The Fresh Loaf

A Community of Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts.

What makes a “strong” starter? It may not be the feeding ratio…

HeiHei29er's picture

What makes a “strong” starter? It may not be the feeding ratio…

If you read through a lot of the threads on starters, you’ll regularly read that to make a starter stronger, you need to increase the feeding ratio from 1:1:1 to something like 1:3:3 or 1:5:5.  I have done that very thing with my whole rye starter.  I’m very new to sourdough and by no means an expert on this topic.  Just throwing out a recent observation that has me questioning my past experience and methods.

Recently, I made a Nancy Silverton type grape starter that uses white bread flour.  One part of the method that was a big deviation from my previous starter experience:  the feedings I’ve been doing are roughly 1 : 0.55 : 0.45 (66g starter:36g water:30g flour), or a 1:1 ratio of starter to fresh water + flour at 120% hydration.  A refresh is three feedings of 6 hours, 6 hours, and 12 hours all at the same ratios shown above.  This starter leavens dough significantly faster and is far “stronger” than my whole rye.  This weekend, I used it to make a 125% hydration levain (50g flour, 62.5g water, 10g seed), and it was very frothy with really nice gluten formation after 12 hours at 72-73 deg F.

My methods may not have been the best with my whole rye.  Starter maintenance and when it was ready for another feeding was always something I struggled with prior to this.  I haven’t done anything with my whole rye lately, and this new starter experience has me questioning how I’ll keep my whole rye when I try using it again.  My understanding is that a strong starter has a high density of microflora with a good ratio of yeast to bacteria.  The question is how to create and maintain that…

happycat's picture

Maybe I'm lucky but my dark rye flour (sourced from bulk barn out of a barrel) 1:1:1 starter is very powerful. I keep it in the fridge and feed it the night before I need some for a bake and it easily goes crazy in a sealed glass container... a gorgeous spongey foam. I do use filtered water with a Mavea jug. I've been down to 5g of starter sometimes but it always comes back fast with a few feedings to build it back up.

It's super low maintenance. No regular feeds. No high ratio feeds. No additives.

All I can think of is grain, water or cleanliness of the grain, container, process etc. is a problem for some.


HeiHei29er's picture

My rye also got nice and spongey, but when I used it in a levain, the bulk ferment time was always 2-3 hours longer than with this new one.  For whatever reason, I’m not sure I had a good ratio of yeast to bacteria with the rye starter.

happycat's picture

Ah I see. Maybe I see strength and intensity of activity as two different things. I do retarded bulk ferments in the fridge overnight to develop flavour. It sounds like your alternative starter is highly active.

I believe rye fermentation relies on amylase to break down starches in the grain to make it available for yeast to feed on. An alternative starter with more easily available sugars may be way more intensely active.

albacore's picture

Does using grapes to make a starter give you more of a yeast water? ie more yeasts and less lactics, perhaps more rising power?

I'm not saying this is true, more conjecture. I guess monitoring pH during bulk and proof would give some clues.



HeiHei29er's picture

That’s a great question and kind of at the crux of my post.  It wasn’t meant as right Vs. wrong on starter maintenance.  I’m sure there are many that have wonderful starters that are fed 1:5:5.  It was more a post of me thinking out loud and recognizing that there has to be more to it than simply the feed ratio.  The maturing time and the temperature are probably important pieces that I just wasn’t getting right before.  Maybe the grain that you start with?  Freshly milled vs off the shelf that was milled a year ago?  Wild yeast from the fresh fruit changing the yeast to bacteria ratio?  All of the above? 😁

phaz's picture

Starting with a fruit usually to definitely begins yeast heavy. My description of a young starter using that method was - this stuff can raise the dead. But it's not really a sourdough starter. That comes later. That's the balance part which takes a little time. Much like starting the "regular" way", only in reverse. Enjoy! 

justkeepswimming's picture

I was just reading up on this earlier today. Edited to add the TFL thread I just read. Scroll down to minioven's comments, there's some really good info there.

I also watched this helpful video. I love this guy. I'm visual, and his videos helped me a lot last year. Suggestion - watch at 1.5 speed (change in you tube settings). (See also: his entertaining video on 50 ways to kill your starter, lol. PS, this one is more for entertainment value, doesn't address starter strength...)

My overall takeaway: Along with feeding ratios, time and temperature matter when working to strengthen your starter.


HeiHei29er's picture

Those are both BIG helps!

Both mini’s comments and his “peak-to-peak” feeding make sense with what I’m seeing, and also helps me better understand past problems.

In my current method, the back to back 6 hour feedings are past the peak, but before the hungry phase on his chart.  From mini’s comments, they are also eliminating anything that takes longer than 6 hours to mature.  For the 12 hour feeding, it does fully recede to the Hungry phase but not to starvation.  This makes sure the faster growing organisms captured in the first two feedings have time to fully mature and consume everything without getting over fed.

In the past, I would try to do peak to peak with the whole rye, but always struggled with which peak.  My starter would peak, I’d stir it and it would peak again.  Sometimes it would do that 3 times.  I never had a good feel for when to feed in that scenario, and I think I was regularly over fed.

turetam's picture

I use "the scraping method" for refreshing my whoke rye starter. That means, I remove from jar everything but a little scrapings on the bottom and on the sides of the jar, then file the jar with any amount of flour and water (1:1) I need at the time. Works good, my doughs using rye levain always ferment noticeably faster than the doughs on wheat levain.

BakewithJack has whole episode on this topic (although, I keep a small amount of starter, i.e. 50g and refreshing it using that method).

It is also worth noticing that Hamelman uses as little as 5% of the starter to flour weigh to prepare preferments for his rye breads and it works fantastic.




Ming's picture

Being new to culturing a sourdough starter, reading all these different feeding techniques here and elsewhere (YouTube, etc.)  makes my head hurt. It sounds like you are using grape, higher hydration, and odd feeding ratios, correct? Nonetheless, it is nice to read about another starter option that works well. I was actually planning on going to the opposite direction in hydration once my starter matures. 

I actually started my starter with fresh apple chunks, that is how it got geminated on Day 5. Now that my starter is established, I might add some fresh apple chunks back in the feedings for a short while to give it a boost on yeast count. I could also create some yeast water to use it as part of the hydration to feed. Wouldn't the yeast to bacteria ratio be balanced out naturally in the mixture regardless of what we do? In another word, we could change the yeast count in the mixture but it would only be temporary. What do I know anyway?