Baking Sourdough Bread with a Stiff Starter

Baking in the winter always presents problems here at my house: it’s cold! Probably not quite the cold you get in other parts of the world but it sure is cold to me, and my starter. Kitchen temperatures are consistently hovering between 68º and 70ºF which really inhibits yeast and bacteria activity. I’ll typically offset this by changing the percentage of mature starter carryover or by heating up the water used in my feedings, but you really want to try to keep your starter around 75º to 80ºF — this is not easy to do when winter is bombarding your area. You just have to make do with the warmest spot you can find in your kitchen, for me this is next to my whisky collection… almost poetic.

Whiskey... and a starter

A short aside… In the winter with all the holiday events and cold weather I find myself baking pies and cakes more and more. I recently baked an excellent lattice pie, an apple/pistachio tart and the famous Cook’s Illustrated pecan pie, each received with equal high praise. Making a pie crust by hand becomes easier and easier the more you do it (like most things) but even when it doesn’t turn out great, it’s always good. Butter makes life worth living, as they say. Anyway, here’s a couple shots of two of these beauties, lots of fun to take a break from bread baking and bake something sweet.

Peach pie and apple pistachio tart

Ok back on task here… During this challenging baking season I’ve been experimenting with a much more stiff starter than my typical “liquid” one I’ve described thus far (outlined by Chad Robertson at Tartine Bakery). It seems many bakers argue over the differences between stiff and liquid starters, their benefits, differences and similarities. I’ll first give a few high level characteristics of each and then go into some things I’ve noticed after a month or more from a more personal perspective.

Note that frequent starter refreshments will always lead to a lower acidic level (less sour taste) whether you’re working with a stiff or liquid starter.

A very brief overview of some chemistry/biology behind our starters: a mature and healthy starter, and the beneficial bacteria contained within, will break down the complex carbohydrates in flour into sugars which the natural yeast in our starters consume to create carbon dioxide (our dough leavening agent) and additionally will produce two types of acids as metabolic byproducts: lactic (adds a mild yogurt-like taste) and acetic (adds a more sour, vinegar taste). This symbiotic relationship between bacteria and yeast is what gives our bread two things: 1) leavening power in the form of CO2, and 2) complex and layered tastes in the form of a mixture of lactic and acetic acids. You, the experienced and adept baker, can control the production of each by the method in which you maintain your starter (frequency of feedings, water temperature, ambient temperature, etc.). Liquid starters maintained at a warmer temperature will produce more lactic acid, whereas stiff starters maintained at slightly cooler temperatures will produce more acetic acid. However, does this mean you’ll end up with a super sour loaf when using a stiff starter? No, not at all. Whether you’re using a stiff or liquid starter the final taste in your bread is up to you and how you decide to manage your starter. It’s just as possible make a super sour tasting loaf using a liquid levain (by increasing fermentation time or using a higher percentage of levain) as it is to produce a very mellow, sweet tasting loaf using a stiff starter (which is what I prefer and always strive for).

Now let’s take a high-level look at the differences (and similarities) between a liquid and stiff starter.

Stiff starter

Liquid Starter


  • hydration at, or greater than, 65% water-to-flour
  • typically “sweet” or “milky” smelling if refreshed frequently, like I do
  • incorporating in dough mix is very easy due to its liquid nature
  • refreshing is similar to stirring a thick milkshake

My liquid starter, originally started by following the guidelines set out in Tartine Bread, is a “sweet” and “milky” starter that is very loose and amorphous. I’ve maintained this high hydration starter for numerous years and it creates bread that is very creamy tasting with a subtle sour tang to it. Many references suggest that a liquid starter will produce a final loaf that has more of a sour tang to it, but of course that all depends on how you manager other aspects of your starter (timing, temperature, etc.). More on this below.

Create your own sourdough starter yeast

Stiff Starter


  • hydration at, or less than, 65% water-to-flour
  • incorporating into dough mix is a little more difficult due to the thick, tough nature
  • refreshing is similar to kneading dough
  • produces a more subdued acidic taste in final loaves if maintained correctly

A stiff starter is a little more forgiving when it comes to refreshment (feeding) due to the delayed “falling” (when compared to a liquid starter which falls quickly when food is exhausted) of the dome on top when rising. Think of it as a rising ballon in a jar that eventually runs out of helium and then suddenly the top caves in an the entire top begins to fall. There have been a few instances where I wasn’t able to attend to my starter until many hours after my normal refreshment time and the starter was just fine — no deep vinegar smell and it was well before the total acidic breakdown of the flour.

Stiff sourdough starter

Marble Brewery, one of the best places here in Albuquerque for locally brewed beer. I had just picked up a brand new growler of my favorite brew for the weekend. No beer was used in this bake, but that will come soon. 1

Starter Conclusions

Experimenting with a stiff starter has been a very worthwhile endeavor for me, I’ve learned about the different feel, fermentation behavior and taste between using the two types of starters and levain types. Honestly in the end I think the choice between the two largely comes down to your personal preference: do you like to stir your levain like a milkshake when refreshing or do you like to scoop it out and quickly knead & mix by hand? I find myself preferring the latter, surprisingly. It’s quick and easy for me to just drop in some flour, water, and knead out the dough on my work surface, then drop the dry ball back into its rising jar. No messy soup to deal with. Additionally, when mixing up a high hydration recipe (like below) the stiff starter does seem to impart more strength to the final dough, giving the bread a bit more rise and making shaping a little easier. Maybe because in the end there is a little less hydration in the levain, and because of the increased acidity in the stiff starter which helps to strengthen and condition gluten.


After baking with my stiff starter for a while now I can safely say the misconception that a stiff starter/levain produces a more sour bread is definitely unfounded. I’ve now baked some of the most incredible tasting bread that only has a small hint of sour, probably even less than my liquid version. A stiff starter, if also fed with 100% whole wheat flour, will produce quite a bit of acid (both lactic and acetic) but the actual transfer of these acids to your final dough is very minimal if maintained like I do (frequent refreshments at warmish temperatures) and also the fact that the amount of prefermented flour is typically very small 2.

Closeup of stiff sourdough starter

I’ll be outlining my maintenance schedule and some tips/pointers on creating and maintaining a stiff starter in an upcoming post.

I’d love to hear from you out there, do you have any experience working with a stiff and liquid levain? Do you see any other benefits than what I’ve outlined here — what do you prefer?

This wouldn’t be an entry here if I didn’t go into a recent bake now would it? Let’s get baking sourdough bread with a stiff starter!

Prepare the stiff levain – 8:20am

Note that the quantities and temperatures in this entry have been adjusted to compensate for the cold environment in my house (around 70ºF).

Weight Ingredient
50g Mature starter
50g Giusto’s whole wheat flour
50g Central Milling Organic Arstisan Bakers Craft (malted)
65g H2O @ 85ºF

I keep the levain in the oven with the light on until the interior temperature reaches 78º to 80ºF. Leave this to build acidity and strength for 4 or 5 hours. With a stiff levain you’ll know it’s ready when the domed area on top just begins to cave in, but after 5 hours it should be good to go.

Stiff starter is stiff

Autolyse & Mix – 11:30am

For this bake I was only able to do a 1 hour autolyse but this should be sufficient.


Gather the following:

Weight Ingredient Baker’s Percentage
100g Giusto’s whole wheat flour 10%
50g Bob’s Red Mill Dark Rye Flour 5%
850g Central Milling Organic Arstisan Bakers Craft (malted) 85%
875g H2O @ 97ºF 87.5%
20g Fine sea salt 2%
200g Ripe, stiff levain (amount increased 5% from last entry due to cold weather) 20%


Mix time

Perform the following for your autolyse:

  1. In a thick bowl add the flour
  2. Add 750g of your heated water (the rest is reserved until later when we add in the levain & salt after the autolyse)
  3. Mix these ingredients by hand until incorporated. Remember at this stage we are not looking for any gluten development, just make sure all the dry bits of flour are incorporated
  4. Cover with wrap and keep near your levain for 1 hour (in my case in the oven to keep warm)

Slap & Fold Mix After Autolyse – 1:00pm

After your one hour or so autolyse, take your dough in the bowl, break up the stiff levain on top, pour on about half the remaining water (warm up water if it has cooled) and slap & fold for about 5-8 minutes until the dough looks smooth and doesn’t stick to the counter.

Return dough to the bowl and let rest for just a minute, then pour on top the salt and remaining water and do another slap and fold session for about 5 minutes until the dough again looks smooth and has some strength to it. “Strength to it” is a loaded term and this is definitely an intuitive judgement call. After a few tries if you remain observant you’ll start to build up a feel for “strong enough” and know when to stop your slapping & folding.

At this point the dough should look somewhat smooth, feel elastic and strong and perhaps you’ll see a few air bubbles that were just incorporated during the two slap and fold sessions.

Final dough temperature: 71ºF
Ambient temperature: 80ºF


My final dough temperature was VERY cold at 71ºF (typical would be 77º or 78º). Even with the extremely warm water having the dough exposed to air during the two slap and fold sessions cooled things off considerably. I was a bit worried at this point but performing bulk fermentation in my oven with the light on (around 80ºF) let the dough proceed with fermentation, although a bit slower.


Bulk Fermentation – 1:30pm

Transfer your dough to a clear container to be used during bulk fermentation and let rest for the first 30 minutes. After the first 30 minutes has passed, do your first set of stretch and folds.

  1. 1:05pm – Turn Set 1
  2. 1:35pm – Turn Set 2
  3. 2:05pm – Turn Set 3

I stopped here at only 3 turns but you will need to make the call based on how your dough looks and feels. If it’s holding shape in the container, turns become a little harder to perform because the dough bundles up and it pulls easily from the sides it’s most likely strong enough and you can let rest for the remainder of the bulk fermentation.

Pre-shape – 6:30pm

Take the dough out of the container onto your work surface. Divide into two halves and lightly spin the dough in little circles across your work surface with your bench knife in one hand and your other empty hand—kind of like turning a car’s steering wheel. No need to overwork the dough here! You just want to gently form them into two boules, just enough to hold their shape for a 20 minute rest.

Shape + Proof – In Fridge at 8:40pm

Shape each resting dough to your liking and place them into their flour-dusted bannetons. Now place these into plastic bags and let rest on the counter for 2 hours at room temperature (around 70ºF here). After this two hour rest on the counter you should have noticed your dough rise just a bit, place your bannetons with wrap into the fridge to proof overnight, we will bake these in the morning.

Score + Bake – around 6:00pm (Next Evening)

I went for a long proof this time: about 22 hours! My theory on my fridge being too cold at 37ºF is spot-on, and you can see in the results here as there was a much more open crumb than usual due in part to the long proof. Next bake I’m going to leave the dough out even longer, perhaps 3 hours, before placing into the fridge.

Place your baking stone and Dutch oven in your oven and turn it to 500ºF for a 1 hour pre-heat. After one hour, take one of your bannetons out of the fridge and cut a piece of parchment paper to place on top. Take your peel and then put it on top of those two and quickly invert it so the dough is now resting on the parchment paper which is resting on the peel. Score the top of the dough with your desired pattern. Take out the shallow side of your Dutch oven and drag in your dough. Quickly place the pan back in the oven, cover with the deep side, and bake for 20 minutes at 500ºF. After 20 minutes, turn down the oven to 450ºF and cook covered for an additional 10 minutes. Once this 10 minute period is over, open the oven and take off the deep lid of the Dutch oven (set it next to the other half inside the oven), then cook for an additional 30 minutes or so, until the bread is to your desired doneness.



What a beautiful bake, guys, I was happy when I sliced into these. I was pleasantly surprised by the nice open crumb inside and I’m confident I can open things up a bit more next time. I’m slowly inching closer to my ideal loaf each experiment and each trial. Sure there are bakes that really fall short 3 but the general progression for my bakes has been in the right direction. I’m still looking for that loaf that looks like a spider web inside with large holes and dynamic movement, almost like an explosion went off surrounded by sticky, gooey, custard.

Naturally leavened sourdough with stiff levain

My next attempt will be using the same procedure almost exactly as outlined above but I’ll take half and attempt a longer proof on the counter before retarding. It’s hard to say just how long will open things up more, and you don’t want to over proof, but it is an experiment after all. I’m sure it will still make wonderful toast.


Thin, brittle, snaps under the lightest of pressure. Wonderful coloring throughout and excellent oven spring on these. I was a little afraid spring would suffer due to the high hydration but the strengthening of the dough through using a stiff starter/levain and the slap and folds helped to keep things in check. Sublime coloring on the outside ranging from light brown to dark brown and signs of caramelization on the exterior. Cracks, small bubbles, tears and rips.

Dat crust, though


Super open, but still a little room for improvement (mostly in the bottom middle area). Tender and moist with a slight nutty flavor likely from the whole wheat and tiny bit of rye. This is my favorite sandwich bread. You can see in the image below that ghosting or shiny look to some areas where it looks like a thin sheet is being stretched wide — this is the look I want throughout.

Naturally leavened sourdough with stiff levain


Startling taste! My ritualistic late afternoon sandwich 4 with fresh baked bread really shined, I couldn’t even take a minute to snap a picture to post here — it was gone. The stiff starter and managed proof really did not impart an overly sour flavor to this bread, it was a mild taste that slightly lingered after finishing a bite. I like it this way, as you may know by now.

Beautiful open sourdough crumb

Happy New Year everyone and I hope you join me through 2015 where I hope to bake and write even more — ciao!

Recipe and method submitted to YeastSpotting.

  1. A return to my stout sourdough recipe is in the works.

  2. This recipe I baked with less than 20% but I normally hit around 15% or so.

  3. You don’t usually get to see those

  4. Making a sandwich with your own homemade bread is one of the most satisfying things a baker can do.

  • Nice job AGAIN!!… I need to get a rye starter going… can I take a 1/4 teaspoon and put in with my rye start to get it going?? Have you read the “Pineapple Solution” by Debra Wink it is an article that talks about the chemistry of sourdough and what is happening when a sourdough first starts… Let me ask you about your library of books that you are showing in this post… You talk a lot about “Hamelman” in your blog but he hasn’t made it into of your book lists or photos?? I have Tartine Bread book 1 is Tartine 3 better than the first book?? and finally is Josy Baker Bread a top contender on the MUST have books?

    • Thanks! You can start a rye starter very easily, just take some of your mature starter at your next feeding that you’d normally discard and set aside to feed with 100% rye flour or a mixture of white/rye. That will start up with no problems.

      I’ve read the Pineapple article a long time ago and it definitely makes sense (high acidity, etc.), but honestly you don’t really need to use anything but flour and water to get a culture starter. Now that you mention it though it’s worth a re-read for me!

      Hamelman’s Bread is my most trusted authority on sourdough and I just knew someone was going to ask why it’s not in my bookshelf there. Well the simple reason is that it’s always sitting here next to me on my desk! I reference it quite a bit and so I need it always within reach.

      Tartine 3 is a great book but I’d say it’s a more “advanced” look at baking. Aside from the complexity going up just a bit it is a wonderful look at baking with whole grains and ancient grains. If that interests you I’d highly recommend it.

      Josey Baker’s book is a great baking book geared more for the beginner, it would make a great gift for someone who is just starting out. He has some really interesting recipes in there (including his rye bread which I’ve made a few times now) but if you’re a more experienced baker it would only make sense to pick it up if you’re interested in the recipes.

      • David

        Hi Maurizio,
        Congrats on all your bakes, they look fantastic!
        For the pineapple juice solution, I found this website once that showed a side-by-side:
        I did both ways myself, and really, it’s just a difference of a few days, the end result will be the same.

        • David — thank you, I appreciate that. Thanks also for the link to the pineapple solution, it definitely look interesting. For me, my rye approach is the most straightforward, and like you said, they both end up with the same result. I’ve recreated starters many, many times over the years with just rye flour and it is very reliable. I think most people have issues when they are using simply white flour, or white flour that has a very high protein amount. Thanks again for sharing!

          • David

            Thanks to you Maurizio, you’re the one doing all the hard work and sharing it with us, it’s really appreciated. I have just received my order of rye flour and will definitely try your way for the starter (although I wonder about something: you say in your post that the composition of the feedings should always be the same, as the starter gets used to it and therefore gets stronger. However, at the most important stage (making bread), we are feeding it with a total different mix (for the rustique, it’s 90% white, 10% whole). Sorry just wondering out loud!)
            Lately I have been doing the high-extraction miche (Poilane) of Peter Reinhart’s “whole grain breads”, have you tried it? It’s basically doing a long (12h) autolyse with some of the flour & water (and a bit of salt to slow the bacterial growth), and separately the levain, then mixing them the next day. I increased a bit the hydration and added your “slap-and-fold at the beginning” idea (and no turns afterwards), and the result was amazing.
            So thanks for this idea 🙂

            • You’re very welcome, it’s why I created the site! I was completely lost when I started baking so I thought I’d share what I’ve learned over the years.

              That is a very good point about the starter and flour usage. Using rye and whole wheat due spur high activity due to the increased nutrition in these flours, and I think it helps to build up a large yeast/bacteria population in your starter through successive feedings — and keep that population around until you bake. It could be argued whether we “lose” some of that potency when we switch flours abruptly to make a levain, but I’d say having that potent starter built up can only be beneficial. Just my two cents! I’ll have to do a bit more research on this, if it exists.

              I haven’t tried Reinhart’s recipes at all, although I do have his book in my cart for purchase. When I bake whole wheat I will typically do a really long autolyse to increase extensibility in the dough but I have not yet tried using slap and fold — that will have to happen this week! Thanks for the reminder.

              Thanks for the comments and questions & happy baking!

  • I should have said “a 1/4 teaspoon of my original start”

  • Andy

    Have the same issue in my cold apartment. Sits around 72-73 ambient.

    What’s the highest temp water you would mix in? That is, is there such a thing as killing the starter with too much heat?

    My faucet gets to 130+, which seems way too hot….

    • Winter baking can be tough! I try not to go over 100ºF if possible but you definitely don’t want to get to 130ºF as that is the death point for yeast.

  • Andy

    Also… no Bourbon!?

    • I’m on the lookout for a solid bourbon to add to my collection there, it’s in the works 🙂

  • I was sure I read on yer site what container that you are using for your start… and I can’t find it now… it’s that glass one with a wider opening on the top that you are always showing off your start… that brings up another point… 🙂 your sourdough jar is SICK!! I have NEVER seen a jar that clean !! EVER !!
    Did I mention !! NEVER EVER !! well except for now and it is just beautiful

    • I use these .5 L Weck jars with tapered top to store my starter, they are perfect for stirring and watching your starter rise & fall.

      My starter jar isn’t always that clean, but having a stiff starter means no soupy mess!

  • TartineWoes

    This is really amazing. I was hoping if you were able to give me some advice.

    I’ve been following the Tartine Recipe at 75% hydration with a ratio of 9:1 white and rye flour. My starter is strong and rises and falls as you outlined. My bulk rise time is 4 hours (6 turns, 4 in the first two hours).

    I’ve not been able to get the same oven spring, and so I’ve found that my loaves look awfully flat and short as opposed to tall and dome-shaped like yours. The crumb however is open and gelatinised. Scoring the loaves has been hard since the dough tend to sticks to my lame causing drag, and hence has not developed ‘ears’ and opened up in quite the same way as yours. Shaping is hard as well because of the stickiness.

    Any advice? Drop to a lower hydration level, turn more in the bulk rise stage? Thanks for your help!

    • Thanks for the comments!

      I’d say try reducing hydration to 67% or 70% and see if that helps with shaping. You really want to concentrate when shaping to get a nice taut skin on the outside before you place into your proofing baskets. This taut skin will help your dough rise high in the oven and will also make scoring a lot more manageable. The more you handle your dough, though, the more gasses you knock out — a balancing act between achieving a strong outer skin in as few movements as possible.

      Because you have a nice open crumb I wouldn’t say you’d need to do any further turns, but that will have to come with some experimentation. If your dough is “strong” at the end of bulk and the pre-shape you should be good to go. I look for the dough holding its shape in the bulk container, defined smooth ridges on the dough, and a smoothness in general.

      I hope that helps, let me know how it goes and if you have any more questions!

      • Would autolyse help in this situation??

        • I wouldn’t say that an autolyse would fix the issue you’re having, but I do recommend around a 40 minute autolyse to increase extensibility (this does help rise but I’m not sure it’s related to your issue) and create some nice coloring on the crust.

          I’d recommend lowering hydration and giving that a go!

  • Hey Maurizio. Good experiment! I came to the same conclusion about stiffer starters adding some strength..I think we spoke about this before. Its a subtle difference for me but there’s something there. I think it just favors a certain type of acid more. I gave up though as the 100% is just super easy for me and my starter gets different amount of fuel as I go through the week depending on who I’m baking for. The 100% rye does mean its less liquid though so this certainly makes it a stiffer starter then a wheat one.

    • Thanks and yes, exactly. I see a bit more strength from this stiff starter, most likely due to the acids produced by bacteria that favor this type of environment. I am still on the fence between the two (liquid vs stiff) as the flavor profile has changed since I’ve begun using this stiff starter. It could be the flour and/or seasonal changes thus I’m not swapping back right away but I’ll need to do a comparison bake to see the differences. I still prefer a bit of rye in my starter mix as well.
      Thanks for the comment!

      • Sorry its Alex here BTW I think I must be logged in on my wife’s account. I got 3 starters at the moment. A stiff 100% wholemeal. 100% hydration rye. And the one I always fall back on the 50/50 rye/white…..that’s my safe place 😀

        • Oh BTW you can get a little cross over as well if you start with a liquid starter and build the levain at 66% hydration or whatever. I’ve been doing this with Rye bread recently and you get a really fine spectrum on the taste.

          • Oh, hey Alex! I didn’t know that was you. Interesting idea, a hybrid almost. I’m going to start maintaining two starters again also: 1) 100% ww stiff, and 2) my “trusty” 50/50 rye/white 90% hydration. They each have their uses I’m starting to learn, and they each impart a slightly different taste profile.

            I’m getting two new 50# bags of flour in this week so the baking will be on again soon!

  • Pretty amazing post Maurizio! I’ve been playing around with stiff starter too, after getting the Della Fattoria Bread book (love the photo of your books). It can sit in the fridge for days and come to life very quickly! Your bread and photos are beautiful.

    • Karen, thanks so much, I really appreciate that! The stiff starter is a bit of a revelation for me, very little maintenance and quite strong. You’re right, it can be left unattended in the fridge for days and perk right back up.

  • Maurizio have you read “The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens”? its just from what I’ve seen of what you hone in on in other books I can tell this would be right up your street. Personally I regard it as part of the Tartine collection giving very specific insight in to the creation of that sort of bread (much more so then either of the Tartine books). There’s no recipes just science and experience explained in depth. Its a wonderful book and although you need no help with your bread I’m sure you’ll get a lot out of it.


    • Alex, it’s funny you just mentioned that book to me, I was suggested it by another baker and had it in my Amazon cart ready for purchase — you pushed me into pulling the trigger. It’ll be here next week, can’t wait to read through it. I’ve devoured the “scientific” sections in Hamelman’s Bread and have been looking for more ever since, I hope there’s more of that in this book.

      Thanks for the suggestion!

  • cbrisighello

    Maurizio what a great post, I agree with all your points and I also never came back to using a liquid starter.
    One thing that is worth mentioning and helped me a lot with my stiff starter is its lifetime in the fridge. I can reactivate mine even after weeks without use. Liquid starters don´t keep that much in the fridge…
    Happy baking!

    • Thanks for the comments! You’re right, you can leave a stiff starter in the fridge for a whole lot longer than a liquid version. I love this added flexibility. Great to hear from ya, happy baking!

  • phishie

    Hi Maurizio,

    Does your stiff starter pass the float test?
    Mine does not, yet it smells wonderfully yeasty 3-5 hours after feeding and grows about 2-2.5x.

    Any tips for how to improve activity in a stiff starter? Up the feeding schedule (I’ve been feeding about once every 12 hours)? Change the flour and/or water-to-flour ratio?


    • Honestly I’ve not tried the float test with my stiff starter. I would guess that it might *not* pass the float test. You can tell when your stiff starter is ready by inspecting the bubbles around the sides, and pull back a little, does the mass feel soft and broken down? You said it smells yeasty, that’s a good sign! To me it sounds like you’re using it at the right time. I find a stiff starter/levain to be much, much more forgiving in terms of that window when you can use it for baking. Unlike a liquid levain you can let it ferment much farther and still be safe (I’ve left mine up to 10 hours!).

      Using rye flour is a good idea to help increase activity. Consistent feedings definitely helps as well. If you want to “speed” it up you could use slightly warmer water or put it in a warmer area in your kitchen.

      My starter is at 65% but may look more stiff depending on your location. I’m essentially living in a desert, it’s very very dry here.

      I’m still working on my feeding schedule post for my stiff starter, it’s taking way too long! I’m hoping to have it wrapped up here this month… Sorry about the delay 🙂

      Thanks for the comments, let me know if you have more Q’s!

      • phishie

        Awesome, thank you for the advice!

        I’m trying the 2:3:5 starter:water:flour ratio today to see how it reacts. I have no problem raising a loaf with the stiff starter so I probably shouldn’t worry.

        Now I just need to tackle not letting it over proof and getting the right hydration. I just can’t seem to get the right consistency, slap and fold never seems to bring it together in a cohesive dough. I’m in Washington D.C. so I’m sure the humidity is a factor, maybe my flour is much wetter? Not sure how I should systematically adjust a recipe for that.

      • phishie

        For example I’m following the recipe from this “stiff starter” post and this is how my dough looks while trying to do the first set of folds (after a slap and fold even!):

        Crazy wet, pretty much a batter rather than a dough!

        I will admit though that I let it autolyze for a LONG time.

        Any way to save this batch?

        • Wow, that is extremely wet. How long was your autolyse? You could salvage it by adding flour until it reaches a bit more cohesive structure. I’d say you should cut back perhaps 15-20% water in your mix next time and try that. After your autolyse the dough should be really extensible (you can pull and stretch it pretty high) but it shouldn’t look like your video! Cut back the water and give it a shot.

          • phishie

            Almost embarrassing but I let it autolyze overnight WITH the levain. My levain wasn’t showing as much activity as I’d like so I mixed it up with that long overnight autolyze/rise.

            • Oh, I didn’t know you had added your levain to your “autolyse”. If you add in your levain that isn’t really considered an autolyse, you are undergoing full on fermentation at that point! An autolyse is only with flour and water. The reason your dough looked so gooey is that it has undergone fermentation for a full night and by the time you got to it in the morning the gluten has completely broken down and your starter has consumed (most likely) all the food available to it. Essentially you’ve made your entire dough mass one big starter. Does that make sense?

              You won’t have to add any extra flour next time if you don’t add that levain in with your autolyse 🙂

              Shoot me an email and let me know if you have any more questions! My email is up top through the “Connect” link.

              • phishie

                Thanks, I just did that! Sorry, I don’t think the spacing was preserved so it might come through as a wall of text.

          • phishie

            Thanks again for the input, very much appreciated!!

            Based on your recc. of cutting water back 20% I added just over 20% of the water weight in bread flour, which comes out to about 100g (doing a half recipe).

            This is what it looks like after adding the 100g bread flour, waiting 25 minutes, and doing about 10 mins of slap and fold:


            Still a bit too wet right? I would expect the dough needs to come together more than that after slap and fold, your thoughts?

            • phishie

              After two sets of stretch and fold it was still unbelievably wet so I just tried adding another 50g of flour.

              I think the super long autolyze with levain really messed up the consistency, I don’t think I’ll need to add this much extra flour in the future.

  • Greg Lőrincz

    I just tried stiff starter a few days ago and I must say the difference is significant. Indeed, stiff starter is ‘stronger’ and I no longer have to make overly hydrated dough. I can finally make dryer load that’s easier to shape. It’s bit harder to feed it tough.

    • Thanks for the feedback! I’ve kind of settled into using a stiff starter for certain bread types (fresh milled flour loves, and whole wheat loaves), and my trusty liquid starter for others (mostly white loaves). I love both and I think each of them brings different characteristics to the resulting bread.

      It’s funny you say that, I find the stiff starter easier to feed! I use a separate bowl to place the starter in and then mix in there with my hand and roll it around.

  • Steven Aasen

    The 50g of mature starter referred above, is that your normal “liquid” starter from which you made the stiff levain? Or was that 50g of a stiff, mature starter?

    • In this case I was maintaining a stiff starter only, but really either would work just as well!

  • Hugh McMillan

    I can’t tell you how much I value reading all of your fine writing on the art of baking. I did find another typo under the “Slap & Fold Mix After Autolyse – 1:00pm”; last line of the second paragraph where “slaping” should read “slapping”.

    Isn’t slapping out of vogue now, August of 2016, with the popularity of the “stretch and fold” technique? I used to really enjoy the slapping but would occasionally find where especially hydrated bits had been projected to some distant surface to desiccate.

    Your pieces have been very enlightening and I understand the feeling you have over the years that your product is improving with each nuanced change. What I wish clarification on is your progression through your various flour sources. Perhaps you could do a short piece on your subjective feelings toward the various miller’s products you have used over the years. Living in Tampa I am totally without a local mill and at the mercy of what the markets carry or what I am willing to pay for shipping or Amazon Prime. I say pay for the latter as often items are available slightly cheaper without “free” Prime shipping and there is the $100 annual fee, although it is worth it in my opinion.

    • Super glad to hear that, thanks Hugh! I really appreciate the typo-spotting — it’s been fixed!

      I think the whole world of kneading has been out of vogue for a little while, most turning to stretch and folds during bulk. However, with a very wet dough I still find some upfront strengthening very necessary, unless you want to add in more sets of stretch and folds during bulk (which is totally fine, too). It’s messy, for sure, but after a while you get the hang of it and those projectile dough bits don’t go flying around quite so much.

      I really like the idea of a post on the flour choices I’ve made over the years. A little while ago thanks to a reader’s suggestions (thanks Margie!) I started including a “Flour Selection” section to explain a little on why I choose the flour types I do for each recipe. I think a full blown post is a great idea, though, I’ll work on that!

      Shipping for grain can be quite pricey, I find if I order in large quantities it’s not quite so bad, though. I’ll typically order my favorite flour types in 50 pound sacks and be set for several months.

      I hope that helps and I’m adding your post idea to my queue! Thanks again.

      Oh, Prime is definitely worth it 🙂

  • Lucho Del Busto

    Hello Maurizio,
    I have spent wonderfull time reading your blog. I am just exploring the world of baking, but every day I’m getting more and more obsesed with it. It’s really challenging and fun, and with blogs like this, it gets more interesting.

    I just baked a very nice loaf following this recipe, as my starter is of the stiff kind.

    Love the result! Very nice crust and a even nicer crumb. The only thing I can’t handle yet is the scoring in order to get a decent “gringe”.
    Any advice???

    • Thanks for the comments Lucho, really appreciate that and happy to hear about your growing interest in baking bread at home!

      To get a nice gringe on your loaf first make sure you shape things tight enough so there’s a taut skin on the outside of your loaf after shaping. From there you want to find that right proof point so your loaf isn’t overproofed (a sign of this will be a loaf that kind of spreads instead of springs up in the oven) and also not underproofed (a sign of this will be overly dramatic oven spring with ruptures all over). And finally, you want to score your bread at a slightly shallow angle between the dough and the blade, perhaps 15º to 25ºF. Score shallow like this and deep enough to be below that tight skin you formed on your dough.

      Hope this helps!

  • lainyjs

    Hi so I came across your blog while searching for more info on stiff levain vs liquid levain and your blog had some great info. I have a stiff levain that I started a few weeks ago and found a bread I want to make that uses both stiff and liquid levain starters. Can you use a mature stiff levain to start a liquid levain or is it best to start from scratch? Any advice or insight would be great!

    • Hi there! You can definitely use either a stiff starter/lev or liquid starter/lev to create the other. I just adjust the hydration at the next feed and, ideally, give it a few feeds at that hydration over the course of a day or two to adjust. Hope that helps!

    • Anda

      There is a website where you can convert from stiff to liquid and the other way. is the liquid and pasta madre is stiff.

  • Martz Wolf

    Just found your web on the net. When you say that your bread isnot sour with stiff starter, Im looking for a typical french baguette no sour at all taste, is that what you get ? thanx

    • I don’t like overly sour bread. I maintain my starter in such a way as to keep acidity low with frequent feedings when needed. I also have not noticed a significant sour taste when using a stiff or liquid levain — there are a lot of factors that go into overly sour bread (including the amount of whole grains in the recipe, the amount of levain used, the maturity & acidity of the levain, the length of proof, etc.).

  • Sarah Vipond

    Hi thank you for a simple comparison between the two types of starter. Though I’ve been making sourdough for years I’ve always used my own starter (liquid). I’ve just bought a book which uses both types, and it’s not been obvious how to tell the two apart. ie to technical about hydration levels etc. Talk about blinding you with science!

    • Yes, it can get all very complicated. When you boil it down, though, it really just comes to the hydration level and that’s about it. There are biological effects of changing water in your culture but I’ve been able to safely ignore most of that and my bread still turns out delicious — that’s what it’s all about, right? Happy baking!

  • Mohamed

    Thanks for all the wonderful tips.
    I have 3 questions please.
    1- When refreshing a stiff starter, I find it difficult to dissolve the starter in water before adding the flour. I noticed that you said:
    “It’s quick and easy for me to just drop in some flour, water, and knead out the dough on my work surface, then drop the dry ball back into its rising jar.”
    Does that mean that we don’t have to dissolve the seed in water first? we can just mix it with flour and water all together?

    2- What are the visual signs tha a stiff starter has reached its peaks, when its time to feed or use? Is it when the dome just begins to go down, or it is when the dome is completely flat?

    3- You said “I’ll be outlining my maintenance schedule and some tips/pointers on creating and maintaining a stiff starter in an upcoming post.”
    Did you make that post yet? because I cannot find it. It would be great to see your pictures of stiff starter at different stages.

    • You bet! Answers:
      1) You can dissolve it if that works for you, or what I do is just place the stiff bit in a bowl, top it with the required flour and then pour on the water. I mix it well by hand, sometimes in a bowl to make it easier, and then kind of mix and knead it out until it’s well mixed.

      2) I usually look for when the dome isn’t so curved, more flat. Once you start to see it flatten out then it’s starting to get close to the time when you should use it. Usually you can also tell by the smell, which should start to get a little more sour, and also the bubbles on the side and top should be more prominent. If you pull back the top of the dome it’ll be a little soft and show signs of significant fermentation below (bubbles, “stretched” flour, etc.).

      3) I have not finished this post, yet. I’m working on it!!

      Hope this helps 🙂

  • Sam

    I just started playing with Jeffrey Hamelman’s “Bread” and I thought I’d ask you about Pain au Levain here since it uses a stiff starter. My question is more about the way he uses bakers’ math: he says the Pain au Levain uses 15.5% preferment, but I keep doing the math and coming out to ~30%. Do you understand how he’s doing that calculation? I know it’s a bit off topic here but I appreciate the help!

  • Dana Anderson

    Hi. I came across your blog while searching for a recipe for whiskey sourdough The combination of words in your blog triggered the search engine, just no recipe for it – lol. Never mind. We do however, share a similar problem. The temperature in my kitchen over winter tends to hover between 2C and 8C (we use Celsius over here, that would equate to 35.6 to 46.4 F). I can’t afford the $600 a month firewood cost, or even the $400 a month power cost for heating, so I learned ways to get around it. Some of them may be of use to you.
    1. Many ovens have a ‘low’ setting – with my oven I turn it on until it just clicks on, then no more. This keeps the oven at a nice toasty temp for the rising period for bread.
    2. If you do any distilling or cider making, etc (I do cider), or start seed for garden plants early, chances are you will have a heating pad This also works great.
    3. Use a bowl with a top rim circumference slightly bigger than a good sized cooking or preserving pot (the deeper the better), Put hot water in the pot, and set the bowl with the dough in it over it (the bottom of the bowl should not be touching the water). Wrap a towel around the pan to help retain the heat longer.
    4. Set the bowl with the dough in it on one or two hot water bottles, and put a large towel over the whole lot, to help retain the heat longer. If you don’t have any hot water bottles, use plastic (or glass) screw top bottles (I use old 1 litre soda bottles) laid on their sides.
    Hope some of that helps. Cheers.

    • Ahh the internet, how wonderful (and strange) it can be 🙂

      These are such good ideas! One more I’d add to your list: since writing this post I’ve picked up a small home bread proofer that’s so, so good. I keep this on 24/7 in my pantry and keep my sourdough starter in there. When I make bread, and it’s overly cold, I’ll keep my bulk dough in there as well. It’s a wonderful little device!

      Thanks so much for the ideas and happy baking!

  • ericbusby

    Hey, Maurizio! I was looking at your percentages, trying to determine my percentages for my pan loaf this weekend, and noticed that you indicate you levain constitutes 20%. However, the total weight for the recipe was 2095 grams. Did you mean to say that you used 400 grams of levain, or just under 10% (or 200 grams) of levain?

    • ericbusby

      Nevermind! Pardon my ignorance. I was confused because I forgot that flour represents 100%!

  • Sarah Denis

    I was so pleased to read such good information about a stiff culture as that us the one I grew on my own and have maintained for over 3 years, after reading Bread, by Jeffrey Hamelman.
    I have a problem with mine. I was away over the summer and froze my culture. I took it out last week, let it thaw and warm up (68-70F kitchen) and resumed a regular 2x day feeding schedule. However, it is not behaving and puffing up like normal. I changed to feeds 1x day and it seems to be doing a tiny bit better.
    I have read about restarting by taking out just 2TB and kind of feeding it like I did at the beginning when I was growing it (so not discarding any). I could do that with some of the starter and keep going as I have been doing if you think that is a good idea.
    Any help and suggestions appreciated.

    • Sarah — it’s been a long, long time since I’ve frozen any part of my starter and revived it. If you haven’t already, I’d say try feeding like you suggested when starting a new culture. I would also say feed it with some portion of whole rye flour (perhaps 25-50%) for a week or so and see if that helps perk things back up. Treat it like a sick child! Pay attention to its needs and nurse it back to health.

      Next time you go away for an extended period I recommend drying out some portion of your culture completely and storing it that way. Take your firm starter and mix it with a large portion of dry flour until the entire mixture feels like coarse sand. Then place it in a tightly sealed jar in your pantry out of the light. It’s important there is no moisture in the mixture. Then when you return, use water to moisten it back up and get it back on track. I’ll be writing a post on this process here sometime soon!

  • New Sammy

    I have two questions related to using a stiff starter: first, why do you choose to add your starter after the autolyse? I know some people add it at the same time as the autolyse, and add the salt afterward, which has the advantage of saving an hour on bulk rise. It also has what I think is an advantage in allowing me to dissolve my ripe stiff starter in the water before adding the flour, especially because I maintain it with 55% water. So my second question is whether you think there would be an advantage in soaking/dissolving the starter in part of the water, separate from the flour/water autolyse, for the hour-ish time before adding it along with the salt. If you see what I mean. Thanks for you input!

    • Once you add your starter into the dough fermentation begins — always keep this in mind. When I’m doing a short autolyse (around 30 min or less) sometimes I’ll add my starter in the dough at the beginning but I usually only do this when I’m using a stiff starter. If I’m using a liquid starter (100% hydration) I’ll wait to add it into the dough until the “true” autolyse is finished. One of the points of performing an autolyse is to help bring extensibility into the dough. A liquid starter, in my experience, already brings lots of extensibility into the dough and adding it into the mix at the start of the autolyse will typically bring too much extensibility for my liking. However, a stiff starter doesn’t usually bring added extensibility to a dough, I’ve found it brings elasticity (“strength”).

      I’ve actually never noticed a different between the bakes when I dissolve my stiff starter and when I just break it up and place it in the dough at various spots. These days I just break it up and spread it about when mixing and it works just fine — just make sure it’s thoroughly mixed throughout.

      I hope this helps!

  • Nandita Kothari

    Hi Maurizio!

    I want to prepare the dough in the afternoon (start the autolyse around 13:00). Is it possible to prepare the levain the night before (around 23:00-00:00) and let it ferment overnight (around 12 hours) by converting a liquid starter to a stiff starter by tweaking the water-flour proportion? Or is it better to just reduce the amount of mature starter in the levain and still use a liquid starter?
    Also, is it possible to transform a liquid starter to a stiff starter and vice a versa depending on the weather/time strains?

    • Hi, Nandita! You can do any of the above, all will work and it really depends on what you’re after in the end. You could also follow this recipe with a liquid starter/levain as well. You can convert between liquid and stiff starter at any time, really, just adjust the hydration to your end goal and continue feedings with the new hydration numbers. For example, if I had a 65% hydration starter (stiff) and I wanted to go to a liquid one (100% hydration), I could simply add much more water the next feed and continue with 100% water to flour from there on out.

      I hope this helps!

  • AY

    Hi There – thanks again for a very interesting post. Just started experimenting with a stiff starter…
    A quick question about feedings / refreshments. I keep my stiff starter in the fridge and feed to build a levain before baking. At what point of the levain status it’s recommended to restore some back in the fridge as a starter for future baking? right after feeding? when the levain is mature? does it matter at all? Thanks in advance!

    • I usually will do a refreshment then let my starter sit out for 30 minutes to 2 hours (whatever is convenient) before placing it in the fridge. Works really well!