The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

What am I doing wrong?

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ichadwick's picture
ichadwick

What am I doing wrong?

I began a levain last week (Nov 19) and it seemed to go well at first, but then it just seemed to have stopped... or slowed to a crawl.

I started with: 

  • 250 g organic Red Fife flour
  • 250 g unbleached white flour
  • 5 g organic malted barley flour
  • 500 g warm water

It seemed to get started fine - small bubbles, a small amount of brownish liquid on top now and then (alcohol, I believe), smelled okay. But it didn't get really active, although it never showed any signs it was ill (no discoloring).

On Nov 22 I fed it with 250g unbleached flour/250g water after removing that amount of starter from the bowl. It seems to be active still - and the smell is okay. Just not really active.

I added some to a dough mixture yesterday to try and begin a bread, but it just made it mushy. It didn't really take or rise. I put the dough in the fridge after a few hours. Not sure what to do with it - toss it out? Or should I take it out of the fridge and give it another chance?

 My house is cool - could that be a problem? Is it just slow or has it failed?

Our water here is good - low chlorine and low mineralization. I boiled it first to let it shed any chlorine (and then let it cool) to just over 100F.

I didn't stir it until I fed it. Should I stir more often?

Any suggestions or comments?

ichadwick's picture
ichadwick

Thanks! That looks great, It seems my best bet is to toss the results so far and start over... but first a trip to the grocery store for come juice...

Ford's picture
Ford

You have a start.  Just add a little acid to avoid the stink phase.  You have a head start on the option of starting over.  If,  however, you want to start over, why not keep them both going?  

Ford

yy's picture
yy

Don't give up on it yet! Your starter is still very young and needs longer to establish itself. I fed my starter for two weeks before baking with it for the first time. At this stage when it's not yet rising and falling in shorter, predictable intervals, keep it out at room temperature 24/7. it may take a while to get going vigorously since your house is colder, but just keep feeding it. Don't refrigerate it until it rises and falls like clockwork.

Has your starter been able to double within eight hours yet? If not, it probably isn't ready to be used yet. I think Peter Reinhart recommends that during the first few days of making your starter (when it isn't rising too much yet) you should give it a stir occasionally so that the microbes in the air that are only in contact with the surface get stirred into the rest of the starter.

it's also unnecessary to use that much flour for each feeding. You can scale it down to a much smaller quantity of 20 g of each of the ingredients. You'll still be able to maintain the same microbial activity. Just plan ahead so you can build enough levain for your next bake.

clazar123's picture
clazar123

But first you have to grow a village! Don't throw it out-you have a good start but so far you only have a picnic ground and a few picnickers. And it is a big picnic ground. I vote for a smaller amount until you get a small village established and then start building it bigger. Otherwise it is a waste of resources or you will be eating a lot of pancakes (discard) if you want to be totally green and recycle your  delicious"waste".

Have fun! Keep going!

I usually stir a few times a day at first-just redistributes the food. Hootch formation means it's hungry-feed again or more often.

dabrownman's picture
dabrownman

After the first what looks like activity stage it will likely go dormant and you will think it is dead.  This is normal too.  It takes a while for the good Lab and yeast to get established and overpower the bad ones.  In two weeks, you will have a young but stabilizing culture.   It won't bake great bread then but in a month it will.

Patience comes to those who wait:-) Hang in there - just keep feeding it after tossing half and you will have a SD starter in no time.

l'Anglais's picture
l'Anglais

Don't boil your water! Either use warm tap water 30degreesC or use cold water and just wait longer. I don't know exactly why, but i had the same problem. My boiler was not working properly so I used to heat the water in a pan, the levain did not like it at all. Also, I get best results with using an organic, unbleached T55 or T65 flour (im in europe). Dont use malted flour. It will ferment too quickly. Bon Courage!

 

chris319's picture
chris319

No need to boil the water. 100 F was too hot but it will recover with the subsequent addition of flour. Just pick up a bottle of unchlorinated water; room temperature is fine.

I'm no fan of pineapple juice. It is a solution for a non-problem and unnecessary IMO.

In my experience, expanding volume, surface bubbles and all are interesting but your nose is the ultimate judge of a starter's readiness. If you don't get that unmistakable yeast aroma, it's not ready. That's why your first loaf failed: no yeast (or not enough). You're several days away from full yeast development the way you describe it.

To answer your question, if you're doing anything wrong it's not being patient.

Yogibaker's picture
Yogibaker

Hi 

It seems to me that you aren't feeding regularly enough.  Feed and discard daily, and you need use only up to 100 g flour each time. No need for pineapple juice, just wait it out, keep feeding and discarding each day, and you'll find that after a few days you have a good levain.  It took around 10 days for mine to develop properly.  Keep it in your kitchen and don't refrigerate.  Just keep going - it also looks as if you probably need a larger container.  I keep mine in a preserving jar, with the lid just over (not clamped) so that nothing falls in or contaminates it.  Once you've got going, you'll be glad you continued.

Good luck!

ichadwick's picture
ichadwick

Thanks everyone. I'm keeping it, feeding more often and hoping for the best. Smell - seems a bit like paint thinner at present, but not rancid.Tasted it - a bit like tart paint thinner... not yummy at all...

But I think I'll try an experiment in a separate batch with pineapple juice, too... just in case. And continue to bake non-levain bread while I wait.

How thick or runny should it be? Mine's been pretty thin...

yy's picture
yy

Mini's right. don't feed it too often. You need to let the culture build up enough acidity so that it keeps the bad bugs at bay. Try not to do the next feeding until your starter has gone through a cycle of rising and falling. As for how thick or thin it should be, that depends. Thinner starters around 100% hydration are easier to maintain and will give you loaves that have a mellower tang. Keeping a firm starter, say at 50% hydration, will help yield loaves with a more sour, vinegary note. your feeding ratios look fine and from your photo, the starter appears to have a good consistency.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

" a bit like paint thinner..."

or don't feed at all for several days.  You want the temp to be above 75°F on the starter.  Trying to feed something that is trying to sort itself out only delays the steps it has to go through.  At this point, dilution is not a solution.  If you start smelling yeast wait another day before discarding/feeding.  Then when really yeasty, run a 1:10:10 test and time it.  15g starter : 150g water : 150g flour   mark level (and hours) in a tall straight glass.  (Do not discard your older starter, keep it going at the same time in case the test fails or takes longer than 18 hours. Then you will want to come back to it, letting it ferment longer.)  How long does the test take to peak?   

Once this 1 to 10 test is peaked, and under 12 hours at 75°F, be prepared to save 30g and bake a first loaf with it (expect the loaf to also take time.) Try a 1,2,3 sourdough (detail in the archives) or your favourite.   If the test takes longer, wait until the test is falling back before taking about 30 g and feeding a 1:1:1 or 1:2:2 ratio watching improvement daily.    Always let the starter culture peak before feeding/diluting.  Watch out for terms like "doubling" which are relative to the type and amount of food available.  If your culture is then peaking under 12 hrs, increase the flour amount to a 1:2:2 or 1:4:4.   

ichadwick's picture
ichadwick

Thanks - but can you please give me a link to the article ? I have searched and read a few, but there are many posts and threads about sourdough. Much appreciated.

 

chris319's picture
chris319

Not to contradict Mini, but when it smells really yeasty, bake a loaf with it and enjoy the bread.

Or you could put it on a dynamometer (just kidding).

You will then need to replenish the starter you just used. Add flour and water to the unused starter, mix thoroughly and let it sit for 24 hours. No black magic needed.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

You must have been typing while I was still editing.  I agree, don't waste a yeasty starter!  Up to that yeasty point the starter discards should hit the compost.  

I also think a shot of pineapple juice on a paint thinner smelling starter IS a good idea, according to the archives, this treatment seems to be the solution that helps most, also not feeding it to let it sort itself out.  So...  one more solution could be to just give it a shot of pineapple juice, no flour and stir.  A runny starter at this point would also help fermentation and circulation of little beasties.

chris319's picture
chris319

Phaz, who hasn't posted here in a while, used to tell me all it took was flour, water and time. At first I thought he was full of it, but now I've done enough starters to see that he was right. Bakers of generations past were able to get their mother sponges going without pineapple juice or microscopes. Even if it smells like paint thinner today, this will pass and it will turn yeasty given a few more days, thus I see the funny odors as a non-problem which doesn't need fixing and part of the process.

My starters usually smell like cheap wine rather than paint thinner.

ichadwick's picture
ichadwick

Argh. Well, I took the earlier advice and fed it today. So it's apparently working, but painty-smelling still. I'll leave it for a day or two, then try a feed with pineapple juice and flour if it hasn't sorted itself out. Sound about right?

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Since you fed it already,  yes, let it stand a few days (by the way what is the temperature?)  (If you still have the discard, set it also back into the corner for a few days and race these two against each other.) 

Don't discard (just watch for the next few days) and when you feed it, give it enough flour to thicken into a paste or soft dough, then leave it another day or until it has expanded and deflated and smelling yeasty.  The take a sample to feed or test.

 

FaithHope's picture
FaithHope

http://ruhlman.com/2009/07/simple-sourdough-starter/

I was having the same problem. First I'd say, you can't eyeball it when you're feeding it, this was my mistake. Now I measure, kinda like Tartine says to, 1-1-1. Let's say, 20g starter, 20g flour mix, then 20 grams water. Ever since then, I've had no problems. I thought this article was crazy, but I wasn't having any success, so I tried it. In 24 hours it was bubbling?!!!!!!  Crazy!!!!!  I just went out side picked a leaf of Kale that made it though the winter, rub, rub, rubbed it in warmish water, added my flour...it was pure magic!!!!  Must try if you're gonna start over. Mines been going strong for a year now come Jan. Best of success to you!  Don't give up!!  Tartine bread is worth it!!! ;)

chris319's picture
chris319

Sorry to contradict the previous poster, but you don't need kale, grape skins, cabbage leaves, potato water, pineapple juice, yogurt, or any of this other stuff to get a sourdough starter going. If you're doing a San Francisco sourdough it's actually counterproductive. Water and flour are all you need. No black magic necessary.

The flour should list "malted barley flour" as one of its ingredients. If the flour doesn't contain malted barley flour, say, whole wheat flour, you can add some in the form of diastatic malt.

Capn Dub's picture
Capn Dub

. . . is all you need.  The bubbling you saw was not anything to get excited about, since it was caused by the "undesirables" that start to grow first and fastest.  They make a nasty, paint thinner, cheesy-smelling mess that many people mistake for the first signs of success.  They aren't.

Just keep feeding.  Eventually Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis will catch hold and start to generate acetic and lactic acids.  This causes the pH to drop, of course, which the nasties don't like, and they begin to die out.  The acid environment is healthy for Candida milleri, the yeast that makes your bread rise, and it will begin to multiply.  You will once again see bubbles.  All this usually takes one to three weeks, so just be patient and keep feeding.

The boiled water is a good idea for removing the chlorine, but be sure it is completely cooled before you use it.  I never use warm water, because I'm afraid I'll mess up and cook my beasties.  Cold water is good enough, and will warm to room temperature soon enough.

The long and the short of it is that the only thing you have done wrong is to threaten to throw out what you have already made.  Just keep doing what you are doing.

Flour, water, and time.

Capn Dub's picture
Capn Dub

One thing you might consider to save resources: You don't need large quantities to get a starter going.  A couple of tablespoons of flour and a tablespoon of water will do.  Add two more tablespoons of flour and another tablespoon of water the second day.  Now you have about a quarter of a cup of flour/water mixture.  The third day add a quarter cup of flour and two tablespoons water. You will now have a little over half a cup of the mixture.  (The fractions don't add up because the flour had a lot of air in it.)

The fourth day discard half and add another quarter cup flour with two tablespoons water.  Repeat this each day until the mixture begins to bubble.  When this happens start feeding twice a day in the same fashion.  When you are satisfied that the starter is active you can begin to build it by doubling the volume, without discarding, at each feeding until you have enough to bake a batch of bread.

Over the course of time you will probably find that your starter gets stronger and more active.  This is because the stronger strains of yeast will prevail.  Evolution in a jar.

ichadwick's picture
ichadwick

Well, that levain was a bust. Went bad. So did the second one. Tossed both out.

Third time, I used the method in Peter Reinhart's book - pineapple juice base right away - small amount to start, fed frequently, and stirred. That worked.

I now have a stable levain in the fridge and one on the sideboard that I've used for both sourdough bread and for a mixed levain/commercial yeast bread. Both were excellent in taste - although a little slow to rise (cool house here in winter). Still some work to do (and some experiments) on the rising.