The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

maintaining and using barm?

gluonmom's picture

maintaining and using barm?

Hi, I'm new to the forum and to sourdough, though I've been making killer, crusty, yummy artisan breads for several years now. I've a couple, (probably oh, so obvious!), sourdough questions I hope you can help me with.

I made some wild yeast starter several weeks ago (using BBA's recipe), feed it regularly, and it is apparently very happy since it bubbles and doubles readily. I made bread with it a couple of times, and each time was disappointed. It tasted really bland and was so soft it was hard to cut. Crisp crust when it came out, but soft as Wonder bread by the time it was cool. The non-sourdough french, l'ancienne, and the like I make are generally wonderfully blistered and crusty. What's different about the sourdough? How do I get a crusty, chewy, holey sourdough bread?

Also, how much starter (barm) do I need to maintain? Reinhart's recipe makes 6 cups of barm, yet uses only a cup or less in any recipe. ?? Why do I need this much? It seems like if I am to build up my barm in order to use it, I end up with masses. I either need to make way more bread than I need, or throw out gobbs, or simply keep a huge lot of barm for ???. I'd rather not use up so much flour when I only need a loaf every few days. Following BBA I had so much starter I honestly don't know why people talk about needing to "build up" their starter to make bread.

Am I misunderstanding something about the process? I decided to only keep 4 oz. starter (barm) that I am refreshing with 4 oz. each of flour (hard wheat with a bit of rye) and water about every 5 days. When I pull it out to feed it, I'll have at about 12 oz to start with; 6-8 oz extra (to toss or ??) and 4oz to feed and put back in the chill chest. When I make bread, do I need to refresh this "extra" part until it is at it's peak (is this called ripening?), THEN use it to make a firm starter, THEN make the final dough, or do I just use this 4 oz directly to make into a firm starter and go from there? Am I missing something, or adding a step I don't need?

Can I use sourdough barm in any recipe that calls for barm or poolish? Do I need to do anything different? Is firm starter a sourdough version of pate firmentee? Is there a sourdough version of pain l'ancienne?

Thanks for your help!

Mike Avery's picture
Mike Avery

Peter Reinhart seems to have a habit of misusing baking terms.  At times, I think he wasn't formally trained, but taught himself.  While there's nothing wrong with that, it does tend to cause confusion.


Barm is a very English process, and it is using yeast from a brewery, or a batch of beer, to raise bread.  It is NOT a sourdough process.  If you want to call a sourdough process barm, that's OK, but it isn't correct and will only cause confusion.


A key issue for any bread writer is making sure the readers will succeed, and Reinhart does that very, very well.  And with a sourdough, the key is making sure that the reader will have a lively, usable sourdough culture.  Most go overboard to make sure the reader's cultures will be lively.  I usually keep about 2 cups in the fridge and feed some of it up to the quantity I need over a 2 to 3 day period.  It takes a consistent process to produce a consistent product, and a consistent sourdough starter is very, very important in that regard.


As to crust, I haven't seen anything that makes me believe the leaven will materially affect the crust of the bread.  A thousand other things will, but not the leaven.


If your bread has a crisp crust when removed from the oven and then becomes soft, I would tend to think the issue is having pulled the bread out of the oven too soon.  Hot moist bread gives off steam which softens the crust.


Baking is a balancing act, you try to get the crust and crumb done at the same time.  The crust doneness and color is largely a function of the heat of the oven.  Crumb doneness is largely a question of how long the bread is in the oven - it takes a while for heat to penetrate the crumb and cook it.


If the crust is overdone, reduce the oven heat next time.  If the crust is underdone, kick up the oven temperature and put the bread back in for a few minutes.


If the crumb is under done, bake the bread longer.  If the crumb is too done, don't bake it so long next time.


Still, the two are interrelated, and it may take a bit of juggling to get the time and temperature right.

There are also some complicating factors.  Loaf size is one, larger loaves take longer to bake than smaller ones as it takes longer for the heat to penetrate.


Also, the thermostats in many ovens are inaccurate, and many ovens have trouble maintaining a consistent temperature.  An oven thermometer addresses both issues.  They let you make sure what temperature you are really baking at, and whether or not the temperature is drifting.


Finally, how do you know when a loaf is done baking?  Some people feel loaves, some people thump them.  If you know what you are feeling for,  that can be a good indicator, but thumping has never worked for me.  What does work for me, and is a great learning tool, is a chef's thermometer.  Take the bread's temperature.  Later, check to see what you think of the bread's doneness.  If it was underdone, bake to a higher temperature next time.  If it was overdone, bake to a lower temperature next time.


What temperature should you bake to?  It depends on the bread you are making, however, at sea level 205F is a good place to start out.  At higher elevations, try for a lower temperature, maybe 195F at around 7,500 to 8,000 feet above sea level.




gluonmom's picture

Hey Mike, sorry to not  reply but I've been gone. Thanks for your input! I was wondering about Peter's use of "barm." It didn't make sense to me, but, then what do I know? <G>Is a more accruate  term for the liquidy stuff kept in the fridge "chef" and the part you bulk up to actually make bread "levain"? Which is "sourdough starter?" Honestly I don't really care what they are all called, but I do want to figure out the right terms so I can ask more concise questions and read what others are explaining with better understanding. Sigh. Pain 'l ancienne is so straight forward and consistant. 

I've made several more loaves and had much better bread Still not too tangy, but flavorful with a decent crust. Not awesome, but a whole lot better than my first loaves! I think the biggest issue was that I'd made a potato bread for my first loaf and it came out REALLY soft. I neot make potato bread in years and had forgotten that it is such a softener. I think the salt % was off too and that affected the flavor.  Still haven't managed the nice big-holed crumb I'm used to getting with non-sourdough breads. I think that may be mostly related to not having the hang of the whole riping and rise time thing perhaps?


breadnerd's picture

There are a lot of different terms for sourdough, and they vary regionally. It can be confusing!

I maintain about 6 ounces or less of my sourdough culture during storage. I feed it by taking about 1 ounce, and add about 1 to 2 ounces of flour and water to that. I store it in the refrigerator, and feed it about once a week if I'm not using it. When I'm building it up to use in a recipe, I take it out to room temperature, and feed it every 8 to 12 hours for a day or so to get it nice and active. If I need more than 6 ounces for my recipe, I increase the amounts slightly as I feed until I have enough--plus extra to keep for storage. I find my culture only needs one or two feedings to make it happy and active to make bread--but everyone's is a little different.

Flavor is something that will develop over time. A new culture of sourdough will be a little bland at first. Also the firmness of your culture affects flavor--firm starters are a bit tangier in general (there's more info on this elsewhere on the site).

As for crustiness, yes, try leaving it in a little longer. Your process will be a little different for sourdough than other breads, and it will take practice to get the texture and qualities you are looking for.

I do substitute poolishes and preferments for sourdough, the main difference will be the rising times. As with any recipe, if you're altering it there may be some adjustments to do--As a beginner I might start with some "tried and true" recipes to start with, and branch into experimentation later on :)



Mike Avery's picture
Mike Avery

Breadnerd commented:

There are a lot of different terms for sourdough, and they vary regionally. It can be confusing!


While this is true, barm is NOT in any way, outside of Peter Reinart's book (and possibly Monica Spillars books), a term for sourdough.



gluonmom's picture

6 oz. total seems like a much more reasonable amount. Right now I'm keeping about 12 oz. or so. When you take it out to build it, do you discard any, or do you just add flour and water until you have the amount you need, and only discarding when you are refreshing without baking a loaf? 

I've been looking at Pain au levain recipes (mostly Daniel Leader's) and the explaination on building the small amount of starter up into a levain, then using that all to make the final dough makes sense. I always used to keep a hunk of dough from any batch of bread I made and use it in the next, so using a levain is essentially that. Those always incorporated at least a bit of yeast in the new bread though. It's just the soupy stuff and the timing that I'm trying to master.

Could you explain "ripe" to me? Am I to watch for my battery-starter (chef?) to peak and just started to dimple, then mix it into the levain and proceed from there? When I refresh and re-fridge, I let the "starter" sit out for a couple hours until it is good and bubbly again before closing it up and putting it back in the refridgerator. Is this ok, or should I let it actually double first?

I've had little time to bake so I haven't tried any substitutions. I think you're right though. I'm going to see if can figure out the basics of th is first, then move on. 


foolishpoolish's picture

Hi gluonmom,


Out of curiosity (and since BBA is one of only two bread books I own) - which recipe were you trying to follow?

I'm a newcomer to sourdough, so I'm not sure how much use my thoughts are. <edit sorry I misread part of the post about 'x cups of barm'> 

As for what form of levain to use. I keep my mother starter at poolish consistency (100% hydration) but whenever I'm building up a levain to use for baking, I use a firmer consistency (a la biga).  Adding salt to a levain would, in my mind, would simply slow down what is already a fairly slow processs of fermentation with sourdough.

As I'm starting to discover, different temperatures and different consistencies of levain and fermentation as well as percentage of levain in final dough, can yield drastically different results in terms of 'sourness'. 


gluonmom's picture


I used the seed culture recipe on p. 229, and the barm on p. 230. I'd used a recipe for sourdough sandwich bread I'd pulled off-line for my first loaves, then the Basic Sourdough Bread on p. 233 after that.

I've played with temp some, but the biggest difficulty is FL's heat. (Tough for a CO girl!) Today it's nice and chilly (really!), but often my kitchen is closer to 78 than 65. Most of the time I need to use the refridgerator to get a good, slow ferment. Not that big a deal since I generally do that anyway, but I'm not sure yet how to eak out the max flavor from sourdough. I'll have to play around with loaves and find out.

Are you getting nice, but holes yet? 

Have you ever used sour salt or Brody's sourdough flavor enhancer? I haven't, but have heard people mention them. 

kdovin's picture

I can totally sympathize w/ gluonmom, as I have the same issue w/ a sourdough starter.  I am new to the sourdough game, and I made a starter from Avner Laskin's "The Easy Way to Artisan Bread".  The starter was HUGE.  I had an active starter about 10 days ago.  It was made w/ rye flour and whole wheat flour as well as white bread flour.   The starter looked very promising, it rose like crazy with lots of bubbles.

I tried making a whole grain version of sourdough from the same recipe book and ended up w/ a rock.  I tossed it and decided to just try a white dough sourdough, which came out great - nice crust (some "floating" but not terrible) and a good chewy, soft interior.  One week later, I tried again w/a whole grain bread, but this time the recipe called for a sponge, the starter and yeast.  I thought I'd have better luck - no way, 2 more rocks.  Before making the bread, I removed the starter from the fridge and fed it twice with white flour and water, allowing it to stay at room temp overnight.  It again appeared very active.  So, my questions:

1) What do I do w/ this huge amount of starter I have from the original batch?  How long can I continue to use what I have from the first batch?  Do I need to feed it before I use it?

 2) What proportions of flour - whole grain/rye vs white - and water do I use to feed it to maintain it in the fridge?

 3) Any advice about the whole grain issue?  How can I get it to rise?

BTW, Laskin suggests maintaining the starter by refrigerating or freezing a portion (1/4 pound) of dough.  When ready to make bread defrost and feed over 12 hours.  Any thoughts on this?

 Thanks for all you help!

gluonmom's picture

I' so glad someone else is having the same questions! I'm looking forward to some clear answers. If you figure anything out that works, lemme know.

I've kept dough before and used for new loaves, but never tried freezing it or feeding it first to wake up the yeasts. I think I'll try it - have you? I really liked that method and it always produced the best flavor in whatever I baked.

I fed my original, big batch of starter so it was all happy and bubbly, kept 4 oz, fed it (equal parts H2O and flour), and put it in the fridge. Other I used to make bread; some I divided into the amounts I needed to make loaves and then froze it. I haven't tried to use it yet. I've read it works. I hope so; I need to be gone for 6 weeks this summer and I'd rather freeze my starter than have someone babysit it. It's hard enough to get someone to care for my animals!

I haven't tried whole grain yet, but I love baking with mixed grains. looked at Daniel Leader's whole grains book yet, or Peter Reinhard's? I've look through them, but haven't tried anything yet. I've been substituting Hazelnut flour for 1/4-1/2 c. unbleached in my Pita bread lately though. Yum!!!


kdovin's picture

I haven't tried freezing the dough yet.  I still have to get a decent outcome, I think.  I'm plugging away w/ my starter, though.  I pulled some out of the fridge and mixed a 1:4:4 mixture.  I think I'll keep it out for a week w/ daily feedings and then give it another go. I still have a lot from the original batch, so if things don't go well w/ this, I guess I can keep experimenting.

Regarding Reinhard's book, I'd love to know what you think.  I had thought about purchasing it, but the reviews I found were very mixed.  I am also a bit hesitant to be honest b/c I understand that his approach is to do slow rises and start w/ a sponge while using 100% whole wheat.  Given my experience from my last entry (whole wheat preceded by sponge, starter and added yeast), I think I might try to stick w/ part whole grain/part white bread flour.

 Hazelnut flour sounds awesome.  Did you find it at a local grocery or is it a specialty store item? 

gluonmom's picture

The Hazelnut flour was from Target Superstore of all places. Bob's Red Mill brand, in with the organics. Today I tried some Chestnut flour I'd picked up when I was last in the SF Bay area at my mom-in-law's. It is now my all-time favorite. The fragrance alone is worth it! Apparently it can be used as a 1:1 substitute for wheat flour up to 35%. Wonder what it will be like in sourdough . . . It's probably available online, but I haven't looked. I'm pretty sure the shop I bought it at would ship (Pastry Shop in Berkeley. 510-547-4005)

I thought the same thing about Reinhard's new book. I love BBA, but it sounds like for whole  grain breads, Daniel Leader's 'Local Breads' is getting better reviews. I may check them out from the library and give 'em both a spin. I've made lots of the BBA recipes and use the slow rise method for most all breads now since I've started using these recipes. I didn't know sponges were unusual until a few years ago - I'd learned to bake bread as a kid using the Tassahara bread book and they used sponges. I guess I never thought about it.

I haven't made many 100% whole-wheat, I guess because I've generally found it too dense. I'll use 50 - 75% ww, but always have some white. I usually use first clear,  or something along that line and throw in some bran or germ or something. I like KA's artisan and french flours too.

 I feed my starter and put it back in the fridge - no time to make bread and I'm gone for a week starting tomorrow. I'll try again next week. Good luck with yours!


Lu's picture

I am new with bread starters.  I have my barm in the fridge and need quite a bit of help understanding it. 

1.If a recipe calls for a cup do I then replace the barm with one cup of water and one cup of bread flour? 

2.Do I really have to feed it every 4 days?  And how much?  The recipe yields 6 cups of barm.   

3. If I do feed it on a regular basis, do I throw out half and replace it with equal amounts of water and flour?

4. When I feed the starter do I leave it out at room temp for a few hours and then put it back in the fridge?

5. How does one travel with the starter on an airplane?  I plan to take the starter with me and I'm not sure how to pack it. 

6. How can I use the barm in other recipes that already has a sponge? Do I just replace the sponge fo the same amount of the barm?

 Thanks for all the help. My ultimate goal is to make the famous Poilane bread AND to understand starters and how to care for them.


pigreyhound's picture

This is my understanding of the BBA barm, but I am also still new here, so I am going on only a few months experience.


1. You can't just add 1 c water and 1c flour to feed the barm. You need to at least double the barm. So you need to figure out how much you have and then add flour and water accordingly.

2. You do need to feed the barm every 3 days IF you are planning on using it. But you can freeze it and then defrost in the fridge. The thing is, you still will need a few days to build the barm back up to 6 cups. You can leave it in the fridge in a tightly sealed container for a few weeks, but you will still need to rebuild the barm. You will need to throw away all but a cup of it and then rebuild it.

3. If you are feeding it regularly you do not need to throw any out, although you will be building up large amounts of barm so you either need to throw some, give it away, or make some bread.

4. When I feed mine, I do leave it out for a bit. I wait until it gets bubbly and then put it back in the fridge.

5. I have never traveled with a barm or starter, so I am not sure. I would think you need to keep it cool so maybe some sort of cooler? But I don't know, hopefully someone who is more experienced with sourdoughs can answer that one.

6. My understanding of starters is not great, but I asked a similar question to one of the experienced bakers here. Basically starters are similar so you can exchange the barm in for another preferment, but I think if you are supposed to be using a preferment with a lower hydration (like a biga) you need to consider how to get your starter to a similar hydration as the recipe's preferment. So you may end up adding some flour to your barm to build it into a biga. (which is what I am doing right now with some of my barm to make a basic sourdough bread)


I hope that helped. I am still learning also! Like you, I aspire to a Poilane type bread loaf! I want to get some French style flour to see if it makes a difference.

Lu's picture

Thanks for your advice...I plan to bake the bread next I'll feed it every 3 days...I plan to discard 3 cups of the barm and replace it with 3 cups of flour and water every 3 I correct?  Thanks!


jeffesonm's picture

Once you have a good, active starter going, you really don't need to keep much on hand.  When I kept mine in liquid form I would save 1 oz of the starter and add 2 oz water and 2 oz flour at each feeding.  If baking, I would just do the same but maybe keep 2 or 3 oz and increase the water/flour in proportion.  If not baking, I would let it sit out for about an hour then stick it back in the fridge until next week.

I suspect you could keep even less but 2 oz flour/week didn't seem too bad to me.

gaaarp's picture

I started a seed culture last weekend.  It went like gangbusters for the first few days, but on day 3 or 4, it died.  At least I think it died.  I let it sit for an extra day, and nothing happened.  So I tossed it and started over again.  Cross my fingers, I'm on day 4 with the second batch, and it appears to be doing OK.

I'm wondering now if my last culture was acutally dead, or if I was just too impatient with it.  Could it go dormant for a few days and then come back?  The day before this happened, it was so active it overflowed the container, so I fed it 12 hours earlier than I was supposed to.  Maybe that's what killed it?

One other note/question:  the first few days I used bottled spring water.  On the day it died, I used tap water.  We have city water, but it's pretty good.  Peter Reinhart mentions water in BBA, but not specifically as it has to do with seed culture.  Any ideas if that might have killed my culture?