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Starter won't rise

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skt's picture
skt

Starter won't rise

I have a 75% whole wheat starter I've been maintaining for about 1.5 years.  I've followed Peter Reinhart's method in his Whole Grain Breads book.  It smells right, as far as I can tell, but it has never risen well -- on its own or in a bread dough. 

Any thoughts on what I could be doing wrong?

Thanks,

ST

jwt's picture
jwt

I had similar issues until I stopped using tap water and started using untreated bottled spring water.  The water treatment plants where I live make the water harmful to my wild yeast.

It went from taking 24 hours to almost double to tripling in 12 hours.

skt's picture
skt

I have always used filtered tap water.  The thing is that I've never gotten it to rise, even in 24 hours.  If I leave it out that long, it just sort of starts to go slack.  There are small bubbles, but zero volume change. 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

and the dough when you are raising it?  

Is the water very cold?

skt's picture
skt

The starter and all the ingredients are at room temp before I mix.  The dough's raised at room temp as well.  And my water is from the fridge dispenser (filtered).  I warm it to room temp in my microwave before using it.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

???

I don't have his book so give details if you want specific help.  Tell us how you maintain the starter (all of the amounts... starter, water, flour and how often.)  Temperature is rather important, so is feeding the starter enough flour.  This is SD detective work and we need facts.  Just pour out the gorry details!  We're adult enough to take it!

skt's picture
skt

In the summer,  75F.  In the winter, 68F on average.  I do see slightly more activity in the summer, but I never see an increase in volume.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

...waiting...

skt's picture
skt

I do a refresh according to PR's instructions in his whole grain breads book, at least every two weeks.  This is done as follows:

  • 98g starter
  • 298g whole wheat flour
  • 227g water

(All ingredients at room temp -- between 65F and 75F)

  1. Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Knead for 1 minute by hand.
  2. Allow it to rest for 5 minutes.
  3. Knead again for 1 minute, then form into a ball.
  4. Cover loosely and set aside at room temp for 6-8 hours.
  5. Degas, then refrigerate.

 

PMcCool's picture
PMcCool

my starter takes around 12 hours to double.  At 75F, the time to double is more like 4 hours, sometimes less.  If you are seeing similar activity levels with your sourdough, it's most likely because of the temperatures.

Regarding maintenance feedings, I pull mine out of the refrigerator, discard the top portion if it has gotten somewhat dry, then add bottled spring water and flour.  If I don't have an immediate need for it, I'll let it sit on the counter for an hour or two before returning it to the refrigerator.  Reinhart's procedure strikes me as putting an already-depleted starter into storage, rather than one that has enough food available to keep it going for a week or two.  Not to mention the fact that he maintains a huge (for my home baking needs) amount of starter.  While I rarely weigh mine, it's generally in the 25-40g range; a lot less than the 600g+ that Reinhart's method produces.

To build up the needed quantity for baking, I generally use tap water for subsequent feedings after the initial refreshment using bottled water.  My experience is that there is a large enough population in the starter by then that the effects of the chlorine aren't problematic.  Note that your situation may be different if your municipality treats your water supply differently.

skt's picture
skt

Thanks for the reply, PMcCool.  As I mentioned, mine *never* rises, and never did.  But I'm glad to know some people can use tap water for feeding.  I remember checking the water quality in my municipality some time back and found it was pretty good according to the data.  Nevertheless, I'll be switching to bottled water for the time being, just to eliminate that as a possible cause.

I haven't tried any other methods aside from Reinhart's and thus can't compare it to others, but I'm under the impression that many have had success with it.  A friend of mine has definitely had no problem using Reinhart's methods, so I think the problem must lie elsewhere.

I agree his amounts are huge, and my friend & I have traded many recipes that help us use up all the excess.... if I can get this starter to rise reliably, I'll work towards cutting back the amount maintained.

Thanks again.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

and then, like Paul explains, it needs to get into the refrigerator sooner, just as it starts to rise.  Start out by reducing the starter amount and if you find you need more, then increase it.  When chilled sooner, your starter's 75% hydration can easily hold up for 3 weeks in the fridge without any difficulties.

First things first.  Devote a few days to exercising your starter, getting the yeast numbers up.  I suggest we will put it on a 12 hour schedule if you are degassing at 8 hours.

If I do the math, starter is 20 g.,  water 45 g.,  and flour 60g.  for a 75% hydration.  

  • Start with 20g starter.  Mix as you do, cover, and set aside for about 12 hours.  Pull the starter apart with a knife or fork and examine the activity.
  • Reduce to 20g (take sample from the middle) and feed again waiting 12 hours.  Pull apart and compare.  Do not refrigerate, the goal is to leave out to grow until it starts to falls back on itself or tends to go flat, deflate or spread more sideways as up.   If you can find a warm spot for the yeast to party work out, above 75°F that would be better. (My kitchen warm spot is 78°F the last time I measured.)
  • Repeat 12 hr feeding using only 20g of starter.  You should notice that the starter takes less time to deflate itself and that the inside of the starter has more spongy,bubbly action inside.  If it is rising and peaking at about 8 hours, and starting to deflate, by all means reduce and feed.  
  • Repeat 8-12 hour feedings until you are satisfied with the rise of the starter.  When satisfied, reduce the starter to 20g, feed and after about 2 to 3 hours (about 1/4 time it takes to peak) when the starter has started to rise, pop it into the fridge.  

Like Paul suggests,  reduce the amount of counter time in future feeds before chilling and you should be fine, just make sure it has a little rise before slowing it down.  If it is too fermented (or half risen) you just have to use and feed it sooner.  The above amount of 125g starter can sit in the fridge and when you want starter for a recipe (wait at least 3 days) remove 20g or 50g or 98g or 100g and feed  (starter:water:flour / ratio: 1:2.3:3)  8-12 hours before you need it for a recipe.  The rest of the starter can sit it out in the fridge for a few more loaves/weeks or if you deplete it, feed, wait and chill for more starter.  

Sound good?

skt's picture
skt

Thank you *so* much for taking the time to write out such a detailed and thorough procedure for my situation!  I plan to give this a try, using bottled water.  I'm going to wait until mid-week so that as it gets stronger (hopefully by the weekend) and the rising times decrease, I'll be home to refresh it at the right time.

I'm glad the procedure you've written uses such small amounts -- that'll make it easier for me.  I'll try to find a warm spot in my house, though it's probably not going to be over 70F this time of year.

I'll take notes and post them here.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

but I'm sure you will find one near the computer, above the refrigerator (check the cupboard above it or put a shoe box w/lid near the back) or by a water heater.  Try putting the starter into a couple of zipper bags or a loose fitting lid and tuck the starter into your vest pocket to get warm on your body heat.  Burp it often to exchange the air around it but don't sleep with it.  70°F is rather cool so the starter will be slow but like I wrote, if you are deflating in 8 hours before chilling ...  um, a question, how high has the starter risen when you deflate it at 8 hours? 

If the starter is not rising at all in 8 hours, then, because of the cool temperatures, wait until it does rise fully, then the next feeding amount should be reduced so that the starter and flour amounts are closer together, more equal.  That would mean eventually having large portions of pre-fermented starter in your dough recipes.  You would choose recipes that elaborate the starter until it is 50% or more of the dough.  ...Later  

Mini

skt's picture
skt

 

Hi Mini,

I began the starter workout routine Wednesday night -- that means I've done 7 refreshes at 12-hour intervals.  I'm using bottled spring water and organic whole wheat flour at 65-70F.  I've been working on finding a consistently warm spot, and finally think I have one in my office armoire (which contains the computer, monitor, printer, etc.)  A shoebox placed in there seems to stay at 78-80F. 

I see activity every time after 12 hours, but the biggest change in volume I get might be 30%:

Right after refresh --

 

After 12 hours:

Here's a photo of the activity after 12 hours (through the bottom of the container):

   

It's hard to say whether I'm getting more volume change than before -- seems like it's a little better.  But nowhere near 100% at 12 hours, let alone sooner.  Should I keep going with the 12-hour workout? 

Many many thanks,

ST

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Hmmm.  From the dome on the 12 hr feed, it is still rising meaning that the yeasts have not yet used up available food.    Why?  Not sure.  The gas bubbles look really good.   Taste it, is it sour tasting?  How sour?  If it is really sour, we may have too much bacteria interfering with yeast growth.  

The yeasts sound like picky eaters and slow to reproduce.  What can we do to change their eating habits and threaten their livelihood?  You are working with a 67% hydration, technically a firm starter.   Let it rise until the dome flattens out then let it cool to room temperature until the next 12 hour feeding time comes along.  Feed it at night (the 12 hour schedule) and then in the morning (or however you can schedule it) we start playing with the starter if it hasn't improved.   Before we start to play, take 20g of the discard starter aside in a small container, sprinkle with a spoon of flour and pop it into the fridge as back up.  Give it a label like "pokey slow old starter" Jan 31, 2012  RIP  and lets have some fun with the rest of it.

Then we will up the hydration to speed up the fermenting process and maybe jump start some sleepy yeasts.  

  1. Lets go 20g starter, 40g water, 10g ww flour.   First beasties to the food get the chance to populate.  (It's a race!) Those that take their time, well, we will kick them out of the race track, right out of visitor parking.    Let this new runny mixture warm ferment until you see bubbles going up the sides at about  4 to 6 hours.    At  6 hours (or bubbles running up the sides, which ever is first) 
  2. Take 20g of that and feed again,  this time 40g water and 20g flour and let them go until evening or about another 6 hours. 
  3. The evening feed will depend on what has been happening in the last feed.  Lets go 20g, 40g ,40g (1:2:2) and let it go 12 hours until morning.  Note any differences.  If the starter is still slow in the morning, well... we could repeat the steps but I hoping going back to  20g 40g 40g (100 hydration)  every 12 hours, the starter will behave better and show more growth.  

Good luck!

skt's picture
skt

Mini, I can't thank you enough for the detailed coaching -- thank you!

Your plan sounds great.  After reading your reply yesterday AM, I figured I'd need to start the experiment Wednesday morning so that I could be home to watch for the bubbles at 4-6 hours.  Going with the idea that at 12 hours the starter is still rising, I let it keep going yesterday morning instead of doing the 12 hour refresh.  On coming home last night, I'd expected to see the dome flatten, and to my surprise it had not.  I let it go until 23 hours and it had almost doubled but had not flattened yet.

Here's a photo at 23 hours (a bit blurry - I was sleepy):

At this point, I did a refresh.  I also tasted it... it seemed pretty sour to me, but I don't have much to compare to as I've never tasted the starter in the past.  I can say that the breads I've made with this starter are never that sour.  Perhaps I should get some pH strips in order to measure pH? 

My plan is to let it go for 24 hours again, which is tonight, then tomorrow morning start the experiment you laid out. 

Many thanks!

ST

skt's picture
skt

I followed the procedure you laid out:

1. Refreshed as normal Tuesday night. 

2. At 12 hours (late Wednesday morning), I took 20g and did a weak feed as you prescribed -- 40g water & 10g flour

3. 6 hours later, no visible activity.  Mixture had separated a little, with a watery layer on top.  I noticed this when I checked at 4 hrs, and swirled it to remix.  Despite the lack of activity, I did the second refresh -- 20g starter, 40g water, 20g flour.

4. It is now 6 hours later, and I don't see any activity.  Again, the mixture has separated so that there's a watery layer on top.

I guess I can leave it overnight to see if anything changes.

Thanks,

ST

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

:)  just double checking...   

Separating can happen as the heavy flour settles in a thin liquid but it is not a good sign of activity.   I keeping my fingers crossed for the beasties while you're still sleeping.   Don't forget to taste it and compare to the last time you tasted it.  If there is no sour taste (and it is more like wet flour) and the water separated to the top again, don't discard.   Just feed by adding a little flour to thicken and wait.  Keep it warm.  Sooner or later we will get some yeasts that want to reproduce faster and they will take over and surprise us.

Linz seems to be the only sunny snow free spot in Central Europe.  The temps did take a dip last night from -3°C to -10°C (14°F) but our neighboring countries all around have it much much worse and suffering greatly, especially to the south and south-east from this Siberian wind.   Winter is back (I actually had tulips start to come up in the garden at the end of last week, a first, got them now fenced in so they can't run off or I step on them.  They occupy a shallow depression in the middle of the yard covered once with aquarium gravel and grown over with grass.  They've been coming out double yellow every year for a long long time.)     I just heard my solar collectors for hot water kick in.  It may be cold, but we will have hot water!  :)

skt's picture
skt

This morning I see a few very tiny bubbles, and a little less separation.  I'd refreshed yesterday at 5pm, so it's been almost 14 hours.  To answer your questions:

  • I'm using all whole wheat unbleached organic flour.
  • I'm still allowing the starter to ferment in the same warm-ish spot, in a shoebox inside my computer armoire.  When I checked this morning it was around 74F, but usually it's 78-80F.
  • The flavor is only slightly sour.

I'll go ahead & refresh 20g of this with 40g water and 20g flour (same as yesterday's 2nd feed).  I do have some rye flour, so I'll replace 25% of the wheat flour with that.

At this point, it kind of seems like we're working on capturing wild yeasts again, as we would if we started fresh with the pineapple juice method.  The container I'm using has a lid that snaps on, which is what I've been using.  Should it be covered more loosely (or not at all) to allow air flow?  I'll try that as well.  But at what point might it be better to start from scratch with pineapple juice, and this time keep any chlorinated water out of it?

14F is pretty cold compared to our lows in the upper 30s & highs in the 60s.  Here in SF, we're supposed to have had a lot more rain by now, but it's been a very dry and rather rainless winter for us.

 

 

 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

If it looks too runny, give it a little more flour.  I didn't intend to have it too runny too long.  (there is a method to my madness)  

Yes, we are fishing for more yeasts like when making a starter and as long as there is a little sour, I don't think we need pineapple juice to keep the nasties away.  

There were a lot of slow yeasts in there dominating the starter.  I'm hoping we got rid of a lot of them but they will give up when the faster yeasts get going.  (I hope)  

I like to keep a looser lid, plastic with a rubber band just holding it in place.  Stirring a few times during the day also exchanges the gas.  Take a good whiff of the starter as you uncover it when aromas are most concentrated.  :)

This morning was a cool 7°F  or -14°C    (a good time to defrost the freezer as the food can go outside in a plain box.) 

skt's picture
skt

I'm seeing more activity since yesterday morning's feed, so I am encouraged.  It still separates by 24 hours, but at 16 hours it looked bubbly & not separated.

So I should keep feeding at 20g starter / 40g water / 20g flour?   And how often -- back to 12 hours, or 24?

 

 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Feed it thicker.   Make it a thick batter at 20/20/20  and feed it on a 12 hour schedule.  

skt's picture
skt

Ok, on seeing your response Friday, I switched immediately to 12 hrs, 20/20/20.  It's looking good -- it's hard to tell if it's doubling in 12 hours (the consistency is like a thick paste & it's hard to gauge initial level).  But it might be.  How long shall I keep going on this feeding proportion and schedule?

Thanks!

skt's picture
skt

Thanks to your kind advice, things look pretty good at this point.  At 12 hours, the starter is doubled, very bubbly, amd no longer has a dome.  I'll take a photo tomorrow morning and post that here.

Assuming we call this "problem solved", I'd love to know how to move forward from here.  I now have a 100% hydration starter.... should I convert back to 75%, or keep it at 100%?  What's a good maintenance amount and schedule, given that I don't actually bake that often (maybe once every 1-2 weeks)?

Obviously I'm excited to try making bread with this new improved starter.

Thanks again,
ST

skt's picture
skt

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

wait about 3 hours warmth and put it into the refrigerator.  (give yourself a break) Now lets go back to that last discard... 40g of ripe starter.

Before suggesting a change in feeding, I would also like to see what would happen if you baked with the new improved stuff. :) 

Try taking 20g of ripe starter and add 100g flour and what ever amount of water you desire for your recipe.  (If 75% hydration then 75g water, if 100% hydration desired 100g water.)  That should give you about 195g - 220g starter  and set aside 20 g to feed.  So what you really have for a recipe is between 185g -200g.   If you need more starter for the recipe (I'm aiming 1 to 5, starter to flour) increase the starter, water and flour amounts.  (You could also just take all of the 40g discard starter add 200g flour and the amount of water for 75% or 100%   150g or 200g respectfully to get grand starter totals of 390g -440g.)

See how long it takes to peak.  Start 12 hours before planning to mix up the dough.   If the starter starts to level off, tuck it into the refrigerator to slow it down and use within 12 hours for bread saving 20g to feed.  If it keeps rising, then we've successfully increased the yeast in the culture.  You can measure it anytime while it is rising for a recipe but let the 20g+ leftover starter use up the food before reducing to 20g to feed.    If the stater responds well to this 1 to 5 feeding, then I would change the feeding scedule to include more flour to the portion of starter culture.

Alright!   Let's see some bread!   :)

skt's picture
skt

Here's a detailed breakdown of what I did:

Monday AM: Refreshed as normal (20g/20g/20g) at 9:45am
Monday PM: Refreshed as normail at 9:30pm
Tuesday AM: 6am refreshed as normal & placed in warm spot until 9am, then refrigerated.  This is the "maintenance" culture.  
     7am took 22g of discard, fed it with 110g bread flour and 82g water.  Kept it with me all day to observe it, put it in the fridge at 3:30pm, as it had almost doubled [Photo 1].  My office runs really warm, about 83F.
     6pm removed starter from fridge on the way home.  
     7pm mixed bread dough according to 1/2 Peter Reinhart SF Sourdough recipe.  5min autolyse, 2 stretch-and-folds.  Room temp rise for 2 hours, then into the fridge overnight.

SF Sourdough proportions from "Artisan Breads Every Day" by Peter Reinhart:
206 g starter
196 g water 100F
300 g flour + 30 mixed in  
1.25 tsp salt
 
Wednesday: Removed dough from fridge at 2pm.  Allowed to come to room temp for 2 hours, then shaped.  2.5 hours additional rise, baked on a preheated stone at 425F.

Photo 1 | Starter for bread, almost doubled and about to be refrigerated.

Photo 2 | Bread dough, proofed, shaped, scored, and about to go into the oven

Photo 3 | Baked loaf

Photo 4 | Crumb

My thoughts:

This is by far the best pure sourdough bread I've made to date. Our process to improve the culture has definitely paid off.  The flavor was wonderful -- complex and just the right amount of tartness.  The texture was also vastly improved compared to previous attempts with the old starter.  I used get a dense crumb and very tough crust.  This bread had an open crumb and a crisp, crackly crust.  I would not be ashamed to give this bread as a gift.

Lessons learned:

  • I'll definitely continue to use bottled spring water to ensure it's chlorine-free. 
  • I also like maintaining the smaller amount -- much less discard to use up. 

Questions:

  • Maintenance - if I'm feeding 20g, letting it ferment for 3 hours at 78F, and then refrigerating it, how often should I feed it?  I bake about once every week or two.
  • Preparation for baking - can I just start with some of the mother starter I'm maintaining and elaborate for baking?  Or would it be better to do a series of a couple of 12-hour feedings at 78F to "wake up" the culture first?
  • And, of course, can I do better?  What might be some ways to improve it further?

Mini, I really appreciate your help & am very pleased with these results.  I'd love to know your thoughts.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Although I am curious how long it takes to peak, the starter looks much stronger.  It handled the 1 to 5 feeding rather well in 8 hours.  I would try returning your starter to a stiffer one (in two weeks) adding more flour to 20g ripe starter seed.  Keep it warm 3 hours and refrigerate.  You can keep your firm mother starter easily from one bake to the next in the refrigerator.  I would guess along the lines of 3 weeks.  With a two week separated bake save a little of the starter to feed and replace the mother if it looks like it needs replacing or your elaborations (in preparing for a bake) seem too slow.  You have to just use it and see how it reacts to your schedule and make minor adjustments.   

You can make as many loaves from this mother as you desire.  As you have seen, 22 g of starter turned into 214 g in 8 hours at about 75% hydration.  A 100% hydration would be a little faster at the same temperature.   A 60% hydration, a little bit slower.  

This new loaf looks lovely, a good start in the right direction!  I have to let my TFL loafers help out here.  I'm getting rusty with my white sourdough loaves.    I would suggest making the same loaf again now that you know how it will come out, most of the waiting stress will be gone.  Make only one tweak per bake and take notes.  I never tire parking myself in a front row seat watching the dough "spring" during baking.  

Happy toasting!   :)

Yerffej's picture
Yerffej

I warm it to room temp in my microwave before using it.

This is a mistake.  Much research has been done on the very negative effects of the microwave especially as it relates to water.  While this may or may not be the only issue, by all means stop warming water in the microwave.

Jeff

skt's picture
skt

Thanks, Jeff.  If you're aware of any peer-reviewed scientific studies showing this, I'd be interested.  I have not been able to find any, and on the contrary came across this:  http://www.snopes.com/science/microwave/plants.asp.  

 

Yerffej's picture
Yerffej

There has been much negative news over the past couple of years regarding "peer reviewed studies".   Specifically that the peers either never read the study prior to their conclusions and worse yet,  there are apparently those who reaped benefits for deciding one way or another.  That aside, if I find the original information that I read, I will pass it along.

Jeff

skt's picture
skt

The reason to trust peer-reviewed studies is not necessarily the review process of the publication, but the fact that these types of papers are published by trained scientists and they present hard data collected through controlled studies.  One can review the data and the methods used & draw conclusions for oneself.  While no person is infallible, conclusions based on data and scientific methods are certainly more credible than ideas presented without evidence.

Anyway, it seems we're getting off-topic here.  Thanks for your input about the microwave -- it probably won't be an issue since I'm switching to unrefrigerated bottled water for the time being.

Ray Martin's picture
Ray Martin

Hi,

 

Filtration won't remove clorination, and that could be killing off the yeast. That's why drinking water is clorinated. I always use bottled spring water, and get very nice gas bubbles and a pleasant sour taste.

I started my own culture using the pineapple juice method. Debra Wink has done some great work on growing starters and you should check out what she's written. Search the forums for pineapple juice.

Best,

RB

skt's picture
skt

Thanks, Ray -- I am hopeful that will make a difference. 

Would you recommend I continue maintaining the starter I have, except with bottled spring water?  Or start completely fresh? 

RobynNZ's picture
RobynNZ

Follow Mini-O's suggestions above, she knows what she is talking about and has helped numerous people get their starters performing well.

Read Debra Wink's material to understand what is going on in the starter culture, start with this post and comments:

http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/10856/pineapple-juice-solution-part-1

skt's picture
skt

Thanks for the link, RobynNZ -- I'll definitely read it, and also give Mini Oven's "starter weight-lifting" a try. 

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

with late if any activity and a dead zone at the bottom and the most activity is on top where the air can be exchanged.  This doesn't quite fit this starter.   But we shall see.  I hope we are using only one flour, namely whole wheat unbleached.  If you have a little rye, add some to the feeding flour.  We need all the help we can get in the yeast department after seeing how the starter behaved Wednesday.  Wonder what it did overnight...