The Fresh Loaf

A Community of Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts.

A few questions from a newbie

stagebuilder's picture

A few questions from a newbie

Hello, first off I am an experienced baker but sourdough has been something I haven't been able to conquer, but with the quarantine, now is the perfect time. I created a starter that has been going for 4 weeks, I usually do 50% rye flour, 50% whole wheat. I did a country loaf based on one of the YouTubers I follow, the loaf turned out ok, good crumb and crust, but not a lot of flavor. I ended up with a few questions that I couldn't find answers for so I thought I would join here and ask:

1) When should you use your starter, mainly as a levain? I presume there is a specific time during the feeding period to best use your starter. Is that at the highest growth period? I have done the float test with some starter in water. Should you not use it as a levain if it sinks? Are there recipes where it doesn’t matter if the starter is at its highest rise during the feeding?

2) Since flour is a bit harder to come by these days, I have scored some organic whole wheat unbleached pastry flour. Can you use this for feeding the starter or is it better to use AP unbleached instead? I have managed to get Dark Rye, AP Unbleached, and Eickhorn. Never used the last stuff.

3) Is it better to feed your starter the exact same flour you began with or can you change it but keep the same quotients? As I stated before, flour has been hard to come by in the amounts I normally get. I usually keep a 10 lbs bag of King Arthur AP, 5 lbs King Arthur Whole Wheat, 5 lbs King Arthur Bread Flour.

Thanks in advance!

Martin Crossley's picture
Martin Crossley

Welcome to the SD party ;-)

I was pretty experienced with commercial yeast bread myself but it definitely took me a while until I was making SD loaves I was really happy with, and I’m still learning on every bake. So you’re definitely not on your own there!

A lot of the difference in technique comes down to building a strong enough gluten structure to withstand the longer proving times necessitated by the slower yeast activity levels - although the payoff in terms of flavour and nutritional quality are of course well worth the effort.

I’ll try to give some answers to your questions, but inevitably the proper answer is ‘it depends’. To be honest there are seldom really ‘right’ answers here because there are as many different approaches as their are bakers....!

1) when should you use your starter?

In general, when it’s at maximum activity (gas production rate). Typically people will judge this by the starter achieving peak volume after new food and water are added (typically in a ratio of 1:1:1 old starter to water to flour by weight); which is not quite the same thing but a good proxy.

In some cases you might want to allow things to go past this point before using however, for example if you want to achieve a more sour taste in the finished bread.

2) can you feed with organic wholewheat pastry flour?

I don’t see why not - in general high extraction (wholewheat) flour is a great thing to feed starters with as it contains more of the natural yeasts and LAB living in the outer layers of the seed. The only thing with pastry flour however is that it will probably be very low in protein so if you end up with a high proportion of it in your production dough then you might have a tough time developing a strong enough gluten membrane.

If I were you my preference would be to use from 2:1 to 5:1 unbleached AP to ww - but frankly it’s not too critical.

One thing definitely to bear in mind though is that when you change the flour source and feeding regime, the microbial composition of the starter will change, due to different strains of yeast and LAB that are best suited coming to the fore. Therefore it’s best to go through a few days to let things stabilise before putting the starter to use - otherwise you might find that the activity levels are a bit weak and unpredictable.

3) is it ok to change the type of flour you feed with, compared to what you started out with?

Yes it’s fine to change, given the caveats above... in fact, it’s almost impossible to keep your starter absolutely the same from day to day unless you are in a totally controlled laboratory environment and can control absolutely every factor. People who proudly claim that their starter has been handed down for hundreds of years since the gold rush are being a little over-romantic about this.

Finally, I’d recommend that a really great way to ‘get to know’ your starter is to make some time lapse videos of it in the next few hours after you’ve fed it. This is very easy to do with a tablet or smartphone - just google how to make a time lapse video (for an iPhone or iPad, simply open the camera and swipe left or right until it says ‘time lapse’. Put some of your starter in a straight sided glass, with a ruler held to the side with an elastic band and a clock or watch in shot; then just run the video overnight (remember to leave the phone plugged  in).

Have fun and enjoy!


stagebuilder's picture

Thanks for your help, Martin. I figured that the "it depends" would be the answer, but having you address my questions has been helpful. I know it also depends on the recipes your making as far as how you deal with the starter and levain...and later on I'll tackle poolish.