The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

My Personal Starter Philosophy

alfanso's picture

My Personal Starter Philosophy

As almost always on TFL there's a fair amount of questions and comments about starters, levains and their maintenance.  Recently the questions have seemed to heat up, more so than usual.  A lot of folks who are new to baking or to levains are looking to get feedback and/or offer their own personal experience.

I thought that I'd throw my hat into the ring and offer my own experience.  Which is not to say that what I say goes (except around my own kitchen, and then only usually ;-) ), it doesn't. And I'm not here to convince anyone else that my methodology is any better nor any worse than the next fellow baker.  Generally, there is no right or wrong.  There is mostly right and mostly wrong and then everything in-between.  So here goes...

First off, my levains never sit out on the counter except to refresh.  They enjoy a quiet dark peaceful existence at the back of my refrigerator.

I never refresh the entire levain, always reserving a healthy dose in abeyance.  If I use it all and the refresh somehow goes south and I lose it, I've lost it all.  No secret here.

My first levain build was thanks to reading Debra Wink's sage Pineapple Juice Solution (Pt 2), sometime back ~2014. It's great great grandkids are still floating around in my refrigerated levain(s) happily producing further offspring as their Master (me!) demands of them.

If not the most abusive, then I'm somewhere in the top 5% of levain starter abusers.  I maintain a few different starters, including my version of dabrownman's 60% NMNF, which I just about never use anymore but still refresh on the order of about every 9 months at this point - I guess just out of habit.  

My still occasional use original 75% mixed flour goop, which gets refreshed about every two months or so.  

And my standard - for the past 2-3 years, 100% AP levain which is refreshed whenever, and as much as 5-6 weeks can go by without a feed.  It doesn't seem to matter as long as the proof is in the pudding, or in our cases, the bread.  I suppose that this busts the myth that higher hydration levains have a quite limited shelf life.  

It makes me a little amused to read where people put their lives on hold, and live and die by the ticking of the timer to rush and feed their levain, once twice or even three times a day in some type of ongoing servitude at the altar of the yeast cells.  Perhaps it's one thing when doing a series of builds for the next mix.  But as far as ongoing maintenance, I just don't see it.

"Seasoned" levain wranglers such as I, and for a long while now, consider myself, know that levains are tough little buggers, quite resilient and almost live to be abused, thrown into the back of the refrigerator and then neglected.  And like good little Stockholm Syndrome critters come back for more as demanded by their captors.

During refreshes, done as much because I want to do a build or two for a mix, I pay little attention to such things as, for example 1:1:1 or 1:2:5 or whichever ratios folks tend to stick with.  Here are some examples of a refresh for 100% hydration levain:  1 : 1 : 1,   .5 : 2 : 2,   1 : .75 : .75,   1 : 1.25 : 1.25,   1 : 1.75 : 1.75 and on and on.  As long as I get my refresh to maintain that 100% hydration, it matters little to me.

Early on during one of our key contributor's days on TFL a few years ago, I was asked, offline I think, about my refresh schedule and feeding x:x:x procedure.  And when I wrote back about some of what I do and my willy-nilly and being all over the board approach, I think that it may have been taken as my blowing off the person.  My reply may have been dismissed, but it was an accurate portrayal.

It's not that levain maintenance and baking isn't so important to me.  It is.  And it keeps me going in life to a minor extent.  Bread baking is an appendage and a part of who I now am.  

But my personal experience led me to understand that how we treat the levain just ain't that important until it is mix time.  And even then I'll use some left over levain goop from two weeks or more ago without a refresh.  And on more than an occasion I'll decide to use it still refrigerator cold.  Just drop it into some warm water to mix.  Water cools down, levain heats up.  And some happy medium is reached.

I could play it close to the vest and abide by the "Proven Rules of Levain Maintenance Engagement" as penned by (baker's) dozens of bakers, dutifully offered in reams of advice and instruction.  But would I be a better baker?  I don't know.  I might be a bit more neurotic baker, which would not be good for marital bliss, especially in these days of quarantined co-habitation.  

Would I want to be a better baker?  Wouldn't we all?

I'll end this serious but light-hearted method of monologue the way it began.  There are probably a hundred right ways to maintain a levain.  And there are probably a hundred wrong ways as well.  Some better than others.  I offered my own personal philosophy here in the hopes that some who are still trying to find their own way about "how to do it right", see that I don't "do it right", but it works.  Few here who've seen my blog postings would, I hope, disagree with that last statement.

As with all other things bread baking, find what works for you and make it your own.

Danni3ll3's picture

Over the years, I am using very much the same approach aside that I only keep one levain and have dehydrated others to keep as a back up. I do keep the levain in the fridge thicker than normal but I don’t measure that anymore when I refresh. I also toss any leftover levain from baking into it and if it’s too thin, toss a spoonful of wholegrain flour to thicken it up.

Wholegrain flour could be anything from wheat, to Kamut, spelt or rye or whatever I used and have left over from baking. I even have that down so I don’t have leftover flour any more. I mill a bit extra of whatever I am using so I have wholegrain flour in hand for feeding. 

Might sound lackadaisical but it works!

alfanso's picture

And the same reply goes to all Bred (I always like Bart better) and Leslie.

Thanks to replying and, hopefully just in case anyone else reads this thread, helping to reinforce the notion that levains and starters can be treated in many different ways and still produce wonderful results.

Now, if we were professional bakers our attitude would be much different.  Abiding by a strict schedule with consistent feeds from day to day would be critical for the success of any bakery operation.  And I doubt that there are many bakeries that maintain multiple levains for different mixes.  Maybe two. Maybe.

Thanks all, alan

Bred Maverick's picture
Bred Maverick

When I was a newbie bread baker back in the hippie era, I would follow a bread recipe to the letter.

4 cups +1 tablespoon flour... check

1 tsp + 1/8 tsp salt ... check

fold and stretch at 20 minute intervals...check...4 times...check

With experience I realized that variables Mattered most, The age of the flour, The temperature in the room, How many papers I had to grade (kidding ,for  those of you who are ultra literal) and I noticed that it didn’t really matter if I had a tablespoon of flour more or less or one teaspoon of salt more or less. What mattered was the feel of the dough.

then along came the sourdough craze. Holy moly. I  discarded buckets full  of leftover starter. Why? Because that’s what the experts said.

Now, I probably bake bread like my great grandmother and grandmothers before them. I keep the ingredients and proportions in my head, I know I like about 70% hydration, 2% salt, and 20% wild yeast starter because I know that’s what works in my kitchen in upstate New York.

today, I added a thick squeeze of honey and a spoonful of grapeseed oil. Why? Because I felt like it :-)

and that’s the way I bake bread several times a week.

leslieruf's picture

very similar approach here! 1 starter (rye) that isnt used often so it can go months between refreshes. my every day one is refreshed monthly more or less and at ratio 1:2:3. like yours it lives in the fridge quite happily.  I rebuild a small amount from that then once it is happy build a 100% prebake levain and the rest goes back in the fridge.  only once I know it good do I discard the small amount of the old starter left.  time frames for builds are very fluid.  I reckon you just make it work for you!

Happy baking Alan, hope all goes well in quarantine - we are totally locked down with only essential services allowed eg supermarkets, doctors etc.  Weird how quiet it is!  but folks are happy to say hello as you bike or walk past!  maybe we will all be fitter after this is over!!

Kia kaha! (stay strong)


Justanoldguy's picture

I'm just glad that there's no PETS (People for the Ethical Treatment of Starters) out there. Poor little things brought blinking out of the cold and dark, beaten with blunt objects or mechanical devices, flung into a bewildering mix of rich food tainted with their deadly enemy NaCl, and then hurled into a heated oven to slowly roast to death. I'm appalled by the cruelty of their fate and can only find consolation in the flavor and aroma of their sacrifice. 

Danni3ll3's picture

Me laugh out loud! 

leslieruf's picture

we really need it too! 😆

alfanso's picture

are a cruel cruel man and should be ashamed of your mistreatment of these loving little cells.