The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

My sourdough starter keeps dying. What am I doing wrong?

geoffreypelkey's picture

My sourdough starter keeps dying. What am I doing wrong?

I have been attempting to keep a sourdough starter alive for more than a three week stint for over a year now and am having terrible results. I use P. Reinnharts BBA recipe and all seems to go well initially. The starter is virulent after the first feeding and after one, maybe two feedings every five days or so out of the refridgerator, it becomes lifeless. Finally after refreshing it last night to no avail three weeks after making it, I came here to seek some advice. What could I be doing wrong? I didn't see any activity what so ever and it had that sourish smell coming from it. Any thoughts or pointers would be much appreciated. Thank you in advance.

Listless in Bay City

Home Baker's picture
Home Baker

Add 4 grams water to 4 grams of your starter then stir in 8-10 grams wheat flour. Amount depends on strenght of flour—weak AP flour will need 10 grams, strong bread flour will need only 8 grams. After 8 hours, repeat the process by starting again w/ 4 grams of your room temperature refreshed starter. After a week or two the starter will be doubling after 3-4 hours and it will be strong enough to make bread. Keep feeding 3 times per day for a couple of months at least. After that, feed 2 or three times per day, as you like. When the room is warm the starter will want more feeding, as the weather cools the starter will tolerate fewer feedings — but it keeps its strength best when fed most often at 3 times per day. This is a 50% hydration starter, assuming strong flour is mostly used, so formulas from most contributors here will usually need adjusting. Here's a calculator which makes it easy to adjust or create your own formulas at varying hydrations.

geoffreypelkey's picture

Thank you for your reply.

I only make a sourdough batch once a week and I'm not home enough to feed it three times per day. It seems as though for a homebaker I'd be burning through flour at an enormous pace using that approach, though I admit that it would probably work like gangbusters. In the recipe instructions, the BBA indicates that its ok for the starter to live in the fridge after doubling in size and that you can feed it once every three days or so. Has this approach worked for anyone else?

this is my refresh recipe

40z starter

6oz KA Bread Flour

3oz KA W. Wheat Flour

6.21oz water

geoffreypelkey's picture

Then I calculated what 4 grams is compared to an ounce and I promptly realized that I have a foot in my mouth, so not too much flour, I suppose. 

cranbo's picture

4 grams as recommended by Home Baker seems like way, way too little. Others have reported problems working with less than 2og of starter; small quantities seem to make it easier for the starter to get contaminated and don't always establish a sufficiently beneficial environment for the yeast and bacteria to get established and stay healthy.  

I agree, you don't need to waste a ton of starter to have one that's healthy. 

Once it's established, feed 2x per day as follows:

  • 20g starter
  • 40g water
  • 40g flour

Build to larger quantities as needed. That's exactly what I do. 

Storing in fridge is OK once your starter is well established (once it's healthy and happy after about 3 weeks at room temp and regular feedings). 

If you're having problems getting started, try Debra Wink's Pineapple Solution (search the forums here). 

geoffreypelkey's picture

It would seem I'm jumping the gun on refridgerating, if I even need to refridgerate at all. I think I'll take the advice. When I made this last batch of sourdough, I froze the extra just in case. This morning I took it out and put it in the fridge. Hopefully I can take a piece of that and start with the recomended room temp feeding for a few weeks and go from there rather than starting from scratch. Again. 

One more thought, I live in Michigan and the temperature here is aboout to drop significantly. Is it better to feed based on the action (the amount it is rising) or every eight hours as suggested? I get the feeling that its best to let it sit longer when the average temp is lower, such as 66 F.

G-man's picture

It is important to feed according to the rise and fall of the starter, but it's also important to make sure that you're maintaining an environment hospitable to your yeast, with plenty of food and water. Something is probably eating even if it doesn't rise, and if it smells like something other than just flour and water you definitely have SOME life in there. You should aim for refreshing every 12 hours at least, even if you're not seeing much, or any, activity.

On refrigeration: Only put it in the fridge when you've used it to bake a successful loaf. Even then, there's a risk of problems arising that wouldn't have happened otherwise, but only very rarely is it something that can't be fixed by a few feedings.

thomaschacon's picture
thomaschacon (not verified)

I agree.

I feed even more often than that when building the starter, refreshing every 4-6 hours three times a day.

Like one procedures says, "How would you feel if you were only fed once a day?!"

This is my refreshing schedule during build (I use a lot of flour, but don't waste the residual: pancakes, etc.). I use much, much less during maintenance.

  • 8:00 AM Pour off all but 500 g starter, add 237 g water @ 78 F (26 C), 155 g bread flour, stir, cover, store in a warm place.
  • 2:00 PM Add 474 g water @ 78 F (26 C), 313 g bread flour, stir, cover, store in a warm place.
  • 8:00 PM Add 948 g water @ 78 F (26 C), 625 g bread flour, stir, cover, store in a warm place. 
Home Baker's picture
Home Baker

I've been keeping my starter this way for probably 5 months. 4 g starter + 4 G water + 8 g flour makes a 16g ball of starter, 18 g if I'm using 10 g AP flour. That's about the same walnut sized piece of starter many old baker's books suggest pinching off of a batch of dough to keep as starter. If my scale could measure amounts smaller than 4 g with consistency and accuracy I'd probably try to use even less.

I'm glad the refrigerated method works for you. In fact I had been using the method you refer to but eventually the wetter starter suffered the dreaded thiol invasion. That's when I switched to this much drier formulation. I also keep two packets, each containing a few grams of dried healthy starter, in the freezer in case of contamination or in case I forget to pinch of a piece of starter before adding it to a recipe. The frozen dried starter came back to full vigor within a day the last time I needed it.

There are other good methods too. I'm sure many will soon attest to them here.


Home Baker's picture
Home Baker

Now that my starter is healthy and has geat strength I watch how lively it is and feed according to how performs and responds, if that makes sense. It's like trying to keep a very finicky plant at peak. At some point it has to be more about instinct and less about precise formulas.

Three times a day is a feeding when I get up, once more when I finish the work day and then at bedtime. Warmer temps speed things up so if the after work feeding is late the starter can sit in the microwave with the light on until bedtime--few degrees warmer than the room. On warm, humid summer days the starter may feel wetter at feeding time after only 8 hours. If so I give it a little more flour. You get a sense for how it should feel and look when it's ready to use or feed.

geoffreypelkey's picture

Here is the conclusion I came to:

For my needs, I've decided to keep 200 G (Just over 7oz) starter on hand, mostly because my favorite bread to make, the Poullaine miche in BBA, requires this amount and it will be an easy amount to double when I need to. 

I wish to refresh every 12 hours, as that is what will work with my schedule.

To begin with, I will refresh on a 2:1:1 schedule, meaning 100 g (3.52 oz) starter/50 G (1.76 oz) KA Bread Flour/50 G water.

If it rises and peaks faster, I'll go with a 1:1:1, or 68 G(2.40 oz)starter/66 G KA Bread/66 G Water

and if it rises and peaks faster than even that, I'll go with 1:2:2, or 40 G starter(1.41 oz)/80 G(2.82 oz) KA Bread/80G water


This is how I'll begin. I will keep the thread updated as I go if anything interesting arises, pun intended.

CottageCrafts's picture

First of all - water! Do you use your tap water? Does it have chlorine in it? You should use good water, chlorine kills bacteria.

Some say you have a "ball" of starter. That sounds more like a motherdough. Sourdough starter should have 100 - 166% hydration (more like a batter than a dough). 166% is 1.66 parts of liquid per 1 part of flour. 

Keeping your starter refridgerated will loose some of the flavour. It is better to dry/freeze starter. I use to dry starter using a normal dehydrator using the fruit lather inset. I fill it with a thin layer of starter and run the dehydrator over night. Then grind it up using a mortar and pestle and freeze. Reconstitute the dried starter in lukewarm water and start feeding it up. 

I feed my starter daily with 200gms flour/ 200gms water for a 100% hydrated starter. But you need to take 1/2 of the starter away.  So far I was able to use this part for baking or dried it. 

Starter is best used 8 - 12 hours after the last feed. That's when the bacteria are "hungry" but haven't gone to sleep yet. 

Also only refridgerate an active starter. If you haven't worked it up to a high activity level then it will just die in the fridge. Active starter rises after feeding. 

And keep your starter at a higher room temperature. Mine sits in the hot water cupboard. Here in New Zealand we have a hot watercylinder somewhere build into the house and this keeps it at a nice constant 20 deg C minimum. Or a styrofoam box with hot water bottle. 

These are my thoughts on this. Hope it helps somehow.