The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Am I as “SourDumb” with my Sourdough Starter as I think? Help!

GonzoTheBaker's picture

Am I as “SourDumb” with my Sourdough Starter as I think? Help!

Greetings Everyone,

I am new here and to baking in general. I have been using Peter Reinhart's The Bread Bakers Apprentice for about a month and have been successful baking Whole Wheat, Light Whole Wheat and French Bread as well as the awesome pizza crust! Now I have decided to try his sourdough starter recipe but I don't seem to be getting the proper results.

My process went like this: First, I followed the 4-day process to a tee and am not sure that I ever saw the starter double. It bubbled some but never "doubled." I tried to "feed" it a bit more after day 4 but got frustrated and tossed the batch. :-(

Next, I decided to start over - thinking that I just did not have much yeast in the air in my home. So, I threw in some grapes on days 1-3 and removed them when I added feeding ingredients. On day 3, I saw a pretty hefty rise but not what I would call a "doubling" in size, so I continued with the process until about day 5. It sat and bubbled a bit but never seemed to rise so, on day 5 I halved the batch and added some more flour and water to feed it. On Day 6, it is now the consistency of a thick pancake batter and has lots of tiny bubbles in it when you look in the top of the jar. It smells very close to what I think Sourdough should smell like - BUT IT DID NOT DOUBLE at all after Day 3 or so. This time, I decided to put it in the fridge, sealed, and regroup rather than throw it out right away.

What am I doing wrong? I really think I may have a good seed culture at this point, primarily because it smells quite nice and there ARE bubbles. Is the fact that the starter is very "wet" keeping it from rising? Should I throw it out and start over or is this culture usable for a Barm. I'm not even really sure of the difference between a Barm, a Starter or a Seed Culture anyway! I am very confused and worried that I may poison my family and myself if the starter is "off" at all (I know it sounds stupid but I've never done this before).

Thanks in advance for your comments.

-Gonzo the "baker"


proth5's picture

I don't have Mr Reinhart's book, but if memory serves he leveraged Deborah Wink's "Pineapple Juice Method" which uses pineapple juice to acidfy the culture and promote yeast growth.  This is a good and reliable method.  If it is not in his book you can find it on these pages by using the "search" feature.

Depending on temperatures, these cultures can take a little longer than 4 days to develop, so, in general, patience is a virtue.  Putting a culture in the fridge before it has matured into a starter is probably counter productive. My starter (and the starters of many bakers) is never refrigerated except under conditions of dire need.  It has lived happily on my counter for over ten years, its only means of "preservation" its stability and resistance to other types of bacteria.

I work with a 100% hydration starter (equal amounts by weight of flour and water) and it certainly doubles.  I have experimented with a 130% starter (water is 1.3 times the amount of flour, by weight, using King Arthur All Puropse flour) and it certainly doubles, so unless your starter is more hydrated than that, it should double. Weak flours may not double at higher hydrations so you may wish to check your flour (I had a lot of trouble with flour purchased in Japan, but it eventually became a healthy starter.)

The yeasts in your culture are brought in by the flour that you use - not by the air. The use of grapes, etc brings yeasts into the mix, but they are yeasts that are adapted to living on grapes.  Since you intend to feed this culture flour, introducing other yeasts can be counter productive.  You should make sure you are using an unbleached flour.  Adding whole wheat or rye flour in the beginning also will introduce a larger population of yeast.

You won't kill the family - in general you will not be serving them raw starter - it will be baked.  A starter is actually quite stable once it gets established.  Generally it takes three to four weeks to take a culture to a starter.

I hate to get into the whole terms thing, but here are some usages that seem to serve me well.  Baking terms are not standardized by any means and folks use them interchangeably or just as it suits their fancy.


Culture - generally refers to the collection of bacteria and yeast at the beginning of the process to create a useable starter.  Although starters are quite stable and contain a very specific set of bacteria and yeast, in a culture there may be many different kids of bacteria - some of which are adapted to the process and some which will die off as the process progresses.

Starter - the matured, stable result of a culture - ready to use in baking - usually occurs in three to four weeks.  This will also be called a "mother culture", "mother", or "chef" "sourdough" or "levain"or any one of any number of terms. (My house sitter calles it "goop")

Seed - when taking a small amount of the culture to feed it prior to baking, the small amount used is called "seed".  There are many methods of preparing a starter for baking but the technique of using a contolled amount of seed to a given amount of flour and water allows the baker to control how fast the pre ferment  (or levain or sourdough) matures.

Barm - sadly was a word misused and is not particularly germain to the whole sourdough discussion.  Mr. Reinhart's (and other's) useage has crept into the Wikipedia world, but really it referes to a product of the beer (or malt liquor)brewing process that can be used to leaven bread. 

Hope this helps.  Short answer: Follow the directions and allow for enough time.

Baking Mama's picture
Baking Mama

I've been working with a starter for over 4 weeks now and it is alive and doing fine. Here is the recipe we followed & how I been maintaining this starter. It is at 65% hydration.

White Wheat Starter
Day 1
125g coarse whole wheat flour
125g bread flour
150g unsweetened pineapple juice
Mix together into ball, making sure all the flour is hydrated. Place in lightly oiled container, cover leave at room temp for 24 hrs.
Day 2
125g bread flour
75g unsweetened pineapple juice
125g day 1 dough
Mix you new dough up then knead in the day 1 dough"old dough" Place in container, cover at room temp 24 hrs.
Day 3-10 Repeat Day2 proceedor.
After day 10 I went to every other day feeding of
125g bread flour
75g water
200g "old dough"
Im at my 4th week and going to only feed every 3rd day except when I need to use it I will feed for the 2 days before using!
I hope this help Good Luck

chromite's picture

I just started trying sourdough and had good luck with mine. I used only flour and water and within three or so days had a foamy, doubled, culture. I believe the key (without additional experimentation) was that I used an organic whole wheat flour produced at a local mill. I specifically made the decision to use that particular flour because of the likelihood of wild yeast already being present within the flour.

GonzoTheBaker's picture

Ok, so I'm still trying to get a viable starter.  I have to admit that I have abandoned my original starter project and am now on a starter that is about 3 weeks old but I don't think it is viable.  I followed the Sourdough 101 steps exactly and by day 5-6, my starter seemed to be working fine but...

I tried to use it for a "no kneed" formula and it failed miserably.  After that I decided to only keep about 1 cup of the starter and try to reinvigorate it by feeding.  I added 1/2 cup of water and bread flour.  After 24 hours, there are just LOTS of small bubbles, no rise to double and it smells like alcohol.  I feel like it doesn't smell like anything resembling "sourdough" Is there any reason to keep this "starter" or should I toss it?  If I should keep it, how do I make it viable enough for baking?  I really don't want to give up but I am really starting to think I should just order a starter in the mail.  LOL!  



placebo's picture

Are you adding a half cup each of water and flour? If so, it's going to be way too thin to double, and it's not surprising you end up with a layer of liquid on top because the flour will settle to the bottom. You should try for equal weights of water and flour. You should also be feeding it at least twice a day.

Do you check on the starter between feedings? After 24 hours, it wouldn't be surprising if the starter had fallen. Your starter might be perfectly fine. It may have doubled, and you just didn't see it. Your problem with the no-knead bread might be due to something else.

If you do think there's a problem with your starter, cut back and keep a smaller amount of starter. You won't waste so much flour while you're trying to nurse the starter back to health.

Buying a starter might not be a bad idea, or better yet, maybe you can get one free from someone nearby. At least you'd get to see how a known good starter should act, and it'll eliminate one variable from trying to figure out why your bread isn't turning out how you like. You can always try to create your own starter again later.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

You need a feeding schedule.  You also need to feed your starter equal or more weight in flour that what the starter weighs.   

For starters :) take out a heaping teaspoon of the bottom most part of the starter (alcohol floats, therefore pour it off and get your sample off the bottom of the jar) give it about 1/3 cup of water and add enough flour to make a thick paste or a wet dough.  Put it into a container with 4 times the amount of space empty.  Choose a container you can see thru the sides for bubbles and marking levels.  Now put the paste in there and level it out, cover loosely (no screw on tops or tight seals) with plastic and a rubber band and set into a warm (75°F) draft free place.   With a marker, or tape and marker put a line at the level of the starter.  Now let it rise.  Mark every 2 or 3 hours until it reaches a high point.   If it's peaking at 8 hours, then save some to refresh and use the rest in a recipe.  

GonzoTheBaker's picture


I decided to follow your basic "refresh."  I did it with 2/3 C of starter instead just a tsp so that I would have enough starter to bake with this weekend.  Last night (Thurs) about 8PM, I mixed 2/3 C of starter (scooped from the bottom of the jar) with 2/3 C water and 2/3 C of flour in a bowl and threw out the rest of the starter. 

My 2/3 C of starter was quite soupy but very bubbly so I added a bit more flour to give it more of a thick paste to thick batter consistency.  As of 6AM this morning, it had doubled and smelled quite nice.  Yay!  I gave it a stir and by 8AM is had already risen quite a bit.  I am assuming that the starter is now healthy and good for baking.  My plan is to take out 2/3 a cup or so for my bread tonight (Fri) and put the rest in the fridge.  I have been using Peter Reinharts basic sourdough recipe and will need to do the preferment tonight but actually bake on Sat.  Does this sound ok? 

Moving forward, I was thinking of removing the starter from the fridge on Thursday night to bake on Saturday and letting it come to room temp.  Feeding it 1:1:1 by weight and then let it sit out until I take my amount for baking that Saturday.  What do you think of that feeding schedule?

BTW - thanks for the advice.  I'll let you know how my bread turns out.  Both of my previous attempts have needed a "spike" of commerical yeast on day 2 since my preferment didn't seem to rise well.  I still used the sluggish preferment though and the bread turned out well.  I am so hoping to have a "real" sourdough this time with my new reinvigorated starter.




Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

a ratio of 1:1:1 with cups is actually underfeeding the starter.  The starter will weigh close to 240g,  water will weigh close to 240g, but flour weighs only 120g so if you figure it out, you need more flour, close to 2 cups to get a 1:1:1 ratio.

Gosh I wish you would have tried the heaping teaspoon thing.  No big deal, later, you just need to trust the starter but you will see that in the same amount of time, you might have had more yeasts in the starter.  

Getting back to the starter...  here is what I understand you to say:  The 2/3 c starter was fed 2/3 water and 2/3 cup (half of what it should have been) of flour, this was too runny and so more (?) flour was added.  Good move!  Now the starter is just sitting around all day getting very hungry and overripe waiting for you to remove 2/3 cup for tonight's recipe and then this poor hungry starter (that is about 2/3 to 1 cup now) is going into the fridge until next Thursday.  

If that is the case, please give your starter something to eat, please!  It should really be reduced to a small amount and fed, allowed to multiply at room temp for about 4 hours and then be tucked into the fridge.  Do the teaspoon trick, your yeasties will thank you.   Then the night or 12 hours before you need your starter to make dough, use a tablespoon of starter 1/2 cup of water and 1 c flour to make your thick batter consistency.   Sit this out covered and when you need your 2/3 cup, 12 hours later, it will be very perky.  

GonzoTheBaker's picture

Ahh, I get your point about the ratio...  I think that when I added the extra flour, it  probably yielded the same (or very similar) result.  I was trying to make the "paste" that you mentioned.  Anyway, after I take my 2/3c for baking tonight, I will probably only have a little more than a tsp anyway so, next week your recipe it is! 

Here's to hoping my starter hasn't died before I bake with it.  :-)





GonzoTheBaker's picture

Ok, so I took out my 3/4 c of starter and baked two loaves using Peter Reinhart's basic sourdough recipe.  The bread rose well and the dough smelled quite nice BUT...the bread wasn't very sour.  I have to admit I'm quite surprised since it seems most people seem to end up with bread that is TOO sour the first time out.  If anything, I think this batch was a bit boring and had a "grassy" smell and flavor that seemed to be less intense after the bread sat for a day or so.  On day 2 I toasted a slice and added butter and it was "better" but I'm not thrilled.  My wife like the bread and is more of a Sourdough fan than I so mayeb my loaves weren't a miserable failure - just a basic failure.   

When the loaves were first sliced after about 2 hours of cooling, I wasn't very happy with the flavor or aroma of the bread.  Usually any home baked bread that I have made has this sort of "can't wait to slap some butter on it" quality.  While this smelled and looked great baking, it had this grassy aroma and the flavor wasn't very "sour" or interesting.  If this were my very first loaf of bread I might think that I messed up the formula but I was quite meticulous with my "mise en place" and don't think it was the method or the ingredients themselves.  Every other loaf of bread I have made with commericial yeast has turned out fine.  Is it possible that my starter is not developed or will it get better as I bake with it more and more?  Maybe my starter is just plain "bad."  Maybe I just don't like sourdough.  Hmm?






Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Well that can certainly happen.  Happens all the time in fact.  Tastes vary or we would all be eating the same kind of bread.  Oh gosh!  Don't even get me thinking about every person eating the same kind of loaf.  What a cataclysmic disaster that would be!  You are the master of your own bread.  Make what you like.  Make what your family likes.  

You can keep the starter longer, rounding it out by feeding it with bits of other flours mixed in.  Maybe you would prefer another kind of sourdough better?  I keep a rye.  Have had others but I keep coming back to it.   What is your favorite grain?  Try different flours and feed your starter what you like.  If it doesn't suit your tastes, well...  no biggie,  you've learned something and time to move on.  Don't rule it out forever though, times change and tastes change with time.  ..and your wife likes it.  Funny that you still call it a failure.  I'd say that if anyone liked it that was a plus.  So cheer up and bake something you want to dive into warm with butter!


Leslie B's picture
Leslie B

I'm jumping in at this seems a similar topic.  I have had 2 failed attempts at making my own starter (latest was accidenatlly baked by a guest), so I resorted to begging.  I collected 3 different starters, whole wheat, bread flour, and AP.  While the previous owners have had great success in using their starters, I have posted here before that my bread had no taste.

Luckily, someone came by as I was pulling a whole wheat starter bread out of the oven.  She has been baking bread for 30 yrs and said that my bread is not sour.  And, that none of my starters are sour.  While she can't tell me how to fix this- she's never had to question her 30 yr old starter, I am wondering what I'm doing wrong.

Since I'm in Boulder and am at higher elevation I need a 100% hydration, which I think I'm doing.  I leave it out the morning of the evening I want to bake, but when my friend saw my starter she said that it isn't bubbly enough and it should be gassier and moving.  I've never had this.  I am using regular tap water and since these are established starters, feeding 2 times a week.  But, I've never had any of the starters really bubbling- I have bubbles but I guess not a lot.

Should I dump out some starter as I feed it to simply keep it alive?  I had hooch develop in the whole wheat starter while I was away for just over a week, dumped it out and nursed it back to what I thought was healthy.  The others were fine.  I was told I had hooch bc I was using too much water and the yeast didn't have enough flour to feed on, so I adjusted my feedings.  No more hooch but still no flavor.

Any ideas that a beginner baker can understand?

Thanks, Leslie

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

I am using regular tap water and since these are established starters, feeding 2 times a week.  

Temps, feed amounts and what does the starter do between feeds?  Where is it kept?  Did any of the starters have a suggested feeding plan?

Leslie B's picture
Leslie B

The people from whom I got the starters all took a relaxed approach to feedings: did not measure flour and water but did say they knew what the consistency should look like; regfrigerate immediately after a feeding; fed the day before they wanted to bake, 1 bakes regularly and the other about 1ce a month; and left the starters out the morning of the evening they were baking.

I've had the starters for about 5 weeks.  Since I had a little of each, I was feeding them once a day til I had a good amount to start baking with.  I was baking about 2-3 times per week without success- no crumb, no flavor.  So, recently I switched to no knead dutch oven breads.  The first 2 attempts with the starters were pretty dull and the breads were somewhat flat.  This past week, I tried flavored breads, i.e. cranberry pecan, and it turned out pretty good.  So, I've made a few of these and then went back to a straight starter dutch oven when my friend mentioned that it was not sour.  I had planned on attempting kneaded bread again next week but don't know if I should if I don't have good starters.

Opps got off subject.  I'm told the starters are of at least 3 yrs old and are very strong so that once I got a good amount, I can reduce my feedings to 2ce/week.  I keep them in the refigerator

At first I was feeding about 2 tbls flour, and 1.5 tbls of water.  After I didsn't see much activity, I read on TFL that feedings should be equal to the same amount of the starter.  I did this and now I have a lot of starter but still only some bubbles.  Since I have a good amount of starter, I decreased my feedings to the day before I'm going to bake (which is at least 2ce/week, so 1ce each for the starters)

After I feed, I do see more bubbles but it doesn't double in size.  Though, I did read that it shirnks back down again so I assumed I was missing this part and that it did it overnight or something.

Oh, with my no kneads, I do keep the dough moist- don't know if that affects flavor.  But, it's so dry here and it's baked in a dutch oven. 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

But I'm guessing that they just haven't been given the time to grow after feedings.  Try not to refrigerate a just fed starter.  Let the yeasts and bacteria warm up for about 3 hours before chilling it.   Not doing this decreases the numbers of both the yeasts and the lactobacilli you want to grow.  

I think your starters need a little room temperature treatment for a few days to build up their numbers again.   Take them out of the fridge and leave the starters out at warm room temps until they rise and smell more sour and each appear to stop rising and flatten out and start to sink into the middle.

Keep a sheet of paper for each one to take notes and mark the starter levels.  Once they rise and fall, then reduce the amount to a heaping teaspoon and feed again.   Do not feed more often than at 12 hour intervals under 75°F if you do not see doubling of the starter.   For these small amounts it pays to view your starters in tall narrow glasses although they are a pain to clean.


elissabee's picture

I'm new to sourdough as well but I've had great success so far with my starter. I followed Chad Robertson's starter recipe, which is shared here in Martha Stewart Living. I didn't see many bubbles or doubling after three to four days, so, being an instant gratification type, I augmented CR's approach by adding six crushed grapes and about half a teaspoon of white vinegar (per the advice of someone here). I also changed over to spring water instead of tap. Within three days I had a doubling, bubbling mass of starter. When I attempted to remove the grapes, I couldn't even find them. They'd been devoured. That was two weeks ago. 

I have now made three batches of Tartine bread with absolutely amazing results. My breads look every bit as good as the pictures I've seen of the Tartine Country Loaf and the flavor and texture is wonderful. When I brought a loaf to my mother on Sunday she said I should open a bakery. :lol: