How do I use my refreshed sourdough?

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Further to the earlier post about using the float test to ensure your refreshed sourdough starter was ready for use, it’s time to talk about how much refreshed sourdough starter you actually use. We like to call this the “sour to flour” ratio.

If it floats, it’s ready to use.

The answer is, as ever, simple and complicated and to a certain extent, it depends on the base grain of your starter and how you refresh it.  The golden observations are:

1.  If your sour to flour ratio is too low, that is you don’t use enough refreshed starter for the quantity of flour you are using, your dough will not rise as much as it could have done had you used more.  In fact, it may never “get there” and your loaf will be heavy and dense.

2.  If your sour to flour ratio is too high, that is you don’t use enough flour for the quantity of refreshed starter you are using, a whole bunch of things can happen.

  • the dough will not have a great deal of elasticity or strength when you knead it.  
  • the dough may collapse before you get it in the oven (especially if you proof it in a basket – it will flatten significantly).
  • the crumb may fall away from the crust during baking, leaving a great big void just under the crust.  
  • the crumb of your bread may be overly gummy and may have small, perfectly round holes throughout opposed to the the big, uneven holes so beloved of many sourdough bakers (who don’t want to make sandwiches or spread toast with butter and jam).  
  • in extreme cases it will look a bit like playdough when you cut into it.
  • the crust will be pale because the sugars in the “sour” will have been eaten up in the fermentation process and there will not be a high enough ” flour” content to make up for that and to go nice and golden.
  • Remember, your refreshed starter contributes yeast, smell, and texture to dough.  It does not contribute strength.
I made this photo really big so you can see the playdough look (this really is the inside of a loaf) indicates too much sour

Sooooo…how much is enough and how much is too much?

Most recipes that use a rye starter refreshed with rye flour to make 100% rye bread use between 65% and 70% refreshed starter where the % is calculated off the weight of the flour that you use to make the final dough.

Most recipes that use a rye starter refreshed with wheat use a lot less – between 30% and 40% of refreshed starter where the % is calculated off the weight of the flour that you use to make the final dough.

Most recipes that use a wheat starter refreshed with wheat will use somewhere between 40% and 60% refreshed sourdough starter where the % is calculated off the weight of the flour that you use to make to make the final dough.

So, you see, the amount of refreshed starter that you use as a % of the final dough that is used to make the bread varies from 30-70% depending on the base grain of the starter and what is used to refresh it.  There is no hard and fast rule so you may want to use recipes until you find your way. Here are some examples for you to look at. These are lists of ingredients only, not full recipes.

Rye starter refreshed with rye

In Andrew Whitley’s excellent book Bread Matters, his recipe for sourdough rye bread is as follows:

240 g rye flour (100%)
160 g refreshed sourdough starter made from 16 g rye starter from the vat in the fridge + 48 grams rye flour + 96 grams water.  This is 66% of the total “new flour” weight of 240 g
140 g water (58% of the total “new flour” weight of 240 g
6 g salt (2 % of the total “new flour” weight of 240 g)

The main point to take away here is that the amount of refreshed rye starter used is 66% of the weight of the flour used to make the dough. That’s quite high.  The water content seems quite low until you remember that a rye starter is very wet.  The base starter is 66% water and the refreshed sourdough is also 66% water.

100% rye sourdough bread – always square but not necessarily dark or dense

Rye starter refreshed with wheat

I tend to bake almost exclusively with my rye starter. It’s easy, it’s powerful, I can all yeast recipes to sourdough with ease. That’s a whole other post.

300 g wheat flour (100%)
110 g refreshed starter made from 10 g rye starter from the vat in the fridge + 50 g wheat flour + 50 g water. This is 36% of the total “new flour” weight of 300 g.
200 g water. This is 66% of the total “new flour” weight of 300 g.
7 g salt. This is 2% of the total “new flour” weight of 300 g.

Notice that this is less than 1% rye flour, even though it uses a rye starter. The rye starter is only 1/3 rye flour so there are 3.33 grams rye flour in the starter. The rest of the recipe is wheat flour.

White and rye – no holes – deliberate because I don’t want jam on my lap

Wheat starter refreshed with wheat

Here is a simple 100% wheat sourdough bread commonly called San Francisco Sourdough.  

450 g wheat flour (100%)
240 g refreshed starter made of 80 g wheat starter from the fridge + 80 g wheat flour + 80 g water. This is 53% of the total “new flour” weight of 450 g
290 g water. This is 64% of of the total “new flour” weight of 450 g
9g salt (2% of the total “new flour” weight of 450 g

San Francisco sourdough
San Francisco sourdough – slighly chewy and acidic – yes holes – but not huge because I want holes with my bread, not bread with my holes

Does any of this make sense?

If you have read this far, you are really dedicated and I applaud you.  The big take away is that amount of refreshed starter used as a percentage of the total weight of fresh flour varies.  

The point is that recipes vary according to style, nationality, base grain(s) of the starter, refreshment grain(s), and base grain(s) of the final dough. There are a lot of variables which is why baking bread with natural yeast is so FUN!  (Repeat after me:  Boy!  This is fun!  More toast!  A chance to get it even more perfect tomorrow!).

Plenty of bread to make!
Plenty of bread to make using a sourdough starter in stead of yeast!

Seriously, other than 100% rye which is as easy as falling off a log (especially if you are German),  it took me years to get a consistent product and, when I ski off piste without a recipe (the norm when I am writing books or using up stuff or simply experimenting) I still get some hilariously ugly loaves which we turn into toast.

What about those holes? To have holes.  To not have holes.  How to get holes.  How to avoid holes. Those are the questions and here are some answers.

Want to learn more about baking sourdough bread?  Come and take a class and let us demystify sourdough bread for you. My book Perfecting Sourdough was published by Quarto in 2015. It is sadly out of print but maybe you can get it second hand? It’s a great book.

Hungry for more recipes? Up in the search bar, type in The Italian Baking Project and you will find recipes I translated from yeast to sourdough – they are a fun place to start. You can also just type in Sourdough and you will have enough information and recipes to keep you going for days…..

5 thoughts on “How do I use my refreshed sourdough?”

  1. Hi Jane just read your blog How to use refreshed sourdough and noticed at the end it said next post-to have holes,not to have holes etc,did you write that post or can I not find it! I would be very interested to read about holes in bread! Love your book All You Knead Is Bread ,done 3 bread courses with Bread Angel Lucie Steel and am waiting for Making Sourdough to arrive.So glad I discovered

    1. Thanks Karen for your message! You reminded me of a great error! I have not written that post!!!!! I will get to it in the next day or two. Thank you so much for asking. Jane

  2. Hi. I’ve just discovered your website which has some really helpful tips (e.g. the float test). I’ve only recently started baking bread and am attempting to make spelt sourdough bread but have ended up throwing away just as many loaves as I’ve eaten! I’ve tried using both wholemeal spelt and also a mixture of white and wholemeal spelt. The results are varied but more often than not, I end up throwing the loaf away as it is dense and inedible. I live in Lyme Regis and would come on one of your courses but it doesn’t look like you run any in this area. Any hints/tips (or a recipe possibly) would be very gratefully received. Many thanks, Sue.

    1. Hi Sue

      it sounds completely self service to get you to buy my book (Perfecting Sourdough) but I don’t earn royalties so it is not!!!!! That is a great resource as the facebook group using it to improve their baking skills (Baking Our Way Through Perfecting Sourdough). Spelt sourdough starter is really hard to deal with. It’s punchy and fussy and can be bitter. Far easier to use a rye starter to bake your spelt loaf. Would you consider that? let me know and I can throw a recipe your way.

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