The Fresh Loaf

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Stiff Starter Question: How well do I develop a stiff starter?

Anonymous baker's picture
Anonymous baker (not verified)

Stiff Starter Question: How well do I develop a stiff starter?

I'm making David Snyder's San Francisco Sourdough #6 this week.

It's the first time I build really stiff starters (1:2:4 mother:water:flour).

I usually don't spend much time building a starter: just mix the ingredients into a shaggy mess and leave it alone, which is much easier to do with something like 1:2:2.

How well should a stiff starter be developed/mixed/kneaded? Can I get away with just a rough mix and let time hydrate everything for me? Or do I have to knead more vigorously?

I don't think I should be working them as much as I am, which is almost as much work as I put into a hand-kneaded final dough.

Our Crumb's picture
Our Crumb

Since nobody else has weighed in... I dealt with this little uncertainty myself this morning as I too was preparing my first ever stiff starter, also inspired by dms's SFSD#6.  So this is pure intuition and zero experience talking.  But when I beheld the little 50% preparation, I vaguely recalled reading something online about kneading this cute little ball of dough.  So I wet my fingers and gave it a few folds.  But then I thought, if the purpose of folding and kneading is to develop gluten and dough strength, then why bother here if this is destined to be broken up and used to seed the next build?  So I just balled it up and set it in a clean bowl.  Now, 10 h later (in a 76˚F house -- the sun rose July here this morning), it's a light, sweet, puffy puddle (even at 50% -- surprising) covering the bottom of the bowl.  So cute, I just want to boule it up and bake the little bugger.

So...I don't see the point of doing anything to early stiff builds to develop their gluten.  I invite TFL cognoscenti (or my loaves this weekend) to show me the error of my intuition.  

One qualification:  My 50% was made this morning from my 100% stock.  So barely any mixing was needed.  However, subsequent builds will be from stiffer (i.e., 50%) starts, and more vigorous mixing will likely be required to homogenize those builds.  But only to homogenize, not to develop gluten.  Save that for the final dough.

TFL brain trust:  Make sense?


thomaschacon's picture
thomaschacon (not verified)

I missed that part the first time around, that you dissolve it in the water.

I didn't even think of doing that.

Now that David says that's what he does too, that makes this a little easier.

I was really having to work to get the stock/intermediate/stiff levain to hold together, to the point where I was thinking: too much work!


Our Crumb's picture
Our Crumb

David's suggestion of letting the broken up seed sit and disperse itself in water (not dissolve -- it's a suspension, not a solution) -- an excellent and proven one. Amazing how many places in baking processes just pausing to let physics happen (classic = autolyse, neo-classic = NKB) is justified and not just being lazy (or in my case, distracted).

btw, same goes (probably obviously) for 100% stocks -- disperse first, then mix in flour.


dmsnyder's picture

I guess you can use a kind of "no knead" approach. If it works for you, I'm not going to argue.

Here's what I do:

1. Transfer the needed weight of seed starter to a 4-6 qt bowl.

2. Add the needed weight of water.

3. Break the seed starter into little bits (marble-sized) with a spatula, spoon or - what I use - a small dough whisk.

4. After letting the starter soften in the water for a few minutes, mix it vigorously (Beat the h**l out of it!) until the starter is well dispursed - ideally dissolved. (This is a good way to burn calories, and it's fun, because, if your seed starter is healthy, it foams up like crazy as you beat it.)

5. Add the flour(s).

6. Mix with a spatula until almost all the flour is incorporated. You should have a shaggy mass.

7. Use your fingers to knead the mass, incorporating all the flour. Continue kneading until you have a shiny ball of dough with no apparent dry flour bits. I do this entirely in the bowl by folding a corner of the dough into the center, pressing it in with my finger tips, rotating the dough about 60 degrees and repeating. This is repeated until I feel the starter is well-mixed and the flour is well-hydrated.

8. Transfer the starter to a clean container large enough for it to comfortably triple or quadruple in volume. Cover the container and ferment the starter. 

The best illustration of this approach I know is the series of videos MC did of Gérard Rubaud at work. Here's a link to a page with a sampling of videos of M. Rubaud mixing his starter. Building a levain à la Gérard: step 1  Watch all of MC's wonderful videos, in fact. They are informative and inspiring. If you are discovering her blog ( for the first time, prepare to be delighted.


thomaschacon's picture
thomaschacon (not verified)

When I get to 6., I have a shaggy mass that's about 70% of the total, with the remainding 30% dry flour.

Before I noticed your direction re: dissolve the starter, I was really having to work to get to the shiny ball stage. Too much work is what I was thinking.

I made the levain this morning by first dissolving the starter.

That made things much easier.

I must be doing something right, because it foamed up just like you say it should, almost like proofed commercial yeast.


It's been a while since I've watched the Rubaud videos. Time to watch them again, even if those light, airy loaves he makes always makes me think I'll never get there.


Our Crumb's picture
Our Crumb

That Rubuad/Farine-mc levain vimeo series is incredible. Fantastic stuff. I'm trying his signature flour mix for a miche this weekend, but don't recall ever seeing those levain clips before. Bloody hell. Incubating on a bed, and under a blanket, of whole grains? If my wife caught me doing that, she'd have me committed. Still, I wish VT was closer -- love to sample his bread.

thomaschacon's picture
thomaschacon (not verified)

He started off as a baker, then was a ski instructor, and is now back to being a baker in a cabin in Vermont. He even has the dog!


Maluz's picture

Well, I sometime bake using a stiff starter, however I keep a 100% hydration one on the fridge and only build a stiff one when I need it. It take's me 24 hours to have a very active and ready to go starter. Like David I only knead enough to incorporate all the flour, but because I am starting from a liquid one I don't need to worry about bits of starter not being incorporated. 

I am no expert, only  a home baker still learning. I love the feeling of satisfaction I get after having shared some of my bread with friends and family and see their faces. 


nicodvb's picture

My wheat starter is as stiff and dry as possibile: 20 gr of old starter crumbled in 10 gr of water and well kneaded with 25 gr of bread flour. Fully kneaded and rolled to a cylinder. I knead it in a cup and keep it there for up to 2 days.

So far it never disappointed me. Being so stiff I coulnd't afford a no-knead approach, it wouldn't even evenly disperse food and yeasts.

Our Crumb's picture
Our Crumb

Have we stumbled into the hall of mirrors resulting from the erosion of "knead's" traditional meaning here, as discussed previous @ TFL by David, if I recall? That said, your in-bowl, 60˚turn, etc. manipulation sounds more like old fashioned kneading than merely mixing.

Thanks David. Always impressed when you generously contribute to a thread that must be as old and cyclical @ TFL as most are.

Curious to observe dough behviour in our now-upper 70˚F kitchen this weekend. I begin to wonder if summer>wine cooler, winter>proofing box are destined to cross over into the 'reality' end of the wish-list. My argument to my wife that this is a CHEAP pastime compared to other paths not taken (golf, scuba, boats) is getting weaker by the season.