live yeasts/LABs and dead yeasts/LABs in that mix at all times. When we discard (or use for baking) we lose both live and dead organisms from the culture. Over a period of time therefore you would expect there to be less and less really old material. It is always possible that some dead organisms from many years ago are still in the mix and have miraculously managed to avoid being in the portion of starter that was discarded and in all the portions used for baking, but it is very improbable and more and more improbable as time goes by.

It's for this reason that I personally believe that commercial sourdough starter mixes, claiming to be many many years old, are somewhat misleading. As another TFL member nicely put, they are actually young organisms which have a noble ancestory. The exception to this is if they ARE in fact many years old and have been put into suspended animation through freezing or other mechanism (how about prehistoric yeast encapsualted in amber in the same way that DNA has been found?).

If you are a forger and all you do each day is forge a perfect copy of a bank note, then destroy the original, then forge another new one from the copy, then destroy the copy and keep doing this indefinitely, then the latest forgery in your hands is obviously very new despite it being a perfect copy of something that existed many years ago.

So with all that in mind, how old do you think your starter is?

AbeNW11's picture
AbeNW11

2 weeks. But I like the idea that it has a noble ancestry. The very fact that it remains fresh and doesn't go mouldy means it's new. Although the organisms in it have a direct ancestry to the very first ones and have been replicated. So looks like my original starter, has the "dna" of my original starter but is essentially never older than two weeks.

I think the answer to the original question is this... Can you add water to flour? If yes then you can create a new starter from scratch for no more than a few pennies. If no, then you won't be able to maintain a starter that has cost you $1000.

I agree with many posters here. We do tend to over think this whole process. Afterall the Egyptians didn't know what was going on when they discovered it. They didn't have books with measurements and techniques etc. They added water to flour.

This is why I only had a success when I did away with the overload of information and simplified it. Then I had to discard it for Passover and start again but had no trouble whatsoever. Within a few days I had a starter. Helped my landlady with her first starter and no problem there either. It really is just getting flour wet.

dabrownman's picture
dabrownman

if you keep your starter on the counter at room temperatures.  In 1.8 days the original yeast is dead.  But at 36 F the reproduction rate of yeast is slowed down by a factor of 60 or so.  So the original yeast can live a very long time when they only bud every  4.15 days. instead of 100 minutes.  Yeast might easily live what we would call a very long time for yeast under the right circumstances - sort of like suspended animation.  At 84 F, the best temperature for yeast reproduction, the time is less than 90 minutes for each budding and they have a hard time living more than a day.  So temperature makes a big difference in the life span of  yeast.

As luck would have it, since LAB are reproducing 3 times faster than yeast at 36 F, as long as they both have food to eat and the pH doesn't drop too low for the LAB (plus you started with at least 10-100 times more LAB than Yeast in the SD culture)..... that cold starter is getting more sour day by day increasing LAB over the yeast population at a dramatic rateof  3 to 1, but very, very  slowly.  So, the time at 36 F becomes the most important issue if food and pH are right on - if you are looking to make a sour starter.  .

Technically speaking, you might have a SD culture that has 100 days old yeast in it.   Don't worry about the yeast dying no matter what.  If they do die.... the LAB eat them too :-)  

The best thing about a SD culture is that they will adapt to their particular habitat of temperature, water and food.  Best of all,  they are almost impossible to kill unless one starts out to murder it - even then, killing them it isn't easy - bullets don't work at all !

clazar123's picture
clazar123

People (myself included) used to think that the yeast was captured from the air. It's probably partly true. Yeast organisms are ubiquitous-they are everywhere. So when you mix flour and water, you have the yeast that is normally present on that wheat stalk, yeast from all the other wheat berries from other fields, wheat from the miller, storage, your kitchen, your hands, etc, When you have a well-used starter culture, you have a concentration of a particular blend of yeasts and lactos that have established an equilibrium and are numerous and strong and seem "unchanged" over time. But everytime you add flour or handle the culture, you add new yeasts. Overall, the culture can stay very similar but it will change. It will only change drastically if a newly introduced microorganism is very proliferate and changes the balance of the culture. If the original "Ed's " culture could have had all the microorganisms identified at the beginning and again now, I'm sure they may have similar yeasts but it will have changed over time.

 

 

108 breads's picture
108 breads

Who knew my starter could be so valuable? I work two blocks from the White House in Washington, DC (live just over the District line in Maryland.) If I bring my starter to the office and grow it here for a couple of weeks, I can sell it as White House starter - yeast for peace - at $1000 a pop. I might have to buy some cute jars and labels. Still, a pretty good profit margin. Who knows what a tourist will buy.

Back home, literally just steps from DC, I'm willing to give the sourdough starter away for free. It gives some awesome lift to my breads.

:) This post gave me a few laughs as I #fastforpeace today along with many Muslims and Jews.

David Esq.'s picture
David Esq.

Yeast for Peace sounds good, but I am not really sure that the White House is seen as a symbol of peace. Maybe grow it at the United Nations.

Either way, if the going price is $1,000 per ten pounds of starter, that comes to only $6.25 per ounce.  I don't think anybody is going to get rich selling that stuff unless they do a lot of volume. And that won't fit in a cute little jar, by the way.

chris d's picture
chris d

Here it is.  $990 starter:

http://www.sourdo.com/pizza-crust/

 

 

David Esq.'s picture
David Esq.

He is selling to the pizzeria owner that wants to make sourdough pizzas.  It may very well be worth the money  to start with such a large quantity of starter along with the instructions about how to activate, it etc.

Sure, you could do it yourself using a smaller base and very quickly build up to 10 pounds, but people pay for convenience, and if you have a restaurant and are selling a lot of pies every day, $900 is not a huge investment.

BetsyMePoocho's picture
BetsyMePoocho

David Esq.

Very well stated…… thank you!

chris d's picture
chris d

just under a thousand dollars?  I mean, that sounds crazy.  Maybe if you had a pizza business and your starter somehow died, or got cooked, or something, and you needed to be back in production TOMORROW, I can see this. 

 

But what pizzeria owner would just one day decide they needed 10 pounds of starter?  If you're moving pizzas in that sort of quantity, I'd assume that you already have an active culture.  I don't see it as something you'd just dive into with a $1,000 purchase of 10 pounds of starter, having never worked your own culture.  

Unless you were a chump.  Or compulsive. Neither of which I would see as qualities in the entrepreneurial sort to run their own pizzeria.

Even if you were tying to make a switch from commercial yeast to natural levain, I'd think it'd be something you do incrementally, in which case you'd build your starter plenty quick to accommodate the transition.  I just can't see any scenario except for the "established business with an emergency" that makes any sense.  

David Esq.'s picture
David Esq.

Whether there is a market for it or not, I don't know. One thing I am pretty sure of, is that it is not a front for terrorist activity or money laundering.

If they are selling it to Pizzerias, I assume it is because people are lazy and don't want to do the math necessary to yield 10 pounds of starter from the 1/2 cup recipe they see on-line.

BetsyMePoocho's picture
BetsyMePoocho

David Esq,

It's easy to tell that you are not a "C" average…. If I had a pizza business I would not want to screw around with trial and error to come up with a large amount culture.  I'd want to invest in something that is a sure thing and keep it going.  Isn't it called a business investment which will give a larger return on the investment.

It's crazy to even bring up this subject with us "home-bakers"…… except to get us all stirred up.

I'm happy with my $8.95 exceptional little starter that is turning 3 years old in a couple of months.  It still rocks and using / feeding him once a week is easy-peizy…… His name is "Cornelius" and he is a member of our family.

 

chris d's picture
chris d

Of course no home baker is going to buy $1,000 worth of starter.  I just want to understand this stuff as best I can. That's why three years into nurturing my current starter culture and lots of successful loaves later, I still read lots of books about it.  When something flies in the face of reason, and stacks up against the other information I have, I like to try to understand where the disconnect is.

The idea that there could be some way to produce 10 pounds of starter that's worth $1,000 to anyone implies that I have a profound misunderstanding about the science and processes involved.  That's all.  

For the time being, I'm going to assume that it's a fishing expedition on Mr. Wood's part.  I don't have a problem with that, like I said.  I'm serious about my breads and want to know as much as I can about them.

mixinator's picture
mixinator

People (myself included) used to think that the yeast was captured from the air. It's probably partly true.

It's entirely true. It's in the air over the wheat field in Kansas or wherever and settles on the grain. If you leave a sack of flour open in your kitchen or on the street in San Francisco, a trivial amount of wild yeast will settle on it. Would it make a discernable difference to your bread? Doubtful.

The problem I have with mail-order starters is that, unless you send it to a lab for analysis, for all anyone knows it could be a small quantity of Fleischmann's yeast and flour. Add water, it bubbles and raises your bread.

One could go to San Francisco with a DustBuster and vacuum up as much of the local air as you can, then empty the "local yeast" into your starter. Or, one could save the expense of a trip to San Francisco and buy this:

http://crapsouvenirs.com/wp-content/main/2011_04/sf.jpg

mixinator's picture
mixinator

The San Fransico yeast strain for example is highly guarded and patented.

There is no patent on it. Go to any supermarket and buy a sack of wheat flour. Now you've got some of this "highly-guarded" yeast strain.

A certain San Francisco bakery makes a big deal of its "100-year-old mother sponge" and makes sure the public knows about it. They stage ridiculous publicity stunts such as a CHP escort (hopefully not at taxpayer expense) when their starter is moved from one location to another. Of course the local media turn out for it, cameras rolling. It's all marketing, the most polite word I can think of for it.

mixinator's picture
mixinator

Here are 5 lbs of AP flour for $5

http://www.kingarthurflour.com/shop/items/king-arthur-unbleached-all-purpose-flour-5-lb

Add an equal weight of water, about $1 for bottled water around here. There's $990 worth of starter for $6, a savings of $984.

The economics of this should be readily apparent to anyone, even a pizzeria owner.

David Esq.'s picture
David Esq.

What conclusions do you draw?

I have seen many people fail at getting a viable starter, though I was able to get mine to work pretty much right off the bat.

To me it seems there is probably a market or they wouldn't offer it. But I would hesitate to draw any conclusions about the intelligence of that market based on the perceived lack of value.

ElPanadero's picture
ElPanadero

"I have seen many people fail at getting a viable starter"

There's the rub. If a person is incapable of developing a simple viable starter from flour and water then what hope do they have of maintaining one they have bought? It's the same process. All that differs is the time it takes for a new starter to grow it's population of yeasts and LABs. I find the whole thing quite bizarre and a bit of a rip off.

AbeNW11's picture
AbeNW11

AGREED! 

But it is daunting when one first starts out. I screwed up a couple of times. But now I don't know how it's possible to screw up. It's adding water to flour. 

dabrownman's picture
dabrownman

10# of grocery flour on sale - $2.94 plus tap water left out overnight to dissipate the chlorine $.01 - total cost $2.95.  I gave up long ago to try to figure out why ignorant, stupid and lazy people do and think what they do.

Some rich people, on the other hand, will pay anything for the convenience of not having to do something and or the status of owning what ever they are buying - even though they didn't get rich by spending their money  It's their money and they can spend it anyway they want in my book so long as they aren't hurting anyone else.  Some pizza parlor owners are pretty rich and ignorant or rich and stupid  I'm guessing :-)

David Esq.'s picture
David Esq.

I pay like $125 a month to have my lawn cut. Ridiculous. In a year's time I could buy 10 pounds of starter, easily!

BetsyMePoocho's picture
BetsyMePoocho

Go girl,,,, tell it like it is……… I'm lis'nin….

BetsyMePoocho's picture
BetsyMePoocho

Duh,,,, do you really think that it is that simple??

My O my…. I really need to find something to do with myself today.

Wild-Yeast's picture
Wild-Yeast

My starter is at least 2.7 Billion Years old and was found just lying around on some red winter wheat...,

Wild-Yeast

BetsyMePoocho's picture
BetsyMePoocho

Wild-Yeast,

Spot on and it works, huh?  Oh, do you think that the dinosaur 'poop' from back then had any effect on what your starter is it today?

Keep having fun! 

Wild-Yeast's picture
Wild-Yeast

Both Bacilli and Eukaryotes predate Dinosaurs by a couple of billion years give or take several million years - my culture is pure and pristine -  and unbelievably cost effective. 

In all seriousness I've found that no matter where the culture comes from it will change over time and settle into a repeatable agent for making levained bread. Large syndicated bakeries know this and have to ship a load of mother levain to their subsidiary sites to rejuvenate the original branding taste on a regular basis.

Pure cultures require strict laboratory controls - a practice beyond the capabilities of most home bakers..,

Wild-Yeast 

BetsyMePoocho's picture
BetsyMePoocho

Wild-Yeast,

"In all seriousness I've found that no matter where the culture comes from it will change over time and settle into a repeatable agent for making levained bread."

Yes,,, We moved our culture and after a couple of years it developed a slightly different personality.  Still good, but different.

Great post, good information, and for most of us home-bakers, especially me, I think home baking is like golf…… most times my shots are less than great, but every now and then I really make a good one!!  Which keeps me going.

Thanks for the reality check.  I'm convienced that the large lizards had to have some influence on your "red winter wheat"……………. you just do not want to think about it(?)

Good stuff!!!

Marimorimo's picture
Marimorimo

Yes, I do think it's more about maintaining quality and consistency as Wild-Yeast said.

I had the same big question mark in my head as the Thread Starter when I started researching about starter cultures here in Japan (where I live now). Apparently, the hands-down most popular starter is a brand named "Hoshino". It's so popular I haven't found any competing commercial cultures yet. Baking books and bread machine recipes swear by it.

The Hoshino starter is sold retail in packages of 50g to 500g (dried form). I wondered what's stopping someone from buying the cheapest one and starting a boatload of the culture? In fact, I thought to do it myself.

Then I read the fine print (and in my recipe book, no less) that outright discourages maintaining the starter culture and to use new packets instead, every time.

The reasons are possible contamination, weakening of the yeast, loss of consistency. Heck, I won't be surprised if the company producing the starter deliberately engineers the yeast to weaken after first use. But then, Japanese people like their bread mild-tasting and the sour flavors that develop from sourdough would be a turn-off.

BetsyMePoocho's picture
BetsyMePoocho

Marimorimo,

'company producing the starter deliberately engineers the yeast to weaken after first use'

What you posted would not surprise me at all.  I spent 30 years working in a large Japanese company.  Wonderful experience, learned a lot, great benefits, and interesting culture.

The use of a new packet every time could also be stipulated by the 'suits' in Hoshino's marketing group….. grin.

You should do an experiment.  Get a Hoshino culture fired up and healthy and see what flavor and repeatability you acheive.  Who knows, maybe over where you are, the airborne influences and local flours just might prove to develop a killer sourdough starter.  

And you could make a fortune marketing it as a 'Century old Japanese Culture' that the Samurai who guarded the Emperor used to make bread before going into battle.  I bet you could get at least $1,000 a gram…… 

Oh, my brother-in-law and his wife live in Kyoto.  Lovely city!

 

 

Wild-Yeast's picture
Wild-Yeast

Hoshino's (Star - 星の) Natural Leaven Starter appears to be a very normal sourdough culture:

https://en.cookpad.com/recipe/1816764

Wild-Yeast