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Sourdough becoming less active - what to do?

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Vincci's picture
Vincci

Sourdough becoming less active - what to do?

Hi everyone,

I'm new to the website/forum after searching for sourdough starter resources, but I just wanted to look for an answer to my specific problem before I proceed.

I started/fed my starter according to the Sourdough Starter-Along series on Serious Eats (http://slice.seriouseats.com/sourdough). My starter is now 11 days old. Things started out well - the starter had lots of bubbles and was very strong smelling by day 3 (which I now realize is mostly due to bacteria), but since then, it has become less bubbly and now smells mostly like flour and water with just a hint of sour. I have never seen it expand in volume. My main question is, am I overfeeding it or underfeeding it? The Serious Eats series goes by a once-a-day feeding schedule of 1:1 AP flour and water, by weight. I have already thrown away half of it (ok, I'll admit, I attempted to bake with it, and the dough/bread did not rise at all) - what should I do next?

Thanks for your help!

G-man's picture
G-man

Hi Vincci, welcome to the forums and to working with sourdough.

This is the usual cycle of a sourdough starter that you're seeing. It goes through the stinky phase, then goes through a period of low to no activity. The natural yeast aren't active enough to do much, but probably the good bacteria are beginning to take over if you're not getting nasty smells.

Keep going following the method you're following. If your starter is starving, it will smell distinctly like acetone. In those circumstances, up your feedings to twice a day or double your flour and water to starter ratio.

Your starter probably won't be good for raising dough until about a month from now, give or take a week. That's my experience, anyway.

Good luck!

tananaBrian's picture
tananaBrian

Note that G-man said to feed it more often only if it is starving.  Unfortunately, a very young starter is sometimes hard to judge, especially if you have never had one before.  If activity seems low after 24 hours of fermenting, and the starter still has good consistency ('mud like' batter, not thin and 'broken down'), then it doesn't hurt to stir it up real good (incorporate more air) and let it sit another 12 to 24 hours.  Sometimes new starters don't have enough yeast and lacto bacillus bacteria growing after a 24 hour rest and feeding them again dilutes things further.  A 2-day rest is not a problem and may help get things going.  Same with adding a couple of teaspoons of whole wheat flour as well.  If the activity picks up, then go back to the 24 hour feeding.  Tired of daily feeds?  You can also pop it into the fridge and pick things up later ...just don't wait more than about a week with the starter in the fridge.  For some reason that I cannot explain, I've had some new starters suddenly take off after being refridgerated for a few days and then brought back out and fed.  Go figger... I'm no microbiologist!

 

Brian

 

 

a_pummarola's picture
a_pummarola

I am pretty sure yeast require oxygen to reproduce. As far as I can understand, that oxygen comes from bubbles trapped while kneading or stirring the dough. Consequently, I have seen many sources adivising frequent stirrings in the early stages to boost the yeast population. I also remember reading that some of the lactic acid bacteria do not start working until said oxygen is depleted, which might give the yeast a little more of a head start.

Corrections are very much appreciated!

Also, what is your ambient temperature? That makes a huge difference. In my experience, the 24 hour feeding schedule doesn't work with anything above the upper 70's. I have had much more luck with frequent feedings at these temperatures, or, preferrably, using a cooler with ice to ferment in the upper 60's-low 70's. That goes for the starter, sponges and dough.

Vincci's picture
Vincci

Thanks for all your helpful comments so far, everyone! I'm glad to hear that what's happening sounds pretty normal for the most part. Judging by the comments, I don't think I'm stirring it enough - usually I just swish it around a bit in the morning, go to work, then swish it around again when I remember in the evening, and a real stir with the actual feed. This morning I actually opened it up and stirred it and came home to a lot more bubbles. I think I will continue to feed it once daily, but I will keep the tip about the ambient temperature in the back of mind. Right now we're sitting at about 75˚

ChrisFaris's picture
ChrisFaris

These have been great threads...thanks.  My questions: My starter is in about day 6...things were going well with 1 feeding per day of 1 part flour and 1 part water...there was some separation, but I just mixed it in.  It looked like the pictures I've been seeing, then yesterday, the separation was a bit more 'extreme' and was throwing off somewhat of a 'nasty?' smell (according to my wife)...in reading these posts, yes, it did have that alchohol/acetone smell overlaying the yeasty smell.  I didn't panic, but just added more flour (regular off the shelf white flour) and mixed it up...I'll see what it looks and smells like tonight...any thoughts from anyone...I'm staying the course, but if some one thinks there is a problem let me know.  Lastly, I didn't do the 'throw out half' and feed that step...I just keep feeding it...I keep it in a big stainless steel bow with a cheese cloth over the top of it...why do people throw out half and then add to it?  I've never understood that step...my starter hasn't grown into an uncontrollable blob and I'm hoping to start using it in the next week or so for making bread and other things.  Thanks for any insights!

a_pummarola's picture
a_pummarola

The issue is that if you don't throw out some of it, you end up requiring ever larger amounts of flour and water to keep it refreshed proportionally. For my last starter I began with small quantities and built up without having to throw anything away, but then began to refresh it on a 1:3:2 ratio (1 part starter, 3 parts flour, 2 parts water) by weight. If you were to add add that ratio (or even 1:1:1) you quickly end up using unmanageable quantities of flour and water. If feeding the same amount as the quantity increases, you'll end up with an underfed starter. According to things I've read here, the acetone smell is a result of the culture being starved.

It also keeps the storage starter from becoming too acidic. My first starter suffered from this. After several "washings" with very small amounts of starter I was able to make it workable.

ChrisFaris's picture
ChrisFaris

Thank you!  I understand it now..."yes", to my ever increasing starter in the bowl, I was just adding, each day, 1/3 cup of flour and 1/3 cup of water...hence, 'yes', this is proportionally a smaller feeding to the ever growing mass already in the bowl...hence the starving.  So, to correct this, I think I'm understanding from you to follow a 1:3:2 ratio and throw out the rest.  Could you provide a bit more detail on the term "washings"?  Thanks...I'll keep experimenting and working through this...my 10-year old daughter loves the lab experiment we've got going on, but we want to get to the bread making part too!  thanks again.  Chris

a_pummarola's picture
a_pummarola

Washing is using a very small amount of your starter with fresh flour and water in the hopes that it'll reculture into a healthy starter. I don't know what amounts people generally use for this. I used about 1:10:10 by weight, but I think people use less original starter when they have a seriously unhealthy starter.

1:3:2 is only a suggestion, and you should experiment with the ratio. I use less water than flour since a firmer starter seems to work better in warm ambients. "Better" in my case means it doesn't exhaust itself too quickly and doesn't produce unpleasant aromas.

I should note I'm not super successful with sourdough myself, having only recently gotten good results. I still have failures but I am trying to help those with similar problems to me.

placebo's picture
placebo

You must not be increasing the amount you're feeding the starter. If you don't want to end up with an underfed starter, you need to proportionally increase the amount of flour and water you feed the starter as the amount increases. In other words, you would feed two cups of starter twice as much flour and water you would one cup of starter. At a minimum, you should feed the starter enough to double it, so if you don't throw any out, the amount quickly grows out of control, e.g. 1 cup =>2 cups => 4 cups => 8 cups => 16 cups => 32 cups, ....

The alcohol smell is a symptom of the yeast running out of food, but the acetone smell, I think, is due to something else. I had a well-fed starter that developed that acetone smell. I didn't get a whiff of something that may contain hints of acetone; I got a really strong, distinctive smell. It was, as your wife would put it, nasty! I ended up throwing the starter out since it was one I made just as an experiment and didn't want to waste flour trying to rehabilitate what was an unneeded starter.

ChrisFaris's picture
ChrisFaris

Thanks for the response...I'll take a look at it tonight and see if I can't clarify the smells etc...certainly it was overpowering the yeasty smell that existed before, but not totally wiping it out.  It is clear I have been not doing this proportionally and I'll go back to that principle and see if I can't recover this and get it going again...if it has gone totally foul, then out it goes!  I think it is probably recoverable and I just need to get the proportions correct.  I'll keep everyone posted on how this works out and I appreciate all of the help.

placebo's picture
placebo

One thing you'll learn is that short of baking them, starters are next to impossible to destroy. They can stand up to a lot of abuse. It's common to hear stories of people rescuscitating moldy starters, frozen starters, starters left in the fridge forgotten for months, etc. Once you resume a good feeding schedule, your starter will in all likelihood recover nicely.

 

tananaBrian's picture
tananaBrian

Sounds to me like you're on track ...but I'd switch to a glass bowl if you have one.  Stainless steel is just steel that oxidizes easier and it forms a thin layer of oxide on it's surface that prevents corrosion from water based liquids ...but there are no guarantees that the metal won't affect the starter once the starter is more acidic and sits in the bowl for a long time.  Plastic is OK too.

As far as the starter separating and what not goes, all of that is normal.  I've seen young starters that break down the flour very quickly (starter becomes very watery), some that make the starter more gelatinous, some that separate and produce a lot of hooch, etcetera ...but they all work their way through it and become good.   You're watching the natural symbiotic relationship between the various bacteria and yeasts in your starter come into balance.  I really think it takes several weeks for this relationship to really get correct.  Once there, the starter will be both quite active and also much more abuse resistant, e.g. not fed for long periods of time.  Keep on truckin'....

Brian

 

MangoChutney's picture
MangoChutney

That is not an accurate portrayal of true stainless steel, but there is no telling what is sold under that description by cheaper manufacturers.  I have seen base-metal bowls plated with chrome sold as stainless steel.  A little bit of scouring and they were no longer fit for use with liquids of any sort.  It is wisest not to take the chance.

tananaBrian's picture
tananaBrian

So it could even be worse, eh!  Actually, most stainless steel bowls and pots in the US are made from 18-8 Stainless which is reasonably good when it comes to stainless steels.  I've seen studies that say acidic foods can leach metals from stainless potware, but while I'm not sure if that was while cooking (hot) or not, it does indicated that there is metal-to-food contact through the oxide layer ...so I won't use stainless with sourdough starters (it's OK for the dough though).  And I'm sure that there are manufacturers of 'lesser integrity' out there that will substitute cheaper metals for the 18-8 even if a parent company or customer company specified 18-8.  Best to stick with glass or plastic.

Brian

jcking's picture
jcking

Avoid any metallic bowl made in China. Mystery metal is what it is; possile lead contamination.

Jim

ChrisFaris's picture
ChrisFaris

Thanks everyone!  I've moved to a glass jar...was my intent at the beginning but didn't have a good one...I've got one now.  I have also done the following: fed the starter some extra flour and it took off..the odor is gone, it has doubled in size and looks a lot better.  I have also gone to a 1S-3F-2W ratio and thrown the rest out...I'll stick with this and see where it leads...I welcome any more feedback and am looking forward to using it in a few weeks!