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Sluggish Starter (Tartine method)

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mm-baker's picture
mm-baker

Sluggish Starter (Tartine method)

I have been working on developing a starter based on the method in the Tartine Bread book over the past few weeks. My starter seems sluggish and is not doubling. Several posts have addressed similar sounding problems with relatively broad ranging solutions. As a novice, I don't have the intuition to decipher which is best for my situation, so I would appreciate any suggestions!

I have been feeding at 1:2:2 by weight with a flour mixture (equal parts bread and whole wheat flour) and bottled water. My kitchen was cold, so I have been storing the starter in a cabinet with a hot water bottle to maintain 70-75F for the last week. (This didn't appear to have any major impact on behavior.) The starter increases in volume by about 50-75% after feeding over the course of 12-14 hours and then begins to fall. Based on the forum discussions, I decided to test whether or not I was underfeeding, overfeeding, or not feeding with enough frequency by dividing my starter into 3 batches that I maintain separately. The starter fed 1:1:1 every 24 hours was far less active, but there is no obvious difference between the starters fed once and twice daily at 1:2:2. 

Perhaps it is just a matter of waiting a little longer for the yeast to become better established. That said, it is not showing signs of maturing, so I wonder if I should tweak the conditions (e.g. change hydration, add rye or something acidic). I also am curious if the long rise time is a problem or if the starter will become more responsive as it matures. I am hoping to draw on your collective wisdom for my next steps. Thank you!

phaz's picture
phaz

 hi mm, I had a similar thing happen when my starter was in its second week.  trouble was hydration, it was too high, like pancake batter (it is now like a very thick pancake batter). if the starter is too thin, it won't be strong enough to support bubbling.  the bubbles dissipate faster than they can be generated. I started increasing flour ratio and now, almost 4 weeks later, i get get nice big bubbles. if I don't stir a couple times a day, it can quadruple.  your temps should be fine. I was able to start and maintain the starter with temps around 62F.  being cool, it did take a full week before it was ready for a loaf, then no problems. flour, water, and time (add lots of watching and sniffing)  is the method I used to create this monster!

mm-baker's picture
mm-baker

Thanks for your feedback, Phaz. I think that your instinct about hydration may be correct. The 1:1 ratio of flour to water seems more thick than pancake batter to me, but I guess that's hard to measure. This morning I increased the hydration a little more (55 grams of flour to 50 grams of water) in one of my starter batches and it has risen somewhat more than the other, probably close to doubling its overall volume.  

After getting the hydration right, it also sounds like you got increasing growth slowly over the course of 4 weeks. Is that correct? If so, I'll just keep up the feeding and wait. Are you feeding once or twice daily? I think my twice daily feeding starter has not yet peaked by the time I feed again. I have wondered whether it makes sense to maintain that schedule. Thanks again for your suggestions and congratulations on your success baking your first loaves! 

 

phaz's picture
phaz

 sorry for the delayed response, couldn't log in for some reason, but, my starter was very consistent after about 10 days.  with temps in the low 60sF,  doubling would take about 6 hrs.  it's warmer now, upper 60s to low 70s and its now closer to 4 hrs till it doubles in height.  starters will mature over time, but I believe that is more in flavor rather than rising ability.

at the low temps, once a day feeding was just fine, bit with the  warmer weather finally here, it's twice a day.  but I keep a small amount on the counter so it's just a matter of tossing in a splash of water and a few teaspoons of flour.  when I'm ready for a loaf,I work up the amount needed, with a little extra to keep the starter going. 

I also notice stirring here and there is a good thing.  my starter will rise, then fall, which signals it's feeding time, but with a good stir, the starter well flatten, then rise again doubling in size again.  sometimes it will double yet again, all with the 1 feeding. stirring mixes up the beasties and food, getting more food to the little buggers.  it is possible to feed too much, which would make for a weak starter over time.  the stirrng makes sure all the available food is used so you have a higher percentage of beasties for each feeding.  right now,I feed, stir here and there, and don't feed again till there is no rising.  that way I know I am feeding the beasties, not diluting them.

 most important -  don't give up!  there are so many variables in this process, but once things settle down it will all work out.  the starter will train you about feeding,  kind of like a baby, it'll tell you when it needs food.

 oh, almost forgot, if the starter is in a large container, you may not see the same rise as in a smaller container just due to the larger area. 

mm-baker's picture
mm-baker

Thanks, Phaz! This is useful advice. My starter rises so slowly that I think it has more capacity when I feed it twice per day. It sounds like I should just maintain a 1 per day feeding schedule based on your experience. I do hope that it speeds up (it seems like I have some slow-acting yeast!) because I think the time associated with the rise will impact how long it takes the dough to develop when I get to the point where I can attempt a loaf.  Thanks again!

phaz's picture
phaz

 slow starter will make for longer rising times.  and some would say that's not a bad thing, more fermentation time should = more sour. 

 if ya have the time, for laughs, try stirring, let it set for about 4 hrs, stir, set for 4 hrs, stir, so on, till there's no rise. feed about half your normal amount, keeping it thick, and see what happens after a couple days.  maybe split what you have now and test the method.  the idea is to try  and concentrate the little buggers for each feeding.  I'm 4 hrs into another loaf and have been doing this the last 5 days or so.  temps are  mid to upper 60sF and its rising well.  the last stretch and fold was showing some nice bubbling in the dough.  seems to be working good! keep us in the loop!

mm-baker's picture
mm-baker

I will definitely give this a shot! Just to clarify, you suggest feeding at 1:1:1 when the rising stops ... presumably this should be more often than every 24 hours since I'll have more yeast relative to food and stirring every 4 hours should speed up the process.  

Thanks again for all your suggestions! I'll keep you updated!

phaz's picture
phaz

 that's about right.  to tell the truth, I don't measure (shame shame, I know). I literally put a splash of water in, then enough flour to keep it thick, pasty would be a better word for it. I just add flour to get that pasty consistency though, regardless of the exact ratios. the main thing at this point is to try and build up the starter with more bugs. the storing and waiting should give you a good feel for how much, and how often you'll need to feed. I found that to be a huge help.

 temps are much warmer here now (I'm in Vermont), but with stirring, I am now only feeding every 24 hrs. my working jar, the one on the counter I use to work up enough starter for the amount of baking I'm going to do, is about 2.5 inches in diameter, and I only keep about 2 inches of starter in it. I'll feed enough to increase that to about 3 inches high, and that's enough to keep it going for 24 hrs, with stirring about a couple times during the day, morning when I get up (which is also feeding time), sometime early afternoon, and last at bed time. i guess that would be closer to 2:1:1 now that I think of it, but hey, I'll bet they weren't using gram scales a couple thousand years ago when someone wanted a loaf of bread!  let us know what happens!

Quigley's picture
Quigley

I had a similar experience with my first starter.  I didn't really know what to look for, and the growth of the starter was extremely slow.  How long ago did you start?  It took 19 days for my starter to double, and I used a method very similar to your once a day 1:2:2 method.  It had fast days, slow days, and everything in between.  I was very frustrated for a while especially after I started a pineapple juice one about a week later and it only took 8 days to start behaving in a methodical way.  I recommend you have faith and keep on truckin!

mm-baker's picture
mm-baker

Thanks, Quigley. I began the regular feeding 15 days ago, 3 days after I first began the process. It is very reassuring to hear that what I am experiencing is not straying too far from what you did on the path to a successful starter. I had the impression that once the yeast was productive (low enough pH), I would see a more dramatic change. Thanks for tempering my expectations!

After reading the forum and other online sources, it does seem like others have starters that mature much faster than mine has! I will suggest the pineapple juice method in the future, but I have been working with this one for long enough that I will follow your advice and keep the faith. 

grind's picture
grind
mm-baker's picture
mm-baker

Thanks, Grind! I'm going to give my starter a little more time, but it seems like using rye and relatively high temperature is a great alternative! 

mm-baker's picture
mm-baker

I wanted to post a quick summary of how the starter evolved for me since it's potentially useful for others reading the thread. I tried a lot of deviations of the tartine starter recipe in parallel so that I could maintain one that was consistent with the original instructions. Around day 20, my starter based strictly on the tartine recipe began to grow more and the rising seemed to accelerate with each passing day until it was at least doubling in 12 hours, though, for the record, it wasn't tripling or quadrupling. 

I had started a 100% rye starter during the process that I was feeding 1:1:1 twice daily. This starter seemed to mature within days. Working with the active all rye starter gave me some cues that helped me work with the tartine starter. I noticed that the rye starter maintained its structure and had large bubbles while the tartine starter (even with its new activity) went from thick paste to somewhat soupy between feedings and had smaller bubbles. I dialed back the hydration (95%)  and started adding a little rye flour working up to 40-50% rye flour with my ww (community grains) / bread flour (KA) mixture accounting for the rest. I thought consistency might have been due to proteolytic conditions, so I also added a sprink of salt every few days. These changes seemed to make the starter a little more robust. The starter was more active after the twice daily 1:2:2 feedings in preparation for baking, which suggests that after the starter matured it might have been a little underfed. 

I baked with the starter for the first time last night and this morning following the dutch-oven method outlined for the tartine country loaf. For my first experience, things went relatively smoothly except the scoring. It was generally hard for me and the high walls of the dutch oven make it especially difficult to score horizontally. The crust on my first loaf (top 2 images), baked with 3.5 hours of final rise at 75F, was not the strong/caramelized color you are supposed to see in the tartine loaf. I left it in the oven uncovered for 35 minutes  (10 minutes longer than suggested) to encourage color that didn't really develop. The second loaf (bottom 2 images), baked after a final rise of 9 hours in the refrigerator, had slightly better crust color. I baked it at slightly higher temperature (preheat to 525 F and bake at 465F compared to 505F/450F in loaf 1). I haven't validated the temperature of my oven yet, though I should. Is this lack of crust development is a temperature, proofing, or shaping issue? 

At any rate, I really appreciate all the feedback I've gotten from the forum! It's hard to envision that I would have kept feeding for 5 weeks without it!

P.S. Phaz, I tried the 2:1:1 & stir experiment, but the starter was completely inactive. I thought it would rise a little less and go through the flour more quickly, but it was just a soupy mess. I guess that means my starter was underfed already by the time I tried this test. 

 

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