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My stiff dough levain is no longer rising

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Gertrude McFuzz's picture
Gertrude McFuzz

My stiff dough levain is no longer rising

Hello all, 


I am very new to sourdough, having created my first (rye) sourdough in January, and I could really use your expert advice.  I've been using my stiff dough levain since I created it (from my rye sourdough) 3 months ago, and, while it always took a full 12 hours to double, it always did double in the end.  After reading posts on this forum in which people have gotten their levain to quadruple in 4 hours, I decided to keep my levain out of the fridge and feed it regularly until it became more active.  Perhaps it was a mistake, but I was only feeding it once a day (our house is quite cool - 55 F at night and 60 - 65 F during the day, and the levain has been slow to rise).  In the last 2 days, the levain has been changing - forming bubbles, developing a sour taste, and changing consistancy - after every feeding, but not rising at all.  Because the house is cool, I have been boiling a cup of water in the microwave and then placing the levain in it - as a steam box, to warm it and accelerate growth.  I used to find this very helpful, but lately it has not helped.


Any ideas?  And can anyone recommend a book with the most sourdough detail, to help me troubleshoot when things like this go wrong?


 


Thanks, Gert

LindyD's picture
LindyD

Hi Gert, what flour are you using to refresh it?

Gertrude McFuzz's picture
Gertrude McFuzz

I've been using bread flour.

LindyD's picture
LindyD

Hi again, Gert.


Try refreshing it with rye, organic if you have it.  Rye has lots of nutrients and helpful enzymes that will perk up your culture. 


I maintain a stiff levain as well, keeping it in a lidded Cambro container.  Refrigerated during the week, it's fed on a 12 hour schedule when I take it out a couple days before I plan to use it.  If I don't like the consistency as it comes out of the refrigerator, I'll give it a feeding of rye.  


When I feed it in the evening, around 11:30 p.m., I place the container in a cool room overnight to slow it down.  BTW, I also used unbleached, unbromated bread flour - the GM Better for Bread because it's very inexpensive here.  


I've not seen any of the postings claiming their cultures quadruple in four hours.  I doubt that was a stiff levain and it's not relevant to your own specific culture.  I've never been concerned whether mine quads or not within a specific time. It always does dome within 12 hours and does a great job raising and flavoring my bread.


Rather than putting your levain in a steam box, why not try putting it inside your oven? If you have an electric or pilotless gas oven, just turn the oven light on.  The temp will get in the 70s within a hour or so.


Good luck - let us know if it perks up for you.

Gertrude McFuzz's picture
Gertrude McFuzz

Thanks for your advice.  After your first question I inferred that I should be using something other than bread flour.  I added 5 grams of whole wheat with my next feeding, and it increased by half.  Then I switched to 5 grams of rye, and it is slowly increasing (at 19 hours and counting.)  I'll keep with it, and update with my results.


 


Thanks again, Gert

overnight baker's picture
overnight baker

Hi Gert,


I'm no expert but a similar thing happened to my sourdough a while back. The two things I can reccomend are heat and paitence. I think it's generally a good idea to refresh reguarly but if the desired minibeasts haven't multiplied enough before you refresh they end up getting diluted down more and more. Secondly I found although the cold doesn't kill them it can render some of the desirables dormant and just a little heat can bring 'em back to life. My tip if you've got an electric oven is to stick the oven on v. low for a couple of minutes, just enough to heat up all the metal work, leave it for a bit then place the starter in the oven when it's a nice warm temp.


 


best of luck

Gertrude McFuzz's picture
Gertrude McFuzz

Thanks very much for this suggestion.  I was so worried that I had been underfeeding the starter, that I switched to feeding twice a day even without enough activity, and I'm sure I was diluting it.  Now I am letting it double before I feed it again.  I hope I will have good news to report in the next couple days.


 


Thanks again, Gert

manicbovine's picture
manicbovine

I'm not an expert by any means, but I find that temporarily increasing the hydration can sometimes help bring things back to life.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

of the starter, a glob about 10g and mix it with water and rye to get your normal size back.  Keep it warmish 75° and at 24 hours, remove 10g and repeat. Too much acid or low pH in the starter inhibits the yeast.  Warmth helps because yeast like it warm.  Increasing the hydration to 100%  is also a good idea and so is stirring the starter a few times while it is sitting there.


I think you've reduced your yeasts too much, I've found that when offered plenty of rye flour, the innoculation does not have to be much to stimulate the return of yeast production, keeping too much of the acid starter slows the yeast building down when dealing with rye starters.  It will come back although it takes a few days.  Patience is needed, much like starting a new starter, but having some of the old beasties is good, just enough to get a good jump start with the new ones coming off the rye flour.   After the 24 hour feeding return to 12 hours if (1) any bubble formation (does not have to rise) is inside when torn open or stirred (and 2) the starter no longer smells like wet flour.  


I have also not heard of a rye starter rising quadruple in 4 hours when fed rye.  I have heard of wheat yeasts out of control doing that, say a wheat that had some rye added and no salt, the temps were warm and enzymes went crazy.  Not something for healthy bread dough though.   Something was amiss.


Anyway, get your rye starter healthy and then make a wheat starter from part of it for two starters , one rye and one wheat.  Wheat will be slower at first and require a larger container to stretch for the same amount as a rye starter.  Can you access the top of the refrigerator for a warm spot?  Or the cupboard above it? 


Mini

overnight baker's picture
overnight baker

Having read mini's reply and your post in more detail I think she's right, I had to wait a bit longer between refreshes but my starter was doing nothing, yours seems like it is having some time to do something just not what you want.


So I'll have to second the call for a bit of controlled warmth. Whenever my starter has been a little sluggish that has consistently been the best medicine.

Gertrude McFuzz's picture
Gertrude McFuzz

It looks like the next couple of days are going to be warmer, so I hope that will help the starter get moving.  I will definitely try using the oven light, although the microwave has been a great help in the past.  I'm not a big fan of warm weather, but I am looking forward to the summer heat if it means my starter will behave more consistently.  Of course, baking in the summer heat is never very appealing.


Thanks both of you, Gert

Gertrude McFuzz's picture
Gertrude McFuzz

I really appreciate everyone's advice.  I switched over to 100 percent organic rye flour and increased the hydration and kept it in the oven with the light on overnight, and it doubled in 12 hours.  Now it's on its second feeding, and is nearly doubled at less than 8 hours.  I figure it must be time to switch back to my regular flour and hydration levels.  I am very happy to fix this so quickly.


 


Thanks again, Gert