Is there a standard definitions for "starter" in recipes?


Looking at bread recipes most just say add X amount of starter but they do not specify at what hydration. Also they do not specify where the flour and water are to come from. I just found one for a 100% rye bread that says specifically that the flour for the levain is to come out of the total but the water is separate and to just add "some" to make a thick sloppy liquid. Since the levain can be a very significant part of total final volume I find all this a bit problematic.

Are there standard definitions and methods I do not know about? Are the water and flour for the levain usually over and above the amounts for given in the recipe? Usually taken from the total recipe so hydration does not much matter? What?

Thank you for any insights!

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farinam's picture
farinam 2016 October 6

Hello Geoffrey,

My thinking is, that if a recipe does not specify the hydration of the starter/levain, then it has probably been separated from another 'chapter' that has covered the preparation and maintenance of the starter.

The other thing is that some people work by 'look and feel' and are not concerned with 'precise' measurement or specification of quantities.  On the other hand some cannot work without the precision that is implied by quantities whether it be mass or volume.

Opinion is also divided on whether the flour and water in the levain is used in the calculation of the hydration of the final dough.  I, personally, think that it should be included so that you can compare the outcome of recipes with differing proportions and hydration of starter.  But, fundamentally, unless you particularly want to know the dough hydration, then following the recipe should be sufficient. 

The thing to keep in mind is that, at the same hydration different flours will produce doughs of quite different characteristics due to different water absorption capacities.  Generally, as the proportion of wholemeal flour increases, the higher hydration you need your dough to have.  Rye is a whole nother kettle of fish due to the low gluten content and a pure rye dough is closer to a batter in texture and would be baked in a tin.  If you made a 'stiff' pure rye dough your bread would likely have the consistency of a house brick.

This probably hasn't answered your question but I am not sure that there is a precise answer to be had.  And there is no hidden code known only to the cogniscenti (that I know of anyway).

Good luck with your projects.


GeoffreyLevens 2016 October 6

Farinam, you are a fountain of knowledge! Many thanks. And yes you did answer my question. That fact that there is really no answer is totally fine. I tend to prefer a sort of mixed approach to everything I do, baking no exception. That is, when possible I like to start with as much precision and clear "rules" as I can get, learn that, and then abandon it for "going by feel" and improvising. But if I have to/get to start in the more by feel zone that is a good exercise.

Just now making a 100% rye bread (I grind all my own in a Blendtech blender so contains all the bits and grit), and likley because much higher hydration than I have used before, it has risen even a lot more than my 67% hydration/100% kamut bread has. The rye one is 87% hydration. By the way, those numbers include the flour and water in the levain and I have started my own convention of taking the flour and the water from the total amount to make the levain. And unless recipe states otherwise, I just run with 100% hydration for all my starters.

Thank you again for all of your help. I am most grateful!


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