Many people new to sourdough have noticed the runny, bubbly starters all over the internet. These liquid starters are created over a week or so using flour, water with a good dose of patience and in most instances there’s also a pinch of anxiety and lots of googling.
In Italy, and here at Motherdough, things are a bit different. Alfonsina, our Motherdough, is Italian and we do it the Italian way.
Italians commonly start with a sourdough starter called “pasta madre” or “lievito madre.” This is maintained at around 50% hydration which makes it a solid dough. It is kept alive and healthy with daily refreshments. The liquid starter is not really used much in Italy, but has become more known recently, mostly by home bakers probably because a pasta madre is difficult to start at home.
Essentially Alfonsina, began her life in a similar fashion to a liquid starter, but for over a century she has been propogated as a pasta madre and not a liquid sourdough starter. Instead of a liquid, you have a starter that feels and looks like a dough.
Motherdough does similar work to a liquid starter but she’s not the same thing. The final products exhibit different characteristics. For example, liquid starters generally produce a much sourer loaf and it is easier to get an almost wild open crumb. Motherdough results in more rounded and complete flavour, with very delicate sour notes – just enough for the right amount of umami. Motherdough usually also produces a less open and more even crumb.
Pasta madre is widely used across Italy and favoured for both its active nature, mild flavour profile (no sour taste) and ability to leaven egg and dairy-enriched doughs. If properly maintained, your Moutherdough will reward you with a strong and rapid rise on a range of baked goods that a liquid sourdough starter cannot achieve such as soft white loaves, focaccia, sweet buns, leavened pastries or panettone.
This is broadly speaking what makes Motherdough different to what is typically called a sourdough starter. This is really important to note because Motherdough is stiff and probably won’t look like much of what you see on the internet.
A pasta madre is typically fed at a 1:1 (motherdough:flour) ratio at least once a day. At Motherdough we know this isn’t particularly practical, so we have adjusted the routine to fit a little better with the demands of modern daily life without impacting too much on the health of your culture.
There are differences in the care routine for Motherdough, compared to a liquid starter. These are detailed below.
Storing your Motherdough
To ensure viability, your Motherdough should be fed 1:1 at least once every two days while being left to partly develop before being stored in the fridge around 6 deg. C. (1:2 feed allows you to feed every 5 days).
There are three ways you can store Motherdough:
- In a container with a tight lid.
This is probably the easiest and most convenient way to store Motherdough, and the one we initially recommend.
- Wrapped in a cloth and bound with string.
This is the most popular method for storing Motherdough and is favoured by professionals and expert home bakers. It gives the culture more strength and helps maintain the yeast / acid balance better. This is the way we keep Alfonsina at Motherdough HQ. If you would like to start keeping your Motherdough like this, email us to help you along with the process.
- Submerged in water.
This is a seriously specialized way of storing your Motherdough and one we don’t, for now, recommend. Bakers who specialise in very high fat, high sugar doughs that require enormous rise and strength are stored in this way for 10-14 days before the are used for baking. An example of the type of products these bakers produce would be the Italian Christmas bread, Panettone which originated in Milano.
The Importance of Temperature
Warmth plays a critically important role in caring for your Motherdough, as well as in preparing and proving dough.
Your Motherdough is a living ecosystem that needs to be kept healthy and in balance. The micro-flora consists of a symbiotic set of indigenous acid tolerant yeasts and Lactobacillus bacteria that produce lactic and acetic acid.
Warm temperatures above 25°C promote the ideal balance of acids; 4 parts lactic to 1 part acetic ideal for sweet leavened pastries. At cool room temperatures a balance of 3:1 (lactic:acetic) is ideal for bread.
Storing the starter at room temperature (and feeding daily) to develop more wild yeast is important, particularly in the first few weeks after activation. Storing in the fridge encourages more lactobacillus, contributing to a sour flavour. So, by increasing or decreasing the time your Motherdough spends at different temperatures you are able to affect the flavour of the product it produces.
Motherdough activity is hugely slowed by the cold. As a rule of thumb, a drop of 9 deg. C will double the amount of time required for a particular result. So on a chilly 8 deg. C winter day, what would normally take 4 hours at 26 deg. C could take 16 hours.
Feeding your Motherdough
Motherdough only needs to be fed once, or twice, before making bread. Highly enriched doughs like Panettone require at least three refreshments to leaven correctly.
The best temperature for feeding and proving is in the range of 25-30°C with the ideal temperature being 27/28°. At ideal temperature your motherdough should be ready to be used for baking from her feed in 4 hours, and ready to be returned to the fridge after just sitting out for 1 hour.
Bathing your Motherdough
Motherdough needs to be bathed. As if all the different steps to care for and use her were not enough, now you discover she needs to be bathed too. Your family and friends are probably going to think you’ve finally lost it. “I can’t today, I have to bath my Motherdough.”
Every 2-4 weeks you Motherdough will need a bath to keep her in balance and keep her performing at her best. The bath stimulates the production of CO2 producing yeast, removes acetic acid (which doesn’t taste so good) and slows the proliferation of lactic acid producing bacteria to keep the sour profile of your bakes under control.
You will realise that your Motherdough needs a bath when she leaves a sticky almost glue-like residue on your fingers after a feed. Her smell will change to also have notes similar to alcohol or acetone. If you taste her, you will notice a sort of sour-bitter flavour from the acetic acid. There may also be a change in her colour and she may seem dull, even slightly grey, although it usually takes a week or two of being abandoned for colour change to happen. After the bath and feed she should be back to her normal self. If you notice that this hasn’t help please contact Motherdough 911 here.
Bathing is an easy process:
- In a large, deep container, dissolve 20g of sugar per 1000g of water, filtered and warmed to 35-38 deg. C
- Take your unrefreshed Motherdough from the fridge, roll her into the shape of a cucumber and cut into slices 1cm thick.
- Drop these into the water bath and they will sink to the bottom.
- It should take about 20 minutes for most of the pieces to float back to the surface.
- Scoop these up and gently squeeze out excess water and place in a bowl. Leave the pieces that disintegrate totally as you touch them, as well as the pieces that don’t float behind in the bowl and discard.
- Weigh the bathed Motherdough and then feed with a 1:1 ratio. Motherdough:flour. You will need to reduce water slightly to account for the moisture from the bath. We recommend 35% water relative to the weight of the flour. So for example, you have 200g bathed Motherdough, mix in 70g water, then add 200g flour and knead to a ball.
- Proceed with resting and storing as normal.
Having a motherdough is almost like having another pet, even another child. It calls for a lot of attention but if you treat it will continue to repay you.
Just imagine that Alfonsina has been cared for this way for over 100 years and she can, unlike us, live on forever. The number of delicious things she gives rise to, is limited only by the baker’s imagination.