The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Could use some advice on starter

Chaela's picture

Could use some advice on starter

Hello baking community, I'm a poor college student who recently found the joy of sourdough baking. I bought Nancy Silverton's book at a garage sale and have since been a quite obsessed. I ended up trying her 2 week starter recipe and that's actually why I am writing this... It's so sad, I was so excited about my starter and to make my first load of bread. So excited I was having dreams about bread and finding ways to bring up bread with people who didn't really want to hear about it. But alas,after following Nancy's recipe as best I could without a scale or thermometer my first bread didn't rise. I've since made another loaf but with limited success- it rises just a little bit after 7 hours of being put on top of my fridge where it is warm. Both breads have had decent over spring so I know something is going on in there but I just want to liven up my starter. Here's the skinny on my starter, it bubbles, it's frothy, it smells like sourdough and it's never even seen the inside of a refrigerator, but it won't double. That's what I think my problem is. No matter how long I give it, it just doesn't want to double. I've tried making it thicker, thinner, putting it in a warm place, but none of these things work. And as far as feeding, trust me I am a mother hen to this starter. I feed it three times a day by matching the amount of starter I have with water and flour. I'm using unbleached white flour, by the way and I was wondering if I should try using whole wheat as that might give the yeast some extra food- I just don't know. I'm sorry for writing a novel about this but I'm just so disappointed. I really want to make amazing bread. So tell me what I should do. Should I start over with my starter or should I do something to the one I have now to make it more lively. Any tips you have would help. I've read other post about troubles with starters but most of their problems seem easy to diagnose like leaving it in the fridge for too long or not feeding it enough but I just don't know what my fix is. Please help if you have any ideas.

Red5's picture

I don't like Nancy Silverton's starter method. The book is good, you don't get as far as she's gone with crap products, but that starter recipe is just wasteful and over-complicated. 

If what you have already is bubbling, then it's working. I think the problem is that you're feeding it 3 times a day, which for many different reasons may not give it enough time to double. Feed it once a day, about the same time every day. Within a day or three, you'll see rise to twice or more it's size. If you're serious about learning to bake, spend $20-30 on a scale. I keep no more than 6oz of starter going at a time, some keep more, some keep less. You really don't need the quantity of starter that the La Brea book calls for. 

FlourChild's picture

Silverton's starter is very liquid- I think 145% hydration if memory serves.  It's so liquid that it may allow an awful lot of bubbles to pop  on the surface rather than containing the gases that make a starter rise.

There is a place in her book where she specifies a feeding schedule for twice daily feeds, and I think she also mentions a smaller portion of starter, which is some improvement.  

I agree that once your starter is a little more active and rising bread more reliably, you could reduce the quantity that you maintain.  The key to getting it more active is to feed it at the right time in its fermentation cycle.   The right time is just after it has peaked in volume and fallen back a little, regardless of how high that peak is.  

Good luck!

Chaela's picture

Yeah Nancy Silverton's method of making a starter was really complicated, I agree, but I think it paid off in flavor at least. And yes! Thank you for addressing the fact that her method is very wastful, flour isn't that much money but it can be when you are going through a bag everyday! And yes, I know I need to buy a scale. I really want one because using cups is just rediculous- there is no good conversion from grams to cups. Plus I think a scale would help me keep a smaller starter. I really want one, maybe I will see one on sale. 

I'll also try feeding it only once a day. I was kind of reasoning towards that becuase it would make the yeast hungrier so maybe faster.

I'm also going to reduce the hydration like FlourChild said.

Thank you two for your help!

gmabaking's picture

for the adventure of making bread is the best recipe for keeping a starter that I've yet seen. I use 1/4 measurements to maintain the Silverton's starter and that is enough to make the bread and still have leftover to feed. Many times it is just two feedings away from baking but it still seems to work. My starter lives in and out of the refrigerator on an irregular basis. Following the good advice of TFLers, you will see how to maintain and correct just about any form of development. Once you have a starter that you are happy with, I would encourage you to dry some and place it in the freezer or in a dry place just for insurance. Whenever I come across my little jar of dried starter in the freezer, I have to smile because I am pleased to know it is there.

Following the advice found here, I made the Silverton's Country Bread over and over until I felt that I knew what to expect. Then I was drawn to the Tartine book and have made that bread over and over. Now I am reading "Flour, Water, Salt and Yeast" by Ken Forkish and will start a new starter later today. You may be able to find some great bread books at your library. I find that it is as much fun to read the stories and background (almost)as to delve into the mystery of a new recipe.

Oops, can't forget to mention-the other key requirement is to enjoy your passion/hobby/fixation/addiction.....Welcome to the world of breadheads!


Gerry Scott Lyon's picture
Gerry Scott Lyon

I have been using a stone-ground wheat sourdough starter successfully for 18months, keeping it adequately fed and watered and fridging it between uses. Loaves baked this week prooved as normal but when baked there was little "oven spring" resulting in a flatish loaf. The sourdough looks and smells healthy and bubbles immediately after feeding.
Something is wrong - any ideas?

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

but if your tremps are cooler than a week ago, let your starter ferment more before chilling it.  May even want to reduce the amount of flour to starter ratio.  Leaving a little more starter to feed helps fermentation too.   Time to look for a warm spot for your starter.   Be careful not to overfeed as temps drop, the starter just can't chomp thru the flour like it did when temps were warmer.  Leave it out for a few days as you feed and observe it.   

Gerry Scott Lyon's picture
Gerry Scott Lyon

Hi Mini Oven,

Thanks for the input. It actually makes perfect sense. I am located in South Africa and we had an unseasonal chilly snap last week. I didn't alter my routine to accommodate this change. I shall do exactly as you suggest and, hopefully, "mother" remains alive and well. Thanks again. Kind regards, Gerry.

mariana's picture

Dear Chaela

please, get yourself a kitchen scale and then things will go better. Nancy Silverton's starter is the best starter in the world, as far as I know, and I have used it successfully for years and created it from a variety of flours from all over the world. Sometimes it takes only 4 days of fermeting grapes with flour and water to get a ready starter, sometimes up to 20 days of persistent feeding. That's how it looks in the jar with grapes when it is ready to be fed


It has standard leavening strength for use in any profesional baker's formula from any country, both for rye and wheat dough and it has the best aroma and acidity.

to keep it, it stores perfectly well in the refrigerator and will last you a lifetime, but it does best if you refresh it at least once every two weeks. It also dries very well for longer periods of storage and easily restores to full activity within 24 hours.

It will never double in volume , because it is quite liquid (about 145g of water per 100g flour), and will only maybe rise 25-50%, because it is already foamy and bubly when you mix it with fresh food


Then it becomes thinner and more foamy as it ferments and becomes ripe

so the additional increase in volume is rather small.

The important thing is to not overfeed it and to stick to the feeding schedule as in the book, using kitchen scales to make no mistakes. It does best when fed at room temperature which is not too hot, around 65-85F

1st feeding

200g starter + 90g water + 60g white flour (you can use bleached or unbleached), 4-6hrs at room temperature

2nd feeding

200g starter +110g water +70g white flour, 4-6 hrs at room temperature

3rd feeding

200 g starter +120g water + 80g white flour, 8-12 hrs at room t, but no longer than 15hrs.

After that your starter is ready to bake with or to be sent to the refrigerator. Once in the fridge, you can use it straight from the fridge during the first three days, afterwards it needs to be refreshed at room T with three feedings as above before using it.

Which recipe do you use to test your starter in baking?

This is Calvel's basic white with Grape Starter from Nancy Silverton's book



best wishes,


Chaela's picture

Hello Mariana, 

Yeah I started with the basic white. The first time I tried it just didn't rise in the time that she said it would. I felt somewhat responsible for this becuase I didn't measure the temperature of anything nor did I really weigh out anything (my dad has this way old scale that measures oz but that wasn't exact by any means). The loaves that I pulled out of the over had gaping holes in the bottom of them but then the top was this very thick somewhat poofy dense mass. 

The second loaf I made I didn't even try to weigh things out but I was very intent on not using Nancy's time estimates for proofing- I was just going to wait until they doubled in size. My loaves were somewhat better looking on this inside but still just really dense and not what I wanted. 

I have a plan though and that is to go to Walmart (an odious task) and buy a kitchen scale. I've also changed my feeding a lot- I only fed it once a day for the past two days and I really lessened the hydration. It doubled! But I feel really bad about it only getting fed once so I'm going to up it to two feedings. 

I think I'm still just working everything out in terms of my starter, I feel like I know more about what to expect from it and how to get it to do what I want, I just have to keep on working on it. 

By the way, I used the same starter recupe as you except I used persimmons insteads of grapes and it actually worked just as she said it would, kinda cool. Your braed looks not only delicious but beautiful too. Did you bake yours at 450?

Thank you for taking the time to post those pics, I really appreciate it.