The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Baking catastrophe! Can you diagnose?

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DrPr's picture

Baking catastrophe! Can you diagnose?

This is a rosemary olive oil sourdough.  I've made it before with no problems, but not this time, despite doing the same thing I've always done to make it. Here are the symptoms:

1) The most inconsequential oven spring ever. 

2) loaf barely browned in the oven after 40 minutes of baking & reaching 205F internally

3) Scoring produced only a slightly spread-open, flattened area with slightly lighter coloring

4) kinda feels like a brick in your hand.


Question #1: Could all this be attributed to a weak starter?

Question #2: What should I do with this? I'm sure there are breads that are supposed to be similar to this- maybe bread sticks? Tasty croutons?



JoeV's picture

Sounds like the yeast beasties left town. Too bad. Do you rely solely on starter or do you add yeast plus the starter? If the latter, I would say the yeast very well could have been old with few live spores left. Was your starter strong? If you have made this before I'm probably just wasting words here. Sometimes things happen. I would just pitch the brick in the trash and move on. Not sure it's good for anything.

I prepared to make a pizza for dinner tonight, and my Artisan 5 Minute Master Dough in the fridge just gave up the ghost (less than two weeks old). It was watery on the bottom and no structure left in the dough. I just pitched it and pulled one of my packs of dough from the freezer.

Jw's picture

DrPr, do you have more info?


DrPr's picture

I think my starter may indeed be inactive.  I am hoping I can revive it but am not sure how.  There were about four cups of starter originally. I added one cup of flour and one cup of water a couple of hours ago and now see bubbles, but no rising. Should I add more flour and water since there is activity? Should I wait? 

Marni's picture

I'm not an expert, there are some here, but that starter sounds like it needs more food. Did you add one cup of flour to the whole four cups of starter or did you disgard some starter first?  Also, what flour did you add?  AP, whole wheat?  Some whole grain rye would help it along.  You'll probably need to feed it twice a day to get it going.

Hope this helps.



pmccool's picture


If you fed 1 cup each of flour and water to 4 cups of your existing starter, it probably wasn't nearly enough food to generate much activity.  And, that is seriously soupy starter, so it isn't going to do much more than bubble because you have approximately twice as much water as flour, on a weight basis.

Try this approach: take about 1/4 cup of your starter, throw the rest away.  Add a couple tablespoons of water to it and give it a good stir so that the water and starter are thoroughly blended.  Then stir in flour, a couple of tablespoons at a time, until you have a fairly firm dough.  Place the firm starter that you just created in a container that can be covered to prevent moisture loss and press it down so that its top surface is level across the width of the container.  It will be to your advantage to use a container small enough that it only holds 3 or 4 times the volume of your starter, is clear or translucent so that you can see the starter inside, and has straight sides so that you can see how much the starter grows.  Using a piece of tape or other marker, mark the level that is even with the top of the starter.  Then put another piece of tape or other marker at the level the starter has to reach to be doubled in volume.  Then sit back and let it do its thing.  Depending on room temperature, starter activity, and other unpredictable factors, it may take anywhere from a couple of hours to 12 hours to double.  Then repeat the discard/feed/grow cycle until your starter is back to its usual bouncy self.

Why this recommendation?  First, a firm starter will more easily double in volume than will a liquid starter.  It actually holds onto its bubbles, just like bread dough, instead of letting them escape, as can happen with a batter or liquid consistency starter.  Second, discard all but a small portion of your starter before feeding.  It's a lot more economical to save and work with small amounts of starter, since you only have to feed a smaller yeast/bacteria population. If discarding small amounts still seems prodigal to you, save the discards for making waffles, pancakes, etc.  Third, give the yeast and bacteria plenty of food to work with.  They're growing after all, and you want to encourage them to do so.  Feeding recommendations are all over the map, but the minimum that I've seen suggested is an amount of new flour that is equal in weight to the amount of starter being fed. 

If you don't already have one, please consider buying an inexpensive digital kitchen scale so that you can weigh your starter and its feedings, not to mention your bread ingredients.  My current approach is to feed 10 grams of firm starter with 10 grams of water and 20 grams of flour, if I'm going to be keeping it in storage in the refrigerator.  This makes a stiff (50% hydration) ball of dough not much larger than a walnut.  It will easily go 2 weeks in the fridge between feedings.  When I want to bake, I take it out and do 2 or 3 successively larger feedings that both refresh it and grow it to the amount that is required by the recipe.  Then I save 10 grams, give it another 10 grams of water and 20 of flour, and put it back in the refrigerator until the next time.  If I were doing daily baking, I'd keep it on the counter and feed twice a day.  If I need a liquid levain, I adjust the weights of water and flour in the feedings so that I wind up with a liquid, rather than a firm, levain.  Either way, I aim to feed the starter with twice as much flour (or more) as it originally contained so that it doesn't run through its food supply before I'm ready to use it.

Hope this helps.


DrPr's picture

Thanks for the information, everyone.

I am using bread flour, but I do have whole wheat and also dark rye.  My starter is not especially soupy but it isn't firm. I'll try the recommendaton to firm it up.

I have a digital scale.


Thanks again!!

DrPr's picture

Thanks for the bread pudding idea.  Amazingly enough, my room mates loved the bread. I couldn't touch it because I was too disappointed in it!

DrPr's picture


This is the first bread I've baked since taking your collective advice on reviving my starter. I discarded all but 1/4C of the starter and fed it first with enough rye flour and water to create a firm dough. It raised tremendously! I continued to feed it small amounts, alternating between rye and wheat bread flour, keeping the consistency somewhere between firm and "pasty," until I had a little more than the 12 oz I needed for yesterday's baking. This formula makes 2 boules, so this is the first (I also used my new oval banneton I ordered from

During both fermentation and proofing the dough easily doubled- something I hadn't witnessed with the previous starter.  What a difference a healthy starter makes!  Thank you so much, everyone, for your contributions.

For my next act, I will work on my raggedy scoring!

Paddyscake's picture

That's a lovely loaf! There's no stopping you now! What type of bread is it? How was the taste and crumb? Keep those pictures coming!


DrPr's picture

Thank you, Betty! This is a country white bread from the book "Nancy Silverton's Breads from La Brea Bakery." The formula makes two boules.  I baked the second loaf about an hour ago and it also came out much better than my  efforts from previous weeks.  I used a serrated knife instead of a lame to score it, which also improved things (I have no lame skills). 

I haven't sliced into it yet so I cannot assess the crumb- I'll find out tomorrow when my family and I eat it during our Memorial Day dinner.

bobm1's picture

drpr, that is one fine looking boules. bravo!

dmsnyder's picture

I think your scoring looks fine, and it will get even better with practice. I also appreciate your "bold" baking. The dark crust should have a marvelous flavor. I hope you and your family enjoyed it.


DrPr's picture

Thank you!

I do like the darker crusts- especially when making herbed or cheese breads, as the flavors are more concentrated there.  I think the darker color looks attractive, too- it really brings out the patterns from the baskets.  These loaves got darker earlier than breads using my previous starter did, so the first loaf was a little darker than I usually bake them.  I baked the second loaf for a shorter amount of time.