The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

My starters don't like white flours - thoughts?

slogerot's picture

My starters don't like white flours - thoughts?

I've tried a few times to get starters going. While I've been able to use my latest one to bake pretty good breads, I've noticed that as I keep refreshing/feeding with AP or bread flours, it takes longer and longer to rise. It gets to the point that it doesn't double even given 18-ish hours. When I refresh with rye flour, though, it doubles like gangbusters and we're back in business. Making a nearly 100% whole wheat bread works fine, but making a normal sourdough with bread flour and no added yeast is just about impossible to do. The sucker just won't rise. This is what's happened each time I've attempted to make a starter - as soon as I increase the percentage of whole grain flour, it starts rising again.

I guess I'm wondering if you have ideas as to what could be happening, and then I'm wondering if it's ok to just try to maintain something like a 1/2 AP flour/1/2 whole grain flour starter if that's what it takes to get a decent rise. I use KA flour 99% of the time and feed with bottled water. I do the rising on my counter if it's warm out, or in my oven if it's not (which maintains a 77 degree F temp with the light on). I'm not entirely opposed to a whole grain starter as I do a lot of whole grain baking anyway, but the scientific part of me really just wants to figure out why I can't get one working correctly with AP or bread flour.

If this has been covered here before, I'm sorry - please point me in the right direction. I did some googling and didn't see anything helpful. Thanks in advance for any help you can provide.

isand66's picture

Rye starters tend to more active.  You can keep 2 starters and when converting your rye to awhite one do it over 3-4 feedings so you make sure it has tip unread to the light side:)

some people do keep a starter with a percentage of both so you can give that a go as well.

in any case I would build the starter up slowly by starting with a small amount and increase the amount of flour and water each step.

Laurentius's picture

Have you tried a different brand of flour?

JOHN01473's picture


I posted a blog that has been growing - it's in the "Sourdough and Starters" section of "forum"
The post is called "A light at the end of the tunnel would be really useful right now".
The post has grown somewhat and there is a lot of information and a feeding regime to follow.
This is a ground up starter that should work for your AP flour.
The conclusion is that this works - see the final bake by MINI.
If you need any more info let me know.

slogerot's picture

I have tried Gold Medal too - same results.

John, I will check out that thread.

Postal Grunt's picture
Postal Grunt

Is the bottled water simple drinking water or distilled water? Water definitely has an effect on yeast whether it's a bread yeast or beer yeast. The trace minerals in water sources are needed for healthy yeast reproduction so distilled water isn't called for in a starter. If you have an untested water source that you don't use for cooking and drinking at home, you might be safer to use bottled drinking water.

For many people, if you can't smell the water and the water tastes good as in having no taste at all, then it is good enough for baking. I used to use water from a Brita filter pitcher but found there was no difference when I used tap water at a safe temperature for the yeast I was using at the time. I've use tap water between 85-94F for my sourdough starter and between 85-105 for active dry yeast. My starter is now 3+ years old and I bought the bulk pack of  ADY from Costco at about the same time.

Another point to consider is the hydration of your starter. The higher the hydration, the faster the growth of the yeast. The downside to high hydration is the starter is so soupy that you may not see much expansion from your starter and it may peak when you're not paying attention. I've used from 60% to 125% hydration and find that around 70% works out well for me since many of my loaves check in at that hydration. YMMV.

Having used KA AP flour myself, I don't think the fault lies in the flour. If your starter is good with both rye and whole wheat, then you're probably one small overlooked detail away from the AP starter that devours your house.

Juergen Krauss's picture
Juergen Krauss

Hi, I had lots of trouble getting a decent white starter (trying different flours here in the UK).

Since I started using 5% wholegrain rye in my white starter it works! ( The idea came from a Frank Sally article dmsnyder pointed us to).


slogerot's picture

I've been experimenting with some different things the last few days. I was using bottled drinking water, and when I ran out I accidentally bought distilled, so I fed it a few times with tap water. I don't know if it's a coincidence, but this seems to have helped. It was at 100% hydration a few days ago and when I got home after being at work all day, it had peaked and fallen already and was super bubbly. I did a 75% hydration feeding to thicken it up a bit, and it seems to be doing ok - definitely more active than I've ever seen a white flour starter of mine be.

I swear, sometimes it's like raising another child. :) Figuring out that one overlooked detail is definitely the challenge!


sournewb71's picture

I doubt the bottled water is to blame.  I feed my starter tap water that goes through a Zero Water pitcher.  The end result is something like deionized water, with 0 TDS.  I have no problem with starter activity and use KAAP flour.  All the food needed for your starter to survive comes from the flour.  If you do want to use filtered water I'd recommend get some kind of filtering pitcher, it'll end up being a lot cheaper than buying bottled water.

subfuscpersona's picture

I've been experimenting with some different things the last few days. I was using bottled drinking water, and when I ran out I accidentally bought distilled, so I fed it a few times with tap water. I don't know if it's a coincidence, but this seems to have helped. It was at 100% hydration a few days ago and when I got home after being at work all day, it had peaked and fallen already and was super bubbly. I did a 75% hydration feeding to thicken it up a bit, and it seems to be doing ok - definitely more active than I've ever seen a white flour starter of mine be.

Clearly, for your starter, tap water works well. So just stick with tap water.

Since simply changing to tap water solves your problem, there's no reason to switch the flour component. King Arthur bread flour or Gold Medal bread flour are both good brands. Apparently, your starter doubles with those flours as long as you use tap water.


slogerot's picture

It's back to being sluggish again and not doubling. It makes good-tasting bread when I combine it with commercial yeast, such as in formulas from Whole Grain Baking, so I'm just going to use it like that for now. I sent off for some Carl's 1847 and will hopefully find some luck with that. Thanks for all your help.

nicodvb's picture

maybe the flour you are using is poor in simple sugars and amylase activity or maybe it contains anti-fermentative compounds such as sorbic acid or its salts?

Recently I discovered a flour that contains potassium sorbate as anti-mold.

sournewb71's picture

We need some more information.  How are you feeding the starter?  Have you tried tasting the starter after checking on it and what does it taste like?

You should try going back to basics.  Use unbleached flour and room temperature dechlorinated water.  Feed at a 1:1:1 starter:flour:water ratio by weight at room temperature.  So for example you would use 30g starter: 30g white flour : 30g water.  Leave it alone until it doubles!  If it doesn't double in 12 hours be patient.  If it doesn't double in 24 patient!  Once the starter doubles, remove 30g starter and feed it again 30g flour and 30g water.  It should double faster than the first time.  Eventually it'll start doubling faster than you want to or care to feed it, which then you can increase the feeding ratio to 1:2:2 starter:flour:water.  Once that is doubling consistently you can once again increase the feeding ratio so that it fits your schedule.  

If by 48 hours the starter hasn't doubled then its time you create a new starter.  Just leave the sealed container sit there for a few days (3-4) until you see some bubbling activity accompanied by an alcohol/acid smell.  Then take from that 30g and feed it again 30g flour and 30g water and it should start doubling.

Either way just be patient and it will take off.  If you make sure you are using unbleached flour, room temperature dechlorinated water and are leaving it sit in a sealed container at room temperature it will work guaranteed!  How long it takes can vary but it will work!

slogerot's picture

I feed it with bottled spring (not distilled) water and KAF unbleached AP or bread flour - I have always used spring water and unbleached or whole grain flour in my starters. I have tasted it and it tastes nice and tangy. Smells like buttermilk. I tried the 30-30-30 feed you suggested above and it still didn't double after 24 hours. I didn't have the heart to toss it though, because like I said earlier it does add lots of flavor to my breads, even if I have to add commercial yeast.

After 48 hours it was bubbly, smelled like acetone, and I could see where it had risen and fallen. The top of the rise looked to be almost double where it started. I took it out and did a 20-40-40 feed. Did that for a couple of days - it would go about 24 hours before getting the acetone smell at that point. Lots of bubbles at the end. This morning I opened it up after about 12 hours and it was bubbly and acetone-y, but had not doubled. I gave it a 75% hydration feed to try to tighten it up a bit and it's currently sitting in the oven with the light on (its usual home). We'll see where we are tomorrow.

Thanks for your help.


sournewb71's picture

Sounds like you just have an immature starter.  Somewhere between 24hrs and 48hrs your starter is doubling.  You want to feed it when it after it has doubled.  It's not a big deal if it has fallen and past its peak but it needs to double.  I would stay with your 1:2:2 feeding ratio and continue to be patient.  Don't feed it until it has atleast doubled, no matter how long it has taken.  Eventually it will become efficient and will rise and double faster than you want to be bothered with it, and then you can further increase the feeding ratio.  Your on the right track.

slogerot's picture

On Sunday, the starter (which was starting to get active) suddenly stopped doing anything. I fed it and put it in its usual spot in the stove, and it just sat there. For several days. It was like it just went to sleep, and just smelled like wet flour. Tasted sour, but had no activity and no bubbles.

Yesterday I thought I'd try giving it some rye flour to perk it up before giving up on it once and for all. Sure enough, by this morning it had almost doubled. I didn't mess with it all day, and when I checked on it this evening it had peaked and fallen - no acetone smell. I dumped out half and gave it a feeding with half rye, half bread flour. That was a couple of hours ago, and it has almost doubled as of right now. What in the wide world of sports is this all about? I mean, I'm glad it is active and am planning to use some of it to make a multigrain struan starting tomorrow, but how odd!

sournewb71's picture

Did you change anything in the way you fed it?  Water source, water temperature, flour type, hydration of the starter, seed amount or feeding schedule?  If you changed any of these things it will change the activity of the starter, some more drastically than others.  You say you keep it in the oven?  What temperature is it inside your oven?  What temperature is the water you use to feed your starter?  When you say it tasted sour, how sour is sour?

slogerot's picture

The only thing that changed with that first feed after the several days of dormancy was that I did a feed with straight rye instead of bread or AP flour. The feeds after that I did with half bread, half whole wheat flour. I don't know the temp inside my oven - my guess is 78-ish. The water stays on my counter and my house is around 69-70 these days, so it's probably a little cooler than that. It tastes pleasantly tangy.

I'm using it for a sourdough rye right now and it's doubling a little ahead of schedule, so I have high hopes for it. I also used some of it for a struan with quinoa and amaranth, which I baked today and turned out wonderfully.

isand66's picture

Sometimes I think the starter just runs out of steam and needs some fresh food and oxygen.  If you keep it covered you might want to try and leave your cover only loosely on.  You can also stir the starter to get some oxygen in it which might wake it up if it's asleep:).

Grumio's picture

I had a similar experience getting my starter going - days 4-10 it was nothing but a tiny acetone factory. What changed it, I'm guessing, was a bit of rye - 0.5 oz rye, 1.5 oz AP, 2 oz water, 2 oz starter for two feedings, and it took off like a rocket. It's been going full steam since then (about 3 weeks) on just AP. 

slogerot's picture

That's where I am now. It's doing wonderfully and made some great rye bread this past weekend. I guess it just needed a pick-me-up.

Grenage's picture

Is it possible that the yeast present in the rye flour, are what's causing the reaction - rather than the yeast in the starter?

My starter balks at anything other than white flour, but I've only tried a conversion on a couple of occasions.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Slowly introduce a new food to a starter in small amounts and slowly increase the amount of new flour to old flour  with each feeding.  Or just include a small amount of the new flour with each feed.