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Collapsing starter - not feeding enough? Double in bulk before or after deflation?

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lacuna's picture

Collapsing starter - not feeding enough? Double in bulk before or after deflation?

Hello gentlefolk,

I have a question about the look-and-feel of a well-maintained sourdough starter. To summarise, at the end of a feed cycle, my starter collapses back to original volume when deflated.  I am wondering if I'm doing something wrong.  Details follow.

I am a newbie to sourdough, baking and lurking here for the past month, learning heaps and heaps.  I hope this is the right way to post the question.  Please feel free to correct any gaffes I might make.

About 3 weeks ago I got my 1847 Oregon Sourdough starter in the mail, and revived it as per instructions on their website.  My yeasties revived quickly and beautifully, and proceeded to grow voraciously.  Especially during the spell of hot weather we had in Boston a week ago.

I keep a colony living in a mason jar on top of the fridge (henceforth to be called the Beasties), and another batch in a plastic container in the fridge (henceforth called the Fridge-batch).  The Beasties colony gets fed regularly and any excess starter goes into the Fridge-batch.  I use the Fridge-batch warmed to room temperature in my bread.  The reason I am doing this is because I want to observe, and practise keeping my Beasties healthy at room temp.  Once I get to know my Beasties well, I intend to move to a fridge-storage-and-refresh routine.

I made 2 loaves since: a 100% whole wheat (well except for my white flour starter) and a bohemian rye.  My husband said the whole wheat was one of the best breads he's ever eaten (yes, I took it with a pinch of wifely salt, but he did wolf the loaf down in 2 days).  The rye was very pleasant although a bit flat, probably because I added too much salt.  So I know my starter is working and to my liking.

Since then, I've been feeding the Beasties every 12 hours.  I do 1/4 c starter, 1/8 c water, 1/4 c unbleached AP flour.  (I am waiting for my scales to arrive, so volume will have to do till then.)  I believe this approximates the 1:1:1 ratio. In the warmth of my kitchen, the Beasties seem to double in volume within about 4-5 hours!  At the end of the 12 hours, the Beasties have collapsed (naturally).  So I think I need to feed them more and have moved to 1:2:2 today.

In the jar I use, I've been easily getting double, sometimes even 3 or 4 expansion as measured by how high the starter has grown in the jar.  HOWEVER!  When i gently deflate the bubbling mass with a chopstick, it invariably collapses, and in the situation I've described above, it collapses back to the exact volume I measured after feeding.  So for example, after feeding as described above, I get 3 oz of stuff in the jar.  At the end of the 12 hour cycle, it might look like 5 oz (coz it collapsed) but if I poke it, the Beastie will go back down to 3 oz.  Essentially I end up with the same stuff at the start and the end of the feed cycle.  Please note that I know it has grown in the meanwhile.  So it isn't dead.

So here are my questions:

(1)  In everything I've read, it says that feeding should double the bulk of the starter.  Is that BEFORE or AFTER you inflate it?

(2)  If I end up with the same bulk as I started with (but I know that it has grown to more than double and collapsed during the cycle), is it just a matter of feeding more, or is there something else I'm doing wrong?

I'm trying to figure out the effect I'm looking for in deciding how much to feed the Beasties.

Thank you muchly for your help and attention!

P.S. FYI, here are the recipes I used:


Caltrain's picture

That's fine. It's just overproofed and collapsing back down. The airiness or volume of the starter doesn't matter in the least. And since it clearly shows the starter is active and alive, the fact that it's collapsing is a very good sign!

Feeding once very 12 hours should be more than enough. I'd say you're doing a pretty good job of maintaining the starter. :D

lacuna's picture

Oh, thank you for the answer Caltrain, my Beasties and I are relieved.

So just to confirm my understanding of this, the point of feeding regularly is just to keep the starter alive and healthy.  Whatever method I use, as long as there is consistent, strong activity and I'm making good bread from it, it is fine. 

So in theory, if for instance for some strange reason, I didn't want to bulk up enough to bake bread for a month, I just wanted to keep my starter healthy, I could keep it going rising and collapsing to the same bulk, and it would be ok if it never increase?  (I'm not saying I'd do that, it seems silly.  Just confirming my understanding.)



mlucas's picture

Yes the only reason to ever increase the amount of starter is if you're going to use it to bake. (Or I suppose if you want to give some to a friend!) If you're not baking, you want to just keep a small amount like 100-200g or so. (I think that would be about 1/4 to 1/2 cup?)

I think it was a very smart decision to go to increase the feedings, especially if it's warm. Good job!

One concern I do have, although it sounds like the bread is working fine, is that you are discarding into the fridge and then later using the Fridge-Beastie to bake your bread? You want to use the most "active" starter possible when baking bread. (This is true even if the recipe includes a separate starter build step -- sometimes called a levain -- although it's not quite as important in that case.) To get the most active starter, you want to use it very close to the time it's peaked. But it sounds like the Fridge-Beasties jar consists of discards from various different days?

It's fine to keep a discard jar, which you can use in pancakes, muffins, etc. and even in small amounts in bread to replace some of the flour/water. But the starter discard should never replace the real "active starter" in a recipe!

Maybe I totally misunderstood how you do your Fridge-Beasties, if not I'm very impressed you could make such bread with it! Anyway, if you have a starter that's not in the fridge, being fed twice a day, a piece of that near its peak time would be the perfect thing to use in bread.

Sorry for the long-winded response!
Happy baking,


lacuna's picture

Thanks for the response Mike.  I don't mind long-winded answers if you don't mind long-winded questions ;)  In any case, I really appreciated the tips.

I went back through my notes and I have some clarification.

The whole-wheat bread was made with a Fridge-beastie that was actually a storage starterfed just prior to storage and used within 4 days.  What happened is that I had 1/2 cup of extra starter, I fed it using the normal 1:1:1 ratio and refrigerated immediately.  (I was afraid I'd kill the Room-Beasties and wanted some insurance.)

After 4 days, I decided that Room-Beasties were going to be ok.  So I put Fridge-Beastie on the counter and used it after 2 hours.  (I had read on that a just-fed Fridge-Beastie could be used to bake within a week.)  In effect I was using an active, fed starter that had just been slowed down in the fridge.

The rye bread was used with 1 cup extra starter that was stored in the fridge, no feeding, within 1 day.  It worked, but the bread was flat and a bit dense.

Now that I think about it, I wonder if the starter activity was the difference between how the two breads turned out.  I immediately put it down to salt and the difference in flour.  I will be careful to use active starter from now on.

I only started collecting my "bits and pieces" 2 days ago, haven't used it yet.  Will look to doing pancakes instead.

Thanks again!

Doc Tracy's picture
Doc Tracy

Think of discards as the sourdough "potty". It's full of waste products and dead beasties. You want your sourdough to be "peaking" at the height of activity when you bake your bread. You waste the starter only because if you continued to build without baking, especially a room temp fed starter, your starter would take over the world.

Debra Wink had a recent thread going that is harder to find because it was under a different heading but it has excellent graphs and information about starter activity. It's called something about "A Very Liquid Starter".

Your bits and pieces are good when you don't need to rely on raising power but use the starter when it's at it's height of rising, before it has fallen for baking and you will get your best result.

If you keep a firmer starter you will see it "dome" and get puffy rather than rising and falling. Sometimes I find this easier to see and feel.

Ho Dough's picture
Ho Dough

other than my own observations. One of those is the apparent sensitivity of starters to temperature. A warm temp (80* F seems to be the pivot point) favors bacteria growth. Cooler temps, those slow down and the yeast is relatively more active.

Observations about starters at warmer temps also suggests that whatever it is the bacteria produces the most it acids, enzymes, etc.....tends to work on the gluten more, so after a period of time, a bacteria weighted culture tends to go "soft". A ripe starter will be smooth, satin like, slick and flat. A yeast weighted culture tends to be more "fluffy" or bubbly and spongy. The bubbles present in that do not collapse as fast. Or so it seems. Since I do not have a pH meter to test with, I'm limited to the knowledge of what the temps were to promote which growth, how long since the last feeding.......and to test it by taste. Bacteria heavy cultures taste sour from the acids. You could also test for reaction by taking a small amount of spent starter and mixing in a little baking soda. If acid, it will foam up on the spot.

On the doubling, nothing is being added. it is in response to CO2 and possibly other gases being produced by the yeast and bacteria, which are trapped in the mix by viscosity and to some extent, the protein strands formed by the flour. The gas displaces the solids and liquids giving the appearance of "growth". A stir down releases the gases. Spent starters are no longer producing gas and the viscosity is altered, so the gases are free to rise and release. Back to where you started. If anything, less, as water and alcohol have evaporated off.

With a wet starter (say equal volumes of water and flour), the mix isn't thick enough to trap the air, so you get a layer of bubbles and froth on top. This is dynamic action with a lot going on, including bacteria feasting on the sugars and starches in the flours, perhaps on the alcohol produced by the yeast and who knows what else. I sometimes see a layer of spongy foam over a layer of liquid, over the bottom layer of wet flour. It is wet enough the various parts can separate by gravity.

Somewhere around 100% hydration (equal weights of flour and water), this all tends to thicken to the point it no longer separates. Bubbles are trapped, the same processes are likely going on, but within the mix instead of on and around it. Not only is it thicker, but the gluten is starting to form protein strands, which are trapped, and the whole thing stretches like a rubber ballon. But once it is overproofed and the gluten breaks down, and the nasty stuff builds up, it will go flat and collapse too.  With a low hydration starter of 50% water to weight...., you wouldn't see much of anything, other than the mass changing shape and texture over time. The same thing is going on, but it's not as dynamic.

For an intersting experiment, try adding a very small amount of starter.....about what you would have left clinging to a mixing spoon, and use that to stir up 1/4 cup water and 1/4 cup flour. Let it sit out at room temperature....not at the warmer 80 degree plus temps. In 12 hours, it may look quit different than what you have now.

lacuna's picture

Doc Tracy, thanks for the reply.  I'll look for Debra Wink's thread.  Just used my sourdough 'potty' for whole wheat pizza, turned out great! (for an amateur).

Ho Dough: Aha!  Your statement "On the doubling, nothing is being added..." turned on the Lightbulb Moment!  Yes of course, everything make sense now.  For some reason, I mixed up the idea of growing the yeast/bacteria and growing the actual starter itself, such that it should ALL literally grow - as in increase in bulk.  But the starter is really just the medium which the microscopic yeast/bacteria live in.  And to get enough yeasts to actually make more starter spontanoeusly, I'd have some sort of mutant beasties I'm better off reporting to the authorities! 

Thank you for all your in-depth explanation.  The books tell you how, not really so much why.

yozzause's picture

I maintain a sour dough starter, the active out of the fridge is the one that i use and the one in the fridge is the back up . The active gets fed twice a day but could easily take 3 feeds a day. the one in the fridge requires feeding once a week or replacing with some of the active batch for a weeks hibernation.

The active batch is going to be growing bigger all the time as you are adding to it all the time, if you bake regularly you can grow that active starter to the amount you require in perpatuity however if you bake irregularly then you can slow it all down with the refrigerated once a week feed, but i do believe that over a period of time it will devlop different characteristics to the active variety as the bacteria will predominate and the yeasts will have  less vigour.

The speed with which your active culture can expand the refreshed starter is the best indication of its capacity to perform well in the dough that you choose to make. If your starter drops and shows little life it is an indication that its food source is greatly depleted, little work is being done and reproduction is curtailed.

At work the starter i maintain there goes into the fridge on a thursday or friday and comes out on the monday it gets 1 feed the first day because it is still very cold  and 2 there after but could easily manage an 8 hour regime of feeding once it gets to room temperature.   

regards Yozza

lacuna's picture

Thanks Yozza, I've moved the Beastie to the fridge for storage.  Seems to be going really well.

Davo's picture

I keep my starter in the fridge, but I wouldn't use straight into a bread dough from the fridge from cold. I give it 24 hours out, with two feedings. This seems to give slightly better results than one feeding out - and my process is a two-stager (for 4 loaves, 150 g starter into about 1 kg of levain (8-12 hours), then that into about 3.7 kg of dough, for 4 x 900g+ loaves).

So really, including the levain stage, my final bread dough has a culture fromt he fridge that has been fed 3 times over about 36 hours.

I certainly wouldn't take cold starter (that had been fed a few days ago) out, give it 2 hours without feeding, and use that straight into a bread dough, altough maybe I misunderstood your process....

lacuna's picture

Hi davo, you understood me correctly, I was using starter from the fridge in my bread.

I've STOPPED doing that now. 

It was just something I was trying whilst learning to keep my starter alive.  Now I'm more confident, I'm focusing on the bread making.  Having tried it, I can confidently say that starter fed and put in the fridge, then warmed to room temperature after 2 days (A) Can and does work (B) does NOT work as well as fed starter as described in your process.  :)