The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

About to give up and/or sit down and cry!

merlie's picture

About to give up and/or sit down and cry!

I seem to be destined to never make my own starter ! My first attempt was Peter Reinhart's formula from  BBA. That just sat there , was very runny and did nothing. ( for days!) Next I went to my Tartine book and tried Chad Robertson's method. This resulted in it separating and forming a nasty black skin - never did bubble up or look anything like the pictures. Now , having read many posts here on TFL I am about to toss out my third attempt - PR's method from Artisan Breads Every Day with pinapple juice. I used a 50/50 blend of bread flour and WW flour. ( because Chad Robertson made me mix up 5lbs of it ! ) This attempt looked promising - a few tiny bubbles on day 3 - so I added flour and juice as per instructions and waited.....I stirred as instructed and waited......still no bubbling. When stirred there were bubbles inside but it did not  appear " active and bubbly " on the top. Day 7 came and went. I then decided to go ahead anyway just to see what would happen. Converting it to a Mother starter looked good. I formed a nice ball and followed PR's instructions to the letter, loosely covering it with plastic wrap. It could have doubled in 4 - 6hrs but it did not .As the house is a little below 70 degrees at night I put it in the oven with just the oven light on. Imagine my delight this morning to find that it had doubled ! This pleasure was short lived however when trying to follow the next step. ( "knead for a few seconds and form back into a ball ") It POURED onto my counter like a thick batter !!!  I have scraped it back into the bowl - what a mess.....It was much much wetter than a ciabatta dough. Why did it do this to me ??


So....feeling better now I've written it all down. If there is anyone near Armstrong, British Columbia throwing out starter please throw it this way !

Any communication gratfully received - Merlie

cranbo's picture

if your starter doubled, it is alive! don't throw it out!

just start feeding it regularly and all will be fine!

I don't know what hydration you are using for your starter. If it seems too liquid to you, make it more firm by adding more flour. 

Getting the starter to live is the hard part, you've done that, congratulations! Feeding it is the easy part: you can make it more liquid or more firm. Liquid or firm will behave in different ways over time, which you choose is up to you. 

Congratulations, and don't give up!

caraway's picture

Don't know how long you had your starter in the oven but if it was quite warm in there chances are it was over it's prime.  Your 68 degree nights are just fine for starter.  It'll rise a little slower but that's better if you want to get a nice sleep in before it starts to fall and needs more food. If the little critters in the bowl are all played out the starter breaks down and gets runny like yours did.  Also, you might want to check your oven temp with the light on.  Mine gets too hot to leave Pita (my pet starter's name) in there for any length of time.

Don't get discouraged, once you learn all the rules it'll get easy.  And sourdough bread is worth it, both healthwise and tastewise.  : )


LindyD's picture

Mr. Reinhart's instructions in the BBA are quite convoluted, plus, he didn't create the pineapple juice method, Debra Wink did.

I think if you read her explanations, you'll gain an understanding of what's happening and what to look for.

The actual instructions are at the end of her post, but reading the entire thing should prove helpful.

Never give up...

nicodvb's picture

Your starter melted either because there's a lot of enzymatic activity going on or because it  was striken by the now classical "thiol syndrome". Keep in refreshing and all will be fine.

GSnyde's picture

It sounds like your starter is fine, but your expectations were different.

When you feed a starter at 60 - 80% hydration, the consistency is like dough.  But as the starter ripens, it becomes gluey and more liquid.  Sounds like yours is doing well.

Good luck.


merlie's picture

I've added more flour and it is now a tacky ball in my refrigerator and looks like it has even risen a little more. Is it ready to use yet? Or do I feed it the night before using it?

Again, thank you for your help everyone.


Baking Mama's picture
Baking Mama

 Merlie, I have had a starter for 8 weeks now and its alive and fine. Try this recipe & method next time. I know starters can be tricky but this one was my 1st attempt and makes awesome sourdough. The hydration is 65%.

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 also refrigerate my starter to retard, I remove 2-3 hrs before feedings and leave out another 2-3 hrs before placing back in frig.
I hope this help Good Luck

merlie's picture

Hi Baking Mama,

Thank you for the recipe - will try it if my starter fails - but every one tells me it is fine now! 


Mr_Jules's picture

The natural yeasts found in starters - especially during the first few days before they really take hold are extremely fagile. Tap water, which often contains traces of chlorine can hinder good early growth. Dan Lepard recommends bottled water - I have found that filtered water works just as well. Likewise, make sure that all of your utensils are really clean AND rinced. It goes without saying that you should use unbleached flour, and unpasterised juice, (if you choose to use it, I have found that just flour, water and raisins produce a fantastic starter) I use nothing but organic ingredients, which certainly seems to help. But it does sound as if you have a starter at last, so well done, and good luck.

merlie's picture

Hi Mr_Jules,

Yes I used bottled spring water and unbleached flour. Thank you for taking the time to help!

Regards Merlie

Davo's picture

I think you have an active starter, so tick that box.

What I think happened then was a confusion of terms. I don't know PR's recipes but I am reasonably certain that you wouldn't be fermenting some dough overnight at room temps and THEN kneading it. Makes no sense to me at all - I would end up with a runny, non-kneadable soupy gloop, too. Maybe if the starter was a tiny weensy proportion of the final dough, but I still doubt that apparoach.

"Mother" is what some people call their starter mix that they keep going and take from occasionally to make up a "bread dough". You don't knead , ferment, prove and bake a "mother". The final mix that you make up to eventually bake is "bread dough".

Terms vary but generally speaking you take some active, room temp starter/levain (like yours would have been after fermenting overnight), and add some of that to a bunch of new flour and water, and some salt. Normally the total weight of starter is about say 1/5 to 1/4 (or thereabouts, it varies a lot) of the weight of the new flour/water, and salt is about 1.8% to 2% of the total flour weight in this "bread dough".

Your fermented starter has had a lot of the gluten eaten out of it by the bugs - so it has little structure and is a bit runny. But the new flour hasn't been fermented and is effectively only a bit diluted by the starter (the 1/5 to 1/4 portion of it) so, it generally behaves just like any flour/water mix, just a bit stickier. This bread dough is normally kneaded pretty much straight away after mixing - although some people go through a slightly complicated "autolyse" step where the new flour and water are mixed and left alone for 20 mins beofre mixing in with the starter and salt, but much the same result can be had by mixing all the "bread dough" ingredients (starter, new flour, salt and water) all together until it's fairly well if not totally mixed (a bit messy/shredded is fine) and leaving it for 20 mins, before starting to knead. But you knead it right then, don't ferment it overnight, or, as I noted above, it will almost certainly go gooey!

Kneading can be done many ways, but I personally prefer to do it in short kneads - the first about a minute (goolge up "french fold"), and then leaving it on the bench for 10 mins, and repeating this about 3 times. Then I put it back in the bowl (with the intial "rest" period and those 10 min ones between short kneads, this is now about an hour after mixing up the bread dough). I let it sit in the bowl for a further approx 1.5 to 2 hrs, with a "stretch and fold" every about 30 mins or so - which effectively keeps the kneading process going to develop the gluten in a gentle way without deflating the little bubbles that are starting to form. This period I call "bulk ferment", although others use different names.

(Another tip - use wetted hands for the initial kneads, and then a floured bench and floured hands for the later "stretch and folds".)

Once the "bulk ferment" is over, you "shape" the loaves, this is now about 2.5 to 3 hours after mixing, and the dough should have expanded a bit, but I don't let it double - if it doubles for me, it's too far feremented (though others might let it double). I then divide my dough up into loaf sizes - some call this "scaling" becuase you weigh out the portions, but if you are doing a single loaf, you don't have to cut it up! WHen I cut the dough at this stage, there are tiny little bubbles in it (almost hard to see) - not great big "holes-in-baked-sourdough" size ones. Remember this has got hours of further rising (during the "proof") and then oven expansion to go, and you want decent overall expansion, not the most before you shape the loaves. If it's got great big bubbles when you shape the loaves, it will be too runny to shape properly and after further proofing will almost certainly bake up like a pancake - with not enough gluten structure to support itself.

You then shape the loaf/loaves - which you may anyway know all about, but google it if you don't. It's more complicated than squeezing into loaf shapes, but you probably know this.

Now, on shaping, I turn my loaves upside down into banettons (floured towels/calico/linen in a bowl will do) and let the loaf sit, either for about 4-5 hours at room temp, or overnight in the fridge, then warmed up an hour or so out of the fridge before baking.

Then you bake, by turing the banetton/bowl over onto a peel and sliging the loaf, right-side up now, onto a heated baking stone in a very well warmed oven.

Recipes vary but they mostly follow a pattern something like this. I can't imagine any of them involving overnight warm fermentation to a point of doubling and THEN kneading. It would be like trying to knead glue, which you obviously figured out. If there is a recipe like this that works for some, fine, but I wouldn't use it!

DOn't give up - it's not that hard! It just needs some understanding of a reasonably correct process - despite the obsession people have with recipes, there are millions that all vary and many make great bread, so there is no magic recipe, there is just a reasonable range of ways to make bread. None of them that I am aware of warm-ferments dough for many, many hours before kneading.

merlie's picture

Hi Davo,

What a lot of information - thank you SO much!! I really appreciate the time you spent helping me.

Regards Merlie.

jcking's picture

I think you guys missed an important clue. Merlie is in Canada I believe. The flour labeling there is not the same as in the U.S. Try the all purp. Different flours absorb liquids differently. I have used the pineapple starter with KA bread flour and found it too wet, so try and coax your starter to be a little firmer, closer to a normal dough mix. I would also suggest adding a table spoon of rye flour on the second or third stage. Yet there is nothing wrong with a liquid levain. You'll need to refresh it more often but if you do a lot of baking it's no big deal.

merlie's picture

Thank you jcking, I had no idea that flours are labled differently in Canada. However my starter now seems alive and well !

Regards Merlie.