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Sourdough Starter - Hows, Whys, Whats


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Assuming you get it back to life, once a week should be the outside limit to go without refreshing. And you might consider adding just a tiny pinch of baking soda to your starter

Why would you add baking soda to your sourdough starter?

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I think it was Jackal who suggested incubating at 90 degrees to get it started again, and for me that's a good technique. Lately I'd been having trouble with my own sourdough starter, having spent the past several months consumed first by hurricane Katrina and then the holidays, and then when I went back to kick start my sourdough starter, it didn't perform quite the way it had in the past, giving me quite a scare (I've had it for about four years now, and it's always been reliable).

But the bulb I've used in my incubating box had died as well, and I substituted it for the only bulb I had on hand, which was 5 watts lower than usual. And nothing. Or not enough. It was puny and weak. And so when I changed the light bulb to just 5 watts higher, pushing the temp to 90%, there it was again. Worked beautifully. I increased the flour a bit as well, but I think it was a combination of both.

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  • 1 month later...

14 days ago, I gave birth to my sourdough chef. I decided to go for a fine wheat starter based on fermented fruit.

The basic Idea is to use the bacteria present in the peel of fruit to start a fermentation process in water. After a critical mass of bacteria is reached in the water, you start your chef, and the friendly yeast bacteria present in the liquid can feed off the starch in the flour to continue growing. I chose apples as thet are easy to peel, and I didn't have to peel so many to get about 300 grams of peel.

It takes about 17 days to complete. 14 days of apple-peel fermentation, and 3 days of mixing in fermented liquid with flour. But after that it's just a matter of keeping it alive. And you can have your chef for ages.

As I write, the chef is relaxing in my kitchen, and has one more day to go before I can use it in baking.

I'll make sure to post pictures of finished sourdough masterpieces in this thread!

Any questions or feedback is greatly appreciated.

For more details in the process you could always take a look at my homepage (http://www.glennbech.com/)

Day 1

This is my IKEA $5 Jar with 300 g peel from apples in 2 liters of water.


Day 15

3 dl of the liquid is mixed in with 300 grams of wheat flour. Nice and bubbely. For the next few days, this mixture will be mixed in with new fresh flour and starter liquid.


Edited by glennbech (log)
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Great thread - and very timely! Kevin and I just started talking about making a new starter as he lost much-beloved, 8-year old starter in a divorce several years ago.

I do want a clarification, please... In this thread, you indicate about 17 apples but on your blog, you say 7 to 8. As I will be measuring to get about 300 grams, I'm sure I'll figure it out, but wanted to make sure.

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Hello Carolyn,

Sorry for the mistake about 17 apples. Hope you didn't start peeling. My intention was to write 17 days to complete the chef. I guess you'd have to peel 6-10 apples depending on size.

Lost a chef in a divorce, lol! They couldn't share it ?

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Great post. However the yeasts and bacteria that live on apple peels are different from those that eat flour (or rather degrade the starch in flour to sugars for the yeast). The natural fructose in the apple peel will give an initial fizz and false start, but then the starter will appear to get less active while the flour bugs take over, if they can. You then have to keep refreshing your starter until all the apple junk drops out.

You might like to to try instead (or as well) to make a starter with equal weights of flour and water, and a little rye flour if you like, and leave it at about 30C/90F. When it begins to bubble in a day or two take throw out two thirds and replace it with and equal weight of fresh flour and water and leave for another day or so at the same temperature. This process reduces the acidity and waste by products that would otherwise inhibit the yeast. It should then be lively. Refresh a couple more times, if you like, and its ready to bake.

Happy to send some of mine if you like.

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You might like to to try instead (or as well) to make a starter with equal weights of flour and water, and a little rye flour if you like, and leave it at about 30C/90F. When it begins to bubble in a day or two take throw out two thirds and replace it with and equal weight of fresh flour and water and leave for another day or so at the same temperature. This process reduces the acidity and waste by products that would otherwise inhibit the yeast. It should then be lively. Refresh a couple more times, if you like, and its ready to bake.

This is essentially how I made my own starter, Ringo, who has faithfully served me, making wonderful sourdough bread every two or three days for the last two years. I used one of Peter Reinhart's methods, which started with only organic coarse rye flour and water, and once it got going (which was pretty much immediately), was fed with just white flour and water.

Rye flour loves to ferment, but as I replaced the rye with wheat flour, I saw that the bacteria that loved the rye weren't so fond of the wheat. I saw the starter drop off to very little activity and slowly build up again, to the degree that I wondered if it would've been just as effective to start with just white flour and water.

You see starter recipes all the time that call for grape skins or other fruit materials, and just as often see other recipes that say the fruit stuff is just old wives' tale nonsense and that all you need is flour and water. I say whatever works is fine.

My only advice to someone building a new starter would be that you shouldn't worry about whether you are meeting the timetable in your recipe. Your recipe may say that it should double in such and such a time on the third day, or whatever. Don't worry about it. Similarly, don't worry about whether you feed your starter once, twice, or three times a day. Just set a schedule and stick to it, and keep doing it until your starter gets good and active. And if you're wondering if it's active, then it isn't. Believe me, you'll know when it is.

And my own opinion is that chlorine in tap water retards wild yeast development, although I've read that that's a myth too. When building a new starter, I would let the tap water sit out overnight (the chlorine evaporates) or use bottled water.

What was the source of your method, glenn, if I may ask? And good luck! I hope you see it through and keep posting the pictures.

"I don't mean to brag, I don't mean to boast;

but we like hot butter on our breakfast toast!"

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Hi All, thanks again for nice feedback. I'm looking forward to participate this active community of foodstuff lovers -)

As an answer to seth/jack I'll have to say that the source of my method is one of a rather famous bread bakery in Oslo, Norway, and their published book. They do not state a special reason for kicking off the starter on fruit, other than that you might recognize the taste in the final product. They also claim they survived their troublesome start making apple pastries for a local coffee shop, and used the leftover peel for fermenting starters.

I have a questions though; Is it easy to get a starter/chef going on a pure fine wheat flour? I've tried a couple of recipes earlier with rye, but I find the taste not very suitable for fine white bread, and better for wholegrain like for example the danish 100% rye bread (which, you cannot make without sourdough)

I guess a 100% sourdough starter made from pure white wheat flour would do just as fine as my fancy one from apples :-) However, Im really looking forward to have my first slices of bread with the jelly I made from the leftover apples .-)

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So long as you use unbleached or not bromated white wheat flour it will work fine - the bleaching process kills the natural yeasts and lactobacilla.

Might take 4 days or so to get going, and, like all new starters, a month or so of regular feedings to get it stable and up to strength. Temperature is important - keep it around 30C/90F to select the right bugs.

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Thanks for the tips jackal10, I guess I'll have to do some research on how and where to shop my ingredients. The local supermarkets, even the well stocked ones do not carry a lot of different flours here in Norway. I've read some of the more technical discussions here about gluten content and milling. Im amazed by the different things you guys have in stores in the US (And other countries as well).

Anyway : An update of my progress is in order as well...

Day 16

Today we take 3 dl of fermented apple peel liquid, and mix in 300 grams of fine wheat flour. we also add 1 dl of the product from day 15 and throw away the rest.

This time we put it in the fridge. I'll try to use it for baking, and start the feeding process tomorrow. Im hoping to get a stable and reliable chef for sourdough baking going.


Edited by glennbech (log)
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I have used grated potato to start a starter ... but I wasn't as precise as some, ... grated raw potato, stirred it into equal parts of unbleached white flour and water, let it sit out on the counter for a couple of days, feeding it water and flour every few hours, then when it got a good bubble, put it in the frig and fed it daily, then every few days. I assume the potato is the same function as the apple ... providing some starch/sugar to kickstart the yeast from the air.

I have also made a Kamut and a whole wheat starter from scratch, without the use of potato. I am now working on a rice flour starter which would go better if I paid it more attention. Susan

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It's always a bit de-motivating when you spend a lot of time on a project, and it doesn't go according to plan. I guess that happened to me. So have a look and learn, see how things can go when working with starters, chefs and sourdough recipes.

My Recipe was as follows;

1 kg of Fine what Flour

6,5 dl of Luke warm Water.

24 grams of salt

500 grams of sourdough starter made from fermented fruit. You can have look at a recipe for this starter earlier in my blog. <a href="http://www.glennbech.com/2006/04/baking-with-sour-dough-how-to-make.html">http://www.glennbech.com/2006/04/baking-with-sour-dough-how-to-make.html</a>

The first thing that struck me was that the dough was extremely wet... I know all of the recipes from that particular book emphasize on using wet dough, so I didn't think much of it.. After struggling a bit with it to form three loafs of bread, I covered it up to rest for an hour or so.

The next thing was that to follow the recipe, I had to use 100% of my starter. I was not very keen on that and wanted to keep 100 ml for further use, so I gambled that 430 grams of sourdough would be enough ( 70 grams short, or 14% less than stated ) .

The results were disastrous and the sourdough did not rise properly, the recipe told me to put the loaves on a sheet of baking paper, cover them up and let them rise. Instead of rising "upwards" these bastards chose to rise "outwards". Instead of bread, I got pancakes!

After 2-3 hours of "rising" I gave up, covered in plastic and went to bed. The next morning, not much had happened, and I threw the breads away without baking them.

I am going to make the qualified guess that three factors made this dough a disaster;

- The starter wasn't well enough developed. I kept it and have been feeding it, so I hope it will come along nicely after a few more days.

- I took a shortcut and kept 80 grams (1 dl) of starter. Used Less that the recipe stated.

- My starter is probably (for some strange reason) more liquid than the starter the recipe was based on, making the total amount of liquid in the dough higher than desirable. Hence the pancakes...

At least, these are my theories and the things I'll try differently next time!

Here is a step by step illustration of the baking disaster.

1. The loaves are a bit small, but I still hope they will rise, I took the dough out from my Kenwood kitchen machine, and made three loaves, you can only see two because I had another "accident" with the third. Not my day!

<img src="http://www.glennbech.com/uploaded_images/step2lookinggreat-770093.jpg">

2. After half an hour or so of rest, I do the finishing touch on the dough and put them on a paper sheet and cover, so the rising process may begin. I was pretty happy with my result, and pleased with myself.

<img src="http://www.glennbech.com/uploaded_images/step1okay-779898.jpg">

3. Im starting to suspect that this is not going to be the bread of my dreams .-)

<img src="http://www.glennbech.com/uploaded_images/step3notsogreat-761329.jpg">

4. Even After two hours the loaves are not rising at all but just floating out like giant pancakes ... This is pretty much how they looked 12 hours after as well.

Can't get much worse tha this ? to bad I don't have a profile shot of the doigh, mabe 1 cm (0,5 inches) high.

<img src="http://www.glennbech.com/uploaded_images/step4disaster-752623.jpg">

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oh dear, oh dear.

Your bread recipe is not too bad. Quite a lot of starter and that will make it fairly sour.

Lets do the sums:

Assuming your starter is roughly equal weights of flour and water (you refresh it with 300gm flour and 300gm water)

All bread formulas use Baker's pecentages, that is relative to the total weight of flour.

Total flour is 1Kg + 250g =1250g (from starter)

Total water is 650g+250g= 900g or 72% hydration. That is a wettish dough, as you found. Cutting the water back to 560g will give you a 65% hydrated dough which will be much easier to handle.

Salt is 2% which is OK

The dough will need support while rising, for example in a banneton (cloth lined basket). If your starter is active it will take around 3 hours to rise with that much starter.

More worrying is that your starter doesn't seem to be very active.

I guess either start again -100g plain flour and 100g water, maybe a little malt or rye, and leave for 4 days, stirring every day until its really bubbly. You can hasten the process by taking 10ml of your current starter, which will have some activity. You will then need to refresh it a couple of times - take 10g of that and mix with 100g each of flour and water and leave 24 hours at 30C etc..

Alternatively pm me your snail mail and I'll post some starter.

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As Just loafing mentioned upthread, potato is often used. I think the best starter I ever had was one I started with water in which whole potatoes had been boiled, then I grated some raw potato into the still hot water and left it set uncovered for a day then strained out the solids so I had about 1 1/2 cups of liquid then stirred in a cup of flour, covered the bowl with plastic and left it on the counter. 3 hours later the top was blown up like a balloon from the fermention gases and the mixture had tripled in size, bubbly and had a wonderful aroma, somewhat beery.

My home is just a mile downwind from a brewery and it's possible some of the yeasts they use escaped and colonized my potato water media. However it could have been any wild yeast.

It was a very active culture, though not very sour, more like French bread, and I got terrific oven spring, in fact, when the top was slashed and the loaves put in the oven, the dough would sometimes mushroom up through the slash so it looked like one loaf sitting on top of another. Unfortunately it was mistakenly tossed out while I was away on an extended vacation and I haven't taken the time to start another culture.

Now I usually do the overnight delayed proofing in the refrigerator using the LA-2 Pain de Campagne Starter from King Arthur Flour, as that gives me the texture and taste I want, without having to maintain a starter.

I think that patience is the main thing you need to have when you work with bread, particularly sourdoughs. And you have to think of the formula as a chemistry lesson. Unlike most cooking, any baking requires precise measurements.

I can't think of a better instructor than Jack. He has the technique detailed to perfection.

What is the ambient temperature in your location? I have problems with overproofing in the summer unless I have the air-conditioning set to keep the kitchen temp below 85.

"There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What's up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don't think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!" Terry Pratchett


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Some links you might find helpful in addition to Jack's instructions.

Sourdough bread process

note the mention of dough flattening during rising....

Mike Avery's site/resources

Bread and sourdough.

"There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What's up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don't think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!" Terry Pratchett


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JAck; Thanks for the tips. I'll reduce the hydration to about 65% and make sure that my starter is active. I'll post the results in the thread.

By the way; Any good tips on keeping the temperature at around 30c ?

My kitchen is a bit drafty, especially during winter. The indoor temp is always somewhere around 20-23 depening on the season.

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By the way; Have any one seen a start look like this ? It's a thin layer of fluid on top of the "dough". Very strange... I guess this is a very bad sign .-)


.. .And I'm throwing this one away and starting over again, with plain white wheat flour after Jack's instructions when I come back from holiday.

I had high hopes for my fruitstarter .-) Maybe I'll try it again later when I get more usded to regular ones, and know how they should behave .-)

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  • 10 months later...

I have read in different sources that distinct sourdough starters revert to local varieties of lactobacilli and yeast when they are cultured in a a new location for a while, so that a san francisco sourdough starter brought to new york would become more like a native new york starter after some weeks or months of use, and less like a san francisco starter.

And the opposite theory, that distinct starters remain distinct once they're well established and stable, is also held to be true in various sources.

Can anyone here point me to a good reference on this question?

And sorry if I'm duplicating a question asked and answered many times already--I tried the search but can't figure out how to make it specific enough to avoid hundreds of posts that refer to sourdough starters in general.

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there a third possibility that perhaps you're not aware of: the starter takes on the personality of the flour it's fed with...

sorry to complicate your question; i hope you get it answered. i suspect there's truth in all 3 "possibilities."

i think i used to know but as my mind is full of many things i think i threw it in the "recycle bin" to make space! i'll try to call one of my old teachers for you.

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I think Artisanbaker baker is right, and that there is truth in all three.

A sourdough culture is complex, with perhaps tens of different strains of lactobacilli and yeasts. Additional strains are present in the air, water and flour you feed it with - your bakery is not sterile. The temperature and feeding regime will be a little different to its origin, Inevitably the balance of strains will change and evolve to those best suited to your local conditions. Species that are favoured by your temperature and feeding regime will outgrow those that are not, and strong species from your local environment will find their niche in the mix, perhaps outperforming an imported species.

Certainly I have noticed that when I get a new starter from another baker, it evolves over about a month. The starter I normally use seems robust and stable. If I bring a starter from San Francisco the characteristic taste goes over a week or two, and it ends up similar to (but maybe slightly more or less vigorous different) to my normal home starter

Edited by jackal10 (log)
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Additional strains are present in the air, water and flour you feed it with - your bakery is not sterile.

Thanks both of you for the reply. This sounds exactly in line with my thinking--I have spent enough time in a lab working with bacterial and yeast cultures and know the lengths to which we went to keep our cultures sterile.

I'd really like to find a study where someone analyzed starters in various stages of adaptation, and showed what was going on--taking something like your experience with the starter beginning like SF sourdough and ending up more like your "native" starter, taking samples at the beginning, after one week, two weeks, three weeks, and one month of regular feedings, and comparing those to your own home starter.

It wouldn't be a terribly difficult study today--an advanced student could do it for a high school science fair project.

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if you go to bbga.org and order the "sourdough" leacture series on tape then i bet dollars to doughnuts you'll find the answer and probably even a study as you've described. there are 7 cassettes and lecture material featuring many many many EXPERTS in the field. i'm just a baker...

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I truly hope he does not mind my posting this here, but I just e-mailed Ed Wood, the author of Classic Sourdoughs, yesterday with the same question. I was thinking about purchasing some of his Italian culture from his site, and before I did so I was interested in whether it would be an "Italian" culture for more than a few months in my kitchen. Here is the reply he sent to me (he had a prepared document because he said this question is asked of him so much):

His website is http://sourdo.com/culture.htm


I am frequently asked if local organisms will replace the organisms from a culture moved from another area such as San Francisco, for example. I have long believed that San Francisco bakers were responsible for that myth to persuade the public that to get an authentic sourdough bread, one must go to San Francisco. I think that stills plays a part in keeping the myth alive, but there is something else involved.

It is well established that the organisms of a sourdough culture function in a delicate balance. When a culture becomes too acidic from the metabolism of the lactobacilli, the wild yeast are the first to be inhibited. When the acidity increases even more, the bacteria are also adversely affected. In either case the culture is out of balance.

Simple things including prolonged refrigeration with long dormancy can trigger such an imbalance. Over dilution of a culture can do the same thing. Even using a very large container can produce an overly acidic culture following multiple feedings. Each new feeding causes a small increment of increased acidity which in time inhibits the culture. A quart jar which requires discarding some of the culture after two feedings offers just enough dilution to prevent this.

These imbalances often cause of loss of sourness or failure to leaven properly. However, they are almost always blamed on some local organisms displacing those of the culture. It doesn’t happen. It is a myth!

One of the best ways to cure the imbalance of a culture is to get it fully active then develop (proof) it for 8 hours at 80oF.

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If you ask at the SFBI, I expect you can.

Sourdough cultures have had surprisingly little scientific study, and don't feature a lot in yeast libraries and the like, although individual bakeries may keep their own library.

The Handbook of Dough Fermentations (Kulp and Lorenz) ISBN 0-8247-4264-8 is one of the few text books on the subject, but a lot of it is about rye sours.

It would be surprising if the culture did not adapt to local conditions. With a new generation roughly every 20 minutes, evolutionary adaption happens quite quickly.

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