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The Importance of a Ripe Sourdough Starter 

 March 18, 2021

By  Gareth Busby

When parenting a sourdough culture it really is like looking after a child. You have to keep it fed and control its environment to keep it happy. You can tell when it’s being looked after well and it’ll start smelling and lose its bubbles if you don’t.

If you want to keep your starter active at all times you’ll need to keep up with a regular feeding routine!

What makes sourdough rise?

Regular feedings create an environment that is high in lactic acid and wild yeasts. It takes a minimum of 7 days for the hydrated flour to generate enough yeast and acids so that it can be used. The older the starter the stronger and more flavourful it is said to be.

Many bakers will give a new starter at least 28 days of daily (often twice daily) feeds before attempting to use it to make bread.

What does a weak sourdough starter look like?

A weak starter will have less bubbles and very few (if any) on the surface of the starter. Once fed it won’t rise very high. A ripe starter should rise 3 times its pre-fed volume in around 6 hours.

Another key feature of powerful starters is the smell. A vibrant starters will smell nice and aromatic. If it smells of nail polish remover or bananas, it's not ready yet!

Why can’t I use a weak starter?

Well, providing there are some bubbles you can use a weaker starter to make sourdough bread. If the activity is low in the starter the bread will take longer to rise. Issues from using a weak starter include:

  • Poor dough conditioning leading to a weak gluten structure and poor gas retention properties
  • Over oxygenation of the flour

Common features of bread made when using a starter that wasn’t ready involve; an uneven crumb, structure collapses when baked, bland taste, bright orange crust and unusual shapes.

See the sourdough starter troubleshooting article for more information.

What is the reason for a weak starter?

The most common reason for a starter being weak is down to a lack of feeding. Either the feeds are too small or it needs regular feedings over a longer period of time to develop a stable ecosystem. Others include cold fermentation temperatures and foriegn bacteria being introduced by changing the batch of flour or poor hygiene.

Is there yeast in sourdough bread?

Not usually but some sourdough bread producers add some in. If you are concerned your sourdough starter is weak, adding a little bit of yeast to the recipe can help boost the wild yeasts and ensure success.

How often should I feed my starter?

A sourdough starter should be fed twice a day. The regular feedings keep the starter nice and active and prevent starving the bacteria. Methods to reduce feedings whilst maintaining activity are provided in the how to make a sourdough starter recipe.

Bringing a dormant starter back to life

To reduce the amount of feeds needed to maintain a sourdough it is quite common for a baker to leave their starter in the fridge. Sometimes starters get forgotten and left for a while without being fed.

Providing it is not mouldy the starter can be used again easily. It will need regular feeds as if it were a new one to be able to bring it back to life. After a few days of feeding the starter will re balance the ph levels which allows the wild yeasts to become potent again.

If the starter does have signs of mould there is an extra step to take, but it usually can be rescued. View the how to revive a mouldy sourdough starter post for further information.

What to do when your starter is active?

Once your starter is looking active it is ready to use! You can follow this sourdough bread recipe for beginners if you wish but any sourdough recipe from a reliable source should work. Remember, it is active when it's tripling in size in 6 hours and, smells nice and hearty.

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