Challenging Sourdough Starter Convention

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I’m convinced. I’d love to see if I could master the process myself but I must have missed the explanation as to how I create and maintain the micro unfed starter. Edification, please.

LOL, it’s too simple to see.

Just stick a relatively small amount of starter in the refrigerator and forget about it. Refresh it per the above video every two or three (maybe even four) weeks.

When you want to bake a loaf of bread, just take about half a teaspoon of starter out of the jar and mix it with your dough. Then wait a bit longer in the bulk proof than you are used to.

Fin.

Bunch more words about how I do the starter thing here:

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Below are some links for creating and feeding a sourdough starter. The key is to get a brand new starter to the point where it has the microbes to leaven bread. Then, how often, how much and at what temperature you feed your starter can be personalized over time to suit your preferences.

Sourdough starter is much more flexible than people are often led to believe. Hence challenging the convention :slight_smile:

Of course, if you’re new to sourdough, it’s much easier to initially follow a protocol that has been proven successful by someone else. The protocol in the “managing” link below is one that works, as does @homebreadbaker’s, and the many practices people describe in the comments that follow the managing post.

If you go the micro-unfed route or do experiments, I’d love to hear about the bread you bake.


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Fascinating! Thanks for these insights.

My sourdough venture began with a recipe that required 2 1/2 cups (!) of starter which must have been over 500 grams. As time passed I used less and less starter and stopped feeding it the night before. Now down to 40 grams of cold unfed starter (sometimes ignored in the refrigerator for weeks) for 1000 grams of whole-grain dough. My experience is the same as yours: given time, the dough will rise and the bread will be delicious and beautiful. Looking forward to going down to 20 grams of starter for the next loaf.

Great article, Melissa. Thanks for the experimentation! It’s great to have what had been my instincts after a few years of sourdough bread creation confirmed. A few thoughts:

  1. It’s interesting that you use the term “standard amount of starter”. I’ve found the standard amount to vary widely from book to book, blog to blog. Myself, I keep a 100g tub of starter in the fridge, and use a teaspoon or so every time I bake, and feed/refresh it every other bake. That’s standard for me, based on the books I read when I started baking, and then adjusted based on my experience. I used to think it was important to “wake up” my starter by leaving it on the counter to warm up for a couple of hours, but lately found that step wasn’t necessary.

  2. It’s hard to mess up so badly that you don’t want to eat your bread! Especially after you’ve done some baking and get the hang of it. I think some of the exactitude that comes from bread books comes from professional bakers that need to replicate the same loaves morning after morning for their customers translating their experience to home bakers. For us home bakers, the wonder of something a little different, either better, or worse, or just different is part of the fun. Not being wed to a schedule is a big benefit of baking a home.

Thanks again! It takes patience and attention to detail to do these side by side experiments, which is why I don’t do them myself!

Jeff

Great experiment as I’ve often wondered the same. The result isn’t surprising as the key takeaway is time. The unfed is going to take longer so as long as you don’t (as you mentioned) “go by the clock”, but rather by feel, then the unfed will do its job, but it’ll just take longer.

Well, thanks for your comment, Jane! I’m still using the 2.5 cups of starter. I use cold adapted sourdough starter - but I think any starter stored in the fridge is probably cold adapted! Thanks to this post, I think I’ll move to a smaller jar and only one and use more water and a LOT less starter. I can do the longer RT rise overnight and then see how long the final rise takes.

Thanks Melissa, great experiment. I guess each one of us have their own way of doing things. I usually take my Mama out of the fridge and leave it on the counter until the hooch is incorporated. Then I scoop out a little less than what’s needed. Then I feed it usually with some of the whole grain in the recipe. This I leave in a warm spot until it is good and ready. The mama also gets fed at this point, left an hour or two and then back in the fridge. This works for me. I also don’t like to get rid of excess mama. To me it’s a waste of good flour and water. I also clean my container every month or so. I always have excellent results in rising and taste.
Keep up with experimentation, new ideas are always welcome. :grin:

Another advantage of using a small amount of starter and also of feeding it less often is that you don’t have to maintain as much and you really never have to discard any. I keep only 3-4 tablespoons of starter in my refrigerator and feed it infrequently. If it’s starting to get strong smelling and tasting, I’ll use most of it in my next batch of bread, move the remaining starter to a clean jar and feed it. I haven’t discarded any starter for ages.

For me, the real significant difference between a recently well-fed starter and one that hasn’t been fed is the level of sour in the bread, at least in whole grain bread. I concur with Melissa’s finding that an unfed starter creates a significantly more sour whole grain bread.

This is a great way to shift the taste of your bread one way or the other, depending on your preferences.

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@bonnieauslander You’re welcome!

@jane1 Wow that’s a lot of starter your initial recipe used. I’m curious which one it was. It sounds like you’ve found your starter groove. My ciabatta recipe uses a huge amount of starter and I’m happy with it, but I suppose it would be an interesting experience to try convert to 20g of starter.

@improbablepantry You’re welcome and thanks for sharing your insights. I agree that predictability and speed are important elements of professional baking, and often our conventions come from that arena. I often wonder if the benefit of the autolyse stage is in convenient breaking down of tasks in a bakery, plus dough development for faster warmer processes. I digress. You’re correct about “standard” not really existing…15-20% starter is I suppose a Tartine thing but not universal.

@oliodenardi thank you!

@lvanderb good luck with your new approach!

@rockspider Your Mama feeding approach sounds convenient and makes sense to me. I’ll definitely keep experimenting.

@wendyk320 Interesting that you’ve had similar observations about flavor :+1:

I bake bread about once a week, and store my starter culture in the fridge. I do warm up and feed my starter culture first; I keep about 1/2 cup (5 oz) on hand, take out about 1/4 cup (2.5 oz) and feed it with fresh flour and water to 100% hydration, then after about 5 hrs at room temp (~74 F) I use about 1/4 cup per dough mix (I make 2 small loaves with a total of 24 ounces of flour), while re-feeding the starter culture before putting it back into the fridge till the next week.

But I save the discarded starter in the fridge, and use it to make sourdough whole grain einkorn waffles for Sunday brunch (I hate to waste anything). I basically use Eric’s recipe, with soy milk and flaxseed instead of eggs (I’m vegan), because I like a recipe with no added oil.

And, I gave the recipe and some starter culture to the fruit vendor at our local farmers market, and she told me that she makes waffles about once a week, feeding the culture when she takes out about 1/4 cup and then putting it right back into the fridge. Sometimes, it sits in the fridge for a few weeks between waffle batches. She rarely bakes bread. But it works for her. And she said that her husband is very happy!

But these are wonderful experiments, and I like the data as well as the photos. Thank you so much for sharing; it can make our lives even easier. I think of sourdough bread as extremely flexible. Very handy if you live a busy life — which I confess I don’t, just a forgetful one.

Great experiment Melissa and a terrific, much-appreciated public service. Funnily enough I just finished posting an account of a mostly whole spelt loaf I made a few days ago in which I used only about 10 grams of mother starter (cold) mixed with flour and water to make a levain.

Correction: I used about 20 grams starter (a tablespoon plus) to make the levain; the 10 grams is the amount of flour in what I put into the levain, as it’s a 100% hydration starter.

if one needs only 10 grams starter (1/4 teaspoon)- then does it matter what flour is used- rye, whole wheat- all purpose. The amount seems to insignificant to matter much… I keep my starters in pint jars in the refer

I have been letting my sourdough starters “rest” in the fridge 3 to 4 weeks for a long time, BUT I usually take them out and feed the day before I want to bake. Recently I used a scant tablespoon starter of an old to make a new starter for gluten free bread. I would love some tips on gluten free starters if anyone has them as well as tips on baking, as I have learned GF is an entirely different scenario.

I feed my main starter only with rye flour every 2-3 weeks. I keep it in small portion about 100-150 gram on bottom of refrigerator door. If I know I cannot feed my starter for longer, I just make bigger portion. It take two feeds to transfer to white wheat in proportion 1 rye starter to 2 water with 2 white wheat flour. I always use 50 gram of starter for two loafs of any type of bread. Before making dough I add 150 grams of water and 150 grams of flour to my 50 gram of starter and keep it in warm place (oven with light on) for 4 hours.I guess to skip that step you have to use whole cup of starter (but I have never used this way)

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Hmm. I wonder if the differences you found are because of the smaller amount of starter or the fact that it was unfed. I suspect that the amount makes little difference in anything but flavor, while the unfed would impact loaf volume and oven spring. There’s only one way to find out…

Tom - it doesn’t really make a difference at all.

One of the biggest change in my bakings happened when I realized that I could change starter amounts in order to time my bakes. Want to bake today, there is a formula, tomorrow, 3 days etc… but the question what always how to figure that out. This table over at the freshloaf has great calculations based on the logarithmic nature of starter.