So you’ve made a sourdough starter and now want to get making bread. Once you’ve fed the starter, given time it will eventually start bubbling up with gas. But not all starter will have the same effect on the final bread.
How long after feeding starter can I use it?
After feeding starter, it is best to wait until the yeast is most active before using in dough so to get a good rise. It will increase in volume until roughly doubled in size over 8-12 hours. It’s best used near the peak volume for consistent loaves.
It is possible to use the starter before it has peaked in volume, but the final bread’s rise could be smaller. Also using it earlier will produce sweeter bread, while using a more mature starter gives more sour bread. In this article I will give some tips on getting the most out of your starter.
Life Cycle Of The Starter Explained
When you’ve just fed the starter, it is low on yeast, bacteria and acids because the seeding amount is a small proportion of the newly mixed starter. As the new flour ferments, this increases the bacteria, yeast and acids until it is a mature starter again.
When you add the flour in the feed, the start will smell sweet and wheat-like. You can’t smell the acidic, ripe smell of a mature starter yet. It’s important to get to know the smells of the starter over the life cycle so you can know how developed it is.
Then for the next 8-12 hours, the starter will rise as the yeast eats the carbs and produces carbon dioxide. The cells divide as this happens, so we get more yeast fermenting.
Eventually we reach a peak of yeast activity and the starter stops rising. Its ran out of food to consume and now the yeast start starving. The starter will fall down slightly under its own weight. It will stay tall and aerated for quite a while, until it falls back down completely. I like to use a glass jar like this one from Amazon so you can watch and measure the rising and falling.
It’s time to feed the starter again now if you are on a daily feeding schedule. If you don’t, then more reactions will take place and a layer of alcohol will form on the top. Next the yeast will die, and the culture will be taken over by bad bacteria. It starts smelling like rotten cheese and it’s time to throw that away!
When Is The Earliest You Can Use Sourdough Starter
It is possible to use the starter after a few hours of feeding, but this isn’t the best practice unless the starter is already nice and active from feedings. This is because it doesn’t have enough yeast activity to rise dough fully.
If we think about the yeast quantity that this newly fed starter has, it is low because we only transferred a small amount of the mature starter. We discarded most of the yeast in the mature starter for fresh flour and water.
When the yeast cells feed, they divide into more yeast cells until there are billions of yeast cells in the starter. A young starter with fewer yeast cells will become an active mature starter with time. When the yeast increases in number and all start releasing carbon dioxide gas in the fermentation, we now have a very active starter.
When Is The Best Time To Use Sourdough Starter
I have often found that using a starter that is not very active will produce bread that does not rise to its full potential and ends up being dense.
So the first tip is to make sure it is being fed regularly so it is rising and falling predictably. That might mean giving it several feeds to bring it back to life if its been in the fridge or been neglected for a bit. You can do that every 12 hours if you leave it in a warm spot.
Once we’ve got it rising and falling, now it’s time to choose the timing of when to use it. If we feed the starter and use it straight away, then there isn’t enough yeast activity in the starter to give the dough a good rise. Instead we should wait until the activity is more so that we see the starter rise up considerably.
Most bakers are in agreement to use the starter “around the peak” of the rise in volume. The starter is at maximum bacteria and yeast levels. This gives a good rise to the final dough, and also gives a good flavor to the dough. The peak is about double the original volume, and can take about 8-12 hours or so. This could be quicker in a warm, humid environment so may differ in your house.
We can also directly impact the flavor of the bread from when we choose to use the starter. A younger starter that is nearing the peak volume is less “ripe” and so will have less acids built up. This is what gives sourdough its sour taste, so by using the starter in the younger phase will produce sweeter bread. Using the starter in a more mature state means it is more ripe and therefore stronger tasting and more sour.
So if you like really sour sourdough, you can use the starter after it has reached its peak and is starting to collapse. It’s extra ripe, strong and pungent, and you might need to use a little extra to get a large rise. This in turn adds to the sourness.
Controlling Starter With Temperature
If your kitchen is below the standard room temperature of 70F/21C, the starter will take longer to mature. To speed this up, you can leave the starter in a warmer spot or use warmer water in the feeding cycle.
In my kitchen, the temperature can often run a bit cool – around 65F/18C. So if I want to speed up rising, I put it in a room which contains my hot water tank – this is around 75F/24C+.
This is also true of seasons and choosing the water temperature to feed the starter. In the summer, use cooler water (85F/30C) and in the winter use warmer water (95F/35C). You can control the starter with small adjustments like this.
Tips On Using Starter From The Fridge
I’ve found that taking sourdough from the fridge, feeding it and expecting it to be fully back to life doesn’t work too well. The loaves always come out a bit flatter because it doesn’t have the rising potential as the yeast isn’t so active.
Instead, it’s best to give it a few feedings until you see the starter rising to double its height again. A way to do this is to remove from the fridge in the morning, feed and leave in a warm spot. Then 12 hours later, give it another feed and let it rest overnight. Hopefully the starter is now active and bubbly by the morning.
How To Get More Sour Sourdough
Sourdough can range from very little sourness to extremely sour and is down to personal preference. This happens from the build up of acetic acid (the stuff in vinegar). Generally speaking, to get more sour loaves, you need to apply a few of these principles:
- Use more mature starter to seed your next feeding
- Use more starter in your final dough
- Let the starter mature for longer before using
- Delay the rising of the bread by chilling in the refrigerator
By using an overly ripe starter with a long proofing period in the fridge, you can achieve very sour bread. This starter will have peaked in volume and become strong smelling, which indicates the build up of acids for sourness. It will likely take longer to rise, and so will build up more strong flavors as it rises slowly. Read more in my article – what makes sourdough sour?