Eager to start baking with your first sourdough starter? If so, you’re probably wondering when it is going to be ready to use and if your sourdough starter has the right consistency? It seems like we don’t want a starter that’s too thick or too runny, or does it matter? Well, let’s find out what is the right consistency for a sourdough starter…
You can tell if a sourdough starter is ready to use by taking a peek inside, checking for bubbles and giving it a smell. You can also time how long it takes to rise. By looking at consistency alone we can’t tell if a starter is ready. Sourdough bread can be made with a starter of any consistency. The amount of fluidity won’t stop the bread from rising, but alters how fast it does.
Is my sourdough starter too thick or too runny?
The short answer is, probably not. The consistency of a starter is not a sign of whether it is ripe or not. If you doing the steps below:
7 Baking Tips You’re (Probably) Getting Wrong
Sign up to learn the 7 Baking Tips You’re (Probably) Getting Wrong email course today
- Feeding at regular intervals
- Feeding with the same ratios of flour, water and starter
- Not leaving it to collapse (after it has risen) before feeding again
- Keeping it at a similar temperature at all times
…then you are on the right track! Sourdough starters can be so runny that they can be poured. They can also be so thick that you have to tear a piece off with two hands!
We’ll cover how the consistency adapts the flavour and how to change it later on in this post. But for now, be aware that the consistency of a starter is not as important as the other factors mentioned above.
What is the best way to tell if my starter is healthy?
A well maintained and ripe sourdough starter will:
- Double in size in around 3-8 hours.
- Have plenty of small and large bubbles running through.
- No froth.
- It smells nice.
- The best way to tell if my starter is not right
A lack of bubbles, only a small rise and seeing froth on the surface of the starter highlight a starter that is not ripe. However a starter that isn’t quite ready to make bread can still pass these tests. To know if it is really ready, you need to smell it.
The most telling signal of a healthy starter is how it smells. A good starter will smell warming, lightly alcoholic and rounded.
A sourdough that isn’t ready will smell unusual. Common traits of a bad sourdough starters are smelling of:
- Nail varnish remover
- Cow feed/fishing bait
- Strong alcohol
If your starter smells like any of these, it will need a few more days of regular feeding.
How to fix a starter that isn’t rising?
Warming the starter’s temperature speeds up and encourages healthy bacteria and yeasts. Aim for your starter to be left at a constant temperature at around 30-35C. This is going to be a challenge for many of you! Consider a home proofer like this one from Brod and Taylor. You’ll never have a temperature problem again when making sourdough!
What affects the consistency of a sourdough starter?
– The Type of Flour
The ability of different flours to absorb water varies. The amount of water ingested can vary between sacks of the same brand of flour. Some flours may appear less absorbent at first, but can be simply slower to absorb.
A sloppy mess can be transformed into the perfect consistency in a matter of minutes. The time it takes for the flour to absorb water and the hydration ratio it requires are determined by its organic composition.
A sourdough starter’s quality is dependent on the flour used to make it. There is more to discuss on these technicalities, but the basic principles of selecting a flour for a starter are:
– The amount of protein in the flour
The protein is the most effective water absorber in flour. Moist protein transforms into gluten strands. Gluten is responsible for retaining the gas produced by organic bacteria. This is primarily Lactic Acid Bacteria and natural yeasts. As a result, it is logical that flour with more protein will absorb more water.
If you use high protein bread flour in a starter recipe that calls for all-purpose flour, the starter is likely to be a little dry and thick. You increase the amount of water in the feeds to remedy this.
– The bran content of the flour
Bran is found in wholemeal flour and other dark grains such as dark rye and brown spelt. You will notice that these flours take longer to absorb water and generally need more water. This is due to bran absorbing a lot of water, but needing more time to do so. Wholemeal flour has a high percentage of protein which increases dough hydration capabilities.
How flour bacteria adjusts a starters development
Flour contains a variety of bacteria, which come from the field where it is grown. Insects in the local habitat, fertilisers, and those produced by the wheat. All of these factors influence the rate at which a starter develops and how it behaves. In general, flour with a higher concentration of beneficial bacteria develops into a stronger starter. This is why organic flours and flours with high levels of ash (such as rye) improve starter quality.
Other factors that change flour water handling capabilities:
There are many factors that can affect the rate at which water soaks into flour. Such as
- How finely the flour is milled – a larger the surface area is slower to absorb
- Its storage conditions – humidity adds moisture
- When it was harvested – fresh wheat absorbs more water
- The quality of the grain such as its falling number and farinograph results.
All of these things will impact your final product’s texture in some way or another. For example if you were to store flour that’s been stored in a humid environment for too long the starter should use less water or it will be runny. Extra moisture already inside the grain means less room for new liquid!
The hydration ratio of the starter
The amount of water used in the starter refreshment is going to have an impact on the consistency of the starter. The more water, the wetter it will be, if you use less it’s going to be more dry and thick.
The really wet starters that can be mixed with a whisk are more predictable in the time it takes for them to rise. This makes them a popular choice in high-speed bakery operations.
The proofing environment
The humidity, temperature, airflow and the types of airborne yeasts in the area have a contributing impact on the consistency of a starter. It also creates unique sourdough qualities between starters. Your starter is unlikely to behave like mine and vice versa. Why is California renowned internationally as the best place for sourdough? Because the conditions provide a perfect balance for the best strains of yeast and lactic acid bacteria to blossom.
If you want to adjust your starter to suit a more humid environment, you could get yourself a home proofer to control the humidity. But adding less water is a pretty good solution.
What is the best consistency for a sourdough starter?
Basic starter recipes follow a 100% hydration to flour and starter. This is made from equal amounts of flour, water and existing starter. Following this methods produces a slightly wet starter, unless you are using a high absorbent flour. But you can adjust the ratio of your starter any way you want.
Why would I want a wet sourdough starter?
A wet starter will have more water activity so it will ferment faster than a thick starter. Wetter, cooler starters develop more lactic acids which produce a more creamy, yoghurt and sour flavour.
Is a thicker starter better than a thin one?
I personally prefer a thicker starter like the one produced in my starter recipe. It has large, thick bubbles and as I keep it fairly cool it is not overly acetic. Dryer, warmer starters contain more acetic acid making them taste more like vinegar. A thicker starter is easier to refresh by hand, unless you go really thick!
But it’s up to you. There isn’t a perfect starter consistency, wet or dry, they still work. It’s simply a personal choice.
View my how to make a sourdough starter more sour post to find out more.
When baking with a wet starter, consider lowering the amount of water in the dough recipe. If you use a thick starter, increase the water used.
How do I change the consistency of my starter
If you decide that you want to change the consistency of your sourdough starter, here is how to do it.
1) Change the flour in the starter
You could switch to a wholemeal flour or a flour with a different amount of protein. This will thicken your starter. You can also trade a portion of white flour (say 10%) with one that has more bran or gluten, such as rye. All flours behave differently so you may wish to try a few brands out to get the results you want and the next point is very important.
2) Add more or less water to the starter
I recommend that a 10% change of water is the best place to start. To compensate for the weight loss, you should alter the amount of flour also by the opposite amount. So, if you remove 10 grams of water, add 10 grams of flour.
Changing the consistency of a starter when using the motherdough feeding method
The motherdough method is where you maintain a starter and remove a portion the day before baking to refresh. It is a great way of reducing waste and is easy to get the perfect consistency of starter for the bread. The motherdough is often kept in the fridge and refreshed every week or two. You can increase or decrease the amount of water to alter the consistency of the motherdough.
It is more accurate to change the amount of water used in the refreshment (or child). For a wetter starter, increase the water and decrease the flour by the same amount.
Changing the consistency of a starter when using the scrapings method
The scrapings method is a zero waste feeding routine. The majority of the starter is used to make bread, leaving just the scrapings in the container. The jar is left in the fridge and built back up a day or two before you bake again. If you use the scrapings method you can just add more water-less flour or less water-more flour when you refresh it.
Changing the consistency of a starter if you refresh the starter daily
This is for if you refresh the entire starter (motherdough) each day, or maybe a few times a day. Here just add more water->less flour or less water->more flour when you refresh. It will take a few feeds to achieve the desired consistency as the starter gets gradually thicker or thinner with every feed.
3) Change the water
Hard water contains more minerals which enhance the bacteria growth of the starter. This can mean that in hard water areas, the starter will be thicker.
For more troubleshooting tips view the sourdough starter troubleshooting and fixes page.
4) Improve the environment of a sourdough starter
If you wish to alter the temperature or humidity of your starter you could move to another country, but I guess that’s out of the question! They don’t travel that well anyway!
We can change how the starter is kept at home. By altering the humidity of the starter we will change the water absorption abilities of the levain. We also might want to warm the starter up to change the flavour of a starter. This is popular if you have changed the consistency of the starter and don’t like the flavour of it.
Possible solutions include placing it next to a radiator, changing the A/C settings or leaving it in an oven with just a light on. Using a proofing box is the most accurate and most efficient solution to controlling temperature and humidity at home though.
View my full guide on how to warm a sourdough starter.
The consistency of a starter will change the taste of the bread and amount of water it will need. It doesn’t mean that a wet or a dry starter is better, it just means that the bread will be slightly different.
Why has my starter deteriorated after changing the flour?
A sourdough starter is a balance of bacteria which develops enzymes and Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB). It is these, along with the wild yeast that it captures which produce gas. Switching flour introduces new bacteria and upsets the balance of the starter. It can take a few days for your starter to recover after the switch.
If you want to continue baking with it you should separate a portion into a new jar and continue feeding both of them. Once the new one matures you can discard the old one.
My sourdough starter is soupy?
If you don’t like it soupy you can thicken your starter next you feed it by using more flour and less water. Providing it’s active it will be able to raise sourdough bread. Just reduce the water in the bread recipe to avoid a sticky dough!