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Signs of a stable sourdough starter...?  RSS feed

 
Joseph Weidinger
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I know that when there is a mature symbiotic relationship between the wild yeast and Lactobacillus you have a stable starter, but how can you see it?

I followed instructions on northwestsourdough.com and after day 5 switched to a 2:1 wheat to rye ratio with 100% hydration. I might phase out the rye. I'm now on my 9th day or so. The site says 2 WEEKS AND YOU'RE DONE, but I want to be more sure. The starter doesn't bubble a lot on top any more like it used to when it was wetter. But it does rise dramatically and air pockets are visible from outside of the quart jar all over. Smells kind of like flour and over-ripe bananas... I'm taking out half and replacing it each day. (Chickens love this stuff, by the way.)

 
Bill Crim
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Location: Issaquah, WA
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I keep my starter fairly wet, nearer to 166%(equal volumes of water/flour) vs 100%(equal weights water/flour) hydration. Honestly I eyeball it, if it looks a little too soupy, I add a bit more flour. I use my starter constantly; I bake bread at least once a week, sometimes twice. I started my starter from scratch, and I have had it for about a year and a half.

If you keep your starter wet like mine(166%), you get bubbles on the top. When active, mine increases in volume by 1/4 to 1/3. Since it is so wet, the bubbles can reach the top without getting trapped in the starter, so it doesn't puff up much. If I move my starter towards 100% hydration, how it looks depends more on the shape of the container. Wider containers tend to get bubbles(similar to cooking pancakes) and low rise. Narrower containers tend to rise taller, and look more like bread dough, since the bubbles get trapped under the weight.

My own experience is that, the exact same starter in a tall, thin, container will smell more creamy/yoghurt-like. While a wider container it will smell mildly cheesy/banana. Both will have nice sour punch if you put your nose right into the container. However, they will both perform the same in the bread, with no discernible difference. I suppose it is just an artifact of the slightly different levels of ambient oxygen.
starter.JPG
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Starter
 
Joseph Weidinger
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Nice, thanks for that information. I am also using 2:1 whole wheat to rye ration. It seems to be doing well. Any word of caution for a non-white starter?
 
Bill Crim
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Most rye bread uses enough wheat in it that you don't usually need a special starter. I make rye all the time and just use my white flour starter. Comes out fine. Plain white starter is more useful than rye starters, since if you want to make a pretty white baguette, you will get flecks of rye in it. Tastes good, but looks odd. Rye feeds the bacteria better than wheat, so if you want your bread to have a little "kick", you should add a 1/4 cup of rye to a 3-4 cup white recipe. If you are making a "Whole wheat" type recipe, add up to 1/2 cup of rye. It tastes so much better than wheat alone.

I have done A/B testing on this on my coworkers. Regular wheat bread(1 cup white, 2 cups wheat) vs Rye-enhanced(1 cup white, 1 3/4 cups wheat, 1/2 cup rye). They look identical, but the rye enchanted won hands down.

 
Joseph Weidinger
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I guess I lack a fundamental misunderstanding about what the starter should be though. It sounds like you just make your starter out of white then add other kinds of flour IN THE LOAF when you want it to be a different kind of bread. Does it really matter what the starter is actually made out of?

Also, I'm using King Arthurs "white whole wheat." This doesn't make sense. There is white, then there is wheat, then there is whole grain flour (with bran and germ). What does "white whole wheat" mean then....
 
Bill Crim
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When you are thinking of your starter, think of it as a replacement for yeast.

Before the time of large scale beer making, all bread was made using sourdough methods. The brewers perfected the techniques of isolating yeast strains to get the faster rising yeasts. The point of the starter is to provide yeast. The point of the lacto bacteria, is to make the mixture highly acidic to retard the growth of other yeasts and bacteria. The kinds of natural yeasts that consume wheat work slower the commercial yeast, but they can tolerate the highly acidic mixture. The acid also aids the yeast by breaking down the starches. The combination of the slower yeast and the acidic bacteria lengthen the fermentation time, and create many more complex fermentation byproducts. This enhances the flavor of the bread. The simplest, and most flexible, way to achieve good sourdough(as opposed to commercial yeast) is using a starter. With a basic flour/water starter, you keep the yeast growing in a high acidity. You can then vary the kind of bread you make much more.

Other kinds of sourdough methods use left over dough. i.e. if you have a plain flour/water/salt/starter bread, you can make it into bread dough. To continue the line of yeast/bacteria, you can set a piece of dough aside to use as the "starter" for next time. This method works fine if you are always making the same kind of bread.(such as the old "sourdough" miners making their plain bread every few days)

Most people/bakeries prefer the predictability, flexibility, and lower time of the commercial yeasts. 45-60 minutes each rise for commercial yeast, 8 or more hours for sourdough yeast. "Sourdough Bread" is not the same thing as using sourdough methods. Normal bread made with sourdough methods doesn't have to taste strongly tangy, so long as you don't let it go for too long. If the bread gets too tangy, the acid will chew through the gluten and your bread will be dense.

Regarding wheat...

There is a kind of wheat called "White Wheat", as opposed to "Red Wheat". It is "whole wheat flour" made with "White wheat" which has less color in the bran. I have seen marketing related to white-vs-red wheats, but I really haven't delved into the depths of the argument. I've made bread with both, and I find that other factors(time,temp,moisture,recipe) swamp out the difference in flavor.

 
Joseph Weidinger
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I think I understand. So it doesn't really matter then because all I want is the yeast and yeast is yeast no matter if it is whole wheat or refined (all purpose, bread flour, etc.)?
 
Bill Crim
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So long as you feed your starter roughly the same thing every time, it will be fine. i.e. if you feed it white flour, keep feeding it white flour. But don't worry too much about specific varieties of wheat or brands of flour. If you are making rye bread all the time, by all means feed it a mixture of rye and wheat. Starter is fairly resilient after its first few months.

Natural yeast has many more variable properties than commercial yeast. Some work faster, or are more gassy, than others. Some have more vigorous bacteria. Thats why people buy/keep/make different cultures of starter. For instance, the San Francisco starters worker slower than ones made in the northwest. The slower rise time helps SF sourdough take on its unique characteristics. My starter, which was created from scratch, works somewhat quickly. However that can mean that the yeast can expend itself before the bread gets too sour(if sour is what you are after). Yeast matters, but if you are making your own starter from scratch, you are still working with just your local natural yeast. There is no technique that can recover from a pathetic yeast strain.

Techniques matter more than starter(assuming the starter is adequate) in bread making. However, the choice of techniques is dictated by the performance of your starter. Gauging the strengths of your starter will be useful. I created a basic plain bread recipe that helped me find the balance in my starter.

Here is the base recipe:
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 2 tbsp starter
  • 1/2 tsp salt(Add as last ingredient)


  • Kneed it, and let it rise for 8-10 hours.
    Punch it down, form the loaf, and let it rise again for 8-10 hours.
    Bake at 475 for 15 minutes(or until internal temp is ~200F)

    Use this as your baseline for experimentation. It will make you a small baguette.

    Now that you have a baseline, adjust the salt and starter combinations to find the best bread type.
    I did the following to find my proper mix...
    I baked 3 loaves, one with each of 2/3/4 tbsp of starter. Once I found the right one, I baked another 3 and then I adjusted the salt. 1/2 tsp, 1 tsp, 1 1/2 tsp.


     
    Joseph Weidinger
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    Thanks, I'll try that. What would happen if you would make bread out of NOTHING BUT STARTER?
     
    Bill Crim
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    Early on, I got tired of throwing so much starter away. So I decided to make bread that was 1/3 starter, 2/3 dough. It was bleh. It didn't taste bad per-se, but it tasted like a bread parody. If you have too much starter, vs other ingredients, the bread tastes kind of "flat" is the best way to describe it. The dough also had a grayish tinge.

    I wish I had chickens; I would totally steal your idea of feeding it to them.
     
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