Starter Ball

Graham's picture

Happy New Year!
Amazing festive season baking BTW.

Starter Ball

The 'starter ball' was inspired by something I read a long time ago, but no longer have the source. The concept is to activate your starter by burying a piece of dough in your garden. I like the idea because it suggests that the earth can nurture your starter, and has the potential to simplify starter making, as well as reducing discarded starter from liquid starter methods.

Liquid starters (usually 100% hydration - 100g flour + 100ml water) are temperamental. There is a danger zone, probably the period 2 - 5 days, when a starter can appear quite active and then suddenly go very quiet. A proportion of beginners give up at this point. It is a shame because most people who keep feeding and discarding (composting) for 2 weeks will produce an active starter.

Do starter balls work?

Well, I have two 'starter balls' buried right now, at about 30 cm below ground level. Both balls are 33% hydration (300g flour + 100ml water). The flour is a mixture of organic wholewheat and sifted wholewheat. I would have like to have used a rye/wheat mix, but did not have quality rye flour at hand.

This starter ball was placed directly into the hole

I should point out that one ball is contained within a loose-lid glass container. The other ball has absolutely no is simply covered in rich volcanic soil. is likely that either my dog will dig it up or worms will penetrate the core of the soil-covered ball. But wouldn't it be interesting if the ball formed a hard exterior crust and remained largely integral?

A glass dish with loose lid contains this starter

One advantage of a stiff mixture is that it places limits on what types of organisms can be accommodated. I think it is likely that most of the organisms needed for fermentation are already in the flour. The aim is to nurture those organisms and limit the opportunity for external organisms to become active. I like the concept of the soil/earth/air contributing organisms but in practice I'm not sure how likely or helpful 'cross-culturing' is in activating a starter.

A temperature probe was placed in the hole with the ball of dough

The advantage of having your starter in the ground is that temperature is regulated. I can't speak for all climate types, but where I am today (S.E Queensland, Australia) the air temperature is 37C while 30cm underground is about 23.5C. Later tonight, the air temperature will have dropped to about 22C, but underground it will still be about 24C.

It is about 10C cooler underground during the heat of the day


I am expecting to harvest the starter balls after about 7 - 10 days in the ground. My expectaion is that only the very centre of the ball will be harvested, particularly from the ball that has direct contact with the soil.

The aim of the experiment is to use a harvested part of the ball to make strongly bubbling, 100% hydration starter, over a 24 hour period.


3 January, 2009

....Thanks all for your comments and interest so far.

5 Days into the experiment.

So far it has been very easy. Not threats from above-ground animals. My only task is to occassionally take temperature readings. Hole digging is destined to become a respected skill for bakers.

Temperatures have been very even in the hole...23C to 25C. The hole is approximately 10C cooler during the day, and 5C warmer than outside temperature at night. In other words it is regulating a temperature range of about 15C.

Schedule so far...

(more temps and precise times on be added soon)

Day 1 (30 Dec 2008)

Starter Ball 1 - placed directly in soil

- Day Temp
Outside Sun 38.8C
Outside Shade 32.8C
Inside Hole 25.0C

Day 2 (31 Dec 2008)

Starter Ball 2 - placed in loose lid glass dish

Day 3 (1 Jan 2009)

- Day Temp
Outside Shade 33.6
Inside Hole 23.4

Day 4 (2 Jan 2009)

Day 5 (3 Jan 2009)

13:28 - Night Temp
Outside Shade 20.1C
Inside Hole 24.7

Day 6 (4 Jan 2009)

Day 7 (5 Jan 2009)

...projected harvesting of Starter Ball 1
...harvested dough will be used to innoculate a 100% hydration starter (Starter 1)

Day 8 (6 Jan 2009)

...projected harvesting of Starter Ball 2
...harvested dough will be used to innoculate a 100% hydration starter (Starter 2)

...observe an assess fermentation level of Starter 1 (will have completed 2 x 12 hour stages)

...if possible...make bread dough directly with Starter 1, or use Starter 1 to create a 12 hour leaven and make bread dough.

Day 9 (7 Jan 2009)

...observe an assess fermentation level of Starter 2 (will have completed 2 x 12 hour stages)

...if possible...make bread dough directly with Starter 2, or use Starter 2 to create a 12 hour leaven and make bread dough.

Day 5 night temperatures
Day 5 night tempertures: 4.6C warmer in the hole at 01:28


6 January, 2009

Zonk! Pow% Squish*

The dog couldn't find it

Yesterday I harvested starter ball number 1. This ball had no protection and was encapsultated in rich red soil for 7 days.

The good news is that the dog didn't find it and after a week in the ground there were no worms living in the dough. The bad news is that the dough ball had been crushed by the weight of the soil above.

We had about 2 days of mild rain over the week. This probably added to the weight of the soil and also softened the ball a little...and prevented it from drying out (I was hoping for the formation of a dry, protective outer crust).

Starter ball now starter frizbee

At first the 'squished look' was a bit of a shock. But once I got to know my new doughball, we soon became friends again. So what if it had got a little too close to the dirt. We were still mates and that was what mattered.

Starter after a light rinse

I gave it a very light rinse under the tap. My partner described it as 'milo on ice-cream', but actually it did not smell sweet. In all honesty, it smelt like compost. The peg is there for scale...I imagine they are similar sizes all over the world.

Cross section of the compost ball

Close up of a cross-section. Try to imagine that the soil is chocolate crust, and the dough is custard. mmmmmmm....

There is evidence of biological activity...tiny air cells in the custard...closer to putrification than fermentation me thinks.

White fungus on outside

A white fungus has started to grow on the outside of the ball. In some places the fungus has penetrated the 'wall' and is growing into the dough area.

Fungus has penetrated into the dough area

I have gone ahead and transferred a piece of this dough into a fresh 100% hydration mix of organic wholewheat flour and water. There is not much hope for this one..I'm very much looking forward to harvesting Starter Ball 2 later today.

A tiny sample of dough never know

More Starter Ball Photos


11 January, 2009

....further experimentation required

Starter Ball 1

After 24 hours, the 100% hydration mix innoculate with starter ball 1, looked like this:

A fresh mix with starter ball 1, 24 hours later

I was quote surprised and happy, because it also smelt nice (warm and lactic), very different to the original starter ball. I should point out that at the 8 hour mark there was no easy to see evidence of i decided to just let the mix sit for a full 24 hours (without stiring).

From the side, fermentation appeared a little subdued. From the top it looked to be more active:

Starter 1, new brew, from the top

This was all very exciting and I got straight in to making bread. The dough was very simple: About 65% hydration, organic whoewheat flour,2% Celtic sea salt (this salt has a high moisture content).

The bread:

Bread made with starter ball/leaven 1

I was nervouse about eating this bread due to the poor state of the original starter ball. However all was fine, it tasted quite tangy, I shared it with my family and no-one was ill.

Starter Ball 2

By this stage I had already harvested starter ball 2.

Harvesting starter ball 2

As with starter 1, the 33% stiff ball had completely flatened out. More unexpected was the amount of organisms that had decided to grow on the surface:

Starter ball 2, surface growth

I got my macro lens out and took a few close-ups, which you can see on this gallery page.

The side, internal view looked more promising:

Side view of starter ball 2

I proceded to make take some of the 'ball' and make a fresh 100% hydration starter, just as had been done with starter ball 1.

This time a control was introduced...a 2nd mix of just flour and water with nothing else added. The control would show what level of fermentation (if any) would occur without an external ferment being intentionally added.

After 24 hours, the control (left) and the new starter (with added ball 2 - right) looked like this: (Note that the jars were kept seperate during the 24 hour period)

Control and starter 2 both had fermentation

Both mixes showed fermention.

Bread and discussion to follow...have to leave this post for now due to a commitment!


24 Jan, 2009!

Back again to finish blog...have been travelling for several weeks.

The control (above, left) showed a different type of fermentation to the mix with starter ball 2 added. It was more 'gassy', some bakers would refer to this as a 'yeast contamination'....meaning that the yeast captured in the first 24 hours is not the yeast that will survive and prosper in a more mature starter.

In contrast, the mix containing starter ball 2 appears to be more controlled. I went travelling and had to pack up everything so was unable to mature these starters any further. However I suspect that the starter ball 2 mix would have kept maturing and growing in strength gracefully, while the control would have burnt itself out in the short term...possibly due to the initial yeasts/bacteria not being suited to survive an increasingly acidic environment.

Bread was made form both starters:

Control on left, starter ball 2 dough on right

The control on the left rose faster than dough made from starter ball 2 (right).

Control on left, starter ball 2 bread on right

Both doughs were in the same strap of tins. So I had to compromise on when they went in the oven...the control (left) was a little overproved, and starter ball 2 dough (right) was more dramatically underproved.

The Control

The spontaneously leavened Control (above) looks pretty good!

Bread from Starter Ball 2

Poor old Starter Ball 2....I never gave you much of a chance. More fermentation cycles? Longer proofing time? We will try again one day in more favourable conditions.

What does it mean?

Hard to say conclusively, but in this case...

* a spontaneous starter/leaven (Control) performed very well (note that commercial baker's yeast is not stored in our kitchen)

* starter/leaven made with Starter Ball 2 did not ferment as rapidly as the Control in the time provided.

- it is possible (judging from a previous experiment and from reading other posts in the SC forum) that the fast fermenting yeast/bacteria in the Control is not sustainable in a long term starter/leaven. The subdued fermentation of Starter Ball 2 may have gained strength over several fermentation cycles, and become a more active starter/leaven.

* lots of interesting micro-organisms are attracted to dough buried in the ground. These organisms may be toxic however it is possible to harvest non-toxic organisms from a buried starter ball

* a low hydration (33%) ball turns to pancake (under pressure in damp soil) or soup (in an enclosed vessel)


We have moved to a colder climate. Perhaps the starter ball method would be more successful at lower temperatures, say 6C to 15C ground temperature ?? It would be exciting to hear about others trying the starter ball method under conditions where they live or work. Please post your observations as a blog or in the forum.



LeadDog's picture
LeadDog 2009 January 2
Now this sounds very interesting.  You know if this works a few more of us need to try it to see if we can get it to work also.  This would make for one really easy sure fire method that beginners could use that would work and a lot less discard.
Jeremy's picture
Jeremy 2009 January 3
Next your going to use a solar oven....oh you did that already? Maybe you could find a way to turn this starter into a truffle??

Go for it man!
Millciti's picture
Millciti 2009 January 5
You know that there are both good and bad organisms found in soil..? One of the bad one's being anthrax.  One question I have had for a while is how good is the symbiotic relationship of the organisms found in Sourdough?  I know the culture tends to discourage bad bacterial and other undesirable infestations.

One person had blogged that about 6 days into starting a sourdough culture she found out that she had strep throat and had to throw her culture out.  Would it have harbored Strep?


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