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4 Day Starter - Another Experiment

ElPanadero's picture

4 Day Starter - Another Experiment

So curiosity is in the air this month with Abe and Mini Oven conducting experiments.  My experiment was born out of Mini's efforts of simply covering flour with water which produced a viable starter in about 155hrs, 6-7 days.  I surmised at the time that her starter would take time to develop because the set up was depriving the yeasts of oxygen.  It got me thinking about the role of oxygen in the process and so an experiment followed.

Before I continue I want to say from the outset that I am a firm believer that to make a new sourdough starter you need nothing more than flour, water, warm temperature and time.   The basic simple process takes about a week or more to create a starter and it then develops from there.  The experiment I began last week was done purely to test a theory that oxygen plays an important role, nothing more.  With that in mind, let us proceed . . .

The Theory

Wild yeasts are capable of replicating in 2 different ways which are anerobically and aerobically.  The latter, aerobically is favoured when there is a plentiful supply of oxygen and when there is, the yeasts replicate much faster than they do without oxygen (anerobic).  When we generally create starters we mix flour and water and put the paste into a small jar.  In doing so we are sealing the bulk of the mass away from oxygen.  The only surface area in contact with oxygen is the top surface.  I surmise therefore (and I may be wrong here) that using this method we are forcing the yeasts to replicate anerobically, without oxygen, and that means the growth takes much longer to reach the high population levels we want.  Hence 1-2 weeks.

With this is mind, I wanted to devise a way to maximise oxygen in the mix to allow the yeasts to replicate aerobically and thus faster.   At the same time I wanted to test out Debra Wing's fruit juice method which shortens the early leuconostic activity period that normally lasts a couple of days.

The Method

Tues Evening 10pm

I took a small quantity of freshly milled rye flour and added orange juice to make a loose paste.  No quantities here (it's unnecessary) I just made a wet paste knowing that it will have a tendency to dry out.

I then spread the mix out thinly on a baking tray, thereby maximising surface area open to oxygen and put it into my oven with the oven light switched on to keep it warm.

Next day (Weds) every 1-2 hours I used a spatula to scoop it all up into a pile in the middle of the baking tray, added more orange juice as necessary to keep it nice and wet, mixed it a little and then spread it all out again.

Not surprisingly the paste dries out pretty quickly in this state so constant addition of orange juice is required. 

I continued this process, scooping into a pile, adding more juice, spreading out again, for 2 days.  There were no significant aromas during this time, though the orange juice may have masked them.  That said, without a closed jar, the aromas most likely seep away anyway.

Thursday Evening

At this point I scooped up the mass, and gave it a feed of white flour and WATER.  I used white flour because it was on hand and I'd used up the rye berries in my mason jar and couldn't be bothered to fish out another bag from the garage.

I made a wet mix which had the consistency of a tin of Dulux paint.   I was able to then literally pour this onto the baking sheet and spread it out again.

The lumps you see here are just bits of flour I didn't mix in well, not bubbles.

Once again I scooped, mixed, rehydrated every few hours and left it in the oven.

Friday Evening

I discarded half the mix, fed again with more white flour and water and spread out on the tray again.

Saturday Afternoon

It was now time to quit the baking tray and treat as a normal starter.

I split the mix into 2 halves.  Fed one half white flour and water and the other half wholewheat flour and water.  Again no measurements here, just mixed to the "normal" starter paste like consistency.   Within about 4hrs I got this:

Both starters had risen nicely. The smell was quite pleasant, maybe apple ish.    I gave them one more feed Saturday evening ready for a bake today Sunday.


Made a "mini" loaf as follows

200g white flour, 50g wholewheat flour, 75g starter, 150g water, 4g salt

So only 50% hydration, nothing fancy at this stage.

Bulk fermented for about 3-4 hours.  Unfortunately I didn't have a banneton small enough for a mini loaf so I bouled it up as tight as I could and let it proof.  As it turned out I left it proofing a little too long.  It had risen quite well but when I scored the loaf it fell just a little so I whacked it in the oven as quick as I could.

Here's the result:

Probably could have done with a little more time in the oven too, crust looks a little pale.

The loaf has a mild tangy aroma, but doesn't taste acidic at all.


First conclusion is that Debra's fruit juice method obviously works and cuts out the 2 days leuconostic period where we normally see immediate gas production and get foul smells before the activity dies down again on day 3-4.

The maximisation of oxygen through spreading the mix across a wide surface area and regularly mixing  appears to work too.  It would be useful for someone like Debra to try this and put the mix under the microscope.  I would like confirmation (if it's possible) that the yeasts are replicating aerobically.  There was certainly no ethanol produced that was visible and ethanol is produced when yeasts replicate anerobically as I understand it.

4 days is the quickest I have made a starter from scratch so I'd be interested to know if anyone else has achieved a viable starter in the same period using conventional methods as a comparison. 


Maverick's picture

I love Debra Wink's method and have used it to make new starter several times over the years. My newest starter was quadrupling or more by the 4th day. I did use newly purchased flour this time around and don't know if that made a difference. The temperature in the house might have been a little warmer during the day too. I didn't bake any bread with it for another couple weeks just to be sure, so I cannot say that it was as viable as yours.

I think mine was an anomaly based on things just coming together correctly where yours probably has to do with the method. I know in the past I have had better results when I stirred it once or twice a day. I wonder what the results would be if it was stirred every hour or so during the day. There is definitely oxygen trapped in the inside of the flour paste, but I agree that more oxygen would help.

Very cool experiment. Now I have to go check out Mini Oven's experiment since you got me curious. 

dabrownman's picture

WW, cumin and milk method  this links to sweetbird's write up on how to do it.  This starter makes some sour bread right out of the gate at 4 days too. 

mwilson's picture

Hi EP.
So, first things first, yes yeasts grow rapidly when utilising oxygen via aerobic respiration. Growth occurs almost immediately providing there are available carbon sources, vitamins and nutrients. When yeast metabolise sugars (carbon source) without oxygen (anaerobic) yeast take more time to accumulate the necessary energy before they can start to grow (reproduce).
A fatal flaw in your theory. There is far more oxygen in water than there is the air!
SD is mostly fermentation (anaerobic), More water equals more oxygen.

I grow my lievito madre in water (aerobic), this is the alternative method to wrapping and tying which is anaerobic.
Lievito madre grown aerobically works very fast.
YW is aerobic too.

I'd love to go into more detail but I just don't have the time these days.

ElPanadero's picture

you would drop into this thread. Cheers for the input.

So . . . let's tease things out.

Do we think there is as much oxygen in orange juice as there is in water? The mix was all OJ for the first 2 days.

Your statement re oxygen in water would mean my spreading the paste out on a baking sheet was pointless . . . however, the fact that I was forced to make a very wet, paint like mix might have been the actual reason for the swift growth then, i.e. it was the high liquid content rather than air that sped things up.

Are we saying then that we are better off creating an almost liquid mix when first creating a starter rather than the typical thicker paste consistency?

BTW, interesting to hear you are keeping your lievito in water. I thought you were previously tying it up.

mwilson's picture

Considering OJ is mostly water it must have similar but less levels of oxygen. "Pointless?" Well with your intention yes, but every action brings a different result. Massari says the continued release of CO2 allows for speed, trapping it slows growth. So maybe the large surface area was beneficial in this way. However the speed of fermentation you experienced was most likely due to large portion of added sugars that came when using the OJ.

Wetter is better for speed however there is a limit to how useful more water would be as you'll end up excessively diluting the very medium (i.e. the flour) you're trying to ferment.

I have settled on using the in-water method. I find it simpler to maintain this way, however it less forgiving if not using strict temperature control and as a result I now own a wine fridge! It's speed is phenomenal though.


ElPanadero's picture

"there is a limit to how useful more water would be as you'll end up excessively diluting the very medium (i.e. the flour) you're trying to ferment."

Under "normal" process I would agree. However IF more water means the yeasts will replicate faster then it seems to me we should utilise that advantage. The dilution problem is overcome by the fact that when spread out on a baking tray the water content evapourates away thus leaving the paste with a high concentrate of yeasts behind (assuming the yeasts are not volatile and cling to the water vapour ??).

mwilson's picture

Apologies. I need to make an important correction.

While it is true that there are more oxygen molecules in water than air, the actually useable oxygen in water is less than in air per equal volumes e.g 1ltr of air vs 1ltr of water. Water will sustain an aerobic environment, until organisms deplete the oxygen.

dabrownman's picture

You put out the fire you need to lower the temperature, cut off the oxygen and or remove the fuel.  Water does 2 of the 3.  including temperature and oxygen.  Rust, iron oxide, works the same way.  If you sink a boat in fresh water will it rust faster than dragging it out on the shore?  It will rust slower under water where the oxygen is less free and radicalized then the air.  Free radicals are not usually a good thing most of the time but, for fermentation, free oxygen not bound up in a molecular structure it is a good thing, 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

of failing to make a sourdough starter and how to recognise when it is viable (thru other indicators other than rise) the amount of water covering the "food" is no longer a worry.  Yeast will eventually settle to the bottom when there is "too much water" and allowed to settle.  Just observe homemade beer or wine.  If the liquid is cloudy, the yeast is dispersed, if clear the yeast has settled.  Gas bubbles tend to start small and break into each other getting bigger as they float to the top.

What would be excessive dilution of starting culture?   200%?  400%?  1000%?  

 We've seen recipes up to 400%  so let's call that the upper limit and the flour needs to be moist, milled flour is about 15%  and flour will tend to go rancid before it ferments on the shelf... so lets find a bottom number.  We haven't investigated the lowest hydration to make a starter yet.   I'm guessing it would have to be above 30% hydration.  (Want to wait a month and defend the starter from invasion and drying out until it can defend itself?  another experiment. )   

I don't see the logic in making 100g of starter using a 10 litre or a 2 gallon bucket.  One, my arms would get tired of moving it around and second, it would be impractical, starting a starter can be done just as easy in a half litre or one pint jar.  I've done it and done it under lots of water.  Gosh guys, even beer contains very few solids.  Yeast water?   There is no need to worry about the water as long as the food medium stays wet.  There is an advantage to a very wet starter culture, if it is too wet to rise, it takes up less space in a container as no "head room" is needed to keep a gassy starter from overflowing the container.  

David Esq.'s picture
David Esq.

I used to worry about dispersing my starter in the water before mixing in the flour and water to make the levain.  I'd think, "I'm going to drown my yeast, and have to get the flour in there quickly!"  Now I will worry less. :)

DavidEF's picture

EP, thanks for doing this experiment. This is very interesting stuff. Too bad about the dough over-proofing, but hey, that confirms even more that the starter had strong, viable fermentation going on! When Abe and Mini started their experiments, I started one too, but it didn't pan out at all. After reading this thread, I think I had several mistakes. I've made starter successfully before, but my stuff just didn't do anything at all this time. So, maybe I'll try it again.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

for another 10 days...  

David... what do you mean?   "...stuff just didn't do anything at all..."  

That is impossible.  It had to do something...  hydrate at the very least.  Temp?  

Maybe I do a plain AP experiment.   Maybe make a starter with sauerkraut juice?  Just pour it over flour and watch. ???

DavidEF's picture

Mini, I started two experiments, actually. I started in one container with rye flour and some vinegar and water, and in another container rye flour with lemon juice. Both were mixed on October 2nd. I think it was about the 10th when I added some water and bread flour to each. They never went through a leuconostoc phase, but they never bubbled or rose at all. The mix with vinegar turned very liquid, while the other stayed like a wet paste. A few days ago, I mixed them together in one container and added a little more water and flour.. The whole thing turned very liquid in a day, but no other activity. Then, just as I was about to throw it out, the smell let me know that, indeed, something had happened. I don't understand why it never bubbled or rose, but it smelled beery, so I fed it and it did rise a little overnight.

DavidEF's picture

HaHa! I grabbed my "experiment" last night to throw it out, and when I took the cover off, it smelled beery! So, instead of throwing it all away, I kept 50g, to which I added 150g water and 150g KAF Bread flour. It rose very slowly, but it did rise, so it's not a "failure" as I thought. It definitely wasn't quick, but it never did go through a leuconostoc phase, and now it is alive, though not nearly as "kickin" as yours! I used some lemon juice and some vinegar, plus water for mine. I think the vinegar is what made it go so slowly, plus the fact that it was kept at room temperature in a 70F house.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

was most likely the key factor.   Some starters will skip the Leuconostoc phase, so does that mean there should be two initial directions for the starter?  Don't feed if "Leuco" and do feed if not?   Hmmm.

DavidEF's picture

The temp may have been the biggest factor in it taking so long, but I'm thinking the vinegar and lemon juice helped stop the Leuco phase from occurring. Am I wrong? Or, maybe the rye flour was devoid of Leucs?

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

I'm sure of it.  Also helps to keep out mould which seems to be a bigger problem when the culture needs longer to develop.  

Flour can have different amount of bacteria.  That's what make this starting starter business from flour so variable.  You don't really know what you have until you wet the stuff.  If the first time flour is wet with water and a stinky bad culture results in the first day or two, one can see it thru (with variable methods and variable results) or start over using water with a spoon of lemon Juice or one of the recommended fruit juices to avoid the slow down.  

ElPanadero's picture

You might have lowered the pH too much with your additives. pH of lemon juice of about 2.0, vinegar is about 2.2. A "normal" starter stablises I believe around pH 4.4 - 4.6. Need others to confirm this though as I'm not an expert.