The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

flat starter & sticky dough after proofing

kamamav's picture

flat starter & sticky dough after proofing

OK, I am new at sourdough, but have been baking many years. I have a wonderfully sour starter that bubbles real busy; however it does not expand more than 2x its volume with regular 12 hour feedings. I started with a 1-1 WW & water recipe and let the natural yeasts develop. It took about 10 days to really start working itself up good. Between my baking I store in the fridge, removing and bringing to room temp every 2-3 days. I feed and wait for action, then return to the fridge till I need it or need to feed again. I use 2-1 flour to water, alternating WW and AP for feedings. I will keep out for 3-4 feedings.

I tried using for loaves and typically get hard, overmoist and over crusty loaves. I tried 1/4 tsp ACV in my last feeding before using the starter for the 2 loaves in the pic. I am wondering if that even helped considering the density of the loaves. We ended up using it for french toast that was ok at dense it didn't want to soak up the milk/egg!

 Now, I think my hair is falling out! I am ready to throw a loaf out now that has been proofing in the oven with the light on since yesterday! Yes, yesterday! Starting the night before last, I kneaded all the ing together and let it set to rise overnight. In the morning after proofing 8 hours, my dough turned very sticky, too wet to knead without another almost cup of flour added. Beautiful 2nd proof after 2-3 hours, then discovered the same stickiness problem! I had to add another good anount of flour just to knead again. Now I have this very stiff dough in my oven scored and resting. It has risen by about 1/4 of it's original size and I'm afraid to touch it! I am so frustrated I want to just throw everything out! I love sd and thought I was determined enough to figure it out! Now I am ready to just go buy a commercial loaf and ditch the whole starter for good!

CB85's picture

here are some ideas. I think it would help me, and anyone else who wants to help to have a little more info. Such as what the starter ratio is in the 2-1 flour water feeding? You could be starving the starter and thats why it is flat. I did that for a long time with mine and my loaves were pretty dense.  And the actual formula you are using to make the final dough would help. 

First, I think a lot of your final outcome has to do with all the additonal flour you are adding to handle the dough. That will really alter the texture because you are decreasing the hydration so much. When my dough is sticky like that, I typically use wet hands to shape the dough. I read that here, and it sounds like it would make things worse but it works really well.

As for the dough getting so sticky, it is hard to know if that is normal or not without your formul. My dough gets looser as it proofs, I think because the gluten relaxes. Have you tried the stretch and fold method at all? I tried that when I learned about it here, and it works pretty well on sticky dough. I just do it with wet hands in the bowl to contain the sticky mess.

Those are my ideas for now! Don't give up, I am sure you can do it!

pmccool's picture

In other words, does it start out firm and turn soupy after a few hours?  By the way, are the proportions you mention based on volume measurements, or on weight measurements?

Sometimes the microbial populations of a starter can shift from a balance between yeasts and bacteria to one with lower yeast counts and elevated bacteria counts.  Symptoms include: increased acidity (a pronounced sourness in odor and flavor) in the starter itself, gluten destruction in both the starter and the dough from excess acids or from protein-metabolizing enzymes, diminished leavening capability.  This seems to parallel what you have described, at least in part.  

If that is the case, there are two possible courses of action.  The first is referred to as "washing a starter".  You can use the Search tool to find a number of posts on the subject.  The basic premise is to feed the starter in such a way as to favor the growth of yeasts over the growth of bacteria until the populations regain a healthy balance.  The second course is discard your present starter and begin anew.  When faced with the same choice a few years ago, I opted to begin a new starter.  The elapsed time for either process is about the same.

Best wishes for your baking.  it's okay to chuck your present starter if it doesn't produce good results.  But don't give up just because things haven't gone well this time.  Sourdough is just too good to do without.


kamamav's picture

June 29 original starterThis is my original starter. As of now, I returned to 1 c starter and added 1 c AP and about 5/8 c water. It resulted in a thick almost set pudding texture.

July 7 just fed


I use volume measurements since that was what the book called for-for the home baker? As for the starter, yes it did turn thinner after some of the feedings, starting recently though. 

I picked up a cpl books at the library and got this recipe for a natural starter from "Baking" by James Peterson: 

I started my starter May 8, 2013.

1 tbsp each WW and water, feeding once every 24 hours for 5 days, doubling the amount of starter each day. (2Tbsp each, then 4, then 8 etc...) I thought this was leaving it hungry, but ok. I then fed it 2x a day for 5 days. The ratios all called for 1-1 WW and water, pouring off all but 1 cup each day before the 1st feeding.It was thin, and after reading I saw I should reduce the water as I was getting hooch every feeding. The book even suggested reducing liquid by half if it "seemed to watery or got hooch". I kept it going till day 14, tried making a loaf, and placed in the fridge. The loaf was tasty and sour, but over moist and dense. 

The recipe for an 8 c loaf:

2 c expanded starter, 1 1/2 c water, 5 c flour 1 tsp salt, 1Tbsp oil and 1Tbsp honey

combine all ingredients, knead 12 minutes(!!!) let proof, shape proof again and bake. 450 x 10 minutes then 425 x 45 minutes with a pan of water on the bottom rack.

I tried reducing my expanded starter to 1 cup and still have been getting the sticky dough issues.

The unproofing loaf, heavy as a rock, is now in the bottom of the trash bin! I am determined to get this, just a little frustrated. Thanks for helping out, very appreciated!

phaz's picture

first picture of the starter - very very thin. second looks better, maybe still on the thin side. using volume measurements, you're closer to a 1:1 ratio by using 1 flour to .5 water. I don't weigh things myself, I just add some water and enough flour to keep the starter like a very thick pancuvake batter. thinner starter will use food faster, and may not show much sign of rising just due to the fact that the bubbles can escape a thinner mixture easier than a thicker mixture. the container you are using, wider as is get higher, will make it harder to judge a doubling in height. as in doubling in volume won't show as doubling in height. I would agree that the balance of beasties has shifted and go with the 2x daily feeding, but keeping more with the 1flour to .5 water ratio, or less water if still using volume measurements. I would also avoid storage in the fridge for a little while. lower temps will favour bacteria over yeast and you want the opposite at this point. what are the proofing times? it's this a whole wheat bread, or high percentage of whole wheat flour? I would also try to use 1 type of flour when feeding the starter. sometimes it take a bit for the bugs to get used to something different. switching food can be a big change. better to be consistent with food and environment, especially if things start going a little off. do keep us posted, you've got me curious now!

kamamav's picture

Thank you! So this morning at the 11 hour point I am feeling positive! I mark my jar to watch since it is large. I have over a double in volume again!!!  It did look slightlyly thinner, however not as thin as the 1st. I did not pour any off, but added 1 whole c of AP and 1/2 water. I am going to stick with the AP feedings for now and see how that works. I do notice a less sour smell to my starter and I am wondering if my original was too sour. One not I do want to add; The container is an old refrigerater storage jar for meats etc... I leave the lid vented but not completely off due to general household dust.

Mini Oven's picture
Mini Oven

One level tablespoon of starter to half a cup of water and enough flour to make a soft dough.   Mash it into a clean measuring cup or tall straight glass and mark the level and then watch it over the next 8 hrs to 24 hrs.  It will not do much in the first 3 hrs.  Keep watching it until the starter no longer rises with a dome, flattens out and starts to deflate and fall.  Note the time it takes.

Take out a tablespoon from this mixture and repeat. 

Do this a couple of times and you will have boosted your yeast numbers substantially.

kamamav's picture

I fed my starter at 7 a.m. and went to work. This is what I came home to this afternoon, at 12:30. The levels and times are marked since I want to be accurate with the volumes. Again it is more than doubling. Am I ready to make bread at this point? It seems like it is still a little bit fast, compared to what I have studied and read up on. I really hate to toss some, but I don't want to double this! The next feeding will be later this evening and I will toss all but 1 C, except I will definitely try a small amount and feed as suggested by Mini, as well. I have not stirred it down, I want it to do its own thing. 

30 pm

cranbo's picture

Looks from the photo like it's active enough. If I read your notes correctly, it doubled and collapsed at least 30% in 5.5 hours. 

You want to find out when exactly it doubles (in your case, somewhere less than 5.5 hours), because right around then is where you want to bake. 

Actually, you can use an active starter at any of these 3 times: 

  • just before it peaks (90% of peak, almost doubled),
  • right when it peaks (100% a.k.a at peak, doubled or tripled but not growing higher), or
  • just as it starts to collapse (past doubled/tripled and just starting to collapse on itself);

Anywhere in that range is OK, and you'll get different flavors and timings based on when you use it. Anything before or beyond that may not provide the right range of flavor and activity, resulting in poor taste or texture. 

The one in your picture would probably still be OK to use, although it looks a little overproofed/overdeveloped. 

Consider maintaining your starter at smaller quantities and then building it up just before you need to bake. I maintain my white starter using about 1 tbsp starter, with 1/4c of water and 1/2c flour. Then during the last feed before I will bake, I scale up my starter as required for the quantities I need (e.g., 2 tbsp starter, 3/4c water, 1.5c flour would give me a little more than 2c of starter), and let this enlarged starter rise until it's ready.

Smaller feed quantities reduce waste :)


Breadandwine's picture

I've made several loaves from my 2 month old starter, and followed the same procedure this time:

Evening of Saturday 6th July - Refreshed the starter (1:1) 

Sunday afternoon - Sponge: 300g starter, 300g wholemeal flour, 300g water 

(I did intend to bake on Sunday evening - but events conspired against me!)

Sunday evening I added the rest of the flour - 250g wholemeal, 9g salt, 50g olive oil

Monday - shaping the dough:

On opening up the food-storer in which I'd kept the dough, I was confronted with a sticky mess - totally unlike any sourdough I'd worked with in the past. There was no cohesion - trying to stretch it, it just broke. There was no way to knead it at this stage - even using oil to stop it sticking.

So I added more flour to get a workable dough. In the end I added a further 150g, which threw my planned 65% hydration right out of the window. It ended up more like 53% - and it was still a very soft dough.

I put it to prove (shaped into rolls) around 1.00pm - and checked it every hour for the next nine hours. There was not a great deal of movement - some, but not a lot. Eventually, at 10pm I switched the oven on and began giving the bread (covered with a stainless steel roasting tray) occasional short bursts of heat over the next 45-60 minutes. By this time the rolls had at least joined together, so there was some movement - I put the bread in hoping for some oven spring, but not really expecting any.

The rolls are a lot smaller than I'm used to - the crumb is very tight, with the occasional large(er) hole. I've just had a taste, and the sourness is very pronounced, in contrast to previous loaves from this starter, the sourdough flavour of which was very mild.

I've posted this on my blog - with some pics and a link back to here.

I'll have a good read of this thread on the morrow - I suspect my answer is already here!

Cheers, B&W

cranbo's picture

Breadandwine, a few questions: 

It appears that you maintain your starter equal parts by weight, so I read your formula like this, is this correct?:

  • Starter: 150g wholemeal flour + 150g water
  • Sponge: all of starter (300g) + 300g flour + 300g water

After you mixed the final dough on Sunday night, did you knead? By hand or by machine? And for how long?

Where did you store the kneaded dough until Monday, fridge or room temp? 

A few observations: 

  1. 65% hydration will not produce a very open crumb in a wholemeal loaf. Try at least 70-75% hydration. 
  2. Resist the urge to add more flour. Use water or oil on your work surface and your hands to reduce stickiness. Use a bench scraper to help pull your dough together. Consider incorporating some stretch-and-folds into your process to develop your dough in a gentle way. 
  3. For a more fluffy product, you will need to knead your wholemeal dough more intensively. From the pictures on your blog, it doesn't look like you got very good gluten development in your rolls. Search these forums for txfarmers posts about soft whole wheat sandwich bread. It is possible. 
  4. Are you certain your starter is active enough? In how many hours does it reach its peak?
  5. Your rolls look somewhat underproofed (poor browning), but it's hard to tell without knowing exact temperatures and timings. 

It's important to know the exact timing of your starter's lifecycle (e.g., exactly when it peaks), see my comments earlier in this thread. 



Breadandwine's picture

Thanks for the detailed responses. I'll have a good look at these - and the rest of the thread, when I get a moment.

But  thanks again for taking the time! [thumbs up]