Do you know the difference between a stiff sourdough starter versus a liquid 100% hydration sourdough starter?
There are many different types of sourdough starters and preferments, but two common ones in sourdough are a stiff starter and a 100% liquid starter.
In this post learn what makes these different types of starters unique, how the type of sourdough starter can impact a recipe, and the results in a side by side experiment!
Hydration in Baker’s Percentages
Baker’s percentages help bakers know the percent of each ingredient in a dough formula. This is helpful for scaling a recipe for bigger batches, recipe testing, and some kitchen chemistry to get a general idea of how something will ferment.
Hydration is a very important percentage. Hydration refers to the ratio of liquid in a recipe compared to the total amount of flour in the recipe. See this article from King Arthur Baking to learn more about hydration.
Here’s the basic formula: weight of water* in grams ÷ weight of flour in grams = percentage in decimal points x 100 = percentage number %
For the best sourdough baker’s formula, the parts of the starter used should be divided and added into the total water before dividing to find the hydration level of sourdough. See this guide using a poolish preferment from King Arthur to explore more.
I have a template for Baker’s percentages included in my Sourdough Time Planning and Baker’s Journal here.
The Bacterial Activity in Sourdough Fermentation
As sourdough starters develop, they produce byproducts by using the flour as fuel and the water as a means of moving around in the mixture.
The byproducts from sourdough fermentation are carbon dioxide gas, lactic acid bacteria, and acetic acid bacteria.
The more acids that are produced, the more sour the flavor of the sourdough bread will be.
A higher water amount creates an environment that favors more acid development and is, therefore, more sour.
How much water is used impacts the fermentation and good bacterial activity that develops.
Less water content produces less acids overall but a higher amount of acetic acid resulting in a more mild flavor. Whereas, an equal amount of water (in weight) produces more acids overall and a higher concentration of lactic acid bacteria, which is the best way to create more sour flavor.
What is a Stiff Sourdough Starter?
A stiff sourdough starter is a starter with a lower hydration level.
The lower hydration level creates less acids overall and more acetic acid compared to less lactic acid so the flavor is more mild.
A stiff starter also takes longer to become active due to the lower hydration. However, will stay active for a long time, longer than 100% hydration starters.
I typically use the following format for creating a stiff sourdough starter: 100 grams of water, 150 grams of flour (all-purpose flour or bread flour), and 30 grams of my healthy liquid starter.
Here’s the hydration calculation of just the flour and water: 100 g water ÷ 150 g flour = .67 x 100 = 67% hydration
If I add in the starter which is made with equal parts flour and water, it looks like this: 115 g water ÷ 165g flour = .7 x 100 = 70% hydration. This calculation includes the starter components and gives us the best idea of the hydration.
There are many different recipes with different hydration levels, so my recipe above is not the only stiff sourdough starter recipe.
This variability in formula also means that it is a more difficult method for new sourdough bakers, than using a 100% hydration starter.
Note: There is also an Italian method for creating a stiff sourdough starter, called pasta madre or lievito madre. Some forms, particular Italian recipes have a strict recipe and process, this post from An Italian in my Kitchen goes over the process.
How does a Stiff Sourdough Starter impact flavor and fermentation?
When added to a dough recipe, this stiffer starter ferments in a way that produces a less sour flavor and the dough often has a fluffier look as it expands in bulk fermentation and after baking.
This is ideal for sweet sourdough recipes. See examples at the end of this post.
It is also a great option for you if your personal preference for bread is for less tang and more sweetness.
What is a 100% Hydration Sourdough Starter?
The type of starter that most sourdough beginners learn to use is a 100% hydration or liquid starter.
The 100% refers to the ratio of water to flour that it is fed, which is equal parts in weight.
For example, the amount I recommend feeding a tablespoon portion of sourdough starter for one loaf of bread is 60 grams of water and 60 grams of flour. See this post to learn about how to care for a starter.
That calculation is 60 g water ÷ 60 g flour = 1 x 100 = 100% hydration
The higher hydration creates more acids.
How does a 100% Hydration Sourdough Starter impact flavor and fermentation?
This type of starter easily mixes in with liquids when making bread dough, is easy to mix and maintain, and is one of the most common used by sourdough bakers. Since it is so common, it is sometimes known as “regular starter” or “regular sourdough starter”
It creates a more sour taste than the stiff starter due to the kind of fermentation that is happening. The wetter environment produces more lactic acid than acetic acid, lactic acid, as mentioned above, is responsible for the sour flavor.
Side by side Experiment
I have two versions of one of our family favorite sweet sourdough breads, Sourdough Cinnamon Twist Wreath Bread.
One is made with a 100% hydration starter and the other one is made with a stiff sourdough starter or levain*. I adjusted the hydration levels so that they both have about the same hydration level.
I made them at the same time so I could see and compare them at each stage of the bread making process. And the fun part was a family side by side taste test on Christmas morning of both breads.
*Note: a levain is a term used for the preferment or starter created to make a specific recipe, since many sourdough recipes include a recipe for the starter or levain needed for the bread dough.
The Experiment Formulas
The recipe for the version of the Sourdough Cinnamon Twist Bread with a stiff starter is:
- 200 g Whole milk, scalded
- 15 g white cane sugar
- 180 g stiff starter (recipe for this starter was 30 g sourdough starter, 50 g water, 100 g all-purpose flour)
- 380 g Bread flour
- 1 egg yolk
- 7 g sea salt
- 42g butter, softened
Since I’m using whole milk, I’m going to adjust for the proteins and solids in the milk based on the estimate that whole milk is 85-88% water to get a better idea of hydration to compare. I’ll use the smaller percentage since my milk was scalded and has a lower amount of water than unscalded.
200 g whole milk x 0.85 = 170 g adjusted amount
(170 + 15 g water in sourdough starter + 50 g water in the stiff starter) g of water ÷ (380 + 100) g of flour = 235 g of water ÷ 480 g of flour = .49 x 100 = 49% hydration in the bread dough
The recipe for the 100% hydration Sourdough Cinnamon Twist Wreath Bread is:
- 180 g Whole Milk, scalded
- 15 g white cane sugar
- 200 g starter (made with equal weights water and flour)
- 370 g Bread flour
- 1 egg yolk
- 6 g salt
- 28 g Unsalted Butter, softened
With the same adjustments as I mentioned above, here’s the math:
180 g whole milk x 0.85 = 153 g is the adjusted amount which I will add to the amount of water used in the 100% hydration starter
(153 + 100) g of water ÷ (370 + 100) g of flour = 253 g of water ÷ 470 g of flour = .54 x 100 = 54% hydration in the bread dough
So you can see that 49% and 54% are fairly close and when you take into consideration that the stiffer starter one has 14 grams more of butter, this raises the hydration slightly. With the adjustments made for the butter, the hydration level of the dough is only 4% in difference between the two.
Bottom line, I was trying to make the doughs as similar as possible as far as hydration for a better side by side comparison.
Bulk Fermentation Differences
After the bulk fermentation, the stiff starter cinnamon bread had a fluffier, bouncier look.
The 100% hydration starter cinnamon bread had a wetter appearance and looser texture.
The color of the stiff starter cinnamon bread dough is slightly more yellow compared to the nearly white 100% hydration starter cinnamon bread dough.
Both were more than double after the 6 hour fermentation time.
Learn more about sourdough bulk fermentation here: How to tell when sourdough is done with bulk fermentation
The shaping process showed a lot of differences in the two types of dough.
The stiff starter dough was less sticky during shaping. It held its shape better when I was rolling the dough into the log and when the spiraled log was cut in half it really kept a good shape.
The final shape of the stiff starter dough was well formed and sat more stiffly than the 100% hydration starter dough.
The 100% hydration starter cinnamon bread dough was slightly more sticky when I was shaping. The big difference during shaping was when the dough was rolled into a log of dough it had a looser feel and was more difficult to cut in halves.
The final shape of the 100% hydration starter cinnamon bread dough had a good shape but was looser and not as perfect looking as the stiff starter dough version.
After the final proof, the shape of the 100% hydration starter cinnamon bread dough was improved and more similar to the stiff starter version.
The rise of the stiff starter version rose higher upward rather than outward while the 100% hydration starter version spread outward more than upward.
Learn more about proofing sourdough here: When is sourdough finished proofing? The signs and a test
Final Results in Form and Flavor
This was the best part of conducting the experiment! Seeing both beautiful sourdough cinnamon breads come out of the oven and then tasting them!
- The Overall Shape
- Each version is gorgeous after the final bake. A few differences to note are that the stiff starter version has more defined curves and shapes in the bread. The rise of the stiff starter version after baking is slightly higher as well.
- The 100% hydration version shapes in the bread layers are not as defined with the sharp curves and edges like the stiff starter version.
- The Inside Crumb
- The interior crumb of the stiff starter version is more uniform and has a soft spongey look.
- The interior crumb of the 100% hydration starter version is not as uniform and has some spots that have more moist appearance.
- The Texture
- When I bit into the stiff starter version, it was soft inside the bread and had that perfect chewy sweet texture where the filling was.
- The 100% hydration starter version was slightly more chewy inside the bread and had a great texture where the filling was as well.
- The Flavor
- The flavor profile of the stiff starter version was more mellow and complex than sour. Great flavor overall and the sweetness of the filling really came out nicely.
- The flavor profile of the 100% hydration starter version had more sour flavors. It was still delicious and not too sour, but the sourness of the bread did stand out as a key difference in the flavor compared to the other one. So the contrast of the slightly more sour sweet sourdough bread and the sweet filling balance well, but for people who don’t like any sourness, it wouldn’t be the version for them.
Share this info with a friend
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Let me know if you plan to make a bread with a stiff sourdough starter! Send me a note, leave a comment, or tag me on facebook or instagram @livingbreadbaker
100% Hydration Starter Recipes
- Sourdough Cinnamon Twist Wreath Bread
- Sourdough Country Bread
- Easy Sweet & Soft Sourdough Bread Master Recipe
- Easy Sourdough Cinnamon Rolls Recipe (Soft and Fluffy)
- Easy & Soft Savory Sourdough Cheese Twist Rolls
- Sourdough Easter Egg Bread (Pane di Pasqua)
Stiff Sourdough Starter Recipes
- Whole Wheat Sourdough Hokkaido Milk Bread, Japanese inspired
- Sourdough Pan Dulce Conchas (Sweet Shell Bread)
- Fluffiest Sourdough Challah Bread
- Sourdough Whole Wheat Challah Bread
- Sourdough Orange Cranberry Hot Cross Buns
- Soft Pretzels (Sourdough)
- Pumpkin Rolls (Sourdough)
Need more sourdough help?
A competent guide is the big difference from floundering in sourdough with information overwhelm to having confidence and ease in your sourdough baking.
If you are just getting started in sourdough, I’d love to support you with my books or online courses.
My Intro. to Sourdough online course is comprehensive with video tutorials for each stage of the process to help new or aspiring sourdough home bakers gain a solid foundation for sourdough, the traditional way, to learn all the basics, language, techniques, and the process from start to finish to make sourdough bread. My teaching is straight forward and makes the whole process seem simple. I have helped launch hundreds of eager sourdough bakers onto their own inspiring sourdough journeys.
I also have a Once-a-Week No Knead Sourdough online course, which is my strategy for busy weeks to have sourdough on hand ready to make into country bread, sandwich loaves, English muffins, pizza, bagels, and more! This course is great for absolute sourdough beginners to just get familiarity with sourdough or for veteran sourdough bakers who need to simplify their baking schedule.
If you are just starting on your sourdough journey, you can get my free Quick Start Sourdough Guide to begin learning some of the key terms and concepts in sourdough. Learn the difference between the sourdough stages of active sourdough starter and sourdough discard as well as how to care for a starter.
Perfect for new or experienced bakers, I have a full Sourdough Time Planning Workbook with 8 templates ready to fill in and a baking journal. The 8 templates include 4 different ways to make classic sourdough country breads, 3 time planning worksheets for enriched sourdough bread depending on serving time target, and a blank template. The baking journal goes over baker’s percentages and how to take notes on your sourdough bakes.
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