The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Is my starter failing?

  • Pin It
jgonyo's picture
jgonyo

Is my starter failing?

I am trying to create a starter using the method given by sourdolady. I am on day 4 of feeding the starter with unbleached all purpose flour and water. When I switched to flour and water on Saturday, I was still getting good bubbles and doubling in size after feeding. Maybe not as many bubbles as I had with rye flour and orange juice though. Slowly over the past few days my bubbles have been reducing and it has stopped doubling after feeding (isn't even rising anymore). Today it has some bubbles on the top, no bubbles suspended within the starter, and is producing a lot of clear liquid. The starter itself also seems much more liquidy yesterday and today. It doesn't have the consistency of pancake batter anymore. I have been feeding it twice a day, to try to keep it active. I did start giving it 1/4 teaspoon of cider vinegar with the feedings yesterday. Do you give it vinegar each time you feed it, or just once a day? The temperature in our house has been fluctuating a lot the past couple of days and has not been as warm, would that have an effect? I put it in the oven with the light on this morning hoping to give it a more stable environment. Is this normal activity? If not is there anything I can do to save the starter?

Squid's picture
Squid

Based on my experience, I'd say no, it isn't failing. I found that after the first few days, the starter would get very liquidy after it had been fed. I started to use a tad more flour to make it like a thick batter, only b/c it made me feel better to see more activity. LOL Of course, I'm just a beginner so what do I know? Some of the experts here might give you some better advice.

The most important ingredient for my starter was patience. I just let it do its thing, and 14 days later I made a beautiful sourdough loaf.

bwraith's picture
bwraith

What ratio are you using on each feeding? Also, what temperature is it in your oven w/the light on? When you switched over on Saturday, how long did it take after feeding for it to start bubbling and rising? What does it smell like before and after the feeding? By twice/day, do you mean morning and evening, approximately? Were you using the same water before you switched over to AP flour, or is it now different water?

Some possible problems might be (not in any particular order):

1) Water could be chlorinated or either very alkaline or very acid and be affecting your culture in some unexpected way. Changing the water you use could help. Not all water supplies can be dechlorinated by letting some sit out for a day or by boiling it, so it can be good to just switch to an entirely different source if you aren't sure about the chlorination method.

2)  Oven could be much hotter than you think with the light on. If it is above about 85F, that can cause the yeast in the culture to suffer,  bacterial levels to rise, and the culture to become ripe very quickly. Sometimes overly hot water being added is a mistake, too. I think cultures can do well between 65F and 85F or so, but if you can stay between 68-80F that's probably a better bet. There will be a huge difference in the time for the culture to ripen between those two temperatures, though.

3) Too low a feeding ratio and too infrequent feeding can lead to culture being starved or too ripe (very low pH and high acid levels will eventually stop the growth of the culture), losing it's vigor. If you feed at a higher ratio more frequently, and it bounces back, then the culture is probably OK and you can use that technique to revive it when you need to use it. The time to ripen is affected by the feeding ratio and the temperature.

4) At the other extreme, feeding too often at too high a ratio can cause the culture to be diluted before it has a chance to grow into the food you gave it, meaning you effectively just end up with flour and water after a while.

To invigorate a culture, you need to feed it at the right time in the life cycle of the culture, i.e. when it is not too ripe and yet ripe enough, so it has had time after feeding to activate and multiply. The signs of ripening are bubbles and a developing  tangy smell and taste. It is getting very ripe if the smell and sour taste are very strong and the flour begins to break down and become all soupy and stringy. Rising is not necessarily a good way to measure ripening, as it depends on the consistency of the culture and on the strength of the gluten in the flour.

We've had (very) long discussion (unfortunately not yet successful) in another thread where we are trying to solve a similar problem with L_M's culture. One important distinction that can be a little confusing, which is discussed in this thread, is the difference between "maintenance mode" and "refreshment mode". You can maintain a culture with less frequent feeding, refrigeration, making a stiff "chef" to put in refrigerator, and whatnot. The balance and vigor may well fall off the longer the culture is stored in "maintenance mode", but if "maintained" properly, you should be able to "refresh" or "invigorate" a culture (to make it ready for bread making) with more frequent feedings at around room temperature. Overall, the cycle from maintenance mode to refreshment mode and back can be very forgiving, once the culture is off and running. However, as the discussion referred to above shows, and as mentioned by squid, sometimes it can really try your patience at first, as you iron out any problems that actually keep the culture from reaching health and stability.

Bill

jgonyo's picture
jgonyo

Thanks for all of the advice. The water I am using is bottled spring water. It is the same water that I have been using the entire time. When feeding I am keeping 1/4 cup of the starter and feeding 1/4 unbleached all purpose flour and 1/4 spring water. Have also been adding 1/4 teaspoon cider vinegar the past day (per sourdolady instructions). I have been doing this twice a day (usually morning and evening). It is starting to develop a liquid on top about 4 hours after feeding. Does this mean it needs to be fed more often? Or should I feed higher quantities twice a day? I checked the temperature in my oven and it is about 74 degrees with the light off. So it probably is to warm with the light on. I am going to leave the starter in the oven with light off, so it remains at a stable temperature. My house just has so many temperature fluctuations wherever I put it.

Thanks again.

bwraith's picture
bwraith

I would probably avoid the addition of the vinegar unless it goes completely flat and shows no activity at all (I think that's when SourdoLady's instructions say to add a small amount of vinegar to the feeding) . Adding acid, such as vinegar, OJ, or pineapple juice, is useful to kick start the acidity of the culture (favoring the organisms you want and making it harder for other less desireable organisms to survive) before the lactobacillus and yeast are active. If the culture tastes and smells sour 5 or 6 hours after an expansion of 3x or 5x, it probably is already making the acid needed on its own.

It might be worth trying a somewhat higher feeding ratio and/or doing it more frequently if it looks like the culture is getting too ripe/sour before you feed it on your current schedule. There is a cycle the culture goes through after a feeding starting with little activity immediately after feeding, then bubbling and yeasty smell and maybe rising, then the beginning of sour flavors and tangy smells, then increasing sour and eventually loss of activity when the acid levels get too high and the food supply drops off. To encourage the culture it should help if you can identify the stages in the life cycle of the culture and feed sometime after the beginning of sour flavors and tangy smells and before the point it begins to be overly ripe, sour, and falls in activity level. If you feed sometime in that part of the cycle, you should have growth of organisms but avoid letting it go to the point where the organisms are starved and trying to survive in too acid of an environment for them, even though they are better at surviving in acid than other organisms. Also, the yeast are more active early in the cycle, so if you feed a little more and/or a little earlier you should encourage the yeast to come back if they have fallen off in the culture. However, that doesn't mean multiplying by 10x every 2 hours, which will just dilute the culture before it can grow.Typical "refreshment mode" might be to expand by 5x, e.g. 1:2:2 (old starter:flour:water) every 6 hours at room temperature. Normally that would only need to be done once or twice with a culture that has been in the refrigerator for less than 2 weeks and was vigorous and not too ripe when placed in the refrigerator. However, you need to observe your culture under your conditions to figure out its particular timing. You may have to keep feeding patiently for a while if your culture isn't healthy for some reason at this point. You can go back to adding some rye to encourage the yeast also, then stop adding it when you think it's come back to life.

A stable temperature of 74F sounds very good. A little bit warmer may encourage the yeast, but unless you can keep the temperature from going up toward 90F, which seems like a common mistake when trying to heat cultures and doughs at home, I would avoid doing that in favor of a stable temperature of 74F.

SourdoLady's picture
SourdoLady

When you see liquid appearing on the top of the starter it means it needs to be fed. When the starter becomes runny in consistency that is also a sign that it needs to be fed. Once the yeast start to grow (which it sounds like yours did) you need to feed it bigger meals, and 2 or 3 times daily instead of only once. I would take about 2 Tbsp. of your old starter (discard the rest) and feed it with 1/2 cup each of flour and water. You could also throw in a good spoonful of rye flour with each feeding until it gets stronger (or even do 50/50 rye/AP). After feeding wait a few hours and when it has been nice and bubbly but is starting to recede, then it is time to feed it again. Always dump out most of it before feeding each time. Have you been doing this all along?

JIP's picture
JIP

Just to interject a question here when I started mine the liquid came to the top but as it developed it slowly migrated to the bottom is this a problem.

jgonyo's picture
jgonyo

Thanks to everyone for your help and advice. I added a little rye flour to the feeding last night and this morning, and the starter is beginning to look better. It had a few bubbles on the top this morning and was not runny. I am going to try giving it larger feedings today. I have been discarding all but 1/4 cup of the old starter and adding 1/4 cup flour and 1/4 water. I will try the advice from sourdolady and feed it 1/2 cup of each. Should I wait for it to show signs of needing to be fed (i.e. becoming runny or forming liquid on the top) before feeding it?

 

 

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Jgonyo,

The liquid on top and soupy, runny texture (maybe more like 8 hours after feeding) happen somewhat later in the cycle, if that's what you are describing when you say runny - not completely sure if we are talking about the same things. Well before that, you should detect sour flavor and tangy smell (maybe  3-5 hours after feeding). Feeding it sometime (maybe an hour or two or three) after it begins to be sour but also a little before it gets really runny and develops liquid on top is about right. It's hard to  judge the signs or describe them from afar, and they vary from culture to culture, but it sounds like you're on the right track. Roughly speaking, 3 times a day, as suggested by SourdoLady, would be every 8 hours, so that can give some idea of the typical timing. I would be feeding my starter every 6 hours if "refreshing" normally, feeding it 1:2:2 (starter:flour:water) and keeping it at about 70F, as I tend to do - just an example.

By the way, I think SourdoLady is suggesting a higher feeding ratio than your recent post mentions, i.e. 2tbsp (1/8 cup as opposed to 1/4 cup) starter to 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup water. Not sure if you noticed that or not in her post. The higher feeding ratio has a similar effect, i.e. feeding more often or feeding at a higher ratio are both ways of "feeding it more when the yeast is active". If you need to let the culture go longer between feedings, increase the feeding ratio. Or, feed more frequently at a little bit lower ratio.

Bill

jgonyo's picture
jgonyo

The starter was looking better yesterday, after I began feeding it more often (appx. every 8 hours). It  still didn't have any bubbles suspended within it, however.  Yesterday evening I gave it  the first feeding with the increased amounts suggested here.  When I checked it this morning, it had risen slightly and had a few bubbles suspended within.  I think I read somewhere that the starter should be able to double itself in size before you use it for baking, is this correct? 

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Jgonyo,

It sounds like you're in the intermediate stage, where the starter is a few days old, it's bubbling somewhat but is not yet really vigorous and stable. L_M struggled with this in another thread that is active now. The sourdough faq on starters and Mike Avery's discussion of sluggish starters are both helpful to read at this point. When it's going, you'll know it. It really bubbles, lots of them, big and small.

The discussion of the iterative process applied to a "barely alive" starter in the sourdough faq on starters link above is probably relevant. A rough summary of the things suggested are:

1) Either do a very high ratio feeding and proof for 24 hours at around 75F, or do a lower ratio (tripling the volume of the starter roughly) and proof for 12 hours at 85F. So, maybe the advice to feed every 8 hours at room temp at 1:2:2 is a little too often for a new starter in this "sluggish" stage. My suggestion is based more off of what I would normally do with a healthy starter.

2) Stir every 12 hours or so.

3) Refrigerate for 12 hours in between feeding and proofing, to allow a "rest period". This is something I never tried, but I think it may have worked for L_M.

Maybe some of the discussion in those two sources will ring a bell for you. Particularly, the description of a "new starter" in a "barely alive" state that produces early hooch and is stringy in consistency sounds something like what you were describing.

As far as rising is concerned, there are some gotchas there. The rising by double rule always worked well for me, but I used KA bread flour, a fairly thick (90-100% hydration, i.e. 1:1 flour:water by weight or a little thicker) batter, and I seem to have a fairly mild and active culture. So, it rises by double in about 5-6 hours at room temp like clockwork. However, it doesn't always work that way. If your flour is weaker and can't hold up against the byproducts of the fermentation (which break down the gluten), and if you use a wetter culture that is a lot thinner, then rising by double may not happen, even though the culture is healthy. That may be particularly true while it's in this early stage, as you may have lots of acid and break down the gluten before it has a chance to rise. That's why it's good to pay attention to other signs, like the smell and taste, which can help you detect activity and large populations of the organisms. Also, if I just wait until my culture doubles, it's still quite young and not very ripe. If I wait a few more hours, or if I refrigerate it for a couple of days, the flavor is much stronger and can be better if I'm using it as a poolish substitute, for example, and want that extra flavor, but that's later, when it's healthy and you're fine tuning how long, how much to feed, and whatnot to get the flavor you want.

Good luck with it. The thing that seems to be a constant, that Squid mentioned, is if you are patient and keep going, it will spring to life eventually. The trick is to keep a reasonable feeding ratio, time, and temperature, so it isn't getting way too ripe at one extreme or diluted way too much at the other extreme.

Squid's picture
Squid

 I think I read somewhere that the starter should be able to double itself in size before you use it for baking, is this correct? 

I'm new at this, but my starter has never doubled in size and it baked a really nice loaf with big, open holes. I've had it thicker in consistency as well as a thinner consistency. It gets really frothy and increases somewhat, but it's never doubled.

I was worrying that it wouldn't rise b/c I'd heard that it was supposed to double. But it did good.  

ooifalu's picture
ooifalu

jgonyo: Get the cookbook: Rita Davenport-Sourdough Cookery (you can find it at Amazon.com). It will tell you exactly how to do your starter...what ingredients & utensils to use (and not to use). It will show you photos of what your sourdough looks like at different stages, etc. It has some excellent information in it, very easy to understand...and the pictures will really help you. The book is paperback and is what I used to start my "sourdough career" years ago...I have had to cover the outside of mine completely in clear, strong shipping tape to preserve it, as I have used it so much over the years it had been nearly mutilated. I now make up my own recipes and have filled every blank spot she left under her recipes...with my own. It is my most valuable cookbook (other than my Hungarian one)...I'm sure you'll enjoy it and find it most helpful.

jgonyo's picture
jgonyo

Thanks to everyone who answered my questions about sourdough starters.  It took exactly two weeks to create a healthy active starter, but I think I have done it.  My first two loaves are proofing now.  It is so exciting.  I am storing the starter in the refrigerator, but I am not sure how often it needs to be fed now.  I think I remember something about once a week?  Does it need to be kept in an airtight container or should it be allowed to breathe?  Thanks again.

bwraith's picture
bwraith

Jgonyo,

You may want to feed it once per week or even once per day or so, especially in the beginning few weeks. It will probably stabilize better and develop more character that way. However, in the long run, I have gone a couple of months without feeding it. My usual schedule results in 1:2:2 feedings twice in one day at room temperature every couple of weeks, when I revive it and do a bunch of baking.

My container allows some gas to escape. It has a light pressure rubber seal, so it isn't just open to the air in my refrigerator, but if pressure builds up it can escape. Some people make it airtight, others not, and I haven't heard much trouble either way. I just always thought it was better to allow some gas to escape, so you don't build up some very large amount of pressure, but I don't know if that really matters.

Bill