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weak starter?

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christinepi's picture
christinepi

weak starter?

I've tried ca 7 different sourdough recipes that all produced bricks. No oven spring whatsoever. My starter appeared to be healthy, and though I followed the recipes carefully, the results were awful. Then I tried ABin5, and things started getting better, and then Peter Reinhart's Lean Bread recipe (both yeast based, no starter); and I finally understood what people are talking about then they say "oven spring". 

I have this feeling the problem lies with my starter. Is it possible that the lack of oven spring can be mostly reduced to the starter, if I did all the other things properly as required by the sourdough recipes? This may be to vague a description to be easily answered, I realize that. I'm at the point of giving up the whole sourdough thing, but wanted to try to home in on where the problem may lie.

linder's picture
linder

Hi,

I had a similar problem until I began taking a small amount of my starter out (like 40gr or so) and building a starter for the bread I was about to bake and using ithat newly 'refreshed' starter to build the levain instead of going directly from my 'cache' of starter that I keep in the fridge between bakings. 

I mix up about 40gr of my stock starter with 100gr water and 100gr flour(of whatever type I need, if rye, then rye flour, whole wheat then whole wheat flour).  I leave that out at room temp (70F or so) for 6 hours and then refrigerate overnight.  I build the levain for the dough the next day and then follow the recipe as given. 

This has worked well for me so far. 

Linda

christinepi's picture
christinepi

that's worked well for you that you could post for me to try, if it's not too much trouble?

linder's picture
linder

I've had great success with dmsnyder's San Francisco Sourdough formulas.  I use his 4th try/experiment  formula and also his San Francisco style sourdough with increased whole wheat.  Both formulas can be found on the freshloaf web site. 

 

http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/33362/san-franciscostyle-sourdough-bread-increased-whole-wheat-flour

 

When he states a firm starter, I believe the hydration is somewhere around 65-70%  more doughlike than pancake batter.

FYI, I made the levain with whole wheat flour rather than bread/white flour and it worked fine, tho' I did add a few grams more of water to compensate for the 'thirstyness' of the whole grains.  Also, I added a bit more bread flour to the final dough (about 40 grams) because I like my bread with more crumb and less holes(for making sandwiches)

Enjoy!

Linda

rainey's picture
rainey

I'm new here and I came to trouble shoot the problems I'm having with my sourdough but I can tell you what's worked for me so far.  

I've started using Ed Wood's basic method that starts with fermenting the starter/flour/water for 12 hrs at room temp to get what he calls the "working starter".  The next step is to add a portion of the flour/water and proof again for 8 hrs at from temp to create the "active starter".  The remaining flour, water and salt are added and the proofing/shaping/baking is done.  

As I said, I haven't mastered this entirely.  I'm still trying to get an adequate shape but this has helped me get my first bread risen exclusively from starter.  

I will watch this thread with interest to see what others more experienced in sourdough have to say but it seems to me if you can see the starter raising itself adequate time may be part of the solution.

Good luck with your next loaf!

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

the starter.  How old is it? How long have you been feeding it and what does it smell like?  Also when do you decide to feed it and how do you go about it?  

One starter takes anywhere from three days to three weeks to grow depending on "ideal" conditions (temp, flour, liquid) and to me sounds like the sour dough culture was too weak,   Understanding how yeast grows and ferments flour is key to the process.   "Bricks" translates to either not enough yeast developed in the sourdough culture, too little moisture in the dough (dry) or the dough is over proofing.  I suspect the starters were too young and not enough yeast was present.

Another point others are trying to make is that wild yeast take much longer to ferment and build enough gas to raise the dough than the concentrated instant or quick yeast.  

christinepi's picture
christinepi

I keep it in the fridge, and feed it every 6 days with 50/50whole wheat/white wheat 1:1.5:2. I let it sit out for 6 hours, until it's almost doubled, and then stick it back in the fridge. When I want to bake, I take it out 2 days prior and feed it 1:2:2 every 12 hours. It smells great and is bubbly. I tried different recipes with varying hydration (from 65% to 75%), and it's always the same brick. No oven spring. I'm sure I over proofed some of the doughs, but the last 2 or so I cut the recommended times according to some advice I got on this forum, but still... 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

that the starter as it is getting ready for a recipe?  Makes a big difference if the starter is being underfed during elaboration (or the feeding of the sacrificial yeast.)  :)

If over 23°C (74°F)  try 12 hr feedings of 1:4:4  (start with just a teaspoonful of starter so that you're not making too much. 

Try this after first trying the below mentioned simple recipe.  One change at a time. :) 

I'm wondering if your recipes tried are whole wheat ones.  Eventually you could try pre-soaking the Whole wheat flour to soften it so it isn't cutting at your gluten structure.  Curious to see how the simple white wheat loaf comes out.  

christinepi's picture
christinepi

Which was a mistake, in hindsight, but live and learn. But even the white wheat one wasn't great. 

The temperature is generally 71 or 72. It seems you're saying that depending on temp, you'd use different ratios? More food for higher temps because the beasties metabolize faster? What would be appropriate for 71? More like 1:2:2? Come to think of it, I at one point did try 1:3:3, with bad results.

 

 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

how quickly temperature affects starter growth.  Keep with your ratio or up it and find a warmer spot, either way.  You can control a lot of variables to speed up fermentation or slow it down.   The starter will demand more food or less depending on the temperature.  

If you are proofing loaves at 72°F, then you will need to give the loaves more time to rise, hours more.   If your starter ratios to recipe flour are about the same as your starter feeds, you can pretty much predict how long the rises will take.  You might even want to incorporate some of the recipe flour and water into the fermenting starter to increase the amount of pre-fermenting flour.  That would require a good hard look at the recipe and a little manipulation.

The heavier flours do make heavier breads or even "bricks."   Sourdough also tends to make a hardier loaf but achieving a nice crumb can be done.    

christinepi's picture
christinepi

So many variables! One question i've had for a while is this: say I want to start my recipe at 10am tomorrow. Can I get my starter to its peak tonight after I've fed it several hours prior, stick it in the fridge, and then take it out tomorrow and use it cold at 10am? Or should I heat the water that the recipe requires to, say, 90F? 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

We tend to call chilling, retarding.  In this case retarding the starter.  Refrigeration slows the yeast down using temperature.  It will stay active, just at a slower rate.   You can chill it just before it peaks and let it finish in the fridge or in the morning taking it out early to warm up.   Using warm water in your dough will help it rise faster too but I tend to prefer a slower cooler rise for flavour.  The dough will start off warm and cool down to the room temp. eventually.   Keep notes so you can compare and remember later what you did and what works for you.  

A short warm up in the micro just to take off the chill (be careful) can also be done on the starter.  Or better yet, bring a cup of water to boil, push it to the back of the microwave and set the starter inside the warm chamber with the oven off.

T.O.B.y's picture
T.O.B.y

Sounds like we are on the same journey. I've had some oven spring but not as much as I've seen on sites like Tartine bread experiment or with dmsnyder on this site. I'm pretty new to this but if you are getting a doubling with your starter I would think it is healthy enough. There are a lot of wise people on this site who might be able to help if you detail your process (i.e. recipe amounts, temperatures, timings, and procedure). My current theory for myself is that I am over proofing so I was going to radically reduce my bulk fermentation and proofing stages this weekend to see what happens.

ElPanadero's picture
ElPanadero

Ok so it sounds like your starter is fine and lively.  Mini was right to check that first imo.

Next questions would be what recipe you're using and how long you are leaving the loaves to ferment/prove before and after shaping, also how hot is your oven, and finally what are you using (if anything) to form/hold your loaf in e.g. banneton?  tin?

Here's a very simple no nonsense recipe to try for a very basic sourdough which shouldn't go wrong !

White flour 500g

Sourdough Starter 150g

Water 300g

Salt 8g

Just mix all this up, knead using your preferred method then leave for 1 hour in a warm place to prove a little.

After the hour,  shape the dough into your preferred form, say a boule or loaf and put in a banneton or tin.  Put this in a warm place and allow to prove for 3-5 hours until the dough has doubled in size (time depends on ambient temp and strength of your starter).  Set oven to 240C, whack in a pizza stone if you have one and put a roasting tray in the bottom of the oven and leave to come to temperature.  When ready, gently turn your boule out of the banneton onto the hot pizza stone (if using one), slash it however you like and transfer to the oven.  Just before you close the oven door throw a cup of water into the roasting tin to generate steam/vapour and quickly shut the door.  Turn the temp down to 200C and bake for about 35mins.

This is a no frills pretty basic recipe and should give you a nice loaf all being well.   No fancy bulk fermenting overnight in the fridge with this, all done in a day.  This simplicity may help eliminate other factors causing your problems.

Let us know how you go.  GL.

 

 

christinepi's picture
christinepi

I always use a Römertopf for baking, so I just proof the dough on parchment paper. 

I've set my oven to whatever temp the recipes asks for, so it varied between 450 and 500.

I've used different recipes, and I don't really remember all the different steps and proof times given... but they all came out badly, that much I do remember!

What kind of white flour do you use? That alone can cause problems, at least with me, since KA AP has more protein than regular AP, and bread flour can have a different protein content again, all seemingly needing slightly different amounts of water. What amount of protein does the flour that you use have? 

What's the hydration with your starter? How often do you feed it before you use it? What temp do you let it feed at? I've read that 75-78 is good for the beasties, which maybe where some of my problems lie, because I've let the starter sit at more like 72. It doubled, granted, but maybe there just wasn't enough "heat" and "action" in it? There are so many variables in sourdough baking, which is so fun, on the one hand, but so frustrating, when one is a beginner ending up with a lot of unpleasant bread...

Tommy gram's picture
Tommy gram

One must have warmth for the yeast to develop quickly. We always want the bread to rise fast but only with experience will you know the look of when starter and dough are ready.

I leave my dough out overnight in this cold weather and by morning 8 -10 hours after I mixed it, it goes in. Even at 63 degrees this is over proofed by 2-3 hours. I should wake up earlier. Get yourself an accurate quick read thermometer and try and maintain 75-80 degrees you'll see action then.

I keep starter and dough in glass bowls and if I need to spur action I fire up the microwave and goose it with a minute's worth.

christinepi's picture
christinepi

 to use warm water, say 90 degrees, when mixing the dough? And then sticking it in a proofing box set at 78 degrees? And, say, using 1:4:4 starter?

This is all so utterly confusing. Starter hydration, temperature of the dough, S&F, proof time, gluten development, kneading or not... I wish there were a recipe that gives exact hydration of starter, dough, water temp, room temp, protein level of flour used, etc etc., just to get a feel for what things should look and feel like. And I'd still blow it initially, probably. 

I'm clearly a novice.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

and had to sort these things out in our heads.  That's why patience tends to overflow around here...   and we are always stumbling into new ideas in the way "things" work.   Many ways to do stuff.  Everyone adds their own personal touch.

Yes you can use 90°F warm water to speed up fermentation and the same with the starter stuffing it's little yeast with mouthfuls of flour.  In the heat of summer toss in ice cubes to slow it down.  Snow in dough really slows things down! (another thread)

There are recipes that give exact directions, most of them are metric and use a scale (makes the math easier.)  The beginning is always a little confusing, we get that, not to worry,  just ask or dive into the site archives with a question.  Check out a few good bread baking books from your local library.  Some of the titles mentioned on TFL. 

FlourChild's picture
FlourChild

FWIW it sounds like your starter is fine and the trouble may lie elsewhere.

I developed a recipe for sourdough for the B&T Folding Proofer.  It has plenty of detail WRT time, temp, weights or volumes, etc.  You may not have or want a Proofer right now, but I think the recipe could be helpful in that it doesn't leave much to chance.  

I also have a nice sourdough pizza recipe on this site which has adequate detail on time/temp, etc.  Use it for pizza, or to switch to a loaf, use a stronger flour like KAF AP and add 1-2 more stretch/folds during the bulk ferment.  

With either of these I'm happy to help troubleshoot, and a photo is incredibly helpful for diagnosing troubles.

Here are the links:

pizza on TFL: http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/34626/pizza-levain-and-highextraction-flours 

sourdough at B&T: http://brodandtaylor.com/country-sourdough/ 

christinepi's picture
christinepi

Thanks for this; it's what I was looking for. And I'll post pictures next time I bake.

richkaimd's picture
richkaimd

while there are lots of bread books, I always recommend a text book written to take the beginner from zero on up.  Bread cook books, and there are many superb ones regularly mentioned here, aren't texts.  Think about it:  pros take courses that use text books.  You can, too.  You can learn so much in a concentrated way rather than the somewhat willy-nilly hither and yon path I took when I started out over 40 years ago.  If this way sounds attractive, and you are willing to consider looking at texts as options, try these two very different ones:  DiMuzio's Bread Baking and Hamelman's Bread.  You may find either or both in your local library and purchase them used in perfectly usable condition from Alibris or Powells Books.

I think it's a good idea to watch all the videos linked from this website just to get a sense of what's out there.

And the old saw about how one gets to Carnegie Hall applies here.  Practice, practice, practice.

TFL's readers are generally a happy bunch, pleased to see your successes and praise you for them; and glad to offer help with your failures, but in a good humor.  We've all been there.

 

ElPanadero's picture
ElPanadero

I hadn't seen a Römertopf before so I Googled it.  Looks like a big old terracotta cooking pot, in the UK in the 70s lot's of homes used to cook chickens in something similar they called a "brick" !!  My immediate concern seeing the picture of a Römertopf was, how much dough is your recipe and isn't the Römertopf way too big for it?

In other words at first glance I was worried that your portion of dough for the loaf might be too small for it and thus the dough will spread out into a rather flat shape, which would never subsequently rise into nice oven sprung high loaf.  Without actually seeing it and knowing your dough quantity though I can't tell.  With cane bannetons you know they are designed specifically to hold specific quantities of dough.  This could be your problem.

I assure you that there is nothing magical or difficult about a sourdough (imo), it's no different to me to baking any other loaf, it just uses a different yeast and requires a much longer proving time for that yeast to develop allowing for stronger flavour.  Try that simple recipe, doesn't matter what flour you use so long as it is bread flour but be sure to use a suitable sized container to prove the dough in once shaped.  When I put my dough in its banneton the dough is already just below the top of it, as it proves it domes up and above the top rim.  So it always has good strong support up the sides.   If you could confirm the weight of dough you are using and the dimensions of your Römertopf we can work out if that's a problem.  ATB

ElPanadero's picture
ElPanadero

Just found the actual Römertopf website.  Loooks like they do tons of products including purpose built bread Römertopfs.  Is this what you are using, the ones referred to as "Pane" which are either a round 1kg pot or an oblong 500g pot?

christinepi's picture
christinepi

No, it's the one people use for chicken, fish, etc; it slopes toward the top and bottom. It's deceiving--it looks big from the outside, but the inside isn't really that voluminous. I use recipes that amount to ca 700-800g loaves; even though the whole inside space doesn't get filled up, the oven spring with yeast based breads has been fabulous, no sideways oozing at all. The yeast based breads I've made have come out quite nicely, nice crumb and crust, but the flavor isn't the same and I'm still fantasizing about HOLES...

 

ElPanadero's picture
ElPanadero

Ok so . . . . .  are you baking your bread directly in that Römertopf as well as proving in it?   If you're getting success with regular yeasted breads then I;m more inclined to think this is a hydration issue.   What consistency is your starter?  Stiff like dough or liquid and pourable? 

christinepi's picture
christinepi

No, I proof it on parchment paper and then lower the whole thing into the preheated Römertopf. My starter is at 100% hydration, so it's like thick batter.

ElPanadero's picture
ElPanadero

Ok, I presume by this you mean your are proving in the top half/lid of the Romertopf lined with parchment and then puttingthat into a pre-heated lower part.  No problem with this, however, in terms of finding the source of your problem this is an obstacle.  Do you own a pizza stone or baking stone?  If so I think you should try using one of those instead of the Romerkopf for the baking.  Essentially I think you should find out what happens when you turn your proved loaf out onto a hot stone.   If your dough is good you should get a decent shape that holds itself up but if your dough is too wet and sloppy it will just "flollop" into a flat mass.  If the latter happens then it's probably time to reduce the hydration level which is probably too high as a result of the wet starter so reduce water or add flour to the recipe etc.  Defo worth trying a stone (or just a baking tray) to see what happens when you turn out the dough.  Hope that makes sense.  GL

christinepi's picture
christinepi

while the dough sits on the counter on parchment paper, proofing. Then I get the RT out of the oven, take the lid off, lower the dough incl the parchment paper, down into the bottom part, close the lid, and in it goes.

I've tried one recipe on my pizza stone, can't remember which, and it was a brick, too, although, of course, any or all of all the other variables could have gone so wrong that a pizza stone wouldn't have saved it. 

I really appreciate all the helpful suggestions by everybody! I still don't know what exactly I'm doing wrong, but I have a better idea of what to try next.

ElPanadero's picture
ElPanadero

Ok I must be being dim here.  You're not proving the loaf in the Romerkopf, you're proving it on parchment paper on the counter?!.  I'm not sure what that means.  Is it not in any kind of container with supported sides?  Time for some straight questions:

1. Are you at any point shaping the dough into a formed loaf ? 

2. What shape do you form?

3. What vessel (if any) are you putting the formed loaf into while it proves?

4. How long is the formed loaf left to prove before baking?

Sorry if these seem silly questions but I'm struggling to understand the steps you are going through. 

Cheers

 

christinepi's picture
christinepi

1. Yes, before I put it on parchment.

2. A boule.

3. None.

4. It depends on what the recipe asks for. Usually an hour.

Does this help?

 

ElPanadero's picture
ElPanadero

Yes this helps.   It doesn't sound "right" at all.  However in the world of bread making the lines between right and wrong are wide and grey so I can only give my view based on my understanding. 

Firstly, whenever I am making a sourdough, the process generally runs like this:

Mix dough => Knead => leave to rest/prove for 1 hour => form/shape => put in proving vessel (banneton) => leave to ferment/prove for 3-6 hrs => slash and bake

So, from what you ave said above after shaping there is only about 1 hrs proving which can't be right.   Shaping basically "knocks the dough back" so it needs time to re-rise and gather lots of lovely CO2 bubbles.  I would never shape any dough and then not put it into some kind of proving container, whether that be boules, baguettes, focaccias and so on.  This could be your problem.  Your process looks the wrong way round. 

This is what I would do in your situation.

1.  Mix the dough, knead it using whatever method you choose

2.  Leave to rest in a bowl for 1 hr

3.  Shape the dough into a boule and put this good side down in the lid of your Romerkopf (lined with parchment if you like)

4.  Leave this to prove for 3-6 hrs at least until the dough is risen above the top of the Romerkopf

5.  Pre-heat the oven and a pizza stone or baking tray if you don't have one

6.  Turn your formed loaf out from the Romerkopf lid gently so good side is now up

7.  Slash/score carefully and bake for 30-40mins

You'll get a great risen boule imo.   Give it a go.  GL !

christinepi's picture
christinepi

This may not matter, but I maybe should mention that the doughs I've made so far by and large ferment for 2-4 days in the fridge (as in ABin5 and Peter Reinhart's book) before I take them out, shape them, and let them sit for one hour. In other recipes, it was one night in the fridge and some hours on the counter. The thing is that I always followed the recipes and nothing's worked; I learned for this site that it's the feel for the dough and understanding what's going on with it that will be the road to success, not blindly following a recipe, but w/o that experience it's trial and error right now.

ElPanadero's picture
ElPanadero

I'm talking slight nonsense thinking back.  In a commercial Artisan bakery many of the doughs are proved overnight, some refrigerated, then brought out to warm up to room temperature early on, with a couple of stretch and folds along the way, then is later scaled and formed into loaves, put in bannetons and left for 1-2 hours to prove up.  Time depends on many factors and type of breads being made.  Either way though, in the bakeries I have worked in, there is almost nothing that is shaped and formed and then left to prove on it's own without any kind of container.  Fougasse is perhaps the only one.  All loaves are proved in tins or bannetons, baguettes and batards proved using couches, focaccias in large trays etc.   I see a need to eliminate things from your process in order to identify where the problem is.  Eliminate and simplify.   For now, ditch the Romerkopf imo and just prove a shaped loaf in a banneton or other container (or the lid of the Romerkopf).  If you're doing a boule and you don't have a banneton, put acotton tea towel inside a large enough bowl, flour it well and upturn your shaped boule in that.  Let it prove for the allotted time, then turn it out onto a pre-heated stone or baking tray and bake it that way.  If this works then we know your dough and starters are all fine (which I suspect) and the process has been the problem.  If it doesn't work, then it's something in the mix. :-)

christinepi's picture
christinepi

why I started just letting it sit outside a container is because I had nothing but bad luck with proofing sourdough based breads IN containers. The moment I gently "dumped" those doughs into a cast iron pot they lost all air, one after another. They were most likely over proofed. But the way I did it the last few times with yeast based recipes having fermented in the fridge for days, just sitting out without a shaping device they turned out great as far as oven spring and keeping the shape goes. Maybe proofing without a panneton works for yeast doughs and not for sourdough based doughs. 

MostlySD's picture
MostlySD

I don't have a baking stone. I have a couple of Romertopf-s that I use for my bread baking. I proof directly in the clay baker, previously lightly oiled with olive oil and coated with semolina. The proofing is done inside an oven with the light on. The clay baker remains covered during proofing. Sometimes if the dough is on the dry side, a moist towel is stretched on the clay baker before putting the cover.

Baking starts from cold, that is the covered clay baker goes into a cold oven & temperature is set at 425 F for 30 minutes after which the cover is removed and the temperature is lowered to 375 F for another 25 minutes or so. Sometimes, depending on the sort of bread being baked, an empty tray is put on the lowest rung of the oven to insulate the bottom of the clay baker from the heat coming from the bottom element. Till now, I have not had any problem with the baking part of my bread baking. Failures have been due to other stuff not being done properly.

dosco's picture
dosco

Don't give up!

I think MiniOven's advice about 1:4:4 (starter:water:flour) is good, I use something like a 1:2:3 to build a fairly stiff starter. I put the fed starter in my utility closet (where the furnace is located) ... this time of year the temperature in that room varies between 80F and 100F.

When I plan to bake I'll take my starter out the fridge, discard about 2/3s to 3/4s of it, and then feed the remainder (note: I feed it enough flour and water to make sure the final weight of the starter is equal to (or greater) than that called for in the recipe). I put the fed starter in the warm room. After I put the fed starter aside to rise, I often mix the final dough flour and water and let it autolyse until the starter has doubled in volume. If the starter is stiff, there is no questioning if/when it has doubled!

I've recently been baking Peter Reinhart's "Basic Sourdough Bread" recipe, so after the starter has doubled in the warm room I put it in the refrigerator overnight (this is to develop flavor in the preferment). The next morning (sometimes the night before, right before bed) I'll mix the water and flour for the final dough and let it autolyse. When I'm ready I'll mix the starter with the autolysed flour/water, and then add the salt.

One thing to bear in mind is to add the starter to the final dough when it has peaked so that the amount/activity of the yeast is maximized.

In my most recent bake I let the final dough cold ferment in the fridge for 36 hours.

Final note: to address the possibility of proteolytic enzymes in the starter, I've been adding vital wheat gluten when feeding. I'm not sure exactly if this has helped or hurt, however it seems like a good idea considering the possibility of proteolysis.

Keep us posted.

Regards-

Dave

 

 

dosco's picture
dosco

Make sure you're kneading adequately. If you don't develop the gluten properly, the bread won't rise or expand ("oven spring") correctly.

Part of this is the initial kneading, part of this is pre-shaping, and the rest of it is final shaping. The King Arthur Flour videos are an excellent resource for this.

Cheers-
Dave

christinepi's picture
christinepi

--whether some of my problems lie there. Out of seven recipes, 6 were no knead recipes. One included kneading, which I seemed to be doing correctly because I did the window pane test as suggested after 3-4 minutes, and my dough looked like in the videos that showed the test (and the baked result was blah). But I'll check out the KA videos!