The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Tartine Country Loaf, one step at a time: Starter

  • Pin It
shalako's picture

Tartine Country Loaf, one step at a time: Starter


I've been feeding my starter for more than a month and have baked the Tartine Country Loaf recipe four times; all failures. I started another thread asking for help with making this recipe but it's turning into an epic. There are so many variables and so many steps that I feel like I need to be sure I've got the first step nailed before trying the next.

I've tried all sorts of things with the starter: I've put the starter by the window to get more bacteria. I've put the starter in a cooler on the floor to protect it from temperature fluctuations. I've fed it once/day, I've fed it twice/day. I've fed it equal parts flour and water by volume, and by weight. All with the same results: the levain fails the float test after 10-12 hours, the dough doesn't rise during bulk fermentation, and the bread has no spring in the oven, resulting in gummy bricks.

Recently I've had a suspicion that I have not been training my starter with enough food. I was dumping out 80% of the volume; the remainder of which was about 100-115g of starter. To this I'd add 70-80g of flour (about 1/2 cup) and an equal amount of water. In this case the starter was about 40% of the total weight.

So I'm going to try a new experiment. The book says something about dumping out 80% so I'm going to dump out 80% by weight, as opposed to 80% volume.

My new feeding routine: once/day in the morning. Dump out all but 50g of starter and add 100g flour and 100g water. In this case the starter is 20% of the total weight. I figure if I train with more food it might be more active when I make the levain.

After a few days on this schedule, the starter is doubling in volume after 24 hours. However, what concerns me is that after 12 hours, it only rises about 10-20%. The book, and what I've read on the forum, seem to indicate that a starter should do all it's rising and falling within a few hours after feeding. Is this true?


StuartG's picture

I think you're on the right track by discarding most of the starter and then feeding it.  If I'm not saving the leftover starter for another recipe, then my own routine is to tip out everything except a thick coating that lines the walls of my jar and then add the flour and water (my guesstimate is that I'm left with about 25g starter and then I add 40g flour and 40g water)

Your post suprises me in that you keep a huge starter.  You dont need so much unless you're baking non stop.  You can always keep it small and then just feed it in advance of when you'll use it.  In my case, on Thursdays I use 50g of my starter to a plastic bowl then feed it 80g water, 80g flour which easily gives me 200g starter to work with over Friday night for a loaf on Saturday.

As to why your starter doesnt seem so active - I don't know.  I wonder if its cold?  I wonder if feeding it so much dilutes it and it takes a while to get going.  My own starter does start within a 1-2 hours but it doesnt get really going for about 5-6.

Hope this helps and good luck with your loaves!


shalako's picture

Thank you for your suggestions.

Maybe I will reduce the starter I'm maintaining to a total 125g but dumping out all but 25g, and feed it 50g each flour and water. I don't know what the difference is though, shouldn't the results be the same? This is probably a good tip so I'm not going through flour so quickly?

I check the starter morning and night, though I only feed it in the morning. I keep the starter in a open cooler (Igloo Playmate Maxcold) under the kitchen table. I thought this would insulate it from temperature changes but I don't cold it so it has access to bacteria in the air. I keep a thermometer in the cooler and it's consistently 70 deg F. Is that too cold?

longhorn's picture

Your starter is clearly getting healthier but is not ready. It needs to be peaking in around 12 to 14 hours at normal room temp (say 70 to 78). It should get there in a few days so don't give up.

WRT disposing 80%, assuming you stir the starter if there is hooch on top or if it is really foamy, there is no difference between 80 % by volume or weight for the starter is essentially a uniform substance with uniform density. 

It appears your problems begin with underactive starter and if the dough doesn't rise there is nothing you can do to correct it.

As I have stated in other threads. I would suggest dropping the hydration to 70 to 72 percent (if using AP flour) (reduce the water by 30 to 50 grams and increase the flour that amount). It will make the dough much easier to handle and avoid the loose (wet) dough sag associated with overly wet doughs. Also, be wary of the rising times in the book. I consistently overproof at those times so I had to shorten my fermentation and proofing times.

Hang in there!


shalako's picture

The thermometer in the cooler I keep the starter in reads 70 deg F when I check it morning and night.

When I feed the starter every morning, it has doubled in volume and is quite foamy; that is to say it is filled with big bubbles. There's a bit of a skin on top, not quite a crust, and no hooch. 

I use Giusto's Unbleached Bread Flour, as that is what is available at the coop where I shop.

I am hesitant to adjust the hydration as I believe that is partly what makes a Tartine loaf so amazing. I don't want just any sourdough, I want Tartine bread!

Your point about over proofing is well taken. This has been a suggestion others have made as well. However, I wonder if, as you also suggest, that without a proper starter nothing else will help.

Thanks again! I'll keep trying.

longhorn's picture

You are using great flour (that I would love to get my hands on!)

Are you sure your starter is taking 24 hours to double? Has it peaked and is coming down? (You should be able to tell by the sides of the container and the shape of the top of the foam...)

Having eaten Tartine bread last month I agree that hydration IS part of the key. However, proper hydration is a function of flour and its ability to absorb water and varies with many factors including the age and storage history of the flour. I have seen commercial bakers shift recipes by as more than 5% when they got a really wet batch of flour (stored in humid conditions).

As your flour is almost certainly not what Tartine uses and has a different storage history it would not be surprising if you needed to adjust hydration. I found a five percent change (to 70 percent) shifted my dough from slack to having good integrity to stand up on its own instead of pancake. My results are shown on the thread Tartine My Way ( It came out fairly close - yes it is not quite as airy as the Tartine loaf but it is quite good (and preferable for nonleaky bruschetta). I will be adding hydration to open the crumb a bit more but I have not been able to get the Tartine recipe to work with my KA AP flour. Your Guisto's Bread flour is similar in protein to the KA so???

What are you using for WW in the loaf?

Hang in there!


ehanner's picture

As Stuart says above, I wonder if it is cold. When trying to get your starter revved up, you should be looking at the condition of the starter for clues as to when to feed it, not the clock. The feeding should take place at or after the starter has peaked and fallen. That is when the culture is running out of food. When the structure falls, it has the effect of mixing the mass thus providing new food for the yeasts and bacteria for the next rise.

The primary consideration when trying to influence the culture is the temperature that it lives in. You should find a place in your kitchen that is 68-76F. Our home is closer to 68F in the morning and that is warm enough if the starter is healthy but I found that the cabinet above the refrigerator usually holds 76-78F because of the heat generated by the fridge. I proof my breads there on occasion, I overnight my starter there when they need to be active the next day. A few degrees make a big difference and stability matters also.

Make sure the water you use to feed the starter is warmed to the range you want to maintain. It is much better to use cold water that has been warmed in the microwave than water from the warm water tap. In my home, the hot water is also softened where the cold is straight from the source (well) plus a water heater has bacteria present that may influence your culture.

In summary. Maintain your culture at approximately 70F-76F, use water of that same temp., wait for the culture to at least double before feeding. I would feed with straight AP or bread flour. Your starter should triple overnight when it is healthy and kept warm.

Hope this helps.


shalako's picture

The cooler I've been keeping the starter in consistently reads 70 deg F when I check it morning and night (only feeding in the morning). So I wonder if this is too cold? I'll look for a warmer place to keep it. Maybe it's warmer on top of the cabinets.

I've been feeding the starter with water from tap at 80 deg F. I've got a in-sink purifier; maybe I should use that and warm the water in the microwave? But won't the microwave kill all the good stuff?

I use Giusto's Organic Unbleached Bread flours (both white and whole wheat) as it is available in bulk at my local coop. I hope that's not the problem. 

Triple overnight? Sheesh. I feed in the morning and get 20% by evening, then double by the next morning. Guess I've got a long way to go...

misterrios's picture

Just to pitch in and help-

I keep my starter on the counter, or on the shelf above in a covered container with a loose plastic lid. The yeasts and bacterias adapt to room temperature, so the cooler might be hindering it from growing. I also use bottled water, since the water in Berlin is not chlorinated, and who knows what is in the pipes. Also, the chlorine in the water where you are might be hindering the growth of the bacteria. I use bottled water when I am feeding/maintaining the starter, but for actual baking, I use tap water, and it's the same. Maybe I'm being over-cautious, but I've not taken the risk.

The flour should not matter, but sourdough thrives with the extra stuff in whole-wheat. maybe use a mix, white for food, whole wheat for minerals and such.

When I started mine, I waited a month before actually baking with it. I kept smelling it, and eventually, one day, I noticed it smelled like peaches. Everyone else says it smells like yeast.

Also, what I do, is I keep about 15 grams after I bake, and build it from there during the week, feeding once a day, but also 12 hours before I'm going to bake, since it is ready to go in about 7 or so hours after feeding.

Again, this is what I do- you've got to find your own groove, particularly with sourdough.

Johan van Niekerk's picture
Johan van Niekerk


Maybe you should describe your enitre process? To me your starter sounds great. My own also ends up nice and foamy in the mornings. I had about 10-12 failed breads before realizing that my starter is working almost too well :) I was over proofing my dough. Last night I made my first really successful tartine loaf :D

Basically if your leaven floats after 6-8 hours I don't think your starter is cause for worry at all. Either way, when I feed mine I basically mix up about 3 heaped spoon of the 50/50 flour mix, add water till its a nice thick batter and then I add 2 spoons of the previous starter and stir it in. The rest I discard. Because the starter culture from the book is so wet I don't think you should expect it to double in volume. Too much air escapes.

Now...I had several problem in my own process.

1. I was careless about measurements. 10-20 grams makes a HUGE difference!

2. I THINK I overmixed (I used my kenwood, now I use my hands)

3. I was careless about temperature. Once I mixed using exactly 78 F water the dough consistency suddenly changed a lot

4. I left it too long during bulk fermentation. My dough ended up almost glue. I found out later that this is becuase the gluten starts to break down due to too much yeast activity (Starter was VERY active)

5. I used too much flour during the bench rest and forming stage.

Hope this helps. Oh...and here my first tartine country loaf thats looking more or less the way I thought it should (from last night)

Tartine Country Loaf (No 1)