If you take a quick search engine tour, you will find many, often conflicting, opinions of how to begin and maintain your starter. I find that understanding a little of the science and simplifying the process brings better results. Keep in mind that sourdough starter is the result of a natural reaction. As bakers, we only facilitate the natural process.
When water is added to flour, the naturally occurring yeasts in the flour and your kitchen work in combination with bacteria, primarily lactobacillus, to form two acids. The first acid, lactic acid, creates a rich mellow flavor. The second acid, acetic acid, creates the tang of sourdough. The key to managing flavor is managing the acid ratios.
Tips for Rich Mellow Bread (More Lactic Acid)
- Higher Hydration – Keep your starter fully hydrated (same amounts of water and flour at each feeding). Remember, the amounts are measured by weight not volume. I feed each day with 50g of warm filtered water and 50g of flour.
- Cooler Temperature – Allow your bread to rise for normal times at room temperature. Doing so will allow your bread dough to create the proper amounts of carbon dioxide to create those lovely holes.
- Less Activity – Use bread flour as your flour of choice for your feedings. White flour has less nutrients for the bacteria, thus their activity is not as pronounced.
Tips for Tanging Bread (More Acetic Acid)
- Less Hydration – Using a feeding ratio that creates a dryer starter. Over time, you will get a feel for what ratios are best. I like 50 g of flour with 40 g of water to create a consistency of warm peanut butter.
- Higher Temp – Let your bread rise for longer times at room temperature or higher. This can be tricky as you don’t want your bread dough to over proof. If you over proof, punch down your second rise, reshape and let the dough rise a third time before you bake.
- More Activity – Use whole wheat or rye flour in your starter. The bacteria love the extra nutrients and will produce more acid.
As you experiment, you will find the process that produces the flavor you desire. Don’t be afraid to play. Once you create a good base, split your starter and keep two or more so you can fine tune your starter(s). Now that you understand the basic science, managing your bread’s flavor should be easier and more predictable.