The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Just how important is an 'active' starter. i.e. it passes float test.

jaycee's picture

Just how important is an 'active' starter. i.e. it passes float test.

I have a question about soughdough starter.

I have been baking sourdough for about a year. When I first started I found it very confusing as each recipe and youtube video I looked at seemed to do something different. Autolyse before adding starter, or add them all together. Complex kneading regime or simple no knead with just a few s&f. Retard in the fridge, or do not retard. Retard on initial bulk ferment or retard on final proofing, preheat oven before putting it in, or cook from cold. etc. etc.

I have tried all sorts and basically everything seems to work OK and I did not find the results to be very different with all these variations, only minor differences in the finished loaf, and everything has been perfectly eatable. I never have been a recipe follower in any kind of cooking or baking. I prefer to do something because I feel that I understand what difference it should make in theory.

So that brings me to my query on soughdough starter. Every beginners guide without exception emphasises the importance of having an super active starter to get a big rise and oven spring. Of course, that is common sense, nothing would work with an inactive starter!. However what does active mean? OK the float test, but the more I think about that the less I understand it.

Let me explain my routine that I have settled on.  I bake every 3 days or so, using 800gm flour and 75% hydration. I feed the remains of my starter  from the previous bake , typically say 20gm, with 40gm each or flour and water, leave for 5 to 8 hours by which time it has reliably doubled. I use 80gm of my starter and put it back in the fridge for next time. No discard. So that is 5% pre fermented flour. After an hour autolys and a very light knead, it goes into the fridge for 12 to 15 hours. A few s& f then into a pullman tin, 5 to 6hrs proofing then into the oven. All very typical I think.

So my starter is never more than 3 days since it was last bubbly active, it always responds when fed and warmed to reliably double in volume. Then the first thing I do after mixing it in is to bung it in the fridge and cool it down so it is rather inactive again. Why do I need to get it bubbly active each time before using it? If for instance instead of using it as normal after feeding I put it back in the fridge for a day or two so that it collapsed back down again and became "inactive". What would happen if I used it in that condition ??

I cannot see why that would not work just the same as using a normal "active" starter, it is in effect active as far as I am concerned as given food and warmth off it goes again, every time. The only difference is that it would come to life again in a larger volume and as a lower hydration, but so what? I can see that the initial fermentation may take longer to get to the same point, but surely it would get there.

Obviously I need to try this but I would be very grateful if someone could fill in the theory which I appear to be missing.

Ilya Flyamer's picture
Ilya Flyamer

I'm very new to bread baking, but I'd say whatever works for you! Sounds like you are actually feeding your starter and it doubles just before you bake, so you are using an active starter. If it reliably works after a few days in the fridge, that's awesome (I definitely had problems with the starter going sluggish), and having no discard is ace.

gerhard's picture

This YouTuber that goes by Food Geek does all kinds of interesting common sense experiments and here is a link to a video that addresses your question

phaz's picture

Straight to the question - in the simplest terms - active means there's live bacteria and yeast in it. Of course there's a bazillion different levels of active as is usually the case when dealing with something that is subjective, but that's a different subject - although I'm sure there will be more to come on that. Enjoy!


jaycee's picture

Thanks for that you tube link Gerhard. You were right that was addressing my point exactly, so very useful. The result was as I thought it might be, i.e. it takes longer but it ends up the just the same, possibly with more taste due to extended fermentation time.

The reason I set off down this track is that sometimes life gets in the way of feeding my starter 30 to 36hrs before we need another loaf in the house. Then I get complaints. If this works OK then I could set my starter off say the day after baking so that it will always be ready and waiting for the next bake.

jaycee's picture

I can confirm that 2 day old starter works just as well as a freshly activated starter, the only difference being an extended fermentation time, but the same overal time from innolculating starter to taking bread out of the oven, I baked two 400gm loaves in parallel as follows:

I took some of my old starter used it to innoculate a new batch of starter at 1:2:2 as normal. At the same time I used the old starter to innoculate the dough for the second loaf. The fermentation time for the second loaf was increased by the 5 hours that the starter for the first dough needed to double in size. So I finished the fermentation for both at the same time and they went into the fridge to retard together. At this time the 'normal' loaf had incresed in size by about 20%, and the 'old starter" dough by perhaps 25%. After 15hrs in the fridge to my suprise the 'old starter' dough had jumped up again to perhaps 50%, while the 'normal' dough looked about the same i.e. as normal. I think this difference must have been because the 'old starter' batch had been fermenting for longer and therefore had more momentum and was warmer hence took longer to be retarded by the fridge. Seems like it did not need an extra 5 hours, perhaps 3 or 4 would have been fine.

Anyway I took the 'normal' dough out of the fridge 2 hours before the 'old starter' dough to even up the rise. Then when they had both risen together to my normal end point they went into the oven.

The final result was two near identical loaves. So I conclude from this that it is not necessary to use your starter when it hits its peak and passes the float test. 2 or possibly 3 days later is still fine, you only need to adjust your timing. However it is no doubt important that your starter has the capability of passing the float test, then it has the capability to perform as required when you use it to make bread.

Benito's picture

Just one small point I’d like to make, regarding the float test.  I actually never do a float test.  When you have a 100% hydration starter, especially if it is being fed white flour ie not whole grain, then it maybe too runny to pass the float test.  So failing the float test doesn’t necessarily mean that your starter isn’t healthy and active and incapable of performing.