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Starting a sourdough starter - Summary of internet research

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yves's picture
yves

Starting a sourdough starter - Summary of internet research

Ive been looking into various recipes and explanations of creating a starter, and i thought id put a summary here.

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Pretty well all of the recipes include a replication step like "divide in two, disposing of one half, and adding back a particular ratio mixture as a replacement". A very few have slightly different steps in the first few days but end up with this process at the end.

Additionally almost all recipes have the same general description for success: a mixture that when replicated displays a leavening effect (rises to about double its size) and a sort of "large bubble" foam on a consistant basis over several days. Notably many authors mention that it is common to see a false leavening effect caused by undesirable bacteria in the early phase of the process that then disappears after several days only to be replaced by the real leavening effect a few days later.

By far the most common recipe comes down to: take a 1:1 by weight mixture of flour and water and replicate every 24 hours until stable. Some recipes suggest 12 hours, and some require specific types of flour, with many recommending wholemeal or rye flour until the mixture is stable and then switching to AP afterwards. Most suggest that the unit be a cup of water. Also a number suggest using a 1:2 mixture (1 cup flour to 1 cup water is about 1:2 flour to water by weight),

Occasionally a few additives are suggested:

Acidic additives: These usually include some kind of acidic juice, with pineapple or orangejuice in the initial steps. The idea is that the juice lowers the ph preventing undesirable bacteria from growing but providing a good environment for wild yeast while at the same time providing sugars for the wild yeast to feed on. Vinegar is also suggested occasionally for similar reasons.

There are a much lower number suggesting using milk products. In this case the intention seems to be to encourage lactobascili, and also possibly the same justification as for the acidic additives.

Diastatic malt is also sometimes recommended with a tiny amount being added in the initial steps, also people that use AP flour will be unknowingly including tiny amounts of this as it usually added by the miller. The intention of this seems to be to provide sugar to the wild yeast, but enzymatically from the starch from the flour. Sometimes sweetener is suggested for similar reasons.

A few sources seem to suggest that you can manufacture wild yeast from commerical yeast, or that commerical bakers yeast will revert to wild.

One or two seem to suggest using things like unmilled rye or barly, or using the skins of wild or field grown grapes.

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When i decided to make a starter I had access to a commerical starter "Seitenbacher(c) Natur Saurteig" that is widely available in grocery stores where I live in Germany.

Since I thought that was kind of cheating I decided I would make two, one a replication starting from some left over dough from a batch i made with the starter, and one with raw material. Aside from the fact that one included a small part of the dough I did exactly the same thing with both: replicating of a blanced blend of rye and wholemeal flour mixed at 1:1 with water with the base weight being 200 grams. I was very careful not to contaminate the wild one with the commerical, always working with the wild one first. On the third day I added a tiny amount (0.1 of a gram or so) of diastatic malt after I replicated (i didnt have any to add on the first day), And by the 8th day i had stability. The two behave somewhat differently with the wild one being a little slower to rise, but rising further in the oven, and they make a nice loaf mixed together. :-)

My opinion of this is that Im not all that convinced by the additives, with the exception of the diastatic malt. For the juices the reason is that I think its hard to control how acidic the formulation goes, and that citrus frust have their own associated bacteria and yeasts, which are probably not as appropriate as the yeasts we see living naturally on grain. (I will say though that I have seen one particularly cogent argument, incidentally posted here, in favour of using juice.)

For the milk i think its just generally a bad idea, some of the bascili in milk can kill you and also most milk you can buy is pasteurized anyway, and i think that the bascili we want grow naturally on the grain and on our hands and other places. We dont need it from milk. Sweetener I think is a bad idea. In general they are preservatives,

My feeling is that one wants to encourage the wild stuff on the grain to replicate and that introducing things that are totally foreign wont help. Diastatic malt is an exception because it is a substance that does naturally occur in wheat and other grains and so adding a bit more doesnt drastically change things. Also its effect is slower, something that i think is important, providing a steady supply of sugar over time instead of a huge amount at the start which tapers off over time, something which doesnt seem to me to be inclined to make for a stable environment, and after all one thing we are looking for is a stable environment.

Anyway, Im no expert, form your own opinions. But most importantly try it, it isnt very hard. :-)

 

 

Comments

jeannem5074's picture
jeannem5074

Thanks for compiling and summarizing the voluminous information about starting a sourdough culture. It's useful to have your blog as a "cheat sheet."

gavinc's picture
gavinc

Yves,

Did you take into account that some "experts" describe that wild air-born yeasts get captured into the cuture to produce unique local cutures with their own flavours and behaviours.  I'm not sure if this is the case, as some books I have suggest the yeast is off the grain, but others suggest the air-born yeast capture method by delevoping the culture out-side with the lid off.

I'm not sure if there is a "right" answer; may be both are correct and worth exploring.

I enjoyed reading your summary and concur so far.

Regards,

Gavin. 

yves's picture
yves

Yeah, ive seen this suggestion. Its quite common, for instance KAF mentions that kitchens that have been used for a lot of bake a lot tend to aquire a higher wild yeast load in the air and that this can make dough cooked in such a kitchen more "active" and presumably make it more likely for a starter to start.

OTOH I've seen at least one report that when care is taken to sterilize the flour prior to making a starter that you can reliably prevent the starter from forming a culture. Whereas environmental isolation produces negligible results. So it seems that the flour is more important. I guess its probably a bit of both.

TBH tho, from what i can see the real differentiator between starters is in the lactobacillus. At least according to wikipedia the ratio is about 100:1 in terms of bacteria to yeast. So the overconcern with wild yeast seems a little strange actually :-) From what i can tell we are actually looking for one or two specific yeasts which can survive the high acidity environment produced by the bacteria. This is also the idea of deliberately making the starter acidic to start off, basically try to kill off anything that cant survive in a high acid environment from get-go. Although i still think using juices is probably the wrong way (for other reasons).

Personally i think that the air is probably unimportant. More important is grain type and probably actually working the dough with your hands.

By the way i found the following link pretty interesting: What is the Microbiology of San Francisco Sourdough?

 

It includes the following notable quote:Spicher in Germany characterised German sour rye. He found the dominant yeast species were Candida krusei, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Pichia saitoi and Candida milleri. The Lactobacilli included L. brevis, casei, fermenti, pastorianus, bucheneri, delbrueckii, leichmannii, acidophilus, farciminis, alimentarius, brevis var.lindneri, fermentum, fructivorans and Pediococcus acidilactici! (This zoo of organisms present naturally in Rye flour is the reason why it is so easy to start a good sourdough culture from rye for example see "manuels starter" in the Laurel's Kitchen bread book.)

Note that this doesnt include Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis which given that its germany suggests to me pretty strongly that the regional variation of wild yeast and bacteria on the grain is the most important. (And also suggests to me that i dont have "san-francisco sourdough here, but more likely german-sourdough :-)

gavinc's picture
gavinc

Thanks for the extra notes.  I agree with your thinking on this.

Regards,

Gavin. 

LindyD's picture
LindyD

Flour, plus water, plus patience never fails to result in a sourdough culture - at least in my house.

Reading about the problems some have had, I wondered if maybe my water was magical. Nah. Sourdough has been around for over 4,000 years, so it's not rocket science. I think lack of patience could be a factor for some. The culture I started last November took some time to develop its full flavor. It's still going strong.

holds99's picture
holds99

Yves,

Appreciate you posting the results of your Internet research.  Very interesting, particularly re: the acidic additives.  I always wondered about the purpose of using pineapple or orange juice at the beginning of the process, as some recipes recommend. 

Howard - St. Augustine, FL

yves's picture
yves

Pineapple is one that frankly I really wonder about. It contains bromelain which is a protein digestor, also know as a meat tenderizer. It also contains high levels of ascorbic acid and citric acid. None of this stuff naturally occurs in grain, and frankly I could see all of it interfering with the establishment of the symbiotic relationships that are required for a stable starter. Both ascoribic acid and bromealin definitely have complex chemical consequences and unless I saw some really good explanation of what they did I would use something reliable and measurable like citric acid powder or vinegar in solution if i wanted to make things a litte acidic to start.

Il just repeat tho. Im not an expert im just presenting my impressions based on the reading ive done on the internet (not always the most reliable place :-), But pineapple juice especially seems wrong. Why would you want to introduce somethat that eats protein into something where protein is important? Given sufficient time the bromelain will eat all the protein in the dough if I understand things right...

 

holds99's picture
holds99

As I mentioned, I have seen sourdough recipes calling for citric juices but have never used them.  I'm still using a starter I made 10+ years ago from Nancy Silverton's recipe from her book La Brea Bakery , where, at the beginning of the process, she uses organic grapes which worked very well for me.  I know there are shorter, easier and less wasteful methods, but hers works if you follow her directions to the letter.  It is a 14 day process.  If I had it to do today I would probably consider ordering a starter from K.A. or Carls.  With her starter I presume at least some of the wild yeast spores come from the skins of the grapes.   

Anyway, you've provided some thought provoking information in your posting.  Thanks again for sharing the information you have compiled.

Howard - St. Augustine, FL

dolcebaker's picture
dolcebaker

I have been reading about problems with starters.. I am about to embark on a sourdough starter.  I have also read elsewhere, that the water additives have a good deal to do with it.  Like a lot of America, there is a lot of bacteria killing addatives in city water (supplied vs well) flouride, chlorine, and all would kill the bacteria in starters as well.  I read that if one has other than well water, it is advisable to let it sit unclovered for an hour or two for the evaporation of these chemicals.


I have well water, but sometimes work in area with supplied water.  Any thoughts on this?