The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Sudden change in performance

hazimtug's picture

Sudden change in performance

Hi Baker Friends,

I have been successfully making Tartine bread style loaves (75 - 80% hydration) for the past 8 - 9 months using a starter that I have been lovingly feeding. It's a 100 - 125% hydration liquid starter that I have been feeding with 50-50% ww and bread flour using only 20% starter during each feed. I have been usually feeding it at night, let it mature overnight into a bubbly vinegary smelling beauty, put it in the fridge during the day as I have to go my day job, and repeat again at night time. When I want to bake, usually on the weekends, I just use a tablespoon of the starter to build the levain (usually 200 g flour and 200 g water).

Anyway, I was able to get nice burnished crust, with a decently open crumb and good oven spring most of the time, except the last month or so... All of a sudden, my loaves started looking paler with a less pronounced oven spring, usually a denser crumb with some ugly big holes. I haven't changed anything in my technique, which is mostly in line with Chad Robertson's recommendations in his book... During bulk fermentation and the subsequent stages of bench rest, shaping and final proofing (overnight retardation in fridge), the dough feels more or less the same.

I am thinking of the following factors that may be influencing the results:

  • I forgot to put the starter in the fridge a couple of times after a night's feeding and maturing; I did refresh it immediately after though using even a smaller portion of the mature of the starter, maybe like 5 - 10% to overcome any bad effects from the overripining.
  • I was using Bob's Red Mill Organic WW flour, and recently I changed over to KA organic WW flour. I am not sure about the timing of this though, but I thought I'd throw it in the mix.
  • Too much chlorine in tap water (I've been using filtered tap water)? Maybe, it killed some of the good bacteria in the starter and with a combination of some contamination somehow, the starter is not performing as well as it used to... Although,  on its own, it still smells good on its own, bubbles up and floats well.
  • Going from the summer season to the colder fall and winter season? Although the temperatures in my house obviously don't swing as much... I try to keep the dough at about 78 - 82 degrees and sometimes a bit warmer during bulk fermentation. The room temperature is typically around 66 - 70 degrees.
  • Anything else?

I'd very much appreciate any feedback. Are there any tests that I can perform on the starter for example? I have made maybe 4 batches in a row with failing results, each time trying to focus on dough temperature, maturity of the starter, and my shaping technique...




flournwater's picture

First allow me to submit that, unless your water supplier has changed the way it treats your water, you can probably forget about the chlorine having had an adverse affect on the yeast.  It takes quite a lot of chlorine in treated water to "kill" yeast.  I use chlorinated water exclusively without any problems at all.

From that data you've provided, my best guess is that the problem for this loaf was "I forgot to put the starter in the fridge ...; (however) I did refresh it immediately after ... using even a smaller portion of the mature of the starter, maybe like 5 - 10% to overcome any bad effects from the overripining."   You don't include information on how the starter reacted to that experience but, inasmuch as you apparently didn't provide the starter with a "full meal" between feeding cycles it may very well have been too weak to get the job done.  Very often we talk about starter dying, but we probably should put a bit more emphasis on the affects of weak starter under some circumstances.

hazimtug's picture

Flournwater- thanks for the quick response. At those couple of instances, the starter simply bubbled way too much, got a little more liquidy (as a result of gluten breakdown due to increased acidity), and smelled way too strong. Upon several feedings afterwards, it seemed like the starter was totally revived. I wish I had a microbiology lab that I could use to see what's going on in there...

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

"bubbly and way too sour" is better for the starter than putting the starter under pressure to get the job done too soon.  Over feeding becomes a seasonal problem as temps change from warm to cool and drafts become a problem as well.  Try using a larger portion of starter to feed or to build.  Make sure you're getting some activity before refrigerating it.   

" seemed like the starter was totally revived."   

Ok, fess up.  Who's been telling you that your starters stink?  Sounds to me that you are trying to keep the starters more on the week side to keep down aromas.   ???   Could this be true?

grind's picture

A pale crust and tight crumb usually means low enzyme activity in the flour, everything else being equal, which it sound like it is.  The cooler temperature will slow down fermentation, buy you're doing prolonged fermentation in the fridge, so that's not likely the problem.

Are there any tests that I can perform on the starter for example?

You can add diastatic malt to your starter and dough or you can try another flour(s).  The diastatic malt will release the sugars in the flour and make the yeast very happy again.  Good luck.


edit to add - posting at the same time as mini was!

longhorn's picture

There are a number of possibilities based on your comments but I think your failure to refrigerate your starter led to its losing robustness and thus to your problems. 

Colder temps will lead to your loaves being underproofed for the same schedule. But underproofed has excess sugar (and therefore good color) and typically good oven spring (well RIP) unless it is severely under (which you should notice and recognize). 

Yes, there are other possibilities, but...feed the starter and it should come back quickly. If you think your starter is weak, feed it an extra time -say in the morning before you build your levain in the evening.

Good Luck!


hazimtug's picture

Thank you all... I will start with strengthening the starter and give it another try with some good note-taking (I typically go with numbers in my head, but then, like in this case, it becomes really hard to pinpoint potential problems in the process).

Also- has anyone used sprouted wheat flour to feed their starter? Mine has been seeing just regular whole wheat and bread flour. My wife just got me some sprouted wheat flour and I am wondering if I could use it instead of the regular whole wheat. I would think it would provide better nutrition for the yeast/bacteria, although I also don't want to shock them with this flour all of a sudden. I would rather feed with regular whole wheat/bread flour mixture, and then use the sprouted whole wheat flour in the dough for the bread.

Janetcook's picture


Could be starter but you did mention that it perked right back up after several feeds when you left it out too long so that makes me think your starter is okay and maybe it is the flour change.  I always use freshly ground flours that I have ground myself so I only have 'book' knowledge when it comes to store bought flours.  

I am not sure if your are familiar with Gerard Rubaud but he has only one formula/loaf that he makes and he has been making for years.  In an interview he mentioned that he always checks his new batches of flour when they are delivered because they do change how his dough reacts. HERE is a link to the interviews.  At the bottom of the first interview there are links to other interviews...Sorry, I can't remember which article the flour was mentioned in but it is all good reading full of great information.

If it is indeed the flour switch, adding diastatic malt to the KA just might work as 'grind' suggested above.

Good Luck,


FlourChild's picture

It looks like you may have switched from a stone ground flour (BRM) to a roller milled flour (KAF).  Stone grinding is a lower-temp process and preserves more of the enzymes in flour than roller milling.  Enzymes create sugars, which both feed the yeasts and color the crust.  Hard to know for sure, but it's something to consider.

Nickisafoodie's picture

try feeding twice a day for a few days, leaving out at room temp.   try 100% rather than 125% hydration, parts by weight of course, not volume.  There should be no off smells, and a faint aroma of apple is the closes I have.  If you feel you are fully recovered, after feeding leave starter at room temp for an hour or two, then refrigerate.  Weekly feedings thereafter.  When you go to bake, do two builds (5 hours each between feedings).   As above the flour does matter but likely more the care and feeding vs the flour. 

hazimtug's picture

So, I switched to using BRM whole wheat flour in my starter, and religiously fed it for overnight maturing followed by refrigerating. Very lively and fragrant... then, using the same techniques, I tried making a loaf using BRM whole wheat (10%) and Central Milling AP (90%) at 75-80% hydration and 20% levain. And likewise, a sprouted wheat (50%) loaf with CM AP (50%) again with the sprouted wheat pre-soaked. After ~ 4 hrs of bulk fermentation, I proofed at room temp (~75F) for about 3 hours. The flat loaves in the photos are from that batch including the flattened dough in the combo cooker before baking. Barely any oven spring, and the caramelization seems off. It's been a while I haven't used the CM AP flour and when I saw it a store recently, I got excited and wanted to give it a try. I forgot that I had used that flour before and gotten similar flattish results. Open crumb though, tender and good flavor.

I don't give up... 3 days later, I made another batch of the 50% sprouted wheat bread replacing the CM AP with KA AP, both organic. Maybe I should have just proofed at room temperature and baked the same day with this batch as well, but it was week night, so I had to refrigerate overnight and bake the next day, which I typically do. Good results this time around, good burnished crust, good oven spring, and nice open crumb... could be even more tender though. Flavor is right on. The last small photos shows the loaves from that batch.

So, what's the deal with the flattening dough when I use the CM AP? I don't think not refrigerating it overnight would cause the dough to collapse like that... it's as if the gluten network melted away. Any thoughts? Overfermenting with the CM AP batch maybe? Is there such a big difference between the CM and KA AP flours?