One of the most common questions I get coming in after I have taught one of my sourdough bread courses is…. “My sourdough starter doesn’t look like yours did! Is it the right consistency? Have I made a mistake?”
It’s very common to think that your sourdough starter is the wrong consistency, especially when you first start to use it for bread baking at home.
So, is your sourdough starter too thick or too runny? Here’s the short answer; if you’re doing the following 3 things…
- You’re feeding your sourdough starter at regular intervals
- You’re using consistent amounts of flour and water to feed it
- You’re feeding it enough flour and water to satisfy it
then more than likely the answer is that your sourdough starter probably is the right consistency. Sourdough starters range from extremely runny that you have to pour it, to so thick that you have to use your hands or a dough scraper to break it away. It’s more important that your sourdough starter is active and bubbly, rather than how thick or runny it is. However, the consistency of your starter depends on a few different factors, and it can be adjusted to a more desirable consistency.
We need to look at things a little deeper in order to know what your starter consistency should be, and we’ll also look into what to do if you want your starter to be a different consistency to what you have.
What Affects the Consistency of Sourdough Starter?
There are several things that affect how thick or runny your sourdough starter is. Let’s take a look at some of these factors…
The Type of Flour used Affects the Consistency of your Sourdough Starter
The biggest factor in determining how thick or runny your sourdough starter will be, is the type of flour you use. For more detailed information about which types of flour are best for sourdough bread, read my guide here.
Different types of flours will have different absorbency levels. And in fact,
even if you use the same flour, absorbency levels will differ even between different brands of the same type of flour.
Some flours will take longer to absorb the water, but overall be far more absorbent.
What Determines How Absorbant Each Type of Flour is?
A couple of things…
Gluten Allows Flour to Absorb Water much Faster
The higher the gluten content in your flour, the faster the absorbtion rate. So strong white bread flour for example, has a very high gluten percentage, which means it will absorb water quickly.
Bran Allows Flour to Absorb a Higher Volume of Water but at a Much Slower Rate
Bran, that is found in wholemeal varieties of flour have very high absorbancy levels, but they take time to absorb that water. So although the gluten content in wholemeal varieties is lower, wholemeal flour is more absorbant overall due to its bran content, albeit at a slower rate.
Here’s a chart that shows the absorbancy levels of the two types of flour
|Fast Absorbtion||Strong White Bread Flour (Bread Flour)||Less absorbant overall|
|Slow Absorbtion||100% Wholemeal Flour||Highly Absorbtant|
So, if absorbancy levels were the only factor then using wholemeal flour, would make your sourdough starter thicker, due to it absorbing more of the water overall, and using strong white bread flour, would make your starter more runny.
But there are other factors at play…
Other Factors that Determine How Absorbant Flour will be in Sourdough Starter…
Here are a few other things that can affect how absorbant your flour may be:
- How it was milled – the finer the milling, the higher the surface area of the flour, so water will be absorbed much quicker.
- How it is stored – a drier storage area will mean the flour will be drier and it will take longer to absorb water.
- When it was milled and harvested – the fresher the flour is, the faster it will absorb water
- How old it is – old flour will take longer to absorb the water, as it tends to be drier.
It’s not just absorbancy levels of flour that affect the consistency of your starter…
The Surrounding Environment of your Sourdough Starter will Affect How Quickly it Feeds
If you keep your starter in a warm area that is well aired, it will feed at a faster rate and require more regular feedings than in a colder environment. (Check out my article “When to Use Sourdough Starter at its Peak to Bake Good Bread” )
This is usually the main reason why your starter may look different to the next baker’s starter, even though you use the same flour to feed it. It’s because your environment, including humidity, temperature, air flow will be different to the next persons.
What’s the Best Consistency for your Sourdough Starter to be?
This is the real question that most people want the answer to. What is the correct consistency of starter to use to give you the best sourdough bread?
Most recipes call for a 100% hydration starter. This means a starter made up of 50% water, and 50% flour. And to keep things simple, especially when you are first starting out, it is usually best to go with that hydration level.
As long as the starter is bubbly, has a pungent aroma, and is rising and lowering its levels after feedings, your starter will be happy to ferment your bread no matter what the consistency is.
I’ve switched flours many times over the years when feeding my starter, from wholemeal to rye, to different brands of strong white bread flour. At the moment I’m happy with my strong white starter, but whenever I switch brands, I notice the consistency of my starter changing. It will become extra runny, or extra thick, according to which flour I am using.
But has it made a difference to how my bread turns out? Absolutely not. My bread comes out with consistent results no matter how runny or thick the starter was, as the method I use (and teach) goes by the feel of the dough, which will mean the water content of the dough will always be adjusted accordingly. And this is the reason why the consistency of the starter is less important to the overall result of the bread.
I know people who use an extremely thick starter, and others who use very runny ones. In the end, it’s the active wild bacteria and yeasts in the starter that make or break the bread, not its consistency.
How Do I Change the Consistency of my Sourdough Starter
Most times, the consistency of sourdough starter is down to personal preferance, not performance. If you want to try and change the consistency of your sourdough starter there are a couple of ways to do it to make sure you keep your recipes consistent.
- Change the hydration level of your sourdough starter
- Switch to an alternative flour
Changing the Hydration Level of your Sourdough Starter
To have a thicker consistency – Instead of 50/50 flour and water during feedings, increase your level of flour, and reduce the level of water. But keep this ratio consistent so that you are able to adjust recipes accordingly. So if you go for 60% flour and 40% water, keep this ratio for at least a few days to see if the starter reaches the desired consistency. If it isn’t right, adjust again and wait a couple of days.
To have a runnier consistency – Increase the water and reduce the flour. (the same caveat as above applies).
The Consequence of Changing Hydration levels of your Sourdough Starter.
You have to bear in mind that when you adjust the levels of flour to water in your starter, you may also have to make adjustments to your recipe.
Look at the recipes overall amount of flour and water (inclusive of the sourdough starter) to understand the adjustment required. For example, you will need more flour in your recipe if your starter is getting fed less flour, and vice versa.
As a beginner baker, if you are not comfortable with making adjustments to a recipe but want to change the consistency of your sourdough starter, it may be better to use the other option…
Switching to an Alternative Flour
Keeping a hydration level of 100% is a lot simpler for the beginner baker, so feeding it a different flour may be an alternative option.
You could switch to a wholemeal version of whichever flour you are using. This will make your starter alot thicker, or you could play around with different brands of the same type of flour until you find one that gives you the desired consistency.
If you are going to play with the consistency of your sourdough starter, it is probably best to try one thing at a time, so that you can know which factor made the difference you needed.
For more information and tips on keeping your sourdough starter healthy and active, check out my “Sourdough Starter Troubleshooting Guide”.
Taking a break from sourdough baking? Read my guide on “How to Store Sourdough Starter Long Term”.
How long after feeding sourdough starter can I use it?
The optimal time to use your sourdough starter for a recipe would be between 6 and 12 hours after feeding, depending on how warm or cold the temperature is. (6 hours on a warm day, 12 hours on a cold day). This time frame is when the starter is at its peak and will give the most ‘oomph’ to your dough. Check out my article “When to Use Sourdough Starter at its Peak to Bake Good Sourdough Bread”
What do you do if your sourdough starter doesn’t bubble?
Bubbles in your sourdough starter are a sign that your starter is happy. If the starter is not bubbling, it could be needing a little more attention. Try feeding it at more frequent intervals over a couple of days and it should get back on track.
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