Life Cycle of a Sourdough Starter Part II
This post is the half to the rather detailed one I wrote on how to maintaing and control a healthy starter and balance its acidity, Cycle of Sourdough Starter Part I.
Here I wanted to show from the beginning of making my own starter back in November 2010 using Dan’s recipe, a very easy one to start up and matures quickly, to my present experiments with it. By time I decided to give life to my own sourdough baby I was already an experienced babysitter after taking in one of Gill’s off-springs and bringing it back to a healthy life. But you see I hadn’t given birth as it were to one of my own, a process let me tell you, highly recommended and wonderfully pain-free.
And here it is below right in the small container, my very own baby starter. And just like a new parent I was nervous of killing it, doing something terribly wrong. I wanted so much to make it flourish and be part of the family.
Going right back to the very beginning of being the guardian of Gill’s starter, I was like many sourdough newbies utterly confused and unclear about feeding schedules and how far apart to leave the feeds but slowly things fitted into place.
Now I would like to share the learning curves I’ve made from observing it, day in, day out. I know its little character and can tell you just by looking at it depending on the time of year we’re in, where this little baby is in its cycle. I know if it’s only been fed a couple of hours or 8-12 hrs or 24hrs, importantly when it has run out of ‘umph’ and is crying for food because I’ve missed a feed.
The photographs have been collected as I’ve remembered over the last year, that’s why you’ll see different containers. I always feed my starter the same, double the amount of water and flour to the amount of old starter, so 50g starter will be fed 100g water / 100g flour. I always use white bread flour.
I always keep my starter at room temperature on top of my kitchen surface. In the winter it’s unheated and it’s a problem to get it going, this winter because I’ll be baking so much more than previous years I’m going to find it a warmer corner in the house to speed up the cycle.
On a day like today, 15C / 59F, after 2-3 hrs feeding, a few little holes will start to appear.
A few hours after that there’s volcanic action going on, it’s bubbling like mad, and bursting bubbles right in front of your eyes…I’ve even video it once…well…it was quite amazing seeing it for the first time.
Can you see below that big bubble right in the middle? Well that’s what I’m talking about popping, some big, some small all popping, it’s very active.
At this point it’s in its height of activity. If you try and divide some up you’ll find it fights with you. It’s so thick and sticky that trying to weigh 50g of it will end up more than you want in your scales, as a mass of it attaches onto itself.
Can you see what I mean here, thick, gloopy, sticky, full of bubbles underneath.
Picking a little up with a spoon becomes a challenge as a whole mass of it wants to come along for the ride.
This is where most of the time I’ll use my starter, but I’m not fanatical about it. Depending on the time of year and how warm it is, this stage can happen in 6-10 hrs but much longer in the cold winter months.
Below appears to be at it’s peak but it’s not. You can see lots of bubbles for sure but they’re slightly different, there’s a lot more of what I call “frothy” bubbles and they lie closely together in groups and rise themselves quite above the surface of the rest of the starter.
Easier to see in this photo, the ‘frothy’ bubbles.
Sometimes when you lift your lid at this stage you’ll notice so many of these “frothy” bubbles and you may even have the whole surface covered in them but it’s not what I describe above with the ‘volcanic’ stage of bubbling up through the surface of the starter and popping slowly.
Most of these frothy bubbles will pop and disappear shortly after you’ve opened the lid and leave the surface with lots and lots of little holes.
There’s still plenty of activity here but on the edge of the peak going down….after this it’s a quick downhill.
One of the easiest way to tell where in the cycle it is is to put a fork or spoon through it and see how thick and gloopy or runny it is.
As I run a fork through this one you’ll see how different it appears from the one with the spoon, it doesn’t fight with you, it’s still fairly thick but it doesn’t all cling together into a mass. It runs much more freely.
After this point it rapidly comparatively goes down hill and gets thinner and thinner.
From here onwards it starts to settle into the heavy mass of flour at the bottom and the liquid part floating on top of it. It will stay like that with the water separating getting darker until you refresh it again.
This one with very yellow looking water is about 2-3 days old.
The one below is a starter kept in an airtight container for 3 weeks.
It has the texture of very wet fine sand. I was expecting it to stink but although there was a strong “sour” smell it wasn’t that smelly really..certainly not vile.
I have yet to do anything with it, my experiment was to feed it once and bake, feed it twice and bake, just to see how strong the bread was and how much strength it had after one feeding of rising the loaf.
If you feed your starter with rye or wholemeal flour the process speeds up and I’ve made a reference to this in my Part I post.
12% Protein Flour and 9% Protein Flour Experiment
Below was an experiment I carried out because I noticed something was strange when I was feeding my starter with a new flour I had, you see it’s worth paying attention, a close eye on it.
Below you have 2 white roller milled bread flours, one is 12% protein and the other 9% protein.
I had noticed using my 9% protein flour to feed the starter made it go through its cycle much faster than I was use to. Every time I fed the starter, say the night before, I would go to use it in the morning and it was already on the last legs of the “frothy” stages.
That’s why I did a comparison test. After a few hours the 12% flour showed the ‘volcanic’ signs of irrupting from underneath as expected and the 9% flour was already frothing up.
The 12% protein flour.
And the feel test of pulling away from you and having strength of the ‘mass’.
The 9% protein flour on the other hand was already at the ‘frothy’ stage and thinner and runnier.
Now what I do is if I want the process to happen faster I use the 9% protein flour to feed the starter since I have a sack of it to go through.
The 2 Hour Fed Levain Experiment
I was introduced to the idea of the 2 hour fed levain by the baker Paul Merry who runs Panary Bakery & Courses, a truly lovely, intelligent, generous man, someone who has helped me to explore and grow as a baker. I will post about him soon. Paul uses this method of feeding your starter for 2 hours and then using it in your dough, it follows from a Poilâne practice.
The idea of it being you’re using the levain while it still has all of its energy and therefore will exert it in the dough not before. There is a difference with Paul’s starter and levain as he doesn’t use a roller mill white flour, so if you’ve been paying attention you’ll know that will make a difference. And if I remember correctly he uses a 2 hour levain but the starter is old enough to have flavour and if you see my further experiments below you’ll see it makes a difference.
Back to my experiment….this levain below is about 3 hrs old and you can see little dots of activity and livelyness and it’s thick but runny.
What I noticed about it apart from the obvious power it gave the loaf was producing bigger holes…so…wey hey! all you hole obsessed bakers out there…go for it!
As expected it gave a mild tasting sourdough, too mild perhaps for me, but then I’m using a white starter with white flour. If I were to introduce other flours then the flavour would come more from them, and as already mentioned wholewheat or rye flours works through the cycle much faster so comparatively you’ll have a more mature levain anyway.
I thought the idea of the 2 hour levain was great for anyone like my middle kid who still hates my normal mild sourdough because it’s still ‘sour’. This is a fantastic way of producing bread when you love your white ‘wheat’ flavour and want none of that acidity.
Also on the plus side as a baker it made handling a higher hydration dough much much easier, it kept its shape better, lovely to handle.
Below I’ve experimented further by using a 2 hr fed levain on a 24 hour old starter, and the other was a 10 hour old starter. The result was much more of a strong sourdough flavour come through on the older starter, but the younger starter was easier to handle and hold its shape
This means you can mix and match to add acidity and still use a very young strong levain. It’s all there for us bakers to experiment with.
My advice is go forth and experiment…it’s so much fun.