The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

Tartine Starter Issues

Heather B's picture
Heather B

Tartine Starter Issues

After endless reading of other peoples’ struggles with the Tartine bread recipe to attempt to figure out my issues….I am breaking down and asking for help. 

Last April I bought the Tartine Bread book…I followed the starter and bread recipe exactly and came out with amazing loaves of bread.  I can’t quite remember the details…but after a few months the loaves were getting a bit denser and then  I veered from my feeding schedule and managed to kill my starter. 

So this is where I am at….on Jan. 1rst, I started a new starter.  My loaves of bread are flat dense bricks.  After reading other similar situations….I have varied bulk rise/proof times and temperatures….each time I think the dough feels pretty good and is behaving correctly…yet they come out the same.  I am totally overwhelmed.  I don’t feel like I am on the right track….my gut feeling is that my starter is not where it needs to be.  I feel like my old starter had more activity and smells.

Key Info:

I use Gold Medal bread flour and KA ww flour.  (Last year I think I was using mainly KA bread flour instead of Gold Medal).

I feed my starter 1x/day in the morning.  I mix 30g of starter/ 60g of 50/50 blend/ 60g of water.  

I live in northern California…my kitchen temp is 60-65 degrees.  I initially had my starter on the counter but thought the lack of activity was related to cold temp.  So I have moved it to the oven where I use the light to warm it up to 78 degrees then turn it off and let starter sit in there.

The starter is only increasing 20-30%.  There are a few bubbles on the surface. It has more of a floury smell than anything. 

What does it need???  I appreciate any feedback on how to get my starter healthy and happy. 


baybakin's picture

Welcome to TFL from a fellow northern Californian!

If you started your starter on the 1st, and it is currently the 7th, your starter is still very young, and may not produce the type of activity you would like.  I like the amount of water/flour you are feeding it (good proportion), however the starter is still too young (IMHO) to do much heavy lifting.

I suggest you feed the starter twice a day, every 12 hours to so for a week, attempting to keep it warm (on top of the fridge works for most people) and see where that gets it. This should get the bugs strong and active. I feed my starter once a day, with a similar porportion as yours, but keep it in my cool room under the house, where it stays in the upper-mid 50s all day, when the starter is looking sick or not very strong, I will bring it into the kitchen and feed it twice daily.

If you are worried about the flour waste, make crackers out of it!

Heather B's picture
Heather B

I started it on Jan. that still considered young?

I will try feeding 2x/day as you recommend and see how it behaves.  Thank you

baybakin's picture

I read "Jan" as "Feb."  Oops.  So it's not that young, no. I would still try doing some twice a day feeding, hope it works out for you!

rpooley's picture

I know this is an old thread but I am just starting to make a Tartine starter.

I saw your quip "make crackers out of it!".  I love the idea because I hate waste.  Do you have a recipe that could guide me for the crackers?


rpooley's picture

Sorry, I see it below now, thanks!

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

Here is what I suggest:  Take a small portion, say 20g your overfed starter and add equal parts of water, let it sit covered for 2 or 3 days.   Swirl the starter around a few times a day.  There will be water separating on top.  That is normal.  

Then feed with a level tablespoon of flour and 2 spoons water.  Do this every second day at 65°F temps.  If warmer, mid 70's°F  then feed every day.  Do not discard.  When the water on top starts to pick up an alcohol/yeasty taste, let it ferment another day or two (depending on temp) and then stir it up, remove  and feed 15g with 150g water and 150g flour.  (Save the seed starter in case the test doesn't work to continue feeding.)  Test it when you can watch it for a 8 -12 hour block.  Use the starter when it peaks (approx. 8 hrs) and put the rest on a maintenance feed of 1:2:2 every 12 hours for a week.  Then you can play with feeding every 24 hrs or upping the flour or thickening up the starter.  It never hurts the starter to once in a while feed and let it peak (reach maximum height) and fall back before feeding more flour.  It is a good way to ensure you don't overfeed the starter and dilute out of yeast.

rpooley's picture

I know this thread is old but I just wanted to say thanks for this tip.  The culture seemed fine then as soon as I started feeding it, it pooped out.  I followed your advice of just a tablespoon of flour each day, with no discarding except for one time when the amount was filling the small container.  Now it's doing pretty well with nice bubbling about 8 hours after the feeding.  Now on to some bread

Heather B's picture
Heather B

Thank you both for your suggestions....I started a new starter at the same time I tried to revitalize the old one and it seems the new one is doing better so I tossed the old:( 

My new starter is a week old and is definately showing activity a few hours after feeding but hasn't doubled.  24 hours after the first feeding it increased 20% then collapsed.  I fed it 1:2:2.  24 hours after the second feeding it increased 30%.  So it seems to be gaining strength.  My kitchen is fairly cool at 60-65 degrees.   Am I on the right track?  On another thread (Tartine Starter 2) someone was having similar of the suggestions was to increase the seed when feeding to 2:1:1 because of the cool temperature.  Should I do that or stay with what I am doing? suggested making you have a favorite recipe?

mivigliotti's picture

That was my thread and I did the 2:1:1 and I am seeing more activity so far, but nothing really great to report yet.

linder's picture

These are great.  Note 1: roll them very thinly  Note 2: put the seeds (if using) directly in the dough before rolling out the crackers.

I love these crackers with sesame seeds in them.  They are so good.


baybakin's picture

Cracker Recipe: (Warning here; I don't measure, everything is approximate, and every batch is a bit different)

60-100g spent sourdough starter (older the better! approx. 100% hydration)
20g oil/fat (I usually use olive oil, peanut oil, or chicken schmaltz)
50g flour (I use a large handful of whole-wheat, enough flour to make a stiff bagel-consistancy dough)
2g salt (large pinch)

Kneed until everything's incorporated, let rest (or not). Roll into a large rectangle on a silpat or parchment paper, about as thin as possible. (When I do this it comes out about 18"x12").  Sprinkle with seeds/coarse salt if desired (if you do so, lightly roll them into the dough using a rolling pin).  Use a pizza cutter to cut dough into the sizes you want (I shoot for wheat-thin size).

Bake in a 250F oven until crackers are done all the way through and crisp (low and slow is the key here to avoid over-browning).  This is usually 30-40mins for me.


placebo's picture

2:1:1 is because the starter is young and the yeast haven't woken up yet. The cool temps just make everything take a lot longer. If you haven't already, try reading Debra Wink's blog post to get an idea of what's going on in a developing starter:

The upshot is that you want to feed to provide food but not dilute it too much and hinder its development. 

Heather B's picture
Heather B

The cool temps definately seem to be why it is taking time to build the yeast popultaion.  I am feeling a bit better as every day shows more growth.  Today, after 24 hours, my starter increased 50%.  I have three different experiments going and for some reason the original 1:2:2 feeding; feed 50/50 bread and ww flour and tap water (that has sat on counter overnight) is doing best.  Although today I was thinking I might add a bit of rye flour to it.  Thanks for you input.

imaloafer's picture


I have been baking the Tartine bread now for almost 2 years. We have never had troubles with our starter, we sell bread, so we are using it, making leavens, and feeding almost daily. I also live in N. Cal and our house gets down to 65 most every night in winter months. The first thing that comes to mind is your water. If you are using tap, as we do, it should not be used right from the tap. Often the treatment of the water is with chemicals that are not so kind to wild yeast. We always have a large container of water, that sits out for a few days, allowing these chemicals to dissipate prior to use. Also key is your water temperature when feeding, making leaven, etc. Currently we make our leaven at about 9:30-10:00 pm and are up making dough around 6-7 am. This will change of course as the days warm up. What's left of the leaven, then gets fed, and is the new starter. We have left our leaven in the fridge for up to a week, while away from home, to come back and start feeding again for 2-3 days and it's ready to go again. 

We use Central Milling Artisan Baker's Craft flour and their Whole Wheat as well. Because we bake regularly, we drive to Petaluma for 50 lb. bags. Flour matters with artisan breads using autolyse and folds for structure. The other key to the structure is getting that surface taught in final makeup. Are you using bannetons to proof the loafs in? We use bannetons to proof, in our refrigerator for about 12 hours prior to bake.

Anyway, hope this helps a bit. Let me know how it goes. I am a huge fan of the Tartine breads, teaching it in my baking classes now. Good luck to you!

Heather B's picture
Heather B

I use tap water and let it sit out overnight similar to seemed to work fine with the old starter.  I am pretty convinced that my main trouble was I was using a weak starter.  I was definately feeding it before it was peaking...I think I was mistaking bacteria growth for yeast.  Anyways...the true test will be when I try baking some bread.

I haven't tried making bread with my new starter yet.  I am only getting a 50% rise out of the starter and don't think that will be enough to raise the bread??  I was thinking I would try baking a loaf when the starter increases 75%...unless someone says I should try now or wait until 100%?  I am anxious to try it again!  

Because of all the failures I have totally lost my confidence on judging bulk and proofing times as well as shaping.  I have no clue where I am going wrong.  I am hoping a lot of the problem was a weak starter.  When I get to bread making I will definately be asking you some questions.  

As for now, where do you recommend buying bannetons from? (I was using a tea towel and colander)  And what size do you use for Tartine loaf?

When you proof in the long do you let the dough sit out before you put it in the oven?

imaloafer's picture

Are you doing a float test with your leaven, prior to making the dough?

I get my bannetons from San Francisco Baking Institute. I have found they have the best prices. If you can't make the drive to them, they will ship and willow bannetons weigh very little. We use the 2 lb. 8.75" baskets w/o liners, $18.75 ea. We use these for the full size Tartine Boules, the dough split into 2 ea, yielding a baked loaf about 850g and we also use it when making boules with grains, cheese, etc in our repetoir, producing baked loaves of about 680g each. We retard these from 8-12 hours in our refrigerator, and they go from there to the hot pans, pretty much immediately. We set our dutch ovens in our oven, set the auto timer for it to come on at 500 degrees and once they have been at that temp for 15 minutes, we get up, pull the loaves from the fridge, dust with flour and onto the hot pans, dock and into the oven. We find the docking is easier with the cooler dough as well. We do have ocassions when we are in a hurry and will proof at room temp for 3-5 hours but we find best flavour is achieved with the slower retarding method. Depending on the type, as we do 5-6 different versions of this great bread, we will either dust the bannetons with the rice flour mixture or if a really tacky dough, we have cut flour sack dish towels to fit the bannetons. They can be easily washed after uses and are a great sub to the linen liners attached to some of the bannetons.

Not to offend anyone on this site, but the book is well written by one of the most respected bread makers in our country, and the world now. I see no need to detour from the formula, until you have it down and just want to experiment with variations. Of course, as with all of us, experiments don't always work out, thus we adjust. 

Don't lose confidence! Be patient, follow the book precisely and you will be rewarded with great bread! Happy baking!

Heather B's picture
Heather B

So after boosting my starter with some rye flour it is doubling consistently.  

Now for the baking...I have a couple questions in response to your helpful reply/post:

The other key to the structure is getting that surface taught in final makeup.  

Shaping:  I guess I am confused with the shaping much is too little and too much???  I understand that being quick and efficient is key and that it comes with practice.  Many moons ago, I worked in a bakery in Boston and shaped many sourdough loaves.  So I get the basic concepts of moving the dough to build tension.  However, in the videos it seems like they shape the dough in two or three swirls.  I remember working the dough in more circles...until it firmed up and held shape.  

For the past few baking attempts I get stuck at this point...I start off trying to not work the dough too much but the loaf doesn't seem to hold its shape so I do another few movements.  By then the dough has probably been handled too much.  Help!

Final shaping:  After you do the much do you want to work the dough into a ball?  Again in the videos they seem to barely work the dough...but when I do that it just doesn't have the tightness I think should be there.  I usuall end up moving the dough towards out of counter...pick it it again...sometimes 3x.  I am assuming this is too is there a trick to getting it firm in that last shaping?

Are you using bannetons to proof the loafs in?

Yes...I bought them:)  The dough stuck even with the 50/50 rice and ww flour.  The dough wasn't all that I guess I need to dust them with more flour?

Anyways...hopefully you can make sense of this and help me...I am determined to awesome bread.  Thanks

imaloafer's picture


Not certain why the addition of rye was needed? You'll have to let me know if any flavour changes come from this. In any event, to answer your questions, the final shaping should be just a few soft pulls on the bench following the folds. My wife and I have different techniques, she using her hands, while I use the bench scraper to gently push it along into a taught round. I have over worked it, too taught causing some distortion to the baked loaf, so you can definately over work it! My wife has a very soft touch with her hands, and in three motions, maybe four, it's into the bannetons. I think you have to get away from traditional rounding, as one does with sturdier yeasted dough. The structure comes from gentle but good stretching for the folds, then this 3-4 gentle pulls, pushes, being certain the counter surface is not floured, thus preventing the dough from grabbing the bench. The video can be a bit off, as he is working larger loaves, and does a more intense folding process than just the four folds shown in book. 

As for using the bannetons, we sometimes use the flour sack towels I spoke of for tackier dough. This is when we are putting other products into the base formula, cheese, grains, etc. We always flour using the rice flour mixture, and flour the top of the dough, as well as the banneton before inverting it in. 

mareblu's picture

I have had excellent results w/Tartine basic recipe by re-feeding my starter with 79-81 degree water.  As I have been re-reading, I see that Robertson re-feeds with lukewarm water which is substantially warmer.  Any thoughts if this makes a difference in the levain (in which i use 79 degree water) and final dough (in which i use 80 degree water)?  

MikeRook's picture

This is my first time doing the Tartine leaven process. I have been following the book very carefully but wonder if I messed up with my first feeding?  When I created the starter I used 50% central milling artisan craft and 50% whole wheat. I used water at about 79 degrees. Within 2 days the starter was very active and rose 100%. It had the stinky, acidic smell as described in the book so I discarded 80% and fed it, keeping it the same consistency.  This time I didn't stir it with my hands and I also used 70 degree temp water instead of 80 because I didn't see the book mention warm water on the first feeding.  Although in the book it mentions warm water on both the original starter and the night before making dough.

Its been 24 hours and I went to refeed but realized there was no rise at all.

Did I mess up the culture by not using warm water? Should I start over? Should I refers even though there was no rise after 24 hours on the first feeding?  Thank you!