Sourdough starter for dummies...

jerzeegirl (FL zone 9B)

Would someone please post a recipe or link to recipe for a sourdough starter? I have never worked with a starter before and would love to try it, but I need a beginner version. Appreciate it.

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plllog

Beginner or pro, it's the same. There's a lot of misinformation out there, however, which can make it difficult. No matter your source, the yeast that you'll have once the starter is mature and lively is the same kind of yeast. People will tell you that isn't true, that there's terroir and all that, but that's only true when it's very young, and the yeast that rises is the same--it's the other fungi and bacteria that are different.

Rye is ridiculously easy to catch yeast from, so my "beginner" advice is to start with rye berries (i.e., whole rye grains). From the bulk bin is better than from a little packet because the latter could be cleaned, etc., but it will probably work also.

It's also easiest if you have a scale, and use grams to simplify the math. You also need a way to grind up the rye berries--if you don't have a grain mill, a coffee grinder or spice mill will work, but put a small handful of rye through first and discard to clean it as much as possible. Or a small food processor. Or even a blender and sieve.

You'll also need a couple of clear glass measuring cups or small glass bowls, a small scraper, masking tape and plastic wrap. There are substitutions possible if you don't have or don't like any of these. You also need a big bag of flour, i.e., starter food. This is the kind of flour you expect to bake bread with, i.e., I assume wheat white bread flour, though if you run out and need to feed you can use pastry, cake, AP or whatever you have. White is easier to get your starter going with. You can transition to whole wheat later, and you can keep a white and a whole wheat starter if you like. Later.

Freeze your rye berries so that when you mill or grind them they don't get hot enough to kill the yeast. It's better to have them coarse than overheated. Grind 100 grams.

Put your 100 grams of ground/milled rye in a measuring cup with 100 grams of water. Stir well. Pat the surface fairly level. Put the edge of a piece of tape on the measuring cup, along the top of the mixture. The reason for using a clear measuring cup is it's easier to see and measure the rise. Cover with plastic wrap and leave in a warmish but not hot place. If your kitchen is warm for the Summer, just out on the counter is fine. If there's a/c, put it somewhere cozier, but not in direct sunlight. You're just trying to keep it comfy, not rising like dough.

Your feeding times can be approximate, but try to keep them evenly spaced.

In 24 hours, feed it 50g flour and 50g water. I put the water in first and mix it with the starter, so everything is loose, then add the dry flour. I think it's easier. Stir well with your small scraper and scrape down the sides of the cup. Make sure it's all well mixed. Repeat the feeding 12 hrs. later

Before you feed it a third time, after another 12 hours, weigh out 100g into the clean measuring cup and add your 50g flour and 50g water. Keep feeding 100g of starter every 12 hours with 50g flour and 50g water.

After several days, you might smell something fishy. Literally. During this time that you've been feeding the yeast, it's been getting stronger and fighting all those other organisms for supremacy. If a bunch die off at the same time, you might smell the decay. That's actually a good sign, though if it doesn't happen it just means that there wasn't as much to die or that they died more gradually.

At some point, if you're good about keeping your new pet fed regularly and in a cozy place, you'll start seeing the starter rise. The aim is to get it to double reliably within 12 hrs. When it's mature, it should double within 8 hrs. and hold its height for the other four. If it's peaking early and then sinking (you'll see traces on the side of your cup), that just means it isn't quite as strong yet.

If after a week of regular feedings you're not getting any rise at all, throw it out and try again.

Once the starter is reliably doubling within the twelve hours, and a couple of weeks have gone by, you can put it in the fridge. I use little Libbey glass jars with pressure tops, so that if the starter grows more than expected it'll just push the top up, rather than breaking the jar.

Always feed the starter just before putting it in the fridge. For the first six months, try to feed it weekly. After that, if it's good and strong, it can go for months in the fridge. If you leave it a long time, you'll have to take it out a couple of days before baking, feed and warm it. Or you can just feed weekly always and just warm (i.e., at room temp) and feed it half a day before baking.

If you're not having any luck, or just don't want to deal with it, you can get one of the best loved, good old starters sent to you dry. Carl Griffith's Oregon Trail starter is distributed by volunteers in his memory. You just need to send an SASE. It's nice to send a couple of dollars as a donation as well, but not required

DISCARD: That's a lot of flour, right? I keep a big jar of discard in my fridge. It makes amazing waffles. While your starter is young, just use the discard as you would the same amount of flour and water. The proportion is approximately half as much water as flour (i.e., if you have a cup and a half of discard, it'll be approximately half a cup of water and one cup of flour). If it's smelly, throw it out.

HOOCH: If your starter is hungry, it'll start looking gray on top and have a gray or amber liquid. That's "hooch". As in alcohol. You can stir it back in or discard it. And feed. If there's a lot of gray and a lot of hooch, discard the darkest gray and feed it up. Keep it out and feed it for several cycles before returning it to the fridge.

BAKING: Measure out your 100 g of starter and feed as usual. Put aside. That's your starter for the future. Weigh the discard and feed its own weight of half by weight flour and half water. When you have enough starter for your recipe, and it's doubling steadily, proceed as per instructions.

Good luck!

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jerzeegirl (FL zone 9B)

That is the most incredibly thorough explanation of how to make a sourdough starter. Thank you so much!! I am going to read it very carefully and perhaps I will have some questions for you when I get started. I do have baking supplies (from my pizza making) including a scale that can measure the tiniest amounts of ingredients and a beautiful pizza steel that lives in my oven because it's too heavy to put anywhere else.

I am assuming I can get rye in bulk maybe at Whole Foods?


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plllog

You're very welcome. I have bought rye at Whole Foods. Recently, the one near me hasn't had any and I ordered 5lbs. through Amazon for baking, but I don't have any reason to think that's country wide or permanent. Sprouts, food coops and health food stores are other sources for bulk. If you live anywhere near farming, you can also check with the local flour mill if there is one. They might give you a big handful for free. :) Another alternative that's supposed to be easy to catch is grapes, but I haven't tried it. You can probably find the instructions online. The care and feeding is the same once you have the yeast.

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plllog

Some points I left out:

You can also feed with rye flour for a rye starter. While you can feed with any kind of flour, as I mentioned, if you change from white to whole wheat, for example, or any other big change in food, you could shock it. It'll just lay there saying, "Huh?" for awhile. Instead, if you gradually change the food over several days or feedings, 25% at a time, I'll just chomp away. Whole wheat doesn't rise as easily as white, and the bran can cut the gluten strands, so if it doesn't double for awhile after moving to whole wheat, don't worry. Just keep feeding it. If you want both white and whole wheat, just split your starter in two at feeding time.

If your first attempt totally fails, try feeding rye flour the first week, especially if you can grind your own bulk grain to a flour consistency. Or try a small packet of commercial whole grain rye flour.

Re the a/c, I just meant put it somewhere not getting blown on or chilled lower than normal room temp.

When using up starter discard (not fed), taste it. If it's very sour or bitter, add a little sugar to what you're baking. If you keep a discard jar like I do, it will get more and more sour. That also makes it perfect for a baking soda rise, for instance, for biscuits. There will probably be some live yeast lingering which will come awake and burp when you give it new flour to much on, giving you that much more fluff. Everyone's kitchen is a bit different, so it'll take a little experimenting to get the measures right. Pancakes, biscuits and waffles, as well as traditional quickbreads, are all good uses for discard.



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lindac92

Actually you don't need to go through all that to make a starter....just 2 oz of organic rye flour and 4 oz of bottled water ( no chlorine). Mix, cover loosley so the bugs don't drop in and the wild yeastey-beasties can get in andw ait..
Ann T has a good set of directions.
http://ths.gardenweb.com/discussions/3630716/starting-a-new-sourdough-starter?n=3

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plllog

Linda, you can say it long or you can say it short, you can say it in fl. oz. or you can say it in grams, but you just said the same thing. I just added a lot of info for beginners about what was going on. Your version is for people who know what's up.

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jerzeegirl (FL zone 9B)

I went to Whole Foods last night and bought about two pounds of rye berries. I don't see how these things can turn into flour but I am getting ready to try this evening! I tasted a couple of berries and they had no taste at all. I then realized that the distinctive rye bread taste is from caraway seeds and not totally the flour. Duh!.

I appreciate everyone's input. I have to read everything about a thousand times to make sure I don't miss something. (OK, I'm a little OCD too).

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plllog

Once rye is milled and baked, it has a strong flavor, but, yes, caraway seeds have their own particular flavor, and that kind of rye bread often also has corn (maize) in it. The rye flavor is more like you'll get in really dark, coarse breads. Pumpernickel, for instance, though that sometimes has molasses in it, and people put cocoa powder in for color, though I don't know how it affects the flavor.

The rye doesn't have to be flour to make the starter, but if it's too coarse, at some point you might have to strain it. Theoretically, you could use it whole. More likely, however, if it's just cracked rather than flour, it'll soften until it falls apart as it matures in the liquid. Use the best method you can to get it as close to flour without getting hot as you can.

If you're interested in milling your own grain, there are very inexpensive hand crank mills that look a lot like granny's tomato processor or meat grinder clamped to the table, just with a different mechanism. There are good electric mills that aren't too expensive as well. I have a NutriMill classic, which is versatile, can do a little or a lot, can adjust for size and speed, and is fairly fool proof. For instance, some are very touchy about whether you start the motor first or put the grain in first, to the point where they can be wrecked, and this one doesn't care. Search on all the wonderful posts from Grainlady for more information about grains and mills and everything related.

Good luck this evening! Remember, it'll take awhile before anything exciting happens, but just starting is a thrill of its own.

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jerzeegirl (FL zone 9B)

Thanks pillog! I do have a mortar and pestle but I expect it would take forever to grind into flour (although it probably wouldn't get too hot). My DH has two coffee grinders and so I think I will "liberate" one of them for the job!.

I will let you know how it turns out.

ETA: I just noticed that there are some pizza doughs that use starters. I am really going to have to try that for my weekly pizza experiments.

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plllog

There are some good sourdough pizzas, but most pizza doughs currently popular are high yeast, fast rising ones. The wild yeast in starter generally rises more slowly, especially when young. If you want to use it for pizza, choose a recipe that does a long ferment. If you do it in the fridge, maybe use an insulated bowl so it takes longer to cool down.

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lindac92

There is no need to grind your rye berries....buy some food rye flour and mix it with water....
I see no reason to make something that people have done for centuries so difficult and complicated.

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plllog

Rye flour may or may not work. If the grain has been cleaned, polished or heated, it will not work. There has to be live yeast on it. Starter can be caught off of whole grains, but it's easier to work with if it's ground.

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lindac92

I use rye flakes....rolled like oats.


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jerzeegirl (FL zone 9B)

I just looked at the jar and I think it's alive! The dough looks like it has a million little sinkholes in it.

Question regarding the third feeling -

you remove 100 grams from the fermentation jar and then add the 50g + 50g of new ingredients back into the jar. You can then toss the 100 grams that you removed, right?

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lindac92

yep...or add it plus some yeast to a biga.


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jerzeegirl (FL zone 9B)

I had to look up biga and guess it's used in making Ciabatta which I love! I will have to give that a try.

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lindac92

Biga is the term for a preferment in any bread...

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plllog

Yes!! All those bubbles and pocks are the yeast chomping! And that's why you use rye. :) I bullheadedly started with hard red wheat berries just to prove that I could. The first try went moldy before the yeast caught. The second one succeeded but needed a lot of tender loving care and nursing and fussing.

Well, you keep the 100g that you measured, but close enough, because you started with 200g. The measurements forgive imprecision. If you weigh your jar empty, when it's time for a clean jar, you can easily weigh the starter inside it instead of weighing the discard, but either way works.

Re tossing the part that you remove, the "discard", if it doesn't smell bad (i.e., not unappetizing from dead organisms) you don't have to actually throw it away. You can use it as the amount of flour and water it is in anything, or save it in a jar in the fridge and use it later to make things like pancakes, adding some leavening. If you make the ciabatta or any other bread, just deduct the 50g flour and 50g water from your recipe. And if you just don't want to be bothered, you can toss it.

Biga is a name for a preferment, which is a small mixture of dough and yeast that starts rising before the actual bread dough is made. Fermentation is the rising with the active yeast after the dough is mixed and before it's shaped. Biga actually has a more specific meaning, but many people use it indiscriminately, like Linda does. From Cerevisiae on The Fresh Loaf, the best specific glosses I've found:

  • Biga - A very dry Italian preferment, often, but not always, made
    with commercial yeast. Drier than most doughs, generally fermented for
    12 - 16 hours.
  • Poolish - A very wet French preferment (attributed
    to Polish bakers, hence the name) consisting of equal or almost equal
    parts of flour and water by weight, also usually fed with a small amount
    of commercial yeast, but can be done with sourdough. Often fermented
    for 8 - 12 hours, but I've seen shorter and longer.
  • Levain - Way
    more vague than the others. Can be wetter than a poolish, but not
    usually as dry as a biga, and usually destined to go into a dough,
    rather than just being a starter.

From the glossary on The Fresh Loaf:

  • Biga: a term used variously as a very stiff (~50% hydration preferment), or as a generic term for preferment.
  • Levain: usually used as a synonym for sourdough
  • Poolish: A type of sponge. Typically quite wet, an
    equal weight of water and flour with an extremely small amount of yeast.

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plllog

A note on storage. Some people make a new starter every time they bake. If that works for you, go for it. My starters are now several years old. I keep in the fridge both a white flour and a whole wheat starter at all times, and, unless I've neglected them to death, have a rye as well as white and whole wheat levains for the Daniel Leader breads that call for a much stiffer one. They're several years old all much stronger than when they were in their first year. That's one reason people love the Oregon Trail starter so much. It's old and tested and strong.

A strong starter is just a lot easier to work with. Some people throw in a little commercial yeast to strengthen their rise. Just starter takes longer, usually, though a preferment helps. Even 1/8 tsp. of commercial yeast on a long rise will do the whole job, it's that strong. At that point, I'd just use the commercial yeast unless I was looking for a sour flavor.

So, on getting that San Francisco Sourdough flavor? Use less starter and a longer rise. Let it rise for a day if you need to. Use more starter and a shorter rise and your bread shouldn't be sour.

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jerzeegirl (FL zone 9B)

I just did my second feeding. I was shocked to see how "gassy" it is. The mixture had "exploded" along the sides of the mason jar I am using. I think it's doing well. It has a slight odor of something I have never smelled before. Not unpleasant, just unknown. I can't even describe it.

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jerzeegirl (FL zone 9B)

Uh oh. I think we're gonna need a bigger boat. The starter just flowed over the top of the mason jar. I am going to transfer it into something bigger. Wasn't expecting this! lol.

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plllog

LOL! It means your new pet is happy to be eating and burping and burping and belching! That's a good thing! With it as happy as it is, there's no reason not to take off your 100g and discard the rest come feeding time. The feeding without discard early on in the instructions is just to give it a chance to catch without stressing it out. Just jump to the discard and feed every twelve hours, and look for the doubled rise. Once it's doubling reliably in 8-12 hours, keep feeding for a week and you're ready to start baking and storing the rest.

Congratulations!

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jerzeegirl (FL zone 9B)

I'm four and a half days in and I think I screwed up already with my measuring. I forgot to do the discard once and did only half a discard once so my weights are "off". The starter smells good and has bubbles but is not yet rising very much. So I decided to divide it up into two jars.

So, there is now one jar with 200 grams of starter and one jar with 150 grams of starter. I think I am going to experiment. I will continue putting AP flour into the larger jar but I am going to put whole wheat flour into the smaller one to see what happens. I hope that isn't too weird. Let me know what you think.

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lindac92

Go for it!! What do you think Great Great grandma did with her starter?
she took some out to mix with flour and added flour and water back into the jar.
Some Great Great grandmothers saved some of every batch of bread to add back into the next batch of bread. Starter is not rocket science, just keep feeding it and remove some now and then so it doesn't die.


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jerzeegirl (FL zone 9B)

I would love to know what great great grandma did - or at least grandpa who owned an Italian bakery and was a master at pastry and Italian bread! I wish I could go back in time - I would have hung out in the back of the bakery where the stuff was made rather than in the front where the stuff was eaten!

The one thing that is giving me hope is that the starters really smell good.

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jerzeegirl (FL zone 9B)

Ok. I know this question is probably idiotic but I am going to ask it anyway. If you keep discarding half of the starter, how do you ever get enough to use in a recipe? I notice that one recipe calls for a cup. I would probably have to use all my starter to come up with a cup. So how do you get it so you have some left?

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plllog

Not idiotic. No question is if you don't know the answer, but you weren't supposed to know the answer to this one. When you make a recipe like that you feed it up first. Details below.

First off, the measurements aren't important for keeping your yeast alive. They become important for using it because you want to know how much flour and water you're putting in. If you don't need a recipe, you don't even need to know that, and can just do it by feel. I.e., until it's wet or dry enough. You can work your way back to knowing your proportions just by feeding for a few more days.

If you've been feeding half water and half flour by weight each time, which on second reading, I think is what you were saying, the only issue is how hungry the yeast is, and no biggie. It's still all "100% hydration", i.e., the same weight of water as of flour, so no matter how much you have total, you know how much of each.

Re the whole wheat, as I said previously, you don't want to shock the starter. Especially since it's not rising strongly yet. I'd feed for another week with AP just to make it easier, but if you feel like playing it's not wrong. Start by giving it only a bit of whole wheat and the rest white, and work up to all whole wheat, or it may go into a coma. Give it some time even if it's dormant and it might recover, but this early it could give up. Probably won't, but could. If you start with 10g, and work up to the full 50g over a week, it's less likely to protest.

Whole wheat doesn't form as strong a gluten because of the bran, and the bran can actually cut the gluten threads as it works and rises. Eventually, it will double, but it make take it awhile to develop "legs". If you can, use whole wheat bread flour, or hard wheat berries rated at 14+% protein (this is a different number from the one in the nutrition info on the bag, which due to rounding isn't precise enough to be meaningful for baking comparisons). I don't think red or white hard wheat matters much. White might be a little easier to work with, but not enough to fret over.

Feeding up your starter means increasing the size. So you have 200g in your jar, and your recipe calls for 400g. Put your starter in a bigger jar and give it its own weight in food, but don't discard, so use 100g of water and 100g of flour. Wait your standard 8-12 hours for it to double, pull off your 100g feed and set aside/store, discard 100g and feed the remaining 200g by 100g flour and 100g water. If your starter is old and strong, you can probably just feed without discarding, but while it's young, you need more food.

So, when you have a recipe that calls for "1 cup of starter", it's usually talking about a wetter starter, that's more of a thin batter or slurry consistency. For your sanity, if the recipe doesn't say the hydration ratio, or give a starter recipe where you can see the proportions, skip it until you're comfortable baking with your starter. If it is a 300% hydration recipe, for instance--the weight of the flour is always 100% and the proportional weight of the water is measured off that, so 300% means three times as much water by weight as the weight of the flour--so once you've separated out your keeper starter, you can increase the water in your feeding, or you can feed first and add the water right before you use it.

If you're baking daily, you can just keep a very wet starter going on the counter. If not, it's harder to maintain healthily.

Other recipes often call for just your kind of starter, half water half flour. For one of them, just feed up the starter to the correct volume. There are different ideas about the best time to use the starter. No matter what, the whole point is that the yeast will feed on the carbs and burp making the bread rise. Unless directed otherwise, I use it after it has doubled, but well before the next feeding time.

Have fun!


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jerzeegirl (FL zone 9B)

Thank you! That answers the question very thoroughly! I just checked on jar that I poured the whole wheat flour into and it appears to have some bubbles so for now it's okay. I saved some discard and was thinking of attempting some pancakes tomorrow. It might be fun to try that. It's all a big experiment right now!

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plllog

Excellent news on the bubbles! It sounded like you got a strong start (i.e., lots of good yeast), so it makes sense that it wasn't knocked out flat. :) So long as there are bubbles, it can be brought back even from the brink. A little food shock is nowhere near the brink!

Re pancakes and discard, if it tastes sour, you can use just baking soda (like a buttermilk recipe without the buttermilk). If the discard doesn't taste sour, use baking powder to be sure of your rise. The yeast may kick in and give you extra fluff, too. :)

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jerzeegirl (FL zone 9B)

Ok. How weird is this? The AP flour starter is doing well but not really expanding but the whole wheat starter appears to have (almost) doubled! I split the flour 50/50 this morning and it's kind of going a little nutty in the jar. In the meantime, I set aside a cup of discard because I thought I might make some pancakes (it's a combo of the two starters) and it is full of little bubbles. :-)

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plllog

There are a lot of variables involved. It could be that the whole wheat flour had plenty of wild yeast spores in it (AP won't). That's likely. There are other possibilities for why the whole wheat is rising so well, but without rigorous testing, it's impossible to know. Just be happy. Whole wheat starter can be really temperamental, which is why all the warnings. It also points to the yeast in your base starter being strong, which isn't a surprise considering how easy it was to catch.

It's normal for the discard to keep bubbling. So long as the yeast can find some carbs, it'll eat and burp. If you wash flour and water dough as you knead it, you'll wash out all the carbs and have gluten (seitan). It takes a long time for the yeast to eat all the carbs, though, and start dying. When you have a lot of dark gray (rather than just a gray surface) and a big puddle of alcohol, you know most of the carbs have been transform and the yeast has been starving. Until then, you just have hungry starter in your discard jar. I daresay, if you fed it, even after it's sat around awhile and gone very sour, you could make a healthy starter again.

The thing is, you can't count on the rise from your discard jar unless you do feed it up again. It should give you some extra fluff, but add some other leavening, especially for a quickbread like pancakes.

Congratulations on all the success, and good luck on the pancakes! Remember to taste the batter--if you're not interested in sourdough flavor pancakes add a little sugar if needed, though they'll be less sour baked. If you want sourdough flavor pancakes, use less than the full cup and let the batter sit overnight without the eggs and baking powder/soda, for the sour flavor to develop. It may still not get very sour by morning because your starters are so fresh and perky. It'll take some experimentation to get the right level of sour.

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jerzeegirl (FL zone 9B)

OK. The whole wheat starter is a monster. It has more than doubled since I fed it this morning. Can I refrigerate it now? And stop feeding it? Or should I continue? I tasted it....it's tangy.

The other one is only rising by half as much. It needs more time.

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plllog

It's your flour. :) It loves your flour. Is it tangier than your white? All sourdough starter is acidic, and will have a little tang. And, yes, if it's reliably more than doubling in less than eight hours, you can stop feeding and store it in the fridge. Wait until your next feeding and put it in the fridge right after you feed. Make sure there's enough room in the jar for it to grow, and maybe cover with plastic wrap and a rubber band until it settles down if the jar has a screw top. Once you're sure it's done grown, you can change to the lid.

Whatever flour that is should be great for baking. All that wild yeast in it!

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jerzeegirl (FL zone 9B)

I am very excited to make something. I think I am going to start with sourdough English muffins!

I was looking at the starter today and noticed that when it rises it looks rather spongy. It reminds me of the stuff that you could buy to make Egg Nogs. Very fluffy.

Thanks so much for your help! I was only able to do this because of you!

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plllog

You're very welcome!

Spongy looking is good. :)

Good luck with the English muffins!

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