The Fresh Loaf

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What makes a starter a great starter?

tiny_hamburglar's picture

What makes a starter a great starter?

I'm a sourdough novice and I'm curious if the experts on this forum can tell me about what makes a fantastic starter. I'm learning that at the bare minimum, you want a starter to be able to double in size and float in water.

But tell me more.... Does higher frequency of feeding make it better somehow?
I'm guessing that the kinds of flours you feed it make a difference in flavor?
What else do you want a starter to do for you besides provide CO2 gas?

About my own starter:

I inherited my starter from a friend and she probably got it from another friend, so I don't know how old it is... My starter can double in size and get an amazing float within 4-6 hours. (I'm feeding it 1:1:1, half AP flour and half whole wheat).

I've been feeding it every couple of days because I'm experimenting with baking so much lately. But going forward, I'll probably just keep it in the fridge and feed it once a week when I want to bake.

Besides being able to float.... what else can I do to make my starter a great starter?



lloydrm's picture

Many questions all hard to answer at once. 

The perfect starter is the one the yields the results you are looking for (I know, I sound like an engineer, maybe because I am an engineer ... ). Sourdough provides with CO2 (as you mentioned), but also flavor from the lactic acids and complexity from the different types of yeast you favor by feeding at different rates, with different flours, fermenting at different temperatures and for varying periods of time. The greatest guide I've found is how it smells. I don't do the floating thing, ever ... Yeah, it is a good starting point to know when your started is mature, but that's it. 

I like to feed my started before it goes to the fridge. I feed it APF, unless it is not at its best, and for that I use a mix of 10-30% barley 70-90% APF. I always use water that has been sitting for 24-48 hours. 

tiny_hamburglar's picture

Thanks for the engineer's answer, lloydrm. :)

When you feed before you put it into the fridge, how much are you feeding it and how long are you letting it sit in the fridge for?

Then what do you do when you're ready to bake? Do you take it out and feed it again? Or just take it out and let it grow?

lloydrm's picture

Well, It seems like we all do it differently: 

I feed my starter right before it goes back to the fridge (1:1:1). In fact my starter lives in the fridge and I use it every 5-10 days. I've stored it for as long as 4-5 weeks with no problems. In that case I simply add a little extra flour on top and don't fully integrate it into the mix (maybe I read this somewhere or maybe I came up with it about 10 years ago when I was about to leave home for a while, but it works IME). Then feed it 3-4 times at 24 hour intervals in the fridge.


JeremyCherfas's picture

I never do a float test either. If the leaven hasn't risen, it isn't ready. If it has, it's ready whether it floats or not.

Storing in the fridge is a tricky one. I feed and leave at room temperature before going back to the fridge, not as long as doubling, but maybe 75% of that. And I generally do two builds of my starter to get my leaven, so it is good and active.

I totally agree, though, that the best starter is the one that gives you what you want. Fiddling around with flours and hydration, especially if you do a couple of builds, is a good way to experiment.


Benito's picture

My workflow has been this.  I usually bake once per week so my starter lives in the fridge.  The day before I want to build my levain, I take my starter out of the fridge and feed it twice at about 1:8:8 ratio at twelve hour intervals, so two feeding to get it active.  Then the next day I build the levain.  I will put my starter back in the fridge immediately without feeding it again until the following week when I take it out a day before levain build.  This is working well for me and my starter is super active quickly with the two feedings.

I never do the float test.  If the starter grows with the feedings with more than double the rise then it is healthy and active.


andykg's picture

my idea of a perfect starter is one that is low maintenance, you can take it out the fridge once a week and then the evening before you need it, feed it, it rises well, has plenty of bubbles and activity and smells tangy and most important you dont need to discard any.