The Fresh Loaf

A Community of Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts.

Rye vs wheat vs white starter

browndog's picture

Rye vs wheat vs white starter

The JMonkey/TT epic starter race got me wondering--are there any compelling reasons to choose one starter- -white, wheat, rye--over another in any given bread? What I mean is if you're getting a livelier rise from a rye vs a white, why not choose the rye for your 'regular' starter? I can't imagine you'd notice so little rye content even if you wanted an all-white loaf, but maybe there's more to it than that?

JMonkey's picture

One reason I started up three different types of starters was ... I had an excuse to do so and I was curious whether the different grains would produce significantly different starters. Ok, that's two reasons.

I already keep a rye starter and a whole wheat starter, though they were both originated from rye flour.

As for keeping a starter of a specific grain, I can taste a difference in breads that have as much as 15% of a different grain. A white flour bread with 15% rye tastes different to me than one with 15% whole wheat (unless I'm imagining it, which is entirely possible). Since I tend to use a lot of starter (usually accounting for 30% of the total flour) in my breads, the type of starter (by grain) that I use makes a significant difference in the taste of the bread.

I am also a whole grain nut, so I like my bread to be 100% whole grain. I rarely make white breads.

That said, crazy people like myself aside, it's probably not worth the effort to keep several different starters since it's so easy to covert over. Just take a bit of starter X, feed it flour Y, and after 3 refreshments or so, it's 99.8% starter Y.

sphealey's picture

=== The JMonkey/TT epic starter race got me wondering--are there any compelling reasons to choose one starter- -white, wheat, rye--over another in any given bread? ===

In Hammelman's _Bread_ he discussses his years of working in German bakeries and the research he did to create formulas for various types of German sourdoughs. After talking it over with many bakers his conclusion was that if you using the method of beginning with very small amounts of starter and building up the sourdough using a doubling process it doesn't matter what you use to feed your starter.

Now, I suspect that the desem advocates will disagree...


mountaindog's picture

Hi Browndog,

I agree with both comments above and would just add that I like to keep both a 100% rye starter and a 25% wheat/75% white starter because I do notice a difference in flavor depending on which I use in the same recipe.

From what I have read elsewhere in both books and on other sourdough sites, the type of flour itself strongly determines the specific makeup of the critters living in your starter (as well as temperature and amount of hydration, among many other variables). So different flours, depending on grain type and where in the world they are from, will likely produce different flavors in starters. I think of it like wine-making and how all of the varieties of grapes, the soil type/climate grapes were grown in, and the specific fermentation process all produce very different wines.

My rye starter has a different, somewhat more sour flavor than my wheat starter (both now about 7 months old) even though both are on the exact same maintenance schedule and were originally created from the same rye starter (using SourdoLady's method). I like to switch back and forth between using each starter for my weekly Leonard bread and I notice a difference in flavor with each, leaning toward the rye making a better loaf for me in this particular recipe.

I think if you have a good healthy starter, though, no matter what the grain used, and you like it, there is no reason to maintain more than one, other than for fun and flavor experiments, as it is easy to convert it for a build in a recipe as JMonkey notes above.

browndog's picture

as is so often the case it's mostly personal preference, then, huh? I wondered if the bugs reacted differently in more than just flavor. My palate is as refined as a goat's, but I can see where larger quantities of starter such as you use, JMonkey, would become noticeable in your finished product. I've only done a very little sourdough, and that was mostly Hamelman who, as SPH notes, uses tiny amounts. Mountaindog, thanks for the links! I'm a sluggish researcher, so that's a help, and I've admired your Leonard bread for some time now.

tattooedtonka's picture

To date I have the sourdough experience of a baby.  So my opinion is only based off of what I see, and smell in my own starters.  During our exercise I was able to create 4 different starters.  With all intentions of baking with each, and see which I prefer best.

Before even getting to the baking though, I have preferences.

Each of my starters smells different.  The most pleasent being my Miracle Max (who is also the oldest).  He was one that Bill helped me figure out my errors.

My whole wheat starter would be my second favorite in his appearence and smell.  My rye starter would be last.  I dont know, there is just something odd I am not fond of in his smell.  I continue to feed all of them, because I will hold final judgement after seeing them bake.

My point is, I feel that the ingredients you put into an item, be it baking, or cooking, all play a part in your end results flavor profile.

The whole reason we use different spices in cooking is to achieve different flavors.  I personally think this should hold true in baking as well. 

If you have a Whole Wheat starter that has been fed nothing but whole wheat for 3 years, wouldn't it seem that that starters flavor profile would be different from a starter that has gone through 8 or 9 different transformations from white, to wheat, to rye, to spelt, to wheat again throughout its life span.  Everything I know holds characteristics of its past experiences, I just assume starters would be the same.

As for the ease to convert one to another, I get that.  But after juggling 4 different starters at a time, its not that big a deal for me to just keep 2 or 3 different ones.  They really dont take up that much space or ingredients.  I also like the idea of having at least 1 back up, in case I make another foolish mistake in the future (with me, its known to happen).

Just my 2 cents, take it or leave it.


crumb bum's picture
crumb bum

Hello All

Great question regarding starters.  I have over time kept a multitude of starters.  Different flours and different hydration levels.  I have settled on the liquid starter for its ease of feeding.  I have often wondered if I am missing out on different flavors by just using one starter.  I have not noticed allot of difference in bread using different starters.  It would seem though that if you do use allot of starter in your bread it should make a big difference.  JMonkey ferments up to 30% of flour in a "build" I assume.  I have been making SDGuys 1 stage sandwich bread.  How do you think that different starters would effect this dough?  To make this bread you place 20g of starter in water, add flour and salt and let ferment for 20 hours.  In esscence you are fermenting 100% of the dough.  At first glance it would seem that 20g of starter of any kind would be insignifignent.  The more I think about it though, 20g applied to the entire dough should seem to make a major difference?  You have to figure the different levels of bacteria etc in whatever starter you use would transfer to the entire dough, making starter choice a big deal in the finished prouduct?   Hope this question makes sense.

Da Crumb Bum       

JMonkey's picture

Yeah, I'd say that if you're just using 20 grams of starter, the type of flour you're using is totally insignificant. But if the organisms themselves are different from the organisms in another starter, the bread might taste different as well.

I'm not convinced that there are significant difference between starters, myself, but it seems possible, at least.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

I was feeding an oat starter and a rye starter with wheat and they tasted differently in bread.  A starter made from other grasses or grains might also have different beasties that could adapt to wheat as well (or am I way off base here).   I've been observing the fields daily around my home and notice little things.  The hayfield cut between the apple trees smells differently than the hayfield near the woods.  Although it's almost the same field, the hay under the apple trees has a slight touch of vanilla.  If stray grain were picked under the apple trees and near the woods and each made into a starter, I would be temped to place bets that they would come out different.  I would also bet that under the apple trees, the beasties are older and never been subjected to weed killers or tilling.  They also contain beasties from fermenting apples and pears that ev. get used to make hard cider without any added yeast.  Different beasties are responsible for wine differences, why not sourdough differences?  Just look at the variety of yeasts available to purchase for fermenting wine!  Mini Oven

bluezebra's picture

genetics of yeast reproduction and also the chemistry of yeast. Which influences flavor more? For instance, the biochemistry of it is very complex for a simple, single-celled organism and many of its cell functions mimic those found in humans. So even though it seems simple it is pretty complex.

The family of yeast in sourdough, Saccharomyces exiges, like the common bakers and brewers yeast Saccharomyces cerrivasae, can have either 1 set of genes (haploid), or 2 sets of gene pairs (diploid), there is a dominant and recessive gene in each pair A or a. Yeast reproduce most frequently in a process called budding or "mitosis" which means that one cell splits to form 2 identical cells. In the case of a yeast this second cell is called a daughter cell and migrates out to an outter wall of the yeast and actually "buds" and drops off it's mother cell. That cell can be biologically identical to the mom or and heres the weird thing as I understand can switch! A yeast under mitotic conditions readily switches between expressing that A or tha a. So two different expressions are possible in a yeast cell.

But in times of stress the yeast can actually become diploid and can also go through regular reproduction (meiosis) where it actually "mates" with other yeast cells. So then you have yeasts running around with 2As and 2a's. So you have even greater variability.

So that's the genetic component of it. But then there is the chemistry of it. Different species of yeast digest different sugars and don't digest other sugars. The bi-products of this sugar digestion is ethanol and carbon dioxide and I would think any other sugars it can't digest. The lb's then take the simple sugars that have been broken down and further metabolise them producing waste like acetic acid and lactic acid. So these bi-products are actually the things that flavor the starters along with the sugars that don't get broken down and are still existing in the grains.

So even though you feed yeast with different flour doesn't mean that they will undergo sexual reproduction with the new yeasts on the new flour and then undergo evolution where they eventually "become" a whole new or other yeast strain but it's a possibility.

But the chemistry of the yeast can be different depending on what you feed it because of it's ability to break down the starches available within that particular grain or flour you are feeding it. And depending on the amount of breakdown, the levels of acids and sugars will change over time... so the answer is that you starter theoretically will change depending on what type of flour you feed it.