“What should my Natural Leaven starter look like?”
The appearance of Natural Leaven starter varies drastically from it’s dormant, dry state to the beginning stages of growth, then to the height of light, airiness, and then back down to a thick, bubble-less liquid. Natural Leaven bacteria and yeast cultures also vary with the culturing temperature and refreshment grain. When fed with our recommended ratio of freshly ground flour to water, here are the progressive stages that Natural Leaven starter may cycle through:
Dormant Dry. Dehydrated, but smells and looks similar to flour. Natural Leaven starter is usually purchased in the dormant state for future activation. This part of the cycle you need not repeat again.
Refreshed Wet. Fed, but smells and appears basically like a flour and water mixture initially. When dry Leaven starter is activated for the first time, the Leaven seems to remain in this stage for most of the day. When subsequently refreshing your already wet Leaven starter, this stage may be very brief, like an hour.
Rising or Risen. Voluminous, bubbly, structured, airy, aromatic, light, smells like rising yeast bread dough, because the yeast are very active at this point. When fed regularly in the ratio that we recommend, most grain flour will double or almost double in volume when completely risen. This is the stage your Leaven wheat starter must be in for Flatbread Dough and No Knead Artisan Dough.* This stage is called “active” primarily because of the yeast activity which is almost non-existent in the previous stages and begins to die off in the latter two stages. With a warm environment, a moderate refreshment, and a good starter, the Leaven activity may be on the rise within the first couple hours after a refreshment. If conditions are cooler, the refreshment is large, or the start is weak, the Leaven may take significantly longer to rise. You may refrigerate the Leaven to “hold” the yeast in this “almost doubled” stage a little longer. Refrigerated Leaven in this stage will make fluffy flatbreads and great loaf breads.
Deactivating Falling. Literally starting to compress and compact, not as high or holy, less bubbles, less volume, more liquidy, gooey, sticky, and smells a little or a lot sour. On the “downhill slope”. In this stage the grain is even more broken down. Batter breads prepared during this stage are better for the sick gut. Pancakes, waffles, and biscuits made during this stage can make an excellent product with a sourdough flare. Flatbread, loaves, cake, and muffins, cake will not rise as much if Leaven is added at this stage. The yeast in the Leaven is hungry at this point and the bacteria have little left to metabolize. You may refresh the Leaven at this point, and skip the starving fallen stage, to avoid further fermentation and souring.
Starving Fallen. Flat, bubble-less, compacted, no activity now. Looks similar to newly refreshed Leaven, but will begin to separate and form a liquid “hooch” on top. Smells sour, alcoholic, or vinegar-like. Eating Leaven in this stage is actually very healthy, as it is said to be “completely broken down”. Try French Crepes with leaven at this fallen stage. Then, to return to an active state, simply pour off the hooch and feed your Leaven with flour and water. If your Leaven starter is extremely sour, then you may need multiple refreshments to return to sweetness.
The timing of these five stages of the Leaven Starter vary drastically with the temperature of the environment. During one day, at a moderately warm room temperature (about 78′ F), you will probably see the Leaven progress through the middle three stages of refreshment, rising, and falling. The Leaven progress also depends upon the condition of your start and the amount of refreshment.
* Flatbread Dough and No Knead Artisan Dough are recipes included with any wheat or ancient wheat Old World Natural Leaven starter.