The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Oh this sourdough starter...

lizallen's picture

Oh this sourdough starter...

I have always been a reader in this site. There is so much information I never thought it necessary to create an account but, when it comes to sourdough starter, things get a little deep for me and I finally just had to jump in and ask.

I have a starter that is wild caught and about three weeks old. This is not the first starter I've ever done but it's the first in this specific house and it's the first to act like a complete baby! 

My starter did all the typical things for the first two weeks - it bubbled and smelled like that good tangy smell. Then it fizzed and has a layer of hooch. I've fed it, I've made new batches of flour/water and mixed in some of the starter for a fresh feeding, and no bubbling like before.

Sure, there are bubbles, and there is froth on the hooch but the starter does not get to that active point where I can use it for bread. I've been reading the FAQ on and tried doing 4 cups water with 4 cups flour and ¼ cup starter thinking this would give it enough food for it to become active in the morning but just five hours later there was a thin layer of hooch and, by this morning the layer had thickened quite a bit. So then, as per advise from that same site, I did ½ cup starter in 2½ cup flour/water mixture (switching to bread flour from AP now) and watched it to see what would happen (to determine when it was most active). Well, it totally didn't even become close to active. I know it's not dead because it does bubble, just not very much, and certainly not enough to make bread rise. The peak active point was just 30 minutes after mixing the starter into the mixture and there was a layer of hooch at one hour out.

After more reading, I found Linda at (again) wrote:

"So many organisms have died that you just don’t have a dense enough population to make your dough rise. Here’s what I recommend: Take about a half cup of starter, put it in a bowl with 2 cups each of flour and water. Cover it and let it ferment until you see some activity. Then repeat the process—two or three times, each time, reducing the volume to a half cup. This process will help your starter build up its population of yeast and lactobacillus organisms. Each time you do it, you should see it get active sooner and you should see more vigorous activity as well."

So, it this what I should do? When should I be doing this reduction and addition process - during the "high" activity point at 30 minutes or when there is hooch? Does bread flour vs AP vs whole wheat make a difference? Should I be going by flour/water weight and not measurements? Am I doomed? 

It all just ticks me off because I had a great wild starter a few years back that I'd bake with weekly and it was so wonderful but it was tossed when we moved. Then I had this new baby starter and it's already giving me issues! 

Thanks so much for your help/advice. I know questions like this pop up all too often. 

Oh, one more quick note, I do not at all understand that hydration percentages and ratios when talking starter, so layman's terms please. 

polo's picture

.......if you are feeding your starter equal volumes of water and flour you will end up with a very liquid starter that won't show much sign of rising (just a lot of bubbles). Try feeding your starter with equal weights of flour and water and see if you get some rise out of it.

Another thing you can do is use rye flour as a portion of the flour you feed your starter (perhaps 25% rye flour and 75% AP flour). The yeasties seem to like a little rye flour in their diet. 

Just a couple hints from the father of a newborn starter.


lizallen's picture

Thanks, that's what I was sort of wondering - but what about the nearly instant hooch? 

I thickened it up earlier and it already looked slightly more active though. I'll change it up to rye and AP by weight tonight and maybe, just maybe, I'll get an active starter tonight/tomorrow. 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Edit: Another thought... new house> new water; watch out and let the water stand for at least a day before using.

I think you have separation of flour and water.  The water may yellow a little bit but if it separates, then chances are good the beasties are not there to stir things up.  Having too much water in the starter will also make the flour separate.   This makes it very hard to judge your starter.  I think you have been diluting your starter too much. Taste the hooch and see if it is more like water than a weak beer.

Try this... Make an experiment with two starters.  Use your recent foamy starter and the oldest sample of starter that you have, say 1/8 cup of each and mix some flour into it until it stops separating.  It should be thicker than batter but thinner than dough.  Put them into two tall drink glasses, mark the levels, cover with plastic and a rubber band and stand both of them in a warmish place free of drafts.  Let them stand there, a day or two (you can stir them up once or twice a day) until you see bubbles from the sides and the levels rising.  Take notes and watch the starters level off and start to sink.

Young starters have issues trying to balance and too many changing variables like over feeding stresses reduces their numbers too much to the point of weakening them.  You had a routine before and I suggest when one of these starters start to rise and level off and start to fall or sink, that you try to swing it to your old preferred way of feeding and storing in the previous residence.   But first let's get your starter going on a small scale.  Do not put into the refrigerator if it was part of your previous routine unless this thicker starter has ripened and at least doubled.  A thinner starter like the one you now discribe,  will not rise as the bubbles are popping on the surface.  The only way to test it would be to make a dough ball and see what it does.

Introducing various small amounts of other types of flour may also help you collect more varieties of yeasts and bacteria to round out your starter.  The closer they are to whole flours and grains, "organic" the better.  They contain more yeast and bacteria varieties on their surfaces to capture.  So mixing a little in with your eventual feeds may help your starter mature or balance. 


lizallen's picture

Yeah, thin starter was it. It has to be. I thought it seemed too thin. I remember my old one being much thicker. 

I started this starter with freshly milled organic wheat so when it started not being as active I thought maybe it was the wheat (because wheat can go rancid much quicker than AP) but I guess I was wrong.

edited to add: I always use filtered water that has been sitting on the counter BUT, right before I noticed the inactivity, I had used cold filtered water so I had wondered if that harmed the yeast. Then I think I messed with it so much trying to "fix" it that I really ruined it. 

LindyD's picture

I think reading Yumarama's blog on how to create a sourdough starter will answer some of your questions.

BTW, the wild yeast is already present in the flour.

Hope you find the info helpful.

lizallen's picture

Thanks for the info. I already have a starter going, I'm just wondering why it's not being active and is developing hooch so quickly. And yes, you are right, wild yeast is already in the flour which is great since I'm have a wild yeast starter.

pmccool's picture

you don't get hooch that fast.  You do get separation of flour and water very quickly when the "batter" is that dilute.  From a weight perspective, your 2 cups flour and 2 cups water feeding was in the neighborhood of 9 ounces of flour to 16 ounces of water.  As also noted previously, that is so thin that it can't possibly trap any bubbles.  Therefore, it can't increase in volume.

Hooch won't form until the microorganisms that populate a starter have eaten through the available food and created a substantial quantity of waste products.  Given the proportionately small inocculation that you used for the proportionately large-but-dilute feeding, all those yeasts and bacteria are just floating around in the soup and multiplying as fast as they can.  You don't see any evidence of that because a) there still aren't a lot of them and b) because the soup doesn't trap any bubbles.

I'd say go with other posters' advice to work with a smaller quantity of a thicker batter.  You won't be throwing out so much flour with every feeding, or see the non-hooch develop, but you will see the bubbles as they start to develop.


lizallen's picture

Thin starter had to have been the issue. The night before I had put the starter in a clean container of flour/water and the next morning it had a thick layer of liquid on the surface and a ton of bubbles so I thought it was hooch and I was super confused. But you are right, it must have been thin starter with flour and water separation. My old starter was much thicker but I kept seeing online that people use 1 c to 1 c so I thinned it out... it's thicker now and I'm waiting for my little yeasties to recover. 

Thank you. 

clazar123's picture

I had a wild starter that I started at my desk at work. I work in a slightly mildewy basement office. I labeled it my Wild Child because it would  explode into activity and fall quickly and form hootch faster than any starter I ever saw. It was always hungry! That baby could hootch up 2-3 times a day when I first started growing it. I kept it going for about a year and, while it did settle down, it actually was not too good for bread as it  would often lose it's oomph halfway thru a rise.Next bake it would perform beautifully and the flavor was great.Still required much more feeding than my other starters. Very unpredictable. I set it free in the sink. :)

I do have a useful comment for you,too. When you are trying to catch and stabilize a starter, use only a few tablespoons of flour to start. That way you aren't discarding quart jars worth of starter as you feed and build. A 4 oz jelly jar works perfectly. Once you have a stable starter, you can build volume as needed.

Getting in the habit of weighing the flour and water is a good idea but I started out just creating a thick, pancake batter consistency. That way you can tell if it rises in the jar but still spoons out and stirs easily.Very unscientific but it will work for now.

That said, I just doscovered the value of using formulas rather than recipes, when baking. I just started converting my recipes to formulas. Cooking can be "seat of the pants" but I'm finding baking and expecting consistent results needs formulas. I became convinced after a massive bread bake this holiday season using weighed recipes (formulas) and having every batch turn out consistently. Wow! Not a single failure!

MiniOvens experiment will prob give you some good insight into what's happening with your starter. My "Wild Child" is not a typical experience however flour and water separation of a very wet starter is.

lizallen's picture

Thank you. Reducing the size is good advice, that I will be taking. 

Where can I find out more about using formulas? I think this would really improve my baking. How do you convert a recipe to formula? Like in percentages? If a recipe is in formula form how would you then add/change things for experiments? 

polo's picture

The ratio of one cup of flour to one cup of water will make the hydration level of your starter roughly 166%. There is nothing wrong with a starte at 166%, the wild yeast is in there and eating away just like it would at any other hydration level. The problem is that the high hydration level will not allow the gasses to be trapped and hence you see no rise.

When I started my starter the instructions called for a hydration level of 166%. It worked fine, but it was impossible to establish a proofing time at that hydration level so I changed it to 100% (equal weights of four and water)

So I guess the moral of the story is..........your starter is probably healthy and thriving at 166% you just can't see it (other than the bubbles), but if you want to verify it change the hydration to 100%.