New Start, Old Starter

Reader Liz writes:

I have a related question. Does the age of the starter have anything to do with the sourdough flavor? It seems like old starters are always highly touted – is that just because it’s impressive to have maintained a culture for so long or is it possible that the conditions of the starter will, over time, become more hospitable for the more flavorful, higher acid-producing lactobacilli?

Hey Liz! I’m not a bread microbiologist, but it’s believed by many bakers that like people, the old the starter gets the more “like itself” it becomes. Which is to say, that after several months bacteria and yeast populations of various kinds become accustomed to the environment (the amount of water you add, the minerals in that water, etc., etc.) and you get a starter that’s got a character that’s unique. it makes sense to me. True food scientists, feel free to weigh in!

15 thoughts on “New Start, Old Starter”

  1. Not a scientist of any kind, a housewife with some experience in using sourdough. Having had no luck in buying sourdough bread in the mid-’60s in MD, I tried–several times–to make my own starter. I never got a starter, just several different molds. When we moved back to CA, my father-in-law offered to get me a starter from a family friend–yes, please! It arrived in a small plastic container with a Dymo label on it that said 1886. Now, I don’t know if that’s true, but I still have it after 45 years. That’s more a tribute to its remarkable durability than to my babying it. It has been across the country with us twice, lived on city water, bottled water, well water, and whatever flour I had on hand. I rarely try to use it for raising bread, but use it to add a sourdough flavor to things like English muffins. I’m going to try bread again next year. It does make excellent pizza crust. I keep a back-up supply in the freezer, Just In Case.

    1. Very nice, Sally! Great to have a few old friends around in the kitchen, isn’t it? I love stories like that. Thanks!

      – Joe

  2. As far as we have been able to see/taste/use, and based on blind tests we did in the bakery a few years back, there seems to be little if any difference between a 10-day old starter and a starter of any other age. That makes sense to me since given the use, feed, replenish etc cycles, very little of the original would likely exist.

    Very old starters are, IMHO, more of a testament to their owners’ skill in keeping them alive than to any improvement in function or result.

    Then again I ain’t no food scientist, so maybe what seems true is not.



  3. I guess you could say this is pure mathematics, more or less. You can define an old starter as something that was initiated a century ago, but depending on it subsequent life the character of what you have at hand at any given time can only have insignificant trace amounts of the initial material. Much like people indeed, depending on how you lived your life, there could be nothing left of the kid you once were. By “old” do you mean the date something began, or the length of life under constant repetitive conditions- two totally different equations.

    1. A very philosophical perspective, Dani. A Theseus’ ship sort of puzzler…I like it!


      – Joe

    2. I may not be a bread microbiologist, but I’m a microbiologist/biochemist/molecular biologist.

      Much like people indeed, depending on how you lived your life, there could be nothing left of the kid you once were.

      Just as the adult you has mostly the same genome sequences as the kid you once were, despite all the atoms being gone, there’s an important difference between dilution of material and perpetuation of the genetic information of the living cells in the microbial ecosystem you are nurturing through multiple passages. The Saccharomyces cerevisiae component will be very similar at the level of DNA sequence.

      However, tiny differences in genotype (a mutation changes as little as 1 bp out of >12 million bp) can make big differences in how they affect the final bread (a complex phenotype). So, even 99.99% identity is a lot of mutation. It’s not just the yeast, as you point out in earlier posts. There will be differences over time in the community structure as everything is in a complex system of competition and symbiosis. Evolution in action!

  4. I would like to chime in on the already great comments here. I have a sourdough starter that I made in my kitchen last year and have been baking with it consistently about every week after it was ready. So, in somewhat relative terms, my starter is young but I have just begun testing the differences in using a starter that is mixed 12 hours ahead of making dough and 9 hours ahead of making dough. I did a test side by side and had a noticeable difference in the results. Also, I have tested trying to get that San Francisco tang that is so popular and have achieved that by using a larger amount of the actual culture from the jar and making it up to 18 hours ahead of making the dough. After my recent test, I can say you can easily make a sourdough bread with little to no sour taste at all depending on how far in advance you make the starter for the bread you are planning to bake.

    Hope that makes sense.

    1. Very interesting, Derik. Thanks for the good information. I think I’m going to attempt a more comprehensive starter “variations” project after the first of the year. This is good food for thought, as it were. Cheers,

      – Joe

  5. Sorry to comment on an old thread, but wanted to add my two cents. My hypothesis is that old starters don’t make better bread. Rather, only the best starters live to become old starters. After all, who is going to make the effort to carry on a starter of average quality?

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