The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

How do I strengthen my starter?

Janknitz's picture

How do I strengthen my starter?

11 days ago I started two starters according to the directions here on TFL with rye flour and pineapple juice.  The only difference between them is that I added the smallest pinch of commercial yeast to one starter, because if the "natural" starter failed I still wanted to have something to "play with" in the end. 

I have fed both starters equally.  I did three days of rye flour and pineapple juice, and then switched to unbleached AP flour and bottled spring water.  I still have them on the countertop, feeding them twice daily with AP flour and water.  Around the 5th or 6th day I dosed the natural starter with a small amount of vinegar to try to invigorate it. 

From the beginning, the yeasted starter has been very vigorous.  It has lots  of large bubbles, definitely makes hooch, and has a very sour smell.  I have no doubt that it can leaven at this point, though I understand that I'm probably propogating the commercial strain of yeast with it, not the "wild yeast" that we aim for. 

The "natural starter" has been far more sluggish.  It has only a few, small bubbles.  It does make a small amount of less alcoholic smelling liquid, and it is clearly increasing in volume.  It has a lovely sour smell.  I know it's alive, but it is not very strong.  It doesn't double and I don't think it could leaven anything yet. 

 I tasted a small amount of both starters, and the natural starter had a pleasant, clean sour taste.  The yeasted starter was more sour, less pleasant.  So I don't want to give up on the natural starter yet--I think it will make delicious bread someday . . . perhaps. 

Is there anything I can do to invigorate the natural starter?  Should I give it some more rye feedings to try to increase the wild yeasts that came from the rye flour?  Is there anything else I can do to make this a viable leavening for sourdough? 

noyeast's picture

Hi Janknitz, the best thing you can do is to give your natural starter time.  It takes anywhere up to three weeks and better still 4-5 weeks to get a natural wild yeast starter up to speed. (not speaking of a commercially available wild yeast starter). Meanwhile read up on starters here on "The Freash Loaf" and how to keep them well fed and very active.  Yes there will be one or two things you could do like using Rye flour, but others will have more knowledge and experience than I on this subject.

Yes, by adding regular commercial yeast to your second starter, even in a tiny amount, I believe you have simply made a non sourdough starter, but then you have said this yourself.  There are millions of cells even in a few granules of dried yeast, far more than what's naturally present as both yeast and bacteria in the flour and the air, so the natural "wild" yeast will not have a chance of taking over at the start.  They may however gradually increase as you feed this starter, but the sheer numbers of already present commercial yeast will dominate.IMO.

You should be able to leaven your bread dough within a couple of weeks with your natural starter but waiting another few weeks will produce truly great SD starter.

DerekL's picture

Keep feeding (doubling) and discarding (halving) your starter.  It takes time to build up to full strength.

LindyD's picture

I'm curious why vinegar would be added to a natural culture.  Wouldn't that just make a sour dough instead of a natural sourdough starter?

Janknitz's picture

adding a small amount of vinegar on day 4 or 5 was suggested somewhere on this site if the starter did not appear to be doing much.  I think the theory was to lower the ph of the starter even more to kill off bad bacteria and support the wild yeasts.  It should have no impact on flavor, as by the time I am ready to bake with this starter after all the discards and feeds, that small amount will be akin to a thimbleful in an ocean. 


flournwater's picture

A drop or two of vinegar can help adjust the PH in your starter, but too much acid will kill the yeast.  The yeast (natural or otherwise) is going to consume all of the sugars it can get its teeth into.  After digesting it, out comes alcohol.  When it runs out of food it just drowns in the alcohol (figuratively speaking) so don't overdo the vinegar and feed it regularly.  Also, don't forget to get some oxygen stirred into the mix when you do your feeding.  My wild yeast (natural yeast) starter is over a month old; getting better every day.

Janknitz's picture

Our house is kind of cool most of the time and especially at night.  I've been putting the starters "to bed" for the night in the (turned off) microwave with a cup of barely boiled water to wam the space.  Last night I got the water to a rolling boil so the microwave was quite warm when I put the starters in.  This morning my natural starter was full of much bigger and more numerous bubbles.  So maybe the temperature was a factor, though not with the yeasted starter. 

So how long do I need to keep up the twice daily feedings on the countertop to make sure that the natural starter will work?  It's getting a bit tedious with two (though now that I know the natural starter will be viable, I may discard the yeasted starter).  My kids joke that I spend more time with my starters than I do with them--the kids are able to feed and dress themselves, but the starters aren't.  LOL!

If the natural starter really becomes active in the next several days, can I start to refigerate it and feed it less often?  Or should I leave it on the counter with twice daily feedings until it's really ready to leaven?

SourdoLady's picture

Keeping the starter warm (85 degrees F is ideal) is key to getting a quick vigorous start on a new starter. It sounds like you are over the hump now, so it should start to get a lot more active. I would keep feeding it for another week before refrigerating it, to get it good and strong. Once it gets really active you can increase the amount of flour so it is a bit thicker in consistency and it will hold its vigor longer. It isn't a bad idea to include a spoonful of rye flour with each feeding for awhile longer, too.

Janknitz's picture

I knew in the back of my mind that the cool kitchen was an issue, but I didn't realize how much of one. 

It may be temperate weather here in Northern California, but we don't heat our houses very warm. 

noyeast's picture

when its bubbling nicely it should be fine for your first batch of sourdough bread.   I found that my starter got better and better after 3-5 weeks, and the less starter I use (and with cold retardation), the better the flavour.


When to place it in the fridge ? once it is showing signs of healthy activity and you have made successful SD bread.  


Feeding can be as little as once a week when stored in the fridge.  Just remember to take it out and resume benchtop life again a day or two before you want to make more SD.   Once out of the fridge and warmed gently to room temp, re-commence your regular feeding regime of twice a day or whatever it is.  This will bring your starter back up to full viability, ready for use.


Ifrit's picture

I read in the new Tartine book that one way to see if your leaven is ready to bake with is to drop a spoonful into room temp water. If it floats it's ready.  My starter has been going for about a month now and is rising predictably after feeding, looks and smells great. But it didn't pass the float test!  Is anyone familiar with this? My starter is nice and bubbly and I'm tempted to just go ahead and bake with it...

shalako's picture

My starter has been rising and falling for a month, but whenever I make levain it doesn't pass the float test.

I've tried baking the Tartine recipe four times now and the bread fails to rise during bulk fermentation, proofing, and in the oven.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Well that is interesting.  Up until all this talk of the Tartine book, I had never heard of a float test.  But it sounds interesting, sort of makes sense in a chicken and dumplings sort of way.  I guess the idea is to have a dough trapped with CO2 gas bubbles that would not sink in water.  Obviously a freshly mixed and shaped levain would sink like a rock and as it rose, so would the dough in the water.  But only if the dough was glutinous and had a low enough hydration not to blend with the water or high enough to not crack would it work.  And it would have to have fermented a while. 

I prefer other ways of testing my dough, one would be just feeling the trapped gas by holding it or noting the size differences without getting my dough slimy.  If it sunk, it would have to sit there in water puddle until it could pass the test like a beginning swimmer on the side of the pool.  Poor starter.  Maybe it sinks because the flour content is too high?

So... getting on with beefing up the yeasties....  Shalako, why don't you tell all about your starter, feeding, temps and all details and lets see if we can get you a working levain that works for you. 

Sometimes (depending on the temperature) when a new 100% hydration starter is made into a firm one (lets call it a levain) it is good to skip the first 12 hour feeding as the yeast adjust to the abundance of new found food.   The pH is raised considerably with such a feeding and the lactose beasties have their hands full raising the pH to ideal levels for yeast production.   It simply takes them longer to eat thru such a feast but at the same time they are increasing their numbers.  Then, when they've gone thru the food, most are discarded and those left are fed again.  They have more rising power because their concentrated numbers are increasing faster which results in more gas release.  More gas to raise a loaf. 

Note: it make take a few days to create a strong levain from an apparently healthy 100% hydration starter. 

This is one reason why some of us (like myself) keep a firm (50% - 60%) starter and then when preparing to bake, take a small sample to seed a 100% hydration starter.  A firm starter is easy enough to use in making a lavain and it appears to have more yeast strength when maintained well.

shalako's picture

Mini Oven - thanks for your continued help!

Although I've tried all sorts of things, my current routine is this:

Pour out all but 25g of starter

Add 50g of a 50/50 blend of Guisto's Unbleached Organic White Bread flour and Guisto's Organic Whole Wheat Bread flour

Add 50g of water from the tap at 80 deg F

The starter seems to remain at 70-74 deg F, according to a meat thermometer I use to check, and despite my best efforts to find somewhere warmer in the house to keep it (it's currently in the linen closet). 

I feed the starter in the morning and by night it has risen about 20%. By the next morning is has doubled and looks like it has fallen back on itself. 

Also, since either reducing the volume of starter I'm maintaining, or since moving it into cupboards and closets, it now consistently has more of a crusty skin on it after 24 hours. This morning it's more of a crust than ever.

One frustration I have is that, since I work pretty much all my waking hours, I'm not around to see how high the starter rises and when it reaches it's peak. I need a time-lapse video setup to watch it for me!

I'm curious about tap vs filtered water. I have an in-sink filtration system and will try feeding with that for a while. Only thing is that it's cold, so I'll have to warm it up. 

Update: this morning is the first time in weeks that the starter is not doubled after 24 hours, but I can't tell if it may have doubled and has since fallen.

Update: I made two changes this morning. My instinct was that if it has such a crust it might be starving (would love to know if this is correct) so I adjusted my feeding to 25g starter, 75g flour blend, 75g water. I also used filtered water, warmed to 80 deg F.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Make sure your starter has 75°F temperature.   Keep it at that temperature during the beefing up process. 

Preheat water only in the microwave if needed just to take the chill off.  Do not heat over 80°F.

Your first goal is to only feed enough flour to the starter so that it can peak activity in 12 hrs.  

So choose a feed ratio that will correspond.  If you feed your starter equal weights of starter, water & flour (1:1:1) and it takes more than 12 hours to rise and peak, try using less flour (1:0.5:0.5) after it peaks for the next feeding.

Each time you feed, wait until the starter has peaked (or a little after) before feeding it again or risk diluting the starter.  Feed again using the same starter to flour ratio, thickening the starter (using less water) can help you clearly watch the rises to peak, just remember to keep the starter soft, closer to toothpaste like consistency.  

Repeating the same feeding pattern, repetition and most importantly waiting for the starter to peak, is very very important.  With each feeding, the starter will begin to rise sooner and peak sooner.  Let the starter guide you.   When the starter is peaking around 8 hours for a 12 hrs feed, increase the flour to starter amount and adjust the water.  You still want to have the starter peaking before or around 12 hrs. So wait for the peak before feeding again.  Adjust and  Stay on this new feeding schedule until the starter has again peaked around 8 hrs for a 12 hrs feeding.  Increase the flour food accordingly.  You can keep this up, even switch to 8 hr feedings (as long as the starter is peaking)  and when you are happy with the rises, chill the starter.  

Soon the constant warmth and food will get the yeast multiplying at incredible rates.  It doesn't take a lot of flour to beef up a starter if you start with small amounts of starter, in winter, try using 20g starter and feed, as the yeasts get stronger, reduce to 10g to feed so that you are not having much discard.  The discards can be used in other recipes or collected, chilled, and used with some fresh dough for bread.  Don't loose track of your goal of using the starter to raise loaves.

If you plan on chilling the starter and satisfied with the improvements, Chill the starter about 1/3 into the rise after feeding.  There should be enough food in the starter to supply the yeast for several weeks.  Wait about 3 - 4 days before using the chilled starter to build more starters.