The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

active starters and feeding ratios

chleba's picture

active starters and feeding ratios

Hi there, I hope my train of thought here make sense.

 - fixed temp (TBD)
 - 100% hydration starter
 - doubles in 12 hours

1. What is a target feeding ratio that will confirm the starter is strong enough to build a bread?
2. What is the minimal feeding ratio that will yield a starter strong enough to build a bread?
3. Can I build a successful bread with a starter that takes 24 hours to double, versus the 12 hour, if using the ratios from #1 and #2?
4. What are techniques to strengthen a starter?  Lower ratio until you get doubling in 12 or fewer hours, then increase over some period of time?

These questions stem from combination of starter difficulties and spending last few months researching many "how tos" on starters.  It appears a lot of people try to target a 1:4:4 or 1:5:5 (s:w:f) with 12 hour feedings.

It is understood that many factors will impact the growth and strength of yeast.  I'm looking for target guidelines.

Thank you for your time!

Empire's Chef Chris's picture
Empire's Chef Chris

Here is what worked for me:

getting started:

1 cup whole wheat flour

1/2 cup water

mix and let stand for 24 hours



1 cup flour (3/4 AP white flour 1/4 cup whole wheat flour

4oz of previous starter

1/2 cup of water

feed every 24 hours.

This has worked for me and have had my starter going for almost a year now and its developing some amazing flavor. Water temp will depend on the surrounding environment, if its cooler use slightly warm water if its a warm environment use cool water. I always use a mix of white and wheat flour cause the wheat flour offers more for the starter to feed off of

Our Crumb's picture
Our Crumb

Only professional bakers/ies and obsessive home fanatics refresh their starter every 12 hours.  I experimented with refreshing mine every day for a while (as suggested by Pips [Phil Agnew] if I recall) but the flavor and texture benefits did not justify the cost in time and materials.  I believe many home bakers do what I do:  Keep your starter in the refrigerator and revive it with three serial refreshments over ~36 hours immediately prior to a bake.

I maintain my starter at 80% hydration because most of my bakes are around that hydration.  But all of this applies to 100% starters as well.  My standard pre-bake refreshment routine -- starting sometime the day before dough will be mixed -- is:

1. First grow-out: Transfer 4 gr of refrigerator stock (that being the third and final grow-out from previous week) to a clean jar (see below) and, using a dinner fork, suspend it in 16 gr water.  Then mix in uniformly 20 gr starter feed.  So my feeding ratio is 1:4:5, similar to 1:5:5 for a 100% hydration starter.  My feed mix is a 40% fresh milled whole grain (wheat, spelt, rye) variation on Gerard Rubaud's formula.  Incubate at 78˚F (summer) or 84˚F (winter) until doubled -- always about 5 hours for mine.

2.  Second grow-out: Transfer 4 gr from first grow-out to a fresh clean jar and repeat as above in first grow-out.  Put what's left of the first grow-out in the fridge.

3.  Third grow-out: Take 8 gr from second grow-out and suspend it in 32 gr water + 40 gr starter feed in a third clean jar.  Grow as above.  From this 80 gr, I get the 30-50 gr needed to inoculate a levain for the week's bread.  The remainder goes back in the fridge to seed next week's first grow-out.  The previous week's third grow-out and this week's first and second are combined to make Alt Altus.

I have never encountered a problem with putting any of the three grow-outs back in the fridge for a day or more before inoculating the next grow-out, even the final one to be used for inoculating the dough itself.  It's better than leaving a mature grow-out sitting in the proofer or out on the counter at "room temperature", desperately metabolizing away producing proteases.  Indeed, it often seems as though recently matured, refrigerated starter is a more effective inoculant than one at room temperature.  But I haven't quantitatively documented that.

Other notes:

•  Jars.  I grow these and all feedings of my starter in shoulderless (straight sided) 8 oz mason "jelly" jars, as shown above.  I avoid the type of jar made of cutesy "quilted" glass - I like to clean down the inside walls of the jar above the leveled starter mix with a spatula after I've mixed it up so that I can readily check its growth status through the glass.  Quilted glass makes cleaning and viewing unnecessarily difficult. 

•  Labeling.  I wrap a rubber band around the jar to mark the mix's level at inoculation time.  That rubber band also holds a slip of paper (a 2" post-it folded in half) on which time and date of feeding are noted.  Each group of three time/dates above, separated by a horizontal line, represents the three serial refreshments preceding a bake.  You can see that I'm not particularly strict about the timing of those three refreshments - it varies from week to week.  It's just important to squeeze in three during the 24-36h preceding a bake.  Finally, the presence of that paper on a jar in the fridge indicates that it is the most recently grown culture. 

If, as you say, your starter is taking 12 hours to double, then a bulk fermentation driven by that starter will probably take that long, given similar temperature, hydration and flour conditions.  That's pretty long for a bulk fermentation (not including a retard, of course).

Hope that helps.  Thank you for motivating me to post this.  I've been wanting to share my routine here for a while.


chleba's picture

Thanks.  After reading your thorough response and routine, I think I understand what I'm actually trying to ask: what defines a strong starter?  What are its characteristics?

Thought process: fix temp and hydration.  A starter that doubles in 12 hours with a 1:1:1 ratio (s:w:f) is most likely considered weak - one of my past starters was like this and all I had were flat loaves, even with long ferments.  But what if it doubles with a 1:2:2 ratio?  Or a 1:3:3?  1:4:4?  Which of these is strong?  Where is that threshold from weak to moderate to strong?

I would like to keep this simple by removing other variables such as refrigeration, volume measurements, and stepped builds.

This is interesting, thank you :)

Our Crumb's picture
Our Crumb

I must have missed the memo on "strong" vs "weak" starters.  I'm not familiar with that terminology as specifically applied to starters.  Intuitively, a "strong" starter would seem to me to be one that raises a dough relatively rapidly, a weak one, more slowly.  And to raise a dough at a good pace, a starter needs to be packed with bugs ready to go i.e, ready to replicate given the provided feed.  My typical bulk fermentations are 2-4 hours (summer-winter).  I can't imagine a starter that could pull that off any faster.  I wouldn't want one:  Flavor development mediated by sd bacterial metabolism takes time and you don't want your fermentations to race any faster lest they fail to bring out the flavors that natural fermentation produces.

Perhaps someone else can weigh in on weak/moderate/strong starters, especially with respect to feeding ratios.  I have never experimented with ratios like that and have never considered starter "strength" in that context.  I stumbled around for a routine that worked for the kind of bread we like to bake and eat and since I landed on one, I haven't wanted to fix something that ain't broke.

Let's see what others have to say.


clazar123's picture

I keep my starter in the refrigerator and I also do some buildup prior to baking. IE, I'm taking my "weak" starter and making it "strong". My starter is weak because it has been dormant in the cold and not fed for a period of time. Natural attrition and die-off has occurred but I still have a culture sample that is viable and can be developed into a workhorse quickly. If I baked daily, I would keep it on the counter and use it daily. Amazing how yeasty and fast it is when you do this!

When you first develop a starter, you are trying to grow a balanced culture of lactobacillus that will maintain an ideal environment for the yeasts to grow in and yeast that will be able to raise a dough and secrete byproducts that flavor the dough (the flavors of fermentation).

So a new starter often starts out with all the players present but not balanced. It is NOT an ecosystem-it is just a collection. Over a few of their generations ( a few days or weeks for us), the players in a young starter learn their roles in developing their neighborhood into an ecosystem-they all do their jobs to keep all of them healthy. Of course, as their keeper, you have to provide a consistent environment for them-food,water,temperature and cleanliness. The environment will determine the lacto/yeast ratios and can be maintained for a very acid environment (hence the name "sourdough") or a sweeter environment (I call mine "natural levain-not a bit of sour in the loaves). How you maintain the culture affects the contents and the ultimate flavor/development of any dough it is used in.

So a "strong starter" is balanced in the population ratios and has enough yeast population to raise a loaf in a reasonable period of time (2-6 hours).

How to develop a "strong" starter"? Let me count the ways...…………..still counting...………..still counting...…...Oh,well. Just pick a method you like and that works for you. It is very forgiving.

Empire's Chef Chris's picture
Empire's Chef Chris

Im gonna add a question here. I currently have two starters going one i use for daily baking and the other I maintain as a backup in case something happens to my daily use one. I feed them both daily (every 24 hours) if I decide to put my backup in the fridge how often would you recommend taking it out and feeding it? when I feed it does it go right back in the fridge or let it sit out and grow a bit?

thank you

clazar123's picture

Is this a situation of you need the backup to instantly step in or do you have time to bring it up to speed?

Drying a smear of an active starter (make sure the population is high before drying) is the best backup. Smear a spoonful very thinly on a piece of parchment, dehydrate by placing in a low temp, low humidity humidity environment (an air conditioned room or just room temp but the higher the humidity, the longer it takes.). When it is thoroughly dry, crackle it off and store in a ziplock or jar. Refrigerator or freezer is especially good for storage.If there is any moisture left, it could mold.   To activate, add water and flour and stir. Build up to desired amount over a day or two and "voila" -active starter. It stays viable for a LONG time when it is dried. I revived a 40+ yr.old dried "Sourdough Jack" that was sold as a tourist  momento before bar codes were used. 

If you want to keep a refirigerated starter, first feed it, wait til it is almost peaked and then refrigerate. That way you put it to sleep at its peak population.  You may still need to build it up a bit before use. Daily feeding of a refrigerated starter may be a bit much as it is mostly dormant. I feed mine weekly but have had to let them sit unfed for several weeks, sometimes, due to my travel schedule. If it is going to be much longer than a week, I dehydrate some or cross my fingers and hope it is ok when I get back. "Jack" is VERY resilient.

A zillion ways to maintain a starter. It is generally designed for daily use but it is very resilient and workarounds are abundant.


Empire's Chef Chris's picture
Empire's Chef Chris

Thank you very much! I'm actually gonna try both ways. I'll dehydrate some so I have back up to my back up. I love the way its been developing over the past year so I'd hate to ever lose this thing.

Our Crumb's picture
Our Crumb


Once a week refreshment of a refrigerator-stored starter has worked fine for me for several years.  You can certainly push it longer if necessary, but weekly is safe.  Distribute it among multiple refrigerators for greater security.  And of course, giving away your starter to fellow bakers is a good way to assure that it's alive and well somewhere, should a calamity befall you at home.  fwiw, when we travel, we store sentimentally valuable personal items (mostly photo albums) at a short term rental storage unit, because we live in a high wildfire danger area.  Even though I take my starter along with me on those trips, I also store some, dried, in that facility while we're away. 

That's an interesting question about whether to grow it out or not before refrigerating it.  I never grow up starter just to store it immediately thereafter, so I'm not speaking from deep experience.  I grow up my starter only to use it and then store what's left in the fridge for next time.  However, I used to maintain a stiff starter (now mine's 80% hyd) and then I would refresh it into a cute little golf ball sized sphere, roll it in flour (a la Gerard Rubaud) and immediately store it in the fridge.  It would grow slowly there.  Don't ask me where I got that protocol but maybe Rubaud also recommended refrigeration immediately after refreshment.  I was pretty closely channeling him at the time.  So I think it would be worth experimenting with immediately fridge-storing your refreshed starter.  My intuition, and limited experience, says that would work well.

For a nice write-up on storing starters, see this from Maurizio Leo.

Finally, if you are baking in a commercial environment, I would certainly consult fellow pros.  They tend to do everything differently from us amateur hacks.



Empire's Chef Chris's picture
Empire's Chef Chris

Tom thank you very much for your tips as well. I should start sharing some so I know its out there alive somewhere I didn't even think of that. I love the way its been developing so I'd hate to lose it. I'm gonna back up my back up.

And as I do work in a professional environment with lots of different bakers I've gotten some pretty good tips from this site and you "amateur hacks" so don't sell yourself short. I've been doing this 17 years and am still finding new things. Amateur or Pro this is something that we'll never stop learning new things. If you think you know it all you're done.