5 Sourdough Starter Myths
Here the five most common myths I see for sourdough starters. These myths are common in books, blogs and videos. Why? Because much of the internet and publishing is just replication (maybe this blog is too?! Although I did write it from scratch.). Maybe something here will help your baking…
Image: firm-textured sourdough starter using wholegrain durum wheat flour.
- “Refresh/feed the starter daily.”
In theory, it’s ideal to maintain the starter at a constant temperature with consistent refreshment timings. The microbes will be happy and optimised. But it’s not necessary.
Great bread can be made with weekly or fortnightly (or longer) gaps between feeding. Refrigerate (for shorter periods) or dry (for long-term) the starter.
I do refresh my starter daily (unless I forget occasionally), but I do so because it’s helpful for me to always have starter ready and active. Most home bakers have a regular bake day, so just get it ready in the lead up to that day.
- “Maintain a large amount of starter.”
This is one of the biggest myths in sourdough baking. A starter is an environment for microbes; microbes are small and reproduce easily. So, there is no need for large container/s of starter filling your fridge or kitchen bench.
I keep approx. 20 grams between bakes. It works. My class recipes are double that (approx. 50 grams total starter) as the smaller amount does require a particularly accurate digital kitchen scale.
Keeping less means minimal discard and waste. You won’t be looking for ways to use discard, you’ll be making more starter for when you want to make those sourdough waffles or crackers.
- “Use organic flour and pure/chlorine-free water for the starter.”
Regular flour and regular tap water is fine. If you prefer to use organic (flour—is organic water a thing?) that’s great. Organic vs conventional (vs local, etc.) is a personal preference, not a requirement for great bread.
The microbes in the starter benefit from minerals, so highly purified water may slow fermentation activity. Some bakers report dull-tasting bread when switching to more purified water. There’s no harm using chlorinated water, but if you prefer not too, there’s no harm either.
- “Make sure the active starter passes the float test.”
The float test tells you if the starter is gassy. That’s all. It may be helpful, especially for avoiding under-fermentation, but won’t tell you if it’s over-fermented. So, if you like using it keep doing so, but make it a part of the evaluation, not the evaluation.* An over-fermented starter will float and will also make over-fermented bread.
- “Ensure starter at least doubled/tripled in volume.”
Similar to the float test, volume increases tell you how much gas the starter is holding. That’s all. Also similar to the float test, it may be helpful. For a wheat-based, non-firm starter it will give some idea of activity. For other grains and firm starters, not so much.
Is the starter using a strong high-protein white (refined) bread flour? That will hold a lot of gas. Using a fresh-milled local softer wheat or rye? That may not hold anywhere near as much gas. It may never double in volume. But it can still make great bread.
If appropriate for the flour and texture, make it a part of the evaluation, not the evaluation.*
*Nothing worse than an article that gives problems without some solutions, so… how to evaluate. Make notes of several characteristics and see how the bread turns out. Then, replicate the same or, if required, troubleshoot from there.
Things to note: visual (gas, volume), tactile (texture, float), aroma (what does it smell like), and taste (taste, flavour/s). Exactly what to look for depends on several factors within the recipe/formula. But observing them is a start.
Bonus (and probably the most controversial):
“Your starter needs a name.”
My starter doesn’t have a name. Well, unless you consider ‘starter’ a name. Sure, if you want to name yours, great. But don’t feel bad if you just consider it a mixture of flour and water housing microbes. Perhaps its name is ‘dough’ or ‘batter’?
For what it’s worth, I haven’t named my garden soil either—and it’s also a home for microbes, gets food (compost) and water, and helps produce delicious fruits, vegetables, herbs and more. Almost sounds like a starter…