Starter Challenge


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I have been meaning to run an experiment for some time now. Since it was a cold wintry day, and since there has been so much chatter about starters lately, I thought I'd throw my hat in the ring and create my own "starter challenge". 

So what is this about and who am I challenging? It is about comparing the strength of my running starter to a revived version of a neglected and unfed starter that has been sitting in the back of my refrigerator for over six months. The only one being challenged is me.

As a baseline, this is an example of a sourdough pan bread I baked shortly before starting this challenge. This is a Trevor Wilson formula and you can find it over at the website. The loaf starts out at 900 grams and is shaped to fit into a 9 inch Pyrex loaf pan. After a cold proof the height of the loaf is about 2 inches. After baking it is generally about 5 inches tall. The formula is a blend of all-purpose, spelt and rye flours. It is a relatively stiff dough and the only leavening is a sourdough starter.

Here is my tired, old starter sample from several months ago. It has never been fed anything and has remained at around 40 F the entire time. Nothing about it was unpleasant - no runny hooch, no odd colored slime and the odor was reminiscent of aged cheese.

By the time I got my photo gear set up and started taking pictures, the starter temperature had risen to 55 F. I moved it into a Cambro container so that I could work with it more easily, and get the weight of the original sample. As you can see it weighed  about 200 grams.

Next I pulled a 60 gram sample from the original 200 grams and mixed it with 60 grams of well water and 60 grams of my good old standby - King Arthur Unbleached All Purpose Flour. The final mix temp was a little low at 70 F but it was soon headed into my incubator and it would be held at a steady 76 F. As you can see below, I marked the container with a rubber band to note the original height. 

Below you will see the results after 36 hours. At around the 9 hour mark you could see a few bubbles but at 12 hours there wasn't very much growth or activity. At 24 hours things were beginning to take shape and I pulled the starter out of the incubator when the growth had essentially doubled. That was at about the 36 hour mark. The center picture showed plenty of activity but when I stirred it with a spoon you could see much more activity underneath.

I pulled a 60 gram sample from the refreshed starter and mixed it with 60 grams of well water and 60 grams of KAF AP flour. I again marked the container with a rubber band to note the original height and placed it back in the incubator. The middle picture show the growth at the 6 hour mark, and the right picture shows the 12 hour mark. As you can see the revived starter was showing signs of high activity. As one would expect, the odor was fruity. 

Now it was time to compare the revived starter's performance to my regularly maintained starter. Regular maintenance for me is a 1:2:4 build once a week, with a 12 hour ferment at 76 F and then into the fridge for storage. I remove measured samples as needed to build refreshers and levains. 

Below are two preferments. The one marked "TEST" is the revived old starter and the other one is my usual starter sample. Each Cambro contains 7 grams of starter, 33 grams of water and 33 grams of KAF AP flour. After they were mixed they were placed in the incubator for 12 hours. 

Now for the ugly part. The 12 hour ferment was to take place between 8 PM and 8 AM, with the final mix occurring at 8 AM. I got stuck in a technical session until 3 PM so as you can see in the pictures below, the starters were well past their prime. The final mix was around 3 PM with a short autolyse, then one or two stretch and folds on the half hour for a total of 3 passes. The dough was left to rest for an hour, then divided, rested for 20 minutes, then shaped and placed in 9 inch Pyrex loaf pans. Finally the dough was cold proofed for 10 hours and baked the next morning.

Here are a couple of shots after the cold proof, before baking. "Test" is on the left. Comparably speaking they have both risen equally and measured at around 2 inches in height.

These are the after-bake shots. Bake specs were 400 F on the bottom elements, 385 F on the top elements, for a total of 55 minutes. Steam was provided for the first 20 minutes then ported overboard. As you can see the size and rise are comparable. Please ignore the stain on the wall. It was a rusty spray of steam from an old boiler :-)

Comparing the final rise of the loaves the measurements were essentially the same, or just around 5 inches. "Test" is on the left. Shaping and scoring certainly effect the end result and I will see slight variations even when using a single starter source.

Here are a couple of crumb shots. "Test" is on the left. As I mentioned earlier this is a fairly dense bread intended to support peanut butter and jelly. I am not shooting for an open crumb with this bread. What you will see is good vertical development which resulted in a pretty impressive oven spring.

So why all the fuss?

Over and over I read about the challenges bakers face with with their starters. More posts on TFL are on the subject of starters than any other. Unless I am ignorant in the realm of starter performance I do not seem to experience any of these issues. Maybe I am just lucky or maybe my expectations are low. My maintenance is weekly and dry. My storage is cold. I pull samples, make levains, and move on.


This was designed as a test between a known working starter and one that had been abused and ignored for over six months. The premise was to determine if, first the abused starter could be revived at all, then to see if it could perform well. On both points the results are in and you can judge for yourself. It did take a single feeding and 36 hours at 76 F to get the old sample back on its feet, but from that point on it performed liked my old standby. One would think that, after residing in a cold fridge for over six months, the bio-diversity would be less than ideal but that didn't seem to flesh out.


In addition I inadvertently threw a wrench in the works by allowing both levains to mature way past their prime. Did it have a negative affect on the final product? Comparing the pictures of the pre-test loaf to the after-test loaves, I'd say no.

Maybe there is something to be said for creating your starter then stop playing with it. It seems to work for me.


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