The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Do small changes in the composition of a starter lead to changes in flavour?

theoldmancunian's picture

Do small changes in the composition of a starter lead to changes in flavour?

I'd welcome the thoughts of any members/readers on this question: can small changes in the composition of a sourdough starter lead to changes in flavour?

I've had a starter on the go for several years but have altered its make-up over time to get a blend that works as the basis for most (well, nearly all)  recipes and that gives a good, subtle flavour to bread.

My preferred mix for this base/mother starter is:

33.3% strong white flour
33.3% wholewheat flour
33.3% white rye flour
mixed with c.83.3% water

I keep a small quantity of this starter on the go all the time (typically c.45g in total), and use it as the basis for the levain required for any particular recipe.

Now, about two to three weeks ago I ran out of white rye and not being able to find any in my local organic groceries (wholewheat rye is much more common round here), I've substituted wholewheat rye.

The standard everyday loaf that my family likes is a sourdough made with 95% strong white and 5% wholewheat flour. The levain for this bread more or less mirrors this blend: for a typical loaf using 500g flour in the final dough mix, I make up a levain with 10g from the mother starter mixed with 45g white flour, 5g wholewheat and 50g water, using 100g of the mix when mature in the final dough.

What I've noticed in the past couple of weeks is that since I substituted wholemeal rye for white rye in the base starter, the flavour of the finished loaf has changed, becoming more complex, with a hint of greater sourness. The change in the composition of the starter is the only alteration I've made to the process of making the bread (timings, percentages etc. have stayed constant).

Now, the actual amount of rye that ends up in the loaf is very small; if my maths is correct, I think it works out at 1.8g in each loaf, i.e. about 0.36% of the flour in the final dough.

I can't believe that that minuscule amount of rye by itself would change the flavour, so is it possible that the switch from white to wholemeal rye in the starter has 'tweaked' the complex chemistry of the starter to produce a new flavour, even if only a small amount of this starter ends up in a loaf? 

Ambedo's picture

Have you noticed if your starter matures faster/sooner? I’m guessing it does and that you are bringing more acid into the formula from the get go - It’s the only thing that I can think of. 

greyspoke's picture

I have the impression that my wholemeal rye starter goes a little quicker than when I mix in other flours, and I also notice only acetic acid smells from it, whereas with more wheat flours  the smell is different, which I attribute to more lactic acid.

Benito's picture

Whole rye creates starters, levains or doughs with greater acidity than white flours.  I noticed this when I switched to feeding my starter whole rye.  However, I am surprised that you can taste the difference given how little of the starter you are using in your levains.

theoldmancunian's picture


yes, I have been surprised at the difference in the flavours. I also bake for some neighbours and they too have commented on the changed taste. I intend to source some white rye to run two parallel bakes and see if I spot the difference in a blindfold test!

Benito's picture

That’s a good idea to run a comparison and have someone taste them blind, ideally it would be double blind.

I use a similar ratio in many of my levains, most often 1:6:6 and I cannot taste any contribution of the rye or acidity from the starter even when making an all white loaf.  I’ll be interested in your findings.