For those of us who prefer starters, the challenges are many. Like many, I struggled with contamination during the initial activation. Since then I have spent much time, and experienced more than a few failures figuring out the best way to use the starter as an ingredient - how much to add to the dough, when to add it, how long and at what temps to ferment and proof. I think I have made some good progress, but must admit that I neglected what I am now realizing is a major issue when using a starter: how activated should the starter be before adding it to the dough?
For the most part, I have simply been taking the starter out of the fridge, mixing any hooch back in, whisking in some flour and water, and then allowing it to sit at room temp until it seemed "alive". Not much precision was used nor was much possible since some times I would use the starter every day and other times (e.g. when I left town) it was unused for a month.
I still don't have much of a handle on this, but in an experiment this week, I made a batch of dough following the procedure above. A second batch was made using starter that was doubly activated - that is, after activating as above, I fed it more flour and water and allowed it to sit on the counter for a few more hours. What I can report is that the second batch was noticeably lighter and even more flavorful - a little sweeter, if you will.
I plan to study in a lot more detail to see what results I get with even more activation to see at what point the results are best.
For those of you that use starters, what indicators do you use to determine when your starter is "optimum". Any other thoughts greatly appreciated.