The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

reserve a piece of dough as a starter

nerdhub's picture

reserve a piece of dough as a starter

I have searched in vain here and elsewhere for a no-recipe sourdough tutorial (not just someone having a go for the first time) that recognises that for 1000s of years people made sourdough bread without scales and measures, bowls and jars, or even recipes. They didn't keep a 'wet starter either' or waste precious flour by 'purging' the starter. They just kept a small piece of the dough from today's bread, maybe wrapped in a cloth, and worked it into tomorrow's dough. They didn't talk about hydration percentages, or about autolysing, but rather they passed down the know-how on how sticky the dough should 'feel', what it looks like when it has been kneaded enough, and how to know when it is ready to bake.

Can anyone direct me to videos that explain these things without recipes?

David R's picture
David R

I would love to see the same thing. Just a couple of changes I would make:

Any set of instructions for turning unprepared food into prepared food is a recipe. A lack of numbers doesn't affect that.

They certainly did talk about hydration percentages back then; the only difference is they did so by demonstration of the look and feel of when it's right, instead of attaching a number to it. Hydration percentage was a range based on "Like this, not like that".

There was a lot of error and misinformation perpetuated along with the obvious truth of the basic method, because there wasn't as much reliable information available then as there is now. People used their imagination to fill in the gaps in their understanding, just as we do now; the gaps in our understanding are smaller than theirs were, but because we're human we continue to do just as they did. Most people interested in bread in the far past were told a lot of ridiculous and stupid ideas about how the sourdough process worked, just as it continues to happen today - but the process continued to work, despite those ideas. 🙂

Bread knowledge and customs were regional: if you went to a different country in ancient times, the bread-making method would be strange or even unrecognizable, even if the bread might have been similar. (Though sometimes even that wasn't the case)

Abe's picture
Abe (not verified)

Kept for the next bake except it's always kept separate. There are advantages to doing it this way. What happens if you forget to keep some dough back? Another reason to keep a starter is that one starter can be fine tuned to many different breads. You can keep the starter and use it to build different types of levains for different recipes. Of course keeping a piece of dough from one bake to another is fine if you bake regularly and sure you just use it in the next dough you make but what if you don't bake everyday or even twice a week? I think you'll find even when they did this and baked less often they used to incorporate some feeds before using. And finally why would progressing in the maths behind the bake be thought of as inferior? And I assure you there's always an element of going by feel in a bake. It's a must! 

gavinc's picture

I agree with what you say. Keeping a piece of dough for the next batch is called a Pate Fermentee and is the only main types of pre-ferment that contain salt. I think after about 3 days in the refrigerator is the extent of its life.  It is very easy to start a Pate Fermentee from scratch and leave to ferment overnight to its full ripeness.  Quite different from saving some ripe levain and feeding to continue the life of your sourdough levain. Cheers.

David R's picture
David R

A small further thought (I guess I started it but didn't finish it):

There's a phrase that's almost never heard in bread making videos, but that's essential (in my opinion anyway) to your request: "No, not like that." Hands-on baking education is truly interactive, and a video is not. I think that in-person baking lessons, as between parents and children or between masters and apprentices, are really what's at the root of what you're saying. A video (or twenty videos, for that matter) is missing that.

mikedilger's picture

Bake with Jack is not primarily about sourdough (in fact he is new to Sourdough), but he teaches bread baking by the underlying principles, not by rote or recipe.  So you learn how to do everything by 'feel'.  It's a good resource.

Townsends explains how to do things "the old way," including cooking, clothes, etc, etc.  It's also a good resource.  He has a few videos on sourdough, and keeping the starter as dough (sometimes in a bunch of salt), but while he may know the facts of the matter, he clearly doesn't have much skill (I find the actuals of his cooking techniques cringe worthy sometimes).

There's probably better stuff out there.

Our Crumb's picture
Our Crumb

A piece of dough held back to seed the levain of a future loaf is called pâte fermentée.  Google that for plenty of results including videos of course.  Hammelman covers it.  He won't lead you back to all the lore of old that you seek, but there's plenty of info online about that traditional practice.


nerdhub's picture

Thanks very much to you all for the engagement... I didn't check back til now. Now I have a few leads to google and some videos to view. I guess I am a bit of a rebel/cynic, and I find the detailed recipes and figures on this site an obstacle to learning. I kept a starter for years, but always protested purging it if that required throwing out flour... rather I kept the starter very small, less than 1 cup, and would use the whole thing in the next loaf. Then I would feed the starter which was just whatever was left clinging to the sides of the jar and put it back in the frig til next time I bake. But just recently that has progressed to just keeping a small piece of the dough, just as it is but before I add the salt, in a jar in the frig til the next bake. It seems to work OK... it is so small it doesn't really change the loaf. In this way it gets a lot of other ingredients over time... different flours, some yoghurt maybe. I don't know if this makes the natural yeasts more resilient or whether it weakens them when the mix keeps changing. How do I remember to keep the piece of dough? I did forget once... lucky we have a famous sourdough tutor in our city who hands out starters for free... but now I put the empty starter jar on top of the lid of my dough bowl (it has a lid) while the dough is fermenting, and then I can't forget. That sourdough tutor, by the way, fiercely resists my pleas to run a class for those of us who want to make up our own recipes and go by feel as the ancients did. She is very recipe bound... weighs, measures, times etc. I wonder if this is to sell more books?!