The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Problem with the Tartine Bread Starter

jdgodsey1's picture

Problem with the Tartine Bread Starter

Hi all,

I'm trying the Tartine Bread recipe and seem to be having trouble getting my Starter going.  Here's my environment.  I live in the Denver-metro area at about 6000 ft. elevation.  At this time of the year, my house temp ranges from 60 - 66 degrees.  I began the starter on Apr 9 following the Tartine instructions exactly.  I use a small plastic container (approx. 2 pints).  Filled it halfway with tap water.  I use a charcoal filter on my faucet similar to a Pur filter.  I use King Author non-bleached bread flour and King Author whole wheat in a 50/50 mixture.  It took 4 handfuls of flour to achieve a thick batter.  I mixed it with my hand until the lumps were gone.  I covered the container with a damp paper towel and put it on top of the refrigerator out of direct sunlight.

Apr 10 - no activity visible, water began to separate to the top - about 1/16"

Apr 11 - a few bubble were visible on the top, none on the sides, water separation grew to about 1/8"

Apr 12 - noticed more bubbles on top and side, starter did grow, water still separated on top

Apr 13 - brown crust developed around the top out edges.  Smell was mildly acidic.  Choose to begin the feeding schedule.  Discarded 80% and feed with 1/2 cup of 50/50 flour and 1/2 cup of warm tap water.  The time is 6:30pm.  No real rise/fall activity occurs with in the next 5 hours.  House temp remains between 60 - 66 degrees in a 24 hour period.

Apr 14 - water is separated at the top.  A few bubbles are visible.  Mild aroma - no acidity.  No visible rise/fall activity.  Discard 80% and feed again 24 hours later using same method as above

Apr 15 - water is separated at the top.  A few bubbles are visible.  Mild aroma - no acidity.  No visible rise/fall activity.  Skip feeding.

Apr 16 - water is separated at the top.  A few bubbles are visible.  Mild aroma - no acidity.  No visible rise/fall activity.  Discard 80% and feed again at 8:00am using 1/3 cup of 50/50 flour and 1/3 cup of warm tap water.  House temp - 61 degrees.

I think I'm following the Tartine instructions correctly, but don't believe I'm getting the proper results.  Any thoughts?

Thanks in advance for any and all comments.



plevee's picture

Are you stirring the starter every day?

This helps distribute yeasts, bacteria and food and I have usually done this even on days when I didn't feed a new starter. 

I also begin with a much smaller amount of flour and water - about a quarter cup of flour and enough water the make a pancake batter consistency which cuts down on the amount you have to waste/discard at each feeding.  Patsy

ehanner's picture

Regardless of how you do this process, you need to find a place in the house with a stable temperature of 72-78F. I use the small cabinet above the refrigerator and keep a small home thermometer up there just to watch it. The bacteria are slowed way down in cooler temperatures Controlling the temperature is the single most important aspect of starting and maintaining a natural culture. You don't want to go much above 78F however, 80F works for some proofing. This will apply to fermenting and proofing the dough as well.


Onceuponamac's picture

I've had good luck in a home with the temperature between 58 and 64 degrees.  I initially had problems - I was using filtered tap water and I found the starter wouldn't get going.  I started using bottled water and it has worked exceptionally well.  I also boosted the starter by using the pineapple juice recommendation that can be found here and on other boards.  The natural yeasts need a lower ph to thrive - typically when you start a starter - the natural ph of the water and flour is too high for the natural yeast to flourish.  You get bubbles after a couple of days in any event - but these are other bacteria - this activity does lower the ph - so that the natural yeast can start.  If you use pineapple juice for the first few days - or another acidic juice - it will lower the ph more quickly and the natural yeast will start to thrive.  I got mine going robustly in about 2.5 days.

i don't know what impact altitude has on starter - I'm basically at sea level.


Good luck!

jdgodsey1's picture

Thank you to all...

I'm going to use a proofing box to get my temp up to 70 degrees.  I'm also going to use less flour & water on each feeding.  I'll let everyone know how this works.


michinson's picture

I'm no expert, but I've been working from the Tartine book for a month or two now, trying to get the basic country loaf down and improving with every batch.

I too began my starter in cool temps.   My kitchen is cold, and it was just at the end of winter, so I was probably running the same temperature range as you. From the information in your post, I think I started feeding it a little sooner than you did.  Heck, I wasn't really sure what I was looking at, so I started feeding it at the presecribed three days.  Anyway, I got the separation, then some activity, then went ahead with feeding.  Now, a number of weeks in, I do notice that my starter is much more robust than at the beginning, but it's taken weeks and weeks.  It seems to be quite happy to sit around in the fridge and wait for a meal, then perks right up and grows happily.

In the last few weeks one thing I've done differently is that I'm using Brita-filtered water, but letting it sit in a pitcher for a day or so to dechlorinate, and I think my starter is showing its appreciation. I have no idea about the effects of altitude (I'm in Nashville) but dechlorination and/or maturity seem to be making a difference in my starter.

Another thing I'm paying more attention to as I'm baking is heating my mixing water slightly, rather than using room temp water, and popping my bowl into the oven with the light on to help along the bulk fermentation.  It's been sort of an ongoing experiment, although a very causal one compared to some folks on the site, but quite fun.  

Good luck, and I wish you much good bread!



jdgodsey1's picture

Even after 1 day, I'm having more success (i.e. more bubbles) using the proofing box and keeping the temp between 70 - 72 degrees.  I was also very careful with this morning's feeding to use 50g water and 50g 50/50 flour.  Equal by weight, not volume.  This made for a much thicker batter.  

I like the dechlorination idea. I'll start using that tomorrow.

I found the instructions for a build it yourself proofing box on this blog site at

The perfect combination of cheap and effective.



idylwild's picture

I was also having similar problems when I started trying to get a starter going from the Tartine Bread Book instructions.  I had a lot of liquid on top, which it sounds like you are experiencing, and in general it seemed too wet.  Then I realized that I should probably (duh) be feeding the seed a 50/50 flour/water mixture by weight not by volume.  I started following this procedure: fill a clean container with 100g water, add roughly 50g starter, break it up a little, add 100g flour (the 50/50 whole wheat mixture), scraping the sides carefully etc. and it started behaving beautifully.  I think I was drowning the poor thing.

The other breatkthrough for me in getting my starter healthy was something I got from watching someone make cheese- which is to really, really get your hands in there and squeeze everything between your fingers to mix; enthusiastically, manually, dig in.  That helped me a lot, too.

sfsourdoughnut's picture

I had trouble with making starter because the natural yeasts on the flour weren't happy in my environment (tried the pineapple juice thing twice...starter formed but wasn't active...using rye flour, my starter wasn't happy when I switched to AP or Bread flour).

So I had some table grapes that I washed thoroughly, and then left on my counter until they shriveled and had a must develop on the skins.  I put them in a glass measuring cup, unwashed, covered them with 1/2 cup of filtered water, and let them sit overnight.  I then removed the grapes and added the flour (1-to-1).  The first day you will get activity that may be grape yeast.  It subsided and I kept tossing 1/2 and feeding 1-1 every day, by weight, water to flour, (=3/4 c water to 1 c flour) until the 5th day, when Boom, the starter came to life in a very active way.  By using Unbleached King Arthur Bread Flour, instead of rye or whole wheat, I feel like I keep my local yeasts that developed on the grapes going without being overwhelmed by the yeasts on the organic whole wheat or rye flours.  I don't know if that's true.  The starter is now really active and does a bang up job elevating my sourdough loaves.  You can use whatever flour to make bread, just keep the starter pure by only using unbleached KA AP or Bread flour and filtered water.  And by the way, you can keep 1/4 cup of starter.  Don't need to do it with 1/2 cup of flour.  So a 1/4 c of starter, 3 Tbsp water, 1/4 c of flour to refresh will be just fine.

For storage, just add 1/2 c flour to 1/8 c starter, and add just enough water (by Tbsp) to stir into a literal dough ball.  It will keep for weeks in the refrigerator that way, as the flour gives the starter plenty to feed on in cold storage.

That's it.