Not so 'sour' sourdough - Adjusting Sourdough Starter?

(paigelida) #1

I am new to Breadtopia, but have been baking No-Knead bread variations following Jim Lahey’s No-Knead book for over a year now and loving it.

I want to start making sourdough breads, have ordered starter from breadtopia and have done a lot of reading/research on sourdough (though I feel like I have so much more to read/learn).

My question (that I can’t seem to find first hand experience with - have just read about this possibility) is:
Is it possible to adjust a sourdough starter (or create one) that results in a bread with very little “sour” taste?

Any articles/experiences you have on this would be greatly appreciated!

(Leah) #2

Good morning, @paigelida, I’m a very novice bread baker. I’ve been using Eric’s videos here on Breadtopia to learn how to bake No-knead sourdough bread. Then I was, very thankfully, gifted some sourdough by a dear friend that I lovingly tended and fed before baking with him a couple months later. My baked sourdough loaves do NOT have a “sour” taste. They are very mildly flavored. I’m not a scientist nor do I know a lot about the intricacies of sourdough. I do have a couple of personal opinions/theories though.

  1. Perhaps the type of flour you feed your sourdough can influence its flavor as well as your location, home environment, the local wild yeasts/bacteria that live in your home and will cultivate your personal batch of sourdough. Obviously, some aspects will be completely out of your control, such as environment, etc. I simply feed my sourdough, named Cyril, organic Arrowhead Mills all-purpose flour that I pick up at my local grocer and bottled pure spring water. Different flours may produce differently tasting sourdough but that’s just my personal theory as I don’t have any experience with it.

  2. Do NOT use tap water to feed your sourdough. The chlorine in the water will kill the starter before it even has a chance to grow. Try not to use distilled water either. Even though it’s pure water, it’s devoid of minerals. Your resulting bread will be bland and have no personality.

  3. I have read that those bakers who do a really long slow ferment in their refrigerator for a couple days before baking their breads result in their finished loaves having a much tangier sour flavor. Some bakers choose to do that on purpose to GET a more sour flavor. Perhaps that won’t be a good technique for you to use if you don’t want really sour bread.

There are some extremely accomplished bakers here on this forum who have a great deal of scientific knowledge about sourdough. I’m hoping they’ll see your thread and chime in.

On a side note, when my friend gifted me a portion of her sourdough I actually asked her if it baked really “sour” bread or not. She told me that hers was a very mild-flavored batch of sourdough. My personal experience growing, feeding and cultivating Cyril has found that to be true. He produces very mild tasting loaves.

Here’s to baking!

(Melissa) #3

Here’s a thread discussing this (the opposite) to add to the information from Leah, and you can probably find more discussions by searching “sour.” Good luck!

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(Paul) #4

So… here comes an unpopular opinion.

How sour your sourdough bread tastes has almost nothing to do with the qualities of your starter. The sour in sourdough comes from lactic and acetic acid which is produced by the bacteria in sourdough starter as a result of their metabolism. How much of the activity of those acid-producing bacteria that is taking place in your bread dough has [by far] more to do with how long you let the dough proof (and at what temperature) than anything else. You can start with the sourest sourdough starter in the world and if you put enough of it in your dough and the temperature is warm enough that you can complete the proofing and get it into the oven in just a few hours, you’re not going to taste much hint of any sour in the resulting bread.

On the other hand, you can start with a small amount of super-sweet starter and if you keep the dough cool-ish so you can let it ferment for a long time without over-proofing it, it’s going to get sour and it will get more and more sour the longer it ferments.

That’s an over-simplification and glossing over a lot of details, but it’s probably good enough as a basic rule of thumb.

(Melissa) #5


I can’t remember differences in sour flavor, but what you wrote makes sense with my experience with acidity and browning in the sourdough hokkaido milk bread fast vs slow fermentation.

The long slow ferment with a sweet starter resisted browning i.e. had a more acidic surface.
The fast ferment that started with way more starter (inherently sour) resulted in a dough that was better able to brown i.e. was less acidic.

This in roll form is happening for Thanksgiving :slight_smile:

I’ll also add that the microlevain doughs 1% starter in the dough, all room temp bulk fermentation for 17+ hours – noticeably sour in my experience.

(paigelida) #6

Thank you for your tips! I’m feeding/building up my starter and can’t wait to try my first sourdough loaf (probably right after Thanksgiving). I just started watching Eric’s videos on here as well, they are very helpful! Keeping my fingers crossed that it won’t be too sour.

(paigelida) #7

Paul, I am getting into more of the science/chemistry behind the sourdough starter and am realizing that the results are definitely a science experiment LOL. I am an engineer and love knowing exactly what is happening and why (especially with bread), I feel out of depth because there are so many variables to sourdough - but I look forward to all the reading. Hopefully I will be able to find a method that produces the type of sourdough I like, I’m sure there will be a lot of trial and error. Thanks!

(Paul) #8

Exactly. There are really a lot of variables in sourdough baking - enough that you can’t just throw out simple rules of thumb without glossing over a lot of things that can (depending on a bunch of other variables) have a huge impact on the outcome of each experiment (i.e. each loaf).

Anyway, here’s a little more of what I glossed over in my note above that is relevant to understanding something about the sour taste part of things.

Starter is a living microbial culture where the matrix in which it lives (flour and water) is the primary food. The microbial culture has a lot of stuff in it, but the main stuff that is relevant for our purposes (and because of its statistical hardiness) is a mix of a few specific yeasts and a few specific bacteria.

The relative population (and thus metabolic activity) of these different microbes is dynamic in response to a lot of environmental factors, but most significantly, the amount of food present, the temperature, and the pH (which is itself affected strongly and recursively by the metabolic activity of the microbes!).

So, every time you feed your starter (or start a new loaf which is itself a relatively giant feeding), you create a huge environmental perturbation in the form of lots of available food and that causes a dramatic shift in the relative population of the various yeasts and bacteria. At first the shift favors the yeast population and the end result of their metabolism is nothing sour. But as they eat and eat and the amount of food dwindles and the excretions of their metabolic activity build up, the environment changes more and that affects the relative microbial populations. Over time, that shift moves in favor of certain bacteria that produce lactic and acetic acids - the sour in sourdough. And that’s why it gets more sour over time.

This is still glossing over a lot, but it gives some idea of some of the microbial dynamics that are happening in there when we see dough rising and bubbles forming.

The bottom line functionally, is that if you want it to be not sour, you should try to proof fast and err on the side of underproofing. If you want to develop a sour tang, you should try to prolong the fermentation as long as you can and err on the side of overproofing.

When I want a loaf that is not sour (my mom doesn’t like any sour flavor in her bread), I use a lot of very active starter that is fed with white bread flour (which I find makes a sweeter starter) and proof for only a few hours (depending on temperature). When I want a sour loaf (my wife and I like it more sour), I use a tiny amount of starter (like 10g) and by alternating periods at room temperature and in the refrigerator, I prolong the bulk proof for 24 - 36 hours.

(whippet) #9

Hi Paigelida,
I have collected a few notes over the years on getting more sour flavor. At the end you will note some recommendations for starters with more tang. Note, none of these comments are mine. They are ones I’ve harvested for my own use over the years.

Keep in mind that there are two classes of organisms in sourdough starter -
bacteria and yeasts. Yeasts make it rise, while the bacteria give it the
sour flavor.

Higher temperatures favor the bacteria, while lower temperatures favor the
yeasts. So if you want more sour flavor, you actually would want to
increase the time and/or temps of your dough fermentation.

Also, you can greatly influence the characteristics of sourdough bread by
how you manage your starter. If you keep your starter at room temp for say
36 hours, you will have a starter rich in bacteria and poor in yeasts, that
will produce a bread that will not be a great riser but will have a lot of
sour flavor. If on the other hand you feed your starter and leave it at
room temp for say 12 hours, your starter will be richer in yeast and poorer
in bacteria, and will produce a bread that rises actively but doesn’t have
much sour flavor.

Given that your bread rose so fast, I would guess that the balance of your
starter tilted toward being relatively stronger in yeasts and weaker in
bacteria. So I would guess that your bread will be relatively mild in
flavor, rather than very sour.

The more tangy starters.

You can make almost any starter more tangy by using a cool rise, but in my
experience the San Francisco Starter, some of the Alaskan Starters and the
Italian starters have the most robust flavor.

My starter from Finland, and the one from London have a lot of tang to them.
The one from Russia, Giza, Yukon, and The Red Sea are the more milder of mine.

Four commercial cultures that produce good tang are available from Sourdough
International for about $15-20 per culture, with instructions and well prepared
and packaged in a way that yields a good culture when activation instructions
are closely followed. The San Francisco is good, I’ve used it as the go to
culture for 10 years. The South Africa wheat culture is a very serious acid
producing culture, in fact one has to carefully watch the fermentation, one
doubling works, you may or may not get 2 doublings before it shuts down.

The 2 New Zealand rye cultures also produce a lot of acid quickly. They work
with white flour as well as rye. Key is dividing the fermentation into 2 steps,
about 1/3 of the dough for the sour fermented 12-24 hours and then the main
dough for 5 hours.

(Bakeralex) #10

My sourdough starter is very low acidity and still has great flavor. It’s based off of Jim Lahey’s recipe from Sullivan Street Cookbook. Has a tiny pinch of salt which supposedly helps the yeast (specifically in low concentrations), while reducing bacterial growth. Another tip: feed very regularly to keep out off flavors.

85% hydration
AP flour (usually King Arthur)
Tiny pinch of salt
Scrape all dough out of container. The starter propagates entirely from residue and scraps and still fully rises within 24 hours in the winter, 12 hours in the summer.

(Geoffrey) #11

Paul nailed it. There’s so much mythology around sourdough it almost makes me laugh. Here’s another bit…I have no started 3 different starters using…wait for it…flour and water. Period. Nothing else. I have had to start over due to one time an error, one time travel/vacation, one time illness so I forgot to feed.

All the necessary microbes are in the flour as long as it is not terribly old or in some way degraded. I grind my own so not a problem. Since the bacteria and yeast are in the flour, every time you feed it you are introducing new/different microbes. Also, bacteria and yeast mutate frequently and any one individual cell has a fairly short life span in our human time frame. That means, the carefully guarded culture handed down for generations is just a concept. The starter you have today is not the starter you had a month ago not matter how you kept it unless frozen so in suspended animation.

Every time you feed it you change its make up. Every time it grows it changes. As time passes between one feeding and the next, the acidity increases and as the pH changes, the balance of bacteria and yeast changes. So right after feeding, your culture soon has a very different make up than just before feeding. Temperature also favors yeast or bacteria more depending on how high/low it is.

So all in all, there is not one sourdough culture that you have. Rather it is a constantly changing population, that change being controlled by a number of variables.

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(Gonecayman) #12

I had a starter going and then ruined it by adding organic whole grain Quinoa (sp?) flour. Definitely didn’t have any ‘sour’ to it. It was perfectly dreadful. I just threw the whole batch out and started over with a new starter from this site.

(Michael Bonomo) #13

Rye flour is the key, Bobs red mill works best for me. To adjust it, Just add some bread flour, the yeast that makes it sour loves rye. I keep it at 100% rye for the mother and mix bread flour when making the batch for baking. Keep the mother very cool.

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