The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Starting a Starter - The Transition

Ho Dough's picture
Ho Dough

Starting a Starter - The Transition

More out of curiosity than anything else, I've been playing around with a number of starters. OJ/rye. Water/rye.

There seems to be a common theme running in these efforts, and if it has happened to me so often, I figure others might have the same problem (or events). It shows up as a secondary stall period.

Basically, they get going on the rye, they will rise and double (1:1:1) starter:water:rye flour or get active and bubbly but not rise (OJ/Rye - first by adding 2T OJ: 2T rye to the base start). By the time you get the whole mix up to about 3/4 cup it is day 3 or 4 and the start comes alive and starts to bubble. For both methods (juice/rye - water/rye) the suggestion is to now convert them to 100% hydration starters, or 1:1:1 or 1:2:2 by weight and convert them from rye to AP whilte flour.

At this transition point, two out of three experiments have come to a halt. Nominal bubbles and no rise. After 24 hours, you might find a few bubbles on top, but nothing like they were doing before. All activity slows to a crawl.

I would attribute this to two possible factors: first, a different food source. AP flour vs. rye. Second, depending on the ratio of starter (say 1:1:1 vs 1:2:2) you go from an acidic environment to a basic one. The spent/expired/fallen starter is acid. Diluting it with water and flour changes the whole mix to more of a neutral pH. Perhaps this is a shock to the system?

I've not seen this advocated by anyone, but is there merit to make this a gradual transition? Say a 2:1:1 (starter:water:flour) and make the flour component a blend of rye and AP, increasing over time? Say increasing 25% per day over a 4 day period?

Or perhaps I'm the only lost soul who has experienced this problem? I might also add that almost all of this testing has taken place in a temp range of 62*-64*F. The assumption here was it would work, only that it would work more slowly.


Tinapoy's picture

It will work but slow. Same as you I conclude that Its a culture shock that your starters are still young to be given too much that their activity is affected.

Debra Wink's picture
Debra Wink

Ho Dough, I'm glad you bring this up. There does seem to be something odd going on in the past year or so, but not just in the new starters. A lot of folks are reporting problems when changing flours or changing hydration in their starters. I myself, had some difficulties transitioning from a vigorous, healthy 100% hydration starter to 60% in the middle of last year. It stopped rising, and that had never happened to me before. I couldn't coddle it at the time, so rather than wait it out, I restored it back to 100% and then put it away in the fridge. I tried again a few months later, this time experiencing stringy, sticky problems. And others were reporting similar issues. You may have missed FP's thread, here:

Click here: Problems transitioning from rye/whole wheat to white flour 

There have been several others as well. There are three symptoms that I'm seeing described:

  • stops rising
  • gets stringy and sticky
  • odor

Not every case has had all three. I myself didn't experience the sulfurous odor, and even though mine was sticky, it did keep rising the second time around. I want to make it perfectly clear that these were not neglected or underfed starters, or new starters that simply hadn't taken off yet. The problems aren't confined to a certain type of flour or particular part of the world. The only thing they all seem to have in common is a recent change in the feeding---flour and/or hydration.

What's causing this? I don't know for sure. SteveB and I have been theorizing, and I have even consulted Michael Gänzle for his take on it. I'm still waiting to hear back from my cereal chemist-contact. There are species of sourdough lactobacilli that can produce these kinds of effects, but why this year? Why under these conditions? What is different now?

What I can tell you that I know from almost ten years, and lots of feedback in addtion to my own observations, is that starter problems shift and/or change from year to year. Leuconostoc problems are much more pronounced some years than others. Patterns change slightly, or not so slightly, but there seem to be trends. So, it's not so hard to imagine why this would be the case when you take into account that weather patterns influence not just how the grain grows, but its composition and microbial profile as well. Weather patterns have been atypical here in the midwest, as well as other places, for at least the last growing season or two.

When you make a significant change in food source or hydration, it upsets the equilibrium, creating a bit of instability. Maybe that provides a gateway which allows an undesireable organism, that may be more prevalent in grain this year, to influence the transition. The good news is that if you stick it out and keep your starter on a healthy feeding regimen, your starter will likely work through this and a new, healthy balance will be restored. Just be forewarned that it may take longer than you're used to.


P.S.  You aren't going from an acidic environment to a basic one, or even a neutral one when you feed it. If you double your starter you will only raise the pH by 0.5, and if you triple it, the change will probably be less than 0.7 (Remember that pH 4 represents ten times more Hydrogen ions than pH 5, and 3 is 10x more than 4, and so on.) You'd have to do a much bigger dilution than 1:1:1 to get back to neutral.

Ho Dough's picture
Ho Dough

Thanks for the information and the link. That sounds exactly like the response I'm getting for growth, but the odor is more like "medicine" than sulfur. And instead of sticky, the ones with more positive growth turn into a flowing bubbly froth. Its as if the gluten has broken down by an enzyme or bacteria. It has mucho small bubbles, but doesn't expand much. Taste is very sour and tart.

For a new and interesting development, I'd also report that over the weekend, I dumped the surplus starter at feeding into a couple plastic cups. Some had burbed a little......some had stayed flat. Anyway, I've been saving this starter to mix with some cheap flour to make a quick bread for the birds, which I didn't have time to mess with over the weekend.

So today, I collect discard and notice the surface has dried out and formed a cap. It had also risen a bit. When I removed the cap, I found the cocktail of spent starters had morphed into a teeming sponge of impressive growth. Remember these had sat uncovered on the kitchen counter for at least 2 days.  It too has a sour and tart taste and to prep the mess for making biscuits, I stirred in some Baking Soda and it doubled in front of my eyes as the acid in the mix reacted with the soda to give off CO2.


Given these symptoms, I'm guessing I have bacteria, but don't know about the yeasts.


PS to Debra: Not sure what part of Missouri you are in, but I'm in Columbia.


Debra Wink's picture
Debra Wink

Ho Dough, from your bubbly description in the first post, I was under the impression you already had yeast lift-off.

"It had also risen a bit. When I removed the cap, I found the cocktail of spent starters had morphed into a teeming sponge of impressive growth."

That is what initial yeast growth looks like. The yeast don't activate until the starter gets really sour, which it did faster in the spent jar, no doubt. Go ahead and take a small amount from the bottom and feed it :-)


P.S.   Go Tigers!

Ho Dough's picture
Ho Dough


At the wise advice of Debra and others, I stuck with it and kept feeding. Also, the lame, nonfunctional scientist in me made two changes at the same time, and for whatever reason, they all woke up. The one change that I think made the difference was to change the brand of spring water.

My original milk/flour starter that I converted to water all of a sudden took off and quadrupled in an 8 hour period! The others came out of their slumber and as of today, are growing double to four times in a 7 hour period:

And 7 hours later........

The three starters on the left are various OJ/Rye starts. The one in the middle being the most recent start, and as of today, the most aggressive. Prior to this shot it had risen over the top of the cup and had already fallen. The rest are picking up steam. The winner of this bunch will earn the coveted title of "Turbo.....the wonder starter". It's a wonder it ever started.


Seeing as how I had a frisky set of livestock to work with from the original starter (now dubbed "MOJO", I decided it was time to test them on some bread. This is the sponge after 12 hours:

And the outcome........

And the ever popular crumb shot.........not as light as I had hoped and no sour to it at all. Next time I may let it ferment a while longer just prior to baking.


And that, as they say, is that. They are off and running.


VA Susan's picture
VA Susan

Wow, an amazing baby starter and great looking bread!