The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Starter Help's picture

Starter Help

I have tried over many years to get an active starter going, all to no avail.  I recently purchased the Tartine Bread book and have followed the directions in every way.  I use a 50-50 wheat/bread flour mixed with approximately equal weight room temp water.  The directions had me leave the starter out for a couple days until a strong acidic taste was apparent and bubbles.  I had acidic taste and what appeared as some bubbles, but nothing I would characterize as active from a commercial yeast perspective.  I replaced 80% with 50-50 flour and equal weight water every night.  I saw more bubbles, but only toward the end of the 24 hour rise period, again no where approaching commercial yeast activity (not surprising and this was not my expectation).  All of this took place during a relatively cool winter in an unheated house in the SF Bay Area (~50-55 deg. F).  I tried to make bread after about two or three weeks, and it came out like a host for communion.

The dough just never seemed to rise.  I gave it an extra 8 hours or so.  I just think I did not have an active starter.  I further decided that maybe the temperature was too cool in my kitchen.  I rigged a heat lamp connected to a home thermstat and put this in my oven.  It works extremely well to keep the temp around 65-68 degrees F.  I used the starter from my previous attempts as beginning material.  I followed the same procedures, but stored the covered bowls in the temperature controlled oven. I have virtually zero activity after a week.  I'm at the point of maximum frustration.  I have decided to just let the thing sit there without feeding for several days.  It's possible it never inoculated.

I am just at a loss.  My only success in getting a starter going was when I cheated and used organically grown grapes as the source of some sugar and yeast.  This worked, and worked quite well.  I no longer have the starter as we moved home from Europe.  Any advice or assistance or tricks would be greatly appreciated.  I'm trying to be a purist this go-around and not cheat.

Thanks in advance


Yumarama's picture

I concur with Mark's points. Your biggest potential culprit here is too cool an environement. You mention temps of 50 - 55ºF - I suspect these are outside temps but with an unheated house, I would assume your indoor temps don't reach much more than maybe mid 60's? 

If that is close, then your yeasties are really facing an very steep uphill battle to get motivated enough to become a really dependable, active starter, let alone be able to rise your bread properly.

So how do you fix this problem in an unheated house (or any house that's too cool, really)? 

You will want to locate a warm spot in your house, something closer to the mid 70's (23 - 26ºC) would be excellent. You may find that leaving the light on in the oven will give you such a temperature (tape a note on the oven dial so no one accidently starts it up) or placing the starter on top of the refrigerator would suffice - the heat from the coils in back come up the wall and the top area near the back is likely a really nice warm spot.

I'd suggest you start off by finding a consistently warm spot in your home and park the starter there to see if it doesn't perk up quickly. And it doesn't need to be in the kitchen either so if it's warm next to your computer or by the TV, that's good too.

Give this simple change a go for several days and see if your starter doesn't show you it can double or better in a few hours. When it can do so a few times in a row after each feed, you can use it in a recipe. It will improve over time and become even better, but even at this early stage you'll be able to make bread from it. You'll find you get much better bread later on as the starter matures.

Happy baking,



(Edited out some goblledy gook code text)

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

for a starter to get going at 65°F but what really is accomplished?  

Get it warm, 75°F first so the lactobacillus can get going to set up the culture for yeast growth. Then when the yeasts are awake and multiplying, the starter is doubling and falling, slowly drop the temperature on them.  Expose them first to warmth and then to the normal cool conditions longer with each feed.  Those yeasts that adapt, survive to make the starter stronger for the cooler conditions.  This can easily be done in the first two weeks taking advantage of the unstable starter.  

AOJ's picture

Try this starter method:

It worked for me in the middle of a Minnesota winter, and it's been going strong for two years. Flour and water. I did not obsess about temps. I baked with this seven days after I started it. It has worked consistently and predictably. I've kept the starter in the fridge, and pull out a little, build it up, and bake. I bake anywhere from 2-8 loaves of bread a week. I feed the starter in the fridge every few weeks. This question comes up again and again, and when reading those posts, it just looks like people are not following directions, or they take a little direction from here and some from there.  Follow the directions, exactly.

Ford's picture

I concur with all of the above.  I would add as a precaution use unbleached and non brominated flour.  I have not done the experiments, but I would guess that the bleaching agents and the bromate would affect the lactobacteria and the native yeast in the flour.


tempe's picture

Hi Brian,

I had trouble getting my starter going too, I found Debra Wink's posts on The Pineapple Juice Solution (tried to paste a link for you, somehow it won't paste sorry) to be a great help.  So if you're up for a good read may I suggest you do a search of this site and have a read of Debra's extensive well written posts.  You just need to type in 'the pineapple juice solution' in the search box and the article will be there. 

Best of luck,

Tempe's picture

All your suggestions are appreciated.