• Three Sourdough Loaves

Part II — How to Make Sourdough More (or Less) Sour

Sourdough-sliced-6224-marble-2This second part in our Sourdough Series takes our Country Sourdough Recipe and uses the concepts covered in part one to push that bread in two very different directions. We created a “less sour” loaf with mild, yet complex flavors and an acidity that stayed in the background, as well as a “more sour” loaf that was not only quite tangy but also packed with whole grain flavor.

We applied a slightly different approach to each stage of the bread making process. The loaves detailed below have been pushed fairly close to the limit of what can be accomplished without running into problems with structure or undesirable microbes.

Print the tables in this article

Mother Culture — Focus on Healthy Balance
In order to ensure the ongoing health and balance of both yeast and LAB (lactobacilli – acid producers) populations in the seed culture, we kept changes modest: cooler temps, white flour and peak maturity for our “less sour” loaf, versus warmer temps, a little acid-friendly rye flour and a more ripe maturity for the “more sour” bread. We fed our starter twice leading up to the mixing of the Levain, but even after just one feed under these conditions we noticed a difference in the stronger, more acidic aroma of the “more sour” culture.

If there is too little acid in the ongoing culture, undesirable microbes (such as leuconostoc or mold) can multiply and infect the culture. If there is too much acid and an overripe culture, yeast populations are compromised and enzyme activity may get out of hand. To avoid this in our “more sour” loaf, we limited the proportion of whole rye flour to 20% and were careful not to go too far when allowing the culture to mature to a more ripe state.

Mother Culture

More Sour Less Sour
Flour 40g unbleached white flour
10g whole grain rye flour
50g unbleached white flour
Mature Culture
10g  (1:5 ratio of seed to flour) 25g  (1:2 ratio of seed to flour)
Water 25g  (50% hydration) 50g  (100% hydration)
Temperature 83F / 28C 72F / 22C
Maturity use about an hour after peak use at peak
Seed Cultures

More ripe, firm starter for the “more sour” loaf and less ripe, liquid starter for the “less sour” bread

Levain – Get Ready to Encounter Salt
We made significant changes to the levain size for these breads. While our standard County Sourdough recipe has 16.6% of the total flour pre-fermented in the levain, our less sour version has a much smaller levain, containing only 10.5% of the total flour, while our more sour bread has a large levain containing 35% of the total flour. The reason for the difference is the presence of salt in the main dough. Salt inhibits the acid producers more than the yeast, which means that once the levain is mixed into the main dough, the ability to produce acid is somewhat diminished. To achieve a “more sour” bread, it’s important to add a larger quantity of acid and acid producers to the main dough.

For the “less sour” loaf, using a small levain not only limits the amount of acid in the loaf, but also slows down fermentation. Slower fermentation allows enzymes in the flour to break down starch into sugar, further limiting the perception of a sour taste.

In addition to getting ready for the addition of salt, we have also incorporated similar maturity, temperature and flour choices as in the Mother culture. For the less sour version, we use the levain a little earlier in its cycle than we could for the Mother culture — when it is well-risen but has not yet reached its peak. This type of small, less ripe levain has been popularized by Chad Robertson and Ken Forkish in their bread books.

Many bakers’ normal practice is to take part of the levain and use that to perpetuate the ongoing culture. The best way to do that with a small, young levain is to take the portion needed to mix the main dough, then leave the remainder to continue to ripen to full maturity before using it to perpetuate the culture.


More Sour Less Sour
Flour 125g unbleached bread flour
25g whole grain rye flour
40g unbleached white flour
Mature Culture
30g  (1:5 ratio of seed to flour) 20g  (1:2 ratio of seed to flour)
Water 75g  (50% hydration) 40g  (100% hydration)
Temperature 83F / 28C 72F / 22C
Maturity use about an hour after peak use when well risen but not yet at peak
Pre-fermented Flour 35.8% 10.5%
Large and Small Levains

Larger, more ripe levain for the “more sour” bread and smaller, less ripe levain for the “less sour” loaf.

Main Dough — Maturity is Key to Controlling Flavor
In considering how much whole grain to put in the overall formula for these breads, we increased the whole grain in the “more sour” loaf from 15% of the total flour up to 20%; for the less sour version, we not only reduced the proportion of non-white flour to 10%, but also switched from whole grain to high-extraction flour and omitted the acid-friendly rye altogether. High-extraction flour can be made easily at home by passing whole wheat flour through a fine strainer to remove the larger bran flakes. As Debra Wink points out, the bran in whole grains buffers acidity and allows the acid producers (LAB) to produce more acid in a more ripe culture. And rye flour produces sugars in the dough that feed the LAB that produce acetic acid, which is more flavorful and noticeable than the other main sourdough acid, lactic acid.

Since the larger levain of the “more sour” loaf carries more enzymes (that degrade protein) into the main dough, we used higher-protein bread flour (instead of AP) for the white flour portion of the loaf and added one extra fold to the bulk fermentation to help ensure good structure.

 Main Dough

More Sour Less Sour
Flour 241g unbleached bread flour
66g whole wheat flour
377g unbleached AP flour
48g high-extraction wheat flour
Water 243g   (69% hydration) 278g   (69% hydration)
Salt 9g   (1.8% of flour weight) 9g   (1.8% of flour weight)
Rise Temperature 85F / 29C 74F / 23C
Maturity rise until tripled rise until doubled
Proof Temperature 85F / 29C 74F / 23C

Ready to begin your own exploration of sourdough acidity? We have generally found that the most effective factors for controlling acidity in sourdough are 1) maturity (the degree of ripeness), 2) the choice of temperature (warmer for more acid, cooler for less), and 3) the choice of flours (whiter for less acid, more whole grain, particularly rye, for acidity). The key to making changes is to keep them modest and use only one or two at a time, then assess how they affect other aspects of the dough before deciding which to jettison and which to embrace. Enjoy!

2017-03-11T01:48:39+00:00Bread & Sourdough|15 Comments


  1. Bob August 12, 2015 at 9:52 am - Reply

    How long of a period between feedings for mother culture.

    • Julie August 17, 2015 at 12:54 pm - Reply

      The length of time between feedings for a mother culture depends on a number of factors, such as temperature, proportion of seed culture, whole grain content and hydration. For the Country Sourdough recipe used in this exercise, the starter is white flour at 100% hydration. For a milder, less sour loaf, the mother should be fed when it reaches its peak rise. For a more sour loaf, the mother should be fed after it has reached its peak rise and begun to fall back. Hope that helps!

  2. Amy March 3, 2016 at 4:04 am - Reply

    I am using the Peter Reinhardt pineapple whole grain sourdough starter. My first loaf came out tangy; I want to try to avoid it this time. I have looked at your suggestions, and I am keeping my starter purely whole grain, what suggestions would you give for refreshing my starter? The book tells me to use 3.5 oz (99 grams) of my mother starter to refresh at 75% hydration which will produce a “moderate acidity. Basically I feed the starter let it rest for 4-8 hours till doubled in size which I will then stick into a airtight bowl in the fridge and degas by opening the lid. It has to be used in 3 days, and during the time in the fridge, it triples in size. Are there any suggestions to keep the starter from developing too much acid and tang? Most of my recipes have me feed the starter again as a levain and leave for 12 hours. 12 hours seems like a long time to me. Is it possible to feed my starter multiple times before making the levain using the above method? And is the 4-8 hours resting after feeding or in the fridge making it more acidic?

    Also because I am using whole grain flour my bread recipe has about an hour of autolyse and only 16g of starter the author of the recipe claims she keeps the levain small to avoid over fermenting. If I up the amount of the starter added to reduce the sour taste, how would I go about changing the amount of flour to water to add. The original levain is 16g whole wheat starter, 26 grams water and 48 grams of whole wheat flour (15% of the flour is in the levain and there is 319 grams of flour in the final dough.

    Thanks got any help and answers you can give me!!!

    If you could suggest anything to help me I would appreciate it as I am relatively new at sourdough. I hope to make corrections soon as my family does not like tangy or sour bread so I am trying to mask the sourness as much as possible

    PS: if I use baking powder, how much should be used. By the weight of the starter used. The total flour amount?

    • Diane March 3, 2016 at 5:07 pm - Reply

      Thank you for your inquiry. These are interesting questions which require further information to answer. Peter Reinhart updated his method after the book was published and you can find the correction on his blog: https://peterreinhart.typepad.com/peter_reinhart/2006/07/sourdough_start.html We are also going to direct you to the work of Debra Wink, a microbiologist who has done extensive research and testing using pineapple juice in sourdough starter. Debra occasionally teaches the science of sourdough at King Arthur Flour in Vermont. Understanding all the variables in growing your starter is important to narrow down changes you might want to try. We recommend you make minor variations so you will be able to determine what is working best. The following is a link to Debra’s blog on The Fresh Loaf regarding pineapple juice starter: https://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/10901/pineapple-juice-solution-part-2 After reading her blog you will also find comments, questions and answers from the TFL community pertaining to her blog. We hope these links lead you in the right direction to perfect a loaf your family enjoys. Best of luck in your efforts.

  3. Dean July 6, 2016 at 11:46 pm - Reply

    I don’t see any reference to the amount of salt in the main dough. Perhaps I missed something?

    • Diane January 28, 2017 at 10:53 pm - Reply

      Dean, Thank you for your inquiry. You are correct, the salt was missing from the ingredients in the main dough and this has been corrected. All the best in baking!

  4. Harry Freudenberg July 26, 2016 at 2:13 am - Reply

    I have used my Brod & Taylor proofer for a number of years–very happy with it. I was also surprised to return to your Internet site (not done so for years) and see all the recipes you now show.
    I have always had trouble getting a good sour, so, your two-part series on getting more sour (from Debra Wink) was enlightening. Would you give us an actual recipe based on her recommendations? It would be much appreciated.

    • Diane July 29, 2016 at 2:49 pm - Reply

      Harry, welcome back to our site. We understand your pursuit of a sourdough recipe to your preference. There are so many variables in play which affect the “good sour” you are looking for. The Proofer offers a consistent set temperature for extended time, eliminating one of many variables in developing a recipe to your taste. We suggest you Google “Debra Wink Sourdough Recipe” and you can find recipes and/or directions on different websites as a starting place.

  5. Abe October 2, 2016 at 10:24 pm - Reply


    I’m trying to get more tang out of my starter and have just fed the mother culture as per your suggestion. I now have a 50% hydration starter with 80% bread flour and 20% whole rye.

    Now if I have understood this correctly keeping the mother culture like this should encourage more sour. So far so good.

    Then you recommend to build the Levain after the mother culture has matured. Preferably an hour after peaked.

    My questions are as follows…

    1. I’m an occasional baker and only use my mother starter about once a week. If I use when peaked it won’t last long between feeds so I usually don’t allow it to peak before refrigerating. When it comes to baking again how would I manage this? Do I use it from the fridge to build a Levain? Do I toss some, feed again, allow it to peak, take off some to build a Levain, feed again then put it back in the fridge? I wish to work out the best way to maintain the mother culture while encouraging a tang, using at the right time, with no discard and use once a week.

    2. I’ve heard of people only keeping one starter and use it straight into the final dough. Is the two step explained here of a mother culture and a Levain (which are basically the same thing) just another way of using sourdough starter but managing the mother starter one way to encourage more or less tang and the Levain is just bringing it closer to the requirements of what we want in the final recipe? I.e. the mother culture isn’t built to the correct flour and hydration but just a means of inoculating a Levain which becomes the starter?

    • Wes October 3, 2016 at 1:49 pm - Reply


      Thanks for raising some excellent topics. If I read you correctly, I think you have already suggested a excellent method for managing weekly use of starter. But also keep in mind that sourdough starter is quite easy to maintain, and should easily last a week between feeding. Splitting the starter into two portions is a viable plan: one to feed and allow to peak for a more-sour Levain, and the other to return to the refrigerator. If you are concerned about the health of your refrigerator starter you can also begin feeding 1-2 days before baking to make sure it is fully viable on baking day.

      You may want to have a look at this link and video on Breadtopia (who is also one of our on-line retailers). This link does not deal specifically with tang, but Eric has some good tips for maintaining cultures for infrequent use. https://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/49161/using-sourdough-starter-without-refreshing

      Also, if you are not familiar with The Fresh Loaf we recommend you visit this site. There is no better place to search and find quality information on bread baking issues. https://www.thefreshloaf.com/

      • Abe October 5, 2016 at 9:13 am - Reply

        Thank you Wes.

        Very successful bake. I really love this whole idea of keeping my mother culture in a dough form and how to manipulate it for more tang at each stage.

        I think once peaked and 30g is taken off to use for the levain it’ll last in the fridge for a week. Don’t think I would need to refresh straight away. It has plenty of life in it if refrigerated.

        My problem was that if I refreshed before refrigerating then when it comes to the next bake i’d have to discard to refresh again. Before build the levain. My idea, and let me know if you agree, is to take off the 30g for the levain and just put the rest in the fridge. come the next time i’ll take out what’s left, refresh and leave to mature, take some off to use in the levain and return what’s left to the fridge. etc. Even if it’s peaked it should last and worse comes to the worse it’ll just get better flavour this way.

        I have finally started to get that elusive tang. Most of the taste is in the crust however I’ve only just converted my mother culture and while I do have some in the crumb I expect it to develop overtime. This is the best and tasty crust I’ve ever had, the crumb was perfect texture with some tang coming through. Oven spring was immense. A pleasure to make. A big leap in sourdough bread baking and manipulating it for taste.

        Thank you!

        I am on TFL and here was the result (excuse my terrible photography, it looks much better actually). https://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/49321/how-long-bulk-ferment

  6. Roger M. Zander April 26, 2017 at 10:33 pm - Reply

    In the table labeled MOTHER CULTURE
    there is a component labeled MATURE CULTURE.
    Is this MATURE CULTURE a white, refreshed starter of 100% hydration ?

    As I am seeking making my bread more sour does this MOTHER CULTURE become my new starter to be used as a MATURE CULTURE in the next table labeled LEVAIN?


    Is the MATURE CULTURE in the LEVAIN table still the white starter @ 100% hydration?

    • Diane May 19, 2017 at 6:04 pm - Reply

      Roger, Thank you for contacting us with your question. The mature culture is the culture that has been maintained over time. Some bakers have cultures that have been maintained for many years. This mature culture is used to make a mother culture. The mother culture is used (at peak or after, per the table depending on desired sourness) for the levain and also to propagate the mature culture. Please let us know if you have any other questions. All the best in baking!

  7. Dan May 19, 2017 at 4:45 pm - Reply

    This information is very useful! For those of us out there who have less experience, it would be helpful though to know what your times to maturity/peak are for the mother culture and levain. Even if not exact, it can serve as a reference point to start experimenting with. Thanks!

    • Diane May 19, 2017 at 6:19 pm - Reply

      Dan, An excellent question but very difficult to answer. The time to maturity can vary greatly depending on temperature, the culture and other factors. Expect a range between 4 and 8 hours. We recommend reading this excellent post on King Arthur Flour’s baking site: http://blog.kingarthurflour.com/2016/05/17/ripe-sourdough-starter/ Please let us know if we can be of further assistance. We are considering adding a helpful guide to this post in the future. Best regards,

Leave A Comment