Tip - Sourdough Starters
Many new bakers are drawn to sourdough (SD). As each baker starts their SD journey, a starter becomes a prerequisite. This post is my attempt to assist those embarking the SD train. There are many methods used by different bakers to successfully make a starter. The information below is the culmination of what I’ve learned from numerous bakers and my own personal experience. There is no single ultimate way to make a starter. Pick a method from a baker with experience and try to stick with it and exercise patience.
This is a work in progress. I am in the process of collecting information that will be posted here. This way, instead of repeating ourselves as we attempt to help those new to SD starters we can link to this post.
We ofter hear, “It barely doubles over 6 hours”.
The height of rise and the time it takes to do so is a very good indicator of a starter’s activity. BUT, in that equation there are HUGE variables! *Temperature - Hydration - Feed*
- Temperature has a great influence on your stater. Recommended temps are in between 75 & 82F. The same starter that takes 8 hours to double at 68F, can do so in 4 hours at 82F.
- A 70% hydrated starter will rise much higher than a 125% starter, because one starter dough is stronger and more able to hold gas than the other. Most new starter are built at 100% hydration because it is dry enough to rise, but also wet enough for extremely active fermentation.
- Whole grain, especially Rye act as steroids for starters! The very best flour to feed a brand new starter is 100% extraction organic whole rye flour. I contacted Bob’s Red Mill to be sure it fulfilled the requirements and they assure me it did. It can be purchased on AMAZON. Once your starter takes off you will not need to continue using this more expensive flour.
HERE is a COMPARATIVE TEST (posted dated 10-12-2021) that a TFL user ran testing 5 different flours on an existing starter.
In a nut shell, starters, like bread dough inflate because of the gas produced by fermentation and rise because the gluten is developed and strong enough to contain that gas. For example, a 125% starter may produce huge amounts of gas that ultimately escape into the atmosphere because the super wet mixture can’t contain the gas.
Most of us have a tendency to judge our starters by the reports we read from other bakers. I know for sure, I used to! BUT, when comparing other starters to ours, the race must be fair. What was their hydration, flour(s), and of utmost importance, the temperature. Without knowing the temperature of fermentation, we know very little about the starter’s capabilities, judged over time.
By the way - the ability to judge the maturity of your starter is very important. It is my understanding (from Debra Wink) that the optimum time to refresh your starter (when maximum yeast is the goal) is once the starter has peaked and just begun to recede. A great way to discern that time is to use a sharpie and periodically mark the glass jar at the current rise level and note the time. (Marker ink is easily removed from glass when washing). As the starter nears maturity continue to mark the vessel with the high level and also the time. Once the starter no longer exceeds the previous mark and you notice a slight recession, it’s optimum time to refresh.
Image below is messy, but you’ll get the idea. We can see that the starters matured in 7 1/2 hr. But to fully evaluate these starters we need to know the feed, hydration, and temperature. If the temp was 68-70F they are very active. But at 82F maturity would be expected much sooner. That applies for these starters, because I know them well.
Tip - a black felt tipped marking pen (Marks-a-Lot) is great for marking your glass jar. It easily washes off with light scrubbing. Mark the level of the starter and on the side put the time. From time to time repeat this, continuing to mark the jar. Once the level of the starter falls below the previous mark it is time to feed. Keep track of the feed ratios, time to maturity and other pertinent information.
The latex glove provides a visual indicator of the gas produced during fermentation. Not necessary, but lots of fun...
My best advice for your best chance at quick success. The comments below are focused upon the easiest and quickest way to succeed.
- Mix your brand new starter by weight. 1 part water + 1 part flour. You don’t need to make a large starter. 50 grams water + 50 grams flour is good when using a small vessel. NOTE - you may elect to use Debra Wink’s Pineapple solution in the initial phase of your starter building. Although not necessary, it is a great preventative method for those that choose to do so.
- The very best flour you can use is 100% extraction organic whole rye flour. This flour is not necessary but it makes a huge difference. I contacted Bob’s Red Mill and they assured me that their flour was 100% extraction. It can be purchased HERE or if you want to buy in bulk, HERE. Your starter will not need this more expensive flour once it matures and takes off. Any flour will work, but there is no better flour than whole grain organic rye for new starters. The outermost portion of the organic rye berry (the bran) is loaded with microbes needed to populate your starter.
- The water should not contain Chlorine and especially not Chloramines. Your best best is to use bottle spring water in the beginning.
- A small, narrow, clear sided glass is ideal. It can be covered with a cap or even a piece of plastic secured with a rubber band. If the vessel is too wide it will be more difficult to evaluate the rise. Glass is also nice because you can write on the vessel with black marking pens. The ink is easy washed off.
- Warm temperatures will have a huge affect on the time required to mature. Recommended temps are between 75 & 82F. Warmer temps will promote quicker activity at any stage of your stater’s life.
- Stirring the new starter from time to time often stimulates activity. After stirring scrape the sides of the vessel down so any growth can be detected on the clean glass.
- When refreshing (re-feeding) your starter by weight use 1 part starter + 1 part water + 1 part flour. The ratio is written 1:1:1 (starter:water:flour). You don’t need to make a large starter. 30g (grams) starter + 30g water + 30g flour is plenty enough and it will save a lot of flour that is often discarded.
- You will need to remove a small portion (30g) of starter to prevent the starter from growing out of hand. Otherwise 30:30:30 (= 90g) is refreshed 90:90:90, you can see where this is headed...
The following instructions written by TheFreshLoaf user, ‘Abe’. When it comes to sourdough (SD) starters Abe is considered an authority.
How To Make A Sourdough Starter
What you will need:
● Flour: Preferably Organic and Wholegrain with Organic Wholegrain Rye flour being the best option.
● Water: Tap water should be fine but on the rare occasion the treatment of tap water in some places may hinder progress in which case bottled water will be a good substitute or one can use tap water which has been boiled and cooled.
● One small jar.
● A warm place to keep the starter with 75-78°F being ideal. NOTE - Abe tells me he specifies 75-78F because it is easier for most people to obtain. Since I have a proofer, 82 is my preference. Be careful to not keep your starter in much higher temps, which can be detrimental to survival.
- Mix into a slurry 50g water + 50g flour. Clean down the sides of the jar. Place the jar in a warm spot and do not feed again for 24-48 hours until you see some activity.
- Onto the first feed: remove 50g starter and discard. Feed the remaining starter left in the jar with 25g water + 25g flour. Return to the warm spot.
- From here on in every 24 hours repeat step two but only if you see some activity. The starter might rise a lot, a little or not much at all but produces bubbles. If no signs of life at all then skip a feed or two until it picks up again and then resume step 2 at a 24 hourly schedule.
- Once your starter is reacting well with each and every feed (this will take about 6 days give or take) then it's time to strengthen the starter by increasing the ratios and frequency of the feeds. So the first step will be to keep the schedule and increase the feed to: 34g starter + 33g water + 33g flour. This is now close enough to a 1:1:1 feed while still keeping it 100g. See how it reacts. Should it begin to rise, peak and fall within 12 hours then switch to a feed twice a day.
- From here on it's just a matter of maintaining and strengthening your new starter. Once your starter is on a 12 hourly schedule, rising and peaking, with a feed of 20g starter + 40g water + 40g flour (1:2:2) it should be ready for the first trial bake.
- Bear in mind your starter is young and will continue to improve over the coming weeks. Maintenance is easy… once you have a successful bake, feed your starter, allow it to double and keep in the fridge. Exact ratios at this stage is not important as long as the feeds are healthy. When baking take some starter the night before to build a levain. Once your starter runs low, take it out of the fridge, give it a good feed, allow it to double and return to the fridge. In the first month your starter is young and it's best to feed it at least once a week (when in the fridge) while it continues to mature but eventually as it grows in strength you may leave it for longer.
“Re-feed only when you see it has peaked and just starts to fall”
It is commonly accepted that the starter has fully matured once it reaches peak height and just begins to fall. When the starter matures it means that the yeast microbes have reproduced and multiplied to their maximum numbers. If the starter is re-fed before it matures, the yeast population will decrease through dilution. - See example below -
Here is a hypothetical example for clarification. NOTE - most bakers use weight instead of volume.
- the starter has equal weights of water and flour. (100% hydration)
- the ratio of the starter to flour is 1 to 1
- the starter is mixed using 30 grams starter + 30 grams water + 30 grams flour (1:1:1)
Assume the 30g of mature starter has 30 yeast cells. (Not near accurate, but useful for this example) Their are thousands of yeast microbes in a few grams of starter.
- The newly mixed starter weighs 90g and it contains 30 yeast cells.
- If the starter isn’t allowed to mature, the 90g of under fermented starter will have less than 90 yeast cells because it didn’t mature.
- If 30g of this starter is used for your next feed (refresh) it will not be as strong as your previous feed. Remember, the original starter had 30 yeast cells in 30g starter. It is getting weaker, not stronger.
Methods to keep your starter super active and refrigerated.
- No Mess No Fuss
- Once a Week Feeding
Once a Week Feeding
My starter was kept on the counter without refrigeration for a couple of years, but it does take a dedicated commitment. The great majority of bakers store their starter in the refrigerator to reduce feedings to a minimum.
The matured starter is stored in the fridge and is consistently feed every Monday morning. This way it remains very active. The starter can be used anytime during the week without refreshing to reactivate. A portion of the starter is used to make a levain in a single feeding straight out of the fridge. Some of the matured levain is placed back into the fridge to perpetuate the starter. The remaining week old (original starter) can be tossed or kept for a week as a backup.
Refrigerating your starter -
This has become my method of preparing the starter for refrigeration. It works for me and you may want to consider it.
- Refresh your stater and allow it to mature. It should rise to maximum height and just begin to recede
- Add a small amount of flour (maybe 10% or so) to the mature starter and thoroughly mix
- Refrigerate starter
The thoughts about the above process -
- The extra flour provide additional feed while the starter is in retardation
- The extra flour thickens the starter a little making it a little stronger (gluten wise) for the next feeding.
This is so important it bares repeating...
Temperature should always be considered when dealing with dough fermentation of any kind. Whether talking about a starter, bulk fermentation, or final proof - the temperature is as important as any other aspect. An active starter can triple in 4 hours @ 82F, but that same starter might take 8 hours @ 60F.
Without knowledge of your room temperature we are unable to offer accurate assistance concerning any type of fermentation. Controlling or adapting to the fermentation temperature is one of the most important aspects of bread baking. I consider normal room temp to be 76-78F. Others may think differently.
It is good practice to dry some of your active starter as a backup in case something happens to your current one. The dries starter will be good for years. Should your current starter die or become weak or corrupt you can easily and quickly restore it from your dried backup.
Other sources related to Starters and Levain -