The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Having no luck in getting my starters to rise/ferment/proof in actual bread-making.

Ted Wanderhill's picture
Ted Wanderhill

Having no luck in getting my starters to rise/ferment/proof in actual bread-making.


Being an overwhelmed neophyte, I am having enormous trouble getting my sourdough starters to make the transition to the big leagues: basically, to move from being a starter in a mason jar to being a leavening agent for loaves of bread. I have had success in “giving birth” to the starters, but can’t seem to get them to robustly participate in the final process of making bread . . . things seem to go OK until my little yeast/bacteria colonies are asked to rise in either the fermentation stage or in the proofing stage.


(Please excuse the length here, but I figured you’d all want the details of what I was doing, so you could be better detectives).


I am mostly using methods from Daniel Leader’s “Bread Alone”, combined with lots of stuff from various blogs, all for the goal of making versions of  No-Knead Sourdough Bread (I guess I’ll move to kneading, and other traditional methods, next?). One of my main guides for No-Knead has been the website “Breadtopia”

but I’m afraid all I’ve been ending up with is Brick-topias.


(For background . . . ) I have 3 starters going: one acquired from a favorite sourdough bakery, one of my own started with the dried-raisins method, and another of my own that used the pineapple-juice method. All 3 having been at least doubling after about two weeks of baby-steps and a final week of daily feedings (after discarding all but 50 grams) of 175g of 75-80 degree water (then vigorous aeration) and 135g of Giusto’s Old Mill unbleached white flour. (I’m quite confused on how to ascertain the “hydration level” of these starters, and not really sure how to utilize this percentage, as a decision-making tool, once I have it). These starters then have all performed admirably in a 75-78 degree homemade “proofing” closet (it being winter here in N. Calif).


I figured that since the starters have all been doubling after refreshments for at least a week, it was time to try to some loaves. All 3 attempts at bread have failed to rise in the final proofing stage, and two of the three had trouble rising (or, doubling in volume) in the initial fermentation stage. This resulted in three very yucky looking blobs of sticky dough being plopped into my dutch oven for the final No-Knead Baking Method Step, ending up with very flat, unrisen, bricks of Biscotti.

(To sum up some more . . . ) I’ve combined 50g of my starter (which is a “liquid starter”, ala Daniel Leader, and appeared much more pancake-batterey than the glop used on the Breadtopia site), with 1.5 cups of water (vigorously stirred), with 4 oz. whole wheat flour, with 12oz. Giusto Old Mill white, with 1 ¼ tsp. salt . . . stirred/combined, let sit for 20 hours (where it’s supposed to double), then the (very wet and sticky, almost too?) dough scraped out onto board, spread out and folded a few times (mine was essentially too wet to “fold”, resulting in quite the mess), rested 15 min, then placed in flour/toweled bowl with a towel cover for 1.5-2.5 hour “proof”, again in my 78 degree proofing closet. This is “supposed” to double again, then its onto the classic No-Knead bake method.


So, as said, barely any doubling/rising for me . . . and great angst and dread is setting in.

After much reading of all my sources, some of my questions are:

a)      Am I “overfermenting” at some point in the process, using up all the oomph way before the final requisite proof or ovenspring?

b)      Is my hydration level (??) leading to a lack of rise?

c)      Do I need to get crazy about having my bowls (etc) at 75-80 degrees before any flour/water/starter touches them (it being 60 degrees in my house)?

d)      Do I need to add some kind of “strengthening/feeding step” for the starters before I ask them to rise to the bread-leagues, something like making a Peter Reinhardt “Barm” as an intermediary step between the liquid levains and the bread-making?

e)      Could a culprit even be my well water, which is running thru a Brita filter?


Thank you all for your help, and please pardon the wordy-length----Ted

hutchndi's picture

You mixed your final dough and let it sit at room temperature for twenty hours, then did your stretch and folds?

 I think you went way past the entire proofing cycle and you were trying to turn spent dough, so far past its prime it resembled over proofed starter (the batter like consistancy) into something resembling still viable, but it was like trying to revive a dead horse. Unless of course I am not quite understanding your post. Did you fridge retard for twenty hours?


Ted Wanderhill's picture
Ted Wanderhill


Thanks for the reply. The 18-24 hour first ferment (after no kneading, just a short mixing of ingredients) is intrinsic to the "No Knead" method ala The Sullivan Street Bakery and Jim Lahey's book "My Bread." He then does a very short "proof" after this first marathon-ferment (I guess letting the long-fermenting dough do the kneading, per se, according to Lahey). This Lahey/No-Knead process emphasizes this oddly long ferment for the dry, store-bought yeast (as well as baking in a dutch oven, and having a very wet dough) . . . . and I am just trying to substitute wild yeast for the dry kind . . . and thus running into some uncharted waters.


LindyD's picture

Lahey's original recipe calls for a 12 to 18 hour bulk ferment.  Here's the link.

I agree that 20 hours is pushing the envelope and I also question Breadtopia's recipe because it states everthing in weight except the water and levain.  The Breadtopia recipe calls for 1/4 cup of sourdough and he notes he uses a firm starter.  No idea why it doesn't list that ingredient in weight because a quarter cup of chef can be anywhere between 26 and 75 grams, depending on how you pack the cup.

Since a hunk of dough can't tell time, I'd start checking the dough after 10 or 12 hours.  

hutchndi's picture

Well, I do a 14 hour levain build minus salt, then mix my final dough and if I don't do a fridge retard I would be baking around three hours after that, and my house is in the low 60s right now. So I don't slow things down right from the start with the salt like your method, but 22 1/2 hours at 78 degrees sounds excessive. I would  peek in that proofing closet once in a while....

clazar123's picture

That just doesn't seem like enough starter to me. Most of my recipes call for 1/2 c (about 150g) per loaf. My starter is about 100% (I stopped measuring a long time ago-thick pancake batter consistency)

If I did my math right, your starter is at 129%. Equal parts by weight water and flour is 100%(50gwater/50 g flour,for example).So, 175g water/135 g flour= 129%. You use this info to decide how to adjust a recipe because you can easily figure out how much flour and water is in a 100% starter.Recipes written in bakers percentages calculate liquids as a percentage of the flour weight. I use it when I have a recipe that is yeast based that I want to convert to sourdough based.

There is a video on this site,somewhere, that shows how to stretch and fold a wet dough.It may be helpful.You do it right in the bowl with a plastic bench scraper.Do a search.

If you try again and the dough is just not rising, you can always add instant yeast right to the dough,"knead" it in, let it rise and proceed from there.At least it will not be a total loss.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

You also might want to thicken up your starter a little.  Clazar123 will be the first to tell me my starters are thicker than the norm (keep doing it!)  I have happy starters that just love to exist!


proth5's picture

 First I'm going to get up on my soapbox.  It's been awhile since I've been up on it so forgive me.

One of the reasons that I feel that it is worthwhile for the beginning baker to learn baker's math is that it gives us all a common language when we want to discuss things.  Oh sure, it's math and it's no fun because we just want to get in there and bake bread.  Well, just as some people take flour, fat, salt, and water and get piecrust while others get cement, some people throw ingredients in a bowl and get bread while others get bricks.  For the folks who get bricks it is not helpful to say "Oh, let's just disperse with the fundamentals - bread baking is intuitive.  Don't burden beginners with all that boring stuff - the point is to have fun."  In doing this the brick makers will have no means to understand what went wrong and cannot improve.  Baking is fundamentally not an art (although some practitioners can elevate it to such) it is a craft can be learned with persistence and practice.  Baker's math is fundamental to the craft.  It tells us so much of what we need to know to succeed consistently when native aptitude fails us.  I baked for longer than many people who post here have been alive without it.  I was one of the lucky ones.  But when I finally learned baker's math decades of baking successes and failures came into focus in a single instant.  It is that significant.

Off the soapbox. 

So let's take the information you have provided and put it in a consistent set of measurements and calculate what is going on in baker's math terms.  Remember that Baker's Math expresses all other ingredients as a percentage of the flour in a formula - thus, if we have a formula with 100 gms of flour and 60 gms of water - the flour is 100% and the water is (60/100) 60%.  The total for the two ingredients is 160%.  In many fields of endeavor this is not an acceptable thing.  In baking it is.

There is going to be a little simple algebra involved here, but now the underappreciated math teacher who you told that you would never use algebra is chuckling "I told you so."

There are fundamental factors in understanding breads.  This is easiest in lean breads so you have chosen a good example.  For sourdough type breads these factors are:

  • Starter hydration (not always critical, but useful),
  • % of flour pre fermented,
  • Pre ferment hydration,
  • Pre ferment inoculation rate, and
  • Final dough hydration.

You tell us that you feed your starter by taking 50 gms of starter and stirring in 175 gms of water and 135 gms of flour.  If you have been doing that consistently you have a starter hydration of (175/135) 130% .  That is somewhat of a wet starter but not totally out of bounds for normal practice.  Each time you feed the starter you have put 50 gms of old starter with 310 gms of flour and water for an inoculation rate of (50/310) 16%.  Again, this is well within the range of normal.  You are keeping your starter in a warm place giving things time to grow.  You might want to read up on Debra Wink's excellent work (on these pages) about yeast vs bacteria at various temperatures, but so far nothing is alarming.

You tell us that you are using 113gms of whole wheat flour and 340 gms of white flour.  These two will be added together to form the basis for other calculations.  You have a total of about 453 gms of flour not counting your starter - or what we would commonly call a pre ferment.

You are adding 50 gms of starter.  You do not tell us what state this is in - freshly fed, fully mature, or ???  (It should be fully mature - no more - this is very important.) But this is your pre ferment.  In sourdough breads the pre ferment serves a couple of purposes, one of which is to introduce enough yeast into the dough so that it will be able to rise in the appropriate time.  When we use sourdough starter we introduce not only yeasts but bacteria that can cause their environment to become acidic enough to cause the gluten in the flour to degrade (thus giving a slack, gloppy dough).  So the question is - how much flour are you pre fermenting?

Your starter is at 130% hydration so its total weight can be expressed in the following sequence of equations:

50 gm = wt of flour + wt of water

Wt of water = 1.3 * wt of flour

50 gm = wt of flour  + (1.3 * wt of flour)

50 gm = 2.3 * wt of flour

50 gm /2.3 = wt of flour

22 gms = wt of flour

So if you take 22 and divide it by 475 (which is 453 + 22) it equals about 4.5%.  Now that is a very low number.  I typically preferment 15% of my flour and that is considered low by most people.  Somewhere around 33% is more normal.

So with a little math, we can understand why your bread won't rise - you simply aren't starting with enough yeast.  By the time the yeast takes hold, its other bacteria friends have made acids that have degraded the dough.

What you might want to do is take 20% of the flour (about 91 gms) and an equal amount of water and add 40 gms of starter to it (an inoculation rate of 22% - pretty typical).  (I pick 20% as a middle ground because of the long initial bulk ferment - you might want to try adjusting this, but 4% just feels too low.) Allow this to mature overnight to assure that you have fully mature and vibrant starter  - remove 40 gms of it (to keep the numbers easy to compute) and use this with about 363 gms (453 - 90) of flour and 249 gms water (and salt...) in the final mix (the additional water in the starter can be neglected in this calculation).  This equals the same hydration as your original bread, but it will contain a larger quantity of yeast.

Your exact numbers may vary, but at least you have a place to start.

Long winded, but I hope it helps.  I concur with the votes for "more starter" but now you understand the intuition behind those votes and how you might decide how much more is more.

To answer your final question - water can indeed be a source of problems.  You may want to try a recipe with commercial yeast - as written - as a baseline to see if your issues exist there.  If they do, try a baseline with commercial spring water.  But that is in addition to tuning your technique.

Ted Wanderhill's picture
Ted Wanderhill

Wow--that is very, very helpful. Thank you so much for the lengthy reply, and the Soapbox does not bother me in the least, as I certainly need some soap-bubbles to wipe away some of the wild, fuzzy fungus from my eyes,

I do indeed need to learn my baker's math, and your equations above prove the point, for they are revealing the culprits of my brick-misadventures.

May I ask you some clarifying (newbie) questions?

Is there a book you can recommend (that will be for the sourdough-baker) that teaches the math procedures oin a clear manner and, most importantly, their application/usage in problem-solving. In other words, the Why. (I have been reading Peter Reinhart's "The Baker's Apprentice" and he goes into the math, but he doesn't really clarify for me the Why's and How's of the problem-solving, as you do above). Also, is there a text that goes into "normal rates" (and again, the Why's), such as the 33% you cite above for the preferment and the inoculation rate of 22%.

And, In the following flurry of numbers,

"50 gm = wt of flour + wt of water

Wt of water = 1.3 * wt of flour

50 gm = wt of flour  + (1.3 * wt of flour)

50 gm = 2.3 * wt of flour

50 gm /2.3 = wt of flour

22 gms = wt of flour"

I am thinking that the 1.3 came from the 130% hydration, yes? . . .  but I am a bit more unclear on how you came up with a 2.3 . . . and what the asterisks mean . . . are they meaning "times"? (yes, I am rusty on my algebra).

And by stating that my starter "should be fully mature - no more - this is very important" I am assuming you mean at this peak of its rise/doubling after feeding, yes? This is a very important piece of new learning for me, as I have been fudging this timing quite a bit.

And, in this sequence, some questions:

"What you might want to do is take 20% of the flour, about 91 gms, and an equal amount of water and add 40 gms of starter to it, an inoculation rate of 22% - pretty typical.  I pick 20% as a middle ground because of the long initial bulk ferment - you might want to try adjusting this, but 4% just feels too low. Allow this to mature overnight to assure that you have fully mature and vibrant starter  - remove 40 gms of it (is this 40gms the amount of starter I will be using in the dough, or is this the amount I will be reserving for future baking/feeding?), to keep the numbers easy to compute, and use this with about 363 gms, 453 - 90 (where is this 90 from? . . . if it is a rounding down of the 91 above, then I am really confused!), of flour and 249 gms water, (again, how did you arrive at 249? Is 249 plus 91 the full amount of water I will be using?) and salt... in the final mix."

Whoo, boy . . . I must be sounding like a real dummy. My apologies. My last algebra was in highschool, 30 years ago. Since then I have been an oil-painter, a fisherman, and watching the leaves grow . . . time for some "re-learning"!

Again, thank you so much for all your assistance--Ted


proth5's picture

I recommend the book "Bread..." by Jeffrey Hamelman.

My "normal" rates come from talking to a lot of bakers and reading a lot of formulas - I see trends.  There is no definitive guide.  Although I do sit up and pay more attention to some bakers than others.

The 1.3 is from the hydration. The 2.3 is a result of adding flour wt plus 1.3 flour wt (algebra)

The "*" is indeed a times sign.

"Ripe" is as you describe.  You can fudge the timing, but not the state of the starter.  Over ripe starter is trouble.

The 91/90 confusion is my crummy typing and some rounding.  These numbers should be the same - use 90.

249 +91 is the full amount of water from your original formula (give or take the rounding)

40 grams of starter is mixed with the flour and water.  It is left to mature and then 40 is removed - either to perpetuate the starter or to be discarded.  The larger quantity is what goes into the bread.   I personally don't do it this way, but the math becomes more complex. 

Hope this helps.

clazar123's picture

I have just recently decided I have to learn baker's percentages and I have always done better with real world examples. Thank you for that explanation! I am not a great one for accurate measuring when I bake/cook but things usually turn out fine. That is a system that works for 1 or 2 loaves at a time but I am wanting to develop a larger bake ability and that is where the baker's percentage really shines.

pmccool's picture

it is possible to have a mother culture that sours too much, too soon.  I just had to give my starter a tune-up recently because it was generating too much gluten-attacking acid and enzymes, while producing too little gas.  I gave it some rye therapy over the course of a few days and bumped the hydration up approximately 100% (I ordinarily keep it at about 50% hydration).  It's now bubbling happily and nicely tangy, rather than sludgy and mouth-puckeringly acidic.  And it makes great bread, too!

So, if yours isn't producing the way you want it to, I suggest several days of feeding with rye flour 2-3 times daily, leaving it out at room temperature instead of keeping it in the refrigerator. It worked wonders for my starter.


Ted Wanderhill's picture
Ted Wanderhill


I am quite intrigued by your ideas . . . (maybe my starter is "out of whack"?).

Do you recommend feedings of just Rye flour, or a blend of the unbleached-white (I've been using) and the rye?

Also, I am right now in the "Liquid Starter" camp (ala Danial Leader's "Local Breads"), and I thought that Liquid -- mine is above 100% hydration -- produces mour sour . . . do I have things backwards? I was going to create a firmer starter, inspired by Reinhart's "Barms", but now I am confused?


pmccool's picture

on a starter's acidity (more accurately, on the population ratios of the bacteria and yeasts, along with their outputs), Ted.  I was aiming to improve the leavening power of my starter and reduce its tendency to dissolve gluten.  The regime I used to try to improve matters was to feed 100% rye for the first two days, then switch to predominantly bread flour with a small quantity of rye; perhaps in a 90/10 ratio.  My primary motivation for keeping a stiff starter is that it tends to idle better when stored in the refrigerator for 1-2 weeks between bakings.  More-liquid starters tend to go through their food more quickly, even in cold storage.

There's some very good science out there that supports the thesis you mention.  All I can tell you is what I did and how it turned out.  My experience doesn't invalidate your reading; it just happened to work well for me.  The more I learn about sourdough, the less I know for certain.  These little communities that we nurture are remarkably variable in their own right and highly adaptable to the variations in food, moisture and temperatures that we throw at them.

Probably the best thing for you to do (yeah, I know, homework sucks) is run some side by side comparisons of starters at varying levels of hydration and then settle on the one that gives you the results you like best.  You're talking about a minimal amount of flour consumption and you can always use the discards in bread or pancakes or...

If you are really motivated, you can start introducing variations in flours or temperatures.  Have fun!


Crider's picture

Your proofing times are way to excessive for that temperature. This Winter I've been making bread with the straight dough method (no preferments) using a small amount of starter. My average bake is two loaves such as this:

40 grams starter
840 grams flour
520 grams water (62% hydration, say)
12 grams salt

I have huge bulk ferment times, but that's because I do it at room temperature which is a maximim of 68° F in the Winter. We also live on Northern California and we turn out heater off at night. On cold nights, the house temperature can go as low as 45°.

Watch your dough instead of somebody else's formula time. Bulk ferment until the dough just doubles, then note how long it took and proceed with the rest of your bake. The time you record will be more of what you need instead of what anybody else does in their particular environment with their particular starter.